Kicking Puppies and Taking Names: Why We Misbehave in Elevators

If I could ride in an elevator with anyone, either living or dead, I would most definitely pick Sigmund Freud.

Not because a 30-seconds-long vertical journey would be time enough to permit any kind of meaningful psychological exchange between the Good Herr Doktor and I – it’d be time enough to summon a pithy, off-cuff interpretation of last night’s bad dream, perhaps, or if he had his pocket watch on hand, to flirt with the stirrings of hypnotic stupor, but then it’d be time’s up.

And not because I have Daddy issues (Hi, Dad!), or because I enjoy ingesting the stink of stale cigar smoke within an enclosed space (which is always how I imagined Freud to smell, based on what he looks like in photographs).

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Nay. I pick Freud because, if the events of the past two weeks are any indication, elevator shafts are unpredictable kinds of places in which some pretty awful tomfoolery is regularly afoot. And, when things get strange, who need on your side, more than a CEO or a beefcake or an entertainer, is a sage guide.

To what special tomfoolery do I refer? In case you’ve been summering either in an off-grid yurt in your parent’s backyard or beneath the mossy underside of a large rock, let’s review the sad facts.

Animal-rights activists (as well as anyone in possession of anything besides a gaping, cavernous maw beneath his or her sternum) went wild last week when a video surfaced depicting a prominent Connecticut-based businessman man savagely abusing a dog in an otherwise-empty elevator car. In the video, Desmond “Des” Hague, the now-deposed-CEO of arena concessions company Centerplate, appears to loose a little pent-up rage by wailing on the cowering young Doberman pinscher in his care. He kicks her – hard – then uses the dog’s own leash to lift her into the air.

Courtesy of Global News

Courtesy of Global News

And, just in the past few days, Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice has come under fire for his own despicable elevator antics: a surveillance video dated from February and making its way around the Internet purports to depict him engaged in a late-night hitting match with then-fiancée and now-wife Janay Rice (Palmer). Unsurprisingly, the 212-pound powerhouse football player wins the contest with a brutal left hook that sends Palmer flying into an elevator handrail before she topples to the ground. The punch knocks her out, and he drags her from the elevator in rag doll fashion.

Courtesy of TMZ

Courtesy of TMZ

Oh, these bad actors got their comeuppances: Hague resigned from his post and Rice has been suspended indefinitely from the NFL. But there’s a bigger question tucked away in all the sad and bad and mad: what is it about the space of an elevator car that so emboldens a person to behave so terribly? Might my theoretical elevator buddy Dr. Freud have any light to shed?

Modern passenger elevators predate Freud by 100 years, and were originally conceived as a stairs- and exertion-free means of hoisting fat French kings up to the chambers of their waiting mistresses.

Their ripe symbology didn’t escape Freud’s notice. Herr Doktor’s writings include notes on a long-suffering patient, “Frau Emmy,” who was overcome by an irrational terror that the elevator at the hotel in which she and her children were staying was faulty and thus might send them plummeting to their death. Freud hypnotized the poor, blithering Emmy and soon determined the real cause of her anxiety: lady problems. The onset of Frau Emmy’s own menstrual period had coincided with an older daughter’s bout of something called “ovarian neuralgia” (not sure what that is, but it sounds awful), which made it hard for the girl to navigate stairs, hence Frau Emmy’s suggestion that the children make use of the hotel elevator, and hence her resulting agitation.

Confused? Me, too.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Let’s time-travel forward, shall we, to modern-day Hollywood. Perhaps Tinseltown has a better patch on the surprising sway this strange machine holds over us. If the plotlines of our favorite media diversions are any indication, an elevator is certainly a place where just about anything can and does happen.

You might encounter a beautiful new neighbor with copious, spilling décolletage, whom you will instantly charm and then just-as-quickly infuriate when you gaze into her vacant eyes and explain that everybody in the building’s only been nice her because her boobies are humongous. It’s not your fault – your long-suffering son has placed a birthday curse on you that acts as a much-needed truth serum – and it’s causing all sorts of antics to ensue (“Liar Liar”).

