I went to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness this weekend. (There are no spoilers ahead.) This was only my third trip to an indoor movie in 2 years. Part of my calculus was the fact that I’d be going to see my daughter in her first school musical later that evening. I obviously wasn’t going to miss that. At the same time, if I were to get sick later, I wouldn’t want that to retroactively cloud my memories of my daughter’s performance. But with multiple activities in the same weekend, I add plausible uncertainty without putting other people at additional risk (meaning it was very unlikely I could get infected at the movie in the morning and already be contagious by the evening). Is that kind of thinking scientific? Is it rational? Is it magical?
Naturally a film about a sorcerer and a witch had magic on my mind. I’m not a stranger to magical stories, from The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and some of the comics that inspired the film. But this time I found myself wondering just why there are so many stories about magic. I know, I know, the scientist who is skeptical of magic is a trope nearly as well-worn as stories about magic themselves. Nevertheless, I struggle to grasp the appeal. Magic is such an amorphous concept that I can’t exactly say the totality of what has been labeled as magic all isn’t real. But that’s also the quality which makes it hard for me to engage with.
There are the obvious fantasies; I don’t think we’re meant to believe that portals across space or between realms could be opened by knuckledusters or bedroom furniture. On the other hand, when folks like Alan Moore or Grant Morrison (comics writers both) talk about magic, some (I repeat, some) of it sounds like pop psychology or applied sociology just with a different vocabulary. After all, human minds are a causal feature of the world, and human minds respond to symbols by producing outcomes that are mechanically separated from the processes that generated the symbols. And before we formalized the methodology of science, magic and related pursuits like alchemy or astrology overlapped with investigations that produced knowledge about the physical world that we’d file under chemistry or astronomy.
The Marvel stories get a lot of mileage out of that ambiguity. Astrophysicist Jane Foster appears in the Thor films and periodically points out that what the Asgardians consider magic could also be described as quantum field generators or Einstein-Rosen bridges. And of course, what is an Einstein-Rosen bridge but a (so far purely theoretical) portal across space? We’re in the jurisdiction of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He also said, and Jane Foster quotes, “magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.” Much of the sorcery Doctor Strange performs feels like it could be covered by this assertion, especially in his first film. That story plays a lot like a martial arts film, and the sorcerers do a lot of conjuring of shields and weapons that you could choose to believe were just folded up real small or hidden up a sleeve instead of summoned out of thin air. Is that really any less plausible than when Tony Stark uses hand gestures to conjure a nanotech Iron Man gauntlet in Captain America: Civil War?
But then there is yet another sort of magic, the sort that invokes the power of demons or other spiritual entities. If we wish to be prosaic, we could trade the language of psychology or physics for the language of economics: prices and trades and contracts. This sort of magic comes up in the Bible; Saul’s visit to the witch of Endor in 1 Samuel stands out, but there are also rules and commandments and perhaps other narrative examples I’m forgetting. The clear message is that deals with the devil are wrong, and I’m not here to argue otherwise. But I will admit to not always being sure just how to engage with the spiritual realm as depicted in the Bible–the evil or the good–any more than with magic in fiction. I don’t wish to make such a deal, but would I know what it would look like if I came upon such an opportunity?
Although the music does not appear in the film, multiple elements of it brought to mind Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a musical exploration of unrequited love and descent into madness that culminates in a witches’ sabbath. Central to the piece is an idée fixe, a recurring melody symbolizing the central figure’s obsession. Obsession and its toll are central to the story of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as well. Is this part of the answer to my question? Are we being warned against a fixation that will drive us to any lengths to achieve? Does this obsession make us susceptible to putting stock in methods which have no grounding in physical cause and effect?
If that’s the case, do magical stories tell us something about the way out as well? After all, not all of them are secular or pagan; Lewis certainly didn’t intend counter-Biblical conclusions. He valued imagination, and perhaps there’s a hint there. What if we think of obsession (informally, not clinically) as a break down of imagination? Maybe we are failing to imagine that we could be happy any other way than with the object of our obsession. Maybe we become susceptible to moral compromise when we do not or cannot imagine a righteous path to our goal. Imagination also helps understand the fuzzy overlap of magic and science; innovation in science requires thinking beyond the limits of established mechanisms and known causal pathways, which may seem like magic at times until the data comes in (this is similar to Clarke’s second law).
There’s more than idle speculation here. Relatedly, research found that imagination can help to unlearn fear. We respond to threats faster than we reset after the threat has subsided; essentially, “once bitten, twice shy” has some neurological basis. Imagining a threat without experiencing the consequences of the threat facilitated that reset process. If an obsession is driven by fear–and there’s an argument for that in the case of the film’s example–then here’s a mechanism by which imagination can be protective. That might even suggest a beneficial role for this kind of horror filmmaking, as an exercise in imagining threats without experiencing harm. And while this film may not be the specific story we need, I suspect many of us (myself included) could use some help recalibrating our risk assessments after a prolonged period of threat response.