“Life’s but a walking shadow,” as William Shakespeare puts it in Macbeth, yet shadows have often assumed a life of their own and walked in unexpected directions. Sometimes it’s hard to see, in the half-light, if we control our shadow or if the shadow controls us. Shadows both enslave and entertain—from Jung to Plato, and from Peter Pan to film noir—and they can harbor ill will while disguising the demons of the night.
The word thaumatopoioi means “wonder workers” in ancient Greek. They were puppeteers, illusionists and mountebanks. Ironically, for all the wonder involved, these were scorned, disrespected professions: Thaumatopoioi were deceivers. Around 380 B.C. Plato used the word in the “Allegory of the Cave” (from his Republic), in which he envisions a group of prisoners chained into immobility and forced to look only at a cave wall. Behind them are a fire and people carrying statuettes and artifacts, which cast shadows onto the wall. Lacking any larger context, the prisoners are tricked into believing the wispy shades are reality—as if made by thaumatopoioi.
Plato’s allegory could describe a crude form of shadow puppetry, an art that in one myth accounts for human origins. In the tangled jungles of the Indonesian island Java, the story goes that the Hindu god Brahma created the first man in order to entertain the other restless gods with shadow plays, or wayang kulit. Even today wayang kulit are enormously popular in Indonesia. A puppeteer projects silhouettes of ornate puppets onto a cotton sheet. The shadows dance and fade in elaborate epics. Shadow plays can last all night, with Indonesian thaumatopoioi holding an audience captive by firelight.
Before talkies and Technicolor, the first screen images were shadows. According to Chinese myth, shadow plays originated during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.) when Emperor Wu despaired about the death of his beloved concubine Lady Li, and the sorcerer Shao-weng promised to resurrect her. With curtains and torches, he manipulated shadows into her likeness, deceiving Wu into “seeing” Li.
Marketed as “Chinese shadows,” such shows eventually came to Europe, where they morphed into the genre of phantasmagoria, in which a “magic” lantern (an early film projector) directed ghoulish apparitions and grotesque creatures onto screens, walls and plumes of smoke. The projectionists could move the lantern, shaking the demons into hideous life. Phantasmagoria was all the rage during the 1800s, but at the turn of the century, film displaced it. The earliest moviemakers, French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, largely avoided supernatural themes and attempted to reproduce images from life using footage of trains and factories. Harrowing scenes of phantasmagoria crept back into the mix, however, and in 1922, German director F.W. Murnau adapted Bram Stoker’s horror novel Dracula into the expressionist film Nosferatu, which uses simple shadows and light to tell the story of a particularly grotesque vampire.
According to the early film of the same name, nosferatu, the Romanian word for “vampire,” should never be said, “for then the pictures of life will fade to shadows”—and this horror classic makes expert use of them. At the movie’s start, Thomas Hutter arrives in Transylvania to meet the reclusive Count Orlok (played by the supremely eerie Max Schreck). The shocked townspeople urge him not to go, warning of werewolves in the woods and leaving a book about vampires on his nightstand, but he scoffs at their superstitions. Only when imprisoned in the count’s castle does Hutter realize Orlok is a vampire.
Superstitions abound as to how the bloodsucking fiends came into existence. In Romania, a child born out of wedlock was thought to potentially turn into a vampire, or the seventh son of a seventh son might have had the right genetic components. In Germany suicide victims were rumored to reanimate and terrorize the night. Most traditions agree, however, that vampires are confined to the shadows, with sunlight a surefire way to kill them. Nosferatu abides by this rule: When sunlight ultimately kisses Orlok, he vanishes in a plume of smoke.
Since shadows almost always symbolize the gloomier, baser side of life, superstitions about them are appropriately dark. According to Australian aboriginal folklore, if you step on someone’s shadow, that person will feel your tread; if you stab it, your knife. And if you sever a shadow from someone’s body, the person will die. In Greece, particularly devious architects would lure a victim to their construction site, secretly measure the person’s shadow and lay the building’s foundation over it. The one whose shadow was buried would allegedly be dead within a year, and the consecrated house would have good fortune.
