The Religious and Fraternal Underpinnings of Sci-Fi Fandom

By John Crow

The semester is over at Florida State and next week begins the summer semester. I have already begun my summer reading which continues my interest in fraternalism, religion, gender, and the body. In that vein I have begun with Mark Carnes’ Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (Yale UP 1989). In the beginning of the volume, he notes the significant changes that occurred to fraternalism after the antimasonic movement of the 1830s. Between the 1840s and 1860s, there was a move to upgrade fraternalism, to make it more palatable for the middle-classes, and to re-center the fraternal orders on ritual performance. While social interaction remained important, to some degree, it was the performance and belonging that mattered. Thus antebellum orders such as Freemasonry and the Odd Fellows swelled to significant numbers with the Odd Fellows having over 800,000 members in 1896 and the Freemasons not far behind with 750,000. For many of them, it was the performance in the rituals that cemented their involvement. They were able to reconnect with an imagined past and so-called ancient wisdom that was universally available.

Not surprisingly, these fraternal orders took the place of organized religion and church for many men. The rituals offered a universal morality couched in allegory that they performed. Members assumed costumes, imaginatively entering Solomon’s Temple in the Royal Arch Degree, discovering the lost word and Ark of the Covenant, or sitting around faux camp fires, connecting to an imagined primitive American past in the Order of the Red Men. In the Knight of Pythias, degrees were placed in Ancient Greece and the Medieval Europe. In many cases the degrees where anachronistic, combining historical figures and time periods in ways that were impossible. In response to non-historical claims, noted Masonic scholar, Albert Mackey, stated that the setting may be “true or false,” but the “lesson is still there, and the symbolism teaches it exclusive of the history.” All these movement promised connections to a world separate from the one the men knew, although it was imbued with symbols and allegories that pointed to a familiar Protestant morality. During these rituals, wearing masks and costumes, these men took on new identities imbued with deep and mystical meaning, though never straying too far from standard social conventions. As I read these lines, I wondered if today’s sci-fi fandom operates in a similar way for many in our modern culture.

Being from Atlanta, I thought of the largest fandom convention that takes place every Labor Day, DragonCon, and its cadre of costume wearing participants, reenacting sci-fi scenes from comic books, movies and television shows. These sci-fi conventions, or “cons” as they are called, occur somewhere in America every weekend. During these cons, fans step into their imaginative worlds similar to the masons and Odd Fellows. Instead of playing Hiram Abif, one may play to role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, similarly struck down by the forces of evil, only to be resurrected, not by the lost word, but by a universal “force,” which stresses a morality similar to that professed by masons. In fact, for many Jediism takes the place of more established religion. Some Jedi practitioners claim ancient pedigrees, not unlike many fraternal orders. Of course I could have picked Star Trek, with its secular humanism based Prime Directive, or some other vampire or anime series. In all these cases, the fans step into another world, assuming new identities. Carnes suggests that these new identities assist the performers in addressing anxieties. They certainly allow the creation of worlds that the members regulate and control. Ritual is a big part of that, as is social control. Just as masons can “black ball” and prohibit the membership of others, fandom groups police their boundaries in a variety of ways. Whether one must know the lines of a movie, the histories or genealogies of characters, or the proper conduct for the mythos or game, the boundaries can be stark and the participants unforgiving of violators.

Looking specifically at gender and the body, these imaginative worlds allow participants to explore and recast their bodies and gender in a variety of ways. While Victorian fraternal orders may have allowed men to adapt and re-inscribe gender roles in society, responding to the much discussed feminization of Victorian America, sci-fi fandom allows modern participants the ability to explore issues of gender and the body in complex ways. Cross dressing is common, as is the assumption of costumes that obscure gender altogether. Participants can have wings, become cyborgs, add additional limbs, or don non-gendered, non-human costumes, or even non-biological roles such as those of robots. Similarly, bodily extensions and modifications are common. In the opposite direction, participants may take on exaggerated gender features such is common in Japanese anime costume play, or “cosplay” as it is called. Another vibrant scene is the anachronistic steampunk movement, which attempts to fuse modern or futuristic technology with eighteenth century aesthetics.

The reasons men participate in fraternal orders now, as well as in the past, are complex and changing. Yet I think they give us some clues into modern worlds like sci-fi fandom, worlds in which religion and fraternalism manifest in very predictable ways. Capturing the religiosity of these participants can be difficult. They often fall into the ambiguous spiritual-but-no-religious segment of American society. Yet if we look for older models, such as Victorian fraternalism, we may be able to glean certain similarities which open possibilities for study. Though, on the surface, a mason dressed as Moses, participating in an initiation seems completely unrelated to a woman dressed as a Sith lord, wielding a light-saber, the underlying motivations may not be that different. Fraternal orders during the Victorian era addressed anxieties while simultaneously stressed conventional morality and middle-class virtues. While the sci-fi fandom world may seem completely unrelated, it too may be performing the same functions.