Do Writers Have any Responsibilities to Reality?

Is there something wrong with perpetuating superstition through fiction?

The Power of Urban Legends

There’s a reason I put off getting my hair cut until the sides grow into big Wolverine spikes. I get nervous about the conversation with the hairdresser. I don’t like sitting in silence while the client next to me is laughing. I like to take on the appearance of a sociable well adjusted human being, if only for the time it takes to get my bangs trimmed. So I prepare material: funny memories I try to pass off as something that happened recently, news stories that aren’t politically polarizing, and list of the most recent films I’ve seen.

If I cycle through all my conversation starters and the hairdresser says, “You know I’m really not that into movies.” Then the weather better be doing something incredible, because there goes most of my material.

The last time this happened I decided to pitch a subplot from my work in progress We the Damned. It went like this:

Morgan lives with her husband, Tim, in a small town in Northern California. They’re surrounded by a curtain of giant redwoods, trees as old as the common era. Morgan is a popular gardener. She’s the breadwinner of the family while Tim aspires to be an entrepreneur.

Tim is literally trying to build his own job. He wheels woodworking materials out into the forest. He’s found a trail long forgotten by the forest service. He lines it with fake landmarks so he can give haunted tours. Tim lays out an orphan graveyard and grows moss on the stones. He hangs wind chimes and rusts the metal with chemicals. He builds an old shack, caves the roof in, and ages the wood.

Morgan gets concerned when Tim starts spending his nights in the woods. Afraid her husband might be cheating Morgan enables the tracking feature on his phone. One morning she traces Tim’s signal to the trail. She follows the chimes to the shack she’s seen on Tim’s computer. There’s something about it she hadn’t anticipated. It reeks of death. It’s possible a raccoon fell through the roof. Morgan decides not to check, but then the wind blows the door open and reveals a wall covered in crimson. There’s a mountain of animal skins on the floor, and a grid of corpses mounted to the wall. Worse yet, their blood is still wet.

Morgan flees the scene, hacks into her husband’s cloud documents, and finds his plans to build an attraction around a ghost story about a wronged woman. In the text he muses about how he wishes Pilgrim Valley had a suicide in its recent history. It would corroborate his claims of a haunting. At the end of this document Morgan finds instructions on how to tie a noose.

The hairdresser cut me off. “Wait, did this actually happen? She seriously found instructions on how to tie a noose?”

I shook my head. “Yeah, it happens in the story.”

The hairdresser tilted her head back and forth. “So this is based on actual events, right?”

“No, but if you follow urban legends you start to see storytelling patterns. Writers play with these archetypes until they create something that feels real.”

“But that’s a real town?”

“No. I built Pilgrim Valley with a well trodden template.”

A funny thing happened during this conversation. The more I kept trying to convince the hairdresser my story was fiction the more she believed it had actually happened.

I was tempted to say, “Actually, this was based on a local legend.”  just to see how far it would travel. Maybe one day I’d pitch it to a hairdresser across town and they’d say, “Wait, I’ve heard about this. This really happened, didn’t it?”

As a horror writer I love playing on people’s fears, but I can’t help but wonder how horror stories impact readers’ realities.

2. A Hole in Reality

Is there a Relationship Between Fiction and Superstition?

In The Omen, Father Jennings quotes a cryptic verse from the bible:

“When the Jews return to Zion, and a comet rips the sky, and the Holy Roman Empire rises, then you and I must die. From the eternal sea he rises, creating armies on either shore, turning man against his brother, till man exists no more… The Book of Revelations predicted it all.”

People continue to quote this verse in anticipation of the end times. The only problem is it’s not in the bible. Revelations is written in the first person, there are no references to comets, and it never rhymes. Screenwriter David Selzter made the quote up and viewers assumed it was buried in the scriptures somewhere.

In the weeks after The Exorcist premiered in 1973 a Boston Catholic Center was flooded with requests for exorcisms every day. Since then there have been dozens of films about demon possession. Many claiming to be “inspired by actual events.” According to a 2012 poll by Public Policy Polling 57 percent of American voters believe demon possession is possible.

As a horror writer, I love the idea that scary stories have such a powerful impact on people, but these superstitious beliefs can have deadly consequences. In 1973 Anneliese Michel started taking anti-psychotics to deal with the intense seizures she was experiencing. In 1975 she went off of her medication. She underwent a series of exorcisms, twice a week over a period of ten months. She stopped eating. In 1976, Anneliese died in her home. She weighed 68 pounds.

During the trial it was revealed by one of Anneliese’s physicians that she had epilepsy. The exorcists were convicted of manslaughter.

