(ESSAY) The Ritual of Panic, by Rhiannon Auriol
Rhiannon Auriol situates panic in its personal, cultural and political contexts. With reference to fire festivals, witchcraft, film, visual art and literature, historical upheavals and contemporary crises, the essay considers the tensile, sometimes erotic, functioning of panic in relation to ritual, fetish, social boundaries and the pressures of adolescence.
> The opposite of an orgasm is a panic attack. It is also its twin. Both can leave you shaking. Breathless. Sweaty. You can have them in multiples (if you’re female-bodied), sometimes in a row for hours. There is a sense, to both, of a ritual release; once the last throes dissipate there is a violent shape of relief. And although the emotional aftermath of each is radically different, one thing is for sure – you always remember your first time.
> The ritual of panic is brutal and cyclical. I had my first panic attack aged 14. At school, they were reliable company. I would lock myself in a toilet cubicle when I felt one coming. I learned early on how to have panic attacks very, very quietly. Learned to carry all the right kit in case of an emergency rendezvous with my panic: tissues, makeup remover, water, gum, rescue remedy (I’ve graduated now to cigarettes and CBD). I have been panicking in this routine for years; all my life high-functioning anxiety has affected by ability to form healthy relationships with food, sex and work. I came of age nervously and erratically, swinging from confidence to collapse on a roughly six-month rotation. Terrified and in thrall to my panic, I was prepared to try anything to satisfy its crippling needs. And in this way my panic became ritualistic, a deity, pacified ineffectually by a private ceremony performed in bathrooms up and down the country. I got by without ever asking why I felt so trapped in this cycle, without examining what my struggle showed about the myth of worry that so many live by. Then I tripped over an essay by Fiona Duncan which struck home with its line, ‘Anxiety is a story I am telling myself’. My panic controlled me through my belief in it, I realised.
> Ritual, panic and sexuality are old lovers, intimate enemies. One of the definitions of panic is ‘of or relating to the god Pan’, the pastoral deity and mythological figure who has been portrayed alternatively as a kindly satyr or a sexual-Satanic symbol of ritualistic sacrifice. The myth goes that if the sleeping god was disturbed, panic would ensue, the flocks and herds of his slumberlands scattered by the resultant wrath. In order to placate the divine sleeper and avoid panic, animals were ritualistically slaughtered at Pan’s altars, ancient blood spurting onto stone in perfect harmony with the people’s nervous heartbeats. Pan’s association with nature also ties him to ideas of fertility and sexuality, to the rhythms of the seasons and their accompanying rituals such as the pagan celebrations of solstices and equinoxes. To an extent these festivals, as with many religious rites, are also sacrificial acts, alternative performances of homage to the power of the worshipped object (be it moons or gods) while also hoping for protection from fearful forces of change.
> There is something to be said for exploring the erotic element of these acts. As a child I regarded pagan celebrations in the same light as sexuality; they seemed mysterious and thrilling peaks of energy, climaxes if you will, strange and enchanting and (according to my Catholic mother) forbidden. When I moved to Edinburgh for university, I was free to go to the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill, a ‘ritual drama’ and Gaelic celebration of May Day which throbs and flickers with sexual energy – from the raw allure of the dancing to the fierceness of flesh painted red, flowers of fire streaking the night sky. I saw how Beltane welcomed chaos and through this sense of liberation and lightness, the darker side of our impulses, panic, was staved off.
> It is possible however for the object of worship to become fetishised through rituals, symbolically distorted into something it is not. In the 18th century ritualism began to be associated more and more with notions of perverse sexuality, as did the god Pan. The goat-like form of the nature god began to take on a Satanic symbolism, largely due to Christianity’s moral panic over anything to do with sexuality and alternative deities, both of which Pan embodied. Consequently, people who worshipped Pan or Satan were denigrated by mainstream society as Satanists, pagans, witches. Demonstrating this shift in attitude with his Black Paintings series the 1798 Francisco Goya painting Witches’ Sabbath depicts a Satanic Pan surrounded by a coven of worshipping yet cowering witches. The great goat is garlanded and presides over the painting as if a priest in ceremony, the object of awe but also fear as indicated by its emphasised size and centrality to the composition, as well as the terrifying eye contact it maintains with the viewer. One of the witches clutches a baby, suggesting at first the Christian ritual of baptism, except the way the infant is grazed by one of the Devil’s hooves means it could also be a sacrifice, thus the baby is transformed into a signifier of both life and death. As a symbol of fertility, the baby also contrasts with the barren landscape of the piece’s background, which is littered with the skeletons of children. Such ominous depictions of Pan became rife, particularly in Europe at this time. And through such widespread portrayals, the concept of Pan was fetishised as the image became more powerful than the reality, especially when coinciding with proximity to moments in history such as the Basque Witch Trials. The tendency towards fetishisation taps into something fevered and feared stemming from how our societies are organised – the psychosexual release that comes for many with the mystery of worship is tempered by the craving to have control over a dominant wildness in our being, to shape power into a more limited comprehension.
Francisco de Goya, Witches’ Sabbath, 1789, oil on canvas. Museo Lazaro Galdiano, Madrid.
