Film As Myth

(This was first published on this website in 2014.)

“And just as all things have come from this one thing, through the meditation of one mind, so do all created things originate from this one thing, through transformation. … In this way was the universe created. From this comes many wondrous applications, because this is the pattern.”
The Emerald Tablet of Hermes

We find an overwhelmingly repetitive pattern in the fictional works of man, portraying what Joseph Campbell called the “Hero’s Journey” and the “Monomyth.” There are many variations on the theme, but generally, these stories involve the protagonist journeying to an unknown, hidden realm to confront gods, demons, or the monarchs of the other side. Here he must battle with these villains, gaining thereby a magical treasure, which he then takes back to Earth with him. Or, conversely, sometimes he becomes the monarch of other side, effecting a revolution, and remains there.

In these stories, there is always a mysterious guide for the hero that comes along in the very beginning. This person (often using trickery) beckons the protagonist to his appointed adventure, and shows up at specific times throughout the story to provide further aid. The white rabbit plays this role in Lewis Carroll’s story, leading Alice down the rabbit hole to revelation….

I do think that there is a primordial mythos behind all of the stories told by humans. What I think Joseph Campbell was saying in his brilliant analysis of universal themes in world mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, was not that every single myth tells the same story, but that there is one grand story of which they are all a part, which transcends and unifies them all. Like the tapestry woven by Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, the story of the Monomyth can never be finished. For I think that if it were ever completed, that would mean that, like Odysseus, the hero would have to be officially declared dead, lost in the Abyss, and all hope for the redemption of the world would be gone.

The thesis I wish to put forward is that, in our most archetypal stories (from old folklore and mythology to fairy tales, and even modern TV show, films and novels), human beings tend to tell tales of adventures into another dimension, which seems conceptually to be one and the same with the realm of the dead, the astral realm, and the dreamy realm of sleep. But in each of these stories, the hero or heroine is in fact being enticed to sacrifice his or her life, including blood, flesh, and soul, to the inhabitants of the underworld (be they gods, demons, vampires, giants, or whatever). Their need to feast on these things is based on the fact that they have no life in themselves, so thus they have no blood, and no souls. This is not always overtly stated in the story, but is nonetheless frequently implied.

I also think that the story itself is meant to have this effect on the person who hears, reads, or watches it. Stories are inherently hypnotic. They pull your soul out of your body as you mentally pretend to be another person in another situation. They are vehicles for psychic travel. Films are particularly potent in this regard because they cause total immersion into the fictional world.

I have been tracking this pattern in films in particular for the last several years, filling several notebooks with my copious observations. Here are some of the elemental patterns that I have found most prevalent or noteworthy:

The Faustian Pact: This is often how the adventure begins. The main character, whether wittingly or not, offers his soul in exchange for the ability to solve his biggest problem. He then begins his quest, which involves leaving his body to go to the other side, while a demon takes over his body in his stead. Seconds, Phantom of the Paradise, The Order, and of course Doctor Faustus and Faust all contain this aspect overtly. It is covertly hidden in many, many others. The Initiator often shows up as soon as this wish and this willingness is verbally expressed, most usually in jest, as when Jack Nicholson says he would “sell his soul” for a drink in The Shining.

Richard Burton as Faustus prepares to sign the pact with blood from a freshly-cut wound, from Doctor Faustus, 1967

Faust about to sign the contract, obviously copied from the one signed by Fr. Urbain Grandier, in Svanmajer’s Faust

Faust’s signature on the contract, from Svankmajer’s Faust

The Initiator: As I mentioned before, this is the trickster figure who, like Hermes the Psychopompus (guide to the underworld), suddenly appears to the main character and entices them to begin the quest for the treasure. A puckish character, like Honeythorn Gump in Legend or Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, often plays the role, or a white rabbit, a la Alice in Wonderland (a device reused in The Matrix and Donnie Darko. A sinister seductress will sometimes also do the trick, like the green-eyed woman in The Ninth Gate. Sometimes it is just a wise guide, such as Virgil in Inferno.

Honeythorn Gump, the puckish trickster-initiator from Legend

Tumnus, the satyr trickster guide in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

The creepy rabbit guide in Donnie Darko

Thievery: The theme of thievery is prominent in these stories, a reference to the primordial story of penetrating Eden and stealing the fruit of the Tree of Life. Just as mythological heroes like Hermes and Prometheus were renowned for stealing things from the gods, so are the heroes and initiator figures in these archetypal films often portrayed as thieves. The initiators in Time Bandits were thieves. The Never-Ending Story begins with a child’s theft of a rare book.

The initiate in The Holy Mountain is a vagabond who is inducted into the mysteries of alchemy because he boldly penetrated the “Holy Mountain” (shown as an obelisk with a portal to an another dimension at its top) by jumping onto a giant fishhook that was lowered from the portal with food and a bag of gold attached (trickster imagery). He was looking to find more gold and steal it. When introduced to the other students in his secret alchemy class (see the “Scholomance” below), is told by his teacher:

“To accomplish the alchemical work, you will have these companions. They are thieves like you, but on another level. They are the most powerful people on the planet: industrialists and politicians.”

