Perinatal Performance At the Museum of Art

by Chris Boyd, Ph.D.

For reasons I don't wholly understand, riding the elevators . . . seems to
simultaneously transport visitors back to their perinatal past. . . .
All season long I encounter a variety of behaviors
and fantasies that symbolically equate riding
the elevator to the roof garden with being born."

-- Dr. Chris Boyd

I work at one of the largest art museums in the world. One of the galleries is a roof garden, which in summer displays sculpture in the open air. There is a panoramic view of a large park and city skyline, and visitors may purchase snacks and drinks from a small cafe/bar. A vine-covered pergola provides shade on hot days, and there are wooden benches in the sun. The roof garden becomes quite crowded on Friday and Saturday evenings, when New Yorkers flock there to socialize. Compared with other galleries in the museum - labyrinthine rooms of period furniture, for example, or the shadowy and frankincense-infused Medieval Hall - the roof garden feels expansive and informal.

Visitors to the museum come from all over the world and, almost without exception, they are extremely courteous and polite. However, on their elevator journey to the roof garden, many of these mild-mannered tourists and art lovers regress emotionally to infantile levels. All season long I encounter a variety of behaviors and fantasies that symbolically equate riding the elevator to the roof garden with being born. It is these extraordinary, elevator-induced regressions that I would like to address.

The perinatal roots of elevator-phobia have been mentioned by several writers: Fodor (1949: 40); Grof (1985: 280); Janus (1997:112). Such associations are probably heightened at the museum, where five million annual visitors make the elevators extremely crowded. The whole building is also temperature and humidity-controlled, making the elevator relatively hot and clammy. This particular elevator even reproduces the spin (head rotation) of birth: first-floor passengers enter through the east doors and, at the roof, must do an about-face to exit by the west doors. For some reason, many visitors find spinning around to exit quite funny.

The following observations and comments apply mostly to summer afternoons and evenings when the museum is crowded. Then, elevator passengers who have been strolling sedately for hours become anxious and even a little desperate. One of the most characteristic features of crowded elevator trips is the riders' almost palpable sense of urgency. For example, it frequently happens that when a full-to-capacity elevator arrives at the main floor, those waiting to board have assembled in a closed circle blocking the doors. Such crowds typically ignore the departing passengers and, with lowered heads and pinched shoulders, attempt to charge inside the still-full box. Sometimes I put out my hand like a traffic cop and command: 'Let them off first!"

The first wave of boarders will then make a partial retreat, hugging both sides of the opening and waiting to pounce inside as soon as possible. Although such behavior is ostensibly aimed at getting to the roof garden faster, it is irrational on two counts. It delays the departing passengers, slowing everyone up, and it ignores the fact everyone goes up and down together at the same speed. Since so many people regularly act in ways that thwart their conscious intentions, it stands to reason that an unconscious fantasy must be at work. This fantasy contains an imperative: I must get on the elevator as quickly as possible!

Visitors attempting to leap through the closing elevator doors also voice feelings of great urgency by screaming. In my experience, people almost never scream inside the museum. Yet, as they charge onto the elevators, many visitors feel compelled to yell. The most frequent boarding cry-which is often uttered in falsetto - is: "Aaaaahhh!" This sound resembles a baby's cry. Other popular screams include: "Wait!" and "Coming through!" Although the elevator can comfortably hold ten passengers, it is frequently packed with over twenty.

Although physically blocking the doors will sometimes stem the onrush, verbal commands are worse than useless, and merely encourage those outside to squeeze in faster. Once inside, however, visitors often grimace and complain about congestion: "How many can this elevator hold? I don't want to go crashing down to the basement!" Given the nature of the symbolism involved here - a fear of falling and being crushed inside a tube - such behavior suggests that an objective perception of reality has become temporarily overwhelmed by emerging perinatal affect.

