Can words kill?
- Play title: Chatroom
- Author: Enda Walsh
- First performed: 2005
- Page count: 71
Chatroom explores the murky, often-unregulated world of cyberspace. The play was released in 2005 by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The characters in this work communicate with one another through various online chatrooms. They are all aged between 15 and 16 years old and come from the affluent, middle-class area of Chiswick in west London. Jim is a depressed teen who seeks help online. He first chats with Laura who serves as a listener but she offers no advice. When Jim enters another chatroom, he meets William and Eva along with Jack and Emily. Due to Jim’s vulnerability, he is unable to recognise who is really on his side versus those who seek to ridicule and ultimately hurt him. Walsh explores how power may be exercised in the most depraved ways by anonymous, online teens. Jim is pushed towards a fatal decision which his depressed mindset comprehends as a logical solution.
Ways to access the text: reading/watching
Walsh is a prolific, contemporary playwright so one may prefer to purchase this work. As an alternative, Chatroom may be read for free via the Open Library, Scribd (free trial), or Perlego. The work is reader friendly.
The play was adapted into a film with Walsh as the screenwriter. Chatroom, the movie, was released in 2010 and was directed by Hideo Nakata. I have not viewed the movie, but further information is available on the IMDb website.
Why read Chatroom?
Chatroom was one of the early plays that focused on the sometimes-shady enclave of anonymous, online chat. Personal information provided in such chatrooms is normally not vouched for, and uncheckable in practical terms. The play trolls through scenarios where things go wrong because the participants have an agenda quite at odds with their stated purpose in the various chatrooms. The teenagers involved treat the scenarios as play rather than real life which leads to a toxic environment of bullying, shaming, and coercion. The domain becomes cowboy country because it is without rules or standards. Teens advise one another in often careless ways and without the qualifications or life experience appropriate to the advice demanded by the situations. Upon reading the play, one finds that there is also the ‘cowboy country’ of childhood, a benevolent place of play and healing.
Post reading discussion/interpretation.
“A Maelstrom of Suicidality in Cyberspace.”
In Enda Walsh’s play Chatroom, one witnesses the interconnectedness of suicide with traditional media as well as modern, mobile media. By reading the playscript one gains the unusual perspective of spying on the characters’ texts from various online chats. In contrast, an audience hears these lines spoken due to the nature of theatre, but it is important to note that what is portrayed is actually silent communication between the characters via their computer or smartphone keypads. None of the characters in the play have the advantage of seeing the others, nor hearing accents, nor noticing tones or intonations of voices. There are no facial gestures or body poses – just silent screens with rolling text. Since the online communication lacks the readable nuances of face-to-face contact, it constantly risks becoming arid and uninteresting. Keeping in mind that the characters in the play are all teenagers, it is unsurprising that the nature of the discussion perforce becomes more exaggerated and extreme at times. This is a compensation for the otherwise anaemic flow of words on digital screens. The playwright utilises this cyberspace environment to address the myriad negatives that anyone but especially teenagers may encounter. Walsh examines how such an environment can easily turn toxic and why it differs so drastically from ‘real life.’ In real life, few teenagers hope to drive a person to kill themselves in public. Media become an accommodating accomplice to this premeditated ‘murder.’ The key themes of the play are depression, bullying, and suicidal ideation. This essay will examine the motivations of bullies and the tools they use to dominate online discussions, and how victims sometimes get brainwashed and fall into the cyclical waves of imitation suicides.
The play highlights the ever-changing nature of 21st century media. In the case of traditional media like national newspapers or TV channels, the dissemination of information is a one-way process. The public at large are fed particular news items, stories, and assorted forms of entertainment. Modern media include mobile media which is an umbrella term for all the smart devices used to communicate with others. Everything from one’s mobile phone to a laptop allows for the spread of information as well as live exchanges of information and opinions. In this respect, new media is quite distinct from traditional media. Chatroom takes account of both traditional and modern media in an effort to understand the pressures that may lead to teenage suicide.