The alchemical gold was of course offered on the hook as a trick by his trickster initiator teacher to get him there. As the teacher explains to him:

“The fish thinks about its hunger, not about the fisherman. It is the master who seeks the disciple.”

The thief ride’s the trickster’s dangling fishhook to the portal into The Holy Mountain

The Portal: This is the opening through which the hero travels between the worlds. Stargate, Alice in Wonderland, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Never-Ending Story, Time Bandits, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and, of course, the numerous films called Portal have very obvious portals. Then there’s the “Rainbow Bridge” from Thor (and Norse mythology) that connects the worlds, as well as the ladder between Olympus and Hades in Disney’s Hercules. Mirrors often act as portals, as in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and many of Jean Cocteau’s films, (including Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast, and Blood of a Poet).

The Good Sword: What alchemist Fulcanelli called “Le Bon Saber,” this is an instrument which cuts open a portal to another dimension. Characters are shown cutting holes into walls with knives, or drawing doors on walls to pass through, in Pan’s Labyrinth, Svankmajer’s Faust, The Forbidden Zone, and many others. It is the Flaming Sword, shaped like a lightning bolt, which cut a hole around paradise and created space-time, separating Adam and Eve from their home, who were trapped outside of the sacred boundary. It is the power by which the Cheshire Cat made a shortcut through the trunk of a tree and allowed Alice to go straight to the labyrinth that led to the castle of the Queen of Hearts. It is the Spear of Destiny which wounded the Fisher King of the Grail legend, and caused the kingdom to fall into a death-like coma. It is that which pierced the side of the man on the cross and changed the order of the universe forever.

A knife opens a portal to Satan’s world of illusions at the opera house in Svankmajer’s Faust

Child Sacrifice: If the main character is unwilling to sacrifice himself for what he wants, he may (often in metaphor) offer a child or other beloved person in his stead. However, this is more often portrayed as something the villain has done, or is about to do, if the hero does not step in and save the child (as in the film Willow). The abuse or enslavement of a child is also shown to represent this. Often the victim is a prince or princess that has been separated from his royal biological family and must endure the humiliation of being raised as a commoner.

Rape: This is when an abduction brings the main character into the underworld, a la the rape of Persephone. Either the main character is abducted, or ventures into the realm beyond to rescue someone who has been. The word “rape” is related to “rapture “ and meant “to be taken away” for the purposes of sex or marriage. Originally the word had nothing to do with the consent, or lack thereof, on the part of the female. The word later took on the meaning of “elicit sexual union” and generally referred to forbidden marriages between particular tribes (as the term is frequently used in the Bible). What it really refers to is a marriage between a mortal and a being from the other side.

The most clear example of this is Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, based on Jewish folk tales about Lilith (a mysterious “second wife” in the underworld to the men in the stories). Legend shows tells the Persephone story almost exactly: the Dark Lord kidnaps a maiden and takes her to the underworld to be his wife, and while she’s there, the once beautiful land above becomes barren, covered in snow and ice.

A man is forced to marry a zombie a la Jewish Lilith folk tales in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

Beauty and the Beast is another, clearly a version of the Persephone story, with the “Beast” being Hades, who abducts Beauty and traps her in his kingdom, where she ultimately falls in love with him in spite of this. The Phantom of the Opera is another Persephone story, with the kingdom of Hades being the Phantom’s realm beneath the opera house, where he entraps and seduces the heroine of the tale. But in tales of chivalry, it is the abduction of the princess by a beast that always entices the knight to venture forth on his quest. The abduction of Helen of Troy was the beginning of adventure for many a Greek hero.

The Hidden Center: The journey to where the treasure is involves finding a place that is at the center of everything, but somehow hidden from view. Sometimes the center is always moving, as in the films Krull and Stalker. Sometimes it is just shown to be in an almost impenetrable labyrinth, or hidden behind a series of gates that need to be unlocked as in The Ninth Gate, and the Temple of 1000 Doors of The Never-Ending Story. This is because the center is wherever the treasure is. When the treasure is removed, the walls of the structure often immediately begin to collapse, as seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and many others.

The Black Lodge: This is a version of the Hidden Center. It is the Dark Lord’s castle, often also the location of the treasure. The castle must be infiltrated by the hero and the treasure stolen out from under his nose somehow. The term “Black Lodge” comes from Western occultism, where it is a name for secret societies of a dark spiritual nature. In the Twin Peaks television series, this was literally the name of the place were the town’s evil spirits were said to reside, a legend attributed in the film to local Indians.

In Time Bandits, it was the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, invisible and protected by a force field, within which its master is imprisoned. It is a house of illusions, where people are trapped by spells, sometimes for centuries or more. It can be a house that seems alive and conscious, like in Beauty and the Beast (both the Disney and Cocteau versions), where the objects all have a life of their own. In the films The Dunwich Horror (the latest remake), The Number 23, The Game, The Forgotten and Dark City, the wallpaper is removed from the interior of a structure to reveal the horrifying truth of reality beneath.

Jim Carrey finds the truth beneath the wallpaper in The Number 23

The truth under the wallpaper in The Forgotten

The truth behind the Shell Beach billboard in Dark City about to be revealed

The Unreal World: There is another dimension that acts upon and feeds off of our own, which the hero must travel to, interact with or conquer in order to achieve his goal. Alice in Wonderland, Malpuertis, Dark City, The Matrix, The 13th Floor, The Adjustment Bureau, Inland Empire. Events in our world effect things over there, and vice versa.

The Compass of the Wise: This is an object, usually given to the hero near the beginning of his quest, that helps him or her navigate the chaotic and ever-changing path through the Abyss to the center where the treasure is. We see this in The Golden Compass, Coraline, The Never-Ending Story, and Pinnochio. It is often represented as an “all-seeing eye,” like the one eye shared by the three Graeae witches of Greek mythology, used similarly in The Dark Crystal. It is also shown as a map in The Road to El Dorado and Time Bandits.

The “Alithiometer” from The Golden Compass

The One True Compass from Hercules and the Lost Kingdom

time-bandits-map-9851656 The map from Time Bandits

The Ark: This is the vehicle that transports the hero of the story from this world to the next and back. Often this is portrayed as being swallowed by a large animal, a la Jonah’s whale, a representation of Leviathan. Yellow Submarine, Contact, Peter Pan, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Time Bandits and Jason and the Argonauts have very obvious arks. The Jonah’s whale symbol shows up in Time Bandits and Star Wars.

The Scholomance: This is a secret school, hidden on the other side, where the main character goes to learn how to be a magician. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was called the “Scholomance,” and it was taught by the Devil. Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter stories, the “Unseen University” of Terry Pratchett’s novels (the source of movies such as Hogfather).

Also, autodidactism (learning by yourself) with help from the Devil through spirit communication sometimes presented in these films as a form of the Scholomance archetype. This happens in The Never-Ending Story, where the main character skips school and steals a book so he can teach himself (with the help of a teacher spirit from beyond the veil) how to use the power of imagination to affect reality. Through out his adventure he rides on a “Luck Dragon,” a clear reference to “riding the dragon” as the star pupil of Stoker’s Scholomance was said to. In Time Bandits, the main character, eager to learn more about history and frustrated by his dull, incurious parents, is taken on an adventure through space and time to learn about it personally.

Atreyu rides the Luck Dragon in The Never-Ending Story

Power of Imagination: One of the very clear lessons of the Scholomance is that you create your own reality through your perception, belief, and willpower. Stalker, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The Never-Ending Story all refer to this. Disney films tend to push this theme, such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Sleeping God/Goddess: An important monarch, god, or royal heir has been trapped in a “death-like” sleep in a hidden tomb or prison, an eternal coma, waiting for someone to release them. Thor, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos all contain this theme.

Return of the King: This is the destiny of all of these exiled monarchs-in-waiting (mentioned above): they must bide their time on the other side until the moment comes for them to travel back to the other world and reclaim their rightful inheritance there. (This may be rooted in a fantasy of Satan storming Eden to take back his former glory).

Rise of the Fallen Kingdom: This is an extension of both the “Return of the King” and “Sleeping God” themes. The king and the kingdom itself have both been exiled, fallen into the underworld. They plot to “rise again,” like Satan in Hell, and Cthulhu in the sunken city of R’lyeh.

Body-Hopping: The mark of a true adept in many of these films is the ability to live forever, either by somehow regenerating one’s body, or by taking someone else’s, as in Mephisto Waltz. A method of rebirth through alchemical sex magic (to give birth to one’s own new bodily host) is referred to in Fellini’s Casanova.

Advertisement for Mephisto Waltz

Men in Black: Pale, unusually tall people in black, formal dress are shown as a higher (although sometimes sinister) and hidden race or cabal of mysterious, truly creepy people acting behind the scenes to influence reality, such as the Strangers in Dark City. There is a character like this in The Box. A team of men in suits (though not black) from another dimension tinkering with reality behind the scenes was the subject of The Adjustment Bureau. In many films, their behavior is usually awkward and their style of dress appears inappropriate for the time period, or any time period, as the so-called “Men in Black” of UFO legends are said to be. The good guys are shown this way in The Matrix, and, of course, the concept of Men in Black was made sport of in the Will Smith film series of that name.

Arlington Steward, the “Man in Black” from The Box

Vampirism: In so many of these stories, some of the characters, usually the bad guys, are really undead or in a “death-like sleep” and must somehow feed off of the souls or life-essence of others. We see this of course in vampire and zombie stories, as well as many other types of films. Having offered their souls in the Faustian pact to obtain their current position of power, these villains now must feed upon the rest of humanity. In SyFy’s Alice miniseries, the Queen is feeding off the the distilled essences of the emotions of the people she has trapped in the casino. In Dark City, the “Strangers” live in the dead bodies of Earth’s humans, and they are doing experiments on their souls to somehow try to extract its essence to help them live longer, because their race is dying without souls of their own.

The Deadly Feast: Eating the food of the underworld will get you trapped there, as in the case of Persephone getting trapped in the kingdom of Hades because she ate six pomegranate seeds. Spirited Away, Portal, Alice in Wonderland, Pan’s Labyrinth, Legend, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardobe all include this theme.

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