Fantasy is Also Horror I: Magic is Existentially Terrifying
Good evening. The time is late and clouds shroud a moonless sky. The dark is deep and you know not what creatures lurk therein. Welcome to my blog.
I recently posted a YouTube video that short-forms (at 15 minutes) and per-forms the content of this piece; that is, part one of an ongoing series comparing fantasy and horror settings and investigating fantasy settings for what they really are: absolutely terrifying. This first piece will primarily deal with the consequences and ramifications of literally functional magic/magick/mysticism.
MAGIC PRECLUDES ANY NOTION OF CERTAINTY
We can sort fantasy realms into two general systems: one in which our real-world understanding of physics usually applies and therefore magic breaks those understandings and/or the fundamental laws of physics themselves; or another in which the fundamental laws of physics and the universe differ from our own enough to justify the existence and use of fantasy-world magic. While the former usually tends to be the more grotesque and horrific of the two, the latter retains the same basic source of fear: constant paranoiac uncertainty.
MAGIC FREQUENTLY BREAKS REALITY
The horror of a world in which magic breaks the fundamental laws of reality (or at least tears asunder our notion of having any formal understanding of them) is on-its-face clear. If you’re 38 and have lived your entire life with our understanding of physics and then one day you see someone summon a beast of shadows out of ether and void, yes, that will probably do serious damage to your ability to see the world the same way ever again. For the rest of your life you will have to know that (a) what you believed about the universal laws of physics was wrong, (b) shadow-beasts exist and so, too, do people who can summon them, (c) other such people may exist and other such beasts may exist and you can never, ever know when one might rear its socketless visage into your life.
That’s one of the many horrors thriving unwritten-about in fantasy worlds, especially urban/contemporary fantasy worlds: once someone knows about such things, they can’t un-know it. Normal people only get to lead their normal lives until the paranormal shows up. After that, normal people can’t lead normal lives anymore. The knowing of a thing like magic or the literal supernatural isn’t something that can be put away. It’s a bit like Pandora’s box…once you open it, or have its contents dumped unceremoniously upon you, it’s rather hard to get everything back inside. And once a character knows magic is real, they can’t also pretend said fact doesn’t have certain implications about the very fabric of the reality they take for granted. Its flexibility, perhaps, or its changeability. You wouldn’t be able to go through life knowing that magic was real and act like it couldn’t be hiding anywhere, everywhere, underneath everything. You might start seeing its presence in a cancer diagnosis, a series of unfortunate events, a lost loved one, a lost job, a broken car part, a car crash, a lost wallet even…sure, there might be perfectly logical explanations for all of it…but maybe that’s just what magic looks like. For the rest of your life, once you discover that reality is changeable, you’ll have to wonder when or if someone changed it, and how. And for most people, answering those questions may prove impossible. Once you know that magic is real and reality is changeable, you can’t really know that much else. You can only wonder and assume and pray that you’re right.
But maybe you live in a setting where magic follows a system of specific rules, certain materials or energies that need harvesting, certain runes drawn with certain chalk, etc, etc, etc. Maybe it’s not that reality is mutable, per se, but that another code of laws exists alongside our current one.
Well, then, let me tell you about how
PEOPLE WILL USE SYSTEMATIZED MAGIC IN HORRIBLE WAYS
One witch’s ‘Coven’ is another witch’s ‘terror cell’ after all.
Here’s the thing about settings wherein the laws of physics and the laws of the material world allot for magic: if magic isn’t a shocking reality-breaking feat, that implies that, instead, it’s a measurable system of causes and effects. Are you scared yet? Oh-ho, boy, you should be.
People study measurable systems of causes and effects. We study them all the time, in every field, across every industry. As soon as the first person who used magic realized (a) it didn’t break reality, and (b) certain spells were repeatable, an at-least informal study of magic would begin. Maybe it wouldn’t begin until the third person realized this, the math here isn’t exact, but it would certainly begin. This process is, after all, how humankind has accrued pretty much all of its knowledge.
Which brings me to an important question for every fantasy author to ask themselves: can your setting’s magic be used in any hypothetical extreme to split an atom? Is nuclear fission or fusion accessible to your magic-users? What about biological weapons, magical diseases, mystic plagues, tides of necromantic energy, psychic withering, widespread dementia, self-replicating fae bacteria loosed upon a human population with the wrong immune system to fight it?
