Losing Yourself in Fantasy

a woman before a swirling blackhole

Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

Listen nowDownload file
Embed player
Original Air Date: 
September 17, 2022

We all need a good fantasy world to retreat to sometimes – whether it's Hogwarts or Middle Earth, Westeros or Wakanda. But magical thinking can be dangerous too. And escapism isn't always innocent. So where do you draw the line between fantasy and reality?

two adults near a portal to Disneyland

Disney theme parks aren't just for kids. Plenty of adults say they're happy places. But a lot of people love to hate on "Disney adults." So what happens to our childhood love of fantasy when we grow older? Producer Angelo Bautista has the story.

The American carnival

Kurt Andersen says there’s something quintessentially American about fantasy — from Hollywood to our homegrown religions. The message is that you can create your own reality. But what happens when political leaders believe their own fantasies?

The Sandman. Writer Neil Gaiman on the set of The Sandman.

Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" graphic novel is now a Netflix series. Gaiman has made a career out of tapping into our unconscious dreams and fears. In 2003, Steve Paulson traveled to Gaiman's home in Wisconsin to talk about where his story ideas come from.

Show Details 📻
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. We all need a good fantasy world to retreat to sometimes, whether it's Hogwarts or Middle Earth, Westeros or Wakanda. But magical thinking can be dangerous too and escapism isn't always innocent. So where and how do you draw the line between fantasy and reality? Here's producer Angelo Bautista.

Angelo Bautista (00:24):

I learned how to use a VHS player when I was four years old. It was the '90s so we had all these Disney sing along VHS tapes. The one I remember rewinding and replaying over and over again was this one called Disneyland Fun.

Speaker 3 (00:44):


Angelo Bautista (00:54):

You had all the characters getting the park ready for the guests. You saw the iconic Main Street USA. I used to pretend that I was riding all the rides and roller coasters and I used a pillow as a lap bar.

Speaker 3 (01:05):


Angelo Bautista (01:14):

It was basically a long advertisement for the Disney Parks and it really worked on me. Like any American kid would, I begged my parents to go to Disney. And as a child of immigrants, going to Disney is like part of achieving the American dream. We had to go. And when we finally went, it was life-changing for me. I know people say, "Don't take your young kids to Disney, they won't remember it anyway." Not me. Disney World sparked a lifelong obsession of roller coasters and theme parks. And I very rarely talk about how much I love the Disney Parks because in part, I'm an adult now, and people love to hate on Disney adults. Disney adults like this woman.

Sarah Rachel (02:04):

Hi, my name is Sarah Rachel.

Angelo Bautista (02:06):

Sarah works in PR, but on the side, she posts a lot of Disney content on social media.

Sarah Rachel (02:11):

I do. I TikTok and Instagram account, Every Day is Disney, that I started to just share my love of Disney.

Sarah Rachel (02:19):

Once again, come with me to do the most underrated thing in Disney world, which is getting Starbucks and going to walk the jungle trek in Animal Kingdom. Today, we're doing the Maharaja Jungle Trek. First thing you see is this awesome Komodo dragon, but really it's the decor of this jungle trek that ...

Angelo Bautista (02:33):

How long have you been a Disney fan?

Sarah Rachel (02:36):

Let's see. If I'm 28, then 28 years. Basically since birth, my mom and her family, her parents, have always really enjoyed Disney. When I was born, Disney was the perfect place to take me and almost guarantee a great family vacation. It became our home away from home.

Angelo Bautista (02:59):

That was until COVID hit and the happiest place on earth closed its gates.

Speaker 5 (03:04):

Spring break, ending early Disney World and most theme parks in Florida closing Sunday evening and remaining shut down until next month.

Angelo Bautista (03:14):

It wasn't until two years later that Sarah was finally able to come home.

Sarah Rachel (03:19):

I knew going into this trip that character interactions were back. And when I found out, I cried, because I knew I'd get to see Goofy again. On the first full day, we just booked it. It was about 95 degrees at 9:00 AM with 100% humidity, it was awful. I was dressed for the occasion. I thrifted a vintage Goofy Through The Years T-shirt, very hard to find, from the 90s. I had green shorts, green sunglasses. I had special handmade Goofy hat ears with his ears attached to it so it was a whole thing. And I'm like, "Sure, I'm sure it looks ridiculous."

Sarah Rachel (04:01):

So we see Pluto come out. He's taking photos in his little area and Goofy still hasn't come out yet. So there's definitely a lot of anticipation building. I was just excited, I was excited to see him. And then all of a sudden my mom saw him and I could see my mom whip around to start filming me. And he came around the corner and I just lost it.

Speaker 6 (04:24):

Got it.

Sarah Rachel (04:29):

Very, very unlike me. [inaudible 00:04:31].

Sarah Rachel (04:34):

And I wanted to be really respectful of the character performer's boundaries so I didn't just bum rush him.

Sarah Rachel (04:40):

Is that him?

Sarah Rachel (04:45):

I was just standing there sobbing and you could see Goofy go like this, come here, and then I did bum rush him. I just ran to him.

Speaker 7 (04:54):

One more over here, Goofy.

Sarah Rachel (04:56):

It was magical. I can't think of a better word. I know it's corny, but the hug, it was a hug from someone that knew.

Sarah Rachel (05:02):

Thank you so much, Goofy.

Sarah Rachel (05:04):

Someone that knew that this moment meant something to me.

Sarah Rachel (05:07):

I love you.

Speaker 7 (05:07):

Have a good one.

Sarah Rachel (05:07):

Thank you.

Speaker 6 (05:07):

Thank you.

Angelo Bautista (05:15):

Later that day, Sarah posted the video of that hug on her TikTok account, Every Day Is Disney and put her phone away to go watch the firework show.

Sarah Rachel (05:24):

We were walking back to our resort and I opened my phone and I'm like, "Oh, I wonder how my video's doing." And it is just mayhem in my TikTok app. And at this point I have only had TikTok for two months so I'd never experienced a deluge of likes or comments.

Sarah Rachel (05:51):

And every time I refreshed, it just kept going up and up and up and up. And I saw all these wonderful comments from other creators in the Disney space and it was lovely. And then all of a sudden I'm reading through, I filtered to just comments and I am seeing horrible things I did not expect when I posted it. Disney adults are the worst. Please seek therapy. The way you're coping is unhealthy. At your a grown age, really? Oh, Disney is for children. What are you doing? You shouldn't even be there.

Angelo Bautista (06:24):

Why do you think people have such strong opinions about Disney adults?

Sarah Rachel (06:29):

I have a lot of opinions on that. For the few weeks where this, it wouldn't stop, I just had a lot of time to think about it. I have a few reasons. I think one is that unhappy people want people to be as unhappy as they are. And typically, Disney adults, now there are some really annoying ones out there that that's not who I group myself with, but for the most part, Disney adults stand for joy and happiness in the world. That's our brand. Look at what the very name Disney adult, look at Walt Disney World, look at Disney movies, they almost always have a happy ending and that's the fairy tale life that we hold dear. At the end of the day, it's all about hope and happiness.

Speaker 3 (07:20):


Angelo Bautista (07:23):

Sarah's case is not the only instance of people online going after adults, who they think take their love of Disney too far, a quick Google search on Disney adults. And you'll find tons of articles and posts full of cringe, criticism and cynicism.

Marianne Eloise (07:40):

I think being cynical and defensive, is a defense mechanism to stop them from actually having feelings and Disney is such, it seems a pure thing to quite childish, I guess.

Speaker 3 (07:53):


Angelo Bautista (07:56):

This is Marianne Eloise. She's the author of Obsessive Intrusive Magical Thinking. Her book is filled with personal essays about her life with obsessions. From Medusa to Los Angeles to Disneyland.

Speaker 3 (08:09):


Angelo Bautista (08:19):

You're someone who's very open about writing about being autistic, having ADHD, OCD, anxiety, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Disney seems like the last place you would ever want to be.

Marianne Eloise (08:32):

Yeah, it really does. It's like you say, with EDS and stuff, if you're at Disney, you walk 15 miles a day, it hurts. If it was anything else with a similar level of engagement and sensory input and stuff, I would have the worst day of my life, I'd be so unhappy.

Marianne Eloise (08:47):

I like Disney, but especially because I'm autistic as well a lot of stuff about it is really stressful. On the surface level, you have all of this noise and smell and chaos, people's kids and it's really, really unpleasant. And I found that once you're looking for all these little details, understanding how things work and you have a much more engaged and so much more pleasant experience because it kind of drowns out all of that stuff for me anyway. Obviously as an autistic person, the fact that Disneyland isn't real and understanding the mechanisms of it is what makes it so fun.

Angelo Bautista (09:20):

Do you feel safe at Disney?

Marianne Eloise (09:23):

I think so. America is a scary place to be. It obviously is a bubble with this extreme level of security and so that you feel literally safe. They've really worked hard to construct keeping this really safe area. But I don't know. I think it's less about feeling safe and more about the fact that you have this different kind of clock. You stop thinking in terms of it's 1:00, 2:00. You're thinking like, "Oh, well it's 90 minutes 'til I have this fast pass and this ride is 20 minutes but this one's 40," and you're in a completely different timeline to your actual life, which I find kind of fun.

Angelo Bautista (10:01):

Right. Disney feels like, and it's been a while since I've been, but it really does feel like such a different place from the rest of I guess America?

Marianne Eloise (10:10):

Which is weird, because it's so American.

Angelo Bautista (10:12):

It is so American.

Marianne Eloise (10:13):

It's aggressively American. Yeah.

Angelo Bautista (10:15):

It's a very aggressively American fantasy world. And yet it makes so much sense when you're in it that this would be here and have its roots in America first, kind of a uniquely American experience.