The suspicion that media influence suicides, even encourage them, is far from new. David P. Phillips addresses one of the most famous examples.
“Two hundred years ago, Goethe wrote a novel called The Sorrows of the Young Werther, in which the hero committed suicide. Goethe’s novel was read widely in Europe, and it was said that people in many countries imitated Werther’s manner of death.”(Phillips 340)
While few people nowadays would consider a novel to be potentially injurious, it was a powerful medium of ideas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Goethe’s novel so effectively raised the spectre of suicide imitations that the book was banned in Italy, Leipzig and Copenhagen (Phillips 340). A brief look across history since then shows that the medium itself is not the core problem but rather what information is communicated and how. For instance, in August of 1962 the Hollywood movie star, Marilyn Monroe, died of an apparent suicide. Her death was reported widely in the US media and internationally. In the 1960’s, such stories did not come with the now familiar mental health warnings. The result was symptomatic of what Phillips terms “the Werther effect” (341) since “In the United States, suicides increased by 12% in the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death and by 10% in England and Wales” (350). In more recent times, Jeffrey A Bridge carried out a study with the objective of estimating “the association between the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and suicide rates in the United States” (236). He found that – “In absolute numbers, we estimated 195 (95% CI, 168–222) additional suicide deaths among 10- to 17-year-old youths occurred between April 1 and December 31, 2017, following the series’ release” (238). These examples show the potency of large-scale media formats like novels, newspapers, and modern TV shows streamed online. However, the problem also emerges in one-on-one digital communication. This is evidenced by the notorious case of Michelle Carter who stood trial in Massachusetts for homicide after the death of Conrad Roy by suicide in 2014. Carter was put on trial due to her suspected culpability for Roy’s death – “Prosecutors argued that her calls and texts fueled her boyfriend’s suicide” (Esquire). The judge ultimately found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 15 months in prison. It is ironic that this court case spawned TV series like The Girl from Plainville, and the documentary, I Love You, Now Die (2019) because such shows keep the topic of male, teenage suicide in people’s consciousness which is the crux of the problem. Written in 2005, Walsh’s play predates the Michelle Carter case yet similarly exposes the inherent dangers of coercion and bullying when the victim is already depressed or even suicidal. Like any environment, cyberspace dictates the freedoms and restrictions imposed upon visitors, and the rules of the game need to be fully understood to remain safe.
The real and the surreal.
Many people view cyberspace as quite a distinct realm which is notably different from the real world of everyday life. Yet, deeming something as less than real, or a substitute for reality, does not alter the inherent power of the cyberspace realm. People of all ages actively choose to express themselves online and this is often in preference to doing so within their real-life, social circles. In Chatroom, there are specific and quite valid reasons for each character’s presence in the online forums. A further consideration is that the internet is a realm that facilitates escapism of all sorts, from creating an impressive but fake public profile to entertaining sexual fantasies through viewing pornographic material – the web offers an escape from the humdrum norms of life. From another perspective, cyberspace is the realm of the surreal. Originating in the 1920’s, the artistic movement known as surrealism had the aim of “revolt[ing] against all restraints on free creativity, including logical reason, standard morality, social and artistic conventions and norms …” (Abrams 310). Such rule breaking is apparent in Chatroom, especially regarding morality and social conventions. It is distasteful to consider suicide as an artistic statement, but this is precisely how William packages Jim’s imminent live-streamed death – as something to force the public to ponder and interpret like an art piece before coming to a new, enhanced view about teenagers’ problems. The web offers teenagers like William untold freedoms, and it is not surprising that people take advantage of such opportunities. What happens online is real but only in a liminal sense due to the ease with which people can disconnect from it. Simple as pushing a button, for some.