Occasionally, a visitor will ask in a small voice, "Does the elevator ever get stuck between floors?" When this happens, everyone else hushes to await my answer. I imagine that if one person actually asks me this question many more must be pondering it. Sometimes visitors recount gruesome elevator accidents, such as: ". . . my friend, who lost her hand in an elevator. It was terrible." Latecomers who boldly thrust an arm through the crack to reopen the doors invariably draw comments from the other passengers: "You nearly lost it!"

From listening to many such comments, it is clear that - rightly or wrongly - elevator doors are perceived as extremely dangerous. Since the doors are the orifices of a transitional passage broadly symbolic of the birth canal, they may be understood as the vagina's 'teeth.'

I have noticed that groups of visitors often become anxious when separated on the elevators. Groups that cannot all fit inside one elevator often shout 'funny' comments about separation and reunion through the closing doors. However, such humor seems to mask real fear, as with a mother whose lagging husband popped inside at the last minute: "Honey, we thought you weren't going to make it! The doors closed and everything!"

Elevator-induced separation-anxiety occasionally escalates into what can only be described as elevator rage. In one instance, a well-dressed businessman who had left the roof garden a few minutes before closing time wanted to return to his friends on the roof. I told him that the museum was closing, and that he couldn't go back up, but suggested he could wait for his friends at the bottom.

Almost instantly, he became extremely abusive and threatening. Stepping onto the elevator he thundered: "Now you'll have to take me up, because I'm not getting off." I explained that now he was actually delaying his friends' descent and his reunion with them. Clearly in the grip of some powerful emotions, the man was insensible to reason, and continued his tirade.

Eventually, he stamped his foot like a toddler, took down my name (and directions to the complaints desk) and strode away. I work all over the museum, from Impressionist paintings to African woodcarvings, but the only place I routinely observe extreme emotions of any kind (other than an occasional case of aesthetic arrest) is on the elevators to the roof garden.

Objectively speaking, the elevator compartments are the most boring rooms in the museum. Yet for many visitors, a trip through these portals may precipitate subjective feelings and sensations unlike anything afforded by mere art. For reasons I don't wholly understand, riding the elevators to the roof garden seems to simultaneously transport visitors back to their perinatal past.

Emerging perinatal affect may then manifest as: a sense of great urgency, screaming, apparent deafness, a spacey trance-like state, grimacing, fear of getting stuck, fear of falling, fear of being dismembered, issues of separation/reunion and occasionally rage. I imagine that many visitors, feeling somewhat lost and footsore after their wanderings among the glories and treasures of the past want to experience a crushing, birth-like transition to a vast and airy place of sunlight, rest and refreshment.

The spectrum of perinatal symptoms exhibited by elevator riders becomes intelligible when we consider how effectively this increases the birth-like aspects of the journey. What surprises me is how well everyone (unconsciously) understands all this. Performing in concert, visitors are thus able to spontaneously transform a mundane box-ride into a struggle symbolic of birth.

© 2000, all rights reserved, Chris Boyd


Fodor, Nandor (1949), The Search for the Beloved: A Clinical Investigation of the Trauma of Birth and Pre-Natal Conditioning. New York: Hermitage Press.

Grof, Stanislav (1985), Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. New York: State University of New York Press.

Janus, Ludwig (1997), The Enduring Effects of Prenatal Experience: Echoes from the Womb. Northvale, New Jersey and London: Jason Aronson

Christopher Boyd received his Ph.D. in cinema studies from the University of Melbourne (Australia). His interests include pre- and perinatal psychology, psychohistory, film, and the psychology of visual art. He lives in New York and is currently editing a series of anthologies on psychohistory (including a Cinema and Symbolism volume). He may be contacted at

This article is from Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring, 2002 issue of Psychohistory, The Newsletter of the International Psychohistorical Association. Re-printed with permission.

For a darker view of elevators as symbols of birth traumas, see Intimations of My birth: Traveling and Elevator Rides as Primal Triggers by John A. Speyrer


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