The Medusa’s Mask: The Literature of Fascination

Medusamorphosis relates to the mythical figure of the Gorgon Medusa, a key figure of fascination, whose looks were thought to turn living beings into stone.

—Sibylle Baumbach, Literature and Fascination

As children we grow up being taught that we live in a natural world, a mundane realm of common sense reality that seems to be well-structured, bound by certain indelible rules and regulations that underlie the scientific worldview we are taught in schools as ours. We learn that since the Enlightenment the thought of magic, fairies, and monsters is the stuff of fantasy and the mentally ill. That the real world, the world we all live in is disenchanted, a realm where all our ancestral myths and religious notions have vanished without trace: a secular world where reason and logic prevail.

Growing up we either read – or are read too, certain books where fairies and evil creatures do exist: fairy tales, vampires, werewolves, household spirits, ghosts, and all kinds of monsterous creatures that both frighten us and fascinate us. Sometimes we have dreams or nightmares in which these creatures appear to us as if from another realm, as if we existed in two worlds at once: a world where everything is structured, ordered, and conforms to the everyday world our parents have taught us; and, then the other world —a realm where everything our parents taught us is turned upside-down and topsy-turvy, a land of magical beings that defy our mundane natural order of reason and logic.

We are taught to distinguish between our world of reason and logic, our natural world where apples always fall because of gravity; and, the world of ‘make believe’, that other world of dreams and nightmares, fiction and fairy tales. When we become adults we assume the natural world where we work, eat, play, have sex, raise children ourselves is the real world, and that all the hocus-pocus stuff of magic and fantasy is part of the unreal world of make-believe. So we begin to divide the world into real and unreal, good and evil as if this were just the way it is – a sort of unwritten law of our mind’s constitution, to be accepted and not doubted. But then we’re faced with certain dilemmas when the world defies what our parents, teachers, and scientists have taught us, when we are suddenly faced with things or events in the real world that do not conform with these natural explanations, when the world is suddenly strange and we become fascinated by certain inexplicable and unruly – even unnatural objects and events.

We enter our favorite bookstore and see it has books lined up under various categories like history, literature, science, fantasy and science fiction, occult, new age, etc. We know that this makes it easier for people to find things that interest them, and it does. But then we begin to question why there is so many more books in the fantasy, science fiction, occult and new age sections, while the sections on history, literature, science, nature, etc. seem to be restricted to smaller bookshelves. Then we wonder why so many people are interested in the types of things our parents taught us are make-believe and unreal. What is it about such unreal worlds that seduce us, attract us, fascinate us?

On our nightly television we are presented with worlds that on the surface resemble our own such as comedy sit-coms, murder mysteries, medical, legal, and other shows that seem to fit our normal expectations, etc.; and, then we are presented with other shows that seduce us to believe in ghosts, ancient aliens, magic, horror, fantasy, monsters, etc. – shows that allure us into mysterious realms that both fascinate and fill us with dread. Why are we haunted by all these supposedly unnatural and – as some say, supernatural and superstitious tales? Why do so many people feel the need to spend their time watching or reading about things that have never been, that are make-believe, or that seduce us into such emotions and affective regions as fearful and uncanny feelings. If we live in a secular age devoid of gods and monsters alike (except for the real monsters like killers and psychopaths). What is it that fascinates and allures us toward all these ancient tribal superstitions about evil magical beings from other realms?

Sibylle Baumbach in her book Literature and Fascination terms this need within us to be fascinated by things and events that fill us with either dread or desire as the medusamorphosis ‘effect’:

The Medusa incorporates the ambivalent forces of attraction and repulsion that are at the heart of the dangerously seductive and petrifying lure referred to as ‘fascination’. Furthermore, the threat and thrill evoked by this figure support the conceptualization of fascination and its development insofar as different representations of the Gorgon across historical eras, cultural contexts and across different media point to dominating trends underlying the dread of, or desire for ‘fascination’.1

It’s this medusa effect she tells us that “allows us to rationalize the cognitive disorientation produced by simultaneous reactions of intense attraction and repulsion and alludes to the tension between presence and absence, which is constitutive of the Medusa effect”. (LF, 2)

For many of us the works of magical realism, the fantastic, weird, uncanny, or realms of horror, dread, and terror are associated with the notion of fascination as mysterious, disquieting and obscure. Many of these types of fictions or films entail elements of anxious uncertainty and risk, and allude to the occult and mystic roots of the allotrope of fascination. Fascination relates to the ability of objects or people to resonate with our innate, hidden, subversive and potentially devious desires which are repressed in daily social interaction, but surface when we are confronted with images or practices of transgression that challenge ethical codes, aesthetic conventions or cultural norms. Some of the most effective fascination mechanisms arise in the nexus of our desire to witness a forbidden spectacle and our dread of its potentially dangerous repercussions. (LF, 4)

Rosemary Jackson in her classic work Fantasy – The Literature of Subversion reminds us that in our secular disenchanted culture, desire for otherness is not displaced into alternative regions of heaven or hell, but is directed towards the absent areas of this world, transforming it into something ‘other’ than the familiar, comfortable one.2 In conceptualizing this she uses the term ‘paraxis’,  a telling notion in relation to the place, or space, of the fantastic, for it implies an inextricable link to the main body of the ‘real’ which it shades and threatens. (FLS, 11) It’s a liminal world of edges, realms that are neither real or unreal, a web of interrelated edgelands where the weird and uncanny seem to mutate and for a time co-exist. It’s this in-betweenness, this zone of fascination and dread that allows us to transgress our normal expectations and entertain the possibility of unreal events or things to affect us.

