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Fandom in Search of Enchantment

April 15, 2024


This May, a very unique piece of theater is scheduled to close. Sleep No More takes place in an old Manhattan warehouse, and its unassuming red brick wall exterior is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. At least, that was my sense last year when I attended this interactive, deconstructed, mostly wordless interpretation of Macbeth. Over the course of a few hours, audience members wander from floor to floor as the Scottish Play’s plot and motifs are broken down and told cyclically through movement and dance. At the end, as if by magic, disoriented visitors find themselves somehow reunited and convening in a large, central area—which has served alternately as the banquet hall and Birnam Wood—for a macabre grande finale. It’s a novel enough concept for most, even if it has been in New York City since 2011 (and ran before that in the UK). But something more has attracted repeat visitors over the years, particularly in America. In some ways, the desire to return is understandable. From the beginning, I felt like I was being invited into something mysterious and special, and I left feeling that a lot of undiscovered country remained. There was also the delicious frisson, the giddy atmospheric dread of proximity to the vaguely sinister, even as you know that you are, in reality, completely safe. It’s a familiar sensation to fans of scary movies or haunted houses at Halloween. 

If you’re not a fan of those things, you doubtless know quite a few people who are. Or you know someone who is into true crime podcasts or who spends too much time online obsessing about something incredibly niche. Does a common thread stitch these interests together? Social scientist Max Weber talked about “disenchantment,” or “the retreat of magic and myth from social life through processes of secularization and rationalization.” But after a twentieth century that seemed to be the triumphant march of reason, rationality, and materialism, obsessive fandom in the twenty-first appears to be part of an anti-rational backlash. We see this impulse as well in the resurgence of astrology, in Taylor Swift fans working out the numerological significance of her album release dates, and in true crime podcast fanatics who insert themselves into ongoing murder investigations. The people who were raised with a reverence for empiricism over superstition have nonetheless given themselves over to a kind of gnosticism, scouring the world around them for hidden clues and signs. Likewise, repeat visitors to spooky immersive theater are in search of much the same thing, something that the secular realm has tried to stamp out: enchantment. A world that has rejected the supernatural is discovering that humanity will insist on reinventing it. But in the absence of a universally accepted definition of the true, the good, or the beautiful, the substitute enchantments are something at once far stranger and less fantastical than any religion. A fandom offers community, a shared idiom, and a sense of being drawn into the unknown. Disembodied from the eternal, however, they can only leave their devotees ultimately unsatisfied.

A world that has rejected the supernatural is discovering that humanity will insist on reinventing it.

That’s not to say I don’t see the appeal. After all, I went to Sleep No More by myself on a weekday night when I was in New York City last year for work, after years of wanting to go. As a lover of both Shakespeare and scary movies, I was very much looking forward to this high-concept, adult-oriented haunted house. 

The sense of gnosis, the initiation into a privileged secret, started almost immediately. After finding the old warehouse, I waited in a nervous, chatty line until the doors opened. First, I had to surrender my phone. Then, I was given not a ticket but a playing card (intriguing!). I was ushered through the dark toward the lavish Manderlay cocktail bar, where a waitstaff in retro garb awaited me. Anyone who has ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disney World will be familiar with what happened next: myself and the other McKittrick Hotel guests (the Hitchcock-inspired locale where the events of Sleep No More transpire) were given the rules by which we were to abide during our visit. Having already given up our phones, we were also forbidden to speak to each other or amongst ourselves. Eerie white masks covering our facial features were to be worn. I was summoned toward an elevator with all the other guests who had been issued the same playing card suit as I, and knocking back what remained of my overpriced vodka soda, I headed over, slightly concerned that coming alone had been a mistake. Once on the elevator, and during our ascent, there was a shared nervous chuckle among our group after a brief (scripted) jump scare, courtesy of our bellhop. The doors opened, and I spent the rest of the night chasing the fleet-footed cast members, impossibly compact and limber, following them upstairs and downstairs, down corridors, into cramped rooms and into disconcertingly empty ones. 

Masked McKittrick guests are encouraged to fall in behind whichever company member they wish, to pick up props and examine them: they can read letters between Lord and Lady Macbeth, and open drawers and inspect their contents. The show famously promises lots of “Easter eggs,” or clues for fans that can unlock other experiences. This has inspired an entire online community of repeat fans. Maps, YouTube videos, and Reddit threads have been created by these return customers, in which they describe accessing the specially-reserved encounters reserved for those who possess the required knowledge—information that comes from visiting the online forums and making the repeated pilgrimage to the McKittrick.

Americans can make what they will of a 2022 New York Times interview with the show’s British co-creator Felix Barrett, in which he revealed that American audiences are why the Sleep No More experience is so, well, experiential. “‘In America, there was an enthusiasm to ransack the place,’ Barrett said. Pilferage became a problem. The show had to hire design maintainers to check the rooms after each performance.” Author Alexis Soloski wondered whether the spectators, “reared perhaps on video games and puzzle hunts,” saw the show “as a riddle that needed solving.”

Is anybody really happy with mystery? Or do we just want answers?

Indeed, a 2011 New York Post review described the effect the interactive experience had on some: “I saw people rush from room to room and engage into crazed searches. I saw people power-walk through floors without stopping to enjoy anything. But I also saw men overturn mattresses and frantically search drawers as if they were on a CSI team or undertaking a treasure hunt.”

