What say of it? what say CONSCIENCE grim, That spectre in my path?
– Chamberlayne’s Pharonnida
There has always been a fascination with “horror” since time immemorial, such that much of what functions to thrill us today is not much different from the sort of folk tales told hundreds if not thousands of years ago.
Looking back at these chapters during the ancient times, what we often saw was that tales that invoked fear often coincided with the mysteries of nature that were not yet understood. From good fortune in crop yield to good fortune in war, the pagan gods were thought to be the final judges on such matters.
Fear of the wrath of the gods has been a recurring theme for many millennia.
It is rather ironic that during our age amidst an increasing disbelief in god, we still cannot quite escape an interest in the devil. Or perhaps it is just a sign of the times we are in, that the devil is more relatable.
In any case, it appeared that no matter how much more “civilised” we became, our fears and terrors never changed all that much…that is, until relatively recently.
With the advent of the two world wars, the atomic bomb and technological advancement in the 20th century, horror had found a new genre through which it could invoke its nightmares; existentialist science-fiction in post-apocalyptic themes.
The Imp of the Perverse: Behaviourism and Neuroscience Meet Poe
Before I go on to discuss the relevance of this arising new theme of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, I would like to say a few words on Edgar Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse,” which will have some relevance I promise you.
If we are concerned with the fate of humankind as it garners an increasing amount of responsibility for the fate of others as well as the earth we live on, I think it a relevant place to start in asking the question, is human nature inherently good or bad, or neither? If our nature is inherently bad or that it cannot ultimately resist such a corruption, then we can gather that the future is not looking very promising. However, if our nature is inherently good, well, that would change everything, don’t you agree?
In “The Imp of the Perverse,” Poe brings up the “science” of phrenology, and thus it is worth saying something on what this subject was and how it influences our present day.
Phrenology was considered a form of science and hit its peak in popularity during 1810-1840, basically most of Poe’s adulthood. The brain was divided into 27-43 “organs” and these individual “organs” represented personality/psychological attributes. By measuring the size of the skull, areas of the skull that protruded were considered dominant attributes and indented regions were considered weak attributes.
This “science” was used in psychology, especially to identify the insane and the criminal.
Figure 1 is an image taken from a phrenology textbook, depicting what is supposed to be the hallmark of a criminal head shape, with 5 specific regions protruding from the skull. It was thought that the more it protruded the greater the degree of criminal impulse.
Figure 1 image to the left: map of the organs of the brain (which vary from 27 to 43 depending on the textbook). image to the right: depiction of the criminal head model.
In Franz Joseph Gall’s (the founder of phrenology) book “Naturalist of the Mind, Visionary of the Brain” Gall made the claim that moral and intellectual faculties that governed impulses were innate. In other words, people were born with their moral character and intelligence. For example, if you were a thief, it was because you were born with a predisposition to an impulse of deceitfulness.
Phrenology was used not only in court cases to determine whether someone was guilty but also how long their prison sentence should be and whether there was a possibility of rehabilitation. It became quite influential and prominent and was used up until the 20th century in court cases, both by the Nazis and American eugenicists alike.
The thought behind phrenology was that you could not ultimately change a person’s psychological attributes and thus their impulses. One could, if anything, redirect the “faulty” behaviour so that it could be used as something useful in society.
So, are we much more advanced in our thinking today as to what governs human impulsivity? Well, sadly the answer is that not much has changed in the philosophy of modern neuroscience. In fact, many neuroscientists credit Dr. Gall as the founder for today’s work on the human mind and brain.
For example, “Proceedings of the 2013 National Academy of Sciences” suggests that forecasting future criminal behaviour could become a reality in the near future. According to their study, they have found the first evidence that brain scans might be used to both predict who will be likely to commit a crime and also how long it will be before that person commits a crime. This prediction is based on the activity in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.
During the scan, subjects were asked to press a button in response to a stimulus on a screen, except when a certain symbol also appeared, in which case they were to refrain from pressing the button. It was found that criminals couldn’t help but press the button either way, and that they were more impulsive than the average person.
From these results, it was concluded that the part of their brain responsible for stopping an action may be deficient, that is, once an impulsive person gets started on a criminal action, even if they realise potential negative consequences, they cannot stop themselves.
