My therapist–in the noble and hopefully not futile pursuit of helping me reprocess certain “traumatic events” that “happened” “to me”–led me through a strange exercise during our last session. She told me to close my eyes and imagine a place, any place, in which I felt an uncomplicated and unconditional safety. I quickly cycled through a series of locations, rejecting them one by one. My childhood bedroom, for instance, carries many positive associations, but it’s also where a demonic wooden frog in face paint–a truly nightmarish sculpture that my mother, in a rare lapse, hung by wire from my ceiling so that it would sloooowwwwwly rotate above my bed–would spring to life each night as I holed up fearfully beneath my blankets and waited for the rational light of day to de-animate the dreaded beast.
After about a twenty seconds of fruitless envisage on my part, my therapist clarified, “It doesn’t have to be a real place. It can be anything, as long as you feel safe there.”
This allowance made, my brain instantly transported me to a familiar location: The Vermillion Minotaur, the fictional tavern where the improv fantasy podcast Hello from the Magic Tavern takes place. As a fully auditory experience, Magic Tavern establishes its location with a light touch of non-diegetic ambiance–softly clinking goblets, a crackling fire, indiscernible chitchat. I tend to listen to the podcast on headphones with no other distractions around me, sometimes in a dark room, chasing a fully immersive experience. Over time, I have built not so much a detailed picture of what the tavern looks like, but rather a vivid sensory impression of what it would feel like to be there, snug and warm by the fire, eyes half closed, letting the idle chatter and gentle laughter hug me like a comforting parent. In some ways, it is a place that feels more real to me than anywhere else in the world. An uncomplicated and unconditional safety.
Finding solace in fictitious universes, clearly, is not a novel concept (haha). Much of fiction in any medium has an escapism component (obviously), which is why people will often credit TV characters as having gotten them through the toughest times of their lives, and why a made up bar tended by a cantankerous half-dwarf constitutes a safe space in the context of therapy. And while it would be easy to wave away this pedestal-placement of the fictional as trite and overblown–”it’s not even real”–it turns out, there is Actual Real Science that explains, to some degree, our affinity for made up places and people.
Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Barnes does a phenomenal Ted Talk on the subject of character deaths. “Logically we know that we don’t have relationships with make believe people,” she says. But it doesn’t matter, because our brains just aren’t very good at differentiating between real, reciprocal relationships with other people, and what are known as parasocial relationships.
Most definitions of parasocial relationships characterize them as one-sided relationships between consumers and celebrities, but Dr. Barnes applies the term to imagined relationships with fictional characters as well. During this talk, she shares some research on the subject of fictional deaths v.s. the deaths of casual acquaintances: women, on average, reported feeling significantly more grief at the thought of the death of a fictional character than at the death of an acquaintance, while for men it was half and half–which, Dr. Barnes points out, means there was still no statistically significant group of people who would definitely be sadder about the real person dying. “It seems that what matters is how close you are to the person, not whether or not they’re real.” In other words, no matter how irrational it may seem, our brains process these parasocial friendships the same way it would process a real relationship. The reason for this has to do with how much time we spend with these characters, and the fact that we tend to see them in their most vulnerable moments. It’s like a friend sharing personal information with us to establish intimacy and bring us closer.
In much the same way, fictional locations can become as significant as any real places we spend time in. In part two of this blog, I’ll expound on the importance of fictional worlds when dealing with the brutalities and challenges of real life.