Twenty minutes into Falling for Christmas, Lindsay Lohan’s triumphant addition to the canon of Netflix Christmas films, there is a terrible accident. Lohan’s character, Sierra, an heiress-slash-influencer who eats caviar for breakfast and doesn’t know how to make a bed, is being proposed to by her influencer-slash-hairspray repository boyfriend, Tad, atop a stormy mountain peak, when a gust of wind sends her careening down the side of the mountain. In real life, this sort of incident would result in death or, at minimum, reduce Sierra’s insides to a pile of goo loosely contained in a shapeless skin sack. But because this is a fun family Christmas movie, Sierra’s post-proposal calamity results in just a few bumps and bruises, and what is arguably the holiday season’s signature affliction: amnesia.
As any connoisseur of Christmas rom-coms knows, there is apparently no better way to find true love at the holidays than to suffer a head injury that makes you temporarily forget everything about your life and who you are. Take A Christmas to Remember, the 2018 film in which Mira Sorvino develops amnesia after crashing her car into a tree, and then falls in love with a nice, widowed veterinarian from Colorado. Or A Gift to Remember, where a guy gets amnesia after a woman crashes into him on her bike, and then they fall in love. There’s also Second Chance Christmas, in which a woman loses her memory while she’s on the way to file for divorce. And who could forget Time for Them to Come Home for Christmas or Snow 2: Brain Freeze?
These memory-loss romances tend to unfold in much the same way. Our materialistic, careerist protagonist suffers some sort of snow-related head injury shortly before Christmas, and then is rescued by a hot, charitable stranger who nurses them back to health, with the two falling in love even though the protagonist doesn’t know who they are. (Which seems problematic to me but, okay!) Eventually, their memory is fully restored — usually as the result of some sort of confrontation with their previous, lesser life — and everyone lives happily ever after, with tons of comfy flannels and a healthy work-life balance.
Is any of this how amnesia actually works, though? Could an heiress-slash-influencer get amnesia after falling down a mountain and bonking her head on the side of the tree? And could her amnesia suddenly be cured by the appearance of her dad and fiancé at the fundraising party for her new lover’s failing hotel?
I posed these searing questions to doctors at some of the top hospitals and medical schools across the country. None of them responded to my interview requests, presumably because they were doing more important things, like saving people’s lives. A very nice woman from the Mayo Clinic’s communications department did send me the hospital’s information page on amnesia though, which says: “Movies and television tend to depict amnesia as forgetting your identity, but that’s not generally the case in real life.” In reality, people with amnesia usually know who they are, but may have trouble learning new information and forming new memories.
There is apparently no better way to find true love at the holidays than to suffer a head injury that makes you temporarily forget everything about your life and who you are.
There is short-term amnesia, known as transient global amnesia, which is closer to what the movies depict: Patients forget who they are, how they got somewhere. But this type of amnesia usually lasts under 24 hours. And as Dr. Derek Chong, the vice chair of neurology at Lenox Hill Hospital told USA Today, dissociative amnesia is “actually a psychological response to stress or trauma — not something caused by a physical injury to the head.”
This means that a more realistic depiction of amnesia in Falling for Christmas would have had Lindsay Lohan experiencing some kind of stress or trauma so devastating that she fully dissociates, then recovers her memory in less than a day. It would be challenging and pretty distasteful to try to cram a fun, flirty love story into that scenario, you have to admit.
Medical accuracy aside, why are we so obsessed with memory loss rom-coms in the first place? Filmmakers’ fascination with amnesia is nothing new: A 2004 paper in the British Medical Journal noted that amnesia appeared as a cinematic device as early as 1915, in silent films like Garden of Lies and The Right of Way. Film theorist David Bordwell estimated that there were over 70 films with amnesia plotlines in the 1940s. In an essay published in Lapham’s Quarterly in 2017, Bordwell suggested that the memory loss plot was not “a symptom of audience anxieties,” but simply a “repliable narrative device.” Stories need tension and gaps in knowledge to keep audiences engaged, and memory lapses are an easy way to do that. Plus, they can lead to fun misunderstandings, like when Lindsay Lohan realizes that she doesn’t know how to make a bed, or crack an egg. Zany!
The emotional pull of holiday amnesia movies seems to go even deeper, however. Maybe we, as adults, believe on some level that the only way for us to access the pure, innocent wonder that Christmas used to inspire in us as children is to wipe out all of our dreary memories of, like, paying taxes, and commuting to work, and settling into a life that is fine but not quite what we dreamt of for ourselves. Maybe we like to imagine what it would be like to connect with someone without being burdened by the baggage of our past experiences. And maybe someday we'll explain all of this to a nice, widowed veterinarian from Colorado who loves us even though our pesky memories are intact and we think Christmas is just sort of fine. That probably wouldn't make for a great movie, though.