Or you might recover the mangled, dripping corpse of a flesh-chomping cannibal’s latest murder victim when his vital fluids drip down from a crack in a paneled elevator ceiling and thus begin to unravel the murderer’s sinister plot to switch out his own body with the body of said murder victim, which has handily enabled him him to escape in an ambulance (“Silence of the Lambs”).

There are, of course, the more titillating possibilities: an eccentric zillionaire candy factory owner may shepherd you through a series of moral challenges and, upon determining you to be of sound judgment and impeccable character, he might whisk you sideways, slantways, longways and backways in a great glass elevator high above the crummy town you’ve spent your whole crummy life in before bequeathing you all his worldly kit, including a lifetime’s supply of chocolate bars (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”).

You might deliver your high school French teacher’s baby – while you are still in high school! – after the elevator you’re both riding in breaks down and she goes into panic-labor, which would normally be completely horrifying and sick, but fortunately for all involved, you are a child prodigy who sported medical credentials before back hair and have thus have had ample time to fine-tune your bedside manner (“Doogie Howser, M.D.”).

Courtesy Photo

Courtesy Photo

Never mind. Hang the dead doctors and the TV-movie formulae. Let’s try real-life anecdote.

I had a high school English teacher named Mr. Stiff who once told me that as a kid, he believed it was not the people inside of the elevator, but the people outside of the elevator who did all the moving and transferring when you stepped into the car and pushed a button. The heavy steel door clanked shut, and then you waited patiently with funny feelings jumping around in your stomach while the actors in the room you’d just exited rushed about in a frenzy, moving all the furniture around and exchanging places, and then, Ring! The door opened and you re-entered the same room, now totally reimagined.

This feels like progress. Mr. Stiff’s youthful elevator fantasy seems to illustrate something essential about the fundamental mystery and promise of an elevator ride: the elevator is an in-between place. It exists between moments, between floors, between worlds. Riding an elevator isn’t something you do. It’s something in between the thing you were doing a minute ago and the thing you’ll be doing a minute henceforth. It’s an interlude. This frees us, for the duration of the journey, from some of the normal limits of time, space and conduct.

Elevators further collapse the clear delineations we normally make between public and private spaces, and that makes them just a little bit dangerous. You’re inside, but you’re outside, too. Nobody can see you – or can they? Like an empty library passageway or a locked toilet stall, an elevator is ripe with delectable and occasionally terrible possibility.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Anyone who has ever felt that naughty rumble deep inside when the elevator door “dings” shut knows what I’m talking about. We rub up against our fellow humanoids all day long in ways that are rarely sexy and frequently irritating. The flaccid truth is that the world is way too crowded. Other people are annoying, selfish, and often smell like farts, old cigars, or worse.

There’s something delicious about stealing a moment of respite from all that existential mucking about. It’s the perfect opportunity to dig for a nagging booger and catapult it shamelessly into space, to scratch at one’s genitals, to pass gas, to mutter some tuneless snippet of song to oneself, to sigh discontentedly.

If we are in the company of a romantic partner, an elevator ride is also a golden shot at that first or fifteen-hundredth kiss, and maybe a pinch or a grope if there’s still time left over.

For most of us, such undertakings constitute tiny victories. They are restorative, decompressive acts that put the wind back in our patched, sagging sails and carry us through to blessed end-of-day when we can finally be alone with our discontent.

They aren’t much. And yet they are enough, most of the time. Why, then, does the prospect of being both seen and unseen so compel a select few of us to do terrible, awful things?

If Freud were in either of those elevators, he’d probably chew on the end of an unlit cigar and mutter something about collective id and baser longings, about our dark, sticky insides forcing their ugly way out through any portal available.

If I were in either of those elevators with him, I’d nod politely at the good Herr Doktor, and then, just before the door dinged open on my designated floor, I’d toss out my own carefully constructed theory of personality: some people are just dickbags.

As usual, the simplest explanation may well be the correct one. Elevators tickle at our baser urges in subtle and powerful ways, but people probably don’t behave themselves better or worse in elevators simply because they are in elevators. Probably, some people just behave atrociously as a rule, consistently and frightfully, whenever they’re pretty sure nobody’s looking.

Most of the time, they’re right.

Once in awhile, they are, of course, wrong.

And once an even lesser while, they’re famous as well as wrong.

