Shhhh, don’t tell anyone we’re recording a podcast about magic that no one knows about. We have to keep it hidden by putting on an elaborate deception to keep people from finding out. A masquerade, if you will. That’s right, in this episode, we’re talking about that urban fantasy (and sometimes scifi) trope that nearly everyone uses but very few authors seem to get right. We talk about why the masquerade is so difficult to explain, if it’s even worth explaining, and what you might try instead. Also, why magic isn’t real.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Olivia SB. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is:
Chris: And make sure you keep your volume down, because you wouldn’t want anybody else to know you’re listening to this podcast. After all, us speculative fiction writers have to hide our existence from everybody else. Other writers can’t know that we’re here writing about magic, for, reasons.
Oren: They would just hate us. They would turn against us, Chris, we can’t trust them. We have to stay hidden.
Chris: It’s especially important that you hide this from your loved ones and make up lies.
Wes: They won’t understand.
Chris: We are talking about the masquerade. So, what is it? Because not everybody’s familiar with this term, although everyone who reads speculative fiction is familiar with the trope because it’s just that common. It’s usually an urban fantasy, and it means that most people do not know magical stuff exists. You know, we’ve got separate people or magical people or magical creatures that are in the know, and normal human beings think magic isn’t real.
Oren: And there’s different levels of it, sometimes the magical creatures have their own society, sometimes they mostly just are humans who have a little magic power, but the point is that magic is around, and people don’t know, but they should know, that’s what a masquerade is, as opposed to, say, this one person has just for the first time ever gotten magical abilities. Well, of course people don’t know about that because it only just happened. That’s not a masquerade.
Wes: By magic we can mean by extension super technology- I’m thinking of Men in Black.
Chris: Yes, Men in Black does have masquerade even though it is sci-fi, not fantasy.
Wes: lt’s less common in sci-fi but it still happens.
Chris: Yeah, it’s most common by far in urban fantasy, but it could appear in any speculative fiction genre. One of the interesting things to think about is it almost feels like superhero stories have a subset of the masquerade, where everybody knows that superheroes exist, but for some reason superheroes all have to hide their identity, and we’re not sure why.
Oren: Or how!
Wes: Which is so great. I think when we talked about Iron Man on a previous podcast, at the end of that first one, you know, Robert Downey Jr. is just like, “I am Iron Man”. It’s like, “Okay, great. Thank you for not trying to do that.”
Oren: I appreciate that most of the MCU heroes don’t have secret identities. Peter Parker’s maybe the only one. So we’ve covered what is a masquerade, and I’ll do you one better, why is a masquerade?
Wes: Cause vampire.
Oren: Cause vampire, is very scary.
Chris: The masquerade just solves a lot of the problems that an urban fantasy setting has but also lets people do what they want to do with urban fantasy. If we’ve had magic all along, why hasn’t it changed history? Trying to insert magic in the world as it exists would automatically by default completely change the world so that it’s unrecognizable. That’s not what we want when we’re doing urban fantasy. We want a recognizable world that we’re familiar with, but also magic.
Oren: And if you don’t do that, if you just try to insert magic into the world without changing it, you get Bright, and nobody likes Bright. Beyond everything that’s terrible about Bright, the world building just feels really weird. It’s like, wait, so there are orcs but the Alamo still happened? It gets weird. People want to have magic in the real world, particularly in urban fantasy, this is usually how that goes, and they want to have nightclubs. They always have nightclubs, and motorcycles and phones. But they also want magic stuff. It’s just kind of hard to believe that everything would have turned out the same and that Chicago would still be Chicago if werewolves had always existed. That would be kind of weird.
Chris: If we have magic and everybody knows about it why don’t we have magitek? But magitek has a significantly different aesthetic, and it’s not usually what most urban fantasy writers are going for. The other thing I’d add is that the main way to avoid having a masquerade and keep these things, is to have magic be recently introduced, you know- everybody wakes up the next day and suddenly there’s magic and it’s a weird phenomenon. When you have that it’s a very different feel. Generally when writing fantasy people really want to harken back to that history, they want things to feel ancient and mystical, and having magic spontaneously appear when it has never existed before makes it feel more like a technological innovation. You can use that solution if it works for you, great. But that’s why fantasy writers don’t typically want to use that.