Speaker 3 (10:37):


Angelo Bautista (10:37):

And we have one man to thank for all of this, the original Disney adult himself, Walt Disney.

Speaker 9 (10:44):

Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the heart facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.

Angelo Bautista (10:57):

What are your thoughts on the man as a person?

Sarah Rachel (11:01):

Well, there's obviously a lot of opinions about Walt Disney. I don't want to say I ignore some of the controversial stuff, because obviously I don't. But to have someone who came from absolutely nothing, an abusive father, who drew a cartoon and turned it into an empire, he would bet everything and sometimes he would lose. But when he won, he won so big.

Sarah Rachel (11:28):

But the thing I love most about him is how important his family was to him. And that's the whole reason Disneyland and Disney World even exist. Back then carneys and traveling carnivals, that was a big thing. And there were certain parts that were really dangerous. But when that became so successful, he even said, "I don't like the fact that you step outside of Disneyland and it's exactly what I was trying to avoid."

Walk Disney (11:54):

I started with many ideas, threw him away, started all over again. And eventually it evolved into what you see today as Disneyland. But it all started from a daddy with two daughters wondering where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them too.

Angelo Bautista (12:19):

We know Walt Disney as a cartoon tycoon, a family man who loved his daughters. He was a bold innovator with a meticulous eye and a penchant for perfection, an embodiment of the American dream. But as Maryanne says, he was also motivated by something darker.

Marianne Eloise (12:37):

Whenever you try and do anything perfectly, you're kind of trying to keep out the real world, which the real world really means, death. Even people who build really beautiful houses or whatever, they're trying to make something perfect that will be there after they've died. It's like a way of continuing to live.

Marianne Eloise (12:54):

This was another thing that got me really interested in that I read that he got told by a fortune teller that he was going to die by the time he was 35, which didn't happen. But then having that arbitrary timeline kind of really motivated him to not only finish Disneyland in time and finish his projects and stuff. But I think after that he didn't even go to funerals or anything, but he was really scared of death generally. It was like as if he thought that being near it he'd like catch it or something.

Marianne Eloise (13:20):

And then I know that he bought his mom a house with his money and she got sick and died, I think it was carbon monoxide. It was like something in the house killed her, it was really sad. And obviously that completely drove him even more crazy. And then when you look at Disneyland itself, it's so perfect and pristine to keep out everything that's real about life. Nobody dies, nobody gets old. It's just this snapshot of his childhood and when he was happiest.

Speaker 11 (13:56):

Boy, this place is creepy.

Speaker 12 (13:57):


Speaker 11 (14:00):

I wonder what weird things happen here at night?

Angelo Bautista (14:06):

For Walt, creating the ultimate fantasy meant keeping out the ultimate reality, a harsh reality that we all must face.

Speaker 3 (14:18):


Angelo Bautista (14:20):

There was one part of that Disney sing along VHS, I would always skip. And it was the scene with the haunted mansion.

Speaker 3 (14:34):


Angelo Bautista (14:34):

There were all of these Disney villains skulking around the grounds. And I would hide under the covers because my four year old brain believed these ghosts and ghouls were real. This part of Disneyland never really made sense to me. But for Maryanne, it's her favorite part of Disney. And it explains so much about Walt's obsession with death. Can you talk about the haunted mansion?

Marianne Eloise (15:02):

Can I? [inaudible 00:15:06] way too much.

Angelo Bautista (15:07):

Please do.

Speaker 7 (15:11):

Yeah. To me it makes perfect sense. But obviously to anyone, it looks like such a massive departure for Disneyland because it's genuinely quite scary. So the haunted mansion is the last ride that Walt started working on before he died. He wanted to do it, he really loved this idea of it like a perfect house, which again is it's not great because it's like a plantation style house in New Orleans Square. I see the problem with the columns and the facade and the inside is really decrepit and scary and full of death and ghosts. He was working on it for a long time, remember he went to Europe, which was a big inspiration for the castle and stuff like German castles. And then people were like, "What are you working on?" He's like, "Well, I have this big empty horn house and I'm just going around Europe looking for ghosts to fill it with.

Walk Disney (16:05):

You're going to meet the ghosts. This is a little scale model now that the Disneyland area, you've seen this many times but we haven't got the ghost in there yet, but we are out collecting the ghosts.

Angelo Bautista (16:15):

Walt died of lung cancer in 1966, 3 years before his house of illusions became a reality. Perhaps this was Walt Disney's way of embracing that fear of death to contain the specter that haunted him.

Speaker 13 (16:30):

Time to be turned around.

Speaker 14 (16:32):

If only you could.

Angelo Bautista (16:37):

While Disney's embrace of death isn't just found in the haunted mansion, death is really all around you in Disney,

Speaker 13 (16:44):

How come you aren't laughing?

Angelo Bautista (16:45):

It was designed that way. There are actually a lot of Disney rides that have been very traumatizing and very scary. The thing that made me say, "Oh, I love Disney," was actually going and riding Splash Mountain for the first time.

Angelo Bautista (17:00):

And that ride is so scary. I have such vivid memories of being on the uphill towards the very end and then those vultures looking at you.

Marianne Eloise (17:10):

So bad.

Angelo Bautista (17:11):

And I thought I was really going to die. And then you go down and there's that Briar Patch and you think you're really going to die. And then you don't. That was the most amazing experience to me as a kid.

Speaker 13 (17:21):

So you're looking for a laughing place, eh? We'll show you a laughing place.

Marianne Eloise (17:35):

Yeah, you just get absolutely soaked. You don't die. Maybe they said it in the imaginary story, but they said the thrill about Disneyland, especially rides is obviously bringing you close to death of what you feel is death and then pulling you back from it and you really feel like you survived something.

Angelo Bautista (17:50):

It's these moments, for me at least, that remind me of how alive I am. To fear death is to be human after all. And a bit of fantasy goes a long way to help soften that reality.

Sarah Rachel (18:04):

Last week I got to hug Goofy again for the first time since 2019. I saw Goofy turn the corner and honestly, to a surprise to myself, broke down in tears. Why? Because Goofy was my late Papa, aka, my grandfather's favorite character. And while it might sound ridiculous, hugging Goofy to me is as close as I'll ever get to be able to hug my grandfather again. A little bit of a stretch maybe, but when you lose someone who's your best friend and someone you love, I guess you'll take what you can get won't you?

Angelo Bautista (18:48):

There is something to be said about this one man's effort to create a perfect fantasy that shuts out all of the bad.

Speaker 3 (18:56):


Angelo Bautista (19:00):

To do something with such innocent earnest honest intentions is also something that I see in Disney adults. And yet we admire the man for what he's created, but we don't like the fans for being fans of what he created, right?

Sarah Rachel (19:18):

Yeah, it's an interesting way to put it. People on the outside looking in kind of go like, "Oh, it's a bunch of fantasy obsessed addle minded Disney adults who can't look beyond Disney and see the real world." No, I do see the real world, which is why in my free time, I like to spend some of that time in the fantasy.

Marianne Eloise (19:40):

I think everyone has ways of softening their reality and things they find difficult and some people drink a lot and some people take drugs and some people don't talk about their problems. And is it really that bad to go to Disneyland? It's pretty healthy as far as escapism goes I feel.

Sarah Rachel (19:58):

I do feel that fantasy in some way or another is still alive for most people. Because if we don't allow fantasy to be part of our lives, then what kind of life are we even living?

Sarah Rachel (20:18):

And for all of you, wonderful, wonderful people who have jumped into the comments with supportive words and even defending me against these bullies, you all embody Walt's vision for Disney. And it's that spirit, I want to remind people of with the words Walt himself used to dedicate his first park Disneyland. To all that come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past and here youth can savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America with hope that it'll be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world. All the world, Disney adults included.

Anne Strainchamps (21:12):

Producer Angelo Batista, talking with Sarah Rachel. You can find her on TikTok at Every Day is Disney. And Maryanne Eloise. Her new book is called Obsessive Intrusive Magical Thinking. Coming up, when exactly does a fantasy world become dangerous?

Speaker 15 (21:31):

Ladies and gentlemen, Walt Disney's famous family of cartoon characters welcomes you to fantasy on parade.

Kurt Anderson (21:42):

It's mostly not about whether Disneyland is good or bad, it's about who we're going to elect to be our representatives and leaders in presence. And as Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said 30 odd years ago, everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but now people believe they're entitled to their own facts. And they're not.

Anne Strainchamps (22:04):

Kurt Anderson on what happens to cultures that get fantasy and reality mixed up? Next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and it's The Best of our Knowledge. From Wisconsin public radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (22:24):

In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, the cultural critic, Kurt Anderson wrote a book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire. It's a 500 year history of American wish fulfillment. The story of how magical thinkers and true believers, from the pilgrims to Walt Disney, built a country whose national character is founded in make believe. Steve Paulson checked in with Anderson to get his take on how America went from Disneyland to Donald Trump?

Kurt Anderson (22:53):

One of Walt Disney's desires and intentions was to sort of meet the expanding booming giant American middle class where it was in the 1950s. Carnivals and amusement parks and the rest had tended toward the skivvie and ramshackle and he thought, "Okay, it's time to make it respectable for respectable Americans," was his brilliant market insight, and really making it moreover a place where people could truly immerse in fantasy in a way that they really hadn't been provided up until that moment.

Speaker 17 (23:43):

At night, Las Vegas is the gay white way of the west. Multicolored signs of the downtown clubs tell you that it's fun time at the entertainment capital of the world.

