HOW FANTASY LITERATURE AND MEDIA CAN BENEFIT OUR MENTAL HEALTH
Oindrila Gupta, June 21, 2023
What if fantasy literature and media can be beneficial for our mental health, alongside being a huge amount of fun? Imagine a world where you can turn to your favourite show or series and know that, rather than doing the apparent ‘bad thing’ of binge-watching or reading to escape the current climate, you’re proactively supporting your own emotional wellbeing. You’re probably doing this right now without knowing it. We all have that feeling sometimes where we channel hop or we pick up a book, read the blurb, put it down, pick up another book… We don’t know what we need in that particular moment, but we know it’s not what was on one channel or within those pages. We can’t put our finger on it, but it’s something different, our unconscious (or subconscious, depending on which side of Freud you come down on) is letting us know we need something. How many times do we return to favourite books or tv shows (particularly in the Age of Netflix/Prime/BritBox/[insert any other streaming service here]) because they feel comforting? That foreknowledge of what’s going to happen is like a warm blanket but it doesn’t decrease our enjoyment at the time. We all do it. There’s a lot of really interesting research out there that talks about the merits of hobbies, whether those are knitting, pottery, sewing, reading, anything really. But the focus of this research is about doing these things together. We don’t always want to do things with other people. And, let’s face it, in the Time of Covid, we spent so much more time on our own. Little research has been done about the therapeutic benefits of hobbies which we do alone. The benefits of doing things together are clear: getting out of the house, meeting other like-minded people… These are all really good things. BUT. There’s something really important about what we seek out to comfort/console/support ourselves when we’re on our own and we don’t need to think about a single other person. In that time and space, you can find what you need.
Enter: fantasy. Wherever you stand on fantasy purity/sci-fi cross-overs, traditional high fantasy or young adult fantasy, it’s all awesome. But why is fantasy the important form of writing for this idea, I hear you ask? Simple answer: the fans and the plots. Lots of forms of literature/media/gaming/basically anything have devoted fans (the ‘fandoms’) but fantasy fans are a bit special. We spend a lot of time interacting with other fans regardless of time difference, country, level of education, anything you could possibly use to classify people. We dissect plots and tv/film adaptations on Reddit, we dress up as our favourite characters at Comicons and emblazon our favourite works on our bodies or on our clothes. Through being part of a wider community, brought together through the love of fantasy, its consumers are offered a way to negate any isolation or loneliness they experience, through feeling part of a group. The works themselves provide fantastic (in both senses) stimuli for positive mental health, without obviously being about mental health, which is part of its appeal and beneficial potential in subverting the unnecessary but still prevalent stigma surrounding mental health.
Fantasy has long been considered the ultimate escapism because the worlds created are so very different to ours, correct? Yes and no. These amazing new worlds and societies, people, rules, laws and customs are created and that’s just far enough away from our ‘reality’ to feel alien, but there are still so many similarities. Through fantasy, we can experience societal/quasi-human behaviour similar to our own lives but at a safe distance. The kinds of behaviour shown mirror our own experience: judgement, hatred, envy, bullying, love, bigotry, coming of age, and so much more. A common theme of fantasy is the underdog, the side-lined species or race, with biases and engrained societal expectations (think purebloods in Harry Potter, the Ood in Doctor Who, Hobbits as mere halflings as just a few examples). Fantasy itself is absolutely no stranger to judgement and derision. It’s been decried as a ‘poor’ form of literature, less ‘serious’ and ‘proper’ than other forms of fiction, a ‘new’ idea that’s yet to blossom. This could not be further from the truth. Fantasy owes its origins to Homer, Shakespeare and the Icelandic Myths among many other illustrious works; it can trace its creative lineage back to 800 BCE. It offers an amazing blend of mythology, fairy tales, folklore, legend, fiction, gothic, magic, non-realism and alternate realities. No fantastical work is the same. We can visit Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Jodi Taylor’s St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, swing by Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library and finish in C.J. Archer’s steampunk alternate London, via Hogwarts, Philip Pullman’s Oxford, the Discworld and Veronica Roth’s dystopian Chicago. (There’s some name-dropping of awesome authors there, do check them out). Sometimes the worlds are completely brand new, sometimes they’re slightly or colossally different versions of ones we recognise. Sometimes they exist alongside the primary world, or our own worlds are augmented with fantasy and magic. This is the richness of the genre.
