SUPERNATURAL AND SUPERSTITION
Stories of the Supernatural are as old as humankind and intrinsic to being human. When we entertain our deepest fears, imagine them penetrating the real world in ways that are 'beyond nature', we engage with the deepest and richest part of ourselves and understand our humanity all the better.
But what makes supernatural stories work? What elements do supernatural stories need? These are questions I’m asked quite regularly. And the somewhat surprising answer I give is, Realism and Plausibility…
These two words would seem an anathema to what we think of as Supernatural - which is, after all, concerned with things that are unnatural, unrealistic and beyond reason. But to understand the connection, and why realism and plausibility is so important for supernatural stories, we have to first recognise that Supernatural is not the same as Fantasy. As the name itself suggests, Super-Natural is about being above-nature, the natural world pushed beyond that which we understand as Rational. But, by doing this, Natural order is also tested, subverted, challenged and dislodged. So in order to have this ‘super’ quality in our stories we have to shape the Rational and Natural bit first. And then break it…
Great Supernatural stories are rooted in the real world from which the audience are asked to take leaps of logic. Yet the audience also need to feel that there is an immediacy and connection to the ‘real’ for the story to emotional and allegorical weigh. A audience is taken from what they know as familiar, to what they don’t know and is foreign, and this is something much more than just simple ‘suspension of disbelief’ - the audience are consciously allowing themselves to entertain uncertainty about their Real world, not escape to a Fantastical one.
This idea isn't arbitrary, it speaks directly to the emotional experience and expectation of supernatural stories - to entertain uncertainty, to evoke mysteries that come from within the world around us, not worlds we are divorced from. Ghosts, witchcraft, demons, monsters, super-powers, astral travel, time travel, mind-control, telepathy, possession, body swapping, werewolves and vampires and dopplegangers and anything we can’t explain that happens at the shadowed fringes of our homes, towns and villages - these are all supernatural story triggers that effect us most when they begin in our Real world.
H.P. Lovecraft unifies this blend of the weirdly extraordinary in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’..
“A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
The crucial part of what Lovecraft observes as fundamental is the desire for audiences to entertain the idea that the natural laws which hold back chaos might not be as stable or consistent as we perhaps would like them to be. That the very world around us, the natural real world, contains forces beyond us. And, as audiences, we choose to entertain those possibilities for a thrill in the short term, and for metaphoric reflection in the long term.
Now, certainly ‘Supernatural’ is a broad church of narratives, including forms of Horror, Magic Realism, Super-Hero stories, Gothic, Mystery and even certain sub-genres of Science Fiction. But this idea of 'natural laws subverted' is the consistent component.
When a story extends supernaturally from a familiar rational world where there is an anchored reality to the weirdness, Doubt becomes a major element of the drama. Characters doubt what they see, they struggle to rationalise their fear, they must learn the new rules of a defied or disrupted order before being compelled to take action with or against powers they don’t fully understand. These are all dramatic journeys that an audience can actively go on, and be aligned with, in a supernatural mythos.
So, from a writers perspective, having to create such supernatural forces that are entertaining and engaging, the important connection is that between Superstition and Supernatural. These two ideas are deeply connected in the most simple yet significant way -Supernatural forces are those that Superstition warns us against.
It’s an ancient idea, rooted in the narratives of mythology and folklore, that certain behaviours control, ward against, influence or evoke supernatural forces. Don’t walk under a ladder, Don’t open an umbrella inside, Don’t say Bloody Mary three times in a mirror. Indeed the very notion of formal Religion and religious practices are inherently ’superstitious’ and predicated on arcane superstition.
In such supernatural stories there’s obviously no rational logic but there is a compelling and metaphoric internal logic. This is ‘Superstitious Causality’, where there is an imagined cause+effect between otherwise unrelated events, a casualty not based on realty, but on supernatural reality.
And this is where the behaviour of pigeons is interesting…
“In 1948, behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, in which he described his pigeons exhibiting what appeared to be superstitious behaviour. One pigeon was making turns in its cage, another would swing its head in a pendulum motion, while others also displayed a variety of other behaviours. Because these behaviours were all done ritualistically in an attempt to receive food from a dispenser, even though the dispenser had already been programmed to release food at set time intervals regardless of the pigeons’ actions, Skinner believed that the pigeons were trying to influence their feeding schedule by performing these actions. He then extended this as a proposition regarding the nature of superstitious behaviour in humans”
So, this is all well and interesting from a sociological point-of-view (and for pigeon fanciers). But for a writer it is also enormously helpful as a guide to constructing a viable and exciting supernatural narrative by simply asking - What is the Superstitious Causality in your storyworld?, What behaviours are naturally illogical in ‘reality’ but have potency and power in the supernatural part of your storyworld? This is the crucial friction-point where the drama springs into a supernatural story.
Such behaviour and supernatural casualty needs to have a clear internal logic, it must be governed by rules and specificity. Such powers will form the points of discovery and revelations for your characters and for the audience to ride into such worlds on the shoulders of those characters.
For writers, this is where there is so much fun to be had! The dramatic, conceptual, metaphoric problem-solving that wrangles big ideas into a cohesive logic, is a great creative test for even the best writers. High-concept narrative genres provide great creative playgrounds that are rich with archetypes, structures, patterns and dramatic tools - alive with audience engagement, expectation and enthusiasm for those familiar emotional states. But if you are going to make great supernatural stories you have to bring your A-game and be prepared to ask the right questions to get you past simple tropes and allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants.