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 📻
September 17, 2022
April 15, 2023
January 27, 2024
Full Transcript 📄

- [Anne] It is "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] 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". ♪ Is everybody ready to sing along ♪ ♪ With Disney songs ♪ ♪ On Disney Sing-Along ♪

- [Angelo] 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. ♪ Zippety doo-day, zippety ay ♪

- [Angelo] 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, you know, "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.

- Hi, my name is Sarah Rachel.

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

- [Sarah] I do, on TikTok and Instagram account, Every Day is Disney, that I started to just kinda share my love of Disney. Once again, come with me to do the most underrated thing in Disney world, which is getting Starbucks and going to walk the jungle treks 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] How long have you been a Disney fan?

- [Sarah] 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] That was until COVID hit, and the happiest place on earth closed its gates.

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

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

- [Sarah] I knew going into this trip that character interactions were back, and when I found out I cried, 'cause 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." 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. Got it.

- [Sarah] Very, very unlike me. Is that Goofy? And I wanted to be really respectful of the character performer's boundaries, so I didn't just bum rush him. Is that him? I was just standing there sobbing, and you could see Goofy go like this, like come here, and then I just, and then I did bum rush him, I just ran to him.

- One more over here, Goofy.

- It was magical. Like, I can't think of a better word. I know it's corny, but like the hug, it was a hug from someone that knew. Thank you so much, Goofy. Someone that knew that this moment meant something to me. I love you.

- Aw.

- Have a good one.

- Thank you.

- [Angelo] 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] So 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. And every time I refreshed it, 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. You shouldn't even be there, you shouldn't even be there."

- [Angelo] Why do you think people have such strong opinions about Disney adults?

- [Sarah] I have a lot of opinions on that. For like the few weeks where this kept, it wouldn't stop, I just had a lotta 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. I mean, 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. ♪ So this is love, mm-mm ♪

- [Angelo] 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. ♪ And now I know ♪

- [Marianne] I think being cynical and defensive is a defense mechanism to stop them from actually, like having feelings, and Disney is such a, it seems just a pure thing to like, be quite childish, I guess. ♪ And I can fly ♪

- [Angelo] 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. ♪ So this is love ♪

- [Angelo] 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 wanna be.

- [Marianne] Yeah, it really does. It's like you say, with EDS and stuff, if you're at Disney, you walk like 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. I like Disney, but especially because I'm autistic as well, a lot of stuff about it is really stressful. Like 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 like, 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 kinda 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.

- Do you feel safe at Disney?

- I think so. Like, America is a scary place to be. You know, 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 like, it's 1:00, 2:00. You're thinking like, "Oh, well it's 90 minutes til I have this Fast Pass, and like 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] 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] Which is weird, 'cause it's so American.

- [Angelo] It is so American.

- [Marianne] It's aggressively American, yeah.

- [Angelo] 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. ♪ The world is a carousel of color ♪

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

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

- [Angelo] What are your thoughts on the man as a person?

- [Sarah] 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. 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 like, "I don't like the fact that you step outside of Disneyland and it's exactly what I was trying to avoid."

- [Walt] I started with many ideas, threw them 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] 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 Marianne says, he was also motivated by something darker.

- [Marianne] Whenever you try and do anything perfectly, you're kinda trying to keep out the real world, which the real world really means death, right? Even people who build really beautiful, like 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. This was another thing that got me really interested in it. 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, 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. 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. Like, it's just this snapshot of his childhood and when he was happiest.

- Boy, this place is creepy.

- Yeah.

- [Child] I wonder what weird things happen here at night?

- [Angelo] For Walt, creating the ultimate fantasy meant keeping out the ultimate reality, a harsh reality that we all must face. ♪ When the crypt doors creak and the tombstones quake ♪ ♪ The spooks come out ♪

- [Angelo] There was one part of that "Disney Sing-Along" VHS I would always skip, and it was the scene with the Haunted Mansion. ♪ Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize ♪

- [Angelo] 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 Marianne, 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] Can I? That was like, way too much.

- Please do.

- [Marianne] Yeah in fact like, to me it makes perfect sense. But obviously to anyone, it looks like such a massive departure for Disneyland, 'cause 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, 'cause 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, I 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 haunted house, and I'm just going around Europe looking for ghosts to fill it with."

- [Walt] You're gonna meet the ghosts. This is a little scale model now of the Disneyland area, you've seen this many times, but we haven't got the ghosts in there yet, but we are out collecting the ghosts.

- [Angelo] Walt died of lung cancer in 1966, three 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.

- Time to be turning around.

- If only you could.

- [Angelo] Walt Disney's embrace of death isn't just found in the Haunted Mansion. Death is really all around you in Disney.

- [Vulture] How come you aren't laughing?

- [Angelo] 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, 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.

- So bad.

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

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

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

- [Angelo] 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] 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] There is something to be said about this one man's effort to create a perfect fantasy that shuts out all of the bad. ♪ When you wish upon a star ♪

- [Angelo] 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] No yeah, it's an interesting way to put it. People on the outside looking in kinda 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. ♪ Dreamers do ♪

- [Marianne] 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 like, go to Disneyland? It's pretty healthy as far as escapism goes, I feel.