But what about science fiction? The line between fantasy and science fiction has become more fragmented and blurred over recent years. Doctor Who is a great example of a phenomenon occupying both science fiction and fantasy, depending on the episode. The Deus Ex Machina theme (the hero swooping in at the end to correct all wrongs), where the Doctor suddenly appears and saves civilizations and planets with no real explanation, is a key trapping of fantasy. Terry Pratchett stated that Doctor Who is ‘pixel thin’ as plausible science fiction: ‘Much has been written about the plausibility or otherwise of the Star Trek universe, but it is possible to imagine at least some of the concepts becoming real. But the sonic screwdriver? I don’t think so’. Josh Oren describes Doctor Who as ‘a huge tossed salad of storytelling genres’. While there is a definitive distinction between fantasy and science fiction, there are also many shared elements. Fantasy and science fiction can be considered two parts of a larger whole, inextricably linked in some respects and beautifully distinct in others. The ‘fantastic’ can be seen as a tree, from which ‘realism,’ ‘nonrealism,’ ‘science fiction,’ and ‘horror’ all branch from its trunk. Regardless of the pigeon-holing for genre, sci fi and fantasy attract equally committed and engaged fans, create amazing fandoms and provide that ‘just far enough but not too far’ experience for us to explore key features of human existence.
This piece of work has been partly inspired by a report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, which was the result of an All-Party Parliamentary Group into Arts, Health and Wellbeing. This report focused on the benefits of interactive, group activity around the arts, but without exploring the benefits of private hobbies and leisure time spent with stories, regardless of whether the stories are contained within the pages of a book or via a television screen. One of the key oversights in the report is dismissing watching television as a productive hobby because it’s sedentary (the report goes so far as to say that children should be diverted from watching TV). An excellent article by Mònica Guillen-Royo) challenges this widespread view that TV is a negative force in people’s lives by demonstrating that, in moderation (as with most activities/consumption/practices), television viewing is a positive activity in Peru. Guillen-Royo reiterates this by saying conclusively that ‘television can be a source of wellbeing’ (Guillen-Royo, 2018). An American scholar, Elizabeth Cohen, wrote in defence of binge-watching, and outlined how watching multiple episodes of a show concurrently can create a ‘flow experience’ which increases personal wellbeing (but did provide the caveat that this doesn’t work for everyone). Finally, legitimate proof that watching back-to-back episodes of Game of Thrones is A Good Thing!
And it’s not just TV, Theresa Fleming of New Zealand and colleagues carried out the first study on ‘serious games and gamification for mental health’ in 2017. This study particularly focused on mental health benefits through exergames, virtual reality, cognitive behavioural therapy based games and entertainment games. The benefit of fantasy and escapist activities has long been recognised for our wellbeing, but not yet given the wide-spread attention it deserves. In The Secret Lives of Introverts: Inside Our Hidden World (Granneman, 2017), one respondent stated that ‘Introverts gain energy from solitude. […] I play games on the computer or watch Star Trek. Basically[,] any escapist behaviour. I recharge ten times faster if I’m engaged in something fantastical’. A very recent study by gaming accessories company, HyperX, has discovered that over half of 13-18 year olds opt to communicate with their friends via games, and over half of parents surveyed agreed that gaming had helped with their children’s mental health during lockdown. HyperX’s UK regional manager stated that ‘video games have an important and valuable role to play in the social lives of many people’ and ‘gaming is more than just a hobby for children’. The benefits are significantly wider than purely filling a gap in our days.