Just for starters, I mean.
Because, sooner or later, people would figure these things out. And people would figure out that other people figured them out. Can the existence of magic look like an arms race? Sure. Can it look like powerful people trying to keep knowledge out of angry people’s hands? Sure. Could that become a plutocratic police-state run by witches and wizards? Almost certainly, eventually. Could the arms-race/police-state reach such a fulcrum point that anarcho-wizards and witch-terrorists become the good guys? I’m sure it’s been done. Dibs, if it hasn’t.
Any system of magic that can be studied, systematized, and formalized presents certain eventualities that are, frankly, terrifying. People studying and advancing magic will make mistakes. People studying and advancing magic will have their own reasons for doing so. People studying and advancing magic will be people, or whatever race fits into your fantasy realm; but they will be individuals, prone to their own ideologies, their own beliefs, their own moralities and ethical codes. They won’t all align. Sometimes these misalignments may turn violent. Sometimes, very violent. Sometimes these misalignments may come about because a certain powerful witch or wizard simply believes an entire other group of people are inferior. What does magic look like, then?
Whenever magic functions within the scientific framework of a setting, certain questions need to be addressed. Who controls such information? If nobody, then how do people learn it? Are they self-taught? Doesn’t that imply certain dangers and risks? How might someone fed up with the world use a spell like ‘mote of fire?’ What would the outskirts of Detroit look like if such a spell existed, if someone could just cast it and be untraceable?
But we’re veering into the territory of my next blog entry: how the questions of who gets access to magic and how they practice it also only have terrifying answers. So let’s stay focused.
MAGIC ALLOWS PEOPLE TO DO ANYTHING, OR WORSE, FOR ANYTHING TO HAPPEN
People love saying that “anything can happen,” right? And they always say it cheerily, reminding you that success or joy or great fortune could wait right around the corner.
Here is another list of things that could happen if, indeed, anything could happen:
charred to death by fireball
died during accidental failure of necromantic labs
gutted and eaten by fae
lost her entire family to vampires, killed herself
cursed by incurable withering disease, source of curse unknown
dead in three car wreck, presence of magic indeterminate
served as host to a summoned demon
burned empty by holy light after a mistake in an Enochian ritual
blown apart by IED mystically animated from watermelon/stolen phone
died of cancer, presence of magic indeterminate
shot to death by silver bullets
metamorphosed into fly, eaten by previously-unseen spider
consumed by regional/genocidal plague, source in custody
Wow, the supernatural looks fun! Except by ‘fun,’ what I mean is ‘awful!’ Because everyone pictures themselves on the winning side of the existence of the supernatural…which, statistically, seems unlikely. If you live in a world where any of the above things are possible and you are not a person who can cause the above things…your life is at the mercy of a random and mystically-enhanced world. And even if you are a person who can cause the above things, you’d never be able to know when someone might be targeting you with the same, or perhaps even who.
Here’s a fun idea for a little supernatural thriller: someone can feel a hex building up over them and they only have six days to find the Coven responsible and stop them!
And then it turns out they don’t even know the people responsible, it’s a total The Strangers situation, and the protagonist just dies at the end.
Because in a world where “anything can happen,” so can that. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a hard ending to earn, it would be much easier not to write it that way; but it’s something that would likely be possible in a world with functional magic. It’s something that probably happens.
If there’s a functional piece of magic in your world that allows a character to poof a 2000-pound animal into or out of existence, probably someone, somewhere has done the same thing out of impulsiveness, anger, or boredom. If the magic of your setting allows a character to yank a 2000-pound animal into existence over an enemy’s head, you must imagine this has led to untold fatalities in completely mundane situations. Pranks, schoolyard hazing, angry fights, screaming matches, work disputes…someone with the ability to do this has probably done this at a bad time. Even if your main character would never, someone else definitely has. It’s impossible to believe or pretend that only responsible people would use magic, or even that responsible magic-users would always act responsibly. That’s just part of the fabric of such a setting.
Because fantasy is terrifying.
Because it’s also horror.