Oren: And there is also some appeal in just the very concept of having magic but it’s hidden in the shadows. To some people that in itself is appealing. I don’t think that’s the primary reason for masquerades, but in some stories you can tell that’s something the author cared about.
Chris: In some stories, the masquerade is just in the background, it’s a necessity, we’re just going to have it there, the best thing we can do is not call attention to it, it’s just needed to make our setting work. And in some stories it’s very much, “Hey, I want to make this main character learn about these people working in the shadows and then struggle to hide what’s happening from other people,” and it’s central to the conflicts that are happening, in which case it’s, a lot of times it is leaning on that. There is a lot of appeal, there’s a lot of drama in “I have magic, but I have to hide it.” We were just talking about Merlin. Merlin does not have a masquerade but it gets a lot of drama out of the main character pretending that he doesn’t have magic when he does.
Wes: Is it still masquerade or is it like masquerade-y? If the veil is broken so early in the story, and then you just spend all the time in the rest of the story in the masquerade, does that count?
Chris: That’s still a masquerade story, it’s just not leaning on it so heavily. That’s actually easier to do. This is like Neverwhere, for instance?
Wes: That’s exactly what I was thinking. Because it’s almost like the first chapter he just meets Door and boom, he’s gone. He doesn’t go back to regular London really at all. But then Men in Black, they’re actively trying to keep people from not knowing what’s going on.
Oren: Well Neverwhere does have a masquerade, but it’s also a portal fantasy. Most masquerade stories that I’ve read are not portal fantasy, because if you’re going to make portal fantasy you might as well just say that the magic is in a completely different world from ours anyway. So there’s no need for a masquerade. Neverwhere’s a little unusual in that it’s sort of both.
Chris: Even if you don’t have magic in a completely separate world in a portal fantasy, it’s a lot easier to pull off the masquerade, just because a lot of times the focus isn’t on those interactions between the magical and the non magical. Usually we’re in the magical space, in which case we don’t have to worry about ignorant people walking around who could see magic, or, oftentimes when we go to the mundane space, we mostly leave magic behind, although there’s more conflicts there. The burden on trying to make this show work is just a lot less if you have a separate magical world where only magical people go.
Wes: Like in Teen Wolf, it’s like, “Oh, I guess it’s just another animal attack.”
Oren: Teen Wolf and Buffy and Dresden Files and Supernatural all fall into the category of: there is no explanation for the masquerade. They just don’t have one, shut up and enjoy your urban fantasy. That’s easier to do sometimes than others. Buffy in particular is very bad at it, because Buffy can’t keep from drawing attention to its masquerade. And it has conflicts over the masquerade. The military shows up because the military knows about vampires. “Oh my God, you’re making me question the masquerade. Please stop doing that.”
Chris: Buffy is really interesting in that by the seventh season they actually break the masquerade, at least in that town. We have a band that comes in- I think it’s in season four- to the Bronze. A vampire falls and like hits some wood stake or something and just vaporizes in front of them, and they stop playing and stare at it for a second, and then they just start playing again. And then later we see the band leave and they’re like, “Oh, I hate these vampire towns.” By season seven everybody knows something bad is coming, and they’re all fleeing the town, which is interesting, we don’t see that a lot, but it comes with its own problems, which, okay, if the world is about to end, and people know, why isn’t anybody coming to help? Why don’t we have a military presence? So there’s other problems that not having a masquerade can create, especially when you need your scrappy heroes to be the only line of defense.
Oren: Buffy invites that question by having the military show up to fight vampires at one point. That’s actually I think the most common one, is that there just isn’t an explanation, or a variant is that there is an explanation, but it’s so weak that you’d actually be better off without one. Stories that are like, “Well, humans have forgotten about magic,” and it’s like, “What?”
Chris: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about why the masquerade is incredibly unbelievable. Because a lot of people just don’t understand this. And it does depend on how closely you look at it in the story. Not having an explanation, as Oren said, is not a bad way to go, it depends on how much you’re going to be scrutinizing it. If you’re not going to be scrutinizing it too much- if you have a Neverwhere setting, especially, then you’d probably be just fine, although Neverwhere does have an explanation. The idea that people wouldn’t know about magic, especially flashy magic, like the kind of magic we have in a typical urban fantasy, where there’s flames in people’s hands and other just really large effects, that’s just so easy to prove. If you have just one person, one person who wants to use their magic for profit then that’s all it takes, that’s all it takes to just blow it wide open.
