Sarah Churchwell

The supernatural is as British as fish and chips

We’re all accustomed to stories about credulous Americans; as an American living in Britain I am constantly asked to defend the 43 per cent of my compatriots who believe in creationism.

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We’re all accustomed to stories about credulous Americans; as an American living in Britain I am constantly asked to defend the 43 per cent of my compatriots who believe in creationism.

We’re all accustomed to stories about credulous Americans; as an American living in Britain I am constantly asked to defend the 43 per cent of my compatriots who believe in creationism. Naturally, I can’t begin to; they’re the same people who voted for Bush, after all, which I find a far more mind-boggling proposition. But before British readers get too cocky, let it also be remembered that last year a poll showed that 22 per cent of Britons believe in creationism; 43 per cent believe in telepathy and 36 per cent believe in ghosts. This pales, to be sure, against the 79 per cent of Americans who evidently believe in angels, but taken together these statistics suggest not only the persistence of supposedly dying forms of faith, but also a culture that dreams of power and of solace.

This impression is reinforced by the recent renaissance of immensely popular stories on both sides of the Atlantic concerned with the supernatural — a surge that includes a wave of bestselling nonfictional investigations into the existence of God (such as those by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). The fact that these books repudiate the existence of higher powers by no means suggests a comfortably secular society: if we were certain, or disinterested, these books wouldn’t have become bestsellers. Moreover, we have recently been inundated by fictional stories in which ordinary people wrestle with supernatural forces: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, X-Men, His Dark Materials, Lost, Heroes, Harry Potter, to name just the most prominent, all concern apparently ordinary people who discover that they have extraordinary powers and extraordinary fates. In none of these stories is destiny easy; power remains a poisoned chalice. And yet, just as continually denying God’s existence hardly makes him less of a cultural preoccupation, so does insisting that power is a difficult burden not lessen the degree to which these stories all fantasise about power.

But they also all consistently grapple with the great questions that dominate all theistic religions: transcendence, destiny, knowledge, free will. Most fundamentally, perhaps, these stories all seem to be about morality and power. In other words, popular fiction seems increasingly to scratch the same existential itches as religion: these stories dramatise ordinary-but-special people’s attempts to solve eternal mysteries, reconcile individual ambition with the social order, and promise ultimate justice, in which good will prevail and evil be punished.

This would all seem to be a species of mythmaking, but I have to tread carefully here, apparently, because when I recently wrote an article about mythmaking in Heroes, I was called a pretentious and idiotic academic (a tautology nowadays, of course) who was reading too much significance into popular culture. I thought it was an entirely uncontroversial claim: what is a story about people who can fly and predict the future if it is not a myth? Catastrophe and war have always provoked myths: Anglo–American culture is today grappling with both, so it should come as no surprise that the apocalyptic strain in our fantasies is resurfacing, and that we are telling each other stories about power and about good and evil.

Put another way: all of these stories are folk tales, and one needn’t be a Freudian — or a pretentious idiot — to recognise that all folk tales work on an unconscious level as well as a conscious one. This doesn’t mean that they’re not entertainment; The Iliad and The Odyssey were that. Indeed, they were entertaining precisely because they engaged with the issues that preoccupied their audiences; very few people are entertained by a tale that seems entirely meaningless or irrelevant.

Unlike the ancient European oral folk tales from which these stories all ultimately derive, ours are intensely rational, and — for all our fears about the violence of the mass media — our folk tales today are actually far less violent than they used to be. Most of us only know the anodyne, domesticated fairly tales that were sanitised by the Brothers Grimm and Disney, but in the earliest stories the Prince rapes Sleeping Beauty, instead of kissing her; Cinderella kills her first stepmother by dropping the lid of a trunk on her head; the Wolf tricks Little Red Riding Hood into cannibalising her grandmother, and so on.

Unlike the ancient folk tales, ours always seem to concern the end of the world, and a messianic figure who will (usually) save it. The original folk tales, by contrast, tended to have far more lowly and mundane concerns, like how to complete an endless, frustrating task without getting beaten, or how to get out of your horrible brother’s house.

What they share with our stories is a structure in which wish-fulfilment is employed less as a fantasy of escape than as a story about survival: here’s how to escape the briars of the workaday world, or how to avoid cannibalising your grandmother. Here’s how to cope with feelings of powerlessness and rage without going off the deep end. Despite their emphasis on fantasy, all of these stories remain grounded in the real world, and their problems are familiar; it is their solutions that are magical. Tolkien’s famous taxonomy of the fundamental elements of the fairy story — ‘Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation’ — are in evidence all around us.

The tale, in other words, proves stronger than its telling; the arguments over variations in quality among these stories, whether they are derivative and debased, seem beside the point. What they show is the tenacity of old ways of understanding the world. Some of us may prefer Pullman to Potter, or Tolkien to either; others watch Heroes instead of Lost; some choose entirely different forms of fantasy (romance novels or video games or action movies). What emerge regardless of personal preference are the consistent emotional dynamics and mythic tenor of the stories: the endless need to reconcile power with goodness in a world that remains mysterious and dangerous.

In the middle of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman has a scientist who used to be a nun say that she went into science to escape questions about good and evil; she is bluntly informed that what she is investigating — the dark materials — inevitably raise such questions. In a nonfiction essay called Darwinism, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marilynne Robinson says something very similar: ‘The modern fable is that science exposed religion as a delusion and more or less supplanted it. But science cannot serve in the place of religion because it cannot generate an ethics or a morality.’ But religion cannot serve in the place of science, either, for the multitude who find the official Judaeo-Christian story of a temperamental creator whose claims of goodness seem radically inconsistent with his creation’s propensity for evil just as insufficient.

And so the search for transcendent explanations continues, mutatis mutandis; whether we find refuge in stories about God, or wizards waving magic wands, or cheerleaders who can save the world, we continue to wish for supernatural solutions to natural problems. The proverbial Martian descending to look us over would not, surely, consider ours a secular culture. In reality we face jihadist suicide bombers on their way to paradise; in our imagination we can fly, or survive apocalypse, or even defeat Jehovah himself. We are still wrestling with angels.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia.