Fall of the Divine: the Power of Belief as a Story Device

Rise of the Guardians art

I finally got around to watching Rise of the Guardians—such an arduous, complicated task it is to sit down and watch a movie, I know. In any case, I can now join in WB’s adoring mouth-frothing over the visual spectacle that is this animated delight, and sit and ponder the key concept of film, which is one that I’ve noticed popping up all over the place.

The Guardians, for the uninitiated, are a crack team of magical spirits tasked with protecting the children of the world—Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy, joined reluctantly by a mischievous and somewhat angsty Jack Frost. The great evil this squad of awesomely re-imagined childhood heroes is combating is Pitch the Nightmare King, alias the Bogeyman, who’s crawled out of the woodwork with a flourish and is concocting a plot to do away with the Guardians and snuff out all the hope in the kids of the world.

And how does he go about this? Why, by destroying the children’s belief in them. The entire reason Pitch is so bitter and fabulously maleficent is because kids stopped believing in and fearing him, causing him to lose power and fade into the shadows. He can’t be seen or touched by humans, but he can swan around blasting us all with Jude Law’s evil monologues, and he can defeat the Guardians by killing the idea of them.

This is the idea that fascinates me: the concept that belief in something gives it power. The same dilemma arises in American Gods—the USA is a great melting pot of cultures, and as people from all lands and heritages settled and grounded their roots in America, they brought their religions with them. From this, their various gods, demons and spirits were given physical form in the new land, and then left somewhat out in the cold as time went by and there was less and less dependence on them and the culture homogenised.

So it is we end up with Odin, Loki, Thoth, Anubis, Anansi, Ēostre and a whole cast of others wandering around the modern American landscape somewhat at a loss for what to do with their lives now that belief in them has waned and they are slowly losing their power. Whether or not you can get into the book itself, you can’t say that the concept of that is infinitely interesting. Well, you can, but I’ll disagree with you.

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld gods work on a similar framework, coming into existence with the power of people’s belief, and becoming stronger the more followers and faith they have. If people stop believing in them, they either fade away or go insane. Tulpas too are a concept from Tibetan Buddhism, creatures given form by willpower and disciple alone… a device used rather handily in an episode of Supernatural, where a ghost story becomes very, very true due to people’s belief in it. The ghost gets more powerful the more the story spreads, and as the tale changes so does the spirit.

Dean Winchester. screaming

Same, Dean

The idea also pops up in the Fate series, where the spirits of legendary heroes can be summoned to battle one another (an elaborate fantastical system and magical story world I’m convinced all started from a bored conversation beginning with “Okay but dude if King Arthur and Gilgamesh got into a fight, who would win?”). Even if the character was never actually real and only existed in myth, people’s belief in them has given them form and power. From that, then, the older and more well-known a legend is, the more powerful the Heroic Spirit and their weapons will be.

And, of course, who can forget the grave warning from the Peter Pan world: whenever you state you don’t believe in fairies, one of them gets mortally wounded. So don’t be an asshole about it.

The power of an idea cannot be argued with. Myths and concepts have been part of human civilization for as long as it has existed, from religions to fairy tales—whole cultures have been built around them, lives shaped and minds honed. Folklore forms an enormous part of defining culture, as do superstition and belief, anecdotes, worship, bedtime stories and festival songs. The fictional and the untouchable have always been close to our hearts. What interests me is this idea of a symbiotic relationship with these myths, that not only do we empower ourselves with them but they take their strength from us.

And it brings into account the rather heart-breaking concept of these stories weakening when faith in them is dropped, represented by the physical form of the characters. This is the ominous horizon the American Gods are trying to fight, and the greatest threat posed to the Guardians as well—as people stop believing in the figures, they get physically weaker and lose hold over their magic.

Shown in such literal terms, it gives you a sense of sympathy and dread… and makes you feel a bit guilty for leaving your faith in the Easter Bunny behind in your childhood (especially when it’s that Easter Bunny. I mean, damn, it’s Hugh Jackman! As a rabbit! Look at that badass!)

It’s an interesting concept to play with, I think, not just because it brings up this philosophy about the power of belief, but because it subverts the usual guise of gods and monsters. After all, usually they’re infallible and powerful, but tying them down to their relationship with humans, their greatest strength becomes their greatest weakness, and characters with weaknesses are always more intriguing than those without.

It creates tension, whether in a fun-filled children’s adventure movie sense or a more adult, horrifying one a la Neil Gaiman: there’s a very real threat here, not just of death, but of non-existence, or of warping into something else. It’s control of their own destiny removed from the characters, and traditionally powerful characters at that, so it’s a great starting point for a story. It provides a danger that they have to race against, and also gives them a more human element. You never thought you’d relate to a god or an ancient hero, did you? Think again. In these circumstances, they’re immediately more empathetic, whether or not the viewers themselves have ever had their, you know, existence threatened.

Slenderman art

As the Supernatural example demonstrated for us, there’s also some great potential for horror here. It’s debatably (no one’s quite sure) what gives the monstrous dream-dwelling slasher Freddy Krueger his power in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the cinch of a whole bunch of spooky stories is that you can summon the creepy creatures by thinking about them. Thought and belief giving shape and power becomes horrifying when it comes in the form of something we can’t control—even if you apply your best logic to the situation and know that that creaking sound can’t possibly be the ghoulish murderer you were just told about at the campfire, it’s certainly going to get you thinking about it. And fear is not the most rational of emotions, so that would only add fuel to the monster’s figurative fire.

As an example, Slenderman has gone from a forum phenomenon to the star of a web series to the villain of a series of games. Our faceless, well-dressed amigo is a pop cultural phenomenon, and Photoshop artists and Creepy Pasta writers of the world delight in making his mythology grow, more and more spine-chillingly convincingly with every anecdote and image manipulation. It’d be pretty easy to believe the tall fellow was real, if you didn’t know otherwise, and no matter how you slice his story the Slenderman is very, very easy to be scared of, despite the irrationality of it. It sure is a good thing Tulpas don’t actually exist, and are just a concept…

Right?

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4 responses to “Fall of the Divine: the Power of Belief as a Story Device

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