About the Feature
Photograph by Edwin Chen
When and why did I first start doing all in my power to avoid being inside an elevator? Maybe things felt overcrowded in the womb, with my twin in there too, or I got into a tight spot as a toddler and people took a while to notice. In my grander moments, I think the reason isn’t biographical: I’m just a particularly sensitive conduit for primal drives built into the species as a whole. It’s in the nature of humans to want to move toward what they love and away from what they don’t. The elevator was designed to further these goals, and often that’s just what it does. For one and a half centuries now, it’s delivered adults to the arms of their lovers, children to the toy section of the department store, and patients to their life-saving surgeons. The problem is that, though you may enter an elevator on the basis of such promises, you have no real control over what happens next. Whatever its billing as an expander of human possibility, once you’re inside an elevator, you get out only on the elevator’s terms, if at all.
When you’re in the grip of it, the fear of confined spaces seems to defy elaboration. What’s horrifying about elevators is that you’re in a very small space and you can’t get out of it, and it is very small—and did I mention that you can’t get out? But, as with most fears, if you press a little, sub-fears proliferate. We elevatophobes dread starvation, dehydration, suffocation, and panic-induced heart failure should the cab long-term stall. And we worry about terrible loneliness or, worse, terrible companionship, depending on who is or isn’t in there with us when it happens. For these reasons, elevatophobia has always seemed to me the most rational of irrational fears. I sympathize with sufferers of xanthophobia (fear of the color yellow) or pogonophobia (fear of beards), but it’s hard not to quietly diagnose them as nuts. “Ooh look, a yellow beard!” some part of me sneers. “Careful it doesn’t deprive you of food, water, oxygen, essential medication, sanitary facilities, fresh contact lenses, and everyone you’ve ever loved!”
The higher the building, the more likely you’ll need to take the lift. So, along with elevators, I don’t like skyscrapers, and I’m very attentive to the first numeral in a suite number if I have an appointment in an unfamiliar location. There might be stairs, but they’ll often be hard to find—round the back somewhere, available only for service staff or fire department compliance, sometimes strewn with trash. The more disused and decrepit the stairs are, the more a stairwell, too, comes to seem like an enclosed space waiting to entrap me. By the time I reach the level of, say, suite 742, I’m usually flustered and out of breath, but far enough away from the standard entry point that I can take a moment to compose myself into the shape of a plausible recent elevator-rider. So imagine my horror when, after scaling six flights of stairs to visit my new dentist in Boston’s Back Bay a few years ago, I exited the stairwell to a narrow stretch of carpet directly behind the admin assistant’s office chair. She swiveled and emitted a small scream, through her lunchtime tuna sandwich. “I like the exercise!” I puffed preemptively. “Good for you,” she said, wiping her mouth, but I felt—I knew—she had my number.
To fear elevators, I’ve been suggesting, is to love freedom, which sounds nicer but can be just as pathological. We see this most intimately in commitmentphobes: those troubled souls who are incapable of sticking around—in romantic relationships, friendships, jobs or cities, any department of life where you might make a home. As the social wing of claustrophobia, commitmentphobia reduces to a fear of being trapped, of getting stuck. Commitmentphobes watch their friends preparing to pair up for life, lay down a mortgage, adopt a puppy, or have children, with the kind of anxiety an elevatophobe might feel when watching friends enter a shaky lift. What if, once you get in, you find you want to get out? they whisper. And what if, once you find you want to get out, you also find you can’t?
To suggest that commitmentphobes are all flight is to misdiagnose and understate their ailment. At the heart of commitmentphobia lies a deep ambivalence about human connection. The condition involves a pull toward intimacy that’s almost (but never quite) as strong as a companion pull away from it. A lack of desire to commit to other people isn’t in itself a problem. An intense desire to commit to other people that you spend your life trying not to satisfy is quite another beast. It’s a disorder of the will, a twisting of your inner cables.
Our standard image of the commitmentphobe is someone who runs from a promising relationship after three months or so and then does that again, several times a year, decade after decade. A more covert form of commitmentphobia appears in someone who falls in love with that type of person, over and over again. Commitmentphobes of this second stripe can also vary their repertoire by falling in love with non-commitmentphobes who are highly unsuited to them or have happily committed to someone else. It’s unfortunate the first time; by the third or fourth time, it’s starting to look suspicious.
Over the course of my life I’ve fallen in love with only five people, each of whose most romantically appealing feature was, in retrospect, their unavailability. One was twice my age and about to leave the country; another, my professor and living with someone else; a third, married and a serial philanderer; the fourth, an artistic type who’d spent two years living solo in the woods; the fifth, a straight woman, a description that, at the time, I thought also applied to me. These people were like elevators whose doors won’t open, but not in the bad way, when you’re already inside—in the good way, when you can’t get in. Oh well! I always say brightly to my neighbors when the elevator fails to arrive. What a shame! I guess we’ll have to take the stairs or leave the building! If you want to get theatrical in this situation, you can even pound on the doors and weep, telling the elevator that you want it, you need it, you can’t live without it. If you’ve picked the elevator right, this will make no difference: you can’t—you’ll never—get in.
