A Cruel Fan’s Thesis

September 21, 2014 § 2 Comments

Follow me down a rabbit hole, why don’t you? After I finished my previous post, I got it in my head to find the source of one of the more persistent rumors about Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even to this day, twenty years after the anime came out, it’s still repeated with some regularity that “Absolute Terror Field” is an actual psychological term for the distancing effect of certain neurodivergent conditions. It’s patently untrue, even ignoring the fact that the term doesn’t quite read like native English, but whence did it come?

Sachiel uses its AT field against EVA Unit 01 in Neon Genesis Evangelion

Disappointingly, the answer presented itself to me not long after I started looking. I found nothing in the medical databases on EBSCOhost, but a date-restricted Google search for “AT Field” or “Absolute Terror” and “psychology” or “psychological” brought up this fan site indexed by Google on September 13, 2000 (but by the Internet Archive as early as May 8, 1999). The text of interest to us reads:

ABSOLUTE TERROR FIELD: A force-field produced biologically by Angels and Eva robots. Conventional weapons can not penetrate this field. In the field of psychology, AT-field means the imaginary wall that patients with high egos and autism produce.

As far as I can tell, here is the first association in English between the Absolute Terror Field of the Evangelion fiction and the discipline of psychology in the real world. The site purports that its definitions were translated from the “Red Cross Book,” the unofficial name for a pamphlet sold in Japanese theaters during showings of End of Evangelion. Meant to familiarize people who hadn’t seen the anime with its complicated backstory, it was notable for having a glossary with the first explicit definitions of many in-universe terms, among them “Absolute Terror Field,” which is only ever referred to as an “AT Field” outside of the opening credits.

The term “AT Field” introduced in the opening credits of Neon Genesis Evangelion

However, there is one more wrinkle in this brief tale of internet apocrypha. A more formal and trustworthy translation of the Red Cross Book into English (first indexed by the Internet Archive on January 7, 2007) also defines the “AT Field” from the show as an “Absolute Terror Field,” but it’s missing a detail of some importance:

[A.T. Field]

Abbreviation of “ABSOLUTE TERROR FIELD.” An absolute domain deployed by the Angels and Eva that forms a physical barrier. This field boasts enormous defensive power, and is able to greatly diminish the power of all weapons. The Evas’ ability to neutralize A.T.Fields is a major reason why they were viewed as the only weapon capable of countering the Angels. However, not only Angels and Eva, but also humans possess A.T.Fields, and it is these A.T.Fields that separate humans from each other and give them their physical forms. Nagisa Kaworu described A.T.Fields as “the barrier of the heart that everybody has.”

As can be seen, there is no mention of the term as a psychological reality. In fact, although the first two sentences of each translation have a similarity that could just be explained by the personal ability of their respective translators, the degree to which they diverge afterward is nothing short of mystifying. How could it even have happened? A Japanese fan site found with the term “絶対恐怖” and indexed by Google on June 28, 1997, three weeks before End of Evangelion came out, shows no awareness of a real-world etymology, so it at least seems certain that the months immediately after the theatrical release of the movie were what gave birth to the myth, possibly even in the jump from Japanese to English.

EVA Unit 02 uses its AT field against UN forces in End of Evangelion

I don’t really have a conclusion. The ephemeral nature of content on the internet makes such a thing impossible. Is the rumor of “Absolute Terror Field” as an actual term in use by psychologists, widespread enough to get its own section specifically debunking it in the largest Evangelion fan wiki, a private joke between friends with similar interests, a bad translation during the excitement over the movie, or a deliberate attempt to reshape the canon to intersect more with reality? Who can say. My cruel thesis is a combination of enthusiasm and incompetence, but maybe a conspiracy is better suited to the fiction of Evangelion itself.

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§ 2 Responses to A Cruel Fan’s Thesis

  • Is it possible that it’s a Japanese psychological term? I can imagine that Japanese psychology may use English terms and may use them in ways that appear odd to native American English speakers, though frankly “Absolute Terror Field” strains the imagination as a credible term even to a non-native speaker.

    • Ben says:

      It’s possible, but unlikely. Wasei-eigo was very common during the nineties, but mostly as part of youth culture and the companies marketing to it. It would have to have been the case that loanword slang had sufficiently penetrated Japanese academia to influence technical terminology from which Anno Hideaki, who had only been reading about psychoanalysis for a couple of years, drew for use in his new anime, yet still be abstruse enough that there were no parallels for or awareness of it in the wider culture. I’m very hesitant to suggest such a scenario, especially since the alleged real-world etymology can’t be corroborated in any of the supplementary materials for that anime.

      Of course, to be absolutely sure, I’d have to conduct some extensive date-constrained searches for “Absolute Terror Field” in katakana, which seems to be spelled as “A.T.フィールド” on Japanese Wikipedia, but being able to parse the results goes beyond my command of Japanese. I do know from my searches on Google that “絶対恐怖” is the phrase in kanji for “Absolute Terror” and was virtually nonexistent as a phrase before Neon Genesis Evangelion familiarized people with its English counterpart.

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