Yo dawg, I herd u like the perfect chord.
May 13, 2009 9:27 PM   Subscribe

Examples/terminology for media so compelling it drives you insane.

I'm looking for fictional representations of media so engrossing that it drives users crazy. Obvious examples that come to mind are Infinite Jest and Arthur C Clarke's The Ultimate Melody. I'm not sure if there's a term for this trope, but the key fact is that the media/text itself must be so compelling that it causes an individual's mind to break down.

I'm not looking for examples of overall obsession or the existence of some text that can drive someone crazy, such as Snow Crash. The focus is perfection->crazymaking. Aronofsky's Pi is close as well.

So what's this called? Any other examples? Will I go nuts when I read your answer?
posted by allen.spaulding to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Funniest_Joke_in_the_World could be along these lines?
posted by crinklebat at 9:30 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just want to point out that I realize that these examples often draw heavily on the song of the sirens from the Odyssey (which wasn't lethal itself, but drove those who heard it to their grave).
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:40 PM on May 13, 2009

There was something called "Block Consumer Incentive Bursting" or "buy-bombs" in the second volume of Transmetropolitan. They apparently "load your brain with compressed ads that unreel into your dreams." Not at all a fan of that series, though.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:44 PM on May 13, 2009

There was a machine of that sort of mindblowingness in the Hitchhiker's Guide series - It was essentially a machine that showed an ultra-high resolution image of the Universe and all its vastness, and a single insignificant point with an arrow saying "You're here".

Also, Lovecraft's (and Evil Dead's!!!) Necronomicon, the movie inside the movie in "Cigarette burns" (from the Masters of Horror series), God's voice in Dogma,
posted by qvantamon at 9:54 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World?
posted by scody at 9:57 PM on May 13, 2009

Hm, so you're not looking for The King in Yellow and so on.

Usually when I see this trope it doesn't necessarily drive you crazy. Maybe only if you can't handle the truth. (The "Total Perspective Vortex" from HHGTTG?)

Somewhat similar is the way cyberspace or faerie realms are sometimes depicted— they're perfect enough that they can become increasingly compelling, until you lose your way and can't (don't want to) reconnect with reality.
posted by hattifattener at 9:58 PM on May 13, 2009

There is a story called "Von Goom's Gambit", by Victor Contoski. It was about a warped chess master named Von Goom who kept getting beaten. Finally he sat down and developed a unique opening against which there was no defense. It could be played as both black and as white.

One player simply sat and stared until his time ran out. Several players became ill and had to quit for that reason. A few went insane and had to be confined. One woman he played against was so affected by it that she gave birth at the chess table, even though she wasn't pregnant at the time. More than one became violent.

As explained in the story, chess openings indicate something about the personality of the player. And this guy's opening revealed something so dark, so twisted, that no one who was normal could tolerate the knowledge.

He started winning tournaments, because every single player he faced ended up defaulting. Finally a group of chess masters got together and worked out a counter: they went to his house, kidnapped him, took him out into the woods, and shot him. Then they burned the house down, in order to make sure all his notes were gone.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:11 PM on May 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

Spy Kids 3D features a computer game so compelling that kids who play it get lost inside it, leaving unconscious bodies outside.

The ".hack" anime series (and computer games) has the same concept behind it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:17 PM on May 13, 2009

One more: the Piers Anthony book "Macroscope" features a new kind of instrument, a new kind of sensor, which can pick up an entirely different kind of interstellar broadcast. And it turns out there are such things. The only problem is that anyone who views the broadcast ends up with irreversible brain damage, if they don't die outright.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:24 PM on May 13, 2009

posted by rhizome at 10:48 PM on May 13, 2009

A short story by Isaac Asimov called One Night of Song tells the tale of what happens when a man wishes for his ex-girlfriend to have an absolutely perfect voice, but only for one night. Nobody loses their mind, but everybody who hears it can't stand to hear the imperfections in any other music ever again.
posted by Saydur at 10:50 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is a terrifically creepy science fiction short story written within the past 15 years or so, whose name and author currently escape both my memory and my Google-fu (alas!), about the effects on society of a new fractal-like recursive mathematical function or theorem that, when viewed by someone who has a decent grasp of math, basically burns its way into their brain by short-circuiting their normal visual processing and slowly drives them utterly insane. And it had something to do with looking like the shape of a parrot (?!). Anyone remember what this story is?
posted by Asparagirl at 11:16 PM on May 13, 2009

Asparagirl: it's BLIT by David Langford.
posted by moonmilk at 11:34 PM on May 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't know if this is a good fit, but the 'main' protagonist in Danielewski's House Of Leaves becomes more and more disturbed as he unravels the secondary and tertiary storylines in the book.
posted by planetthoughtful at 11:41 PM on May 13, 2009

Neal Gaiman also had a short story in one of his collections (can't remember the title, but maybe another Mefite can) about a computer game that involved manipulating shapes that was so addictive that society itself was disintegrating as more and more people were trapped into playing it.
posted by planetthoughtful at 11:51 PM on May 13, 2009

There are a crapton of potential candidates over at TVTropes (ignore the article's title -- it's a jokey catch-all term that covers more than just brown noise).
posted by Rhaomi at 12:19 AM on May 14, 2009

not sure if this fits, but how about the game Better Than Life in Red Dwarf?
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:04 AM on May 14, 2009

If you'll pardon a slight variation on your theme, Will Ferguson's novel Happiness is about a self-help book that turns everybody into blissed-out zombies.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 2:10 AM on May 14, 2009

Can't believe no-one's mentioned Snow Crash yet. The Nam-Shub is certainly a mind-controlling/altering media.