Anneliese’s story was adapted into The Exorcism of Emily Rose which implied she was possessed, not epileptic, and exonerated its priest of any wrong doing. It perpetuated the same superstitious beliefs that cost Anneliese her life.

Horror writers should be able to blur the line between fantasy and reality, but the thesis of our stories shouldn’t be that our fiction is really happening. We can use demon possession as a way of addressing mental illness without convincing people to go without treatment. Films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose make a compelling argument for epileptics to think they’re inhabited by Satan.

1. Cracks Begin to Show

Why Writers Shouldn’t Dust Off a Superstition That’s Been Disproven

In the 1980s the United States was in the grip of something called “The Satanic Panic.” People were coming forward with stories of Satanic Ritual Abuse. The popular allegation was that cultists were raping family members, dragging them to black masses in the forest, and forcing them to sacrifice the offspring of incestuous unions. It was believed cultists were getting away with this because the victims repressed their memories. That all changed when regression hypnotherapy came into popularity. More and more people were going to see therapists and coming out with stories of blood soaked alters in the woods.

It seemed like a massive conspiracy was coming to light. Farms were dug up. Families were torn apart. Communities were shaken. Then the FBI investigated. Some of the women who believed their babies had been sacrificed were revealed to be virgins. The bureau found that none of the sacrifices had actually happened. It turned out that mass hysteria and regression hypnotherapy were the cause of the conspiracy.

Now in 2015, Hollywood is putting out a film called Regression that appears to portray these events as if they’ve actually happened. It is entirely possible that this film will come down on the side against superstition, but given Hollywood’s track record I wouldn’t count on it.

Suspension of disbelief matters, especially if your story hinges on a busted myth.

Closing Thoughts

I just watched a documentary on sleep paralysis called The NightmareI myself have suffered from sleep paralysis throughout my twenties. It got so bad I had to see a neurologist.

In the documentary, the subjects describe the same hallucinations I experienced: shadow people with big red eyes standing at the foot of their beds. The filmmakers even shot reenactments of their subjects’ terrifying visions. Half of the people interviewed believed their experiences were caused by demons trying to suck out their souls. I watched The Nightmare documentary right before I fell asleep.

That night I slept like a baby.

I know there is more academic information about sleep paralysis than the subjects of the film wanted to admit. Some preferred to perpetuate the shadow man urban legend, others wanted to believe they were important enough to be targeted by demons. I know better.

I know enough about the origins of monsters to build monsters of my own. I’m not about to lose sleep over someone else’s superstition.


My audiobook Terms and Conditions is now free on Bandcamp. You can listen to it right here!

After getting a lot requests for prints of my art I decided to open a  store on REDBUBBLE where you can find prints and a whole lot more.


16 thoughts on “Do Writers Have any Responsibilities to Reality?”

  1. I believe that a writer’s responsibility to reality is determined by the reality they create and how closely it may be based on real life. Other than that, no, you do what you want.

    1. I hear you. I think I’m going to elaborate on how keeping up with the reality of a situation helps maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

  2. Interesting article. Reality? Like Harry Potter…not having any magic powers. Was not a wizard, and likely suffered delusions from abuse, or imagined abuse. Schizo. Thank GOODNESS writers take license to create fiction that can lift up the hearts of some of us poor unaccepted muggles.

    It’s funny that people ask me (before they read the book) “How much of yourself do you see in your book? Is this what you believe?” People like to play pop psychology.

    1. I’m targeting the stories that claim to be based on actual events. The supernatural thrillers that try to convince you they’re based on reality.

      If a piece of pop psychology or a recent superstition has been disproven I think authors should avoid using it if only to maintain the suspension of disbelief. There are different levels of fantasy.

  3. Personally, I think what makes any book or movie truly scary is the reader’s willingness to believe that the reality is possible. We aren’t scared if we rule out all possibility that it could happen. Yes, cognitively, we’ll say we know it’s fiction; but part of the thrill is that we allow our suspension of disbelief — to stay suspended.

    For example, on a purely cognitive level, I think most any adult knows that a scarecrow isn’t going to come to life and grab us in a cornfield. Then why are real scarecrows in real cornfields “creepy”? Why do most people skirt around them, whether consciously or unconsciously? Because our emotions and our intellect don’t always work in tandem. Horror and suspense writers count on this.

    So I wonder, does it matter if someone says “based on actual events” and meets legal criterion in doing it? Or let’s say they go ahead and put the small print after the credits roll about all people, places, etc. being fictional and “any similarities to real people or events is purely coincidental.” Does it matter? I don’t know if it does, because people like to be scared. Reading a scary novel or seeing a scary movie feels like we are exerting some control over the scary stuff in real life: it’s not sneaking up on us, we’re letting it in on our own terms.

