Category Archives: World Building

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 Runnels and he practices decidedly… outdated therapy methods.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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Filed under Supernatural and Weird Fiction, Welcome to Munchen, World Building, Writing Craft

When Single Shines the Triple Sun, or, Stay Tuned! Major Dark Crystal Stuff Coming Next Week

Any Dark Crystal fans out there?

By now, you’ve surely watched the Restored Original Cut that was posted on Mental Floss last week. You haven’t? Stop what you’re doing and watch:

Justin and I watched this more or less immediately (#nerdalert). This weekend we’re going to sit down and formally discuss it, and next week, we’ll post a transcript of our geekish gabfest. Want to participate? Drop us a line in the comments!

(Oh, and by the way, is anyone else participating in the Dark Crystal Author Quest? Submissions are due December 31, so get off the Internet and get to work!)

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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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Filed under Place, Supernatural and Weird Fiction, Welcome to Munchen, World Building

“They say it’s a fish…originally.”

Justin and I are finishing up the third episode of Welcome to Munchen this week. At this point in our story, fourteen-year-old Meredith Halvorsen is getting ready for the annual Lutefisk Championship. Meredith has a bunch of…unusual hobbies and is a bit of odd duck because instead of rebelling against her local culture like a normal teenager, she embraces every lye-soaked bit of it.

The fun of world-building is doing the research, and in this case doing the research involved me watching a bunch of tutorials on how to make lutefisk. In this video from Lakes Country TV, I learned what Nelson’s customers expect in a good lutefisk, and what will keep them from coming back.

TRIGGER WARNING: If Rick Steves gives you the spinny eyeballs, you’re going to get really excited watching the host of Lakes Country TV. (See this video of a baby tasting chocolate for the first time and you’ll get an idea of how I feel about Rick Steves.)

BONUS: there’s a really big hint in this video about the supernatural infestation that Munchen’s about to experience. Guess what it is, and you win 900 pounds of free lutefisk.*

*Not really. I mean, what would you even do with all that lutefisk.

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Filed under Welcome to Munchen, World Building, Writing Craft