Walsh’s play addresses the ubiquitous nature of online communication; what attracts both bullies and potential victims to online chat forums; and the eventual maelstrom that sometimes leads to suicidal ideation. The internet is omnipresent in modern life so avoiding virtual communication is near impossible for most people. A hypothetical scenario where a person truly disconnects from the World Wide Web is fanciful given how enmeshed people’s lives are with intelligent technology. In practical terms, there is a discomfiting absence of choice, and this informs any discussion about Chatroom. Even in the 18th century, Goethe’s book could be banned but not all books could be banned, and certainly not everywhere. The smartphone is the modern book! Juan Moisés de la Serna explains that “Currently almost 100% of schoolchildren over 10 or 11 years old regularly use some kind of technological tool” (9). Despite the application of extensive child protections, the internet proves ever more difficult to police and children are inevitably exposed to inappropriate material and inappropriate people. Controlling mobile media is next to impossible since children and teenagers access information when far from the eyes of wary adults. Children are not equipped to assimilate the level and variance of information available on the web and therefore ‘realness’ becomes uncomfortably subjective.
What precisely attracts bullies or potential bullies to online forums? Moisés de la Serna explains that “more and more young people are becoming involved in cases of harassment via digital media, mainly because of its extensive usage, but also due to the anonymity provided by the network” (7). The anonymous nature of much online communication allows free reign to those who have a propensity to insult or demean others. In Chatroom, William cleverly imposes rules for the chat, for instance, not sharing real names. His explanation is – “We know we’re from the same area and that’s enough. Just leave out the details. It gives us more freedom” (Walsh 22). William interprets freedom as a tool to facilitate his as-yet-undisclosed, underhand intentions. An early warning sign that William is not sincere is when he plays the provocateur with Jack, testing if he will be gullible enough to show interest in “an assassination attempt on J.K. Rowling” (11). William may always dismiss the proposal as swagger and thereby hide the fact that it was meant as a test of Jack’s suggestibility and docility. One may easily propose such maniacal ideas from the secure position of anonymous untouchability. Eva should similarly be classified as a potential bully based on her vitriolic tirade about Britney Spears followed by her provocative suggestion that she and Emily talk about murder. This odd conversation topic suggestion comes immediately after Emily’s confirmation that Eva’s identity is secret – “It’s been very nice talking to you, whoever you are” (15). An anonymous bully may simply turn off their computer and thereby negate their responsibility since no trace of the real them remains.
James S. Chisholm and Brandie Trent looked at how bullies are perceived by others in a paper entitled, “Everything… Affects Everything’: Promoting Critical Perspectives toward Bullying with ‘Thirteen Reasons Why.’” These researchers sought feedback from tenth-grade students (15/16 years old) about how bullies are experienced and got the following results.
“Many students responded to the prompt about “People who bully others . . .” by identifying reasons why persons might engage in such behavior: “[they] think that they are more superior than others,” “[they] are probably bullied themselves or are going through a hard time,” and “[they] are people that think it’s cool to hurt people emotionally and physically.”(Chisholm and Trent 76)
The three examples garnered from their questionnaire correspond to the portrayal of bullies in Chatroom. William and Eva do act in a superior, high-handed manner and this is shown by their unrelenting need to control the various narratives. They also erupt in anger from time to time, revealing that their own lives are possibly troubled. It is plausible that such angry behaviour is the result of bullying or difficult home circumstances. Personal disclosures also add to the picture, like when Eva refers to her “bitch-mother” (Walsh 15) and William describes himself as an “angry cynic” (27). When Laura challenges William, he is unable to defend or justify his actions, so he snaps and calls her “Bitch” (61) before subjecting her to an extended, personalised attack. Hurting people emotionally is a go-to tactic of cowards. The bullies have no real power, so they rely on the advantages of the cyberspace environment where aggressive dominance often wins the day.
There are other bullying tricks too. Moisés de la Serna explains that “Cyberbullying is a type of abuse and harassment among school children that is characterized by the use of communication via cyberspace to achieve the total exclusion of the victim from their school groups” (8). Once a victim is disempowered through isolation then a bully may proceed to hurt them more effectively.
