Returning to Our Reality with Treasure from Another

A Reflection on the Power of Subcreation in Sci-Fi & Fantasy After Watching 1st Time Viewers See/Hear the Most Famous Line in Star Wars.

(“No; I am your father.”)

A little backstory. I was wasting my time watching YouTube videos – specifically, “The Nostalgia Critic” and his “Top 11 Movie Sequels” (because he likes to go one step beyond). #1? The Empire Strikes Back, barely edging out Godfather Part II because of its equal appeal no matter the age of the viewer.

In the section of related videos that followed, there was one that was a collection of kids reacting to the famous line when watching the movie for the first time. “This is going to be amusing,” I laughed as I clicked on it.

What I was expecting was the hysterical, melodramatic reactions of things like “He’s lying!” or “No way!”…and I got those. But there was something else I did not expect – proof of how deep within the human soul subcreation can reach. The second child in the reaction medley was a girl about 8 years old or so. What made it possible for me to start looking for something deeper was the lack of extreme verbal protests or wild movement. She sat perfectly still, her jaw set, and was fully engrossed.

Now, just so you know I’m not confusing the two, the first visible reaction she has is when Luke’s hand is cut off. This is both physically shocking and also the climax of the physical conflict; we know Vader has won the duel. Her eyes fly open in shock and dismay, but she is continuing to watch quietly, and she is not moving. She is paying close attention to the ongoing dialog. Then we get to that famous line…

It’s not immediate – something that would remain consistent. It’s always about 1-2 seconds after the line is delivered and the music is filling the pause. It’s once the brain is beginning to process not just the idea, but the implications.

Her jaw tightens, and her eyes do widen, but only slightly. But what really caught me off-guard, and it was only obvious because the only reaction she is having is facial expression – her eyes dilated. Not just a little; I’m talking almost no iris left.

For the rest of the medley, I am now ignoring what I started watching it for – the amusing, unbridled verbal protests and shocked expressions. Now I am watching for a physiological reaction that, when it is an emotional trigger that is the cause, only happens in extreme situations and not normally overly obvious. And it happens again, and again..and again (and across multiple cultures – I loved one of what I think was a Scandanavian family and I was having to read a translation of the dialog). Pretty much every child over the age of 6 has their pupils dilate, not immediately, but as they begin to process what this new piece of the story implies (the younger children are either just confused or upset).

“Well,” I thought. “Some of this must be because they are children and aren’t used to the idea of stories taking an unexpected, dark turn. And what do you know? A perfect chance to test this theory comes up. There are videos of adults watching Star Wars for the first time.

Now this was a bit more problematic. Mainly because adults, even if not aware of the plot twist, are aware of Star Wars’ place in culture, and many are watching it at a friend’s request, in a group, just kicking back and knocking some cold ones down. But some (typically the spouse of a fan) are genuinely watching it, and have become engrossed. What do you know? Their pupils dilate big time as well!

I mean, let’s think about it. In a normal setting, your pupils dilate to let in more light if you are in a darker area. The two most known (and most obvious) times they do this in reaction to an emotional state are 1) fight or flight response when danger is detected and 2) physical attraction to someone. But even these emotional stimuli, it is for a very practical physical advantage that the pupils react in this way. If you are in danger, your brain wants to be aware of your surroundings as much as possible and demands to see more as it scans for information to help you in your situation. When you are attracted to someone, you both want to see more of the person and also want to see their reaction to you.

The other emotional situations that can cause dilation are extreme, but the amount of dilation is small – possibly because it is of little to no benefit. When you lie your pupils dilate;  it’s one way experts can tell. But the change is so marginal it takes the naked human eye untold hours of training to recognize it; most people know from other tells that are a bit more obvious.

But never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that reaction to a known fictional story, on a screen where you are viewing in a safe environment, would have a reaction that is normally triggered by extreme emotional states, and normally only seen to such a degree when dealing with our most primal needs. But here were these people having such a reaction.

Again, if it was just the children, we could write it up in some psycho-babble about them not being able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality (I grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and never once did I ever get the idea that sticking my finger in a gun would be a good way too actually defend myself). But since adults act the same way, we can fortunately avoid that battle.

What might explain this then? I believe Tolkien actually nailed it on the head a long time ago. I good story-teller doesn’t have to ask his audience to “suspend disbelief”. Rather, he invites them to partake in his subcreation. The difference? In suspending belief, the audience member is deliberately choosing to ignore something that gives away the story as “not true” for the sake of enjoying and continuing the illusion. But in subcreation, though the audience member may know it is fiction, it is still a reality even if not our reality. The internal laws are not being violated and we are taking in the story as a history rather than a lie. Think of “Galaxy Quest” a goofy parody I know, but there is something I want to point out from it. At the climax, Tim Allen’s character (lampooning Shatner) confesses to the aliens “we lied” in creating the story. Of course, the amusement for most of the movie is that we, the audience, know that the stories are all false and that the aliens take it for truth.

This actually brings some troubling thoughts to mind. Are all people that invest in a story a bunch of idiots like the aliens in Galaxy Quest?

You might could argue that if all storytelling was as bad as it is in Galaxy Quest. But that’s what different about suspension of belief vs entering a subcreation. When an artist is truly engaging in subcreation, you don’t have to cast off your intelligence to enter the reality. Rather, you bring it with you and use it as you explore the new world the artist has created. The artist isn’t “lying”; they are creating a new reality, just one that has its existence limited to the printed page or film.

