"NEEDFUL THINGS" AS A GUIDE TO MODERN TIMES
How a prophetic Stephen King movie can explain today's world
"Needful Things" as a Guide to Modern Times
How a prophetic Stephen King movie can explain today's world
An old Stephen King movie can help us understand modern times.
Once upon a time, there was a small, quiet, sleepy little town.
It wasn’t perfect. It was full of regular, complicated folks with regular, complicated relationships. But overall, things were pretty good.
- at least compared to what was about to happen.
By the end of the story, most of the formerly peaceful citizens of that little town were out in the streets, trying to kill each other.
It’s a fairy tale about a small town that went to the brink, and peeked over.
At the very least, it’s most likely good entertainment.
At most, it’s prophetic. It's a modern "myth" (in the Joseph Campbell sense) that can offer some insight into things, at least for those who are willing to dig for it.
So, how did this story play out?
How does a seemingly normal, imperfect but fundamentally decent town suddenly transform into a scene of nihilistic mayhem where almost everyone is trying to pitchfork everybody else?
By design, as it turns out.
The story – Needful Things – dramatizes and illustrates the exact process. It’s almost a logical, step-by-step, repeatable sequence.
There’s a psychology to it.
To describe it as “a science of bringing out the worst in human nature” isn’t completely off base.
When it comes to bringing out the best in human nature – well, there’s a whole lot we don’t know.
But when it comes to bringing out the worst in human nature, unfortunately, we now seem to have that down pretty well.
In the little fable of Needful Things, several fairly sophisticated psychological dynamics are on full display. The story is essentially an allegory on human nature, and how it can go wrong, and how, under certain circumstances, it can be deliberately engineered to go wrong.
Those dynamics are unleashed in full force by a dashing and sophisticated old codger named Leland.
Here’s the basic story. (Spoilers ahead.)
Leland Gaunt arrives in small, sleepy Castle Rock and opens a store.
That store – “Needful Things” – sells what seemed like various random objects.
It seemed to depend on who’s doing the shopping. Quite often, it just so happens to be selling the exact perfect thing each individual craves.
For one young boy, it was a ’56 Sandy Koufax baseball card. For another guy, it was a high school jacket that reminded him of his younger days, when life was much better. For another – a gambler – it was a horseracing machine. For another, it was what seemed to be the Holy Grail (literally.) For another, it was (essentially) porn. And so on.
In each case, the “needful thing” wasn’t just something a person wanted, but “needed.”
In return, Gaunt didn’t usually ask for much money.
He would ask, though, for a small favor.
Those “favors” seemed small and innocent. Throw a few apples. Sling a little mud around. Tape some notes up.
They looked like harmless pranks.
But those pranks turned out to have a purpose.
As the story progresses, that “purpose” is gradually revealed.
Gaunt targets certain sensitive spots in each individual with pinpoint accuracy.
These “sensitive spots” connect directly with certain points of tension between two individuals.
Each individual – and sensitive spot – was unique. But the underlying process worked the same way for each. Every “prank” would poke an exposed raw nerve. It would jab at a character vulnerability or weaknesses.
The poking would continue until they become inflamed.
Once inflamed, they’d be stoked even more, until it became unbearable.
These vulnerabilities were directly connected with everyday frictions in relationships: between neighbors, between a bar owner and a patron, a city employee and a mayor, a husband and a wife. And so on.
Gaunt would target these points of tension, and rub them raw.
Some individuals were vulnerable to Gaunt’s tactics from the start. They would fall under his spell almost immediately.
Others were innocent and naïve – who wouldn’t want a Sandy Koufax baseball card for a few dollars?
Over time, the “pranks” would become more sinister. “Small” favors became larger. Several soon found themselves in way over their heads, with Gaunt holding a strange sort of power over them.
Gaunt would eventually increase his influence over certain individuals. The power he held over them was initially based on their “needful thing.”
But eventually, that influence would grow. Some of his “customers,” in time, would essentially give him their allegiance. They would see Gaunt as an authority and trusted advisor. They would look to him for guidance. They would ask him what to do or how to act. They would eventually, in essence, follow orders. Gaunt became a kind of puppet master.