Thomas Ligotti in his short tale The Medusa captures this notion of fascination aesthetically and with éclat:

“We can only live by leaving our ‘soul’ in the hands of the Medusa,” Dregler wrote in New Meditations. “Whether she is an angel or a gargoyle is not the point. Each merely allows us a gruesome diversion from some ultimate catastrophe which would turn us to stone; each is a mask hiding the worst visage, a medicine that numbs the mind. And the Medusa will see to it that we are protected, sealing our eyelids closed with the gluey spittle of her snakes, while their bodies elongate and slither past our lips to devour us from the inside. This is what we must never witness, except in the imagination, where it is a charming sight. For in the mind the Medusa fascinates much more than she appalls, and haunts us just this side of petrification. On the other side is the unthinkable, the unheard-of, that-which-should-not-be: hence, the Real. This is what throttles our souls with a thousand fingers—somewhere, perhaps in that dim room which caused us to forget ourselves, that place where we left ourselves behind amid shadows and strange sounds—while our minds and words toy, like playful, stupid pets, with diversions of an immeasurable disaster. The tragedy is that we must steer so close in order to avoid this hazard. We may hide from horror only in the heart of horror.”3

He uses the term ‘Real’ to connote this sense of the forbidden, the unknown – “the other side is the unthinkable, the unheard-of, that-which-should-not-be”. The notion of the Real has an interesting history in modern thought. In philosophy, the Real is that which is the authentic, unchangeable truth. It may be considered a primordial, external dimension of experience, referred to as the infinite, absolute or noumenal, as opposed to a reality contingent on sense perception and the material order. The Real is often considered irreducible to the symbolic order of lived experience, but may be gestured to in certain cases, such as the experience of the sublime.4

The primordial Real seems to be a chaotic or non-differentiated realm – what some term the Outside (or Absolute). Slavoj Žižek following Lacan will divide the notions of the Real into three areas: the “imaginary real”: a horrific thing, that which conveys the sense of horror in horror films; the “symbolic real”: the signifier reduced to a meaningless formula like quantum physics, which cannot be understood in any meaningful way, only grasped through abstract mathematics; and, the “real Real”: an unfathomable something that permeates things as a trace of the sublime. (ibid.) In fact Žižek describes this third form as “the direct experience of the Real as opposed to everyday social reality – the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceptive layers of reality.”5

In many ways we are all seduced into a fictional world from birth to adulthood, we call it culture, and the process of enculturation in which we are inducted into the order of the real which our parents, teachers, and the supposed authorities of our secular order, the scientists tell us is the world as it is, the real world of our everyday commonsensical realm. But the truth is our world is much more, and our hypernormalization to the secular worldview has diminished and exclude what does not fit into its reasonable and logical modes of thought and affect. As William Blake the poet once put it:

Now I a fourfold vision see And a fourfold vision is given to me Tis fourfold in my supreme delight And three fold in soft Beulahs night And twofold Always. May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep.

— Blake, Letter to Thomas Butt, 22 November 1802. Quoted in Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), The Letters of William Blake(1956)

The point here for Blake’s satirical diatribe is an attack on the literalism of the Newtonian or scientific-mechanist mindset. In his own visionary work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he’d suggest that – “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” In this context the ‘Infinite’ is the Real in Žižek’s sense of what’s left once we strip away the cultural incrustations that have closed us up in a rational world of logic and instrumental reason.

It’s this seduction of fascination for the Real, for the world that is just the other side of our culturally limited realm of reason and logic, a realm that fills us with both dread and foreboding and yet – elicits fascination which keeps us returning to narratives of horror and the weird, our minds eerily fascinated by the liminal spaces of the edgelands just outside our cultural filters and blinkers. As Baumbach relates it using tales of fascination as a secret strategy to draw readers into a potentially dangerous and yet irresistibly seductive narrative, they absorb strategies of attraction and repulsion, alternately releasing these forces as their tales unfold to excite and torment our imagination and bind us to the reading experience. Continuing she states: “medusamorphoses, however, do not end here. While consistently applying fascination’s dual mechanisms to draw readers in, they acquire an apotropaic function. These narratives of fascination reflect upon, and even expose, the luring powers they exert. They reveal their techniques, unveil key mechanisms of fascination and, as a result, alert readers to their extreme forces of duality. They disclose and develop strategies to overcome fascination to sustain narrative progression, facilitating readers’ understanding of their tensions and their release and opening up a meta-discourse that allows for deep reflections upon mechanisms of narrative seduction and cognitive disorientation, which are at once unsettling and enticing.” (LF, 253)


  1. Baumbach, Sibylle. Literature and Fascination. Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2015 edition (July 30, 2015) LF
  2.  Jackson, Rosemary. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. Routledge; 1 edition (March 7, 2008) FLS
  3. Ligotti, Thomas. Noctuary. Subterranean Press. (June 25, 2012)
  4.  see: The Real Wikipedia
  5. Zizek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (Radical Thinkers) (pp. 5-6). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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