This investigative impulse is likely behind the results of a Pew report last year that revealed that among the podcasts with the highest daily rankings on Apple and Spotify in 2022, true crime was the most popular topic. But is anybody really happy with mystery? Or do we just want answers? We seem to believe we deserve answers. A movie with an ambiguous ending will beget Reddit threads with theories as audiences try to know just what, precisely, happened. A podcast series about a tragic unsolved murder occupies the waking thoughts of fans and begets more podcasts in which fans discuss their theories with each other. Where once the world of these people might have been enchanted by the idea that there were supernatural forces at work, a cosmos and a divine schema that had ordered things, their reality is transformed into a threatening, immediate one. Every approaching man becomes a potential assailant.

Again, if I sound judgmental here, let me reiterate that I really do get the thrill of the macabre. It’s why I was recently humbled by a history podcast on Jack the Ripper. Actually, disappointingly, it wasn’t about Jack the Ripper—who he might have been or his possible motive. Rather, it focused on his marginalized female victims, which is why I felt so bad about going in expecting a diverting listen in my garage gym. But I also learned that, more or less just after the murders, possibly while they were still ongoing, a local Whitechapel man had set up a wax exhibit of Jack the Ripper’s crimes. We know this because there was a police complaint about noise and crowds. The hosts of the show mused on the appeal of this kind of spectacle. “Murder is still big business,” historian Anthony Delaney said. “The question for me is, ‘why?’ Why do we need to get close to these things? Why do we need to get as close as possible to these things?” Delaney conceded that there may be an element of truth to true crime fans’ contentions that the appeal comes from trying to solve a mystery. But he sees something else at work, something “to do with being as close to the mystery of death as we possibly can be, and observing it when it’s not directly on us.” Studying an unsolved murder through a podcast (or simulated in wax, as the case may be) gives us distance to contemplate not only the mystery of the crime but of death and the eternal. Without offering any answers, though, armchair sleuthing can only ultimately disenchant, although not in the way Weber meant. It is rather an inversion of enchantment. It still transforms the earthly realities with which we occupy our thoughts and meditations, but it tinges them with death and sorrow, and offers little sense of hope or possibility. Justice, maybe, if a killer is caught and brought to trial, but not hope.

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I once interviewed Dr. Sarah Jane Murray, who teaches great texts at Baylor University. We spoke about what is perhaps the archetypal Western quest narrative, the quest for the Holy Grail. The first real Grail narrative we have comes from a medieval French poet, Chretien de Troyes, called Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal. The tale ends rather abruptly and seems to have quite a few loose ends. Although there were no thirteenth-century Reddit threads of de Troyes fanboys posting fantastic theories drawn from various imagined clues, we do have “the Grail problem,” or modern scholars trying to work out just why the Grail stories are so creepy and ambiguous. Are they descriptions of pre-Christian rituals? Hidden messages for the Knights Templar?

As I wrote in Tablet at the time:

The approach of treating the Grail as something literal or having meaning outside of the romances is to put something of an anachronistic Protestant lens on stories that were written in a very different time, when relics, popular piety, and crusades were in the ether. Their authors were medieval Catholics who believed in transubstantiation—that the bread and wine at the Mass literally become the body and blood of Christ. If that’s your operating assumption, the cup becomes rather beside the point.

After all, de Troyes’ ends the story of Perceval, the questing knight in search of the Holy Grail, midway through his narrative. Perceval finally divests himself of his armor (“the one thing he wanted more than anything at the beginning of the story,” Murray said) in a chapel in the woods on Good Friday, and receives Communion on Easter Sunday. 

The apparent plot holes and abrupt ending of de Troyes’ Conte du Graal itself is intentional, Murray believes. They invite the reader to embark on his or her own quest. Not, she maintains, a terrestrial quest for some material object, but something altogether more sublime than any temporal mystery, at once right in front of us and impenetrable to the rational, empirical eye.

God is both the source and the fulfillment of our desire for enchantment, as well as for the tangible. That Christ instituted a Church made up of signs, symbols, and sacraments shows a deep love for and understanding of our humanity. He knows we love a quest and a good mystery.

Outside the Church, there are those who are trying to create enchantment ex nihilo. It could be Swifties searching for the hidden meaning in Taylor Swift’s sartorial decisions, the way Pythagoras and his followers saw triangles everywhere. The same enchantment impulse informs the community of Sleep No More fans helping each other to access the show’s secret sixth floor. All are bound to be disappointed in the final analysis. Taylor Swift is successful and talented, but she isn’t immortal. Sleep No More keeps teasing its imminent closure. 

Of course, as a Catholic, I can’t condemn the fascination of fandom. I wonder, rather, what a Catholic Church would look like if baptized Catholics displayed a similar enthusiasm for their faith. After all, we are invited to meditate on death more seriously than a “My Favorite Murder” podcast fan, and to return to the community of believers gathered at the Mass as avidly as any Swiftie goes to a bar for a Taylor Swift singalong night. For Catholics, “there is something greater than Taylor Swift here”: the Body and Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. I am called to touch and feel and taste and see—with an earnest monomania at least as fervent as the most intense Sleep No More superfan rifling through Macbeth’s correspondence—my Lord and my God in the Eucharist.