The World of Telekinesis
A young boy with telekinesis suspends a villain in mid-air in "Looper."
Is there any power better than telekinesis? It encompasses all other superpowers: strength, flight, shields, psychic energy, etc. If you can manipulate molecules with your mind, you can do anything. Some of the most powerful characters in fiction are telekinetic. It is a gift possessed by children, adults, the disabled, the good, the evil, and usually, the misunderstood. Even some real living people have claimed to possess a gift for moving objects with their mind. The concept has been around for thousands of years, but only within the last 100 or it has become a prevalent characteristic in science fiction. Perhaps as humans learn and evolve over time, the idea becomes more conceivable. Below is an exploration of the history of this fascinating phenomenon and its contribution to the science fiction genre.
An early 1900's seance, where the term "telekinesis" was born.
Telekinesis has showed up in many ancient texts, from Sanskrit to the Bible. It’s the perfect vehicle to demonstrate power and the presence of a deity or spiritual occurrence. However, it wasn’t given a name until the 1890’s when séances became popular, and spiritual mediums needed a term for the way objects would move around the room when conjuring a spirit. While most of these occurrences could be explained away via magic tricks, they are responsible for creating interest and intrigue in this super human power. By World War I, they were calling it psychokinesis, meaning mind movement (telekinesis means far away movement, but they are essentially the same thing).
The witches in "The Craft" use telekinesis in the form of spells to make their friend levitate.
Telekinesis is defined as the ability to move or manipulate objects with the power of the mind. As long as you are altering something physical without physically touching it with your body or a tool, you are telekinetic (abbreviated as PK for psychokinesis). Despite its scientific name and defined set of rules, it’s a paranormal pseudoscience.
Over the years, people have made a living wowing others with their telekinetic talents. They bend spoons, lift small objects, and even levitate themselves in the air, but most of their tricks can be easily explained. Scientists have conducted countless experiments on the subject with mixed or negative results. They have tried to keep it on a micro-PK level, meaning that they only test their subjects with small, lightweight objects in order to bring about the best possible chance of success. Rolling dice comes across as the most common method of testing a person’s abilities with an unmeasurable success rate. So, if it does exist as a true human power, it’s too rare to measure scientifically, and those who truly have it have kept it well under wraps.
Because the science is so muddled, the best resource for studying the phenomenon is fiction. Modern fiction has especially been saturated in stories about telekinesis. With advances in special effects in recent years, movies and TV can easily incorporate it effectively into their stories. Comic books are the perfect outlet to showcase beings with powers. Even traditional novels make it a great vehicle to give power to an otherwise powerless character, especially passive female characters with a history of abuse or neglect.
Are Jean Grey, Carrie White, Matilda Wormwood, and Eleven trying to tell us not to mess with the quiet girls? Is this why outcasts are drawn to those stories?
The powers exhibited by these otherwise passive characters provide a release from the oppression that society puts on them and that they put on themselves. It becomes a visual metaphor for breaking out of one's shell. It's a highly relatable topic that resonates with science fiction fans who tend to be outcasts themselves.
There are many different origins of how telekinesis manifests in a character. Each origin fits their character’s story. Evolution is to blame in some stories.
The X-Men are the most famous example of this. The telekinetic characters in this group point to human development over centuries to describe the powers of this select group of people. They even go so far as to pinpoint these powers to a “mutant gene” which is typically activated by the hormonal years of adolescence, linking it to emotion and untapped potential.
It could also be an unused animal instinct that went dormant when humans became civilized, just as bears prepare for hibernation and salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs. Only a small percentage of the population has been accepted as the guinea pig for this natural experiment. As a result, they are ostracized for "homo superior’s" potential to overpower homo sapiens. Some of the most powerful mutants in this universe are telekinetic in some way, and that makes them the most dangerous.
Telekinesis can also be presented as a way to reach spiritual enlightenment. A higher power either grants these abilities, or they are attained through spiritual study and devotion. The Star Wars universe is very big on this concept. Their monk-like Jedi Order possess telekinetic ability as the result of their understanding of the spiritual force that they recognize as the basis for all living things. They have earned their abilities through study and faith and use them in combat. Unfortunately, so do the villains of these stories, finding that their devotion to evil gives them the same abilities. It’s not the phenomenon itself that is good or bad but the emotional reasons behind the person who uses it. Devotion to an ideal gives power to an individual beyond the capabilities of the average human.
The boys in "Chronicle" stumble into their powers while exploring a mysterious cave.
Fictional stories also use some kind of mystical force to bring about these powers. It can even be explained as extraterrestrial technology, such as in the film, Chronicle. Some unexplained force instills these powers in a person who did not possess it before, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
In these stories, it’s interesting to explore the type of person who inherits these abilities and how they use them. Giving too much power to the wrong person can create a super villain. Giving it to a naturally good character tests their ability to remain good despite their human upgrade. It can also take a toll on their frail bodies, giving them nose bleeds, weakening their energy levels, and causing insanity.
Harry Potter uses his magic training to perform spells which have telekinetic properties.
The same goes for Wizards. From Merlin to Harry Potter, these beings use their study of magic to lift things into the air, even if it is filtered through a magic wand. Being in touch with the natural state of the world can make us powerful according to the laws of witchcraft. Many who practice this religion in real life use their faith to create change in the world around them, much how prayer does the same for other religions. An answered prayer or effective spell can be attributed to a supernatural event. Telekinesis is just a more visual and apparent representation of that belief.
Matilda is famous for her telekinetic ability which stems from her high intellect.
Then, there is the science angle. Perhaps these beings, like Matilda Wormwood in the famous Roald Dahl novel, Matilda, are just intelligent enough to access the untouched corners of their brain and switch them on. As a result, they are able to do things that other humans are incapable of doing, such as write with a piece of chalk from across the room.
Eleven practices lifting a toy, helping to build her skills so that she can be more useful later.
On the other hand, perhaps science gave them these gifts, such as Eleven in the NetFlix show, Stranger Things. Enough research and experimentation can bring about extraordinary results along with the discovery of another dimension. Eleven’s powers are nothing new to the world of science fiction and makes the occurrence feel one day probable, or at least possible.
A man being tested on his extrasensory perception.
Variations in Strengths
Every fictional instance of telekinesis is built to fit the story that it is helping to tell. As a result, characters are given different strengths and specialties in the ability. The movie, Looper, features multiple characters with telekinesis. It's actually become a futuristic normality in the story, though most possess a very weak version of it, able to move only very small objects in very unimpressive and mundane ways.
However, little Cid in the film has a much greater ability which comes about when he is angry or threatened, making him dangerous and unbalanced. Suddenly, the ability has become important now that it can be used in large doses and cause massive destruction.
Telekinesis is typically treated like a muscle, one that needs to be conditioned like any other in order to build and maintain its strength. However, overuse tends to weaken characters, requiring an enormous amount of energy when used. It can cause nose bleeds, exhaustion, headaches, seizures, insanity, and even death. It is as if the ability has evolved beyond the capacity of the frail human body, and that creates the question of how often it should be used and to what extent.
Storytellers tend to put these limits on these characters in order to keep them from becoming indestructible or overpowered, especially heroes. If they are too powerful, they will never be able to create a worthy enough antagonist. If they don't have to struggle with their abilities, they will never grasp the lessons that a hero needs to learn in their journey.
Getting back to the Looper concept, to fuel power with evil can create a super-powerful villain, forcing storytellers to come up with creative ways to defeat this evil. To strike with sheer emotion tends to be a lesson that we are taught over and over again in stories as a sure fire way to fail. Staying level-headed and "good" will help you to win over the most powerful of villains. It's a lesson featured as often as telekinesis itself but still welcomed as a traditional morality tale.
Variations in Abilities
Telekinesis has a wide catalog of sub-categories. Author Stephen King has explored the different facets of telekinesis starting with his first novel, Carrie. This telekinetic girl kicked off the author's career and the powers that many of his characters would possess over time.