“With cyberbullying, there is a direct confrontation between the victim and the abuser, while maintaining the anonymity of the latter, that is, the abuser wants the victim to know that he is suffering from harassment, and that he cannot do anything to prevent it, as a form of punishment; a form of power, that must be demonstrated by these actions.”(Moisés de la Serna 12)
The bullying in Chatroom is even more sophisticated because Jim is deceived into believing that the bullies are helping him. William and Eva gain delight from tricking Jim and they endeavour to enlist Jack and Emily in the game too. William’s callousness is revealed when he tells Jack, “It will be a laugh. Right now, we’re all he [Jim] has … Let’s let him talk. Mess him up a bit. See how far he’ll go” (Walsh 42). In this case, it is not their intention to make the victim aware of his helplessness but instead to share a joke among themselves about how wickedly they can treat the unwitting Jim. William and Eva can purge their personal feelings of anger and helplessness through the annihilation of an online stranger.
“Cyberbullying is about power, usually with the intent of humiliation, blackmail and even harassment of the other person. All this with the “impunity” of knowing that they will not be found out, and that they will not receive any punishment, since for the cyberbully it is enough to switch off the computer and not reconnect with that victim.”(Moisés de la Serna 15)
Walsh’s characters are conspicuous in that they all come from an affluent borough of London. Therefore, one would not readily associate them with schoolyard brawls or open shows of bullying since these transgressions would damage their school records. Middle-class teenagers are usually bound for university are therefore under constant pressure to achieve academically and maintain social conventions. In such circumstances, online activity may be a release valve for pent-up aggression. Moisés de la Serna looked at the profiles of cyberbullies and noted that “in cyberbullying there is a percentage of aggressors that only offend in cyberspace, that is, they do not do so in the traditional environment. It may be because they see there are more factors that facilitate online aggression (anonymity, simple-to-use digital tools, rapid diffusion…)” (19). If William and Eva bully exclusively online, then their nefarious conduct is indeed expertly hidden. The larger-than-life schoolyard bully of old is now concealed online.
Cyberbullies may hurt others to alleviate their own feelings of anger or helplessness, however the bullies in Chatroom have an important, additional motivation. Eva talks about how teenagers sleepwalk through life so “It would be so great to accomplish something important. To have a cause” (Walsh 28). William likewise expresses this wish as – “I want to make a big statement. Who doesn’t?!” (30). Jim unwittingly becomes their cause: someone who they may manipulate to create a fantastic, public scene when he commits suicide. William and Eva will relish this show of power, yet they will incur no negative repercussions since they are invisible puppet masters. Their level of effort will be minimal for the disproportionately large and grotesque payoff.
Jim wants to communicate his teenage angst and chooses an online forum for the same reasons William is online, namely freedom and anonymity. It is odd how the boys’ needs are shown to converge at first but then one witnesses the drastic divergence. Jim initially visits a depression chatroom in an effort to measure the gravity of his low moods. He confides in Laura, saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t be even in this place. I don’t know whether it’s that serious yet” (16). Whether Jim is clinically depressed or not may only be fully assessed by a professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. However, Jim’s status as a potential victim of bullying, a quite separate issue, seems indubitable. Moisés de la Serna explains that “those who suffer most [from bullying] are those who show low levels of self-esteem, with overprotective parents, an intermediate socio-economic level and a low sense of coherence” (17). Jim’s low self-esteem becomes evident immediately when he repeatedly asks Laura if she’s fine with listening to his story – “But you’d say if you did mind? If it was too draining, too annoying, too boring maybe…?” (Walsh 16). His overly apologetic nature signals someone who cannot easily set personal boundaries or assert himself. At home, Jim is already being bullied and beaten by his brothers; his domineering mother drinks and takes Valium; his friend, Timmy Timmons, has died; and his father abandoned him as a child. There is no coherence in Jim’s life so he hopes that an online chatroom may hold the elusive answers he seeks. The chatroom is like a trap ready to snap shut after he enters because his vulnerability is apparent and appealing to bullies. Jim unquestionably has the freedom to divulge highly personal information online but in a perverse twist, anonymity does not protect him. Being nameless and untraceable favours those who leave a trail of destruction behind them, not those who absorb the resulting emotional damage.
