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Box of Jhana


by David Carroll

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#4, 1990


Boxes, boxes, boxes.

Quite interesting objects aren't they? Well, perhaps not at first sight, but that's the whole point. And since the box is one of the basic images of the horror genre, not to mention that I've been using them for the title and illustrations of this column, I thought it's time for an essay on the subject.

But first some background. As most of you are probably aware, Box of Jhana is a reference to the Doctor Who story Kinda, where the Box is a device to achieve 'inner-peace', Jhana being Pali or Sanskrit for 'meditation' [1]. For the males in the story, those out of harmony with nature, it had the effect of sending them mad, unless, as the wise-woman Panna remarks, they are already an idiot. Essentially a rather plain looking container, the box's effectiveness as an image was shown in the episode 2 cliff-hanger. The Doctor is forced to open the box by the deranged Hindle, knowing what was inside might kill him, but also knowing Hindle certainly would.

The known versus the unknown. And usually the unknown is worse, or at least, shockingly unexpected once finally revealed.

This is the essence of why we are interested in the box. For no matter how much you are in control of your environment, no matter how much knowledge you have, a closed box can contain anything. And in the fiction of the fantastic, the contents are usually extremely bad news for all concerned. You have no control over the situation, and by the act of opening, either as an act of curiosity or desperation, you bring your doom upon yourself.

From history we have this idea in Pandora's box, the Greek version of Eve's tasting of the forbidden fruit, seemingly so as we can blame the evils of the world on women. Both stories fit the motif, but the Greek version obviously fits somewhat closer to the appearance. Pandora was the first woman to walk among men and was given a present from the gods of a beautiful golden urn with instructions never to open it. The gods in the case had an ulterior motive, revenge on man for Prometheus' theft of fire for his newly fashioned race. And, what else, Pandora eventually opened it, by her own act releasing lust, greed, pride, avarice, jealousy and all the other sins upon mankind [2].

Note that what we are talking about here is not necessarily a box, that is simply the most common form. Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit is equivalent to the act of opening. Another version I've read, this time simply a story with a moral about curiosity, has a flat plate wherein a small bird lives, covered by a cloth. Once the cloth is lifted a fraction the bird escapes, never to be regained. Note that here again we see a very common theme, that once a box is opened it cannot be shut. This all concerns free will, and the ramifications of starting something you cannot control, even unwittingly.

A more modern application of the above could be found in a recent Twilight Zone series (the third colour season I believe, just before it got really, really boring). A couple is offered a box with a button set in the top. Push the button sometime over-night and they will receive one million dollars. And someone they do not know will die. Much argument and indecision follow, including an actual dismantling of the box. Inside, there is nothing, the switch is simply not connected to anything. Again indecision, until the man gets sick of it all and presses the button. The person who offered them the box turns up the next morning with their million dollars, and says the box will be offered again that night. To someone they do not know. A good story, one that encompasses all the implications already discussed, and throws in a couple of its own twists.

However, the box motif isn't confined to teaching the follies of curiosity. It's a genuine horror prop, and again it all comes down to the fact that no matter how small or shabby (or even high-tech and gleaming) the box, anything can be inside. The old Gothic trick of letting your imagination do all the work is in force here, and again there are alternate forms, a closed or slightly ajar door being the most common.

The most obvious example, well, to me anyway, is the snuff-box from Ghost Light (RFC) and an apparently very similar contraption in Hellblazer. Other's abound, the teleportation pods in The Fly movies, The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Cabinet of Doctor Calligari from the influential German film of the same name (you may be interested to know that one of the working titles for this 'zine was Calligari's Cabinet, not only to fit in with the movie, but because the Doctor refers to himself as Doctor Calligari in that wonderful story, The Gunfighters) and, probably the most prevalent example, the coffin image from the vampire sub-genre. In a really nice twist the coffin is also used in Remembrance of the Daleks, not only to fit in with the continuing theme of the last three seasons of the waking dead, but also as a misleading container to a vast power. Only this time it is Davros who learns (or, perhaps, doesn't) his lesson about tampering with something you can't stop. And still on Season 25 the box where the Ringmaster meets his fate is also a well executed use of this motif.

A slight tangential move is called for here, into physics of all places. A black-box is the highly technical name for a piece of equipment that you only need to know the effect of, not how it achieves this effect. Thus, to most people a computer is a black box, whereas to a computer repairman, say, the computer isn't, but perhaps the chips he slots into place are. An interesting point when compared to the above. But much more interesting is, of course, Schrödinger's Cat. The actual experiment is too well-known and lengthy for me to go into explanations here, but for those who don't know it's worth finding out about (even if only to understand the numerous jokes about it, not only in my own The Hunted, but in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and others), ask a physics teacher if all else fails. Personally, I've always wondered what would happen if the cat were to be replaced by a scientist, and thus become an observer. Maybe.

Back to the box as a piece of horror imagery. With all these examples what, do you think, is the most important use of this image, to us anyway. Most of you have probably guessed the answer, indeed it appeared alongside the BoJ essay in issue 2 and is never far from the minds of Dr Who fans anyway. The TARDIS. Inside its deceptively innocent exterior lies a vast universe of experience, from the exciting to the horrific. Those who do open the doors and walk in, the curious and the desperate, may find their deaths, or the meaning of their lives. But it will change all of them, and few will regret it. That is its magic.


[1] Translation courtesy of The Wheel of Life, from Dark Circus#2.

[2] Based on the version as told in Out of this World, by Michael Page and Robert Ingpen. There are undoubtedly variations to the same myth.


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