The alternative history, science fiction, film-noir Watchmen opens as a washed up and morally bankrupt superhero—an entirely unlikeable mercenary known as The Comedian—falls victim to a vicious intruder who propels him from a high window. The smiley face badge that The Comedian wore fell too, and it landed on the pavement marked with a splash of blood. The smiley face helps knit the story together. It reappears when Dr. Manhattan-- the glowing, blue, superhero, demi-god and resurrected nuclear scientist—allows his spindly space vehicle to crash into a crater on Mars where he has sought solitude.
The crater itself is no graphic-novel creation as it happens, rather it is the real Martian feature that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter discovered in 2008. Successive crashing meteors left an image that looks uncannily like a smiley face in this smooth basin. In the film, the image—an odd coincidence—means to emphasize that human history can turn meaninglessly on cruel jokes. And in real life, this Martian structure called the Galle Crater looks so much like an image from our popular culture that it will surely make you wonder at what’s going on up there.
The night sky treats us to an even stranger illusion for a few nights each month. Superimposed craters again create an illusion of a smiling observer, the familiar Man in the Moon. A detailed photograph of the dark “seas” and bright plateaus on the lunar surface that gravity has locked toward us betrays no semblance of a face. But when looking into a dark sky at a bright moon, the brains of people in the Northern Hemisphere and the West can’t resist playing with organizing the visual information into a wry expression. (Elsewhere, among the Aztecs and in East Asia, a Moon-Rabbit appears, and in Australia where the moon is upside down from our point of view, they see St. George slaying his dragon.) Here, as elsewhere, we recognize and interpret patterns. We’ve seen a smiling face before; our visual cortexes have cataloged a category for smiling faces. And looking at the Man in the Moon, we see that which we have been prepared to see. Nurture informs nature.
Precisely the same process allows us to “see” (that is to say “to understand”) clouds as galloping horses or patterns of angels and saints on slices of toasted pumpernickel. We might see monolithic faces on sheer rock faces and wise old men in tree bark patterns.
We infuse these inanimate objects with realism through a process that psychologists call pareidolia—we see an object (a face or an animal) where it does not really exist. Google “pareidolia” and you’ll have no trouble finding cartoon pigs on the hides of palominos, Valkyries in cowlicks, an outraged imp in a sectioned green pepper, a sad face on a Buick, a pelvis in a Rorschach blot, a Cavalier on a bagel’s cream cheese, or Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun. Some prize these coincidences. In 2010, for example, a ten-year-old preserved grilled cheese sandwich imprinted with the likeness of Jesus sold at auction for $10,000.
Our Puritan ancestors, medieval thinkers in most ways, would behold natural forms—trees, flowers, seashells, limbs, and mountains—and see simulacra and anagoge, evidences of the divine hand, wherever they looked. They freely interpreted these as signs from on high—“things themselves do signifie other things” as one Puritan theologian put it. The most familiar apparition in this tradition appears not in theology, however, but in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, as the tormented New England minister Arthur Dimmesdale looks to the sky and sees described in meteor trails the letter “A” that he construes to signify his secret sin, adultery.
His was an enveloping if fearful world; one that would not admit of coincidence. He saw what he had been prepared to see. The ancient Greeks would look to the sky and see in constellations the stories of their riotous gods re-enacted in a fateful way, too, each night. They would make no separation between myth and mythologizing on the one hand and truth and explanation on the other. They would have made much of the Martian smiley face if they had orbiting cameras. If we moderns are poorer in universal mythology—our best myths come from comic books and novels—we are surer in explanation, and partly because we can see the difference between belief and fiction, and mythologizing and play.