When does a science fiction story or game stop being a fantasy, and start becoming an unacceptable desire?
It's one of the criticisms that fans and people in the fantasy-making business hear all the time: "Why would anybody want that to happen?" Or, put slightly differently, "Why do you enjoy this? What is wrong with you?"
Most recently these questions dogged the latest Twilight Saga movie Eclipse. Critics of the books and movies have speculated that Twihards love the series because they are looking for a spooky stalker boyfriend like Edward in real life, or that the franchise teaches girls lessons about how boys are supposed to act. The unspoken idea underlying their comments is that the movie isn't just a fantasy. It's a kind of instruction manual, or a teen girl's wish list.
Videogamers have been getting flak like this for years. Did video games cause the Columbine shootings? Was the Virginia Tech killer addicted to war games? Will playing Grand Theft Auto turn you into a carjacking thug? There's an entrenched belief that killing undersea aliens in a game is just a step away from mowing down everybody on the street.
And this idea has roots that go back pretty far in pop culture history. In the 1950s, conservative crusader Fredric Wertham almost destroyed the U.S. comics industry by popularizing the idea that reading comic books led to juvenile delinquency and Batman-inspired gay sex.
Though there have been a number of studies on whether violent behavior is caused by violent entertainment, none have produced conclusive evidence (see Gerard Jones' terrific book Killing Monsters on how flawed theses studies have been). Same goes for the very few studies trying to link sex in media to sexual behavior. It's also just a really hard problem to study when practically everyone is exposed to pop culture fantasies. How do you find a control group?
Plus, even if you never watch TV, never go to the movies, and never read, you're still subjected to fantasy. Admit it: You've probably fantasized at least once about killing somebody who was annoying the crap out of you; you've thought about having sex with a stranger you glimpsed on the street; you've dreamed about running away from life-altering decisions. But the vast majority of people never want to make their extreme fantasies real, let alone actually do it. So why should the fantasies we pursue in the darkness of the movie theater, or with our hands on the controller, be any different?
I have two theories about this. First, the more obvious one.
There are fairly ancient beliefs, mostly from religion, that stories can alter reality. The Judeo-Christian God spoke the world into being. Magicians can use incantation to make a person to fall in love with you. An impure thought might lead you to hell. People have attributed great power to storytelling, and therefore we sometimes mistakenly judge fantasies using the same moral and ethical principles that we use to judge reality. So if I enjoy the Twilight movies, it's the same thing as enjoying spousal abuse. Or if I like first-person shooters, I'm actually the kind of maniac who would love to kill wantonly.
Basically what we're talking about here is an entrenched, unexamined idea that stories will take over our minds, and fantasies become real. It's the kind of belief that doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, unless you really do believe in sorcery. Once you let go of this belief, you're free to understand fantasies as what they are: Bursts of emotion, metaphors, parables, ways of safely exploring the unknown in yourself and the world.
But there is another, more pernicious belief about fantasies. And that leads to my second theory, which is that certain fantasies are deemed unacceptable because people fear the opposite of what I described above. They fear that fantasies are under our control, and that we can harness them to understand our place in the universe. Looked at from this angle, Twilight becomes a disturbing story because it's something that girls use to figure out their sexual desires. Violent stories are upsetting not because of all the bloodstains, but because they stand in for something more profound and socially powerful: They represent many struggles, from the push to escape the ghettos of GTA, to the fight for adulthood and autonomy.
If only we could just prevent people from having those fantasies, they'd never figure out who they wanted to fall in love with. They'd never figure out what was worth fighting for. They'd never strive for things, because their imaginations would never have been lit on fire with so many possibilities. Without fantasies, especially extreme fantasies, our minds lose their ability to splinter a single moment into many possible options. Immersing yourself in the story of something ugly and horrifying, or silly and frivolous, is a way of saying, fundamentally, that things don't have to be the way they are.
I'm not saying you should love all stories, or that all stories are equally good for everyone. But I am saying that all stories serve the same purpose. And that purpose isn't to teach you what to do in reality. It's to remind us that there are many ways of looking at the world, and many possible actions we can take. Stories spur us to action, but only sideways.
That's why the scariest fantasy of all is that some fantasies are unacceptable. Because that's a fantasy about controlling human choice, preventing our minds from roaming freely before choosing the right action. And people always indulge in their most violent and thoughtless acts when there is no way for them to imagine another possibility. The worst human acts always originate with a lack of stories.
This is my weekly editor's column for io9, where I talk about science, the future, and all the hopeful fantasies that are seething inside our brains. Read more editor's columns here.