While I was reading about the astounding inability of an Indian sorcerer to kill a skeptic with his magical powers, I thought about the time some nut at a party claimed to have eldritch magical powers, and I’d better look out or she’d curse me.
I invited her to do her worst.
It’s been, I don’t know, maybe fifteen years now, and I remain not noticeably more cursed than several other people who were there at the time.
Back there at the party, though, I was slightly worried.
I knew that curses weren’t real, and that even if they were real this eighteen-year-old hippie-wannabe probably wasn’t a very high-level magic user.
(And she also, like, totally wasn’t paying attention to the Threefold Law! OMG!)
But I also know that monsters are not lurking in the dark. And yet, when I’m going for a walk in the middle of the night… I’m kind of worried about monsters.
Not muggers. Monsters.
Likewise, I wasn’t really worried that the girl trying to curse me would decide to get the job done in a more straightforward way, by stabbing me or cutting my car’s brake lines or something.
No, I was worried that Everything I Knew Might Be Wrong, and that her wiggly fingers and fixed stare were, against all reason, actually cursing me.
(If I’d been Sanal Edamaruku, the Indian rationalist with the evil magician dancing around him lighting fires and sprinkling water, I would have had more grounds for concern about mundane physical attacks. There are any number of ways you could poison someone while performing these sorts of rituals, for instance. So I’d want to be pretty sure that my “attacker” had enough faith in his powers to not feel any need to help ‘em along.)
I worry about curses and monsters because, of course, I have an active imagination. Nature, nurture, continued consumption of appropriate entertainment products… for one reason or another, I’m good at making stuff up.
Take this too far and you can end up going a bit strange, but it’s my belief that a solid dose of imagination is a very useful thing to have, even if it does leave you more concerned about things that go bump in the night than you ought to be.
Good old-fashioned imagination seems to be in disturbingly short supply these days, and people are suffering for the lack of it.
Most kids seem to be very good at imagination, but if you don’t exercise your imagination, it’ll atrophy just like anything else. You have to keep… imagining. Reading helps, but reading Newsweek does not help nearly as much as reading Analog.
If your imagination has atrophied, it seems to be the case that you’ll slowly forget what it’s even like to imagine something. By itself, this is just sad. But it’s also dangerous, because every now and then you’ll still find yourself imagining stuff, without realising that’s what you’re doing.
Perhaps it’ll happen because you’re drunk, or over-tired, or on nitrous at the dentist. Perhaps you’ll just have a little burp of creativity, despite your best efforts to think about nothing but real estate prices and the next election. However it occurs, you’ll be so unprepared for it, so un-used to having strange and unusual thoughts, that you’ll assume whatever you’ve just imagined must really be happening.
And this, I theorise, is how people become convinced that Jehovah really has impressed an image of Jesus in a tortilla, or that their new $200 audiophile power cord really does make a difference to the sound of their hi-fi, or that there really are ghosts in that creaky old house. Or any number of much more dangerous things.
I don’t think people reach these conclusions because they’re crazy. I think they reach them because they’re excessively sane, no longer possessing a mental immune system sufficiently sensitised to fantasy to recognise it when it comes along.
Someone who’s been raised in a sterile bubble to protect them from illness will be easy prey for any germ that manages to penetrate the plastic. And people who’ve expelled all fictional foolishness from their minds can, just as paradoxically, end up believing far more ridiculous things than those of us who are completely ready for the inevitable zombie/alien/robot apocalypse, or can tell you exactly what a B’omarr Monk is without looking it up, or who dress up as orcs and wizards on the weekend.