MacGuffins

The thing that drives the plot but doesn’t really matter.

In storytelling, a MacGuffin is something that drives the plot but exactly what the thing is doesn’t really matter. It’s a catalyst that gives the characters something to pursue, something to destroy, something to protect, all while revealing their morality, their motivations, etc. A MacGuffin helps to generate action and suspense but ultimately doesn’t directly affect the plot. It has theoretical value to the characters but has no real value to the story. The moment a MacGuffin significantly changes the plot it ceases to be a MacGuffin.

The term was created by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, who collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock (who in turn made the concept famous by using it in several of his films). While the term is new the idea of the MacGuffin is as old as storytelling itself. For example Helen of Troy prompting the siege of Troy in The Iliad, Sleeping Beauty and other classic damsels in distress in need of saving, the Holy Grail motivating the The Knights of the Round Table, etc. are all MacGuffins driving the story but having little impact on the plot.

One of the best examples of a MacGuffin is the statue in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon. The search for the Maltese Falcon statue drives the plot but the fact that it’s a statue of a bird is irrelevant – it just needed to be something of value/importance to the characters. Whether it was a statue, a painting, secret plans, etc. it just had to be something to motivate the characters.

From the Maltese Falcon statue to the Dude’s rug, MacGuffins help drive the story.

Let’s chase some MacGuffins

There are many examples of MacGuffins, as well as classifications of MacGuffins, but the following are a few examples found in popular media:

  • It’s the secret military plans in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
  • the stolen $40,000 in Psycho
  • the microfilm in North by Northwest
  • It’s basically everything Indiana Jones chases after such as the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • the sacred Sankara Stones in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • It’s the glowing suitcase in Kiss Me Deadly, which in turn inspired …
  • the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction
  • George Lucas said that R2-D2 with the Death Star plans in Star Wars is a MacGuffin
  • It’s the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski
  • the Horcruxes in Harry Potter
  • “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane
  • It’s Pauline from Donkey Kong and Zelda in the Legend of Zelda
  • Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) in the first season of The Mandalorian
  • Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan
  • etc.

Not a MacGuffin

The ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is frequently thought of as a MacGuffin, but this is incorrect. While the ring could be exchanged for some other object the fact that it has a direct effect on the characters who encounter it, that Bilbo and Frodo both use it numerous times for its magical power of invisibility, and in doing both of these directly changes the plot throughout the story, means it isn’t a MacGuffin.

Added info: lest you think their bar was Scottish themed, the concept of the MacGuffin is so pervasive in film that AMC Theatres named their chain of theater bars MacGuffins Bar.

Alfred Hitchcock explains what a MacGuffin is on The Dick Cavett Show.

A Trope Talk deep-dive into MacGuffins.

Christmas Ghost Stories

Stemming from ancient pagan traditions, it used to be customary to tell ghost stories at Christmas.

In the northern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the darkest time of the year. Knowing that Jesus was not born in December, the date of December 25th was chosen for multiple reasons but not least of which was to usurp various pagan winter solstice holidays. Before people gathered together for Christmas they would gather together around fires (such as the Yule log) for various pagan winter holidays on the longest nights of the year during which they would tell stories. Similar to Halloween it was thought that in these long nights the veil between this world and the next was thin allowing spirits to pass back and forth. As such many people told ghost stories of revenants back from the dead, spirits, and other supernatural creatures.

As people adopted Christianity, winter ghost stories went from being a pagan tradition to a Christmas tradition. By the 17th century the Lord and Protector of England Oliver Cromwell tried to eliminate Christmas ghost stories because of their pagan origins. Cromwell also outlawed a host of other Christmas traditions including caroling and feasts (and that’s not even the worst of Cromwell’s legacy). These traditions eventually came back post-Cromwell but by then some were seen as old-fashioned.

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol became the most famous Christmas ghost story of all time.

A Christmas Carol

Christmas ghost stories achieved a new kind of popularity in the Victorian Era through the Industrial Revolution. As the oral tradition of Christmas ghost stories moved to print, old traditional stories as well as new Christmas stories saw a surge in popularity through magazines, novellas, and book collections. Charles Dickens’s 1843 A Christmas Carol took the tradition to a new level.