In Jim, one finds a character who is unusually open to suggestion, and this makes him susceptible to manipulation and abuse. David P. Phillips quotes, “Cantril, Toch and Krapp [who] have claimed that anomic individuals are unusually suggestible, and many students of suicide have claimed that anomic individuals are prone to suicide” (341). Jim lacks purpose in life, is alienated, and suffers from malaise, so he unquestionably qualifies as anomic. Jim’s decision to join a depression chatroom signals an effort to find answers but it is covertly a search for likeminded teenagers too. The latter poses a significant risk for suggestible individuals.
“Kreitman et al. (1969) noted that attempted suicides had an unusually large number of suicidal friends. This result might indicate that persons imitate their friends’ suicides, or that suicide-prone persons select each other as friends.”(Phillips 341)
The danger is that Jim is susceptible enough to fall prey to “the Werther effect” (Phillips 341). The company of other melancholic teens could just as easily be detrimental as helpful. All that is required is a model to lead him astray. Walsh convincingly portrays how impressionable teenagers can be with the innocuous example of Eva’s belly button piercing (Walsh 13). This piercing is thanks to the influence of the pop goddess, Britney Spears, whom Eva ironically now hates. In short, teenagers are easily swayed and are equally fickle in their tastes. Jeffrey A. Bridge writes that, “Previous studies indicate that suicide contagion disproportionately affects those who strongly identify with the person who died by suicide (particularly celebrities)” (240). If Jim is convinced that he has no hope of changing or recovering, as William and Eva repeat, then a simple news story about a celebrity suicide or a TV show featuring suicide may convince him to act. Jim has already been primed to view suicide as a solution so a relatable example of death by suicide could decide his fate. Phillips writes of how “Studies of suggestion (reviewed in Lang and Lang, 1961:255-89) indicate that a model is more likely to be imitated if he is prestigious and if his circumstances are thought to be similar to those of the imitator” (352). Even though Jim confides that he is genuinely depressed, he evades an audience’s expectations when he dismisses the suggestion that he may be indulging his melancholy like a superficially depressed teen.
“JIM: I’m not one of these people who keeps an altar to Kurt Cobain or anything like that. I actually can’t stand Nirvana. I don’t need their music to feed my depression. I can happily do it all by myself…”(Walsh 33)
This statement appears to disparage the notion that Jim will buckle to the influence of some media story by helplessly copying a suicide. Yet, this is to overlook what medium Jim is currently using to garner advice on what he should do – mobile media. It is true that he is not reading The Sorrows of the Young Werther or watching an emotive TV programme like 13 Reasons Why, or even listening to Nirvana while mulling over Kurt Cobain’s suicide. What Jim is doing is allowing information accessed through a new form of media to dominate his thinking about how to solve the problem of depression. Walsh ingeniously inserts modern media in the mix while simultaneously acknowledging the roles of more traditional media like pop songs and news stories about melancholic grunge stars, and depressing novels. The online chatroom is a dynamic new form of media which evades the normal safety nets that reliably flag issues with books and TV programmes. In short, the chatroom is no less potent a medium of influence when it comes to suicidal ideation, plus it has the added risk of falling below the radars of normal regulatory bodies. Jeffrey A. Bridge has written the following damning assessment concerning the shortfalls of the TV series 13 Reasons Why.