> From witchcraft to devil worship and paganism (among a plethora of other beliefs and practices), people get nervous about what they can’t comprehend. Deviant sexuality makes people panic. In fact, anything considered out of the norm does – that is why ‘witches’ were hunted. Witch hunting was political panic warfare, of a kind we still see today and have done throughout history under different names and faces, from the Red Scare to the Satanic Panics of the 80s. A lot of the time politics is about Eros, not Logos, as evident from looking at how it is emotionally guided voting which underpins the rise and normalisation of extreme and dangerous political phenomena – 20th century fascism, Donald Trump, Brexit. Each of these things could be described as having been fetishised by its supporters, while creating a sense of extreme panic or doom in its opponents. Susan Sontag describes how ‘the fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets’ where the former requires placation and the latter worships or is punished. Sontag goes on to locate Nazi control within a cult-like eroticism: ‘the colour is black, the material is leather…’.
> On the 29th March 2019, incidentally the day that Brexit was supposed to have its chaotic way, I experienced a major depressive episode which lasted most of the following summer, triggered by a violent panic attack which woke me up in the night and made me see static. Mine was unrelated to Brexit (at least consciously) but others’ mental health is being disastrously affected by the Brexit cacophony, from counselling for MPs to the new term of ‘Brexit anxiety’ the uncertainty is eroding the country’s peace of mind. In failing to make sense out of public sacrifice – very literally, in the form of taxation, time and trust – the ritual of government has failed over Brexit, something which we are perpetually made aware of thanks to the fuel of media panic. Yet even amidst so much chaos, tradition and structure are clung to, the rituals repeatedly performed (Boris Johnson asking the Queen for permission to prorogue Parliament strikes me as a prime example), still hopeful of something changing, something miraculously being fixed. This is comparable to the more quotidian scale of ritual action. We seek control over things we cannot predict or see, all these things keep happening and there is no control over any of them, so we fill each day with things, with plans and schedules and jobs and lists to try and wrestle something back but only succeed in being so busy that we cannot breathe at night.
> As was the case with the mythological rites to Pan, vital things are sacrificed to my panic – relationships, money, time, happiness. The normalisation of the anxiety-inducing rites of passage which we describe as ‘coming of age’ is reflected in the documentary film All This Panic (2016) which follows a group of teenage girls through their Upper West Side lives in modern day New York, that city of anxious architecture and nerve-wracking streets. Throughout the documentary, directed by Jenny Gage, the girls exude a childish confidence which fails to mask their inner struggles with anxiety. ‘There’s all this panic…people are texting each other all the time… I’m petrified of getting older’ are just a few such indicative lines in the film which capture the sharp contrast between a mulled blasé outward attitude and the confusion within as the girls ricochet between casual crises. They are analogous characters to J M Barrie’s creation Peter Pan, a figure whose defining feature is eternal youth, a boy forever, fetishising the state of childhood. Peter plays the pan pipes, an instrument named after the god Pan, and in possessing the secret to flight appears to be a free spirit – and yet ‘he can never quite get the hang of [life]’.[i] Exaggeratedly careless, the iconic character appeals to the desire in readers to regain the laissez-faire boldness of youth. Today however, this idealised formative country is under siege. All This Panic portrays a post-wounded girlhood where beneath the ritual of performative femininity – make-up routines and coven-like cliques – is a terror at what may be waking, at what has to be covered up.
> What All This Panic highlights is how the milestones and expectations young people are expected to meet as they carve out lives for themselves are literally ‘rites’ exerting immense pressure upon the individual to follow them, to perfect each one: the correct clothes must be worn, the magic words that will make everyone want to be friends with you must be said, everything must be documented online, everyone must know when you start having sex for the first time, and you hide the 99% of things which don’t measure up to the pretty and perfected life – such as losing your mind. But what happens when these rituals fail, when the sacrifice is not enough, when things go wrong, and the sleeping demon is woken? Panic.
> The artist Laurie Anderson treats panic with a dose of hope in her video We Are In Constant Panic Mode. She would have us ‘try to see these great surges in a mode that’s not panic’. When a wave of anxiety approaches instead of drowning in it, we should ‘find a really good way to ride that. Fighting is a disaster’. What I took from Anderson’s observation is that perhaps the death of panic is found not in liberation from fear but in its acceptance. As the news that ‘The Great God Pan is Dead’ struck despair through the hearts of the ancient citizens of Palodes, they were simultaneously freed to explore new conceptualisations and interpretations of the world. We have a habit of killing our gods, of suffocating our emotional life, denying our desires. Perhaps after all it is not the panic which must be fixed, but the rituals we are restricted by. Rituals which are distancing us from nature and distorting our spiritual clarity – rituals which are creating, rather than placating, all this panic. But first there are more immediate things sufferers of anxiety can do – seeking medical help, taking (prescribed) pills, reducing intake of caffeine and alcohol, meditation and reconnection to the natural world. Like first figuring out how to have an orgasm, the body and brain must learn how to make positive joyful connections rather than repressing those pathways, and that is what anti-anxiety medicine can help create. The stigma around taking pills and the fearsomely described side effects led me to the most ironic panic of all – anxiety over taking my anti-anxiety medication. But I took it anyway and stepped outside the prison of my panic. And that is how the ritual ends.
Text: Rhiannon Auriol
Illustration: Maria Sledmere
[i] Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. 2008.