- [Sarah] 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? ♪ Oh, oh, oh, oh ♪

- [Sarah] And for all of you wonderful, wonderful people who have jumped into the comments with supportive words, and even defended 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] Producer Angelo Bautista, talking with Sarah Rachel. You can find her on TikTok @everydayisDisney, and Marianne Eloise, her new book is called, "Obsessive Intrusive Magical Thinking". Coming up, when exactly does a fantasy world become dangerous?

- Ladies and gentleman, Walt Disney's famous family of cartoon characters welcomes you to Fantasy on Parade.

- [Kurt] 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 present. 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] Kurt Andersen on what happens to cultures that get fantasy and reality mixed up, next. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and it's "To the Best of our Knowledge", from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. In 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, the cultural critic Kurt Andersen 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 Andersen to get his take on how America went from Disneyland to Donald Trump.

- [Kurt] 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 skeevy 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.

- [Announcer] 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] 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] Safe-ish, 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 racy and sexualized, and for grownups only and all that. But yes, and I don't think it's a coincidence that they emerged simultaneously.

- [Steve] It almost seems like both Disneyland and Vegas were kinda 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] Yeah, I don't know if Disney saw, or if Vegas rather saw the nightmare of hellishness, but no I mean, and of course America from the get-go, and I call in "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] I'm really interested to hear you say that this whole fantasy land, 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] 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 Puritanism and American Protestantism, became at the heart and core of the American idea, whether you were a practicing believer or not.

- [Steve] 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] 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" book, 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 you know, 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] How much do you think that is a religious mindset, this fantasy land that you're describing, that leads up to contemporary politics as well as more recent religious traditions, you know, 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] I would say yes, as 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, that reinvent yourself and everything that you think is true and real as a deep part of the American idea, yes, absolutely has a religious basis, 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 fantasy land 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] 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. You know, reality can be kind of oppressive, maybe we need some escapism. So when does fantasy become dangerous?

- [Kurt] Well I mean, it's one of those things, you know 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. But as there's 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 '60s and '70s, it became obligatory when you went gray that you colored your hair, effectively in the United States.

- [Announcer] 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] 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 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, "Oh, 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] 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 than it was 15, 20 years ago?

- [Kurt] 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, but-

- Interesting.

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

- [Steve] Well, you have this chilling quote from Karl Rove, the old master Republican strategist who said, I think it was about 20 years ago that, "People who live in quote, 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] 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] So do you think that was because the internet had come onto the scene? 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] 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, and a kind of small-D 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.

- [Guest] I did not make the diagnosis of autism.

- [Interviewer] Sir, I'm not here to let you pitch your book, I'm here to have you answer questions.

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

- [Interviewer] If your study is a lie, your book is a lie.

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

- Here we are, a generational later, where it is run rampant and run amok.

- [Steve] So we talked earlier about how Karl 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 you know, to the point where fact-checkers in the media can't keep up with a Donald Trump, who you know, 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] 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. 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 a shocking number, but that's almost as if those counters and the media are living in this old time where a gaffe here or there, or a misstatement or a lie, would knock a politician outta 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. ♪ Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together ♪ ♪ I've got some real estate here in my bag ♪

- [Anne] 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. ♪ And walked off to look for America ♪

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

- [Dream] 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] 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. 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 Gaiman 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. ♪ Just got off from work, it was awful late ♪ ♪ I had to pass the cemetery gate ♪

- [Steve] 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. ♪ It was a very, very, cold, cold night ♪

- [Neil] 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. These are from the disturbing Bunny of the Month club. This one, which is a Siamese twins bunny-

- It's a two-headed bunny.

- 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." 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 somehow even more disturbing.

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

- [Steve] Now I read somewhere that you wanted your woman of Death to be someone people would wanna fall in love with.

- [Newscaster] Oh definitely, I mean, that was taken from, I think the Kabbalah. 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] 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] 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. 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] This was the era of Hannibal Lecter and all that?

- [Neil] It was pretty much, the era of Hannibal Lector was just on its way. You know, 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." 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] You've developed an incredible fan base. 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-

- No, I-

- Are very nice people, but you're playing with some pretty disturbing imagery.

- [Neil] 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 kinda stuff that I do who've had serious fan weirdness. Talking to Stephen King about the person who took up residence 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 sign in blood. And somebody else presented him with a severed cat head, and all that kinda stuff. My people are lovely.

- [Steve] It seems that just about any strange story will grab Gaiman's attention, but if you wanna 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?

- [Newscaster] Absolutely, 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. "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. 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. '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." That's chilling, and yet this is a children's book.

- [Neil] 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? ♪ Bom bom bom bom, bom bom bom bom ♪ ♪ Bom bom bom bom bom ♪

- [Anne] 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. ♪ Mister Sandman, bring me a dream ♪

- [Anne] "To The Best of our Knowledge" is produced by Angelo Bautista, 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. ♪ Bring me a dream ♪ PRX.

Last modified: 
January 31, 2024