To watch it all unfold is compelling, not unlike a slow-moving train wreck. Watching him work, and watching his greater plan come into view, is an illuminating experience.
But what can we learn about it?
One, we know that each citizen had a good reason to be aggravated.
Every citizen was fully justified in having a complaint. Every irritation or injustice was real, valid, and deserving of an answer.
Gaunt just exploited that irritation. He would focus in on it, needle it, inflame it, gave it shape, and work to transform it into something much larger, and pointed it in the specific direction he wanted.
We, the audience, eventually see the game that is being played.
But the individual citizens in the story can’t.
All they typically know is what they see and experience. They know they’ve been wronged, they think they know who wronged them, and they go about trying to set things right again. And the way to set things right is by going after (who they think is) the source of the wrong. They’re handed pre-packaged narratives that lay it all out and make it a simple problem with an easy solution. When they listen to Gaunt, everything seems to make sense, and they follow along.
And in doing this, they play right into Gaunt’s hands.
And soon, it’s every citizen against the other.
But none of that was inevitable.
It could have changed at any moment. Gaunt had genuine powers: a profound understanding of human nature, and a seemingly psychic ability to see and thoroughly understand certain individuals’ weaknesses.
But his powers are also limited. Anyone can disobey him, question him, or ignore him. His plans could get foiled at any point along the way.
One essential ingredient to Gaunt’s tactics, for example, is a near-total lack of dialogue.
The citizens hardly ever stop and talk to each other about their predicaments. When they do, they get interrupted. Or worse – they seem to talk, but only talk at each other instead of to each other. (Twitter didn’t invent this basic dynamic, only perfected it.)
In this dialogue –free environment, the characters also make lots of assumptions. They aren’t good philosophers. They assume they already understand everything: they know who is to blame, and why, and what to do about it. The potential for hundreds or thousands of different choices get narrowed down to one or two, and one gets framed as one that’s sensible. And it usually works for the favor of the one doing the narrowing and framing.
Each citizen often assumes the worst in the other.
Each citizen becomes a mind-reader of other citizens. Once things really get rolling, each citizen “just knows” that the motivations of the other are often, in a nutshell, pure evil.
It’s all a huge tapestry of illusions, of course. It’s all based on misunderstanding and misdirection.
But it hardly seems that way to the citizens of Castle Rock. They hardly ever slam on the brakes and question their own personal narratives. They rarely try to get to the bottom of what’s really going on. They each assume they’ve already done that, and already know the score. Or, even worse: any who do try to “get to the bottom” of it are fed wild conspiracy theories that make matters worse (but, once again, work to the favor of Gaunt.)
Once those initial directions are set in motion, confirmation bias often does the rest. Once someone commits to something, change becomes difficult. Hardly anyone likes admitting they were wrong. Admitting that an initial commitment was mistaken can sometimes cause an existential crisis.
But if they had stopped and asked questions, they would realize that many of their assumptions were incorrect. The situation was actually better than they thought. They would see that even they were better than they thought.
But it would mean seeing that they were getting played.
But how were they getting played?
What is Gaunt’s endgame?
Gaunt’s character gets revealed as the story progresses. As it turns out, he has a definite agenda. And he’s been doing this for a long time.
What is that agenda?
We could compare it to Alfred in Nolan’s Dark Knight, where he describes The Joker:
“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Or, even further: some men want to make it burn.
That pretty much sums it up in a few words.
“They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.”
Gaunt had knowledge. The cliché that “knowledge is power” ignores that both knowledge and power are morally neutral (and even corrupting) forces. Knowledge and power are needed for both brain surgery and for building bombs. Knowledge and power can be used to either benefit humanity or destroy it.
Gaunt had a lot of both.
He understood how to hack human nature.
Those who don’t understand human nature are vulnerable to being hacked by those who do.
We all have tensions, vulnerabilities, weaknesses. These tensions don’t always get deliberately targeted, inflamed, hijacked, and directed toward others.
But Gaunt had a system. It was methodical. He worked that dynamic, over and over again, until the citizens were on the verge of murder.
In the end, just as it all teetered on the precipice, the entire process was brought to screeching halt by a guy named Alan Pangborn (played by Ed Harris.)
So, we have a basic cast of characters.
On one end, there’s Leland Gaunt.
