Paracosm: The unchaining of reality

“If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform a million realities.”

Imagination is arguably the most powerful and influential aspect of consciousness that we all possess. All of human creation, every object, theory, process and concept has been born in part from the depths of human imagination, moulded into being through creativity and ingenuity.

Throughout our evolution, our species has made extensive use of story-telling, initially to teach important survival skills, to develop and pass on a group’s culture in our distant past, or to thrill and excite through novels, plays and movies in the modern age. 

Through the arts, we often find solace, a brief respite from the real world, and the pressures of our lives. Be it the seductive comfort of a novel or film, or the allure of artwork, stories and images can immerse the viewer in the creators world, to experience their emotions, thoughts, hopes and fears.

Many individuals engage in world-building both for artistic pleasure, but also often to build a refuge, a haven against the storms of their personal lives. They create what, in recent times, has been termed a Paracosm. 

 

Rows of filled bookshelves, with colourful and characterful books.

A Paracosm often leads to the creation of literature, art, or music. [George Janes]

The term Paracosm was coined during a study in the mid-1970s undertaken by British psychiatrist Stephen A. MacKeith in partnership with Robert Silvey, and is now used to describe a complex and richly detailed imaginary world created by an individual, or group of individuals over the span of a number of years.

Imaginary worlds can be found throughout the creative arts, with novels, film, poetry and classical art making use of detailed universes in which characters live, and the events of the story take place. Celebrated classics such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, and C.S Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia are amongst the most well-cited examples.

However, the mere existence of a fictional world is not enough to be classed as a Paracosm. The general agreement between psychologists and theorists regarding Paracosms is that the formation of the world must occur within childhood or early adolescence, and in many cases, continued on into adulthood.

The relationship between the creator and their Paracosm is often extremely complex and deeply rooted, with aspects of the individual’s real life being incorporated into the Paracosm itself. Extensive exploratory works are a common feature, with aspects such as geography, history, language, culture and religion being created as the world develops.    

Many individuals continue to develop their Paracosm well into adulthood, either as a creative hobby, or developed into novels, artwork or other forms of media. In the case of C.S Lewis, his Narnia series was developed from the world of Boxen, which he developed as a child alongside his brother, Warren.

For Tolkien, what began as a childhood creative endeavour in which he created complex languages began to take serious form in his early 20s, drawing heavily from his wartime experience whilst serving at the Somme during the First World War.

I myself continue to develop a Paracosm which I began to create from around the age of nine, a The Lord of The Rings inspired fantasy world which has evolved and matured as I have. My Paracosm does not come from a place of trauma, or a struggle to orientate myself in reality, but rather as a creative output, and a place to day-dream, or lose myself during a thunderstorm as a nine year old boy.

My experiences as I grew up are entwined with the stories and characters throughout my Paracosm, good and bad. Much like video games, or movies, Paracosms offer a brief break from the pressures of life and a way to visit a reality filled with thunderous battles, forgotten kingdoms, grand adventure, or serene and pristine forests.

Detail of a map drawn by the author during his childhood detailing his Paracosm

One of a number of maps drawn by the author during his childhood. [George Janes]

When asking the question of why a Paracosm is created, the simple and often truthful answer is that they exist as a creative output, or a vehicle in which an individuals creative enterprise can be formed and presented to the world. There are cases, however, in which the creation of a Paracosm in childhood can be linked to trauma, emotional loss, or maladaptive conditions, acting as an outlet for emotion and a coping mechanism.

Child psychologist Gwen Aben said: “When children experience trauma, they often fall back to a previous stage in their development, they return to a time they felt most safe. A Paracosm is similar, the goal being to step out of reality because it is too difficult to process. Sometimes these imaginary worlds interfere with reality, and they do not know what is real and what is not.”

Whilst working with refugee children in The Netherlands, Gwen has observed and analysed paracosmic behaviour in both settled and unsettled refugees. 

A literary example of this can be found in the works of Emily Brontë, who along with her sisters Anne and Charlotte, created the worlds of Gondal, Angria, and Gaaldine following the deaths of their mother and two elder sisters, maintaining and developing their shared Paracosm into adulthood.

This longing for a different reality than that in which they find themselves is prevalent in children suffering from neglect, abuse or emotional trauma. American poet Maya Angelou summarises the impact of fantasy with her quote: “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform a million realities.”

Books written by J.R.R. Tolkien stacked, including The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit.

The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are amongst the best examples of a Paracosm. [George Janes]

A far more extensive and well researched emotionally driven Paracosm is that of famed outsider artist Henry Darger, a reclusive and eccentric hospital janitor who, upon his death in 1973, was found to have dedicated much of his life to the writing and illustrating of an immense novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, or, to give it its short and far more commonly used name, In the Realms of the Unreal.

Between 1910 and 1938/1939, Darger compiled over 15,000 pages bound in a number of large volumes, complete with detailed illustrations consisting of collages and watercolours, depicting the events and characters during the fictional Glandeco-Angelinian war. 

Analysis of Darger’s work has led to interpretations that the graphic and often disturbing imagery found in Realms of the Unreal was created by Darger in a form of self-expression, stemming from childhood sexual and emotional abuse, and the loss of his parents at a young age.

Michael Bonesteel, a respected outsider art scholar, concluded; “It is highly likely, given statistics regarding institutional upbringing in the early 20th century, that he [Darger] was physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused. There is no proof that exists of this, but the loss of his mother and sister at the age of four, and the abandonment by his father at the age of twelve are enough in themselves to account for the trauma he experienced.”

