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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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Liv said…
"we seek approval and reinforcement of our own way of life."

yes, particularly when there is so much dissent, and a high level of background noise.

i am not a fantasy/supernatural/ sci-fi fan at any level, but i do recognize the genre for its help in finding a little escape time.
Unknown said…
Other than the success of LOTR leading to the inundation of similar movies, I'm not sure what else is leading the supernatural charge. Of course, as a lifelong sci-fi/fantasy fan, I'm probably a little disinclined to analyze the trend when it is currently trending towards my interests! ;)

I had a mythology class in college and while it didn't specifically address this question, it did touch on how society perceives myth. The professor's belief was that how a culture/society portrayed mythic stories was a clue into the nature of that society. For example, a society which might portray, in visual art or verse, Prometheus in a negative way might be a more authoritative one. (I'm not explaining it very well.) So, I think there is definitely something in the idea that psychologically, the wealth of supernatural movies/television shows/books might be reflecting something in our communal psyche right now.

I'd love to see some numbers on all this--what percentage of movies right now are sci-fi/fantasy themed. (I'm sure some production company has them)


I just read Stardust earlier this summer not realizing it would be out soon as a movie. I liked the book but Neil Gaiman has an interesting writing style that I think would be hard to translate onto the screen. What did you think of the movie itself?


What's the weather status?
Julie Pippert said…
It might just be my usual channels suddenly all leaned into the sci fi/fantasy/supernatural direction but it feels like the lead.

Someone better than me at this moment will hopefully know stats...I don't. I admit it. I wish I could help because that's interesting, M-L.

Even if it isn't as lopsided as it seems to me, there is still a mainstream popular support of fantasy films about supernatural right now to the smash hit level. And I think that's significant. So I agree, Liv.

The mythology class sounds interesting too. Good point about portrayal.

Umm the movie. I thought it was good. I kept waiting to roll my eyes and be disappointed but I actually found myself invested in the story and characters. I admit my expectations were low, but I did enjoy it...felt it was time and money well-spent. That's pretty high praise from me these days as both are in short supply.

I didn't read the book, though. I'd be intrigued to hear something from someone who read and saw Stardust.

it's sunny and nice here...we're possibly going to a water park.
Aliki2006 said…
I wrote about this some time ago, mainly about TV (Heroes, etc.) I'll try and find the post. I had the same thought--that post 9/11 life has created in us a desire for the supernatural, a desire to hide behind fantasy as a way to empower ourselves during a time when we feel particularly at risk, or vulnerable.
Julie Pippert said…
Oh Aliki, did you? YEAH find that post and get the link.

I'll add in a reference (but if it seems like I forgot it's just because I am leaving shortly).

What did you think about it as a tool for trying to reinforce affirmation of our ways and as an insight into others and their ways?

Okay okay I'll be patient and wait for the link LOL.

(And FTR, I'll feel like eight kinds of idiot if I read it, and replied to it!)
thailandchani said…
This is a fascinating topic.. and I have some scattered thoughts. Will this post be up for the weekend?


Lawyer Mama said…
Hmm, I'd never really thought about it, but it makes sense psychologically to seek out escapism during times of turmoil.
Gwen said…
I think a lot of the supernatural stuff is wish fulfillment: we wish that we lived in a world where we could be certain that good really will triumph over evil, even though most empirical evidence suggests that the contrary is true. These movies also reinforce the idea that life after death exists, that there is a greater purpose to suffering: these are now, and have always been, throughout history, enormously comforting ideas. I also think the inundation of which you speak is creative laziness.

Have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? It kind of addresses what you're talking about: it exposes the need for magical thinking in a world of horror yet also admits its powerlessness to do anything about it. It's good shit, man.
Christine said…
gwenn--pan's labyrinth was great and a very well put together movie about the subject.