Cannot stop themselves! Really think about the consequences of such a statement. If this is true, then there is no “salvation for the damned” so to speak. There is no possibility of redemption and no avoidance of one’s own pre-destined tragedy. Fate has been selected upon you at birth, and there is nothing you can do to avoid it or change that course. Free will, remorse and forgiveness are almost non-entities in this line of thought.
[There was also the popular thought during the 1960s and 70s that the abnormal XYY karyotype (where a male carries an extra Y chromosome) was believed to be the genetic cause for sociopaths and serial killers, which has since been entirely disproven, however, not before ruining many lives.]
Thus, it appears the question still stands today as it did two centuries ago: “Does an individual have a choice in whether they commit a crime?”
Poe wrote “The Imp of the Perverse” in answer to such a question.
“The Imp of the Perverse” starts out with a narrator’s voice that from all appearances is from a respectable station in life and is very “logically” discussing why all psychologists, philosophers and theologians have failed to explain the root of impulsivity.
The narrator labels this root of impulsivity – perverseness. He goes on to say:
“In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution.
Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong’s sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements. It is a radical, a primitive impulse – elementary.
…It follows, that the desire to be well must be excited simultaneously with any principle…but in the case of that something which I term perverseness, the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists.”
The narrator is describing an imp of the perverse, an external possession, that causes you to do something almost against your will, that will likely cause you some degree of detriment, even your own ruin, and despite this, you cannot resist such an impulse.
There is no reason we can use to justify such an impulse. And that rather we are lured to act specifically for the reason that we should not.
As we go further in the story we realise that the narrator is speaking to us from a prison cell. He confesses his murder that he had planned out a year in advance to which there was no possible detection of foul play (a poisoned candle) and to which he inherited the victim’s house and assets. He lived happily for about two years in this upgraded station in life until one day something very troubling occurred.
The narrator recounts how there was an external force, which he called an imp of the perverse, that wanted him to confess his crimes!
This desire for confession became so strong that finally it left his body with such a force that it felt it had been struck out of him. He describes it as such:
“For a moment I experienced all the pangs of suffocation; I became blind, and deaf, and giddy; and then some invisible fiend, I thought, struck me with his broad palm upon the back. The long imprisoned secret burst forth from my soul
But why shall I say more? Today I wear these chains, and am here! Tomorrow I shall be fetterless! –but where?”
Interestingly, the narrator has described his strong desire to confess his crimes as an act of perverse impulsivity. It was an impulse that he could not resist and he believes is what caused his undoing.
We find out at the end, that the whole story has been the narrator talking from his prison cell, waiting for the “hangman’s justice” the next morning.
So what are we to make of all of this? Well, interestingly Poe has described that the only impulse we really cannot deny and that we have no control over is aligned with morality and takes the form of conscience within our minds.
What many readers misunderstand about “The Imp of the Perverse,” is that it is not about a ghoulish crime that the character cannot refrain from committing, but rather it is about the act of confession that its character is powerless in resisting.
The entire time that the narrator is desperately avoiding the acts of thought and reflection, he is actually avoiding his own conscience. Poe has actually flipped the whole discussion of what governs and motivates criminal behaviour; that the desire to commit a crime is not due to an external force or a pre-destined biological nature but rather due to a disconnect from one’s own conscience!
Thus, anyone is capable of committing heinous acts, if they break from this within themselves. It is a decision, it is your decision, as to what your relationship to your conscience is.
If this seems to be a far stretch for you, look no further than A Tell-Tale Heart, William Wilson, and The Black Cat which are three other short stories by Poe that are about the exact same theme, all three of the characters are undone at the end by their conscience, which they perceive as an outer body phenomenon, just as in The Imp of the Perverse.
They have all become so detached from their own conscience that one perceives their conscience in the form of an imp, the other as the beating heart of the old man they murdered, another as a black cat that cannot be killed, and in William Wilson he sees it in the form of an imaginary twin.
We are all born with a conscience. It is the compass to our humanity. We only become inhuman, when we reject the good that we were born with. But it is always there within us, this voice for good, and for those who push it furthest away, such a voice can become a terrible haunting.