    I think most would agree that the Anneliese Michel incident was an anomaly, not a norm, regardless of what one believes about the causality. And the dire nature of the issue was certainly the result of a complex tapestry of factors (not that her family read a book or saw a movie).

    Drew, I love this post! Don’t take my comments to be antithetical. I’m just throwing out ideas as they hit me. And that’s what I love so much about your writing: it both prompts and invites real thought.

  4. I think the issue extends well beyond the supernatural genre. In a Horror film I suspect that most of us expect, to a certain extent, that what we are about to see couldn’t “really” happen, even if we believe it while the film is rolling.

    On the other hand, the opening credits of “Fargo” contain a “based on true events” notice–that’s a lie. The Coen brothers made the whole thing up. There is no inherent reality check in that movie, though–it’s all things that are plausible in a real world sense, and a great many people were taken in by it. (Myself included.)

    Then there are films that claim to be based on historical events. The general public’s understanding of many critical events in history are based more on what a filmmaker thought would make a good story than on real historical accounts.

    Working as a locksmith I frequently was called in to repair (in many cases simply replace) locks that had been damaged by homeowners who were locked and tried to do the most absurd things because “it works in the movies”.

    Does this mean that we, as a species, should abandon fiction altogether? I certainly don’t think so. I don’t think that an audience’s lack of discernment can be considered the fault of the artist.

  5. Responsibility to reality? None. A fiction writer writes from imagination usually based on events, storytelling, superstitions or maybe even his or her own life experiences. It covers a lot of territory when you write fiction whether it’s horror or fairytales. You can base your story on anything. It’s up to the reader to believe it or not, but they are reading fiction, so having said that–unless it’s non fiction, the reader should accept just that– what’s inside the story or book.

    This is an interesting and thought provoking entry and that’s a good thing, because it’s like a stream that can flow into many directions of discussion. This is a great blog for writers and I notice your punctuation is very good, so you are a serious about what you create.

  6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre purported to be based on real events, yet its ‘real events’ were the activities of Ed Gein, a single killer (not a family) in Wisconsin (not Texas) in the 1950s (not the 1970s). I suppose it depends how far the filmmakers are willing to stretch the ‘real events’ claim (though I notice they didn’t put that tagline on the recent film about Noah). But I think that’s the problem with the marketing of a product, not its writing.

  7. Fascinating post. I don’t think writers need to comply with reality. That would be a problem for me since I write fantasy! People are terribly suggestible though and even “news” programs can convince large segments of the population to believe things that simply aren’t true. (I’m guessing that this was somehow adaptive in our evolution as a species?) People will believe things that aren’t true and emphatically deny the truth. Writers should write whatever they wish.

  8. This was fascinating. I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion about responsibility to reality (after all, we as human beings seem ready to believe a lot of patently untrue things even outside the realm of entertainment depending on how they’re presented) but what I really want to know is…. when will We the Damned be available?! It sounds great.

    1. I’m about 81,000 words into We the Damned. My aim is for 100,000. Hopefully I’ll have something in the fall. Thanks for inquiring.

  9. Excellent entry as ever, Drew; this one hits home on my current project. I appreciate very much that, as makers of modern mythology, we have a responsibility in our modern literature to remind people that many superstitions and myths (especially current-era urban legends) have been hoax-busted thoroughly.

    Does it mean we can’t enter into the paranormal/supernatural genres despite science’s power to provide reasonable explanations for these spine-tingling modern myths? Not at all. Having that dose of science and reason at least referenced in modern works can keep us grounded as writers and readers–even as we seek alternate explanations for the curious events and situations we propose in our fiction works.

    In other words, good research makes for better fiction.

    Thank you again, Drew, for another awesome MondayBlogs entry this week.

  10. Write whatever you want, just don’t say it’s “based on a true story” or the deliberately vague “inspired by real events” because that will mislead readers into thinking it’s all true. I detest the expression “inspired by real events,” because absolutely EVERY story ever written and every movie ever made was “inspired by” real events of some sort. If I wrote a story about a flying dog, then it’s inspired in some way by real dogs I’ve known

  11. Interesting post. I think that film (and television) can have a profound influence over those who consume. Therefore those who create in those mediums should create responsibly and be aware of how they can influence society negatively. But I know that’s not really your point. Anyhoo, the part about the Emily Rose film seems to take for granted that demon possession doesn’t happen. I’ve never seen it, and never known anyone who has, but I’m not willing to rule it out as a possibility. I don’t know how anyone could ever prove that it’s not possible. We can call it a superstition, but that doesn’t mean it really is one.

    I like your title- We the Damned. I’d be interested to give that a whirl.

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