A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. It’s easier to see it as a ghost story if you remove the Christmas trappings by placing it in another time of year. Unlike the traditional Christmas ghost stories Dickens reinvented the genre by including moral lessons of forgiveness, good deeds, generosity, etc. His ghosts served as a catalyst towards redemption which was very different than the ghosts of other stories which were primarily used for a good scare. Soon the redemptive, somewhat saccharine, aspects of A Christmas Carol were adopted by other authors and the scary ghost portions of Christmas stories slowly fell by the wayside.

Today we rarely associate scary ghost stories with Christmas. Similar to how Santa Claus and Krampus are a seasonal version of good cop/bad cop, we’ve mostly relegated our scary stories to Halloween while telling our hopeful happy stories at Christmas. Still, if you were to put aside the modern concept of Christmas, this dark cold time of year is the perfect time to gather around the fire and tell scary stories in the darkness.

Added info: take a trip through time and read some collections of Victorian Christmas ghost stories.

The Necronomicon

The most famous magical book of occult knowledge that sounds real, but isn’t.

Possibly the most famous book that doesn’t exist, the Necronomicon is a fictional book of dark magic invented by weird fiction / horror author H.P. Lovecraft. First mentioned in 1924’s The Hound, the Necronomicon is part of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a dark collection of cosmic horror, ghouls, inter dimensional monsters, and unspeakable evil all set in an uncaring indifferent universe. The best interpretation of the name “necronomicon” is “book considering (or classifying) the dead”. Supposedly written in 738 CE by Abdul Alhazred (who was later eaten alive by an invisible monster in broad daylight), the Necronomicon is a dark book of forbidden knowledge and most Lovecraft characters who read it come to horrible ends.

Lovecraft felt to produce terror a story had to be “… devised with the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” As such the Necronomicon is very much treated as if it were a real book. Lovecraft enjoyed making his fictional world seem believable. For example, in a list of real books he would throw in a few real-sounding fake ones (such as the Necronomicon) – blurring the line between reality and fiction. Similarly he wrote that there were copies of the Necronomicon held by 5 world institutions: the British Museum, Harvard, Bibliothèque nationale de France, University of Buenos Aires, as well as Miskatonic University … which is a fictional school set in the equally fictional city of Arkham, Massachusetts. Again, including a fictional creation in a list of real places making something fake seem real.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon can be found in a host of movies, books, comics, and more.

Crawling Chaos

Part of the appeal of the Necronomicon (beyond the spooky name) is that, like all good suspenseful horror, Lovecraft gives the reader just enough details to understand the idea of the Necronomicon but the exact contents (or even a good physical description of the book) are left open to your imagination. This vagueness also kept the door open for future expansion of ideas. Soon other authors began to include the Necronomicon in their work, and so it spread.

Today the Necronomicon has gone beyond the works of Lovecraft & his friends and has appeared in countless other projects. It’s in books, movies, cartoons, comics, video games, music, etc, each with their own take on exactly what the Necronomicon is, but it’s always a book of dark magic. It’s in the The Evil Dead series, it’s in an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, Mr. Burns mentions it at a meeting of republicans in The Simpsons, it’s the name of a German thrash metal band, it’s the name of H.R. Giger’s first collection of artwork, Michael Crichton and Stephen King have both referenced it, etc. The book of the dead lives on, spreading its tentacles across dark fiction. Cthulhu fhtagn.

Added info: The fictional Arkham Asylum in the DC Universe, where many of Batman’s foes are frequently locked away, was named after the fictional Lovecraft town of Arkham, Massachusetts.

Mr. Burns has Bob Dole read from the Necronomicon.

In a cleverly titled episode The Collect Call of Cathulhu, the Ghostbusters discuss that the Necronomicon will be on display at the New York City Public Library.

The Butler Did It

The whodunit murder mystery trope that the butler is the culprit goes back to one book, The Door.

The first known instance of the butler being guilty of a whodunit crime is the 1893 Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual, where Brunton the butler tries to locate & steal a hidden treasure (spoiler). The next known instance was 1921’s The Strange Case of Mr Challoner by Herbert Jenkins, but being published at the dawn of the Golden Age of Mysteries the work got lost in the shuffle and nobody really took notice (of the butler or the story). It wasn’t until 1930’s The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart that the trope really took off.