We can never fully sever ourselves from our conscience, it is with us to the end, whether we choose to live in harmony or disharmony with it.
The War of the Worlds: An Ideal that will Make Killing Worth the While
With this very important lesson from Poe in mind, let us now look at the genre of futurist horror, and who better than the works of H.G. Wells, the Father of Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction.
In “The Shape of Things to Come: The Ultimate Revolution” (published in 1933), H.G. Wells writes of the future predicting, rather optimistically, that there will be another world war in just a few years, followed by epidemic and famine. In this fictional future, war continues for thirty years into the 1960s, despite the people having forgotten why they started fighting. Humanity enters a new Dark Age. In a last bid for victory, the enemy deploys a biological weapon resulting in the “wandering sickness,” producing the first zombies, and by 1970 the global population has dropped to a little under one billion.
Though this is depicted as horrific, it is at the same time depicted as a necessity – a “great reset,” to restore the “balance” so to speak. It is only with this reduced population size that the world can begin to build itself back together from the chaos that it was, and enter into its new phase of evolution as a biologically superior species (the inferior having been culled by war and disease), managed by a bureaucratic system under the form of a world government.
This is the sci-fi fantasy of H.G. Wells and is the central theme to everything he wrote including his works of non-fiction. The subject on ways to reduce the world population was a troubling dilemma for Wells…not the reducing part, but the thought that there would be those so foolish as to forbid it.
You see, it was considered by some that the human species had found itself in a crisis by the 1900s. Europe, up until the 17th century had a population size that never exceeded roughly 100 million. But nearly doubled to 180 million in the 18th century, and doubled again to 390 million in the 19th century. H.G. Wells wrote of this “extravagant swarm of new births” as “the essential disaster of the nineteenth century.”
Not war, not disease, not starvation, not abject poverty, but population growth was determined as the disaster of an entire century by Wells.
Interesting that the reoccurring theme that Wells would use in his utopic to post-apocalyptic science fiction was a matter of whether the crisis of over population had been satisfactorily addressed or not.
Wells writes in his “Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought” in 1901:
“It has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future, to other masses, that they cannot be given opportunities or trusted with power as the superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental to the civilizing fabric, and that their range of incapacity tempts and demoralizes the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity.”
The ethical system laid out in Wells’ book “The New Republic” forbids the further growth of what he terms the “People of the Abyss”. In the past, Nature killed this unwanted “fecundity” off, and in some cases killing will still be necessary. And we should not be appalled by this task, as per Mr. Wells. Death for such people will mean merely “the end of the bitterness of failure, the merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things.”
Clearly the effecting of this will be morally justifiable according to Wells:
“The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility, not a sort of night refuge for base spirits out of the void; and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hateful happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.”
If “the whole tenor of a man’s actions” shows him to be unfit to live, the New Republicans will exterminate him. They will not be squeamish about inflicting death because they will have a fuller sense of the possibilities of life. “They will have an ideal that will make killing worth the while.”
In 1938, Wells’ “War of the Worlds” was broadcasted as a radio drama in New York, and was narrated by Orson Welles. Though it was announced at the beginning that it was a drama, the narration in Part 1 was meant to sound as a series of news bulletins, such that those who came in partway took it as the actual news. Suffice to say the reporting of a man-eating alien invasion caused quite the panic in its New York boroughs, and I am sure the British Propaganda Bureau got quite the chuckle out of it. It was great news for them, for it showed how easy it would be to control the narrative even if it were to be carried out to an absurd degree. It confirmed to them that the public will believe anything.
Sure, it is said that this reaction was really from fear of a German invasion, which is true to a certain degree, but is not the full truth of the matter. What it meant, was that an increased state of stress (whether naturally or artificially induced) meant that the individual would have a heightened state of suggestibility and that entertainment had a strong role to play in this form of mental conditioning.
That is, the line between science fiction and a feasible reality, between a man-eating alien invasion from outer space and that of a German invasion were heavily blurred in a state of pre-existing duress.
