Warehouse 13 and the Psychology of Artifacts

When I first saw an ad for Warehouse 13, I thought, “SyFy made a show based on the last 30 seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

It was the punchline of the whole movie:  Indiana Jones goes through hell to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis and outwit unethical archaeologist Rene Belloq, so that the U.S. government can crate it up and stuff it in a warehouse.  It was also Spielberg’s homage to Citizen Kane, a note of comic relief that had personal meaning for him.

Since Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite movies (and I’ve been hoping for a reason to forgive SyFy since they cancelled The Dresden Files), I was tempted to watch an episde.  But did I want to watch a show about a warehouse full of stuff?  Even if it was magical stuff?

Like most human beings throughout history, I’m fascinated with artifacts.  Our literature is filled with objects that serve as a focus for power.  Gilgamesh’s pukku and mikku–we no longer know what these objects were, only that Gilgamesh valued them so highly he allowed his best friend Enkidu to die searching the netherworld for them.  Excalibur, the sword that conferred kingship on Arthur when he removed it from the stone in which it was embedded.  Sauron’s Ring, which Frodo and company risked life and limb to throw into a volcano.  We love the idea that the objects around us could have hidden powers or personalities.  A world where a hair comb can channel the personality of Lucrezia Borgia and a pair of old gym shorts can turn an ordinary man into a superhero is a world where anything can happen.  A world where adventure lurks beneath the surface, and anyone who’s lucky enough to find just the right THING becomes special.

Artifacts appeal on a deeper level too, as an external symbol for elements of our own psyches.  Finding an artifact that gives you new abilities serves as a metaphor for self-discovery.  Sure, you could come across a jewel-encrusted Renaissance comb and find yourself gripped with the murderous urges of a Borgia ghost.  But you could also, in a moment of honesty, admit that we all have a little Borgia in us–a dark, manipulative side that we restrain every day for the sake of functioning in society.  Watching a story about someone whose inner Borgia is set free by a magical artifact is a safe way to explore our own inner darkness:  as long as the artifact is active, we voyeuristically experience the havoc wrought by unrestrained selfishness, and as soon as the artifact is contained again, whew, the threat of that inner darkness is contained again.  By manipulating the external symbol, we gain more control over the invisible internal–that’s the basis of ritual, and it’s one of the most powerful of psychological principles (just look at any religion that’s ever existed; it’s their primary method for motivating/manipulating their followers).

There seem to be two kinds of artifacts in the Warehouse 13 universe:  intentional and accidental.  Intentional artifacts are the kind we’re used to, crafted by wizards and alchemists, gods and mad scientists.  They’re artifacts that were created for a specific purpose, often for a specific individual to wield, and they’re in the warehouse now that they’ve served that purpose.  I’m even more fascinated by the accidental artifacts–according to the Warehouse 13 mythos, these are objects which gained powers by being used by someone who was unusually skilled or talented (almost as if some of that person’s spirit or talent is transferred to the object).  My favorite accidental artifact so far as been the pen of Edgar Allen Poe:  you can use it to write an action down, and anyone who reads it is forced to perform that action.  In the Warehouse 13 world, new artifacts are created all the time, and no one knows it until someone inadvertantly activates the new artifacts’ powers.

Think about what that implies:  everyone in the Warehouse 13 universe is potentially an unwitting mage, imbuing the world around them with their own personal magic.

How cool is that?

If the Warehouse 13 folks had simply chosen to focus on the powers of the artifacts themselves, the show would have quickly fallen flat as they struggled to come up with new and unique attributes for each new object.  But by making the artifacts an extension of human will, and stating that we are creating these artifacts by the good and bad actions we choose to engage in, they’re saying that the show is about humanity’s struggles with ourselves.  The artifacts are concrete manifestations of the emotions and desires that we all wrestle with–and every time the Warehouse 13 crew safely contains another artifact, one more dangerous aspect of the human psyche is symbolically brought under control.  The search for artifacts becomes a metaphor for the search for morality and the struggle to become a better person.

Couple that universal theme and intriguing use of artifacts with strong, action-filled plotting, excellent writing, and great acting–kudos, creators and writers of Warehouse 13.  You hooked me!

Note:  Warehouse 13 isn’t the first television show to propose accidental artifacts; The Lost Room, an outstanding but short-lived science fiction show explored the same idea in a much different way.

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  • Bob Mayer  On August 16, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I like writing fiction using real objects and events but changing the WHY behind them. Yes, there is a great pyramid. Why was it built? In Area 51 I pose the answer as it was a signal: when covered in white limestone as it originally was, it would have sent a tremendous radar signal. I did this with most things in my books. I just had a minor character start the Civil War by causing the firing on Ft. Sumter.

  • madeleinedrake  On August 16, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    Hi, Bob! I’m a fan of your books written with Jenny Cruisie, and loved the first Area 51 book (#2 and #3 are waiting patiently on my nightstand, to make it to the top of the TBR pile).

    Thanks for sharing your technique–I can see how it would be wonderful for brainstorming!

    That poor guy, being The One to start the Civil War. 😉 Now I’m going to have to read it and find out if he fired on purpose or by accident…

  • Michelle Miles  On August 16, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    This sounds like a fantastic show – I’m going to have to look it up!

    • madeleinedrake  On August 16, 2010 at 8:26 pm

      It’s loads of fun. I can hardly wait for each new episode to come out on hulu!

  • Arwen  On August 16, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    I have been a fan of “Warehouse 13” since I saw the first episode. It’s one of the few that I tape so that I do not miss it.

    The artifacts are intriguing as is the Warehouse itself. My question remains…what happened to Warehouses 1-12? Or who is watching those?

    • madeleinedrake  On August 16, 2010 at 8:29 pm

      Hi, Arwen! 🙂 I think there was a brief mention in one episode that Warehouses 1-12 have each been destroyed in some artifact-related mishap.

  • Caridad Pineiro  On August 17, 2010 at 8:58 am

    I’ve been watching Warehouse 13 recently and do find it interesting. I think you hit the nail on the head that if the artifacts weren’t connected to something bigger – something human – the show might immediately fall flat. Combining it with that other element, however, makes it work. Thanks for sharing those thoughts with us.

  • V.R. Leavitt  On August 17, 2010 at 10:38 am

    Well, I hadn’t heard of Warehouse 13, but now I’ll have to check it out. 🙂 Love the talk about artifacts too. So true.

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