He could be – in one humble opinion – one of the greatest movie villains of all time. His ambition is apparently to “watch the world burn,” and make it burn.
On the other end, there’s Alan Pangborn.
Pangborn isn’t a perfect human being. But his basic desire – his “need,” it seems – is to protect the citizens of his little town, and serve them in a way that guards their humanity and helps them thrive.
Pangborn has flaws. He’s a work in progress. His name echoes birth pangs (“Pang-born”), or the pain of new life. But he seems to be an archetype of the “whole” person. Pangborn is “whole” in the sense that he doesn’t really want anything Gaunt has to offer. He isn’t “needful.”
Because of this, Gaunt can’t seem to wrap his tentacles around or even get a read on him, even though he probes (in a tense face-to-face meeting over pie.) Pangborn lives in an existential zone outside of Gaunt’s jurisdiction, far from Le-Land.
Gaunt’s charms seem to have less effect on him.
In between these two are the citizens of Castle Rock.
The citizens have legitimate grievances against each other.
Somebody threw mud on my sheets? Broke my windows? Killed my dog? Yes, there were clearly valid reasons to be angry. No human is perfect. Everyone can be criticized. But who, ultimately, should they really be angry at? And for what, exactly?
Here things get tricky. On the one hand, Gaunt’s presence in town doesn’t let every individual off the hook. As Gaunt himself reminds everyone later: he only presented people with choices. They’re the ones who made those choices. Any of them could have simply walked out of the Needful Things store without buying anything, and falling into Gaunt's clutches. Like Pangborn did.
That said, Gaunt’s role was pivotal.
Without him in the game, things would have been profoundly different.
Gaunt’s game was to turn the citizens against each other. The idea was for the citizens to see each other as the sources of evil.
He preferred to stay invisible. The entire ruse depending on keeping the puppet master hidden, and making sure the citizens only see the puppets.
And through rushing to judgment, making assumptions, and not asking questions, the citizens wind up getting played.
But Pangborn, in the end, works in the diametric opposite direction to Gaunt. He works to de-escalate tensions, ask genuine questions, get clarity on the situation, and stop the mayhem.
By doing that, he breaks Gaunt’s spell.
This breaking of the spell didn’t change any of the facts about the individual cases. Every grievance still existed, and had to be resolved.
But he changed the emotional charge of the situation. He reframed the events in a way that gave them a different interpretation than the one Gaunt was selling. He offered a different story – one that contradicted Gaunt’s.
Yes, there were still reasons for the citizens to be angry. There were still problems to solve and wrongs to be righted. But Pangborn injected some clarity and sanity into the situation in a way that prevented things from getting a lot worse.
After all, there are several ways this story could have ended.
Let’s imagine tensions rose to a point where everyone actually went over the edge.
What would have happened in the moments after the scene of chaos in the street?
Maybe something like this.
Maybe each citizen who survived would have looked down and fully felt the gravity of what had just happened. Maybe there would be a moment of clarity.
Maybe the rage and righteousness would vanish in a poof. And a citizen – let’s say it was Brian – would then realize that he hadn’t just “rid the world of evil or injustice.” Instead, he might see that he had just pitchforked Mrs. Jones, the nice old lady who worked in her garden all the time and handed out caramels to kids who came to visit. Laying nearby would be her grandson, Kevin, a pimply sophomore in high school who dreamed about joining the fire department and who had never kissed a girl. He was lying right next to Mr. Dodd, the town pharmacist who told corny jokes and loved putting extra whipped your sundaes without charging extra for it.
These were humans.
These were sons, daughters, grandmothers, brothers, sisters. They were people who had grown up with mothers, and skinned knees, and struggled to make sense of it all.
They weren’t depersonalized, abstract representations of this or that idea or theory.
Maybe each citizen would realize that he or she had, for some reason, just pitchforked not an imaginary villain, but a real human being. Even a neighbor.
All based, at some level, on a misunderstanding.
And not just that: it was all based on a misunderstanding that had been deliberately engineered. It was a series of misunderstandings orchestrated by someone who stood to profit from them, in their own weird ways.
So, that’s one way the story could have played out.
Another possible ending: it could have gotten even worse.
Everything is connected. Every action has consequences.
