On Understanding the Function of Myth

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are do not necessarily represent those of the author’s. This is merely a summary and analysis of different pieces of literature. Read it as you may.

Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning — Jean-Paul Sartre

Ego can’t reflect upon itself unless it has a mirror against which to read itself and that mirror is myth. We are condemned to make sense of our lives and give it purpose and meaning. But, how do we get our information? How do we procure the necessary tools and ideas to operate in society? Newspapers? history books??

True, but really mostly from movies and TV shows. They are easily accessible. They’re the easiest form of escapism. Turn off your brain and enjoy gorgeous models and fantastic explosions. “Escapism” and “Fantasy” are fun because they let us leave this boring old world and go to a world that we would prefer to live in. And we are defined as a people by those fantasies — after all, we will spend our whole lives trying to make the real world look like the fantasy. Science fiction literature not only often predicts the future, but it made the future. Look at your mobile device, computers, and everyday gadgets. If we went back in time just 30 years ago, we’d look like we’re role-playing an episode of Star Trek!

But, that impact is good, right? It progressed humanity forward. Of course, but what about the fact that sharks almost went extinct and their population may never recover right after Jaws started screening?. The movie viewers knew it was fiction. They knew that sharks can’t eat boats…but, they also believed that sharks kill tourists, even though the number of total fatal shark attacks since 1670 in the United States was 44 isolated incidents with no relation to each other.

Its the same reason people get scared/enraged from Muslims and their unholy terrorist agendas after watching Homeland and American Sniper even though, according to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks since 1980 in the United States were carried out by Non-Muslims and only 2% of terrorist attacks in the EU in the last five years were “religiously motivated”. Even assuming that out of the 140,000 terrorist attacks committed worldwide since 1970, Muslims committed all of them, which is a ridiculous assumption, those terrorists would represent less than 0.00009% of the Muslim population. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than experience a terrorist attack by a Muslim extremist.

In reality, We can’t separate fact from fiction if we never experienced the truth.

Unless someone got convicted, he wouldn’t know anything about the criminal justice system except for what he saw in movies and cop shows. No, you can’t have your one phone call and its NOT in the constitution.

That’s why movies are so effective at shaping our personality: because we subconsciously assume that large parts of these fictional stories is not really fiction. We as humans can’t questions everything that is put right in front of us. Our brains are designed to take things for granted, especially if it is given to us in a pretty package on glowing screens at the comfort of our houses.

If you lived in a rural area in Europe, how would you know what New York is like? Where does the mental images come from? Its called source amnesia. Our minds get tired and it would be easier to accept some fiction as fact when there is no evidence to contradict it. After a while, one would remember the fact but would forget where he saw it. Just like many people think that giraffes sleep standing up. Did you see that in the zoo or the cartoons?

But it goes further than the. What about the thoughts that shaped your future, your ideology of what is right and wrong? If your parents were poor, where did you get your idea of how rich people live? Where did you get your concept of what success looks like — how successful people dress, or what they drive, or how they decorate their apartment? When you went on your first date, you had a picture in your mind of what that should look like — how both of you should behave, what type of activities couples do together, which one of you should pay, etc. Where did that picture come from? Did you take a dating class in elementary school? Did your parents sit you down and tell you?

To put it simply, stories shapes our world. You might instinctively reject this idea because you hate the thought that anyone but you has made you who you are, but every single point of data will prove you wrong. Joseph Campbell, an American writer and mythologist, argues that the main function of stories is to establish models for behavior in a society: a subjective truth that is communicated through speech, symbols, and drama. It doesn’t have to be the absolute truth, but it should be “somebody’s” truth.

Mythology still drives us, and defines us, especially when you’re trying to relax, de-stress, and escape into a world reality presenting complex subjects in a matter of minutes, and everything is nicely wrapped up in the end by a simple, clear solution that can be implemented in 90 minutes or less.

Good guys win.
Bad guys lose.
Now stop and ask yourself who we’ve entrusted to write down those rules for us.

Although, it has been used before during Stalin years, the Cold War, and even World War II, I don’t believe that every movie or piece of media is produced with a hidden agenda, but there is certainly a set of assumptions that the filmmakers are passing on to the viewers. I don’t believe that Michael Bay or Quentin Tarantino are secret agents trying to brainwash viewers into supporting the next war, no more than the makers of Jaws were trying to make sharks instinct — they just wanted to make a good action/adventure/horror/drama movie.

I do, however, believe that movies are made by a bunch of creative people passing on their own prejudices, ideas, superstitions, ignorance, likes, dislikes, fetishes, and views of good and evil. Quentin Tarantino feels a certain way about certain races and you will leave the movie theater agreeing with him a little bit more than when you came in, especially if you were not aware.

You might leave a movie theater thinking that:

Military equipment is sexy

Happiness = pleasure = more money = higher tower = bigger bottle = bigger tits

Guns and explosions are awesome!!

Russians are methodical bad guys

Arabs and Muslims are mindless terrorists

Every Girl will find her Prince Charming that will swoop her off her feet

“Love at first sight”

Men that have sex with lots of women are “Alphas”

Women should be more promiscuous

Those that marry around their 30’s, but spend all their 20’s fucking around are “living the good life”

The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses — Malcolm X

Its exactly the same angry, backwards reaction that a lot of people had after watching American Sniper, and it would be the same pleasure-seeking mentality that people still have after watching The Pursuit of Happyness.

To look at it from a positive side, its not always bad to have an idea or an expectation based on movies. Its a natural tool to teach us to benchmark ourselves on the scoreboard. Imagine a man of 40 years who is still scared of being judged by mother. Myth allows us to know where we are and it knows what the patterns have been in the stage we are entering or holding. It minimizes entropy and the unknown and reassures us by giving us examples.

Stories and myth also activate and improves our social cognitive functions. During childhood, you would know at least where to start behaving by copying the behaviours of the heroes you see on the big screen. One would be more empathetic and would have better social intelligence if he knew and could relate to the stories that shaped another individual’s. Brett McKay from The Art of Manliness has written a fantastic piece regarding the positive effects of fiction that I believe can also relate to movies and TV shows.

We can learn a great deal from the stories we see on TV but its also important to know and learn from history, philosophy, art, and the other truths scattered around the ages since they were made with a different flavour of authenticity. It is important to be aware of the function of myth and stories in our daily lives, especially when one would turn off his mind, let down his guard, and accept anything and everything that one would download onto his brain.

Abdullah Obaied is a software engineer living in Berlin, Germany.