And I think the proof of that can be found in the genuine reactions of those people I watched respond to: “˜’He told me enough! He told me you killed him.’ ‘No; I am your father.'” It’s not shock value – the reaction doesn’t take place when the sentence is uttered. It only happens because the viewer HAS brought themselves fully into the artist’s world. That’s why it doesn’t happen when the people in big groups just having it going on in the background when they are really partying with friends. But when someone actually enters this subcreated reality and brings the entirety of themselves into it, they begin to process it the same way as they process the reality we all share. Thus, in the 1-2 seconds that their brain goes through dozens of “Wait, but that would mean…” you get the same extreme emotional reaction we get in the real world to things cause us great distress or excitement. For the moment, our minds are primarily existing in the world in which we are only a guest, but it is still “real” because our investment is that complete, and we respond much as we would in the primary world.

Now, the great part of the kids reaction is that they don’t feel the need to downplay it. The pupils reacting across the board let us know the depth is felt even in adults, but the kids reaction does give us a glimpse into another benefit of faerie: though we must leave this subcreated reality, we can take the lessons with us.

A lot of the emotional distress is due to empathy with Luke. The children are quick to express sympathy for Luke and are dismayed for him; they pity him. But, in only slightly less than half of the reactions, the dominant emotion wasn’t empathy for Luke; it was hatred for Vader. And I don’t mean just anger at something that is frustrating or unfair. I’m talking full-on WRATH.

Which brings up an interesting question. Why? There is some anger when Vader cuts off Luke’s hand, and this is certainly much more of a concern for our hero’s survival. In fact, we are in fear for Luke’s life now; he has no way to win anymore. When Vader drops the line, we actually now have reason to believe Luke will live! At worst, he joins the Dark Side. But, maybe, even if that doesn’t happen, Vader will spare him. It’s obvious Vader doesn’t want to kill Luke! He could do that easily now, but instead is begging and pleading with his son to join him. Why does this create such a visceral reaction, especially in the children?

Because for the first time we are confronted with Vader’s humanity. Think about it, up until this point, everything about his humanity is hidden. He is in a mask. Obi-Wan has even said, “He’s more machine than man now.” We do have some idea that one point, he USED to be a man. But he clearly isn’t seen that way now by Luke’s mentors or ourselves as the audience. He’s more like a great beast that is terrorizing the countryside that a noble knight might ride out to slay on a quest. His “evil” comes primarily the harm he is doing, and he like a rabid dog must be put down.

But now we are suddenly and violently forced to reckon with the villain on a whole other level. He is, in fact, obviously human. But far from making him feel relatable, we are instantly repulsed and revile his very existence. WHY?!

Quite simply, because now he is guilty of something much worse than a rabid dog. He is now guilty of treachery. He, though human, has thrown his humanity away. He has lost every shred of decency and slaughtered countless people. He destroyed a whole planet. We have watched him literally squeeze the life out of his own followers and relish it. And we are now forced to recognize he is, in fact, still human, with at least one desire we can relate to: fellowship with his son.

Even as adults, we do not want to accept this. Vader has so twisted himself that we don’t want to think of him as a human any longer, and for a multitude of reasons. One, it means people are capable of becoming like this, and that is incredibly offensive and terrifying. Especially as we are seeing through Luke’s eyes, it means we see people we know we should want to love could become like this…could we even do this? We do not wish to think about such things, and we lash out at even being asked to think about it. Two, the treachery gets worse, for even the shred of dignity we can relate to is horribly twisted. Rather than repenting and aiding his son, he wants to take his son down his perverted path to darkness with him. And he is playing on Luke’s good instincts to try to lead him to evil. THAT is even more horrifying than anything else he has done! The humanity that remains is itself only allowing more evil! At least with the others there was no perversion of this sacred bond! The innocents were already terrified of him, even his own men knew he would kill them if they failed. But here, he is taking a bond that even he still seems to recognize as good and instead of getting back on the right path, is trying to use its positive influence to bring his son down with him.

Remember that 1-2 second delay? That’s why. It’s not the shock of the statement that causes the deep emotional response. It is the investment of this reality, and bringing all of our faculties to bear when dealing with it, that caused it. We are now exploring the reality even beyond what the author has stated. We are now bringing the depth of our own views (you may not even agree with my thoughts on Vader, but to debate them you must bring your own, which means…) into the reality and thus we are now involved in its subcreation.

This is why are able to bring real things from the fictional reality. And what we take from the reality we just visited is part of why we react so strongly. That someone that we have fully invested in having no humanity, does in fact still have humanity, is a very uncomfortable concept. Could you explore this in “normal” fiction rather than fantastic worlds like Sci-Fi and Fantasy?

In theory, yes. The difficulty though would be getting the audience to both fully invest in the character and hide the humanity. In “normal” fiction, there are too many tells that the villain still has a human component. He’s got a name that sounds familiar to our ears most likely. He interacts with the same people and places we do. Normally, his motives are things we can relate to, even if not to his extreme (vengeance, desperation, etc.).

But what Vader, and other fantasy villains that are revealed to share something with humanity, can do is let us totally write him off, and then force us to deal with his humanity no matter how much we don’t want to. And the lesson we take back is frightening. It means recognizing the most hated people in our world – whether it’s the cruel teacher from your childhood or the darkest figures in history like Hitler and Stalin or Nero – that they too were human.

Fortunately, Fantasy and Sci-Fi can, and often do, also give us reason to hope for more than what the world says we should realistically hope for (but what spurred this blog obviously focused on the negative). As Tolkien said, it is by escaping our world for a brief time that we can enter it anew with fresh vision. By leaving the mundane behind for a time to enter the fantastic, when we re-enter our world we are able to see what was overlooked before. And perhaps we find thta the primary world is itself quite fantastic as well, in both its evil and its goodness, for those that learn to see it once more.

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