Wells wrote of the panic-stricken reaction to the alien invasion in his book “The War of the Worlds”:
“If one could have hung that June morning in a balloon in the blazing blue above London, every northward and eastward road running out of the infinite tangle of streets would have seemed stippled black with the streaming fugitives, each dot a human agony of terror and physical distress…Never before in the history of the world had such a mass of human beings moved and suffered together…without order and with a goal, six million people, unarmed and unprovisioned, driving headlong. It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of mankind.”
I think it no coincidence that our entertainment industry today, so heavily saturated with the influence of Wells’ “visions,” is obsessed with the theme of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, the ever-revolving death game where its avatars are tested on their ability to survive at all cost. Through these adventures, we the audience are brought along and are taught how to feel the thrill of the hunt, the catharsis of the bludgeoning, the release that comes from mayhem.
For we are the children of the ultimate revolution… the dawn of the great Purge.
Hollywood Sci-fi, Predictive Programming and Game Theory
Much of the theme in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world is the subject of survival, and it is often a romanticised concept. Almost like we were an avatar in a video game, we are challenged within such constructs to choose between a limited set of compromises, to which one will offer the maximum extension and number of options to our continued survival.
It is game theory.
This could not be more suitable to H.G. Wells’ intention, for the very Father of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, was also the creator of war scenario floor games for children, later known as “Little Wars” (1913) which was inspired by Wells’ book “The New Machiavelli” (1911).
“ ‘LITTLE WARS’ is the game of kings—for players in an inferior social position. It can be played by boys of every age from twelve to one hundred and fifty—and even later if the limbs remain sufficiently supple—by girls of the better sort, and by a few rare and gifted women. This is to be a full History of Little Wars from its recorded and authenticated beginning until the present time, an account of how to make little warfare, and hints of the most priceless sort for the recumbent strategist…. And in all ages a certain barbaric warfare has been waged with soldiers of tin and lead and wood, with the weapons of the wild, with the catapult, the elastic circular garter, the peashooter, the rubber ball, and such-like appliances—a mere setting up and knocking down of men. Tin murder.”
What better way to weed out the unwanted “fecundity” than to train “worthy” youth how to think like a game master. And those who excel could graduate to the real thing.
However, for the majority, it would be a useful tool nonetheless, for it would train them to accept the implied “rules of the game,” and whatever you do, you must always play by the rules of the game chosen for you.
But the thing about game theory is that one will never actually “win” any of the scenarios they find themselves confronted with by playing by the “rules of the game,” not the sort of win anyhow that results in the victor become master of their own destiny. To play by the rules handed to you is to acknowledge that you are subservient to the game master, who regards you as nothing more than a virtual avatar in their synthetic world with programmed limits to what you can and cannot do in the game they have created for you.
We should re-evaluate the mass producing of post-apocalyptic entertainment themes under this lens. Is this simply a form of conditioning for you to ultimately accept a future where you are no longer treated or regarded as a human being?
Game theory does not represent the motivations behind human nature, but rather imposes such limitations since, as they acknowledge themselves, it is easier to predict and control your chosen selfish behaviours which are encouraged and rewarded with “incentives,” like in a video game.
It is a system of enslavement that encourages its slaves to fight each other for “table scraps” and never question the hand that withholds. The system that creates false scarcity and promotes antagonism over artificial stressors.
We are taught never to question the rules given to us in these game theory scenarios, but to react accordingly to what has been defined to us as a limited set of options in an artificial scenario.
In such an artificial scenario, we are socially conditioned, like a pack of salivating Pavlovian dogs, to think it is just a matter of time before the world ends and with a ring of our master’s bell…be at each other’s throats.
However, if we were to think the unthinkable, that we are inherently good, and thus the best strategy for “survival” is to reject the rules of the game and cooperate rather than turn against the other, we begin to build a future that is finally of our own. A future that is not pre-destined or imposed upon us by a limited set of choices, like a maze that leads us to a controlled destination point, but rather, a future where such walls can be knocked down.
And perhaps these post-apocalyptic tales will be looked upon, centuries from now, as little different from other folk tales of old, during an age of archaic ignorance.
[“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is in reference to the etching by Francisco Goya.]
The author can be reached at cynthiachung.substack