In a different scenario, we can imagine that each citizen would have done away with the other individual they were squared up with. Then, maybe the survivor of that confrontation could have glanced across the street and seen a fallen loved one.
Then they would see the person who had just committed the act. And another round would ensue.
And again, and again.
Eventually, only one person – or none – would be left standing.
For Gaunt, it seems, that scenario would have been a complete victory.
Or there's the third ending (what actually unfolds.)
In this particular fairy tale, Sheriff Pangborn, in the form of Ed Harris, discovers Gaunt’s plot.
He digs beneath the surface, questions his assumptions, looks with a skeptical eye at the obvious, pre-packaged narrative, and tries to discover what’s really happening for himself.
He eventually finds answers.
Those answers are a bit disturbing, and not always flattering. Few really want to hear them.
But eventually, out in the street in the center of town, he wakes them out of their collective trances. He startles them into looking around with fresh eyes, and see the real faces of the human on the “other side.”
Gaunt, of course, is against all of this. Clarity, sanity, empathy, and dialogue wreck his plans. His schemes don’t work without a certain engineered hysteria. He wants them not to see.
Pangborn breaks the spell of Gaunt’s fever-dream.
And once Gaunt gets exposed, his scheme no longer works. Needful Things would soon go bankrupt.
In the aftermath, there would still be legitimate grievances, wrongs to be righted, apologies to be made, forgivenesses to be asked for and hopefully received. There were things to be changed and improved, and lives to be rebuilt.
But they’d be able to work it out without the fever dream-frenzy of Gaunt’s spellcasting, button-pushing, and raw-nerve-poking. They’d be able to see each other as the complicated, messy, imperfect human beings we are, in a spirit of clarity, sanity, and mutual good faith.
Gaunt would be gone. Needful Things would be closed.
It would be time for him to move on to the next town.
At this point, it’s a fair question: “Who is Gaunt?” Really?
There are plenty of answers here. Some would say that it’s this person or that person. They’d say it’s this politician or that, the media or social media, this country or that, this group or that, etc. Some of these answers, no doubt, are more accurate than others.
But here again: this all too easily becomes another way to play right into Gaunt’s hands.
What he wants is to be the invisible puppet master. He wants us to turn on each other.
The idea is that if we could just find the real Gaunt, and deal with him, then everything would be fine and dandy.
That’s both true, and untrue.
In the story, Gaunt is very real.
But he’s not usually “real” in the way we think he is.
He’s a shapeshifter.
Gaunt’s game is setting people against each other. He does it by convincing us to imagine that we can pinpoint the source of evil in another person, and then get rid of evil by acting against that person.
But Gaunt’s scheme works only by convincing each of us to keep our focus exclusively on the flaws in our neighbors, and not on ourselves. And definitely not on Gaunt masterminding it all.
His game only works by moving away from self-knowledge.
Jung pointed to this basic dynamic. We refuse to own or even see our own worst qualities (or “shadow.”) When we do this, we project these qualities onto others, and then attack those others who seem to have those qualities.
It works through a carnival ride of existential funhouse mirrors. Philosopher Rene Girard described a similar dynamic through a process of “scapegoating,” which served as the process underlying the once-common practice of human sacrifice.
It's a core message of genuine spirituality. Don't focus on ridding the world of all evil. Focus on getting yourself right.
None of this is meant to imply that “Gaunt” isn’t real.
It’s also not meant to let every citizen off the hook. Some citizens – those who surrender almost completely to Gaunt’s spell – wreak genuine havoc. They won’t be introspected away.
But Gaunt himself is more of an archetype. He’s a shapeshifter. He’s a role that’s written into a play, not a specific actor.
It’s like the difference between a role and the actor who plays the role. Hamlet is real. The confusion comes when we mistake the actor for the real Hamlet. It’s possible to kill the actor playing Hamlet. But that doesn’t kill Hamlet the archetype. Even if a certain actor stops playing Hamlet, another actor will be along soon to resume the role.
But one of Gaunt’s greatest tricks lies in blurring these lines. He convinces people that they can spot him – Gaunt – and nail him down. It’s a game that uses human shields, friendly fire, and the fog of war.
