Why Fantasy, Anyway?

Caroline HochmanAugust 13, 2016Myth and MagicFeatures
Why Fantasy, Anyway?

Buffy Summers. When hearing that name, many would respond “Who?,” “What?,” or maybe even “Um . . . Bless you?”

Some might think to themselves, “Oh yeah, that wacko vampire killer, or was it slayer . . . or maybe slasher?” Some might say, “Oh great, another nutty vampire-loving teenage cult-weirdo.”

But, to me, Buffy is sacred. She is strong, independent, and kind. When some obnoxious punk talks down to her or tries to take advantage of her, she always has a witty insult, or even a somewhat violent response, at the ready.

I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer — there’s no doubt about that — but what makes fantasy in general so appealing? Why are vampires, witches, zombies, dwarfs, elves, the rest of the things that go bump in the night, and the world they inhabit so entrancing? The answer is that either people want to escape life’s difficulties, or they want to add excitement to their otherwise overly rationalized, regulated lives.

German philosopher and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) believed the latter. He posited that after the Industrial Revolution the Western world became “disenchanted.” By that, he meant that the modern world had become predictable and regulated, so people increasingly searched for the mystery that had been removed from their lives in fantasy.

According to Weber, in the pre-industrial era, people’s lives were centered around tradition. The masses were governed by romantic, exciting concepts such as loyalty to one’s lord and dedication to a unique craft. Two of the most significant rules in the Code of Chivalry were to “live by honour and for glory” and to “serve the liege lord in valour and faith.” These sentiments stemmed from a strong sense of tradition that was rooted deeply in society and passed from generation to generation.

During and after the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, these ideals were replaced with a focus on productivity, and people developed a more rational worldview in response to the shift in attitude. This occurred partially because of the rise of capitalism, as the newfound dog-eat-dog attitude led to a much less idealized outlook on life in Europe. Workers’ industrial jobs were invaluable in the tough capitalist economy (especially in a market in which agriculture was being edged out by industry and mass production). In the new assembly line model, which involved little or no applied skill, workers were easily replaced, so these jobs were hard to keep. In addition, due to overpopulation, bosses had a huge pool of people to choose from.

All of these factors led to a very tough and uninviting work environment, which drove people to an increasingly regulated perspective on life. Weber posited that our rational society was “disenchanted,” meaning that the older mores, which had been mysterious and free, had been replaced with more practical values. With the birth of these values, the enchantment surrounding the old ones had died.

Since then, this mentality has only grown. Today, our lives are heavily scheduled, and our goal in many tasks is to do them as efficiently as possible. New technology is a perfect example of our obsession with efficiency and saving time. There are thousands of apps dedicated to efficiency or organizing our busy schedules. Our work is invading our homes through technology, such as email, and — maybe this is just me — our mornings are dependent on a constant stream of coffee. Our lives are regimented and based on “getting things done,” which is why fantasy is such a breath of fresh air for many people.

The lack of mystery in our secular, heavily structured world causes people to turn to fantasy in various media. Humans are drawn to the unknown, and let’s face it, there isn’t much in our daily lives that needs explaining. The wonder that we feel through mystery, or something fantastical, is something that we do not feel in our normal lives.

Escapism is another prominent explanation of why fantasy is so appealing. The significant distinction between escapism and a response to disenchantment is that the latter is centered around enhancing life, whereas escapism is about avoiding displeasing aspects of life. Studies have indicated that escapism is especially prevalent among teenagers, because at this crucial stage teens often feel overwhelmed by or unhappy with their lives.

Unfortunately, escapism can cause problems, as it is centered around avoiding reality. It is “a very unhealthy way of coping with the challenges in your life.” In addition, escapism does not exclusively include fantasy as a way of disappearing. Escapism is the broader term for mental distraction from unpleasantness, which can result in self-destructive behavior, such as abuse of drugs or alcohol. Fantasy is a safer way of escaping, whether through television, movies, or books.

Nowadays, like a modern-day assembly line, our lives are often like lists with endless bullet points. These problems can drive people towards fantasy either because of a yearning for the wonder and magic that our lives lack, or the desire to avoid or distract from the difficulties in our lives. Regardless of why people love fantasy, it is a haven for many. And (in the least creepy, fanatical way possible) that is what Buffy the Vampire Slayer is to me.

Caroline Hochman is 15 years old and lives in New York City. Her favorite subject is history, and her hobbies include playing violin and playing baseball.