In my early twenties, I lost my first major job, and with it, the majority of my income. That night, almost too wrapped up in my own sense of failure to function, I attended a party where a friend lined her walls with pillows and the ceilings with multicolored blankets to create the ultimate bedding fort. Generally, I’m not one to use the distraction method for dealing setbacks. My relationship with anxiety is only slightly less contentious than say, the Hatfield vs. McCoy dustup. But by the end of the night, clad in my best pajama pants and surrounded by a dozen or so friends, each who brought additional blankets and pillows to add to the structure, I had to admit I felt pretty damn okay.
Even now as a so-called functional adult, (insomuch as I generally succeed at maintaining interpersonal relationships, paying taxes, and limiting public crying to airplanes), I’ve found that pillow and blanket forts still have the power magically calm my jagged nerves. This is the Danish concept of hygge distilled to its most practical form. Why wouldn’t I want to express my frustrations in the most comfortable setting possible? Imagine screaming into a pillow. Now imagine screaming while surrounded by a wall of pillows. See, better already!
Maybe it’s a byproduct of being a millennial—a generation that grew up being told we’re entitled even as we cope with the fact that jobs, finances, and romantic prospects are near non-existent. (Less importantly, we’re also the main demographic of the now defunct TV show Community, which devoted no less than three episodes to blanket forts, pillow forts, and a war between the two factions.) But an informal text-message poll of my friends shows I’m not alone in my fascination with fashioning bedding into makeshift structures. Heidi, 35 stages regular movie nights that involve cuddling with her dog Milo. Josh, 31 claims that his ideal Saturday involves a pillow fort, Bloody Mary, and a Wes Anderson movie. (It’s probably no mistake that the filmmaker’s 2001 ode to arrested development, The Royal Tenenbaums features a pup tent.) For the past few years, a friend of a friend has hosted a yearly Independence Day party, appropriately nicknamed “The Fort of July,” where she turns her entire house and garden into a blanket fort. And Ashley, 36, told me I had to point out that a blanket fort without fairy lights is no blanket fort at all.
Whether we realize it or not, the act of building a pillow fort is like a big hug for our society-bruised psyches. And even better news: science is on the side of any adult looking to temporarily regress. Although, as Pam Shaffer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, makes clear, the word shouldn’t be seen in a negative light—provided our trips back to a simpler time don’t interfere with day-to-day life.
“Pillow forts are very comforting because they’re very containing,” she explains. “Just like personal boundaries make you feel safe, physical boundaries will make you feel very safe. Just being in a finite space enclosed in nice squishy things…There are people who when they experience anxiety feel like they’re not really in their bodies. Like they’re floating above their experience. Forts are really good for people who enjoy deep pressure massages or sensory experiences like weighted blankets. They’re actually very similar because they give you that sense of a finite space on top of you.”
Confession time: In recent months, my fort-making game has fallen off, relegated to the occasional pillow nest, which I construct when I travel as a comfortable place to answer my email. And, if I’m being honest, as a way to put all the excess hotel bedding to work that usually goes unused.
But while I may tell myself I’m too lazy to pull a chair into the mix, or grab a few couch cushions in the name of expanding my empire and putting a roof over my head, Erik Lindberg, who works as a project manager at an architecture firm in San Diego, tells me that’s not necessary. Yes, you have to think about things like exits, location, and weight bearing (tips he helpfully included using the kind of language one gets an engineering degree to untangle), but all that can be done without adding in any additional non-bedding resources.
“Theoretically, with the right design and appropriate materials, one would not need to bring in any outside aid for their fort,” he tells me via email. “However, there have been many tragic fort collapses as this area of architecture is woefully unregulated, being particularly problematic in areas with high seismic activity. Still, as pillow technology continues to improve, these structures are steadily gaining in safety and efficiency.” (Official plug: In case our corporate overlords are reading, please assume he’s talking about Casper pillows.)
Yes, there are still—and will always be—times when I’m more tempted to smother my inner child with a pillow than build her a blanket fort. But there’s something to be said for low-cost, low effort, ultra-cozy coping mechanisms. Now if you pardon me, it’s time to press pause on the feuding southern families in my head. I’ve got some fairy lights to hang.