The 2016 project ‘The Rest Test’ (Wellcome Trust, Hubbub, and Durham University) was completed by more 18,000 people from 134 different countries. Respondents were asked to select from a list of 25 activities those that they considered most restful: reading was the most popular option, with watching television ranked tenth most popular. The work carried out by these researchers within television, gaming, and ‘The Rest Test’ demonstrates that there is a keen need for in-depth exploration of reading and watching for well-being. Recognizing the solitary leisure pursuits within ‘The Rest Test’ highlights the proportion of individuals turning to reading and television for restful activities. Within mental health discourse, activities within private time are a key aspect. The concept of self-care has (happily) become more prevalent and much more mainstream, particularly in the last five years. The idea essentially legitimizes ‘alone time’ and recognizes the value in taking time for oneself without any feelings of guilt (not that we should feel any guilt in looking after ourselves).
So how do my favourite works help my mental health?
Here are a couple of examples of how Harry Potter and Doctor Who give us great, visual examples that we can apply to managing our wellbeing. There are so many more instances but it’s impossible to cover them all here!
The bildungsroman (‘coming of age’) theme within the Harry Potter series immediately presents readers with an outsider, in direct and unsubtle conflict with society and with a questionable family life with the Dursleys. Harry Potter presents readers (and watchers of the films) with a range of characters who have had to overcome significant trauma, bullying, exclusion, loss, neglect, and misunderstandings about who they are. Not only Harry but most of his friendship group has experienced at least one of these difficulties, meaning that Harry is no longer isolated in his feelings. In its widest sense, the Harry Potter novels champion acceptance, tolerance, encouragement of differences, and the explosion of stigma. The Boggart in Harry Potter can be seen as an approach to managing conditions such as anxiety and depression. A shape-shifting creature, the Boggart reads the mind of the person facing it, turning into a representation of the thing/person/animal they fear the most. Professor Lupin reveals that ‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces [:] wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks’ (Rowling 1999: 101). The Boggart is presented as the archetypal primal fear, the ‘thing under the bed,’ lurking in the dark. As Lupin says, ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a Boggart’. To defeat the Boggart, the person facing it has to use their mind and imagination to turn it into something they find amusing. Neville Longbottom, for example, feared Professor Snape the most; at Professor Lupin’s encouragement, Neville was able to imagine Snape in Neville’s grandmother’s clothes as he used the charm, ‘riddikulus!’ (Rowling 1999: 102). None of us can forget the image of the imposing Snape appearing from the wardrobe suddenly changing into Neville’s grandmother’s clothes through Neville’s powerful thinking and the charm. Lupin said ‘the charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind,’ telling Neville to ‘raise [his] wand – thus – and cry ‘Riddikulus’ – and concentrate hard on your grandmother’s clothes’ (Rowling 1999: 102). The essential ingredient is our minds.
A staple of cognitive behavioural therapy is a practical worksheet on which patients can physically contradict negative thoughts by outlining the evidence against a negative thought. This results in the thought not being repressed, which can be unhealthy, but by actively disproving the thought. A thought diary provides a structure for people to track their negative thoughts and work through them. Listing the negative thought, accompanied by the emotion felt and the evidence for and the evidence against the negative thought, encourages the person to disprove the negative thought and come up with an alternative thought. This diary sets the individual the task of objectively challenging negative thoughts by physically writing down the evidence for and against the thought. In a number of cases, the ‘evidence for’ column is significantly shorter than the ‘evidence against’ column. Of course, this does not automatically rid people of negative thoughts, but it is a step toward changing mind-sets in a sustainable way. In the case of Harry and the Boggart, the students (and, indeed, Professor Lupin) have to challenge the fear head on and change it into something not only more positive but also amusing. This has the power to vanquish the Boggart. The Boggart, although appearing to be a fantastical creature set apart from reality, actually embodies (through its method of defeat) exceptionally important processes for positive mental health.