Carrie's abilities were pretty straight-forward, giving her an ability which encompassed many aspects of the phenomenon. It was brought about by puberty, strengthened over time, entrusted to an outsider who felt physically and emotionally weak, and caused death and destruction when brought about by extreme negative emotions. This tragic hero's journey showed what can happen when power is misused, especially by someone who was used to being powerless and had endured years of abuse from everyone around her, raised onto a pedestal only to fall hard and retaliate in a very raw and spontaneous way.
However, one aspect of Carrie's ability in the book that was never adapted into any of the movie or TV versions was her ability to read minds. Known as telepathy, these powers can sometimes go hand in hand.
King also explores this concept in his novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, giving another young character, Danny Torrance, the ability to read minds and sense danger. That's as far as his abilities go. Unlike Jean, he cannot build a defense with telekinesis. He can only take that knowledge and find a way to escape it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the characters reluctant to use their powers. Firestarter's Charlie McGee possesses pyrokinesis, genetically inherited by her parents who participated in an experimental trial which gave them telekinetic and telepathic abilities respectively. Charlie can only manipulate fire, but even as a young child, her abilities come easy and have little affect on her, unlike her father who can push his telepathy too far and give himself nosebleeds and headaches. After accidentally burning her mother during a temper tantrum, Charlie seals up her abilities, slowly releasing them to get out of trouble while she and her father are on the run. She requires his permission to use her powers, and when he finally lets her off the leash, she shows her enemies the powerful weapon that they have created.
Magneto possess a specific form of telekinesis via manipulating magnetic fields.
Jean Grey, one of the most powerful members of the X-Men possesses telepathy along with telekinesis. Her ability to reach into the minds of others and hear their thoughts appropriately reflects her mind-based powers. If the mind is powerful enough to control objects, why not give it the ability to link up to the thoughts of others as well?
Jean's mentor, Charles Xavier is strictly telepathic. His specialty is the ability to manipulate human minds, making them think and do whatever he wants. This could be a very dangerous ability. Luckily, it was entrusted to a man whose morals were strong enough to use it without exploiting it and one who has spent a lifetime understanding the trauma and motivations of others and who has learned to put a high price on free will.
Xavier's old friend and fellow mutant, Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto, has a variation of telekinesis that allows him to move only metal objects using magnetic fields. The objects are limited by their material, but over the years, he has worked the muscle enough to be able to lift large objects and detect even trace amounts of metal in the area.
The X-Men films really take the time to explore Magneto's capabilities and his complex relationship with humanity. In the franchise, it is Charles who teaches him to use his powers with a calm state of mind rather than an emotional one in order to reach is full potential. It is Apocalypse who shows him that it is the Earth's magnetic field that can provide an unlimited capacity for his powers. All of this is wrapped up in Lehnsherr's traumatic past, being orphaned in a concentration camp, seeking revenge on his enemies, and later deciding to rid the world of all humans so that mutants do not have to live in fear of them. It is a mindset that makes sense given what he has lived through, but it also shows how easily a person with these powers can use them for evil.
A photo claiming to show telekinetic powers at work.
While you can watch countless videos online showing PK activity, the chances of being able to prove the occurrence is difficult to judge, especially in an age where convincing tricks are more prevalent than ever. Like a UFO or ghostly sighting, to experience telekinesis, either personally or by another human, it’s going to have to be seen with one’s own eyes and create a feeling that can only convince its witness.
Until then, there are countless characters to entertain us and identify with in their use of telekinesis. These characters bring power to otherwise powerless characters, show us our untapped potential in a very extreme and literal way, and make us feel that human beings are more special than we could ever imagine. While it seems unlikely now, the fact that we have been able to tell so many stories throughout the years about telekinesis makes its audience feel like we are just on the cusp of it becoming a reality. We just need to stretch out our hand and concentrate hard enough, and one day, that small object that we are focusing on will end up in midair.
What is your favorite version of telekinesis?
What do you love about telekinesis? Who are your favorite characters with the ability? Have you ever experienced a telekinetic event? Leave your comments below!