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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Moon logic

(n.) in pop culture, perplexing or counterintuitive thinking required to solve a complex puzzle, or understand an image or story


If you’re a gamer or a movie buff, this might be one you know already: moon logic is the wildly convoluted or counterintuitive thinking required to understand a seemingly impenetrable puzzle or plotline.

We’re squarely in the world of pop culture here, so this isn’t some ancient and antiquated centuries-old term. Instead, moon logic seems to have first emerged among the writers and reviewers of the 1960s and 70s, who used it in reference to the challenging and often byzantine symbolism of Beat Generation novels and movies.

YouTube pop culture maven Pushing Up Roses has unearthed what appears to be the earliest recorded use of this term back in 1976, when moon logic appeared in an essay on underground counterculture in the University of Toronto’s student magazine, The Varsity:

“There is a great deal of symbolism in the movie [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest]. At one point we see a staff member playing with a yo-yo in the background, implying that the staff is a bunch of yo- yos.” Somehow, even an overdose of ‘moon logic’ would not lend a deep understanding of symbolism to that statement.
‘Laing Replaces Marx, Leary as Modern Counter-Culture Hero’, The Varsity (12 March, 1976)

The writer of that essay, Christine Tausig, is here quoting another Toronto pop culture writer, Ernest Barr, whose analysis of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had earlier appeared in another local underground newspaper, Alternative to Alienation. Whether Barr (or any other previous writer, for that matter) had used the term before this remains unsolved, so until more written evidence comes to light this is indeed the first record we known about.

So here the etymological trail runs cold. But moving on from the 1970s movie world, moon logic truly came into its own in the 1980s and 90s, when advances in computer programming capabilities led to a boom in lengthy and complex plot-driven adventure games. In order to progress through these games, players were often required to solve series of ever more cryptic logic puzzles, the thinking behind which was frequently frustratingly abstruse.

The image we shared on Twitter, for instance, is a screencap from LucasArts’ 1991 game, Monkey Island 2. In an infamously tricky part of the story, players had to figure out how to get their character, Guybrush, across a waterfall on a remote Caribbean island. Beside the waterfall was a water pump, but the pump’s handle was missing—so how to work the pump to stop the water?

The solution that players had to work through (spoiler alert!) was to first find a banana. Then they had to head to a saloon, on a different island in the game, where they would find a monkey playing the piano. On top of the piano was a metronome, ticking back and forth to the monkey’s playing. Players had to fix the banana onto the pendulum of the metronome, which would have the effect of hypnotizing and freezing the monkey, thereby allowing him to be picked up and carried away. The monkey could then be safely taken across to the other island and back up to the waterfall, where his tail could be used to operate the pump (as a kind of ‘monkey’ wrench), stopping the flow of water over the falls and allowing the player to cross.

Needless to say, the mental and logistical hoops a player had to jump through to solve this one puzzle in Monkey Island 2 proved so taxing that it has since come to typify moon logic itself. One of LucasArts’ former developers, Aaron Muszalski, even popped up in the comments on HH to confess his part in the process.

One question remains, though: why moon logic?

Well, as we mentioned over on Twitter, this term apparently alludes to the fact that the thinking required to figure out this kind of enigmatic material is so counterintuitive that only a lunatic (i.e. a term derived from madness supposedly inspired by the moon) or an alien (i.e. a being from beyond the Moon) would be able to grasp it.

Or, for that matter, someone with the ability to hypnotize a monkey.

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