The worldbuilding of Watchmen flows from two changes to American history: Costumed vigilantes of the 1940s, and the creation of Doctor Manhattan. The book is famous for being a “realistic” superhero story, full of almost exclusively normal human beings with human desires and flaws.
But it’s also a world with psychics. And I don’t mean just a genetically engineered squid.
As Ozymandias puts it in the original book, “I engineered a monster, cloned its brain from a human psychic, sent it to New York and killed half the city.” And in this week’s episode of HBO’s Watchmen, we are introduced to the widespread fear of another psychic attack like the one that occured on Nov. 2, 1985. So widespread that companies can make a mint selling anti-psychic shielding, a commercialized form of the tinfoil hat.
If Watchmen is so dedicated to realism, how does the existence of demonstrably real psychic phenomena fit in? The answer is that Alan Moore probably thinks that ESP is a little bit real. And for a sci-fi writer of his era, that’s not particularly unusual.
Putting the ESP in ExPoSition
Moore and Gibbons spend long stretches of Watchmen explaining the ways the alternate-universe timeline differs from our own. There are excerpts from fictional books about the history of costumed vigilantes, an entire issue dedicated to Doctor Manhattan’s backstory, and dozens of little references that establish how his powers have accelerated human technological development.
In contrast, the first hint we get that extrasensory perception is an element of Watchmen’s story is in one paragraph in the backmatter of Watchmen #8. The extremely dubious New Statesman paper reports:
Parents and relatives of so-called psychic and clairvoyant Robert Deschaines, attending his funeral following the young medium’s fatal stroke, were horrified to learn that ghoulish vandals or practical jokers had stolen the corpse’s head from its body while it lay unattended upon a mortuary slab.
From there, the first confirmation we have that psychic powers are really real in Watchmen’s setting is on Nov. 2 itself, the day Vedit drops his psychic squid on New York. Moments after the catastrophe, reports of “sensitives” all over the world experiencing visions of horror come in over Veidt’s television screens.
It’s almost as if the story of Watchmen assumes that the existence of psychic powers doesn’t need to be established at all. And that could be because Alan Moore took the presence of psychic abilities in the human population as read.
Moore is a famously open thinker. In the decades after creating Watchmen, he’s become an avowed believer in his own definition of magic, based on a philosophical definition of reality. He’s also talked about experimenting with psychedelics, as tools that unlocked the human mind.
If Moore was actually skeptical of psychic phenomena when he wrote Watchmen in 1986, he was at least aware of it as a trope worth interrogating. The idea that humanity has innate psychic abilities that science merely hadn’t yet unlocked was a staple of the science fiction of that era and the era he grew up in. More than science fiction, it was considered plausible enough for scientific investigation.
“Psychic abilities are a staple of classic sci-fi,” Hugo Award-winning sci-fi author Becky Chambers [ed. note: and friend and former coworker of this writer] tells Polygon. “From the 1940s well into the ’80s, you’ll find it everywhere. Telepathy and ESP were a sort of shorthand for evolutionary superiority. If you wanted an alien race that was more advanced than humans, the quickest physiological way to communicate that was to make them mind-readers, or people who did away with the ‘crudeness’ of verbal speech. In human characters, you’ll find special individuals or super secret groups with these sorts of abilities — either learned or innate — which typically represent the next chapter in human evolution.
“Now, out in the real world, there was a genuine interest in psychic phenomena during this time. To my understanding, it was seen as fringey even then, but scientists were definitely doing work to see if there was anything to it. There were big ongoing studies at major universities. The US government infamously did their own research for decades under the umbrella of the Stargate Project. It was on the table as a possibility, at least, and that puts it squarely in the territory of science fiction.”
She listed novels like Stranger in a Strange Land, Childhood’s End, early works of Ursula K. Le Guin, and the Dune series, in which prolonged exposure to the Spice Melange conferred the ability to see the future, as examples.
“Nowadays, you’ll still see aliens with extraordinary mental abilities,” Chambers concluded, “but psychic humans or humanoid species are much rarer than they were [...] These sorts of characters have largely shifted to the realm of fantasy and occult. If you do find them in sci-fi, they’re more likely to be products of genetic engineering or technological augmentation, rather than as part of a natural evolutionary track.”
Which is how psychic abilities crop up in another modern piece of pop culture that’s throwing back to 1980s sci-fi: Stranger Things.
So, why does the idea of psychic power crop up so late and so sparingly in Watchmen? Sure, it could be a late addition to the world from Moore and Gibbons. But given the writer’s hugely established talent for worldbuilding in works like Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and Top 10, it seems more likely that it was just something he didn’t think needed to be explained.
In Watchmen, psychic abilities are latent in the human population — either because Moore actually believed they were real, or simply because it was an established science fiction idea.