This week: The Need to KnowEdited by: Jayne'll eat your brain🧟
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Sleuths abound for unsolved mysteries. It’s human nature to want an explanation for something we don’t understand. Our brains struggle when we can’t package random events into neat boxes of seemingly “normal” experiences. The farther beyond our scope of understanding something is, the more we want to chase the answer. Of course, this isn’t a blanket statement. Some folks couldn’t care less, while others obsess. Most fall between the two spectrums and are at least willing to listen to existing theories. If one theory is new, well, you might have a book deal or Netflix special in the making.
We are, as a species, drawn to the unexplainable. We like things to make sense, even if wanting things to make sense makes no sense at all, because some things will never make sense, no matter how many times we review what we know. But if everyone thought that way, we’d be missing out on math, engineering feats, medical breakthroughs and the like. We’re curious little creatures, and our need to know things can create a desire for resolution to mysteries long past. Even when an answer is unlikely, these legacy mysteries still call us back.
The darker the mystery, the deeper the interest and the longer the legacy. Here are a few examples:
Jack the Ripper
Apparently, the number of people still looking into this, and the amount of work they put into it, has actually earned the study of all things Jack the name “Ripperology”. With all the competing theories and investigations, Jack the Ripper ‘facts’ are now sorted into “canon” (that which is generally agreed upon and worth including in analysis) and the rest falls along a spectrum of more or less plausibility. How long have we been trying to figure out who this heinous serial killer was? Only about 120 years or so.
The Mary Celeste
The merchant ship Mary Celeste was found drifting in the middle of the Atlantic in 1872. Had she lost her sails? No. Broken steering wheel? Nope. Mary Celeste was adrift because she had no crew. Obviously, something terrible happened, and they ran out of supplies, right? Apparently, she had plenty of provisions. She was adrift because the crew was gone. So were the lifeboats, which they presumably took to get off the perfectly fine ship.
The Antikythera Mechanism is a Greek analogue computer from 150 to 100 BC. It’s amazing they had an analogue system for predicting astronomy, but the genuine mystery is the technology wasn’t seen again until the 14th century.
Order From Chaos
Creating a semblance of order from chaos drives out the inner Sherlock Holmes in many of us. Because we can’t quite pin down the who, what and why, theorizing about what motivated the people behind the mysteries provides us with a sense of control. The lack of control, or closure, keeps them on our radar.
So, here we are, still talking about these things. Objectively, serial killers are bad and yet we are drawn to them. Their behavior is so outside the norm, it’s nearly impossible to understand, and they become curiosities over time. Unsolved crimes are unsettling because it means the criminal is still out there… somewhere. Doing… something. Something they probably shouldn't be doing, and hopefully not next door to us.
Inexplicable disappearances of entire groups of people are at best distressing. The thought of your entire city simply being gone is at least mildly bothersome if you focus on it long enough. Saying you wish everyone would up and leave is very different from them actually getting up and leaving.
Legacy mysteries blur the line between evidence and assumption, all balanced on a pinhead of probabilities. They blur the facts and apply a gossamer weave over details, easily becoming fictionalized.
Get Your Readers Talking
As a writer, creating an unsolved mystery is a risky proposition. You can’t be lazy and decide you just don’t want to figure out how the book is going to end. You need a tightly woven plot and complex characters that really get into your reader’s head. Handled properly, with intention, direction, and excellent storytelling, open endings can be exciting or frightening.
Open endings can serve a similar purpose of the unsolved mystery. Providing open-to-interpretation closure can create a lot of reasons to discuss a book for a very long time, with your readers searching to see if ‘their’ interpretation is the right one.
There could be far worse legacies to have.
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