Call of Cthulhu: Is Madness Good Actually?

I’ve been thinking lately about this particular portrayal of madness in media, where the crazy person is mad, but not wrong. In the softest version of this, you get characters who are eccentric and/or neurodivergent – they don’t adhere to social convention, and they behave in weird ways, but they also have some special insight into how things work. These are your mad professors, or your Rain Men. Then you get the conspiracy theorists that aren’t – that is, characters who hold a belief that causes other people to consider them mad, but who are ultimately correct. This category would apply, for instance, to characters in films or books who discover that curses are real, or who discover the supernatural. It would even apply to the scene where Neo learns about the Matrix. Morpheus has a better grasp of the truth than Neo, but you can understand why Neo might think that Morpheus is mad. It’s such a bizarre and outlandish truth that insanity seems like the most plausible explanation. But neither of these are really the thing I’m talking about. They’re mostly neurodivergents, in the first case, and people who have a superior grasp of reality in the second. I’m talking more specifically about people who are legitimately mad, but who are also entirely correct about what’s going on. For instance, any character who’s seen an eldritch monstrosity in a Lovecraft story. They’ve seen something, or they’ve learned something, and that knowledge has unhinged them. They know what’s going on and are also insane, and those two things stem from the same root cause.

And, you know, maybe the boundaries here aren’t entirely stable. There is some overlap between each of these cases. In the Rain Man category, a person’s special understanding of the world is sometimes shown as stemming from their neurodivergence. Neurodivergence obviously isn’t insanity, so these aren’t totally comparable situations, but in both cases there is a link between a non-normative mental state and special knowledge. We see this structure in The Good Doctor, where an autistic character is really good at being a doctor specifically because he is autistic. Alternately, in Legion (the TV show, not the film), the main character hears voices and is diagnosed as schizophrenic, but it’s revealed that he’s actually reading people’s minds. Mental illness still exists – he’s not told that schizophrenia doesn’t exist, just that he doesn’t have it. But the narrative structure of mental illness actually being a superpower in his case gestures towards the possibility that other types of so-called mental illness could equally be misunderstood, and might also in future be recast as ‘different in a good way’. And then, from the other end, the conspiracy theory narratives have a character take on a worldview that is incomprehensible to people who have not seen the light. Here, the enlightened know what’s going on, and seem insane to the uninitiated, which sort of sounds like the description of madness offered above – just from the conspiracy theorist’s perspective, rather than the perspective of the punters. The difference is that in the conspiracy example, the characters involved are perfectly rational actors. They hold to a logic founded on uncommon assumptions, whereas the Lovecraftian insane person does not hold to any logic at all.

We’re touching on some complex issues here though, right. These terms of neurodivergence and insanity – the implication is that in one scenario, there’s something wrong with you, something that needs to be fixed, and in the other scenario, you’re different and that’s okay. The boundary between those two is contested. Over time, we’ve changed our understanding of what falls into which box – and it continues to change today. Autism historically would have been seen as a problem that needs fixing, or as an incurable deficiency. That’s not how we think about it any more. And the issue of perspective in how we think about conspiracy theories – I mean, it’s remarkable how many flat earth enthusiasts, for instance, draw on the ‘red pill blue pill’ scene from the Matrix to justify what might otherwise seem like wild fantastical beliefs. This stuff’s complicated. And it’s why I wanted to spend so much time clearing the ground before we actually get into what I want to talk about. I wanted to rule out everything that we’re not talking about so that we don’t get caught up with side conversations. We’re not talking about conspiracy theories that turn out to be true, because in that instance the people involved aren’t actually insane; and we’re not talking about neurodivergent or eccentric people, whose special knowledge stems from their difference, because they’re not insane either. We’re specifically talking about people whose secret knowledge has driven them insane. We’re talking about Cthulhu shit.

So I guess we should get to the game. Call of Cthulhu is a 2018 game from Cyanide Studio, a French developer that’s otherwise made about 30 cycling games and the Styx series. This game bowls straight down the middle, using all the classic Lovecraft tropes without really innovating or offering anything new. It’s a good game, and I found it really compelling, it’s just not aiming any higher than ‘good adaptation’. The star of the show is private investigator Edward Pierce, rampant alcoholic and war veteran, brought to an island to investigate the suspicious deaths of a prominent family. As he moves around the island, he notices weird occult shit, and starts having hallucinations. There’s an evil doctor performing secret experiments, a gifted but disturbed artist who paints eldritch otherworldly creatures, bootleggers, bookshop owners, and something lurking out in the water. All pretty standard Lovecraft shit.

The thing that struck me playing this game was that every time the investigator had one of his little hallucinations, it was in a sense a revelation. He was becoming more aware of the monster in the deep. You’d have these things throughout where he’d do like an investigation of a scene, where he’d reconstruct people’s actions and thinking with psychology or by studying clues around the environment – and then by the end of the game, the investigation scenes just turned into full-blown hallucinations about things that he couldn’t possibly know. One time there was like a bit of fish on the table, and he thought about three men who might have been standing in the room eating the fish, and then he imagines different backstory moments for each of those men, and – like, totally unrelated moments, nothing to do with the fish shit, just key moments in the lives of those men. There’s no evidence, there’s nothing material to prompt it, it’s just a mad hallucinatory revelation filling in the blanks of their history. It’s super-natural knowledge, knowledge obtained through methods that transcend our natural rational understanding. And madness is part of that package. In Lovecraft, sanity hinges on the structures and systems that make up rational thought. When those systems dissolve in the face of monstrous creatures from the beyond, you go mad.

So – like, is this a good thing, or not? I mean, you know, Lovecraft was also obviously a massive racist, right, so his idea of falling into subhuman insanity and witnessing the destruction of civilization is having black people move in down the street. But – just leave that angle for a minute, and think about it purely in terms of mental health and wellness. There’s this idea that insane people actually know something special and true that nobody else knows. Is that a positive way of thinking about mental health, or is it pejorative? On the one hand, the mad are depicted as having their own sort of knowledge, their own understanding about the world that is fundamentally correct, even if nobody else is able to recognise or appreciate it. At the same time, at least in Cthulhu, there’s almost like a sub-humanity to the insane. They’re animals, beasts. Knowledge of Cthulhu is knowledge, unquestionably, but it also ruins you. One character tears his eyes out in an attempt to get away from what he’s seen – and then at the end of the game, if you do summon Cthulhu, all the cultists start leaping around and killing each other. Going insane is not really treated as a valid, alternate form of knowledge. It’s not like an alternate lifestyle choice, like going vegan or something. The horror of Lovecraft’s vision is the knowledge that our human systems of meaning are insufficient, but that they’re all we’ve got. Anything less, or anything more, and we fall out of humanity and into something worse. The fact that eldritch knowledge is knowledge doesn’t make it good or healthy. So there’s not really anything here for us. In some other text, with some other type of madness, it might be a question worth reevaluating – but here? No. Lovecraft’s madness is not good actually.

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