Oren: There are two basic issues with why masquerades don’t work. There is the ability to even pretend that humans wouldn’t know about it. And then there is the why humans wouldn’t know about it. Neither of them ever work. Humans are very good at making use of things that are practical and useful to them. We are tool users, we are incredibly good at tool using. If magic exists and is useful in any way- which it always is in these urban fantasy stories, because if it’s not, who cares, I don’t want to read a story about magic that doesn’t do anything- people will use it, even if it’s bad, like in Call of Cthulhu, for example, all the magic is evil and will cause bad side effects. Fossil fuels exist, okay, unscrupulous people will still try to use this.
Chris: Yeah, it’d be like covering up the existence of electricity.
Oren: Then of course you get into, in the modern world everyone has a cellphone- a few people uploading werewolf attacks to YouTube, people would assume it was a hoax, but after like the five hundredth very convincing werewolf attack, people with reputations would look into it. They would investigate and they would find werewolves.
Chris: Also if lots of people are dying …
Wes: “These animal attacks have just gotten out of control, you guys!”
Chris: “What’s going on with these animal attacks?”
Wes: “This cougar is out of control!”
Oren: The number of people who die in the average Buffy or Supernatural episode, just the people we see- at least Supernatural moves around, in Buffy it’s all in one town. Can you imagine if this small California town had a murder rate where twenty people were being murdered a week? There would be task forces, there would probably be the national guard, it would be ridiculous, especially because it’s full of middle class white people.
Chris: I think the scenarios in which it especially comes under scrutiny are scenarios in which either big magical things are happening in front of crowds of people, like Buffy season three, when the mayor becomes this huge ginormous demon and the entire high school has to fight him, or the main character has to make personal sacrifices to maintain the secrecy of the masquerade. That really brings into question “why?” Both of these things are found in Buffy, Buffy continually hide things from her mother for quite a long time and has to make personal sacrifices there, she’s grounded and has to sneak out, and she has lots of problems that she wouldn’t have if people were just like, “Oh yeah, the reason Buffy couldn’t do her homework is because she had to save us from the vampires last night.” And so those things make for extra scrutiny, which means that you need an extra robust explanation. Unfortunately, most explanations for the masquerade- because it’s a really unbelievable thing- just don’t work. They’re not compelling enough for how unrealistic the masquerade is.
Wes: I think that’s why they’ll focus a lot of attention on the characters who know about it. Whatever happens to that character serves as like a, “This is why the masquerade is, or isn’t.”
A character discovers it- there’s this great list on TV Tropes of this: character discovers masquerade and decides to just fully embrace it. “I go in and this is me now, and I don’t tell anybody.” Or they join like the Men in Black and they police the whole place, or they die, or they get their memory wiped, and whatever happens to the character will implicitly serve as some explanation for how the masquerade has perpetuated. It’s like, “Oh, well, people who find out about it, only these few things happen to them. So therefore that’s how it’s kept secret.” It’s like an implicit understanding and it’s not great when you push on it, you obviously see through it.
Chris: I think it helps that Men in Black is a comedy. The main character, Jay, doesn’t actually make personal sacrifices to maintain the masquerade. He’s just on the other side. He leaves his old life behind, it’s fine, he didn’t care. Now all the people that he develops relationships with already know about all this stuff happening. His job is to cover things up, but it’s always humorous, because he gets to make up what their memories are, and those are always humorous lines. So there’s no actual personal sacrifice happening for the masquerade there, and it’s funny how it’s maintained, and so we’re not really inclined to think too hard about whether that’s really a good idea.
Oren: I prefer literally any explanation, including no explanation, to the “Humans forgot magic”. That always comes bundled with some anti-science nonsense. And there are people who believe this in real life. There are people who believe that magic is real and that science is bad because it destroys magic. That belief can be literally harmful, and I just don’t think we should be encouraging it. Really irritates me whenever I see that.
Wes: What if we forgot about magic, but we forgot about the time before we forgot about magic when we had all this great tech?
Oren: I had an answer but I forgot.
Chris: To me it’s just funny because, you’re really going to tell your fantasy audience that people forgot about magic or that people don’t want to believe in magic?
Wes: Or they’ll try to pull the, “We had to collectively choose to forget because it was too dangerous, we kept getting oppressed.”