Steve Paulson (23:52):

Now, one thing that you point out in your book Fantasyland is that Disneyland was created right around the same time as modern Las Vegas, which was kind of the naughty version of this mid-century fantasy world. If Disneyland was the American Eden, then Vegas was the sinful version. But it was all still safe and very accessible to the American consumer.

Kurt Anderson (24:15):

Safeish. Yes, it's true. And of course Disney was the work of one hand really, Walt Disney, whereas Las Vegas was the work of many hands as well as being naughty and racey and sexualized and for grownups only and all that. But yes, and I don't think it's coincidence that they emerged simultaneously.

Steve Paulson (24:36):

It almost seems like both Disneyland and Vegas were kind of tapping into some religious archetypes. I mean, Disneyland, the paradise on earth, at least for some people, and Vegas being hell where you'd also have a lot of fun.

Kurt Anderson (24:53):

Yeah. I don't know if Disney sold or if Vegas rather sold the nightmare of hellishness, but no, I mean, and of course America from the get go and I call Fantasyland, a 500 year history was among other things, a religious conception of people seeking to practice their various eccentric and Orthodox extreme religions. And so that was a deep part of the American DNA.

Steve Paulson (25:20):

I'm really interested to hear you say that this whole Fantasyland, in your version of this history, goes back 500 years. I mean, it's kind of a story of American religious history. You're saying this goes back to what, to the Puritans?

Kurt Anderson (25:35):

Yeah, well, and indeed to Protestantism, that's the 500 years. Now, yes, to the Puritans and to the idea of Protestantism when it began, which was to say, I can find my own truth, my own religious truth, it's in the Bible, I don't need a priest to tell me what to believe. I don't need a Vatican, I don't need a hierarchy, my little church, myself with my Bible because you know what? I can read now and Bibles are being printed suddenly. So yes, this anti-establishment individualism, which was at the heart and core of purism and American Protestantism became at the heart and core of the American idea, whether you were a practicing believer or not.

Steve Paulson (26:21):

Of course, there's this long running debate about American exceptionalism, whether the US actually is different from other countries. And it sounds like you're saying that yes, and maybe it's particularly this fantasy mindset of creating your own truth.

Kurt Anderson (26:36):

Well, I think in what we now call and is the developed world, I think we are outliers. Again, not unique, you can find versions of this all over the place. But in the developed world, beginning in the early 19th century and Tocqueville, when he came here and toured around America and wrote his famous Democracy in America books, found that to be true, the exceptional religiosity, as well as the exceptional commercial mindedness. So I do think that, yes, America is different and always has been different than what was originally our European places of origins and the rest of the world, and remains so. But I argue in fact that we are exceptional for better and for worse, and much of it revolves around this idea of making up your own version of the truth.

Steve Paulson (27:27):

How much do you think that is a religious mindset, this Fantasyland that you're describing that leads up to contemporary politics as well as more recent religious traditions, the homegrown American religions, Mormonism, Scientology, probably a certain brand of Christian evangelicalism. Is there sort of a religious underlay to all this that we're describing?

Kurt Anderson (27:52):

I would say, yes, it is the short answer to that. And Christian science and Pentecostalism and other made in America religions that are now certainly in the case of Pentecostalism and its various re-brandings is a worldwide phenomenon. But yes, that inventiveness reinvent yourself and everything that you think is true and real as a deep part of the American idea, yes, absolutely has religious bases and isn't always expressed in explicit religious ways in all that is called new age and became those tributaries of belief and spirituality in the '60s and '70s. And those are certainly religious or quasi-religious. There are in what I regard as some of the dangerous parts of this Fantasyland way of thinking and way of looking at the world today, it's simply refusing to adhere to conventional norms of consensus reality, if you will.

Steve Paulson (28:51):

Okay. So let's sort of deconstruct this whole idea of fantasy. I mean, of course everyone has fantasies. We fantasize about sex, we fantasize about success and fame and being rich and having a better life. And there's an enormous industry of fantasy books and movies. And most of it seems pretty harmless. Disney World, Marvel movies, most video games, basically just good fun. And maybe we need it. Reality can be kind of oppressive. Maybe we need some escapism. So when does fantasy become dangerous?

Kurt Anderson (29:24):

Well, I mean, it's one of those things. It, when you see it and I'm not going to say that this is where, but I do think that the particular American knack for weakness for all of those benign fantasies. Show business was invented in America. The celebrity culture, invented in America. Hollywood an American phenomenon. Disney theme parks, very American. So yes, by themselves, they're relatively benign, which harm no one.

Kurt Anderson (29:58):

But as there is a blurring of what is real and what is not? For instance, women didn't used to color their hair and then suddenly in the sixties and seventies, it became obligatory when you went gray that you colored your hair effectively in the United States.

Speaker 19 (30:15):

Over 10,000 happy men and women the world over have found the personal best system of same day cosmetic surgery, the safe answer. So next time you ask, "How do I look?" You'll know the answer, your very best, your personal best.

