As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have something of a mild obsession with Finding Bigfoot, the Animal Planet “reality” show about people stumbling through the woods, NOT finding bigfoot. It goes along with my mild obsession with Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, a show about people stumbling through scary places, NOT finding ghosts. While neither show has actually discovered an iota of worthwhile data in their areas of exploration, and it’s far too easy to poke fun at the shows and how flawed they are in their execution and conclusions, that’s now why I enjoy these shows.
I enjoy them primarily because they demonstrate the value of skepticism. I’m not talking about the shallow sort of skepticism often displayed on these types of shows. Too often, skepticism is equated with non-believer when in reality it’s simply an acknowledgement that jumping to conclusions isn’t the best way to really think about the universe. These sort of reality shows tend to be full of conclusion jumping. One of my favorites from Finding Bigfoot was when they saw a lone horse running around in the middle of the desert. Horses don’t run around for no reason (although they actually do now and then). The horse must’ve been scared by something to make it start running (unproven assumption). And since horses don’t get scared easily, it must’ve been a bigfoot that scared it. The pile of assumptions is so fragile that it falls apart under the smallest dissection, but to those who want to believe them, it serves as compelling “evidence.”
But more recently, my favorite justification for encounters with bigfoot and ghosts is the “I felt scared” story. There are variations on it, but it basically comes down to “I was in the woods. I felt very scared all of a sudden. I don’t get scared very often. Therefore: Bigfoot.”
As a writer, I find these sort of stories to be most amusing because I make a living (hopefully) making people feel things that they have no rational reason to feel. We need only look at how much humans enjoy fiction to realize how easily our feelings mislead or confuse us. Fiction, in particular, requires that humans can feel something even when they know what they are experiencing is an entirely manufactured experience.
Storytelling is the art of manufacturing a story. All the best stories trigger some emotional response. I have visceral, enraged reactions still to Man of Steel, and I still thrill whenever I hear a song from the Transformers: The Movie. But why should I? Neither of these things exist, and I am well aware of that. Yet I have a huge emotional investment in both.
That’s the power of stories. They don’t have to be real to make us feel something. We know that, underneath it all, they are the creations of people meant to manipulate us, and we willingly participate. We seek such feelings out. We want to feel them, and often, storytelling is the best way of exploring those feelings and ideas. It doesn’t matter that they’re fiction. It doesn’t matter that Superman never existed or that Optimus Prime and Megatron are the spawn of a line of toys. It only matters if we feel it, and we very much want to feel it.
We’re all different. I’m not much into horror, and I realized recently that part of that was that I don’t really feel horror fiction. It doesn’t stir anything within me. I’m not disgusted by it, nor offended. I simply don’t experience the emotional pull that makes it worthwhile to those who do. I can’t say why. I can only say that I have not been frightened by a scary story in decades. I know perfectly sensible grown men who have trouble going to sleep after watching a horror flick, and it is that sort of gut reaction that makes them fans of the genre. My efforts to understand the horror genre is hampered by own muted response. I can’t really tell you what makes a great horror story because I haven’t ever truly experienced that. And that stems from my own self, not necessarily from the stories themselves.
On the other hand, I love monster movies. Not because they’re necessarily scary, but because the mere sight of a strange creature–villainous or heroic, big or small, cheap rubber costume or cutting edge CG–will usually get my attention. It often isn’t enough by itself, but it can certainly work in a story’s favor.
My favorite movie last year was Pacific Rim, and there’s no doubt the mecha versus kaiju element of it went a long way toward that feeling. I believe the film is actually stellar in all its other elements as well, but I also admit that any movie where a robot punches a 100 foot tall gorilla is going to get a lot of bonus points from me. On the other hand, some people feel about kaiju the way I feel about horror. They might tolerate it, find it mildly enjoyable now and then, but they’ll never experience that emotional punch. And that’s cool.
This is why the “I felt fear = ghosts must be real” argument falls flat to my ears. Every time I’ve seen Pacific Rim, read Walt Simonson’s Classic run on Thor, or think about the many awesome adventures of Tarzan, I felt something very real. But my thrill at watching a giant robot save the human race from evil aliens wasn’t dulled by the reality that none of it actually happened. Emotion doesn’t care about reality. Emotion operates on its own rules.
True, if we get too out of sync with our emotions and reality, we end up with all manner of disorders that make life more difficult. But even the healthiest of us doesn’t exist in perfect emotional alignment with the world. We still get enraged unduly by slight traffic snarls and overjoyed by the tiniest kindnesses at the right time. Some of us (who shall remain nameless) can literally rant for an hour about how terrible Man of Steel was or how incredibly frustrating X-Men: First Class was. Because stories matter. Stories effect us. And once you accept that, you realize that, for better or worse, how easily our emotions are manipulated by the world around us and by ourselves, often unknowingly.
So telling me you felt scared because you were in a dark and scary place doesn’t tell me there’s a ghost around. Saying you were terrified a shadow you saw in the woods doesn’t make that shadow a bigfoot. It just tells me you’re human, and for a lot of so-called paranormal mysteries, I see no deeper explanation necessary than that.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,