Where do people see Gaunt? In each other. And what do they do? They act – to destroy him. What do they wind up destroying instead? Each other. Gaunt comes through it all just fine. For him, it’s all a game.
It’s similar to when characters kill a werewolf, only to discover that the werewolf is actually a human who had temporarily transformed.
And then Gaunt moves on to the next town.
So, asking “Who is Gaunt?” isn’t really the best question.
When we start trying to pinpoint him as this person or that person, we start playing into his hands yet again.
That said, a solid grounding in common sense is a necessary ingredient in all this. Introspection, empathy, and kindness are good things. But someone frothing on bath salts and heading for a loved one won’t be stopped by introspection.
But a better way to overcome a Gaunt, it seems, is to become immune to his spells.
Ideally, the best approach is indirect. Instead of attacking a disease, it’s often better to build up an immune system. Preventing disease is better than curing it.
So again, how?
When it comes to preventing the influence of a Gaunt, there are several potential approaches.
One key ingredient is dialogue.
When people actually talk and listen to each other, face to face, eyeball to eyeball, and do the hard and messy work it takes to truly communicate, Gaunt becomes powerless.
Empathy is an antidote.
Social media and media today – ironically enough – often work against this kind of dialogue (accidentally, it seems, at least sometimes.)
It often encourages us to talk at each other instead of to each other. It pretends to be personal while being impersonal in key ways. It often disguises itself as dialogue, and partly resembles it from the outside – but it leaves out the “listening” part. That makes misunderstanding all too easy.
Mutual understanding is hard.
Separating ideals and intentions from pavement-level realities is hard.
Seeing flaws in others is easy.
Mind-reading and assuming the worst in each other is easy.
Sitting down and trying to explain ourselves as clearly as possible, and trying to work it out in good faith, takes work. Hardly any of the citizens in Castle Rock did that, until the very end.
It’s a lot easier to want to “get rid of all the bad people.”
But that kind of thinking lets us all off the hook.
It’s simple, flattering, and easy to sell. But it doesn’t solve the problem.
The tougher challenge is to know ourselves.
Solzhenitsyn said it well:
“If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Everyone gets wronged. Some more than others. Reacting to being wronged by doing someone else wrong is, for the most part, natural, common, and easy.
Knowing ourselves means doing what’s not natural, uncommon, and hard.
But it wrecks the plotting of Gaunts.
Buddha mentioned it:
“For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal”
(Dhammapada 1, 5)
“Whoever fights monsters
should see to it that in the process
he doesn’t become a monster.”
Gaunt’s game plan lies in baiting us to “fight monsters.”
From there, it can be easy to become like what you're fighting against.
The dynamic depends on us having “needful things.”
It's not an imaginary Bad Guy that we can blame for all Bad Stuff. It's a core human dynamic of what happens when you something so much that you're willing to sacrifice your humanity for it.
There's an unlimited variety of things in the world that could become (to borrow a line from Lord of the Rings) “precious.”
A "needful thing" can be a visible, tangible object, like what's in the movie. (Movies need things to be visible.) But more often, it's an activity, or a feeling, or a set of ideas.
What it is is secondary. The key ingredient is the willingness to sacrifice a person's humanity for it.
But there's also a defense against it.
Call it “wholeness,” “existential fitness,” the human potential for awakening, or simply the ability to turn down an offer of the whole world if it means losing ourselves. It can go by many different names.
It might be as simple as a moment of restraint, where you decide to talk it out instead of fight it out. Like the critical moment Pangborn faced. They're moments we all face. He chose talking instead of fighting. It made all the difference.
The ability to turn away from what seems like a tangible, concrete embodiment of the solution to happiness and the easy answer to The Big Questions – that’s the single move that can entirely wreck Gaunt’s plans.
It means becoming immune to "needful things."
In this sense, Needful Things can be seen as a challenge to “Know Thyself.”
This doesn’t just mean understanding the vulnerabilities of how human nature can be hacked and exploited.
It doesn’t just mean resisting the offer to go out and rid the world of evil by ridding the world of bad guys.
It means hunkering down to do the hard work needed to create an environment where Gaunt’s tricks no longer work. Starting with the “environment” of ourselves.
So, how will our story turns out?
As it did for all the other citizens of that quiet, sleepy little town, what we do might make all the difference.