Kurt Anderson (30:29):

Is that bad in and of itself? Is the cosmetic surgery explosion around the same time, bad in and of itself? Not saying that. But when it becomes part of what I call the fantasy industrial complex, and there's money to be made in indulging those kinds of fantasies, I think it becomes all of a piece, all of this American cocktail of ceasing to distinguish between fact and fiction in real life. And when it comes to the public realm and the public sphere and what is true and not true factually.

Kurt Anderson (31:06):

So as we decide how to govern ourselves and how to get along and conduct society, then it becomes problematic in a variety of ways, including centrally the internet of the last 30 years. Which isn't to say, nobody should play video games or you're immersing too much in fantasy. No, but of course the internet does in other ways, and social media and all of the obviously toxic forms of fantasy that it indulges, and untruth that it indulges, there's a kind of cascade effect that we've seen in the last several decades.

Steve Paulson (31:42):

So let's talk about how fantasy figures into contemporary politics? I mean, of course politicians have always shaded the truth, but something seems to have changed, especially in the last decade. I mean, there are entirely fabricated versions of reality that have become mainstream or just part of political discourse. Do you think something is different now that it was 15, 20 years ago?

Kurt Anderson (32:06):

Yes. And see, when I started writing this book and I started thinking about this book a decade ago before it had become as acute and obvious in people talking about the post-truth world and alternative facts, I realized even then a decade ago that this was not a new thing. So it didn't just pop out of nowhere. Donald Trump did not cause this to happen. Donald Trump, I think brilliantly saw what was there for the taking and the manipulating and the exploiting. And after all, his many, many, many times of flirting with the idea of running for President saw that the time had become ripe enough for him to do it and succeed. So yeah, something has changed and I think absent the internet, it wouldn't have happened.

Steve Paulson (32:53):


Kurt Anderson (32:53):

But that's an alternate history that isn't the one in which we live.

Steve Paulson (32:57):

Well, you have this chilling quote from Carl Rove, the old master Republican strategist who said, I think it was about 20 years ago that, "People who live in "the reality based community" need to understand that's not the way the world really works anymore." I mean, wow, what did he mean by that?

Kurt Anderson (33:16):

Well, he was using it ironically and they were on a roll, right. He and they, the establishment Republicans at the time, he worked for George W. Bush of course, were feeling as though that they had cracked the code to understand that they could create a reality that may not conform to the facts as the academy, as the media, as the reality based community, as he disparagingly joshingly said to this reporter 20 years ago, understood it to be. And understood that instead of just as you say, shading the truth, hyperbole here and there, which politicians and sellers of all things have always done everywhere, could actually go a step or two or 10 further. And that's what he meant.

Steve Paulson (34:06):

So do you think that was because the internet had come onto the scene that I'm still trying to figure out why that became a viable political strategy when it seemed like 20 years before that people would've been, I think laughed at, if they just sort of tried to create this whole alternative fact kind of politics.

Kurt Anderson (34:27):

Again, it's not just the internet, but the anti-establishment feeling and cultural explosion of the late 1960s and '70s was a huge part of it. And of course, as I'm saying, that comes from a long line of American anti-establishmentism. And these establishments, however, kept the lid on and were still in charge culturally, intellectually, politically, in religions after the '60s and '70s when those establishment gatekeepers were challenged to an extreme more and more in a kind of small democratic cultural idea took hold, the mainstream is bad, the establishment's bad in every way, that gave an opening to the internet. For instance, starting in 1998, when the idea of autism was caused by vaccines became a kind of case study of how this untruth, this profound consequential untruth in that case could gather believers as it never could before, because there was now this back channel of the internet to create these alternate realities of various kinds.

Speaker 20 (35:42):

I did not make the diagnosis of autism.

Speaker 21 (35:44):

Sir. I'm not here to let you pitch your book. I'm here to have you answer questions.

Speaker 20 (35:48):

What this is a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any investigation into valid vaccine safety concerns.

Speaker 21 (35:54):

If your study is a lie, your book is a lie.

Speaker 20 (35:56):

The book is not a lie, the study is not a lie. The findings-

Kurt Anderson (35:59):

Findings here we are generational later where it is run rampant and run a muck.

Speaker 21 (36:04):

... offer to talk to other journalists...

Steve Paulson (36:05):

So we talked earlier about how Carl Rove said, "You don't have to cater to reality based politics." And it seems like the more updated version of that is Steve Bannon, who talked about flooding the zone with crap. He used a different word but to the point where fact checkers in the media can't keep up with a Donald Trump who just says one outrageous thing after another. The media will always be one step behind, always responding to the latest, outrageous statement. And that just doesn't work anymore to keep someone like Donald Trump in check.

Kurt Anderson (36:39):

Well, and you have, in his case, and again, it's no longer, I think we are going to see a post-Trump party and movement that doesn't require him. He has established this new rule, whereas you say, fact checking, reality, empirical proof, all of those things don't matter. It's what you want to believe or pretend to believe for the sake of power or vengeance or whatever.