Chris: Oh yeah, oppressed mages, we’ve talked about oppressed mages.
Wes: “They let King Uther out and he just starts drowning magical babies, I mean, you know, we have to forget it you guys”
Oren: “We just have to pretend, because otherwise the muggles would hurt us.”
Chris: I’ve told people I will make one exception to this “people could hurt us” rule. If the only magical people out there are all vampires who are not that strong- they’re Buffy the Vampire Slayer vampires, not True Blood vampires or Twilight vampires- and they all are evil, every single one of them, and are actually hurting humans, okay, they might try to cover up their existence because they’re murdering people, that could be a thing, and they’re all rich because they live a long time, and so they have time to accumulate wealth. As soon as you have someone like Louie from Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, who has a conscience, that vampire is going to be like, “Hey humans, so, people are murdering you.”
Oren: Being Human had that problem. We find out that the entire vampire conspiracy is one chatty morgue technician away from being completely blown wide open. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief until you start pressing on it, and then it’s like, “Well, now I can’t. Now you made it weird.”
Chris: We’ve talked about bad explanations. I have some concepts for explanations that I do think actually work pretty well if you need something that stands up to scrutiny. It’s fairly niche because it’s just not a lot that I know of, but I’ve generally found that if you want something that will really stand up to scrutiny, you need a really powerful being that is more powerful than your mages, that is demanding the masquerade and imposing it. You can have a super powerful being that actually does want to hunt down mages, and preferably doesn’t even know they’re on earth, because otherwise, why would they hide the existence of magic altogether and not just hide who the mages are, or you can have a powerful godlike figure that for some reasons just really doesn’t want humans to have magic.
We had somebody ask on the site about Greek gods imposing a masquerade, which I thought was actually a surprisingly good idea because they’re known to be petty. So you could see a situation in which, “Oh, you stole fire from us. Well guess what? Now we are cursing humans to not have magic.”
Oren: Yeah, I believe Zeus would do that.
Wes: I just love the story of Athena and Arachne. The version I read when I was younger is that Arachne is at the spindle or weaving or whatever, and makes a really good thing, and she goes, “Huh, this turned out really nice, I bet even Athena would be jealous,” just pleased with her work, and Athena’s like, “Challenge!”, and then turns her into a spider.
Chris: Yeah, they’re real petty. The other thing is that we have some settings like Neverwhere, which have what I call “the automated forget me field”. It’s a natural effect of the universe that people just don’t remember magic when they see it. I think that works really well for Neverwhere partly because Neverwhere, again, has a separate, magical world, so it doesn’t have that much burden. I think that’s something that, if you look at all of the edge cases, for people seeing the effects of magic, for recording devices, you know, once you go all the way out there, if you look really hard at that stuff, it does start to feel kind of arbitrary, all of the rules you create to try to draw that line between magical and not magical and keep people from the discovering it. But if you have a powerful intelligence, that’s imposing these magical rules, then it almost can be arbitrary because somebody is doing it on purpose for the explicit reason that they want to separate people from magic. I think that is probably the best explanation that I’ve seen so far.
Oren: Having a laws of physics example, there’s the forget me field or there’s- Madoka Magica has the thing where regular humans just can’t see witches-
Chris: They look like natural disasters.
Oren: That’s actually fine, as long as you don’t press on it too hard. I’m willing to accept that one up to a certain extent, but after a while it does start to become questionable, if you base too much conflict on it. There’s a reason in my urban fantasy campaign I established that that’s how it worked early and then I didn’t make a big deal about it after that. I want to have vampires on motorcycles. I like that, it’s a cool trope, and I want them to do it in recognizable locations. I don’t have any illusions that my explanation for the masquerade is going to hold up under scrutiny so I don’t invite it.
Chris: Right, there’s not a lot of interaction with regular humans, there’s not time spent trying to maintain the secret or time spent trying to cover it up, again, the plot is not about those interactions between the non-magical people and the magical people.
Oren: Oh, I do want to briefly cover the whole “the government is covering it up” thing.
Wes: I was just thinking about Stranger Things.