It’s a disorienting conceptual shift to suspect that the people who collectively caused you twenty years of agonizing, unrequited love were people who, deep down in the psychic basement, you didn’t really want. It certainly felt, at the time, like I wanted to be with each of these five people forever. But the condition of my wanting them, I’ve now come to think, was their not wanting me back. Their failure to return my love was the cause of my suffering but also, perhaps, of the love that made that suffering possible. If they had returned my love, maybe my love would have vanished with my anguish, and me shortly after it: down to the ground floor, into the lobby, and out, way out, the front door.
If commitmentphobia is partly just human-directed claustrophobia, and if ambivalence lies at the core of commitmentphobia, it shouldn’t be surprising that we elevatophobes, at some level, find elevators captivating. This is partly because most elevatophobes are sexual beings, and there’s something undeniably erotic about elevators. I’m not pointing to the obvious reasons—the opening doors, the dark passage, the rising car, the in and out, the sudden ejection—let’s not be crass! I’m talking about what I consider a central spiritual principle of elevators: the laying down of order, intellect, and civilization over chaos, animality, and death.
In her book Sex and Suits, Anne Hollander argues that the enduring sexiness of the male suit derives from the way that its tailoring—clean lines, smooth fabric, and respect for regularity and convention—both conceals and subtly reveals the shifting muscular form within. The contrast of polished, artificial surface with hidden, organic anarchy suggests both institutional power and a pre-social darker power that tends to slash and burn institutions. Suits, in this way, embody style, which Brian Dillon refers to as “form and texture rescued from chaos.” What attracts us to a well-tailored suit, as much as to a well-tailored essay (Dillon’s subject) is not just “the precision and extravagance of it,” but also its instability, “the pristine mechanism’s lurch toward destruction.”
The parallel is obvious, but let me draw it out. When you enter a modern building, especially the corporate or public type likely to require an elevator, you’re overcome by a sense of human mastery over nature. The great white and silver expanses, the marble floors, the walls of glass: everything is designed to express cleanliness, coolness, exactitude, and grace. But, as we all know, this icy façade is only an illusion we collectively construct to inch our plans forward in a hostile universe without killing one another. The guts of every building are a dark, hot mess: all wires, pipes, cavities, boilers, redness, blackness, steam, damp, and grime. What lives in those guts? Among other things, the elevator.
Elevators themselves resemble a modern building within a modern building: ideally, their interior glistens. But their exterior, just one foot or two back, is fully unadorned, and the shaft it moves up and down in, all day, every day, is a place no one except a small band of maintainers is ever meant to see or discuss in public. Think of the shock you feel when you see an elevator being worked on, halfway between floors, with part of the shaft exposed, or with one of its internal walls peeled back. That shock is your mind remembering that it has a body, that others have bodies too, and that each of us is one false move from dissolution.
The elevator, in short, is extremely sexy, and the sexiness is heightened for those of us who find elevators terrifying. Personally, I’m in a state of emotional-physical arousal every time I approach an elevator. This is the most efficient way to fall in lust with something, since the human mind has trouble distinguishing between its various forms of excitement. But non-claustrophobes are turned on by elevators too, as evidenced by the widespread fantasy of having sex in one. Goodreads lists forty-nine romance novels in the “Love in an Elevator” category, including Stuck with You, Going Down, Stranded with a Billionaire, Hearts in Darkness, Blame It on the Blackout, Bad Boys on Board, and Caught on Camera with the CEO.
A significant part of the story here is the fact that the elevator is its own enclosed world, set at some distance from the rest of civilization, where the normal rules of engagement might fail to apply. But if the elevator is its own world, it’s also a portal to many other worlds, stacked on top of one another all the way up the building, and this is a further source of its sexiness. Proust says of romantic infatuation: “Our belief that a person takes part in an unknown life which his or her love would allow us to enter is, of all that love demands in order to come into being, what it prizes the most, and what makes it care little for the rest.” The beloved is in this way an elevator, an uplifter to a fresh level of existence, an opener of doors.
Each of the people I unrequitedly loved were stamped all over with this feature. I was young and in search of myself; they were older and impressively talented. I thought that dating them might raise me up, that they might help me, in effect, skip a few floors. It’s a bad way to view relationships, but it can have the welcome side benefit of expanding your talents and horizons. The act of falling in love, whether or not you are loved back, tends to extend love out to objects and activities beyond the beloved. In a process Claire Messud terms “erotomorphia,” you take on the interests and character traits of the object of your affections, and those interests and traits begin to have independent attractions. (Maybe you had them already, which is part of why the beloved appealed to you to begin with.) In the unrequited case, it becomes a delicate question of who’s in control here, who’s winning. Though you, the spurned, may feel like the abject party, you’re absorbing your elusive prey into yourself: ravening the parts you want and throwing the rest over your shoulder like chicken bones. You’re becoming, if you like, your own elevator.