Kurt Anderson (37:08):

The Washington Post famously, while he was President, counted up the lies and distortions. Well, it's almost irrelevant at a certain point, except of course it's an shocking number, but that's almost as if those counters and the media are living in this old time where a gaff here, or there, or a misstatement or a lie would knock a politician out of the box. Well, we are living at least on one side of our politics where that is no longer true because all that matters is maintaining power at any cost. And it's not a matter of winning a debate or proving that what you are claiming is based on facts. That's why it's such a troubling time.

Speaker 3 (38:01):


Anne Strainchamps (38:10):

Kurt Anderson is the author of Fantasyland:. How America Went Haywire. And he's the former host of the public radio show Studio 360. He was talking with Steve Paulson.

Speaker 3 (38:28):


Anne Strainchamps (38:29):

So I would say that one of the ironies of our current political Fantasyland is that it's become so grim, the only way to escape it is through more fantasy. Thank goodness for Netflix.

Speaker 22 (38:41):

When the waking world leaves you wanting and weary, sleep brings you here. My realm. For I am the king of dreams and nightmares.

Anne Strainchamps (39:00):

Coming up, Neil Gaiman on the origins of Sandman, his classic graphic novel now streaming globally. It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (39:22):

Neil Gaiman's classic graphic novel Sandman is streaming on Netflix now, enthralling a whole new global audience with the adventures of characters like Dream, Death and Delirium. It's the latest in a long line of famous game and fantasy novels adapted to the screen. They include Stardust, American Gods and Coraline. So this seemed like a good time to revisit a story from our archives. Steve Paulson's 2003 trip to Gaiman's home at the time, in a nameless small town in Western Wisconsin.

Speaker 3 (40:09):


Steve Paulson (40:12):

So when I drove out to Gaiman's house, I wasn't surprised to discover he lived in an old Victorian house with plenty of Gothic flavor.

Speaker 3 (40:21):


Neil Gaiman (40:24):

Actually for the first four years of living here, every Halloween night, we would stock up with candy. And every November 1st, we'd have to eat it because nobody would ever come up that drive. It was just a bit too scary.

Neil Gaiman (40:48):

These are from the disturbing bunny of the month club. This one, which is a Siamese twins bunny.

Steve Paulson (40:55):

The two-headed bunny.

Neil Gaiman (40:56):

It's a two-headed bunny and it was one of the very few that my wife, my wife finds my disturbing bunny of the month club incredibly disturbing. And when this one arrived, she looked at it and she said, "Well, that one's nice. It's got two heads, but it's quite sweet." And then my daughter, Maddie looked up with an enormous grin on her face. And she said, "Yes, mommy. And look, one of the heads is dead."

Neil Gaiman (41:18):

And this one here is my favorite of all of the disturbing bunnies. Has one huge rather human looking eye. But it's the fact that you can actually pull out the eye and it goes back in again, which is even more disturbing.

Steve Paulson (41:34):

Neil Gaiman's pension for black humor pops up throughout his books. You can see it in the graphic novels that first made his name, the Sandman fantasy series. It started back in the late '80s when DC comics asked him to write a monthly comic book. Gaiman says he wanted the story to have a big enough scope so that he could go anywhere with it.

Neil Gaiman (41:54):

So I came up with the idea of the lead character, who was the Lord of Dreams. He is the king of the world that you go into every night when you close your eyes and safely and quietly go stark staring mad. And then I started thinking, "Well, if I have somebody who is the Lord of Dreams, then there must be more than that." And I thought, "Well, there should be a death." And then I thought, "Well, how about a destiny?" And came up with a whole little family of them all the way down to poor little Delirium.

Steve Paulson (42:24):

But the thing that's so striking about some of those characters, death for instance, is not at all how I would imagine death. Death is a rather fetching woman.

Neil Gaiman (42:35):

Yes, she's very nice. She looks about 16 or 17 and is very, very cheerful and sensible. I thought Death, it must be a really interesting job being Death. I thought because it gets you out the house. It's really not a job for somebody who doesn't like people because you are going to meet everybody as they die.

Steve Paulson (42:56):

Now I read somewhere that you wanted your woman of death to be someone people would want to fall in love with.

Neil Gaiman (43:03):

Oh, definitely. I mean, that was taken from I think the Cabala. I heard once an old myth that the Angel of Death is so beautiful. When you see the Angel of Death, you fall in love so hard that your soul is sucked out through your eyes and goes off with the angel. And I thought, what a lovely image, the idea of death is love.

Steve Paulson (43:31):

You have all kinds of strange twists and turns in the storyline in Sandman. There's a convention of, I guess you might call them geeks who meet in the Midwest and it turns out they're serial killers. There's Lucifer who gets bored and moves out and gives the keys to hell over to the Lord of Dreams.

