Throughout the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries much of mediated western storytelling could be said to reflect the stages, archetypes and themes found within the hero’s journey — or monomyth — outlined in mythologist Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ (2008).
Campbell described the “monomyth” as a cycle that is, at its core, a “magnification of the formula represented in [human] rites of passage: separation – initiation – return” (2008: 23, original emphasis).
The cycle is evident in various stages of human life, through ritualistic cultural events such as weddings, funerals and coming of age ceremonies.
In narrative terms, “separation” occurs when a protagonist ventures from quotidian life into the fantastic; “initiation” takes place through an encounter with a force, often supernatural, and the winning of a decisive victory; if proven successful in their endeavours the now heroic protagonist might receive a powerful boon and, upon their “return”, an ability to bestow the boon among their people (Campbell 2008: 28–29).
Campbell reveals the purpose storytelling: it has frequently been about the journey as much as the outcome, and its ability to permeate the psyche and reflect human experience (2008: 21–22). Consequently, and because of its universality, the mythic cycle has been widely implemented to explore and explain the mythologies, sagas and fables of humanity.
Prevalent in popular culture, monomythic structure has been especially visible in the last 40 years of film, including the titles Back to the Future (Zemeckis, 1985), The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), The Matrix (Wachowski and Wachowski, 1999), Spider-Man (Raimi, 2002), the Star Trek franchise and the Doctor Who franchise to varying extents (see Hardy 2015; Koh 2009; Palumbo 2013).
Leah Deyneka has also observed the influence of ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ (2008) on “George Lucas as he penned the ‘Star Wars’ saga” (2012: 35).
Deyneka claims “it is the audience that creates the connections and participates with the [creator,] influencing and shaping the myth and giving it meaning through participation” (2012: 35).
Star Wars, drawing on “the antediluvian theme of good vs evil”, has captured “the imagination of millions” and offered “a contemporary visual metaphor for the experience of life”, and as a cautionary tale “to make sense of the Universe and our place within it” (Deyneka 2012: 35, 46).
Through the monomythic model, therefore, films like those of the Star Wars franchise connect with its audience on a contemporary cultural, thematic, and mythic level, forming a communal touchpoint through storytelling.
Films following this format share the ultimate hopefulness and optimism present in the monomyth, that despite the challenges protagonists face life contains ultimate meaning.
Contrastingly, a shift in popular culture has seen an increase in the production of texts with a nihilistic tone that comment on the perception of life as meaninglessness or void (Hibbs 2012).
Thomas Hibbs also claims Hollywood’s productions of “the last decade of the twentieth-century” and the beginning of the twenty-first-century do not often depict “as admirable ordinary American life in the present”; there was a decline of heroism too and when Hollywood “did offer heroism” it instead “found examples from other places and other times” (Hibbs 2012: 38).
From these stories is the tendency to look backwards, foraging meaning from other times and places in opposition to the seeming barrenness of meaning, action, and respectability found in the present. Retreating from heroism in popular texts can be seen as a response to modernity (Porpora 1996: 211), Enlightenment science and democratic liberalism (Hibbs 2012: ix); it is a mediated philosophical, technological and political reaction against the contemporary western cultural present.
Hibbs explicates an expression among certain contemporary filmmakers of feelings of disaffection, disillusionment, and the perceived meaningless of existence, resulting in an uptake of contemporary texts dedicated to dealing with and exploring the darkness of life.
Hibbs is not overly concerned with the “dark” text provided it does not succumb to nihilism, because, as he reminds us, the ‘paradox of nihilism is that it generates more determinate and more mechanistic social forms’ as “the complexity, depth, and flexibility appropriate to human life are lost” (2012: 38–39).
Despite citing examples of popular texts that achieve layered explorations of darkness, Hibbs laments a prevailing lack of “complex and nuanced depictions of goodness or of the struggle between good and evil in weak and flawed but nonetheless admirable characters” (2012: 38). While the dark text has potentiality to be moral, nuanced, insightful or go beyond “either debased Gothic or facile transcendence”, this is, according to Hibbs, not often achieved (2012: 38).
The debate draws attention to three things: (1) the substantial number of popular culture texts adhering to the monomyth for thematic and conceptual exploration of the human experience; (2) evidence among many popular texts of disaffection with “modern life” and sometimes a romanticization or appeal to the past to comment on the state of the present; (3) some popular culture texts succumb to nihilism, particularly in relation to the perceived pessimisms that exist as part of the human experience.
All three ideas are fundamental in understanding Lovecraft’s approach to writing fiction, and how his fiction subverted popular narrative presentation through a thematic exploration of monstrosity and cosmic horror.