Hyperstition: Element of effective culture that makes itself real, through fictional quantities functioning as time-travelling potentials. Hyperstition operates as a coincidence intensifier, effecting a call to the Old Ones.
—Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, Writings 1997–2003
Hyperstition is the process by which the unreal causes itself to become real. It is what happens when an idea moves from the non-material to the material, by which fiction becomes embodied in physical space. The term, coined by weirdo techno shaman/philosophy collective the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (which counted among its members figures as diverse as Sadie Plant, Nick Land, Mark Fisher, and Kode9), was a way to impress upon one the concept that reality as we perceive it is dictated by fictions—a sort of post-structural metaphysics. As stated in their work “Lemurian Time War:” “In the hyperstitional model Kaye outlined, fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood to be composed of fictions—consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective, and behavioral responses.” It’s important to note that the text this quote comes from is a multilayered metatext about William S. Burroughs discovering a story he wrote hundreds of years prior and cutting up and remaking said story as an act of “time war” against the Lovecraftian Old Gods that attempted to make themselves real through the affective properties of said text. The CCRU were, if nothing else, creative in their applications of philosophy.
As fantastical and “unreal” as hyperstition sounds, what it actually describes is just a sort of assigning of intent to a process we are all deeply, commonly familiar with. This may sound silly, but take, for instance, a cultural figure like Batman. Batman is, in every way, “not real.” There is no real person or persons who are direct analogues to Batman or the world he inhabits. But the existence of Batman as a fiction has had real world impact, from industry growth to thousands of people’s careers to real-life vigilantes to, frankly, an awful lot of fucking money. There are countless people alive right now whose material existence has been impacted, for better or worse, by the existence of this fiction. For someone who is so obviously unreal, Batman has had a monumental impact upon the real world. For perhaps a less silly-seeming example, look at democracy. Democracy was an idea before it was a practice, and when it was simply an idea, it was fiction, in a very substantial sense. But when others heard that fiction and believed it, they acted upon that belief, and thereby created democratic systems, and those democratic systems have changed people’s lives for hundreds and hundreds of years in world-shaking ways. A story can create the circumstances for itself to become embodied, perceptually foundational, to become real—that is hyperstition, without the fantastical trappings.
In Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, against the backdrop of the late 60s, a group of young friends fight against the horrible implications of a hyperstitious reality. On Halloween night, pursued by sociopathic bullies straight from the pages of Stephen King, the friend group led by writer Stella (Zoe Colletti) and drifter Ramón (Michael Garza) find themselves in an old haunted house (as you do in such a situation). The house is long abandoned, and famous for the story of Sarah Bellows, scion of the Bellows clan, the most prosperous family in town. Confined to the house for an ambiguous medical condition or deformity, legend says Sarah would tell scary stories to the neighborhood children through the wall of her room, and all that heard these stories would end up dead. After finding a book of these stories and making the mistake of opening it and asking Sarah to tell them one, the teens slowly get picked off by the entities described in the tales, brought into being through the actions of the real. The villain of the film is the reification of the immaterial, of the ways in which stories create structures that confine and imprison us, dictate action in ways we can hardly know. The enemy isn’t so much the now very real monsters that they flee from, but from the circumstances that created them, the ways in which reality adapts itself to the fictions created within it.
Afroatlantean themes have been reanimated in modern times by persistent suggestions that some of the human cargo lost on the Middle Passage has transmuted into a neoaquatic species, rediscovering the sunken continent. In some versions of this mythos the mutant population ultimately launches an alien invasion to reclaim the land. In others they never need to surface, since their surreptitious influence works from below (the Guinea of the voodoo-cults, from which the Loa swim up). From subversion to submersion.
—Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, Writings 1997–2003
The film’s most poignant example of hyperstition comes outside of the supernatural framework, and lays out why the film is set in a time period that’s secondhand for “American social upheaval.” Throughout the film, Ramón is pursued by a wholly different specter: that of racist policing and social injustice. From the explicit—racist vandalizing of his car—to the implicit—the threatening way the local police chief tells him not to leave town until an investigation is finished—Ramón is haunted by the reification of the unreal, by structures that function even without intent or active will to imprison and harm him. Race is not real in any material sense. The differences between races are genetically tiny, and the variability such within these ill-defined groupings, that any attempt to classify different “races” of the human species is not just ignorant, but simple bad science. There is no taxonomic justification for stratification based on these minute genetic factors. But the unreality of race does not mean that it does not impact us, that it does not have effects so wide-reaching as to be permanently active in every moment of our lives. Race was invented as a form of control, and this invention used hyperstition to become real in the ways it subjugates some people, and the way it deifies others. Race is not an ontologically coherent category, but that does not mean it doesn’t impact everyone, every day, in tiny and huge ways. Race is unreal, yet it kills people. These stories we tell can be so much more than stories—they can be discrimination, they can be murder, they can be genocide.
Scary Stories‘ Ramón and Stella save themselves and the people they love by telling a different story. Instead of regurgitating the folk tales of the town uncritically, instead of accepting things as they are, they tell Sarah Bellows a story where capitalism destroyed lives, lied and imprisoned those that attempted to stop it. They tell the story of her suffering, of the truth she tried to give to the town about her family’s rampant and unyielding business practices and the ways she was punished for attempting to do what was right. Ramón and Stella tell the truth, which is more than the things they uncover, the history they learn, the individual facts of the case. They editorialize, they provide a through line, an argument, they tell the story in a way that convinces, that energizes and compassionately argues for justice. They unearth the reasons the story was told the way it was in the first place, and by telling those reasons, exposing the story, and offering another one, they create a better world.
Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head—this being just a symptom and not the real disease—but because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress. Even the Western world realizes that western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.
—Sayyid Qutb, Milestones
The task of collective self-mastery requires a hyperstitional manipulation of desire’s puppet strings, and deployment of semiotic operators over a terrain of highly networked cultural systems. The will will always be corrupted by the memes in which is traffics, but nothing prevents us from instrumentalizing this fact, and calibrating it in views of the ends it desires.
—The Xenofeminist Manifesto
Sayyid Qutb introduces his book Milestones with the still desperately relevant observation that the source of the annihilation we face—in his time, that of nuclear annihilation, in ours, that of climate change—is cultural. It is based in a lack of what he calls “healthy” values (in Qutb’s case, it should be strongly noted, the values of a reactionary Islamic traditionalism)—and what are values but another word for stories we tell ourselves? The story of a value is the justifications of normative claims. We have no more satisfying stories, and the crisis of modern politics is deciding which story will be chosen to fill this vacuum. Will it be fascism? Socialism? Libertarian capitalism? Radical political Islam? Capitalist realism, as described by Mark Fisher, surreptitiously hides its own stories, presents the nature of stories as non-realist, as anti-material, and it presents its own story as hyper-realized, as solid, as hyperstitious. What must be done is to unearth the story hiding within, expose it, and present new one—use fiction to create a better reality.
Too often, modern liberalism tries to present itself as non-ideological—“Why can’t we have a debate based just on the facts?” as if “facts” are value-neutral, as if there is no ideology involved in interpretation. It may be a fact that the ice sheets are melting worldwide, but the smart reactionaries pivoted off denying that years ago. Instead, they say it’s a natural cycle of the earth, or that it isn’t as bad as scientists are saying, that it’s not caused by carbon emissions, that even if the end times do come, that will be good because it means the second coming is upon us. It is not enough to say a fact and let it sit there, you have to have tell a narrative of why that fact matters, why things are the way they are, and how we can fix it. There is no revolution without a supporting story, and it is up to us to provide a moral one, a true one, a beautiful one. Stories like abolitionism, like the civil rights movement, like feminism, like Marxism have reified themselves into a more compassionate world, a more just world. Hyperstition is more than just an ivory tower idea by a defunct academic collective—it is the way in which we change the world around us.
Directed by André Øvredal; written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman; starring Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, and Austin Zajur; 108 minutes.