Also, somewhat related is the ultra compulsive subliminal advertising in "The Merchant's War" by Frederick Pohl.
posted by ninazer0 at 2:57 AM on May 14, 2009

ninazer0: "Can't believe no-one's mentioned Snow Crash yet. The Nam-Shub is certainly a mind-controlling/altering media."

That will be because the OP specifically dismissed Snow Crash in his "[more inside]", which it seems fewer and fewer people bother to read...
posted by benzo8 at 4:05 AM on May 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ted Chiang wrote a story called "Understand", which is about two people who undergo government neuro-chemical testing that 'unlocks the 90% of their brainpower that the human race doesn't use'. They end up (SPOILERS) in a battle to the death via information-packed sounds, theorems and other messages, put out through the media, that kill you the second you understand them fully.

It's a total trip of a story.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:17 AM on May 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

And here it is, online, in full.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:19 AM on May 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Gloomy Sunday?. I am not responsible for any suicidal crazyness you may experience.
posted by permafrost at 4:29 AM on May 14, 2009

Gah! Sorry!
posted by ninazer0 at 5:40 AM on May 14, 2009

No one's brought up The Ring yet? The techno-fetish elements are wrapped in supernatural horror instead of the more usual scientific realism, but they're there.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:43 AM on May 14, 2009

Lovecraft has a few stories that may work for you; Madness being a normal ending for most of his stories, but The Music of Erich Zann pops to mind for me
posted by Redhush at 6:47 AM on May 14, 2009

I think the end of the last Indiana Jones had a bit of this when Cate Blanchette desired the knowledge of the crystal being and was consumed by it.

I would also think that the cube thingy in the Hellraiser series would be an allegorical example of this perfection seeking.

I'm sure there are anti-Masonic stories from certain historical periods that turn the alchemical process on its head where perfection seeking has unintended consequences for the soul.

The House of Leaves connection is also interesting, not only for the narrator's declining mental health, but the allegorical nature of the House itself as consuming the narrative space of the story and therefore the reader's own understanding of it.

I'm not sure what the name is, but I see these tropes as kind of a Faustian allegory. Along the same lines as the Tower of Babel biblical story. Rooted in folklore, superstition, and cultural stability.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:49 AM on May 14, 2009

A similar idea, though with the opposite effect (feelings of overwhelming emotion and empathy instead of insanity) was explored in William Gibson's Count Zero, with certain small sculpture/collage/boxes having the ability to affect viewers much more viscerally than 'ordinary' art would. These are basically techno-fetishized versions of the art of Joseph Cornell, made by a nascent artificial intelligence trying to grasp different notions of humanity. The AI has absorbed enough information to produce seemingly mundane objects which nonetheless can trigger and manipulate on sight all of our emotional depths and send us into a fit of tears and personal tumult.

And just another datapoint for the original question: Lament Configuration.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:07 AM on May 14, 2009

On not preview: mrmojoflying's "cube thingy" is the lament configuration.
posted by cowbellemoo at 7:09 AM on May 14, 2009

I am not quite sure how well this counts as "media," but the central theme of Chiang's "Division by Zero" is of a brilliant, perfectionistic mathematician who discovers a proof/formalism that any two numbers can be made equal. You might imagine the effect this would have on a mathematician, who can no longer ignore it and begins to do this automatically.
posted by adipocere at 7:53 AM on May 14, 2009

Borges wrote about the Aleph.
posted by subtle-t at 8:02 AM on May 14, 2009

Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Lion of Comarre" has some kind of dream-inducing machines that don't drive people crazy, strictly speaking, just rob them of any willingness or capacity to deal with the outside world. It takes immense willpower to get up and leave after just a few minutes of exposure.

Also, Douglas Adams seems to have played with this theme more than once. The Total Perspective Vortex is mentioned above, but there's also Prak, who was given an overdose of truth serum and asked to tell "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." So he does, with such thoroughness and clarity that it drives everyone within earshot insane.
posted by teraflop at 8:17 AM on May 14, 2009

The "blipverts" in the old Max Headroom movie and tv series, maybe?
posted by ook at 8:31 AM on May 14, 2009

The book "The Bug" by Ellen Ullman. It's about a software bug, the debugging of which eventually leads to a meltdown of the programmer who coded it originally.
posted by 8dot3 at 9:51 AM on May 14, 2009

Though in The Bug, once the bug was understood it lost its power to fascinate, kind of the opposite of what allen.spaulding is asking about. IIRC in the novel it served as more of a macguffin to keep the human characters in orbit so that their more mundane dramas could play out.

I think adipocere's mention of "Division by Zero" is relevant to a.s's interests. Chiang has some other stories that fit into a similar mold, like maybe "The Story of Your Life".
posted by hattifattener at 11:02 AM on May 14, 2009

The short story "The Riddle of the Universe and Its Solution" by Christopher Cherniak, in the Douglas Hofstadter/Daniel Dennett book The Mind's I, is along these lines.
posted by spiny at 9:32 PM on May 14, 2009

« Older I-15 from Zion to Grand Tetons - suggestions for...   |   Going slightly potty! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.