Mary Rinehart was a very successful early 20th century writer, known particularly for her murder mysteries.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was the “American Agatha Christie”. She was a best selling author in the Golden Age of Mysteries who was enormously popular. When her sons launched a new publishing company she wanted to give them a successful novel to produce so she quickly wrote The Door and had the butler be the murderer. Also, as an example of a false memory / Mandela Effect, while the butler did it nobody every says “the butler did it” in the book.

It was around this time however that critic and writer S. S. Van Dine wrote the article Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories where one of his rules was that “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit.” The success of The Door, combined with the turning literary tide against making a servant the villain, quickly made “the butler did it” both a popular plot device and a cliche joke. It began to pop up in other detective stories, it was satirized, and today it lives on as a trope of early 20th century whodunit stories.

Added info: Mary Rinehart was the victim of a real-life murder attempt. Her chef, Blas Reyes, was angered over not being promoted to the position of butler, which Rinehart filled with an external hire. On June 21, 1947 Reyes couldn’t take his frustration anymore, he walked into the library where Rinehart was, pulled out a gun, and from five feet away he fired … or tried to fire. The bullets were so old they didn’t fire. Rinehart ran for the kitchen door and what followed was a chase through the house with Reyes picking up kitchen knives as he ran after her. Eventually he was subdued by other staff members of the house and turned over to the police.

Also (far less dramatic), in regards to the duties of a butler, they vary greatly by household but a butler is typically the head of the dining room, wine cellar, and pantry. They are not usually an all-around assistant, but they can be depending on the employer.

Quicksand

A plot device that isn’t as dangerous as movies & TV led us to believe.

Quicksand was once a very common plot device in TV shows & movies. From Lawrence of Arabia to The Incredible Hulk, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, and even in space in Lost in Space, quicksand was all over pop culture in the 1960s. Nearly 3% (or 1 in every 35) movies made in the 1960s featured quicksand. Characters step on what looks to be solid ground but, surprise, it’s quicksand. They begin sinking like they’re going down some sort of Earth elevator with the looming possibility of being totally submerged unless a handy vine or person can save them … this is not how quicksand really works. Real quicksand is not as sudden, dramatic, or dangerous as fictional quicksand.

Quicksand has been a serious, and sometimes humorous, plot device for a long time but was especially popular in the 1960s.

Non-Newtonian Fluid

Quicksand is a mixture of water and sand/silt where the sand particles are suspended in water and spaced further apart than typical sand. It’s a non-Newtonian fluid so if you apply pressure you momentarily change the viscosity. Higher viscosity substances move more like mud, lower viscosity substances move more like water. In quicksand’s case stepping on it with your foot applies pressure and changes the viscosity to become momentarily less viscous. The sand particles get pushed out of the way making it more watery, which allows your foot to sink. This is quickly followed by the sand settling into place around your foot which is how you get stuck. The more you move, the more you agitate the mixture, the deeper you go.

The Good News

You can not totally sink into quicksand like some sort of bottomless pit. One reason is that quicksand is rarely more than a few feet deep. Further, the human body is less dense than the density of quicksand which means that, regardless of the quicksand depth, it’s not possible to sink further than your waste. That said there are dangers.

Since quicksand can form beside larger bodies of water there is the possibility of drowning due to flash flooding, tidal changes, etc. Other dangers include hypothermia, sunburn, predators, and/or the pain of having part of your body under pressure for a prolonged period of time. Most of the time though quicksand is fairly harmless as long as you stay calm to get out of it.

To get out of quicksand the first thing you should do is to not go any further in – stop moving around. If you can’t use your other foot to just step back out, and you really feel stuck, it’s time to sit/lay down extending away from the quicksand. Making yourself wider reduces the focalized pressure into the quicksand which helps free your foot. Then slowly work your leg back and forth, lowering the viscosity & making the quicksand more watery, and patiently pull your leg out.

A short video on Why Does Quicksand Make You Sink?

