Wegierski: A Poisoned Imagination? Examining the excess of “late modern” imageries in various subgenres of the fantastic

This article looks at so-called late modern societies – especially America and Canada – that, it could be argued, have become increasingly influenced by an excess of dark and disorienting imageries, especially in the various subgenres of the fantastic. 

Among the most prominent and absorbing of these subgenres are fantasy role-playing games (RPG’s) such as Dungeons and Dragons, launched in 1974. D & D arose from a convergence of interest in historical boardgaming, medieval miniatures gaming, and the huge popularity of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1960s.

As Dungeons and Dragons became increasingly prominent in the 1980s, some concerns arose about the allegedly occult nature of the game, fuelled by a number of very highly publicized cases of teenage suicides. Indeed, there was a made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters, which explored the most prominent of these suicides. However, in relation to what was to follow in the 1990s and later, the mostly Tolkienian role-playing background or world prevalent among gamers in the early 1980s, had been very reserved indeed.

D & D, as it is probably most commonly experienced today, is far removed from the charming, graceful Tolkienian mythos, while also lacking the Nietzschean textures of (for example) Robert E. Howard’s Conan vision. It is often enough repeated that D & D often amounts to the personalized power-fantasies (tinged with sexual elements) of frustrated and often highly intelligent adolescent North American males. It could be argued that D & D typically conforms to the kind of vision of open-ended progress, amorphousness, florid lifestyles, and wish-fulfillment fantasies, which have increasingly come to characterize the late-modern world.

The 1990s have featured a plethora of ever-darker RPG worlds. There have also been parallel developments in other genres, notably science fiction and fantasy writing, film, and television; and the comic-book genre. The comic-book genre is indeed known for its pioneering embrace of various forms of the macabre. It has also been characterized by a “dark turn” in the portrayal of superheroes such as Batman (typified by the breakthrough graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns) or even Superman (where Superman, for example, was subjected to death). The Spiderman comic also went into a period of gritty realism, where its lead figure was plagued with doubt, and afflicted with substance abuse. Horror writing, film, and television, have also intensified, probably far beyond what the older writers and directors would have countenanced. All these tendencies are magnified across not infrequently blood-soaked video, computer and interactive Internet games.

Computer and Internet games have become a huge, burgeoning area, partially eclipsing the dice, pencil, and paper-based games that are played face-to-face. It may be noted that there is occurring across the Internet gaming culture, a decrease of interest in straight historical games, in favor of so-called First Person Shooters and sci-fi/fantasy. Many games which are ostensibly based on a science fiction background, are in fact dark space fantasy, dark fantasy, or horror.

There has also been the tendency of the vampire emerging as one of the central icons of our age, called the ultimate unattainable sexual fantasy and the focus of numerous subgenres, including vampire romances and vampire erotica. Among the more successful vampire television series was Forever Knight, which portrayed the half-shaded figure of a “vampire-cop”. Now, of course, there is the Twilight book and movie series, and the two prominent television series, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. Admittedly, the portrayal of vampires today ranges across a very wide spectrum.

Among the most popular RPG’s today are Deadlands: The Weird West (from Pinnacle Entertainment Group), based on the premise that an earthquake sinks California and releases a plague of evil spirits and occult energy in the 1870s, the undead walk the earth, and so forth.

Another very popular RPG, loosely based on The X-Files television series, is Conspiracy X (from Eden Studios). The curiously named Eden Studios has also brought out the role-playing games, C.J. Carella’s WitchCraft; Extinction (Conspiracy X, one hundred years in the future); Armageddon: The End Times (subtitled, A Game of War, Myth and Horror); All Flesh Must Be Eaten (“the zombie survival horror RPG”); as well as Abduction: The Card Game (humans trying to escape from alien abductors, the so-called Grays of UFOlogy). A somewhat earlier X-Files-type RPG was Don’t Look Back: Terror is never far behind (from Mind Ventures).

The major RPG industry leader White Wolf has a whole World of Darkness where one can roleplay vampires, werewolves, magicians, wraiths, mummies, demons, and various types of “fey”. (The portrayal of the elves is as virtual creatures of horror, again much different from Tolkien’s vision.)  White Wolf has also brought out a sci-fi role-playing game, Trinity, based on the premise of Psions struggling against Aberrants, who are twisted former humans with superhuman powers.