As Cohen observes, stories through the medium of television are deemed less worthy than stories through the medium of books. The series 8 Doctor Who episode ‘Into the Dalek’ (2014) presents viewers with a daunting prospect: the Doctor and companions being miniaturized and inserted into a Dalek to fix its memories. A Dalek has seemingly ‘turned good’ (unlikely…) after seeing a star being born and realizing that life continues and evolves, even after destruction; after treating the Dalek for radiation, the Dalek reverts to traditional Dalek behaviour, exterminating every life form different to itself. In search of the Dalek’s specific memory of the star being born, the catalyst to its re-evaluation of Dalek priorities, the Doctor and his companions find a chamber with what appear to be strip lights. This is the cortex vault, ‘a supplementary electronic brain. Memory banks, but more than that. […] The radiation allowed it to expand its consciousness, to consider things beyond its natural terms of reference. It became good’ (‘Into the Dalek’ 2014). The hidden memory of the star being born is visually represented through dark areas in the cortex vault, which Clara Oswald (the Doctor’s friend and companion in the TARDIS) and Journey Blue (a pilot in the Combined Galactic Resistance) sought out to reactive. Clara says ‘so, the Doctor said this was a memory bank and some of the memories were suppressed. What if. What if the dark spots are hidden memories? What if one of those is the Dalek seeing a star?’ This representation of the ‘good Dalek’ and its prompt to become ‘good’ are all based on one memory, of a star being born. The visually rich image of the light and dark memories clearly expresses the concept of repressed/hidden memories. Depicting memories in this way can make them seem more tangible, more real, and prompt watchers to consider their own repressed memories, with a view to ‘turni[ng] [them] back on’. If we can become more aware of our memories and cognitive abilities, and better able to connect with them and visualise them, this can only be a helpful tool in managing conditions relating to negative memories, such as PTSD.
So how has this helped during the pandemic? Fantasy has truly been a guiding light through the endless Covid situation. Harry Potter at Home launched in 2020 as a way to ‘cast a Banishing Charm on boredom’ during lockdown, though its benefits were much more significant than purely stopping us being bored. This initiative featured special chapter readings of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by famous actors and cast members, ‘filmed at home’ chapter readings by Potterhead families, provided ideas for crafting challenges and games and a dedicated online space with useful resources to manage wellbeing, and much, much more. Described as a ‘digital Dumbledore’s Army’, ‘to help children, parents, carers and teachers find comfort and escape whilst we continued to stay at home’, the Harry Potter At Home hub attracted seven million viewers over lockdown. The publisher Scholastic reported that sales of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doubled at the height of lockdown. The take-up alone speaks volumes: Harry Potter for health!
In the Whovian world, the Doctor Who watchalongs/tweetalongs were a staggering success as the Whoniverse united to get each other through the various lockdowns. The brainchild of Emily Cook (Doctor Who Magazine) sees fans come together for a regular communal viewing experience, tweeting under a designated hashtag along with key stars of the series, producers and writers, from David Tennant, Matt Smith, Steven Moffat, Russell T. Davies and many more of the Doctor Who royalty. 34 watchalong/tweetalongs have been held since 21 March 2020 and the phenomenon keeps going, attracting coverage by The Guardian in June. Elsewhere in the fantasyscape, David Tennant, Michael Sheen and Neil Gaiman reunited for a lockdown audio special of Good Omens. Gaiman wrote on Twitter that ‘this is our present to all of you. It’s to make people happy, because too many of us are sad’. It is clear to see that fantasy really has stepped up during these apocalyptic days to support its fans even more than it already does.
Doctor Who is an amazing source of wisdom about the power of words and literature. In the 2006 episode ‘Tooth and Claw,’ when faced with a werewolf and trapped in a library, the Doctor declares:
DOCTOR: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books! Best weapons in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. (He throws some books to Rose). DOCTOR: Arm yourself.
The concept of a library being the ‘best arsenal in the world’ is demonstrated through this episode in the discovery of a book on mistletoe and a shooting star falling to earth in 1540. Books are a limitless source of inspiration, comfort, and encouragement. They can even defeat werewolves (whether real ones or the ones existing in our minds).
The moral of the tale, fantasy fans? Keep watching, keep reading, keep engaging. Whatever the medium, stories change lives.
Do you have some stories to tell about how fantasy/sci fi (in TV, books or gaming formats) helps you with your wellbeing and mental health? Hit me up on Twitter: @DrAnnaMack. A more ‘formal’ version of this piece, without the discussion of fantasy for wellbeing during Covid-19, appeared in The Encyclopedia of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
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