I have definitely noticed this trend on tv over the last 10 years. Really it started with Buffy, i think. But now everything from Lost to The Ghost Whisperer is about the mysterious and the supernatural.

i think overall, though, i am biased on the subject because i have always been a fan of supernatural/horror/fantasy subjects for books, movie, and tv. this has been since i was a very young child. maybe that says a lot about my need for something bigger than myself. or maybe it just says nothing; only that i like to be scared or indulge in unusual mysteries, or like special effects. Not sure.
Kyla said…
Excellent theory. I've never really thought of it outside of the terms of capitalism. If it makes money, do it. Right now, it definitely is making money. It does make sense in terms of escapism and diving into fictional problems to avoid the flesh and blood type.
Christine said…
one more questions. . .does this relate, do you guys think, to the current popularity of games like second life (which has a fantasy element) or other sci-fi computer games? D & D has been around fr a while, but there does seem to be a lot more fantasy games now a days.
S said…
Something else too, I've noticed, is that the horror/supernatural genre has gotten way more gruesome. Blood and guts everywhere.

I prefer movies that scare subtly.
kaliroz said…
Interesting. Really interesting.

I've always been fascinated by myth. By supernatural. But never out of a need to escape, but as a way to better understand myself. Humanity. Myths are little more than man's attempt to make sense of the chaos that is his world.

I LOVE Stardust. The book. I read it many a summer ago when I was in love with a man who was in love with me. We burned to ashes, but I still have the book. (With the drawing he did on the inside cover.)

And what Gwen said ...

"Have you seen Pan's Labyrinth? It kind of addresses what you're talking about: it exposes the need for magical thinking in a world of horror yet also admits its powerlessness to do anything about it. It's good shit, man."

Amen, sistah.
Gwen said…
I'm with Slouching Mom. I have this half baked theory that violence--against women--is the new pornography. We throw our hands over our eyes in horror over nudity, sex and swearing and yet react much less puritanically to the new genre of torture horror flick.

I am curious about this Neil Gaiman now. Must add to reading list.
thailandchani said…
In the overall sense, Gwen has said much of what I would have said.

As Joseph Campbell said, it is a way of pondering the imponderable.

I never see those movies. Honestly, I'm not much of a movie watcher with the exception of several favorites I've gathered over the years. Fantasy has never been a genre that appeals to me at all.

It's not likely depression, though.. that attracts people to that kind of thing. It's numbness.


Julie Pippert said…
Gwen, yeah I agree.

Okay on list:

Neil Gaiman's book
Pan's Labyrinth

Chani, aces on citing Joseph Campbell. BIG fan of his. I wish my brain had linked that I was actually thinking of his myth theory when I wrote this.

I'm just a bit scattered.

I think this post could have been MUCH better. Maybe I should have waited LOL.
River said…
I love the sci-fi/fantasy stuff and watch it purely for entertainment. Anything that keeps me interested and/or laughing is good. And SLOUCHING MOM? I love the gory blood and guts stuff too. It isn't real so it doesn't bother me. My kids all enjoy this stuff too. When they were younger they used to beg to be allowed to stay up and watch something horrifying because "we like to get scared" They never had a single nightmare either.
kaliroz said…
Totally agree with Gwen and whoever else said violence toward women is a new form of pornography.

And that's about all I have to say for now. :)
mpearl said…
I was going to post on this exact movie. Obviously the subject matter is something that interests a lot of people. In general, I thought the movie was awesome. My husband saw it with my 11yr. old and then took me to see it the next day. My son knew it was book, unlike myself. He loves all fantasy/sci-fi. He said it was better then the latest Harry Potter movie. I like movies with a positive theme and that you can take older children to see. You brought up a good point about the era in which these movies become popular. I think there are certain times in life we need
" reinforcement of our own way of life". Movies, for the most part, are about escapism for me. I love movies. But when a movie totally takes me away and makes me think, well those are the ones that deserve real credit. It comes to no surprise that many of these movies tend to be books or plays first. Great subject.

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