FASA (another major company) had earlier supported the sci-fi miniatures system, Vor: The Maelstrom, whose premise was that evil energies had broken the Earth up into a twisted shell, and a few humans clung precariously to survival. One of the flagship RPG systems of FASA had been Shadowrun: Where Man Meets Magic and Machine, originally launched in 1989. Shadowrun is mainly based on the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction, however, it introduces a further twist on the theme. There is the introduction of so-called metahumanity (elves, dwarves, orks, trolls), all manner of other creatures of legend (dragons, etc.), and of the possibility of magical practice for most beings, including normal humans — into a high-tech, gritty cyberpunk world. The setting’s original premise for this evolution is an upsurge of an enormous wave of magical and occult energies around the year 2011 (the date based on the mysterious long cycles of the Mayan calendar).

Some might suggest that our own world today is one “where man meets magic and machine.” There is a burgeoning of the most fantastic occult tendencies today, combined with surreal advances in technology. Shadowrun may both point to an increasingly dystopic world, as well as possibly offer some aid in understanding the parameters of such a future, under siege from both the hyper-irrational (the occult, conspiracy-theories, extreme forms of popular music), and the hyper-rational (hyper-technology, socio-technical controls, and corporate/bureaucratic rule).

Another major company is Games Workshop, based in Great Britain, which supports boardgames, miniatures, and RPG’s based on its WARHAMMER and WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. backgrounds. The WARHAMMER background is dark-tinged fantasy. The WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) universe is utterly ferocious, a very dark space fantasy, summarized by the phrase: “In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war.” In such a universe, there is no place for soft religions or soft emotions. Earth’s stellar empire is guarded by ultra-elite, very heavily armored, Space Marines, who battle against all manner of hideous foes (Genestealers, Tyrannids, and so forth) reminiscent of the Alien/s movie series.

There is also Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, the main RPG based on H.P. Lovecraft’s delirious horror-stories. The central premise of Lovecraft’s writing is the existence of malevolent, very powerful, demonic creatures that will eventually come to dominate Earth – “when the stars are right”. These creatures have “slept” for many millennia, but are now beginning to awaken, encouraged by cultists grouped in various cabals. Pagan Publishing has produced a supplement to that game, called Delta Green, which enhances the Cthulhu mythos with extensive, surreal conspiracies. Delta Green is the name of the fictitious super-secret U.S. government agency – that now operates in deep cover – which is trying to combat the rising tide of evil.

Steve Jackson Games has brought out In Nomine, portraying the struggle between angels and demons in the current-day world, but in a manner very far from (and quite offensive to) Christian belief. Steve Jackson Games has also pioneered, in a tongue-in-cheek but somewhat disturbing fashion, the whole surreal conspiracy concept, typified by their Illuminati games and settings. There have also been some other somewhat disturbing modules in Steve Jackson Games’ Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS), notably Black Ops, a concept based on the premise of a “secret super-agency” fighting against hidden aliens and supermonsters in the current-day world. The very popular CthulhuPunk combines the dark near-future cyberpunk genre, with the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos.

It should be noted further that the whole science fiction subgenre of cyberpunk (pioneered by, among others, William Gibson in Neuromancer, 1984), is often characterized by highly transgressive bio-tech (genetic manipulations of the sort which, e.g., give a human being one lizard-like arm), and nano-tech (the notion of micromachines altering human mind, body, and perception). There is often in cyberpunk the notion of human beings shoving various things into their brains and bodies (from mind-altering drugs, to electromechanical implants of various kinds). Some of the GURPS modules contain the ideas of often gruesome genetic engineering – or “gengineering” (Bio-Tech), and of technological and magical manipulation, i.e., so-called techno-magic (Technomancer). All this points to the malleability of human beings/human nature as one of the main themes of both cyberpunk, and of current-day society’s “future shock”.

Another type of roleplaying is LARP’s (Live Action Roleplaying) games. This is certainly taking the RPG concept even further. Among the most popular LARP’s are those involving horror subgenres such as the Cthulhu mythos or vampires.

Three main conclusions can be drawn from this burgeoning tide of society’s playing around with dark themes.

First of all, there is the uttermost and thoroughgoing atheism and/or nihilism of many young people today. For such people, the notion of surrounding, powerful dark forces is the basis only of diversionary, jaded entertainments. It should be made clear that they do not actually believe in vampires, demons, and conspiracies — but are even more remote from believing in God.