Cheerless though they may be, shadows often prove essential. In The Marvellous History of the Shadowless Man (1813), a novella by Adelbert von Chamisso, protagonist Peter Schlemihl sells his shadow to the devil for unlimited wealth, but because he is shadowless, he becomes a social outcast. Through his shadow-self theory, psychologist Carl Jung hoped we could healthfully assimilate our personal darkness. A Jungian “shadow” houses the evil machinations and insecurities of the psyche. Calling it a “reservoir for human darkness” in the unconscious, Jung said people should find and accept their interior shadows but not identify with their dark side.
Carl Jung would have diagnosed J.M. Barrie’s famous character Peter Pan as a puer aeternus, or “eternal boy.” Jung writes that a child deals with the pains of growing up by adopting the “illusion of an eternal fiction.” To a psychologist, this is just a phase, one eventually ended by the unavoidable realities of adult responsibility. But Peter lives out just such an eternal fiction in the fantastical realm of Neverland, a place inhabited by fairies and pirates, where Peter doesn’t age. Neverland, of course, is located in his (and in every child’s) mind.
The things Peter refuses to acknowledge about his own psyche—his Jungian shadow self—are embodied in Captain Hook, the one-handed scalawag pirate in Barrie’s story. Hook smokes two cigars at once (almost a psychoanalyst’s joke) and is determined to make Peter, whom he calls a “proud and insolent youth,” walk the plank. His eyes have “profound melancholy,” and he lacks the mischievous energy Peter exudes. In Jungian terms, he is the senex, or “old man.” By the 20th century, Barrie’s impish character had become so culturally ingrained that best-selling psychologist Dan Kiley reconfigured the puer aeternus complex in the 1980s as the Peter Pan Syndrome.
The fantasy genre is deeply indebted to Plato. In his “Allegory of the Cave,” people imprisoned in a cavern know shadows as their only reality. In fantasy stories, the earth is like Plato’s cave, and “reality”—often an alternate, equally complex reality—exists in another dimension. C.S. Lewis’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), for example, transports the Pevensie children to snowcapped Narnia, a land of fauns, witches and talking lions, and L. Frank Baum catapults Dorothy Gale from her Kansas homestead over the rainbow into the glittering Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900).
In Peter and Wendy (1911), J.M. Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan, the child Wendy gets to leave the cave, and shadows play an important role. She firsts meets magical Peter Pan when he loses his shadow in a closing window. Noticing his attempts to glue it back on with soap, Wendy intervenes with needle and thread. Though immature Peter refuses to acknowledge her expertise, claiming the fix to be his own, he sees Wendy’s potential as a mother figure. The swashbuckling juvenile delinquent rewards her with a flight from her mundane London neighborhood to his fantasy world, Neverland.
In an infamously confusing passage from his philosophical dialogue Parmenides, Plato asserts that for every group of forms there is an ideal form. But, he says, for every group of ideals there is an ideal of ideals, or a third form—an ideal ideal form. This goes on infinitely. Aristotle later revisited this enigma, replacing form with man, and the concept has become known as the Third Man argument.
Sharing this moniker, if not its meaning, is the film The Third Man, which follows writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) into Vienna as he searches for his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), who was supposedly killed in an accident. Martins finds Lime very much alive but nothing like the ideal man he remembers. Instead, he is the criminal shadow of his earlier self: He has been selling tainted medicine to hospitals. Lime later justifies his actions to Martins atop a Ferris wheel: Pointing to people below, Lime asks, “If I offered you 20,000 pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?” That kind of logic might set Plato spinning.
The Third Man displays the World War II–ravaged city of Vienna in evocative, slanting shadows. One warped night, drunken protagonist Holly Martins stumbles to his hotel. He sees a cat run into a doorway and stop between someone’s legs. Shadows obscure the body. Martins brays boozily to the person. No answer. He challenges again. A window opens above and light pours down, illuminating the face of Harry Lime, the supposedly dead friend Martins has been seeking. With this shadowy reveal, the audience immediately understands Lime is up to no good.
In the silent film Nosferatu, shadows are not just indicators of nefariousness; they are animate and dangerous themselves. In one influential scene, the camera tracks the stooped, lanky shadow of vampire Count Orlok up a flight of stairs. A woman is in her bedroom, alone and terrified. We see only the shadow of Orlok’s hand move over her heart, grasping, yet she collapses in pain and horror. In his bloodlust, however, Orlok forgets the coming dawn, and the rays of daylight vaporize him. The final shot shows his ruined estate, but an earlier intertitle warned us that the “ghostly evening light seemed to revive the shadows of the castle.”