Oren: The government covering it up is a thing that can work under very specific circumstances for very short periods of time. In Stranger Things, as far as we know, in Hawkins, Indiana, that’s the first time that the government has ever accidentally punched through into another dimension. We don’t think anyone else has ever done that. It is believable that in the short term, the United States government would be able to keep that a secret. If they kept doing it for a long time, and if everyone started doing it, for example, if the Soviets started doing it and then the Soviet Union collapsed and a bunch of their military secrets were declassified, it would become harder and harder to believe. So Stranger Things works in a very specific set of time. Otherwise if you try to say like, “Well, the government is covering up UFOs,” it’s like, “Really, every government is doing that? What about the places that barely have governments? What about the places with governments that aren’t so security focused as the United States one is, are they all in on this? How did you solve the various problems of international diplomacy to get this giant overarching anti-UFO thing going?”
Chris: And again, why? Because governments haven’t tried to cover up electricity. They haven’t tried to cover up things that are harmful either because they need to regulate those things and it’s hard to regulate them when you’re covering them up and denying their existence.
Oren: And if it’s superheroes, okay, sure, maybe the first time superheroes appear, a government might try to keep them under wraps for a bit, but eventually the government’s going to want to use them, and you can’t use them if they’re secret, people are going to find out about them, and so the government would want that to happen on their terms, et cetera, et cetera.
Chris: It is really funny to think about Batman and his bat spotlight. The police are just completely collaborating with this guy. Why doesn’t he just tell them that he’s a local billionaire?
Wes: Because then he’s like, “Oh no, then they would ask me why I don’t just finance what they need.”
Oren: “I don’t want to get into the arguments about how I should donate all of my money to public infrastructure, okay? I want to punch street crime, I want to be really problematic about it.”
Wes: (in Batman voice) “I need my enemies to share my fears.”
Oren: Can I talk about an interesting alternative to the masquerade? So this is one that I almost never see, which, thinking about it is weird, but you can actually get a lot of the things that you would want from an urban fantasy setting of like, vampires on motorcycles, werewolves going to college, and mages with cell phones and stuff like that, if you set your story somewhere other than earth, so, effectively a second world urban fantasy, as opposed to second world high fantasy.
Chris: So we’re talking about Crescent City, right?
Oren: Yeah, we’re talking about Crescent City, because that’s actually the only story I can think of that did that. I’m sure there must be some others out there somewhere, but that’s the only one I know. At that point it’s easier to fudge the facts, that, yeah, this society basically looks like ours. It has a different history that just kind of happened to work out that way, as opposed to, in the real world, if you take the real world and introduce magic, it’s like, “Well, I’m pretty sure things would be different now.” We don’t know what the history of this Crescent City world is, whatever, it’s fine, it happened to result in vampire nightclubs. That’s what I wanted in the first place.
Chris: Crescent City, because it has such an urban fantasy aesthetic, everything from the character behavior to, for instance, attending nightclubs, all of those things that come from earth, feel natural in the setting, because it feels like an urban fantasy, but actually it’s not earth, and that story has no masquerade, and it works I think.
Wes: So I like how the takeaway is that nightclubs feel like earth, as long as there’s vampires.
Oren: “Look, I want to hear my vampires talking in internet speak, okay? I want them to lol and I want them to say everything is a boi and I want them to use tumblr speak.” That’s what I want, okay? And I can do all of that in my weird second world urban fantasy setting. And that’s actually something I originally suggested as a replacement for something like Shadowrun, a cyberpunk world that has a lot of world building problems because it’s like, “Oh yeah, in the real world, a bunch of religious beliefs were true, and also Tolkien elves.” Of course, because it was written by white people it’s very appropriative and does a lot of that nonsense, so my original thought was like, “Well, why not just have Middle Earth that advances to the tech level of skyscrapers and mega corporations, so that you can have your cyber punk with your elves?” And then later, after looking at this Crescent City book, it’s like, well, you could do that for urban fantasy too, not just for cyberpunk. I would advise more writers to consider it. I’m not saying it’s right for your story necessarily, but I do think that it is worth thinking about, and it would solve a lot of problems.
Chris: Well, I think that’s a great note to close on.
Oren: Well then I will go ahead and tell everyone that if anything that we said peaked their interest they can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Unless you’re going to argue with me that magic is real, I’m just not interested. I will not have that debate with you, but before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, he’s an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel- I wonder if he’s going to take that idea that I was just talking about, that’d be cool- and finally we have Danita Rambo, she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme, “The princess who saved herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?