Thursday, August 16, 2007
What's with the psychological need for the supernatural?
On Thursday night, some girlfriends and I gathered to go see a chick flick at the local dine and view movie theater. We saw Stardust. I suppose it's a sort of AdSense SmartSense advertising but every single solitary trailer was for a Chronicles of Narnia knockoff: young, idealistic person is "key" to some major adventure that involves passing from "regular life" into something supernatural, usually to save the world (or some world).
It's well-known in marketing that generics often do as well as if not better than originals. So when a formula for success is revealed, quickly rush to market with your version. It's trickier than that---sometimes you need to tinker with quality, dumb it down, make it cheaper, enliven it, take a fresh twist, etc. to better appeal to the masses---but that's the gist of it.
This affects any area of the market with a product or idea, but it is especially grueling in the creative world where instead of quality product driving the market, the market demand drives what you force your creative people to produce.
There are a lot of creative people out there, wanting to produce. It doesn't take much to have a topic or genre in mind and dig through your archives to find something you had and liked but lacked a market for at the time, or ask one of your current creative people to stretch into a new area. Naturally developmental producers of any type are going to focus on products that meet the current market demand aka fad or trend.
I've noticed that women's fiction, movies and television are particularly vulnerable to market piqued interest. My experience, of course, is with writers. The nice thing, generally, about writers is that they are often fairly affable about a change of genre or topic. The trouble is that sometimes where one excels is where one ought to stay. One can be exceptional in one genre and merely passable in another.
Therein lies the weakness for this marketing and developmental model: it relies too heavily on the belief that the current market interest is the sole demand, to the exclusion of the market being able to support any other interests, or one that was doing well already.
So the market is inundated with material on the current fad.
Right now, we're coming out of the crime fighting, action/adventure, suspense phase and into the supernatural phase. This transition has been happening for a while, and of course there is always some degree of demand and supply on other topics, but what I'm talking about is mainstream massive demand. Mass market.
It all starts with a smash hit product. Obviously the producers (be it movie, book, television, etc.) expected this product to profit, and possibly others were skeptical, but when anything hits smashing success level, it catches attention.
Consider a couple of fairly recent smash hits: Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings. Quest. Epic adventure. Virtue rewarded. A classic brought to life with stunning special effects.
Audiences and critics went crazy for it.
Now, we get a multitude of versions of these successes until someone comes along and breaks out of the box with something refreshing and new. Then, the producers sigh and say, ahhh they wish for [insert topic du jour] so let's make a slew of movies/books, shows exactly like that.
I understand wanting to ride a gravy train as long as possible.
But as a reader and a television and movie viewer, I'm not in marketing; I'm in it for the pleasure.
And I'm not too keen on this overemphasis on the supernatural (or any topic).
It seems that everywhere I look in books, television and movies we're inundated with the undead, the immortal, the bloodsuckers, the psychics, witches, otherworldly experiences, fairy tale heroes and heroines, ad infinitum.
I peruse book shelves at the library and bookstore, ooh ahh a new one from a writer I like; except, it's about vampires or some other supernatural topic. (Didn't we get past this phase ages ago when Cruise killed LeStat?) I pick up the book, give the TV show a try, or see the movie. I might even enjoy it a bit, but more often, I'm left a bit cold and unsatisfied. I miss what I liked about this talent in the first place, or I'm a little fatigued by the same topic over and over everywhere by everyone (or so it feels).
I'm a little past the "wanting to gorge myself until I am sick on one thing I like," part of life, I guess.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the frontrunners. Lord was great, Chronicles moving. But from the moment audiences reeled in shocked and horrified pleasure when Haley Joel Osment's character confessed, "I see dead people," we began being overwhelmed with creative endeavors (and I use those words loosely) about people who, well, see dead people. It's the current cottage industry, along with the rest of the supernatural topics and fairy tale epics.
I understand that even if the story doesn't star humans it is, nevertheless, a story about humanity. We are nothing if not consistent in our desire to anthropomorphize. I also understand that these epics are frequently feel good stories that reinforce and reassure us that we, as humans---and moreover, as humans with these beliefs and values---are right, and that if we are good, that is continue to subscribe to these beliefs, ultimately we'll be rewarded. Our values and actions have a purpose, thus we have a purpose. (Even if we don't have an adventure.)
It's magical thinking, in a way, a step beyond magical realism, and a means to feeling a degree of power and authority. That's something, I think, we never quite outgrow. And I don't say that as if it is a bad thing. However, it does provide a marvelous hook for the current market for supernatural entertainment.
Tonight I think I saw trailers for half a dozen versions of Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, and I'd be hard-pressed to recall a title or actor or even plot line for one of them.
What is happening in the current US American psyche that there is apparently such a market demand for the supernatural? Why is this the trend?
What is it about witches, warlocks, stars who turn into people, vampires, immortals and so forth that so appeals to us now?
Are we depressed? Are we uncertain? Do we want to be happier?
Traditionally, psychology maintains that a belief in the supernatural can bring about positive improvements in life and moods especially during trying times. In fact, some scientists theorize that it might provide an evolutionary advantage, possibly by providing an empathic ability to reason out the minds, hearts and beliefs of others.
Are we obsessing collectively about the supernatural in order to make sense out of the seemingly unreasonable hatred and disdain of our culture? Is it exacerbated because we are at war, with people whose hatred of our ways moves them to acts of horrible violence?
Do we subconsciously need reassurance that we don't deserve this hatred and violence? And do we seek that reassurance through epic morality tales?
What do you think? Have you noticed a trend of the supernatural in the performed arts? Do you believe it is our society trying to reason out an understanding of others?
Would movies such as Stardust, Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia have done as well prior to 2001? A decade ago?
The last time this genre was popular we were at war with a culture we knew very little about; the same one as now.
I do believe that we seek the supernatural currently to try to make reason out of a culturally mystifying and traumatic time. Additionally, I think it is also rather simple: we seek escapism. But most importantly of all, I believe because so many of these movies, books, and shows reinforce Western morals and beliefs, we seek approval and reinforcement of our own way of life.
What about you?
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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