The word fantasy is most often referred to as a term in psychology as a “mental apprehension of an object of perception; the faculty by which this is performed” and further as “the fact or habit of deluding oneself by imaginary perceptions or reminiscences” or “a day-dream arising from conscious or unconscious wishes or attitudes.” These definitions present an obstacle between reality and desire, and define fantasy as the mediator. “Fantasy” and its many derivations originate in the Greek word, ‘phantasia,’ which literally means “to make visible.” Conflicting definitions arise from the varying modern uses of the word fantasy and its counterpart, phantasy, which is derived from the German word ‘phantasie’ (meaning imagination, in the sense of “the world of imagination, its contents and the creative activity which animates it”) (Laplance, 314). Despite their identical sound and etymology the later is usually used more in psycho-analytic discussion, and the former in discussions of aesthetics and media, for example. In 1948, Susan Isaacs proposed in her article “The Nature and Function of Phantasy” that “the two alternative spellings fantasy and phantasy should be used to denote ‘conscious daydreams, fictions and so on’ and ‘the primary content of unconscious mental processes’ respectively (318). Issacs’ intention in distinguishing the two terms was to maintain consistency with Freud’s thought (Freud being one of the fundamental writers on the subject of fantasy in psycho-analysis). Freud used the German word ‘phantasie,’ of course, and there remains debate over how to translate his word, as either fantasy or phantasy, to avoid arbitrary interpretation. In modern American usage, however, “fantasy” is much more prevalent, and has come to reflect both definitions.
To understand the notion of fantasy and its role in various forms of media (such as literature, film, painting, theater, and the internet) it is important to first look at how it is understood in psychology. The clinical summation of the word “Phantasy (or Fantasy),” as noted in The Language of Psycho-Analysis, is “[an] imaginary scene in which the subject is a protagonist, representing the fulfillment of a wish (in the last analysis, an unconscious wish) in a manner that is distorted to a greater or lesser extent by defensive processes” (314). This definition is based in the analysis of Freud’s work. Freud’s writings support the use of the term fantasy in evoking a distinction between imagination and reality (or perception). This axis of reference forces one to consider fantasy as an illusory production which cannot be “sustained when it is confronted with a correct apprehension of reality.” Freud presents the internal world, one which tends towards satisfaction by means of illusion, against the outside world, which is understood as the reality, or mediation of the perceptual. To properly understand the Freudian notion of fantasy, distinctions must be made on a number of levels. Fantasies are day-dreams, episodes, romances or fictions which one creates and recounts in the waking state. Unconscious fantasy seems to be subliminal, and not necessarily reflexively apparent, but closely related to day-dreams. Alternatively, Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that certain unconscious fantasies are related to unconscious wishes. Fantasy, therefore for Freud, presents a unique focal point where it is possible to observe the transition, or mediation, between “the different psychical systems in vitro – to observe the mechanism or repression, or of the return of the repressed in action” (317). The duality of fantasy is therefore recognized as both organized, conscious thoughts of imagination or of unconscious thought. The origin of the fantasy, therefore, decides their category. [See: reality/hyperreality, (2)]
Desire and fantasy it seems are closely related. Desire has its origin in the experience of satisfaction. As Freud analyzed, if desire is articulated through fantasy, then fantasy, itself, is a mediator between the subject, and their wishes, and the negation of acting on their desires, in reality.
Among philosophers, the term fantasy is often only studied in relation to the imagination. Albertus Magnus considered imagination “the repository of images and fantasy the active power operating them” (Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics). Reynolds considers imagination with genius and fantasy with taste. Fantasy, the lower, more restricted term, is defined in relation to imagination, the higher more comprehensive term. (see: imagination)
In contemporary society and media the term fantasy is often considered a subset, and lower class possibility of the imagination. Fantasy is a genre of its own, in film, television, theater, and literature, but it is generally considered a lower, more perverse, and unsophisticated reflection of reality in art. This class distinction, if you will, is due in large part to the culture of commodities and capitalism which supports the genre of fantasy in these varying media. Consider for example, the many examples of “fantasy architecture.” Restaurants such as the Rainforest Café, and Medieval Times rely on the publics’ need to consume and their desire to be relocated outside of reality, to an Amazon rainforest rather than their dinning room table. In Fantasy Island: The Dialectic of Narcissism, Michael Budd argues that many television programs, for example, trade on human desires in order to produce audiences for commercials. By representing itself as therapy, the culture of commodities, produces dissatisfaction by the falseness of its promises, generating a “dialectic of containment and excess.” He continues writing that “not only are the fantasies manufactured by the culture industry unable to contain the real excessive desires of human beings, they also produce—to the extent that they are successful in their appeal—more dependence and hence more excesses and frustrations” (Budd, 87-88). Like Freud and the psycho-analytic view of fantasy, the modern media representation of the genre fantasy is also deeply rooted in fantasy as desire, an escape from reality through an imaginary scene representing the fulfillment of a wish. It is important, however, to distinguish the private or individual experience of fantasy in the mind, which is understood through psychology and Freud, with represented fantasy in art and mass media, which is essentially a collective experience.
