Invasion of the ImaginationMICHAEL D. O'BRIEN
For all those teachers and parents who feel uneasy-without quite know why-about the whole genre of modern children's fantasy, i.e. Goosebumps, Fear Street, and the Dune novels, here is Michael O'Brien's incisive analysis...
The invasion of our children's imagination has two major fronts. The first is the degradation of the human image. The second is the corruption of conscience. The territory of fantasy writing, for example, which was once concerned with a wholesome examination of man's place in the cosmos, has become almost without our knowing it a den of vipers. The genre has been nearly overwhelmed by the cult of horror. A new wave of grisly films and novels is preoccupied with pushing back boundaries that would have been intolerable a generation ago. The young are its first victims, because they are naturally drawn to fantasy, finding in the genre a fitting arena for their sense of the mystery and danger of human existence. Yet the arena has been filled with demonic forms and every conceivable monster of the subconscious, all intent, it appears, on mutilating the bodies, minds, and spirits of the dramatic characters.
The novels of R. L. Stine, for example, have practically taken over the field of young adult literature in recent years. Since 1988, when the first title of his Fear Street series was released, and 1992, when the Goosebumps series appeared, more than a hundred million copies of his books have made their way into young hands. Through school book clubs, libraries, and book racks in retail outlets ranging from department stores to pharmacies, an estimated one and a quarter million children are introduced to his novels every month. For sheer perversity these tales rival anything that has been published to date. Each is brimming over with murder, grotesque scenes of horror, terror, mutilation (liberally seasoned with gobbets and gobbets of blood and gore). Shock after shock pummels the reader's mind, and the child experiences them as both psychological and physical stimuli. These shocks are presented as ends in themselves, raw violence as entertainment. In sharp contrast, the momentary horrors that occur in classical tales always have a higher purpose; they are intended to underline the necessity of courage, ingenuity, and character; the tales are about brave young people struggling through adversity to moments of illumination, truth, and maturity; they emphatically demonstrate that good is far more powerful than evil. Not so with the new wave of shock-fiction. Its “heroes” and “heroines” are usually rude, selfish, sometimes clever (but in no way wise), and they never grow up. This nasty little world offers a thrill per minute, but it is a like a sealed room from which the oxygen is slowly removed, replaced by an atmosphere of nightmare and a sense that the forces of evil are nearly omnipotent.
Stine does not descend to the level of dragging sexual activity into the picture, as do so many of his contemporaries. He doesn't have to; he has already won the field. He leaves some room for authors who wish to exploit the market with other strategies. Most new fiction for young adults glamorizes sexual sin and psychic powers and offers them as antidotes to evil. In the classical fairy tale, good wins out in the end and evil is punished. Not so in many a modern tale, where the nature of good and evil is redefined: it is now common for heroes to employ evil to defeat evil, despite the fact that in the created and sub-created order this actually means self-defeat.
In the Dune series of fantasy novels, for example, a handsome, young, dark prince (the “good guy”) is pitted against an antagonist who is the personification of vice. This “bad guy” is so completely loathsome physically and morally (murder, torture, and sexual violence are among his pastimes) that by contrast the dark prince looks like an angel of light. The prince is addicted to psychedelic drugs and occult powers, both of which enhance his ability to defeat his grossly evil rival. He is also the master of gigantic carnivorous worms (it may be worth recalling here that “worm” is one of several medieval terms for a dragon). There is a keen intelligence behind the Dune novels and the film that grew out of them. The author's mind is religious in its vision, and he employs a tactic frequently used by Satan in his attempt to influence human affairs. He sets up a horrible evil, repulsive to everyone, even to the most naïve of people. Then he brings against it a lesser evil that has the appearance of virtue. The people settle for the lesser evil, thinking they have been “saved” , when all the while it was the lesser evil that the devil wished to establish in the first place. Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling green saliva.
The distinction may not always be clear even to discerning parents. Consider, for example, another group of fantasy films, the enormously successful Star Wars series, the first of which was released in 1977, followed by two sequels. They are the creation of a cinematic genius, so gripping and so thoroughly enjoyable that they are almost impossible to resist. The shining central character, Luke Skywalker, is so much a “good guy” that his heroic fight against a host of evil adversaries resembles the battles of medieval knights. Indeed, he is called a “knight” , though not one consecrated to chivalry and the defense of Christendom, but one schooled in an ancient mystery religion. He too uses supernatural powers to defeat the lower forms of evil, various repulsive personifications of vice. Eventually he confronts the “Emperor” , who is a personification of spiritual evil. Both Luke and the emperor and various other characters tap into a cosmic, impersonal power they call “the Force”, the divine energy that runs the universe. There is a “light side of the Force” and a “dark side of the Force”. The force is neither good nor evil in itself but becomes so according to who uses it and how it is used.
There is much to recommend this film trilogy, such as its message that good does win out over evil if one perseveres with courage. The romantic side of the plot is low-key and handled with surprising sensitivity to the real meaning of love (with the exception of two brief scenes). Other messages: The characters are unambiguously on the side of good or evil; even the one anti-hero, Han Solo, is not allowed to remain one. He becomes a better man through the challenge to submit to authority and to sacrifice himself for others. Luke is repeatedly told by his master not to use evil means to defeat evil, because to do so is to become evil. He is warned against anger and the desire for vengeance and is exhorted to overcome them. In the concluding film, Luke chooses to abandon all powers, refusing to succumb to the temptation to use them in anger. It is this powerlessness that reveals his real moral strength, and this is the key component in the “conversion” of the evil Darth Vader. The final message of the series: Mercy and love are more powerful than sin and hate.
Even so, the film cannot be assessed as an isolated unit, as if it were hermetically sealed in an antiseptic isolation ward. It is a major cultural signpost, part of a larger culture shift. If Dune represents the new Gnosticism expressed aggressively and overtly, Star Wars represents a kind of “soft Gnosticism” in which the gnosis is an undercurrent beneath the surface waves of a few Christian principles. It is important to recall at this point that during the second century there were several “Christian Gnostic” sects that attempted to reconcile Christianity and paganism and did so by incorporating many praiseworthy elements from the true faith. Similarly, Luke and company act according to an admirable moral code, but we must ask ourselves on what moral foundation this code is based, and what its source is. There is no mention of a transcendent God or any attempt to define the source of “the Force”. And why is the use of psychic power considered acceptable? A major theme throughout the series is that good can be fostered by the use of these supernatural powers, which in our world are exclusively allied with evil forces. Moreover, the key figures in the overthrow of the malevolent empire are the Jedi masters, the enlightened elite, the initiates, the possessors of secret knowledge. Is this not Gnosticism?
At the very least these issues should suggest a close appraisal of the series by parents, especially since the films were revised and re-released in 1997, and a new generation of young people is being influenced by them. The most pressing question that should be asked is, which kind of distortion will do the more damage: blatant falsehood or falsehood mixed with the truths that we hunger for?
O'Brien, Michael. “Invasion of the Imagination.” In Chapter 4 of Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 65-70.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. - ISBN 0-89870-678-5.
Chapter six of this book proceeds to analyse the best fantasy literature now available describing what it is that makes the work of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald so exceptional.
Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.
© 1998 Ignatius Press
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.