Matilda: Deep Dive

Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Sometimes we struggle to separate causation and correlation. Helpfully described in this Khan Academy lesson, correlation means there is a relationship or pattern between the values of two variables, whereas causation means that one event causes another event to occur. You know, like how psychic powers are correlated with nosebleeds, but don’t always cause them.

Matilda is part of a long tradition of stories of kids with psychic powers. Already averting the common trope of being malevolent (though she does use her powers against others), she doesn’t seem to get the stereotypical psychic nosebleed when she exerts herself in a telekinetic way. Although she’s certainly not the first fictional person to move things with her brain with an intense expression, think Eleven from Stranger Things; there’s always a single dribble of blood down her face to demonstrate the great strain of her powers. Like Matilda, Eleven is positioned more as a heroine than as a person to be feared.

There are more than enough examples of malevolent young psychics, though, with and without nosebleeds. In fact, there are so many fictional works featuring psychic children that they often fall into their own television trope category, Creepy Children. Here are just a few of our favorites:

Are these characters sinister? Yes, we would argue so. Are they plagued by constantly flowing rivers of nostril blood? Not always. Perhaps nosebleeds are just a common occurrence in these individual universes, or maybe using your powers for malevolent purposes is less of a strain on your system.

(I think I’m reaching there and I stopped myself from creating a whole grand unified theory about how evil telekinesis, the dark side of the Force, or using shortcuts to dark magic in the canon of supernatural texts is easier than their benevolent counterparts.)

Where does this “psychic powers = nosebleed” causation myth come from, anyway? It appears that the 1981 film Scanners is the trope originator for this. You can actually observe it in multiple television series: The Magicians, Supernatural, Carnivale, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The 4400. It’s also front and center in several films, such as the iconic Carrie, The Ring, The Dark Tower, and the aforementioned Firestarter.

Despite Roald Dahl’s infamous sense of the macabre, and the fact that Matilda was published after the trope became common, he chose to have Matilda use her powers without a bloody nose. Perhaps the trope took longer to trickle into children’s literature… or perhaps Dahl either wasn’t aware of (or didn’t care for) it. Whatever the reason, Matilda illustrator Quentin Blake was not required to pull out his red pencil for anything other than the red of the books that Matilda read. Lucky us.

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These Books Made Me

These Books Made Me is a podcast about the literary heroines who shaped our childhoods. @PGCMLS