Bonus: The “King of Quicksand” has a whole YouTube channel devoted to intentionally getting stuck, and then escaping from, quicksand. Watching any of his videos shows that you really have to work to get yourself stuck in quicksand, which is reassuring.

You can also watch a playlist full of scenes from TV shows and movies (old and new) of characters getting stuck in quicksand.

The Human Cannonball

The most dangerous act in the circus.

William Hunt (aka “The Great Farini”) was a well known Canadian tightrope walker & daredevil. He crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope multiple times performing different tricks. He eventually became an inventor & a (manipulative) talent manager as a safer way to make a living. In 1876 he invented a spring-loaded platform that could launch a person 30ft. He further developed this idea into the first human firing “cannon”.

14-year-old Rossa Richter, aka. “Zazel”, the world’s first human cannonball.

The Cannon

The cannons used in the human cannonball act are not true cannons, there is no gunpowder used to propel the performer. Some are spring loaded but many use compressed air which pushes a small platform up the barrel firing the person out while the platform stays hidden inside. Sometimes a little explosion takes place outside the cannon to create smoke for dramatic effect, but there is no gunpowder used inside the cannon.

On April 10th, 1877 a 14-year-old Rossa Richter (aka. “Zazel”) became the first human cannonball with a performance at the Royal Aquarium in London, flying out of Hunt’s new cannon invention. She was chosen because of her size and her circus experience. The Royal Aquarium was chosen because its management was looking to increase their profits, and it worked. The human cannonball act soon became integral to circus performances as it could bring in thousands of paying spectators.

Zazel gained world-wide fame, but little money, as the human cannonball.

The Dangers of Being The Cannon Ball

The upsides of being a human cannonball are usually a fun stage name and that you only have to “work” for about 5 seconds a day. Unfortunately the dangers are obvious and quite real. Today’s cannons can apply 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of pressure on the performer as they accelerate from 0 to 70+ mph into the air. This can put enormous G-force pressure on a performer, sometimes up to 9 times normal gravity. All of this is damaging enough on the human body but the greatest danger is the landing. After reaching heights up to 75ft in the air and coming down sometimes 200ft away from where they started, human cannonballs have to land in the target area – there’s no other option. Some use nets, some use airbags, but to miss the target is as devastating as you might imagine.

Anton Barker (aka. “The Human Rocket” aka “Capt. George Wernesch”) incorporated a trick where he was inside a shell which he would break out of in mid-air. On March 29, 1937 he was set to travel 84 feet but only went 64, crashing into the ground injuring his spine. Mary Connors wanted to break a record by being shot from one side of the River Avon and land on the other. On August 24, 1974 she failed to make it to the other side and ended up in the river. To make matters worse the rescue boat then capsized so she and the rescue team had to be rescued.

On January 8, 1987 human cannonball Elvin Bale (aka. “the Human Space Shuttle”) knew something was wrong the instant he was in the air. He tried to adjust for it in mid-air but he overshot the airbag by a few feet, landing on the ground feet first. He broke his ankles, knees, and his back in two places.

The Zacchini family performed for 70 years as human cannonballs.

The multi-generational Zacchini family produced numerous human cannonballs, performing for 70 years. Mario Zacchini ended his career as a human cannonball after he flew over a Ferris wheel at the 1939–40 World’s Fair in New York, but landed wrong breaking part of his spine, shoulder, and some ribs. On February 7, 1970 Emmanuel Zacchini and his wife Linda collided after being fired from a double-barreled human cannon. He fractured his spine while she broke her neck.

The Zacchini family performing different versions of their human cannonball act.

The Most Dangerous Act

Breaking bones is bad enough but fatalities are very common. One of the most cited human cannonball statistics comes from British historian A.H. Coxe. He estimates that of the 50+ people who have been human cannonballs, 30 have died while performing their act (almost all of which missed their landing). That’s a fatality rate of around 60%, making the human cannonball the most dangerous act in the circus.

Added info: Being a human cannonball is different than being a human catching a cannonball. Frank “Cannonball” Richards was a carnival performer famous in pop culture for taking a cannonball shot directly to the stomach.

Similar to the cannons used for human cannonballs, Frank Richards used a spring-loaded cannon instead of a real one fired by gunpowder. This slowed down the speed and force of the cannonball considerably … but he still took a 104lb cannonball to the stomach twice a day for years.

