Here’s a visual: You find yourself in a situation that you know you have to escape from. A barrier suddenly appears in the distance, hastening your predicament. However, every step you take seems to create a new barrier. The feeling of being trapped only increases as the walls close in as you keep progressing, but you persist. The light of the end is in sight, and you know the crushing isolation you’ll experience if the walls win and surround you. Finally, you make it to the exit; everything fades to white, blinding you. When you can see again, you’ve returned to where you started. You know you have to escape because you’ve run this cycle countless times before.
Was that visual an extra-short horror story, the new YA dystopian premise inspired by “The Maze Runner” series or an extended metaphor for the traumatic situations we find ourselves needing to escape from in stagnation, isolation or determination? Well, I was musing about the sordid existence of the antagonist in “Cat Trap” — an online puzzle game — the same way millions of TikTok users have for nearly a month. Its premise is simple: You wall in a cat trying to escape a grid of green hexagons. The darkened hexagons are the only areas the cat cannot jump to, so the player must click on a hexagon, darkening enough to surround and therefore catch the cat. It’s a simple enough game of cat-and-mouse (pun unintended) — well, cager-and-cat — to be surprisingly addictive as frustration builds over your target escaping again and again, resulting in a cathartic gratification at finally achieving success. TikTok has echoed these feelings, capturing users playing the game, often pausing it at the moment of victory or failure to relish or wallow in those emotions. Others have drawn up art of the cat being trapped within cyberpunk-esque hexagonal walls, while others — myself included — contemplate on its sorry predicament. The most oft-chosen song to accompany these works is Vera Lynn’s famed WWII classic “We’ll Meet Again,” the chorus chiming in at the video’s climax.
Why such a uniform theme song? Looking back at the history of the song, Lynn initially sang the wartime classic as the perfect sign off for her performances. As the singer gained popularity, the tune became a signature part of her repertoire. It’s perhaps best known for raising the morale of Allied Forces during World War II by reminding those in uniform of the reunions they were fighting toward. So how did it evolve to its current use on TikTok? The song’s theme of hope prevailing in the uncertainty of the world has endured in its covers by Frank Sinatra and in Pink Floyd’s allusions, but modern interpretations of the song have taken a darker shift: Stanley Kubrick famously ended his apocalypse film “Dr. Strangelove” with it, “Stranger Things” used the theme for a horrifying reveal and even Disney World’s Tower of Terror uses it as a haunting background. The interpretational shift started before Kubrick’s choice, however, when BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service selected the piece during the Cold War as one of the uplifting anthems to be played in the event of nuclear doomsday.
Even in the more unsettling takes on Lynn’s iconic song, its theme of persistent hope prevailing even when that reunion is twisted. Its resurgence in the pandemic’s popular culture came from a re-release of the song of Lynn duetting with Welsh operatic singer Katherine Jenkins in support of England’s essential healthcare workers. The song made its way to TikTok to imagine reuniting with loved ones after the pandemic or potential darker scenarios resulting from the worldwide crisis. In the “Cat Trap” trend, however, the song can be seen as characterizing an antagonistic relationship between the evasive animal and the player. We can liken the situations to the parables of philosophy and physics — us and the animal on an endless Sisyphean journey to best the other, or we are Schrödinger taking ownership of the cat when it sits at a stalemate with us, neither free nor trapped but both at once. After suffering through so much shared isolation, perhaps those participating on TikTok are putting this cat through our pandemic-inflicted pains. Through cases, lockdowns, vaccines, variants, boosters — it constantly feels like the end is just in sight, but as soon as escape is achieved, the cycle starts anew. Cases go down, mask mandates are lifted, people stop being safe, cases go back up, restrictions are back in place. Another day, another disappointment.
Many students know March 13, 2020 as the date in the U.S. that schools shut down countrywide due to the pandemic — a break that started as two weeks off, then a month, and now it’s been almost two years since daily life has been irrevocably changed. As an immunocompromised individual, the level of isolation between quarantining and social distancing in itself felt overwhelming when compared to others’ experiences. With the majority of my family overseas, being isolated from them hurt further. To be trapped in situations like this, or worse, is not something I’d wish on anyone, and I’d wager this sentiment is shared by almost everyone.
So, why would we choose to virtually enact that pain onto something else, especially when we’ve waxed poetic about the subject’s suffering? To many, the simple answer is that it’s just a game. But to those who empathize with the animal, I think there’s still hope there. The cat cycles eternally, determined to keep slipping from our clutches even when trapped. Even though you know it’s programmed to do this, you could still admire its tenacity to march forward into uncertainty even when uncertainty is endless. The philosophy of Sisyphus’s Boulder and the problem of Schrödinger’s Cat can find hope in each other — you don’t know whether or not you’ll find happiness in pushing the boulder until you start walking up the hill. Perhaps that’s what TikTok finds in Vera Lynn crooning over “Cat Trap” — we’ll meet again. The day doesn’t have to be sunny, but we’ll thwart the walls of the world to meet again. After all, we’ve done it so many times before.
Daily Arts Contributor Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.