Category Archives: Supernatural and Weird Fiction

Mesmerism, Phrenology and Spiritualism: A Guide to 19th Century Psychology

We have a therapist character in the Munchen show. His name is Dr. Runnels and he practices decidedly… outdated therapy methods.

In fact, he is a mesmerist.

Mesmerism was a method of psychological and physical healing developed by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a Viennese doctor. Only Mesmer didn’t call his technique mesmerism. He called it animal magnetism. Which had nothing to do with our present understanding of that term meaning “sex appeal.”

No, to Mesmer, animal magnetism referred to an invisible fluid that circulated through the universe and in and out of people. Disturbances in the fluid’s flow led to physical and psychological unrest.

To restore proper flow, Mesmer would have patients sit across from him, their knees touching his. He’d move his hands over parts of their bodies, including such sensitive regions as the diaphragm, in sessions that sometimes lasted hours. (Unsurprisingly, this led to at least one scandal: He was accused of having sexual relations with a young female patient he was treating for blindness.)

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The goal of Mesmer’s sessions was to produce a “crisis” — a physical convulsion believed to lead to an emotional or physical breakthrough. In this way, it harkens back to the practice of exorcism, which Mesmer had studied early in his life. At the end of a session, to relax the patient, Mesmer would play a little tune the glass armonica — a fascinating instrument about which I’ll blog later.

Mesmerism produced a trance-like state in the patient, but it was different from hypnosis in that the sessions were mostly non-verbal. Still, it is understood as a precursor to contemporary hypnosis in that it lured patients into precognitive states. It also has clear connections to such practices as reiki and energy healing, which are now experiencing a boom in popularity in the West.

A commission including Benjamin Franklin studied mesmerism and animal magnetism for several years. The commission debunked the techniques as being based on nothing more than the power of suggestion. But mesmerism remained popular until the tail-end of the 19th century, when Sigmund Freud’s “talking cure” (aka psychoanalysis) revolutionized treatment of the emotionally disturbed.

The tail-end of the 19th century, by the way, was the real watershed moment in modern psychology because it’s when Sigmund Freud developed his revolutionary “talking cure” (aka psychoanalysis), from which derive most current non-medical forms of psychological treatment.

All this got me thinking about other pre-Freudian psychological belief systems. Here’s are three others. Are we missing any? Let us know in the comments!

Phrenology. Famous from the scads of illustrations available in antique shops, phrenology alleged that the shape of human skulls reflected the shape of people’s brains — and therefore revealed their personalities. There was no associated therapy (haha, skull reshapers), but it was wildly popular as a means of gaining self-insight. Some people even consulted phrenologists about the compatibility of prospective spouses or employees. (Bonus: The device in the video below was made in Wisconsin — not too far from Munchen!)

Physiognomy. Similar to phrenology, this was the idea that face shapes revealed personality traits. It dates back as far as Chaucer, who calls it “fisnamy” in The Canterbury Tales. It experienced a brief revival of attention a few years back, when several studies found that people could identify the faces of gay men in randomly selected photographs. Here’s a decidedly Midwestern-flavored talk show about physiognomy, even though it’s from the Bay Area:

Spiritualism. Perhaps the defining proto-pscyhotherapy of the late 19th century was spiritualism, in which the living communicated with the dead. It’s still popular today, as evidenced by the Lily Dale community of spirit mediums in western New York and the popularity of such traveling psychics as John Holland.

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Playing Buffy: The BtVS Board Game

*Warning: The following review may induce nostalgia and an urge to trawl ebay for overpriced vintage board games.

As a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I was thrilled when a friend told me recently that there is a board game based on the show. Crazily enough, it’s called Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Board Game.

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The game is long out of print, having first been produced in 2000. Copies now sell on ebay for upwards of $50.

My friend was fortunate enough to find his copy at a thrift store in upstate New York a few years ago. Kindly, he brought it over to my house last weekend for Scary Game Night.

The game is mostly delightful to play. Like Buffy the TV show, it takes hard-core geek culture conceits (mythology, role-playing, mock battles) and humanizes them, makes them accessible to the masses. That’s also what we hope to do with our show.