Frank “Cannonball” Richards taking a cannonball shot to the stomach.

A parody of Frank “Cannonball” Richards, Homer Simpson has a brief stint as a sideshow performer at the Hullabalooza music festival.

the 1954 Eldorado Bullet Wheel

Sammy Davis Jr. lost his eye on the steering wheel of a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Cadillac Eldorado (named for the mythical tribal chief / city of gold) began production in 1953. It was decorated with aeronautically inspired fins and conical “bullets”, as was the style at the time. The “Dagmar bumper” was the chrome front bumper that had two decorative bullet projections, named for the buxom American actress Dagmar. Included in this ‘50s bullet styling was a hard bullet shape at the center of the steering wheel, nicknamed “the bullet wheel”. The car had no seat belts.

The Eldorado’s “Dagmar bumper”, named for the buxom figure of American actress Dagmar
The “bullet wheel” of the 1954 Cadillac Eldorado had a hard “bullet” at the center of the steering wheel, similar to the styling found elsewhere on the car.

Sammy Davis Jr.’s career as a song & dance man started when he was a child in the 1930s. In the early 1950s his career was on the rise and he was performing in the clubs of Las Vegas while also working on projects down in LA. On November 18, 1954 Davis and his valet Charles Head left the New Frontier Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas in Davis’s Eldorado to drive through the night to Studio City in LA the next morning.

Helen Boss was a widower from Akron, Ohio that liked to live as a snowbird, traveling to LA in the winters to avoid the cold of Ohio. She was traveling down Route 66, not far from San Bernadino around 7:00am on November 19th, when she missed her turn. Instead of turning the car around she simply put it in reverse and went backwards to the fork in the road where she went wrong. At the same time Sammy Davis Jr. was driving the same road and before he realized the car in his lane was driving backwards, slammed directly into the back of Boss’s car.

The Accident

The resulting accident sent people flying. Charles Head, who had been sleeping in the backseat, was launched into the front seat where he broke his jaw. Helen and her friend broke bones when they were sent into the backseat of their car. The V-8 engine of Davis’s car was pushed backwards into the dashboard as Davis was sent forward, his head colliding with the steering wheel. He hit his head hard enough that he dislocated his left eye on the bullet portion of the wheel.

The accident was a front-page story around the country. This brush with death, combined with a visit by a rabbi chaplain, led Davis to convert to Judaism. In the hospital Davis’s damaged eye was removed by doctors. He wore an eye patch for the next few months. His debut album, Starring Sammy Davis Jr., was released the following year and the album cover features Davis wearing an eye patch. Eventually he switched to a glass eye. Later in life Davis would say “I’m a one-eyed Negro who’s Jewish.”

Davis initially wore an eye patch but eventually switched to a glass eye.

Form Follows Function

In the words of architect Louis Sullivan, “Form follows function”. The bullet wheel was a costly example that the style of the steering wheel (its form) was less important than its purpose (its function). After Davis’s accident the Eldorado’s bullet wheel was discontinued and replaced with a safer design.

the Vulcan Salute

Leonard Nimoy got the Vulcan hand sign from a Jewish blessing.

For a 1967 episode of Star Trek: The Original Series Leonard Nimoy’s Vulcan character Spock was to, for the first time in the series, appear with other Vulcans. He decided Vulcans would have their own greeting that isn’t a human handshake or bow. Nimoy thought back to his childhood and remembered an Orthodox religious service he attended. The Jewish Kohanim performed a blessing where they brought their hands together, thumb to thumb, and parted their fingers between their middle and ring fingers (forming two Vs). This hand sign forms the Hebrew letter Shin which is the first letter of “Shaddai”, one of the names of God.

Nimoy took this two-handed blessing and turned it into the one-handed Vulcan salute. This gesture is often accompanied by one of the most famous phrases from Star Trek, “Live long and prosper.” When the “Amok Time” episode aired the hand sign instantly became famous. People would make the sign to Nimoy everywhere he went. Many people thought it was just a fun variation on the peace sign but unbeknownst to them they were (in a way) actually blessing one another.

On the history of the Vulcan salute

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.