J. J. Abrams “Mystery Box” does not necessarily mean what it is often presented as meaning. It doesn’t mean “secrecy” and “fooling” you. No, it means a common thread of mystery that runs throughout a story, keeping it compelling. In essence, the story is structured around the mystery, much like a MacGuffin. The mystery isn’t so much the central reason for the story, it is simply the fuel powering the machine. Our curiosity as viewers or readers is piqued and we continue to follow the characters through their emotional journeys of triumph, failure, loss, and death. We learn we thought a good film was about one thing, the concept, but it is ultimately about another thing, generally the people involved.
The analogy of the mystery box comes from J.J. Abrams Ted Talk from March 2007. Abram’s grandfather who died in 1986 was an amazing influence on young J.J. His grandfather ran an electronics surplus store. His grandfather would open up electronics like telephones and televisions and show young Abrams the inner workings of the devices. In other words, the magic and mystery of how these devices worked was stripped away in the process of deconstruction.
As a child he bought Tannen’s Mystery Magic Box from a magic shop. It cost him $15 for $50 worth of magic! It was never opened and it sat on the shelf of Abram’s office. Abrams one day asked himself why had it he not opened it? He hadn’t opened it because it represented something important to Abrams, his grandfather and the mystery about what is inside something. The mystery box represents possibility, hope, and limitless potential. These are the things that draw Abrams to storytelling. These are the exact opposite of marketing techniques designed to trick you about who is playing what in a Star Trek film, that is about preservation.
Abrams boldly states in his Ted Talk “Mystery is the catalyst for imagination.” In other words, during the meat of a story, mystery is more important than knowledge. The blank page is a mystery box. Abrams sees stories as nothing but mystery boxes to unfold.
Abrams uses Star Wars as the ultimate example of the mystery box:
“Look at Star Wars. You got the droids and this mysterious woman! Who’s that? We don’t know! Mystery box! Then you meet Luke Skywalker, he gets the droids, you see the holographic image. Oh it’s a message, she wants to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. He’s her only hope! Who the hell is Obi-Wan Kenobi? Mystery box! Then he goes and he meets Ben Kenobi. Ben Kenobi is Obi-Wan Kenobi!
Abrams is talking about how withholding information is an engaging story practice. He even states if the shark in Jaws had worked, the movie wouldn’t have been scary. It is about what you don’t see and what you aren’t told.
The mystery box makes us think we’re getting one thing when we’re getting another. Abrams says E.T. appears to be about an alien. But it is really about divorce. According to Abrams when people rip off something, they rip off the obvious, the alien or the shark, but not the characters and what really matters. They’ve failed at the mystery that makes the story itself compelling through the characters. Abrams even compares the theater itself to a mystery box in the sense you’re literally sitting in a giant box where the mystery unfolds (but he admits the experience is generally dreadful).
So what’s the point? Well, most of the time, when I hear people talk about the mystery box concept, they’re thinking it means Abrams wants to deceive you. They think it means hiding everything from a film. I’m not denying Abrams is super secretive about his films, he is notoriously secretive. But I often think people think it means withholding everything and that simply is not the case, at least not conceptually.
I think a lot of misappropriation of the mystery box concept stemmed from and was propagated by the fact J.J. Abrams lied about Khan in Star Trek into Darkness. When he did that, he was actually violating the tenants of the mystery box concept and just deceiving his audience instead of letting the mystery unfold itself. A lot of the times when I see the concept used, they’re referring to a “deception box” rather than the mystery box concept as presented by Abrams. I would argue Abram’s marketing techniques are about the preservation of a mystery and are not the mystery box itself.
When it comes to Star Wars, if Abrams was making The Empire Strikes Back, he would not tell you “Obi-Wan is Luke’s father” and then have Vader make the big reveal. That’s just lying to you, which he has done in with his past work. However, the mystery box is a beautiful concept, I dislike seeing it equated with deception and lying. Abrams recanted, he apologized for Khan and admitted his mistake. Over the next year as we await Star Wars: Episode VII, we should remember that in our assessments.
You can watch Abrams in his own words explain the mystery box here: https://www.ted.com/talks/j_j_abrams_mystery_box