Stories can control minds. No, seriously.

(c) Andrew Schmidt

Movies, television, and books all present stories to an audience. Obviously. That much is kind of a given, right? But what we forget is that stories have always been used as a teaching tool. Myths, legends, and (please don’t kill me) religion were all developed in story form to make them more memorable, to give them a beginning and a middle and an end for people to hang onto, and for crowd control, aka mind control. Stories were used for centuries (and still are used) to impart wisdom, lessons, and history and even though we’ve kind of lost that tradition in a sense–at least in modern American culture–stories still teach us things whether we want them to or not. They shape the way we see the world and sometimes work to point us all in the same direction. Whether we realize it or not.

Why am I talking about stories and mind control? Blame Cracked.com. Again.

A couple of days ago I found an article on their website called 5 Ways You Don’t Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain. Have I commented yet on the fact that the Cracked writers are not only hilarious but blindingly intelligent? I’m kind of in awe of them. But, anyway, not the point. The point is this article and the very valid incredibly interesting points it made about pop culture and the way the general population (especially my generation and all that have come after it) have been influenced by it. Most of us in ways we’ll never realize. One of the points the author David Wong makes is this:

You’ve seen Braveheart, right? You know that’s based on a historical event — the movie makes it clear that Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, was a real guy who really lived in Scotland back in the horse and castle days. You also know that Hollywood spiced things up for the movie — the real Wallace probably never assassinated a dude and then jumped his horse off a balcony in slow motion.

So if you don’t mind, just quickly tell me which parts were fiction. Without looking it up.

Like the evil king they were fighting — was he a real historical figure, too? What about Wallace’s palooka friend, Hamish? Or the crazy Irish sidekick? Were those real guys? That part where Mel Gibson’s main ally (Robert the Bruce) betrayed him and sided with the English in that big battle (aka the turning point of the entire story)– did that really happen? What about the bit at the end, where Wallace has sex with that princess, revealing that the future king of England would actually be Mel Gibson’s son? That’s the most historically important thing in the whole film, surely that was true, right?

You don’t know, do you? But who cares, right? It’s not like that impacts your life at all. It’s just historical trivia. OK, now consider this: After Jaws hit theaters, we nearly drove sharks to extinction with feverish hunting, to the point that their populations may never recover.

 “Oookaaay,” you may be saying to yourself. “Interesting. But are you for or against this whole mind control theory?”

I’m neither. Or maybe both. It doesn’t matter. The lesson I’m trying to pull out of this convoluted post is that authors need to do two things: use this truth to their advantage and be careful not to abuse it.
In the article, David makes another point, one that references another article on Cracked: 7 Bullshit Police Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks to Movies). Did you know you do not have a legal right to a phone call if you get arrested. The police do not have to give you a phone call if they have a reason not to. Any reason. Want to know why you thought otherwise (unless you have cops or lawyers in your family)? Because movies and TV uses this line so often most people assume it’s true. David explains:

Now take this one step further, and think about how many other aspects of your life you’ve only experienced via Hollywood. If you’re from a rural area, how do you know what it’s like to live in the city? Or vice versa? If you’ve never been to Paris, where does your mental image of it come from? Some of you reading this very article loved The Sopranos because its depiction of the mob was so much more “realistic” than all those stylized movies that came before it. How do you know it’s more realistic? What are you comparing it to? All those real mobsters who come over at Thanksgiving?

The reality is that vast piles of facts that you have crammed into your brain basement were picked up from pop culture, and for the most part, you don’t realize that’s where the information came from. This is called source amnesia, and I’ve talked about it before — you know that giraffes sleep standing up, but you’ve long forgotten whether you heard that fact in school or in a tour at the zoo, or saw it in a cartoon. Either way, you will treat that fact as true until something comes along to counter it — this is the entire reason MythBusters is still on the air.

As an ex-psychology geek, any article that correctly references things like source amnesia makes me a little giddy, but this article brilliantly brought home both the joys and the perils of writing a book and sending it out into the universe. It’s wonderful because we can play on the perceptions of the masses and give ourselves more creative leeway to make our stories more interesting, dynamic, heart-wrenching, action-packed, whatever. However, we are responsible for the images and information we put out into the world. Even if we can’t control how one particular person interprets what we write, we have to be at least aware of the messages most people will see in the stories we present. If you play your part right, the messages will blend and people won’t quite know where fact ends and fiction begins. Then you two will have played a part in the mind control of the globe.

Sounds fun, right? 🙂

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