“Critics have argued that the series overlooked or ignored evidence and media guidelines suggesting that suicide contagion is fostered by stories that sensationalize or promote simplistic explanations of suicidal behavior, glorify or romanticize the decedent, present suicide as a means of accomplishing a goal such as community change or revenge, or offer potential prescriptions of “how to” die by suicide.”(Bridge 236)
All the issues raised in relation to the recklessness of the TV portrayal of a suicide are equally applicable to Jim’s situation.
Descent into a depressive maelstrom.
When Jim first speaks to Laura, he is unsure of the severity of his problems. Laura has volunteered in the chatroom about depression so that other teenagers may have a safe space to express their feelings. Laura diligently eschews giving any advice. The environment must be safe because as Laura later explains – “In these rooms, words are power” (Walsh 61). The provision of ill-informed or malicious advice can prove deadly. The real-life case of Michelle Carter has shown the public how instrumental words alone can be in someone’s eventual suicide, even when those words appear only on a mobile phone or computer screen. What occurs in Chatroom is that Jim’s feelings of helplessness quickly calcify into an unchangeable state of doom as a direct result of William and Eva’s destructive, online narrative. The bullies’ influence threatens to set up the Werther effect and mobile media is simply a tool that facilitates an execution of the plan.
Jim is not holed up in his bedroom listening to Kurt Cobain songs. He’s listening instead to two sociopathic teenagers who are pretending to be his friends. As William exuberantly tells Jack – “We’re there for him [Jim] 24/7… it will be a blast!” (Walsh 42). The bullies’ advice is figuratively on tap and therefore always crafted to Jim’s real time moods and associated fears. One witnesses how detrimental this situation is when William and Eva dissect Jim’s life into a sequence of negative, derogatory statements until he is “(almost hyperventilating)” (44). Jack tries to break William and Eva’s hold over Jim when it becomes apparent that the online relationship has become unhealthy.
“JACK. Well, no offence, Jim… but we’re your age… shouldn’t you be taking advice
from a doctor maybe?
JIM. Well, I was actually thinking…
EVA. Christ, Jack, that’s so fucking cruel. Don’t you get it? He doesn’t have anyone. We’re it!”(Walsh 39)
The territorial nature of Eva’s remarks signal that Jim is now seen as a possession rather than a person. Chisholm and Trent’s paper about bullying explains how, “Students’ responses to the prompt “People who are bullied by others . . .” could be characterized by the lack of agency that students ascribed to people who are bullied” (76). Bullies read the passivity apparent in some of their peers and subsequently grasp any opportunity to exert power over such individuals. Jack attempts to break this domination by telling Jim to focus on the positives in his life rather than the negatives. William instantly becomes highly defensive and formulates a lie to turn Jim against Jack. The bullies insist on isolating Jim from any potential source of help and their advice is nothing more than a diatribe of negativity.
Walsh’s portrayal of a confused, depressed teen is highly engaging since it highlights exactly why such teenagers are bad judges of character. The core issue is that a confused teen yearns for definitive advice. When Jim joins the depression chatroom, Laura tells him – “You just need to know that there’s someone listening to you. That’s enough, isn’t it” (Walsh 21). This would likely be sufficient if Jim had other supports in his life such as family or medical help. In contrast, Jim is lost and therefore instinctively gravitates towards people like William and Eva who are strongly opinionated and unafraid to push advice on him in an authoritative manner. The bullies wear devious facades of knowingness and pretend that Jim’s problems are blatantly obvious – just like the solution to such problems. Jim finally despairs of the whole situation when, after the barrage of negative advice he has received, he says – “You know I don’t think I can listen to any more talking” (63). The window of opportunity to help him seems ominously to have closed. The person who originally went online to unburden himself of inner turmoil has instead endured a character assassination. Jim’s meek voice is drowned out by the bullies until he regresses further into himself, and his situation seems even more insoluble.