In fact, Buffy the game is a kind of lite version of Arkham Horror — the cooperative fantasy role-playing game based on the universe of H.P. Lovecraft.

Much as I love Arkham, it is not for the faint-hearted. There are more than a dozen possible good-guy roles, many monsters, and a Byzantine system of rules that requires a 40-page instruction book to explain.

Buffy’s much simpler. It has exactly four good guy roles: Buffy, Willow, Xander and Oz. (Here they are with Giles, the librarian, who in the game is a “helper.”)

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As in Arkham, these players collaborate to defeat a Big Bad — in Buffy’s case, one of the villains from the first four seasons of the show. If you win, Sunnydale stays safe for another season. If you lose, the Hellmouth gapes open and All Becomes Darkness.

Of course, many devoted Buffy fans from around the Internet have devised “expansion” scenarios evoking the show’s later seasons or specific episodes. Here is a site that even gives you additional pawns to print out.

I played Oz, who’s pretty much useless unless he’s in werewolf mode. Then he’s Awesome and gets to kill every evil thing in sight.

Gameplay does a remarkable job of mimicking the action on the show itself. There are fights, yes, but players must also go around doing “research” in the school library and at the house of Buffy’s “watcher,” Giles. They get help from secondary characters like Joyce, Cordelia and Anya. There’s even an Angel character who flips from evil to good at a moment’s notice.

My one complaint is that unlike in Arkham, one of the players must play the Big Bad. This undermines the convivial, “we’re all in this together” spirit the game might otherwise have — because one person around the table is at odds with everyone else.

Still, the chance to travel back to Sunnydale is well worth a Nerd Night — if you can find a copy without breaking the bank.

Anyone else heard of this game or — haha — want to sell me their copy cheap?

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Norwegian dance is the new square dance (in Munchen)

As we build the world of Munchen, we keep making fun discoveries about the unusual real things that exist in this world. I especially love when this happens organically — when we’re writing out a particular scene, for example, or need to flesh out a character. Christine wrote last week about the strange case of lutefisk, and this week I made another find: The Norwegian Dancers of Stoughton High School.

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I discovered the Dancers as I was writing a scene for Meredith and Miles, our two teenage misfits. At first I had them doing a square-dancing unit, which I remember doing (and sometimes enjoying — though I’d never admit that!). Then I thought — but wait, Munchen is a Norwegian-settled town that still very much shows its Scandinavian roots. Maybe they don’t square dance. Maybe they… Well, is there such a thing as Norwegian dance? I Googled “high school norwegian dance” — and voila. There they were. The colorfully costumed kids of Stoughton High. Sometimes synchronicity seems to be on our side. I rewrote the scene to have Meredith and Miles doing the Norwegian springar dance, sometimes known as the pols dance, similar to the polka.

This Stoughton troupe is serious. They perform all over the country, and getting a spot on the team is competitive. Tryouts are in April, and the only open spots come about when a senior graduates. Another type of dance they perform is the halling dance, a wedding dance in which young Norwegian men compete to perform the most impressive acrobatics. Here’s a video of some of the troupe’s greatest hits:

All this gave me the idea that Miles — poor, picked-on Miles — has a strange knack for Norwegian dance. His exploration of this unusual skill will lead him to get into all kinds of adventure — and of course trouble — as the season goes on.

Here’s to strange regional high school activities!

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H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of world-building

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a huge contemporary following. Everyone who’s into scary writing knows that. There are scores of authors, both amateur and professional, who’ve continued to write stories in, or inspired by, the elaborate universe of monsters and secret cults and decrepitude he created.

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Lovecraft’s reputation has only grown since his death. His influence can be seen clearly in all the current masters of geeky horror and fantasy, including Joss Whedon, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.

Why has he stayed so popular? We certainly can’t credit his prose, which on a good day was overstuffed, on a bad  maddeningly pseudo-intellectual. (From The Call of Cthulu: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein…” etc. etc. etc.)

