EventsRandom Asides

Skepticism in stories …

A couple of weeks ago, I was in New York for work. I found out before I went, that I was going to be there at the same time that The Wolves in the Walls was playing in New York. For those of you who don’t know, The Wolves in the Walls is a children’s book, written by the most excellent Neil Gaiman. It was adapted into a show by the National Theatre of Scotland, and moved to New York for a short run there.

It was playing at the New Victory Theatre right in Times Square.

The first thing I noticed when I got there was that Neil pretty much dominated Times Square that day, between the show at the theater:

and the giant poster for Beowulf, for which Gaiman co-wrote the screenplay and exec produced:

So that was wicked cool :)

But I digress… the reason I wanted to blog about this was that as I was watching the show, I found that it was actually a little lesson in critical thinking. Yes, the show is about a house that has actual wolves within the walls, but believe it or not, it actually had some real lessons about skepticism in it.

Lucy lives in a house with her parents and brother. Her parents are kindly, but distracted by their work and hobbies. Her brother is a video-game addict and Lucy finds herself… bored. She likes to draw and create but really wants to go on adventures.

Then Lucy starts to hear sounds in the house. The sounds seem to come from inside the walls and Lucy becomes convinced that they’re wolves. She alerts her family, who give her alternative explanations. They are skeptical and try to convince her that it’s rats or bats or mice in the walls. Besides, if the wolves come out of the walls, they say, it’s All Over.

Eventually, of course, the wolves do come out of the walls. They chase the family out of the house to sleep in the back garden. The family is convinced that it’s All Over, and that they can’t ever go back to their house. They immediately start making alternative plans – to live in the desert, in outer space etc. Lucy tries to get them to help her take the house back but they won’t listen. It’s All Over.

But Lucy sneaks back, figures out the house plans, gets the family into the walls instead. And when, finally, the People come out of the walls, they manage to run the wolves out and take their house back.

It’s a wonderful show, with excellent puppetry work. It’s enteraining and all the kids in the audience seemed to love it. But watching it, I couldn’t help but see skeptical themes all through it.

First, what I could call ‘blind skepticism’ – Lucy’s family, convinced it was impossible for there to be wolves in the walls, refused to look at the evidence (the howling, the scratching etc). Skeptics should always be willing to change their minds, if the evidence indicates that they may be wrong. Although their initial reaction (it can’t be wolves in the walls, there must be a more commonplace explanation) was a normal, skeptical reaction, their refusal to change their opinions based on overwhelming evidence was the problem.

Then there was the complete lack of analysis around what could be done once the wolves had come out of the walls. When the wolves come out of the walls, it’s All Over, they kept repeating. It was a mantra, something ‘everyone knows.’ How often do we have to deal with that sort of attitude, as skeptics? ‘Everyone knows’ that ghosts are real, ‘everyone knows’ that acupuncture works, ‘everyone knows’ the full moon makes people crazy.

Lucy refuses to believe what ‘everyone knows.’ She questions the people around her, she gathers evidence, she comes up with a plan and she proves everyone wrong. Evidence, tests and action counteract anecdote and myth.

Pretty impressive for a fairy story, I thought. :)

Well, the Wolves in the Walls isn’t playing anymore, and I doubt Gaiman was really trying to write about skepticism for kids. But my point is that you can often use existing stories to demonstrate a skeptical point:

  • Cinderella’s prince – found the shoe’s owner through repeatable testing and analysis of foot size.
  • The third little pig – used his knowledge of architecture and structural integrity to build a wolf-proof house.
  • Rapunzel’s prince – had to have at least a fundamental knowledge of the tensile strength of hair.

Fun huh? Who says there’s no room for creativity in skepticism? :)

Cross-posted at Masala Skeptic.


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. A lot of Gaiman's work deals with conflict between competing realities, (sometimes expressed as rationality vs. magic), but they always come out as facets of a greater whole, and attending to what's going on around you always pays off.

    Coraline shows this likewise; The heroine wins by taking hints from unlikely sources, thinking about motivations and world-rules, and responding intelligently to what's going on. In Anansi Boys, neither of Anansi's sons can truly grow up until they recognize not only their heritage, but their relationship to each other.

    Similarly, in the Sandman GNs, Rose Walker starts off getting knocked around a lot, because she's not coping with the various apparitions around her. Later, she does a lot better, precisely because she's learned to take weirdness in stride, and respond to it. In contrast, Lyta Hall retreats into dreams and madness, and in consequence is not only used as a pawn, but left shattered afterwards (twice!).

  2. I love Gaiman's stuff. There's even a knitting group devoted to him, if you can believe that. Well, it's true even if you don't believe it.

  3. I can believe a knitting group! From the beginning of The Kindly Ones:

    What are you making him, then?

    I can't say that I'm entirely certain, my popsy, but it's a fine yarn, and I don't doubt that it'll suit. Go with anything this will… he could be a poet in a lovely scarf, perhaps. Or a fisherman in his special wooly sweater. Or a hunter in his nice thick socks. I'll make him something nice…

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