Neil Gaiman (43:52):

That came from a wonderful quote that I ran into from a 19th century French cleric called the Abbe Munier who once announced that he believed in hell because it was church doctrine, but he was not required to believe there was anybody down there.

Neil Gaiman (44:10):

And I always loved the idea of an empty hell and the serial killer convention. It began from two or three different places. One of which was, the year was 1988. It hadn't arrived yet, but I could see this sort of weird cult of the serial killer, romance of the serial killer as something that was on the cultural horizon. And I really wasn't comfortable with it.

Steve Paulson (44:35):

This was the era of Hannibal Lecter and all that?

Neil Gaiman (44:37):

It was pretty much the era of, Hannibal Lector was just on its way. You read about the Ed Geins or the Dahmers or any of these people. And they are sad, screwed up people who kill people. It's like nursery teachers used to tell me, they'd say, "That's not clever, it's not funny, and nobody's the slightest bit impressed.

Neil Gaiman (44:58):

So I wanted to do a story about that. And I loved the idea that having gone to a number of conventions of different kinds, I realized that all conventions seem to be about people who can go off for a weekend together and be special. And so I thought, right, I'm doing a serial killer convention and they have panel discussions on women and serial killing and things like that. And they have a disco on the Saturday night and I'm sure they have an award ceremony but we never got to that.

Steve Paulson (45:27):

You've developed an incredible fanbase. You're playing with some pretty disturbing imagery. Do you worry at all about the kinds of fans that you sometimes have? And I'm sure most of your fans are very nice people, but you've you you're playing with some pretty disturbing imagery.

Neil Gaiman (45:43):

Yeah. What is really peculiar about my fans is how nice they are. And I've talked to other people who've had write the same kind of stuff that I do who've had serious fan weirdness. Talking to Stephen King about the person who took up residents in his attic claiming they had a bomb. And Clive Barker has had somebody come to one of his signings and slash his arm and have Clive's sign in blood. And somebody else presented him with a severed cat head and all that kind of stuff. My people are lovely.

Steve Paulson (46:27):

It seems that just about any strange story will grab Gaiman's attention. But if you want to know where his imaginative world comes from, you might start with his children's books. Coraline is one of the spookiest kids books I've ever read. We should talk some about the story of Coraline. It's the story of this girl who has moved into a new house and she's exploring the house and she discovers a door that leads somewhere. Could you read the passage where she first makes this discovery?

Neil Gaiman (46:59):

Now it's worth bearing in mind before I start that one door opens onto a brick wall. And this is what happens when Caroline opens the door and it doesn't open onto a brick wall.

Neil Gaiman (47:22):

Coraline went through the door. She wondered what the empty flat would be like if that was where the corridor led. Coraline walked down the corridor uneasily. There was something very familiar about it. The carpet beneath her feet was the same carpet they had in her flat. The wallpaper was the same wallpaper they had. The picture hanging in the hall was the same that they had hanging in their hallway at home. She knew where she was. She was in her own home. She hadn't left. She shook her head confused. She stared at the picture hanging on the wall. No, it wasn't exactly the same. The picture they had in their own hallway showed a boy in old fashioned clothes, staring at some bubbles. Coraline stared at his eyes, trying to figure out what exactly was different. She almost had it when somebody said, "Coraline." It sounded like her mother.

Neil Gaiman (48:26):

Coraline went into the kitchen where the voice had come from. A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline's mother only her skin was white as paper. Only she was taller and thinner. Only her fingers were too long and they never stopped moving and her dark red fingernails were curved and sharp.

Neil Gaiman (48:50):

"Coraline", the woman said, "Is that you?" And then she turned around, her eyes were big black buttons. "Lunchtime Coraline," said the woman. "Who are you?" asked Caroline. "I'm your other mother," said the woman.

Steve Paulson (49:19):

That's chilling. And yet this is a children's book.

Neil Gaiman (49:22):

Oh, absolutely. And all of the fears and things that I'm tapping into are definitely things that I had as a kid. And I actually had a door in my house that opened onto a brick wall and I used to sneak down and open it and look and make sure it was always a brick wall. I would be at school and I'd start worrying that possibly my parents might have moved without telling me when I got home. And then I'd think what if instead of having moved without telling me they moved out and people who looked exactly like them had moved in, how would I know?

Anne Strainchamps (50:02):

Neil Gaiman, transmuting fear into fantasy for more than 30 years. That's an interview from our archives. Steve Paulson's 2003 visit to Gaiman's home at the time in a seemingly ordinary town in Western Wisconsin. And that's it for our show today. I wish you dreams filled with flights of fantasy and politics fueled by cold hard facts.

Speaker 3 (50:33):


Anne Strainchamps (50:33):

To The Best of our Knowledge is produced by Angelo Batista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane and Mark Riechers. Our technical director is Joe Hardke. This week. He had help from Sara Hopeful. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 24 (50:51):


Last modified: 
April 13, 2023