No, I’d wager it’s because Lovecraft was an early master — maybe even the inventor — of the storytelling technique known as world-building. Lovecraft was among the first authors to create a complex alternate reality and then revisit it over and over. Readers could follow him to this reality and escape their everyday concerns. All this without needing to get drunk or high — though I’m sure some people chose to do that, too!

Fast forward to today: World-building is the defining technique of contemporary popular fiction. Think of just about any recent blockbuster book, movie or TV show. Chances are it’s set in a parallel fantasy world. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Ender’s Game, all the superhero stories — the list goes on. Like Lovecraft’s work, these stories all take place in made-up worlds. And like Lovecraft’s work, they’re all issued in installments, so that once people have learned about a world they can immerse themselves in it over and over again — deepening their understanding of that universe each time.

All this is not even to mention the wildly popular media of video games and comic books. These are the true paragons of world-building, incorporating visual and sometimes aural components. (Hmm, the idea of the “game,” or competition, is clearly also a strong theme in contemporary storytelling. Good idea for a future post.)

What do you think? Did Lovecraft invent world-building? Is that the main reason he remains so popular today? –Justin

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Spooks, Character and Place: The Somewhat Lost Art of John Bellairs

blue_figurineGrowing up, my very favorite author was John Bellairs (1938-1991). He wrote middle-grade and young adult novels about hapless young protagonists (mostly boys) who end up trapped in supernatural adventures.

It saddens me that so few people remember Bellairs today. Oh sure, there’s an online fan community — a really great one. But he’s hardly a household name. He’s unknown even to many of my geek friends, the people who by all rights should have been salivating over his books right along with me during their awkward teen years.

Bellairs wrote great yarns. They always built to flashy climactic battles. In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, plump Lewis Barnavelt had to duke it out with the ghost of a dead sorceress in his basement. In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the spirit of an insane priest possesses poor Johnny Dixon. Johnny ends up at the top of a mountain battling for control of his soul.

The icing on the cake? Edward Gorey drew the covers and frontispieces of all of his books. Yeah, Edward Gorey! I get chills even now, thinking about those spindly drawings of skeletons and creeps and swirling leaves.

Joyful were the days I’d go to my local library and see Bellairs’ latest book on the shelves, all crisp and shiny in its plastic jacket cover.

Looking back now, I think the appeal of the books for me lay not just in their exciting plots but in their characters and impeccable sense of setting.

My favorite Bellairs character was Professor Childermass, Johnny’s neighbor and ally on most of his adventures. Professor Childermass was so cranky and curmudgeonly that he kept a Fuss Closet in his house — a room where he retreated during dark moods to bellow obscenities and beat the padded walls.

Bellairs’ heroes and heroines were often displaced misfits — actual or practical orphans who lived far from their parents. Lewis Barnavelt lived with his uncle and Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents. These living situations made literal the isolation and loneliness of adolescence — especially the kind of adolescence experienced by many young book readers. J. K. Rowling would take a lesson years later.

And then there were the aging, cozy-but-spooky small towns where the novels took place. Bellairs himself had lived in both the Midwest and New England, and he used his memories of both regions to great atmospheric effect.

Lewis Barnavelt and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger lived in New Zebedee, Michigan; Johnny Dixon in Duston Heights, Massachusetts; and Anthony Monday in Hoosac, Minnesota.

All three towns were fictional but based on real places. They all featured the shabby churches, factories, echoey Victorian houses and sepulchral autumns that so dominate the memories of anyone who’s grown up in the American East or Midwest. Of course ghosts and black magic existed in these places. How could they not? And in many ways, the settings were more haunting than the supernatural events themselves.

Bellairs was heavily influenced by the work of early 20th century horror writer M.R. James. James invented the “antiquarian ghost story,” in which the inciting incident was often the discovery of some ancient and mysterious object.

In turn, he was a pioneer of the “supernatural realism” so popular in film, TV and novels today. He’s well overdue for a reconsideration. And please, when that happens: Get rid of the cartoon covers on the current editions of his books and bring back Edward Gorey!

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