Every weekend, I used to watch the Saturday afternoon creature feature. I especially loved the classic Universal monsters – Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein: those movies seemed to take place in an alternate, black and white world of antiquity, magic, and monsters – a blend of the early 20th century world and a parallel one, that grew over time to include demons, angels, wizards, witches, and a host of other creatures that lived somewhere between between reality and imagination. My stubbornly preserving this world – protecting it – is about more than maintaining an imaginative link to my childhood: it’s symptomatic of a universal longing to believe that there’s more to the world than what we see – to unearth the mysteries that we sense, just below the surface. To discover the secret world.
In fiction, the secret world falls under the umbrella of urban fantasy, and it’s all around us, in novels like Neverwhere or Deadly Curiosities, movies like Hellraiser and Hellboy, television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Supernatural, computer games like Silent Hill, and RPGs like Call of Cthulhu. The secret world is something that exists just around the corner, that you might get to through an incantation, or with a mystical key, or just by being in the right place at the right time. The secret world exists parallel to ours, just outside of the range of our peripheral vision.
Though the secret world may be called urban fantasy, it’s not always urban, and not always (high/low) fantasy: it’s real life, with an additional layer. We might live our whole lives and not discover it, and those lives would be exactly the same as the lives that we’re living, right now. The secret world isn’t a world of superheroes that you read about in the paper, kaiju that knock down skyscrapers, or zombies that overrun major cities. It’s an alternate reality that might actually exist: we just haven’t discovered it… yet.
The Secret World We Build
In fiction, the secret world has such a high degree of consistency that canon evolves: vampires and stakes, werewolves and silver bullets, secret societies, the rules of magic – all run in threads from one work to the next, sometimes woven in one way, sometimes another, occasionally breaking with tradition whole cloth. In as much as the secret world of fiction is built on a shared foundation, it becomes more real, even as it subtly shifts with different iterations: some werewolves look more canine, while others walk on two legs. Those hooded figures might be the Illuminati, or they might be followers of the old ones. Perhaps it’s a single chosen one, whose job is it to put down the supernatural threat, or maybe it’s a team.
The secret world of fiction is in turns wonderful, and terrifying. For some, however, fiction is not enough, and the secret world becomes not just something to be imagined, but something to be found.
Living with mystery is hard: we want things to make sense: to see patterns that reinforce our worldview, and to believe that those patterns are reality. When things are scary, painful, or hard to understand, it’s comforting to believe that everything happens for a reason. Believing in a secret world can offer answers to questions, or sometimes, permission to stop asking.
Belief without evidence is one way of reaching conclusions, either spiritual or concrete. Why do terrible things happen? Why is there no justice? Conspiracy theories often involve a secret world, where decisions are made and the fallout covered up. Believing in them lends meaning and allows for control. By inventing clarity where there is none, we reclaim individual power. Trading evidence for comfort and control is the stock and trade of alternative medicine and pseudoscience, where conception and intuition are all that are required for belief. The resulting “secret knowledge” reinforces the ego, by setting it apart and above. Seeing the outside world as a place full of secrets that “they” don’t want you to know is about creating a world that can be readily understood; it is a breadcrumb on the trail that leads to the source of the secret worlds of fiction, faith, and belief: the self.
The Secret World We Search For
Evolution is driven by the need to survive. Our ability to think is an important part of that, but not as important as, say, the ability to avoid getting eaten by a tiger; it’s more natural for humans as a species to look outward than in. The seed of the secret world isn’t located in the stories of fiction or the manifestations of faith, but in the images and ideas that exist inside ourselves that we see the world through, that lead to the stories we tell and to the beliefs that we hold, in an endless quest to understand the world and ourselves, and a failure to recognize the difference.
The secret world is the embodiment of our unspoken awareness that much of what makes us who we are – our personalities, our motivations – is hidden from us. The world of reality can be analyzed, catalogued, and known – to the extent that the human mind can comprehend it – but the nucleus of the secret world is buried in human consciousness, and it’s from there that we reach out, imagining and reimagining our world as we hunt for The Other inside of ourselves. It’s that other that we long for, the last piece of the puzzle that we try to put together throughout our lives, as we wander the dark streets and silent alleys of the secret world.
Here’s a trailer from The Secret World RPG (I just couldn’t resist). Fun game, but too many puzzles IMO.