Then, the peek behind the curtain becomes an unintended closing act, an angry, ceremonial and very public divestment. One that is deserved, no doubt, as in the sad cases of Desmond Hague and Ray Rice, but ceremonial all the same.

“Dickbags,” I’d tell the Good Doctor as I clutched at my ovaries and went skipping over the threshold.

Complete. Utter. Free-standing. Dickbags.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of



74 thoughts on “Kicking Puppies and Taking Names: Why We Misbehave in Elevators

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    The same phenomenon seems to apply to people enjoying the safety of their cars or the anonymity of their keyboards. Anyone who drives has seem people behaving in ways they never would face-to-face. And the behavior of people on the interweb tubes is infamous.

    Apparently, at least for many, our Inner Asshole is just waiting for a chance to express itself.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Yes, well observed. I am now thinking about phone booths, personally. They share some of the same qualities as elevators, the main difference being they are teetering on obsolescence. As for keyboards: I used to work at newspapers and the question of whether we should allow anonymous commenters or require everyone to sign in to share their two cents was a subject of unending debate. The truth is, anonymity seemed to make people behave really terribly.

      • Budom says:

        I agree that “anonymity” does seem to create a sense of bad behavior for some people. I have also debated about anonymous commenters but when I see my (possible) spam list, I realize life might be crazier if I didn’t have a sign up system in place before readers can place their comments. Oh the agony! 😉

  2. Toddler_Mama says:

    Just yesterday I got on the elevator only to discover the dickbag who had just exited had pushed all of the buttons. Who does this? Great article. Perhaps next time, I will take the stairs.

  3. luciledegodoy says:

    Reblogged this on lucile de godoy, on life and commented:
    I love everything written in this article, from the brainy and humorous content to the unique and enticing writing style; even if it brings some people to thesaurus – hey, isn’t that great to know something new, even if just a word? It may open new horizons…reblogging Erin J. Bernard!

  4. luciledegodoy says:

    I love everything in this article, from a witty and humorous content to your unique writing style; even if it brings some people to thesaurus – hey, isn’t that great to know something new, even if just a word? It may open new horizons…reblogging!

    • erinjbernard says:

      I’ll admit I have a bit of a thesaurus habit. I just go crazy when I know there’s a perfect word out there and I haven’t hit upon it yet! The trick, I suppose, is to find those words without coming across as too high-minded. I love low-brow stuff, too! In fact, far more than high-brow. Maybe I should tell a poop joke to prove my salt? 🙂 Thanks for sharing your thoughts here and elsewhere.

      • luciledegodoy says:

        Don’t bother about thesaurus. I have the same feeling. I confess I love dictionaries. Seriously. I love words as much as like chocolate. English is not my mother tongue, nor Dutch, and I have to speak both on a daily basis, so, thesaurus is my best friend. I guess I can only write high-brow stuff in my mother tongue Portuguese. I don’t mind the high or low-brow, remember, I love words. And by the way, you proved you’re a good writer so you can also tell a poop joke! Looking forward to reading it as am sure it will be hilarious.

  5. Budom says:

    Reblogged this on Brouhaha Access and commented:
    I recently read a blog by Erin J. Bernard, written on September 9, 2014 titled, KICKING PUPPIES AND TAKING NAMES: WHY WE MISBEHAVE IN ELEVATORS. Bernard engages readers with a cozy humorous tone through out the blog. Her great insight on the psychology of elevator rides and the effect they have on human behavior. My favorite part of the blog is when she recalls famous elevator snafus most everyone can relate to. The elevator adventures are from past through present day.
    “You might encounter a beautiful new neighbor with copious, spilling décolletage, whom you will instantly charm and then just-as-quickly infuriate when you gaze into her vacant eyes and explain that everybody in the building’s only been nice her because her boobies are humongous. It’s not your fault – your long-suffering son has placed a birthday curse on you that acts as a much-needed truth serum – and it’s causing all sorts of antics to ensue (“Liar Liar”).” — Erin J. Bernard
    I found I was able to relate a lot, and I enjoyed hearing some historic information of elevators. Do yourself a favor, and read the article by Erin J. Bernard, who welcomes comments and discussion about the blog.