Bonesteel adds: “The main theme is Darger’s struggles with God over unanswered prayers. Another is his rage and emotional violence resulting from a traumatised childhood, having been deprived of his mother and father at an early age, and being institutionalised.”

In Darger’s case, the theory of a Paracosm being in part an emotional reaction and coping mechanism to childhood trauma appears to ring true. The subject matter, and his placing of himself in the midst of his story displays his pining for a childhood lost, and his disorientation in the world in which he lived.

His Paracosm also evolved and changed alongside his emotional state, with religion bearing heavily upon the overarching storyline. When Darger faced lapses in his religious faith, so did the fates change of characters within his works, seemingly in an affront to God.

When these periods of anguish ended, the religious furore lessened within the pages of Realms of the Unreal. As Bonesteel states: “His artistic accomplishments transcend the definitions of outsider art and, for that matter, art itself. He was world-building full time for decades and the separation between his real life and the Realms of the Unreal is fluid. He entered into his novel as many different characters and played roles that reflected his real-world concerns.”

A person standing on a ladder surrounded by mist.

Paracosms are often used to escape a traumatic or uninspiring reality.  [Geir Tønnessen]

The blurred lines of Darger’s real and imaginary life may have some basis in the relatively recent diagnosis of Maladaptive Daydreaming, a dissociative self absorption, in which the subject is fully immersed in vivid and wildly excessive fantasy scenarios.

Often, those who suffer from this dissociative condition do not function socially, or at best, extremely poorly, often finding their experiences within the daydream far more pleasurable than real life interaction.

In this form of Paracosm, the created world exists purely within the individuals mind, often not being recorded or developed beyond their personal mind-wandering. As with other studies into paracosmic behaviour, a theorised cause for maladaptive daydreaming lies with a traumatic or distressing event, either in childhood or adult life. 

Supporting this theory are the events of the 2018 film Welcome to Marwen, which portrays the story of Mark Hogencamp, who, after suffering from PTSD and brain damage stemming from being assaulted by a group of men in 2000, created and maintained the miniature town of Marwencol.

Hogencamp was left unable to recall much of his previous life, and so populated a world war II era Belgian town with dolls, representing himself, his friends, associates and even his attackers. Marwencol was conceived by Hogencamp as a form of therapy, enabling him to relive and process his trauma via the figures representing his memories.

Hogencamp’s Paracosm is of particular interest due to it partly being accessible by anyone who visits the miniature town, but the events, stories and history conceived by Hogencamp remain out of bounds for most, other than those he has confided in. 

Of course, not all Paracosms are created as the result of childhood abuse or loss, but are formed through childhood and adolescent experiences which in turn provide inspiration and creativity. In their earliest forms, Paracosms can be schoolyard games such as sword fights with sticks, or adventure play in a back garden. They can be created by siblings, or childhood friends to brighten rainy autumnal afternoons, or solo, accompanied by the classic ‘imaginary friend’ whom so many of us have either forgotten or vaguely remember from our youth.

This last phenomenon has been theorised to co-exist with imaginary play within children as a way to orientate themselves as their lives develop and change. Many Paracosms exist solely as a childhood phenomenon, often forgotten by their creators as they formed closer bonds with friends and the development of their social skills. 

“It has always been with me.”

Communities exist in which individuals actively share details of their Paracosm, or offer advice and support to those attempting to flesh out and develop their worlds.

On the popular website Reddit, r/Paracosms is an active subreddit where the individuality of Paracosms is plain to see. “It’s a thing that has always been with me, that comes naturally. There’s not really an explanation,” one user of the subreddit tells me when we exchange messages regarding their Paracosm.

“I had to concentrate all my imagination somewhere, and it happened to become a huge story. Sometimes I think that the fact I’m an only child played a role in all this.” It is true that only children, or those with a large age gap between themselves and their siblings are often thought to develop differently to those with siblings and relatives of comparable age. 

When I ask whether they have plans to develop their story beyond their own thoughts and imagination, they reply; “I am not writing it down – mostly because writing is not my favourite hobby, but also because the story is constantly changing and evolving.’ They go on further. ‘I do dream about it very often, in the street, the bus, or in the car (when I am not driving!) I feel terrible if I forget my earphones because no music means no dreaming.”

Whilst not as severe as to be called maladaptive daydreaming, the connection and vividness of their creation blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. “Sometimes the visions are so vivid, I get strong chills in my body and I forget the world around me. Sometimes I’ve crossed the road without paying attention or failed to notice people talking to me. But, overall it’s not too invasive in my daily life.”

 

An illustration showing a man daydreaming whilst at work. Whilst his co-workers ask what he is thinking about, the man explores space inside his mind.

Many individuals engage in persistent and in-depth day dreaming whilst developing their Paracosm, sometimes affecting their social and work life. [Lizzie Connor]

Clearly, a Paracosm is most often an extremely personal and emotionally charged experience, both in early and adult life. A study undertaken by Michele Root-Bernstein indicates that Paracosmic play during childhood can be recognised as an indicator of higher levels of creativity, which in turn indicates higher levels of intelligence.

Studies indicate that fostering creativity during childhood is immensely beneficial, leading to positive development, whilst in adults, a creative outlet can lead to lower stress levels, higher confidence and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

So, whether you choose to return to the Paracosm of your childhood, or dive into a new and virgin land of infinite and unrestrained creativity, just remember to come back.

 

 

 


Featured image by Gerard Untalan via Flickr CC

Edited by Mischa Manser and Franziska Eberlein