Secondly, RPG’s can flourish only in a mostly history-less milieu, where there are few identifications with the long history of one’s nation or people.

The third point is that, in the late modern milieu, RPG’s serve a role similar to the Violent Passion Surrogate (VPS) described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The life of these young people is in many cases all too comfortable, all too boring, and lacks real meaning. The RPG supplies a kind of VPS, ersatz meaning, and (in some cases) “sense of history” (virtually all RPG’s of whatever subgenre have highly elaborate backgrounds). One notices the catchphrase of the Call to Power II computer game from Activision – “History is what you make it.”

It may be remembered that the advertising catchphrase of the hit-movie, The Matrix, which brilliantly portrayed a dark future based on extrapolating both AI (artificial intelligence) and VR (Virtual Reality), was simply that: “Reality is a thing of the past”. Our own life in late modernity is often so fluid and malleable that it may seem that there is no “hard reality” to ever get hold of. The information traffic we are all caught in leads to a “postmodern blur”. The notion of reality may be tied to the sense of both a personal and historical past, of having a sense of ongoing continuity in our daily living. Insofar as we become wrapped up in a never-ending series of fantasies and phantasms, our sense of reality becomes profoundly fractured.

It could be argued that late modernity, as expressed through audiovisual, electronic and role-playing media, effectively externalizes and commodifies the imaginary, the imagination, and the imaginarium (a person’s imaginative faculties and processes) as a construct OUTSIDE of the person’s own creative capacities. There is in most cases a profound difference between reading a book, and experiencing multi-media. The former usually involves an active exercise of one’s imaginative faculties, whereas the latter is usually a passive reception of someone else’s imagery, even when there is supposed interactivity provided.

It could be argued that a sense of imagination usually strongly co-exists with a sharp sense of reality. In a world where image and reality blend into a postmodern blur, real imagination and creativity are probably as difficult to achieve as a sharp sense of reality.

One may be reminded how much of the late modern world is based on so-called branding, selling the image of a product or celebrity, usually for driving forward or increasing commercial gain. Among the consumerist and consumptionist pushing of commercial brands, there is the mass-marketing of numerous entertainment franchises – some of which are based on a once relatively-original, initial conceptual impulse – while others are commercially-driven right from the start. In both cases, the multiplication of images and concrete objects related to the franchise is so overwhelming, that it becomes extremely pervasive across much of the culture. (Only very few of these franchises, such as, most prominently, that of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda mythos, have strongly traditionalist aspects.) Truly serious religious and national impulses, which have developed slowly over centuries, tend to wane in the face of these highly ephemeral, but often fanatically followed brands and franchises. There is a tendency for the disappearance of non-materialist outlooks (such as those tied to the duties and obligations of traditional religion or nation), in favor of a vast orgy of material consumption and a frenzy of imaginative overloading and short-circuiting that often amounts to intellectual narcissism.

VR offers the idea of solipsistic self-creation where the notion of human nature and natural limits has been utterly abolished. The computer-generated images often purveyed in current-day sci-fi movies (and television programs, especially the new crop of “cyber” programs for children), are often grotesquely unnatural, transgressive, and rather horrific, especially if considered in relation to those sights regularly to be seen in the human and natural worlds. They strongly project a Gnostic, pseudo-spiritual transcendence of the material world.

VR is obviously linked to the postmodern (or hypermodern) notions of radical autonomy, and of continual deconstruction, self-construction, and reconstruction, unhampered by God, nature, or history. The notion of the radically disembodied self (divorced from family, history, and religion) is inevitably amorphous. While elevating individualism above all else, the self in late modern society becomes a shallow, banal construct, filled with mass-media images and concepts and pseudo-collectivities, often of the lowest common denominator. So, the cult of individualism of late modernity actually leads to an atrophy of true individuality and character, and the submersion of most people in a series of very low, herd- or mass-mentalities.

One may wonder what the ultimate point of life becomes, if it consists of a series of ever more jaded entertainments and diversions. Are there not some better endeavors in which one’s time could be spent? It could be argued that, in the end, carrying out the real tasks of life, and trying to gain true knowledge about the world and our human state, is not only worthier, but more truly meaningful. Or, to put it in the current idiom (taken from the cutting-edge cyberpunk work, Smoking Mirror Blues, by Ernest Hogan): “Reality is the only game worth playing”.

Mark Wegierski 

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