The medium of film allows for a successful creation of represented fantasy in its ability to craft a physical universe through the manipulation of time and space with editing and special effects. The private experience of fantasy in prose narratives may allow room for the imagination, but film creates the fantasies of our imagination. The Complete Film Dictionary follows Freudian precedence when noting that “fantasy films have been seen as projections of human fears and desires, as objectified situations where both unconscious and conscious anxieties of the audience find release and satisfaction… but all fantasy films satisfy the ever-present child in us with magic and wonder” (Konlgsberg, 129). The main category of fantasy film can be divided into various genres or subgroups of film (which were derived from earlier mediums such as literature and theater): science fiction (Star Wars); horror (Frankenstein); romantic fairy tales (Beauty and the Beast); and musicals (Chicago).
For playwright and director Anton Artaud the use of fantasy, or the fantastic, in cinema and theatre must be viewed in conjunction with Surrealism. The Surrealists consider that rationalism cannot provide one with an accurate knowledge of the real, because of its limitation on reality to the confines of logic. The Surrealist movement therefore searched for a new set of criteria to define reality. Breton expresses these terms in the Second Manifesto: “Everything leads us to believe that there exists a certain point in the mind from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the uncommunicable,…cease to be perceived as contradictory. And it is in vain that on would seek in Surrealism another motive but the hope to determine this point” (Lalande, 113). Fantasy and the fantastic therefore play an important role in the work of Surrealists, as both a source of inspiration and as a means of expression. In artist Odilon Redon’s painting Fantastic Monster, Paul Gauguin noted that he did not see “in what sense Redon makes monsters. They are imaginary beings. He is a dreamer, a man of imagination. Ugliness – a burning question and one that is the touchstone of our modern art and its criticism” (Hobbs, 99). In this sense, the medium of painting is used to convey fantasy and imagination, often through surrealistic techniques, generating new questions and theories in art. Artaud, in The Theatre and Its Double, considers both theatre and cinema as a means of escape for the imagination, by harnessing their power of suggestion to cause “a liberation…of all the dark forces of our thinking process” (Lalande, 114). He aims, in his many plays, such as Les Cenci, to represent the “secretes which lie buried in our consciousness,” by way of helping one achieve a better knowledge of oneself and one’s environment. Escapism is often a term used to describe the activity of fantasy, but also a process which brings one closer to their own reality and understanding of the world.
With the Internet, escapism in both the individual and collective sense is possible. Through chat-rooms, cybersex, fantasy sport leagues, and virtual gaming an individual can privately fulfill their desires in a communal, but anonymous world. In The Plague of Fantasies Slavoj Zizek reconstructs the psychoanalytic notion of fantasy and through numerous examples, such as virtual reality and cybersex, explores the relation between fantasy and ideology, and how fantasy animates enjoyment while protecting against its excesses. For Zizek cyberspace is a key symptom of our ideological condition, which is characterized by the “neo-gnostic desire to leave one’s body and to enter a purely spiritual domain” (1). The “plague” is centered in cyberspace and is “brought to its extreme in today’s audiovisual media.” The Internet provides a medium for a private/public escape, where all communication is anonymous and unlike reality, where fantasy is the both the inciting and mediating action; where the private and communal, the psychoanalytic and artistic definitions collide. (see: virtuality)
The use of fantasy as a genre in the arts consistently draws upon, and to some extent exploits, the original psycho-analytic understanding of the term as considered by Freud. The mediating factor of fantasy in the arts allows for a viewer to connect more fully with their own desires and wishes of imagination in reality, through the process of spectating fantasy in media, and not in their mind.