You never really know where a new elevator will take you. Each one, however utilitarian its appearance, is a wardrobe to Narnia, through which we move expectantly, elbowing through the fur coats of strangers. Or maybe, to darken the tale, we’re in the Beast’s castle, or Bluebeard’s, with some rooms permanently closed to us, mysterious and vaguely sinister. Certain floors in hotels and government buildings require codes or cards to access, the turning of a special key. I don’t like it when my fellow riders take these extraordinary measures, because I dislike anything that requires an elevator to think. But I approve of the general principle: I like, for instance, people who are hard to get to know. This door is locked, I notice. What’s behind it? And if I got behind it, where would it take me?
Elevators, in this way, are inherently theatrical. Their doors part like stage curtains, revealing act after act, and the elevator itself is a set, prime for comedy, romance, and, of course, horror. As a result, elevators have played a starring role in the literature and film, high and low, of the past two centuries. Among upper-floor examples, we have Nabokov’s first novel, Mary, which begins with a fateful elevator malfunction; Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, which stars a virtuoso elevator operator; and Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, which features a stalled lift that is the criminal protagonist’s downfall. A few floors down, we have a slew of Hollywood movies in which elevators are central to the plot (e.g., The Secret of My Success, You’ve Got Mail, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Lost in Translation, Shallow Hal). Then, down in the basement, we find the endless advertisements for deodorant, perfume, laundry detergent, chewing gum, hosiery and dandruff shampoo that have been staged for TV as brief elevator rides through office or apartment buildings.
Because you’re inside a windowless room, being in an elevator is like shutting your eyes. Elevator rides, like novels and films, are little dreams. When you wake, you find you’ve been moved to a new location, without noticing any intervening shift in the scenery. The experience, if not the fact, is one of teletransportation: as Wikipedia puts it, the “hypothetical transfer of matter or energy from one point to another without traversing the physical space between them.” There’s something magical about this, something verging on the supernatural, and here we approach the key point.
The drama of opening doors reflects the horizontal aspect of elevators, the in and the out. But to focus on that is to miss the core aspect of the elevator, which is most definitely not a matter of moving forward. Forward, the elevator sniffs, is for amateurs: wagons, bicycles, buses. The elevator is in quite another class of vehicles, along with the hot air balloon, the helicopter, and the rocket: those conveyances whose essential being and purpose is up.
Sure, you can technically take a lift downward. (As Philipp Mayer noted in 1892: “Although in general there is no special need to use the elevator for descent as well, that possibility must in any event also be taken into account.”) But the etymology, in English, French, and German, makes the central direction crystal clear, as do the numerous literary fantasies of elevators shooting through the roofs of their buildings, as opposed to descending to the center of the earth. Here the association between elevators and confinement becomes somewhat complicated. What’s more emblematic of freedom than Charlie and Willy Wonka blasting through the atmosphere in their wondrous glass elevator? Or Charlie the elevator operator, in John Cheever’s story, who gets drunk on the job on Christmas Day, releases his hand from the controls, and yells to his passenger, “Strap on your safety belt, Mrs. Gadshill! We’re going to make a loop-the-loop!”? Or, for that matter, Clark Kent, who uses the Daily Planet elevator to rip off his business shirt and glasses and don his spandex powersuit so he can take to the skies of Metropolis like a bird, like a plane, no, like Superman?
Elevators, in their essence, express transcendence: they’re a spiritual impulse in mechanical form. To transcend something is to rise above it to a superior state, to exceed, to go beyond, ordinary limitations. To perfect this process is to achieve, as Ceridwen Dovey says of reading fiction, “that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks.” When Saint Mary, the Mother of God, is assumed into heaven, or when the Protestant faithful ascend likewise in the Rapture, they take, in effect, an invisible elevator to the highest possible floor. They rise and rise, accompanied by celestial elevator music, the sweet chorus of the angels. To leave your material body like this is a glory and a triumph, the majestic culmination of a life well lived. It’s also, I assume, utterly terrifying. I suspect this because I’ve felt a sublunary version of it in every elevator I’ve ever entered. An elevator, for me, is fear itself, and fear itself is, sometimes, an elevator. This raises an interesting question. As Plato might have put it, do you fear what frightens you because it raises you, or does it raise you because you fear it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I sometimes think the fear I experience in an elevator is the closest I get to seeing God.
About the Author
Helena de Bres writes literary nonfiction and teaches philosophy at Wellesley. Her creative writing has appeared in The Point, the Los Angeles Review, Another Chicago Magazine, the New York Times, Aeon, Psyche, The Rumpus, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her book Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir came out in 2021.