Jim has become William and Eva’s cause, their project. They package Jim’s predicament in such a way that it appears to have a new and quite important significance. Jim is enticed into the narrative through various underhand techniques. First, Jim’s potential suicide is interpreted as an opportunity for revenge by William, who says, – “focus on your anger and channel it into something that will get all those people in your past back” (50). Jim volunteers the information that his mother could be the target of such revenge, so William adds – “She’d be crushed. The guilt would kill her” (51). After this, William provides two questions, both of which have a negative spin, which Jim should ask himself at night. Such questions have the goal of sending Jim into a downward spiral leading to a hopeless, depressive episode. The final challenge for William and Eva is to make Jim believe that he will achieve something quite special by committing suicide.
“WILLIAM – I was thinking that Jim’s depression allows him to see things clearer than us. He’s been neglected by his family and friends so that maybe his isolation represents perfectly the average teenager’s plight. It’s like he’s expressing important issues in a creative way. It’s poetry,”(Walsh 58)
Instead of identifying with a dead celebrity like Monroe or Cobain, Jim is lured instead into identifying with the idea that his death will have a magnificent purpose. William has successfully formulated a plan that may entrap a depressed teenager, saying – “Imagine all those forgotten teenagers you’d be speaking for if you killed yourself publicly. You’d be a hero. A legend” (58). It is noteworthy that William additionally tries to put a political spin on the suicide as if it will strike a blow for teenagers against an older, callous generation. Regarding anomic persons like Jim, Phillips provides the insight that “A person who finds no meaning in life may kill himself; but, on the other hand, he may join a religious or political movement that provides him with meaning” (351). Since Jim’s death is now packaged as a political statement, it is not a choice between death or politics, but death as integral to politics. The potential lifeline for Jim of joining a cause becomes enmeshed with the death wish.
One may interpret William and Eva’s cruel plan as a piece of surrealist art. The twosome glamourize death for Jim but in truth, the plan is a script for a grotesque, public spectacle where a teenager will kill himself while live-streaming the event. Like the director of a snuff movie, William fashions a flimsy storyline around the death, feeds lines and ‘helpful’ motivations to the central actor, but cunningly never appears on screen himself. It is Laura who finally confronts William with the truth, saying – “The statement being made is yours. But what are you saying, William? That you’ve got power?” (Walsh 61). William is unmasked as a teenager frustrated by his impotence and irrelevance in the larger world and whose only goal is to manipulate Jim in order to create a grand gesture of power. Walsh inserts a twist at the end of the play so that the bullies do not win, at least not in the world fashioned by the playwright.
The denouement of Chatroom.
At the close of Chatroom, Jim appears to have reached a point of no return. He is tired of listening, tired of talking, and ominously says, “lets finish this” (63). Instead of a live broadcast on the internet, Jim invites the others to gather at the most public of places, a McDonald’s restaurant on the high street. For an audience watching the play, it appears as if the worst will happen. Jim’s arrival at this tragic point is the result of a snowball effect. At the outset, Jim was dealing with family problems but then William and Eva tilted his perspective towards death as a solution. If one had to pinpoint one misstep by Jim that inadvertently gave others an opportunity to hurt him then it was his naïve willingness to share information. It is a Catch-22 situation because without help he cannot resolve his depression, but desperate people often make bad friendship choices.
“Just as mothers used to say to their children “Don’t talk to strangers”, you must apply that to the Internet, it is not “bad” to talk to strangers, but it is dangerous to think that the “stranger” can be someone close to you with whom you can share intimacies.”(Moisés de la Serna 36)
All the other characters maintain almost perfect anonymity and divulge mostly superficial personal information. When the play’s characters do reveal sensitive, personal information, for example, Emily’s anorexia or Laura’s suicide attempt, then they are mercilessly attacked and belittled by others.