  6. Mike Andberg says:

    It’s all about the camera now. We can lie to Freud on his office couch all we want, but cameras do not lie. Thoughts then about misbehaving in the elevator are repressed forever.
    Nice post, Erin. I’ll have to check in some more. This was my first time reading you. No lie.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Subtle point, and a great one. I know people who have been paying therapists to believe their lies for years. We live in public, forever, now, and the truth becomes harder to deny. Thanks for checking, in Mike. Headed to your site now.

  7. ditchthebun says:

    Freud is an interesting choice. I am not entirely sure who I would choose, perhaps Tesla? At least then if it broke down he could probably fix it, plus that dude has an incredible mind 🙂 Science bitches haha.
    Or perhaps someone with multiple personalities? I get rather claustrophobic in packed elevators you see so I am thinking that if there were to be just me and one other person, but that other person had several personalities well then we would have a grand old entertaining time 🙂

    • erinjbernard says:

      How about Freud and Tesla together?! Tesla seems like he’d be a lot more useful in an electrical pinch. He’d be fiddling with wires and getting’ shit done while Freud sat in a corner fiddling with his cigar and passing judgments. We need doers and thinkers, both, I guess. 🙂

  8. Dee says:

    I thought it to be a long piece reading from my phone but was so engaging I can’t put it down … Nothing on style or wordings but the context of the article was point on.
    I may just write something about this topic in my blog one day — on why we act differently when we think nobody’s watching. Cheers.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Glad to hear the read was smart-phone-friendly! I’m very interested in our hidden selves vs. the selves we show to the world. Let me know if you do take up this topic!

  9. lsmithdixon says:

    “Kicking puppies”. Is that really necessary? In no context, is ” kicking puppies” an okay phrase. Animal cruelty is something that I do not take lightly. Please rephrase your title to some less cruel. That actually has to do with elevators.

    • erinjbernard says:

      I’m sorry that the title offended you. I was trying to point to the cruelty of the act itself and, I’ll admit, grab people’s attention. I am an animal-lover, too!

  10. tenderlytina says:

    Elevators can be fun but yes there are also some of the lowest specimens of humanity to be found when the doors slide closed. I try to take the stairs, it’s easier to escape.

  11. Daily Tumult says:

    What I like about this article is that it will change my perception of something that I do everyday at work: ride the elevator, nonstop it seems. Ah, but there is that moment of respite in the elevator, where you can sing and dance for a few floors then snap back to normal. Great piece.

  12. awax1217 says:

    Both incidences did occur in elevators but I am sure happened elsewhere on a continual basis. Bedrooms and bathrooms have secret walls with the actions imprinted on them. Words have been said in both that would burn ears and egos.

    • erinjbernard says:

      Yes, I think that’s the realization I was working towards as I got to the end of the essay, and you nailed it. It’s not about places. It’s about people.

  13. Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

    Additionally I dont need an elevator to kick my dog or punch out my man, as these activities are most cathartic when executed in the light of day in an exceedingly public space and preferably on the regular . All I do in the elevator is sweat profusely and pray that it doesn’t break down or come dislodged from the cable system responsible for its suspension above ground. I wonder if that means my vagina is extroverted & pessimistic, let’s ask Freud. 😛

      • Intergalacticbattlegirl says:

        Aww thank you! I do think there is a similarly snarky clever verbosity to our prose, i love myself so i tend to love those most like myself lol, even in text. Vain?! Me? Noooooo.
        Btw, i have no idea why your readership accuses you of thesaurusing, i looked for those vexing words, and could find none, i think your stuff is wonderfully grounded in real life language, much like mine 😛

  14. Karl Drobnic says:

    Then again, perhaps Herr Doktor Freud, too, might turn into a nightmare companion once the elevator door closed and embark on unspeakable acts once the door closed and you gazed at his hypnotic watch.

  15. Matthew Wright says:

    Freud was a curious dude. To me his theories tell us a lot about him and little about the rest of us. As you point out, sometimes people are just dickbags. Love the elevator as a place between worlds metaphor!

    • erinjbernard says:

      So true about Freud. He definitely had a patch on human behavior, although he was a million miles off at least as often as he hit on deep truths, I believe. I love what he has to say about groupthink, but his theories on women are pretty silly to my modern sensibilities.

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