The Psychological Origins of Fantasy

Let’s begin by defining the word “fantasy” since obviously there are many usages of it these days and while all of them may have a similar thread, I think you’ll agree the word itself conjures up a particular idea. Fantasy refers to a dream world, an imaginary universe in which various things – from physics to personal relationships, from creatures to economies – are all set to the liking or interest of the dreamer. In many people’s minds, fantasy worlds often placed in a Medieval setting, have dragons and great treasures to be found, and physics is sometimes influenced or dictated by unexplanably simple mechanics called “magic”. Not all fantasy worlds are limited to this realm. Some take place in outerspace, some in the future, and some in a galaxy far, far away. In every case, all of them differ significantly from current human history (even if they “take place” in the real world at a certain historic time, such as yesterday).

There are several factors influencing fantasy from a psychological perspective, and we must be careful when identifying them because it is easy to mistake their roles. Ultimately, the underlying causes boil down to two: the dissatisfaction with life and the creativity of the mind. The second of these is simply the power of human imagination. The more ideas you have, the more wild your imagination can be. Thus, the multiplicity of ideas in fantasy comes from the exploration of new ideas and the education in old ones. Historical studies are a great source for ideas for fantasy, and consequently, most fantasies take place in a setting very similar to a historical setting on earth. In fact, it almost seems out of place or “against the theme” if a fantastic idea deviates too much from the expected historical elements on which it was originally based. For example, it would be awkward to imagine knights at a magic round table suddenly having to fight space aliens or meeting with mobsters at a retro diner on Mt Olympus. Not that it couldn’t be a fantasy, but the mind of the person dreaming up the fantasy usually picks something it is most comfortable with, something with some sort of order.

Order is a significant part of fantasy, and it hints at the fact that the desire for order – and the desire for God, I would add – is very fundamental to human beings. Most fantasies have a simple table of relations, be it the rock-paper-scissors rules of magic or the rules of social interaction that dictate who can love whom. There is also the organization of parties (or nations) into simple categories, each of which has its specialties and craftsman or personalities. Heroes and heroines may not find themselves limited by such categories – and are often depicted as rogues – not because of the distaste in order, but because the fantasy itself is a means of freedom of the mind for the individual dreaming it all up. Their favorite characters are supposed to be free.

This brings us to the next cause for fantasy: dissatisfaction with reality.

Fantasy stems in part from the dissatisfaction in life. The more people are unhappy with the world in which they live, the more they wish for something better. Moreover, the more trapped people feel, the more they seek some kind of escape. Fantasy, in a way, acts as a kind of escape.

In truth, the world is very miserable, and there are many reasons why people would want an escape. It’s easy to mock people pursuing fantasies when you have a good life. The truth is, people pursuing such fantasies are missing something in their own life: a reason to live. Many people have resorted to video games and fantasies because it creates a world without the same limitations as the real world. For example, in the real world, you cannot murder, rape, or steal. In the fantasy world, all deaths are justified or “part of the story”, the person of most beauty/handsomeness picks you by default, and everything in the world is for you to use (not to mention conveniently located). General sin is effectively “impossible”, and perhaps the only sins you may likely commit are things like betrayal, and even that may have some “reasonable” explanation. But the freedom gets better than this. Even if you aren’t someone who dreams of committing such vile acts in another world, the fantasy world offers so many things you can’t ignore. For example, fantasy worlds often offer a goal, a destiny, something higher – maybe even heavenly – and there is no mystery on how to reach it (or if there is, it is predestined to be solved). Moreover, fantasy offers freedom of action, freedom of real-estate, freedom of exchange, freedom from social class limitations. You can explore the world however you like, buy and sell whatever you want, and talk to (or even marry) whoever you want. In contrast with fantasy, reality is filled with limitations on these things. You can’t just wander across someone else’s yard and play with their chickens. Buying anything requires money that you may have to obtain from boring, monotonous labor. Social status or race or sex often prevents you from just going up and having a decent conversation with anyone you want. If your real life is plagued by such limitations – or you are aware of them more keenly than others – fantasy will be quite attractive.

A number of common problems in society form the basis of fantasies, and I wish psychologists would pay attention to this because such fantasies hold some critically valuable information. For example, in most fantasies, the main character is alone. If in the real world, you don’t have your own house or you aren’t isolated from your neighbors (maybe you live in a condo), such solitude might be a dream come true. In nations in which housing is becoming more urban and more and more people are finding themselves in apartments or small dwelling places, fantasies about wide open spaces and living in solitude start to become more prevalent.

Before I close, there are a number of other points I want to make.

First: Alone, an imagination full of ideas might apply those ideas to reality. Alone, dissatisfaction with life would only lead to depression (and perhaps suicide) in a world of no escape. Combined, the imagination and the dissatisfaction with life lead to fantasy.

Second: The human desire for newness is foundational to the invention of fantasy, but it isn’t really a cause; only a tool.

Thirdly: We should try not to confuse ancient fantasies with more modern ones. Ancient fantasies may be more akin to literary works of art than actual dreams of a better world. That doesn’t mean that ancient people didn’t have fantasies – and it’s likely they did.

Finally: The Middle Ages were terrible. Unlike in fantasies, the enemy wasn’t obvious, you couldn’t pick a trade (you had to be an apprentice), you were stuck in a class system (no rising the ranks), and the streets were covered with poop (no kidding – people dumped it out the window). There were no magic healing potions, and alchemists didn’t yet know that alchemy could only happen on a nuclear scale, not a molecular one.

I do enjoy Medieval fantasy as a setting as much as I enjoy other types of fantasy, but for me, this only stems from my architectural interests and the rich details I imagine in a scene, not from the actual experience (which was likely rather miserable).

There is an escape from fantasy…. Ready for it?

Now, the first thing you might be wondering is “Why escape from the escape?” Well, for one thing, the real world isn’t going away, and eventually, it will catch up with you. You might want to enjoy fantasy while it lasts, but the cold face of reality will greet you again.
Second, reality actually isn’t bad. It’s just complicated to the point where it doesn’t make sense to the average person how it all is supposed to go together for good. I can sympathize. After all, I live here too.

I believe the key to escaping fantasy is the very thing sought in fantasy: hope. We humans are desperately looking for some sort of hope in the future. I found the best one: Hope in God. One day, the nations will collapse into chaos and people will be homeless and starving. It won’t matter for me because I know my destiny: I – along with my brothers and sisters in Christ – will get to become one with God. The more I believe God is taking care of me in both this life and the next, the less I dream of fantasy. The more I understand – and even appreciate – my pain and suffering in this life, the more I’m comfortable with it and see it as bringing me closer to that ultimate goal of unity with perfection. (Yes, pain is a good thing.) I’ve found my true desire of freedom – freedom of choice, not liberty – is something I can pursue that people can’t take away. I’ve come to the point where fantasies themselves don’t satisfy or even compare. They are meaningless, endless inventions of the mind. In the end, fantasy is only what it’s ever been: just a dream.

One last note to be thorough. The modern era is full of fantasies. I believe this has to do with the ability to share ideas made possible by the internet (no longer limited to just books) and the popularity of video games. There is a correlation (of the rise of fantasy) with the hopelessness/meaninglessness of living in modern times, but alone, it’s not the only cause of the popularity of fantasy. Thus, other factors skew the picture. I have tried to be clear here. I do not cite sources because I find being honest with myself is more trustworthy than a survey of people whose integrity is unknown or who don’t perform self-analysis to the same degree I do. Not that I’m the prime authority for you to trust; you can always ask yourself.


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