The practice of watching recent seasons of television shows on DVD or streaming video has grown in tandem with the decisions of several networks, such as HBO, Showtime and AMC, to lavish huge budgets on the production of particular television shows.
These developments give us vastly increased opportunities to watch television that’s both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Movies are no longer superior to such heady programs as House, Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black and, most notably, Madmen, which I greatly admire but find inscrutable.
Still, in spite of this abundance of riches, my favorite shows are those that correspond most closely to my major personal interests (and not those that exercise my intellectual abilities). Far and away the show I like the most is Ghost Hunters — not because it has any great intellectual merit, but simply because I’m interested in the supernatural.
I hesitate to mention Ghost Hunters at all for the simple reason that I see it only very rarely. Indeed, I can’t remember the last time I watched it on a television somewhere. (I think it’s still on the air, but I’m not positive.)
The one favorite show that I can see broadcast on television at least every couple of months is Hoarders. Again, Hoarders is probably not going to make anyone do mental gymnastics. I watch it simply because I have an intense interest in the bizarre, the deviant, the odd, the weird — anything that will enable me to escape from the banality of everyday life.
Most of you have seen the inside of the house of someone who’s a hoarder. But if you have not, I can assure you there is very little that looks more bizarre. Although I have a fairly strong stomach, I dislike being in the houses of hoarders. I don’t like the strong odors and am made uneasy by a finicky fear of unseen parasites, rodents and other animals.
But with DVDs of back seasons of Hoarders, one can see hour after hour of the insides of hoarders’ houses without ever actually entering a dwelling. At first, these ravaged interiors make for fascinating viewing.
But I’ve noticed that I begin to experience a curious phenomenon after the viewing of several consecutive shows. I begin to realize that I’m seeing the same things over and over again. There are the same heaps of rotting food; large holes rodents have gnawed through sheetrock and insulation; the mummified bodies of rodents and other animals found buried under piles of unrecognizable garbage; uneaten hamburgers and baked chickens sitting atop mounds of trash; dozens of empty Whataburger cups sitting and lying everywhere.
Not only do the sights, seen often enough, lose their shock value; after a certain point, they start to become a little tedious.
Fortunately, the psychology of the hoarder is often as bizarre as the look of his or her house. The psychology eventually becomes the main attraction in most episodes.
And it’s very little surprise that the relatives of the hoarder, who show up en masse for the intervention and the clean-up, often have mental quirks (or worse) that are remarkably similar to those of the hoarder.
The hoarder is often yelled at repeatedly by a furious mother or father or brother or sister or son or daughter. This would be unpleasant enough if all the yelling were only about the hoarder’s hoarding. But unfortunately, mothers and fathers and sons and grandmothers wind up screeching about the most trivial of matters. They bark like children: “Mom always liked you best!” “You always got everything you wanted!” “You never gave me anything good!” “You’ve always been lazy.”
Perhaps some reader is thinking, “Well, at least they showed up for the intervention.” But is that necessarily a good thing? Hoarders is full of relatives who wouldn’t dream of going inside and filling a bag with trash. They can’t bring themselves to do one second of work for the beloved brother or father or grandmother. Yet they’re perfectly pleased to stand around outside and grouse all day.
Thus is the love of kin expressed. It’s things such as Hoarders that inspire me to raise my eyes at the tired old clichés about kin and blood: “But she’s his son!” “Oh, but a woman could never say that to her own mother!” “He would never do that. After all, he’s her grandfather.”
Especially grating is the trite “Whatever he’s done, he has a mother.” It’s useless to remind people that every serial killer and war criminal who ever lived had a mother. And, believe me, it’s a waste of breath to point out the fact that, at any given time, there are millions of parents and children who dislike each other so much that they haven’t spoken in years or decades.
I once knew two grown daughters who were very different, but were both polite and intelligent. The day they found out their father had died, they went out and celebrated with a bottle of champagne. They weren’t bad people. I’m glad I never met their father.
This ambiguity about the real role and value of kin in Hoarders brings us to the role that the fear of homelessness plays in those who are the hoarders. One of the strongest incentives for many hoarders is that if they don’t clean up their quarters, they’ll be forced out and become homeless.
The fear of homelessness is especially potent for hoarders whose relatives refuse to take them in unless they follow a strict set of rules.
Although I suppose that a person who practiced true Christian charity would take in a relative who refused to give up hoarding, such a sacrifice might, perhaps, be asking too much of the limited human being.
What many hoarders fear is that the rules they’ll have to follow to get alternative shelter with a relative won’t have anything to do with hoarding. The hoarder has strayed far from the path. Thus the loving and concerned relative now has the chance to inflict punishment: to lay down the law as a way of getting retribution for perceived wrongs of the distant past.
But there is much more to this psychological situation than the fear of homelessness. Some hoarders are probably just reluctant to undertake the difficult work of undergoing change.
Hoarders are of all ages. But in the program, a disproportionate number are either elderly or in late middle age. I suspect their reluctance to give up hoarding is as much about a desire to hold on to a way of life that’s comfortable and comforting as it is a manifestation of severe mental illness.
As a rule, hoarders aren’t overachievers. They aren’t the ones who are used to taking on the hard world and wrestling it into submission.
The older hoarders realize that their lives are winding down. They’ve drifted into a way of life that works for them and gives them familiarity and puts them at ease. Why should they change it, they wonder. It’s not as if a bright new glamorous exciting life awaits them. What awaits them is, at best, the viewing of an immense number of TV show reruns from the perspective of a sofa. If they’re going to watch the reruns, they’d rather watch them in their own filthy but comforting houses than in the clean, foreign houses of relatives — even relatives who aren’t resentful.
It must be terribly difficult for a 65-year-old who thought he was through with the gut-wrenching choices to be told that he must choose one of two alternatives, both of which he considers highly undesirable. Suppose he makes the tough choice of getting rid of his stuff. What if it turns out that mold and rodents have so undermined his house that it is condemned? Will he not, then, be forced to make at least one more gut-wrenching decision? We can hardly blame such a person for approaching a situation of this type with extreme dread.
Of course, Hoarders is full of kind kin who do at least endeavor to come to the aid of their close relatives. What impresses me most is the degree of patience some kind relatives muster. They seem to be able to respond with limitless patience even to parents or children who refuse to throw away anything. Nothing can inspire these kind kinfolks to raise their voices, grow short, or speak abruptly, discourteously or sarcastically.
Such kinfolks exercise a near-heroic patience. They don’t make up the majority of the kinfolks in the show; far from it. But they pop up on a fairly regular basis.
As always, when people are placed in extreme situations, they reveal the aspects of their personalities that they most want to hide. Even in a simple reality TV show, when there’s documentation of hundreds of people thrown into extreme situations very rapidly, there is a full — if not complete — depiction of the spectrum of human nature and human behavior. And human nature holds as many different things as any hoarder’s three-story house.
Like an awful lot of reality TV, Hoarders gets its numbers by providing viewers with a freak show. But if we watch enough of it in a thoughtful way, we can learn a tremendous amount about people of all sorts.