For Jim, the problems all started when his father left. Phillips quotes suicide research regarding the death of a father – “Bunch and Barraclough (1971) found that suicides tend to kill themselves close to the anniversary of the death of their fathers” (347). Although Jim’s father has not died but has simply abandoned the family and then cut all contact, the pain Jim feels is similar to a bereavement. Jim surprises everyone when he takes ownership of this painful childhood memory and transforms this up-to-now weakness into an opportunity to recapture his carefree, happy, childhood nature. Instead of creating a horrific spectacle by publicly killing himself, Jim indulges a childhood love of cowboy costumes. The grand finale of the drama shows a teenage boy taking back his agency by simply playing. Play is the perfect antidote to depression since it is the shedding of self-conscious inhibitions and shame. From a psychological perspective, Jim is nurturing his inner child to heal a trauma that has too long affected his life. Additionally, Jim’s willingness to act in a silly and slightly immature manner for his age, but to do it without embarrassment, shows that he is less susceptible to bullies, less vulnerable to outside judgment and criticism. The tenseness of the close of the play is due to the fact that Jim’s decision could quite easily have gone the other way and he could have killed himself.
Walsh constructs and then elegantly dismantles the complot of the cyberbullies in Chatroom. This 2005 play was prescient given the many online bullying scandals that later appeared in the media. Mobile media take centre stage in the work and aid an understanding of the interlinked mechanics of modern bullying with how depressed teens find ever-evolving sources of inspiration when considering suicide.
The Werther effect, as it has traditionally been understood, has a limited scope. An increase in suicides is directly correlated with the media attention given to the suicidal death of a famous person. As explored in this essay, mobile media may serve equally well as a conveyor of intoxicating, depressive ideas that eventually lead vulnerable individuals to the same result, namely suicide. In all cases, the depressed person must embrace the model so to speak, meaning that he/she must strongly identify with the person/idea. Phillips argues that the Werther effect “is not necessarily produced by those who would have committed suicide anyway, even in the absence of a publicized suicide to imitate” (341). This is a crucial point for understanding Chatroom since Jim would potentially be an extra suicide i.e., an insidious example would have convinced him to commit suicide but without that influence he would be safe.
Moisés de la Serna comments that the media only show interest in cyberbullying “when the police catch a cyberbully or one of their victims commits suicide; only then is a certain visibility given to a problem” (9). What William and Eva almost successfully achieve is a perpetuation of a cycle of suicides. The bullies endeavour to take full control of another teen’s life by encouraging him to kill himself and if he does this in public or via live stream then the media will inevitably report it, resulting in additional suicides among young people. If Jim had killed himself in a McDonald’s, an icon of pop culture, then he would be transformed into a new model for hopeless youths. The result of tragic, online influence would make the headlines in traditional media and reach a huge audience.
A disturbing aspect of Chatroom is the degenerative depths to which the bullies will stoop. Without excusing the behaviour, one should assess the fundamental problem of perception, namely that teenagers who are active online often treat it as a sphere detached from any real-life consequences. There is a distinct absence of empathy which has become typical of online chat exchanges. William and Eva’s behaviour makes one consider if they are genuinely sociopathic or just chronically misguided. Moisés de la Serna describes the difference between cyberbullying and bullying – “the aggressor does not perceive the severity of the aggression (because he does not see the victim’s reaction)” (24). Laura’s challenge to William focuses on this precise aspect of online bullying. She says, “Because you can’t see him, it’s easier. It’s easier when you don’t have to see a dead boy and just imagine it like you read it in a book or something” (Walsh 61). It is ironic that at the opening of the play, William eviscerates children’s stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter because they are not realistic representations of how the world works. However, William treats Jim in a way that would appear monstrous if it occurred in any relationship other than a cyber one. Like in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, one witnesses how teens let loose in a new terrain may quickly turn subhuman. The cyberspace terrain serves to highlight the very worst potentialities of what Sigmund Freud termed the id. William and Eva are the monsters that lurk within everyone and given the right environmental conditions, they suddenly appear.
Walsh shows how words alone may be the perfect hosts for malign behaviour. Messages and texts are shown to have the power to kill, a power confirmed by real-life cases. With the right words, things can go horribly wrong!
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Walsh, Enda. Chatroom. Nick Hern Books, 2013.