J.J. Abrams TED talk: "Mystery in a Box" (video)

Of all the inspiring presenters I saw at TED last year, the most entertaining was J.J. Abrams, the producer, director and screenwriter behind Alias, Lost, Mission Impossible III, and the upcoming Cloverfield.

Abrams started his talk by showing a wrapped box he's owned for decades. It's a "mystery package" he bought from Lou Tannen's Magic store in New York. It has a big question mark on it. He's never opened the box and never will open it because he says the mystery of what's inside the box is more interesting than anything that might be in the box. "It represents infinite possibility; it represents hope; it represents potential... mystery is the catalyst for imagination... maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge."  

Picture 4-61 J.J. Abrams traces his love of the unseen mystery -- the heart of AliasLost, and the upcoming Cloverfield -- back to its own magical beginnings, which may or may not include an early obsession with magic, the love of a supportive grandfather, or his own unopened Mystery Box.

As a speaker, Abrams' enthusiasm -- for the construction of Kleenex boxes, for the quiet moments between shark attacks in Jaws, for today's filmmaking technologies, and above all for the potent mystery of an unopened box -- is incredibly infectious, and sure to appeal to everyone from budding filmmakers to die-hard Kill Your Televisionistas.

Link to video of talk | Link to a Hi-Res QuickTime | Link to MP3 file. (Thanks, Jason Wishnow!)


  1. Dave X: if so, the pens will have dried out by now, and the cellophane tape, erasers, and rubber bands will have lost their flexibility. Or did you mean duck? By now, it would have quacked.

  2. …The secret to thoes “Mystery Boxes” is that they usually either contain a smaller box inside so as to give the perception that there’s *something* in there, or they contain absolutely nothing at all. Shelly Mayer did a parody of sorts in an issue of Sugar and Spike back towards the end of the series, where “Tomorrow’s Teen-Agers…Today!” discover that these “Floogles” that everyone’s buying like crazy are simply empty boxes with clever packaging. Either way, it’s a scam to get you to buy an empty box.

    On the other hand, this fucking box is probably what Abrams uses for inspiration when he “promotes” his movies, especially Cloverfield and Star Trek Recycled – show box with generic packaging, and give away nothing just to be a jerk…

  3. i love mystery but if i’m going to see a movie about a giant monster attacking new york, i better see a giant monster attacking new york.

  4. Do not open that box whatever you do! I don’t know where he found that box but I once purchased one of those at a traveling carnival that came to our town. It was the summer my father committed suicide and my mother had just packed us all up and moved us all to live in Minnesota on my aunts farm.

    We didn’t have any money and there were no other kids our age out that far in the country by the farm. My aunt also only spoke german and didn’t like children very much so we tried to stay out of her way as much as possible. The only enjoyment we had at all was when the fair came to town. That was when I discovered the box.

    I had managed to save up enough money from doing odd chores and collecting soda bottles to take in a couple rides and get a soda or two. And it was coming towards the end of the day when a hunched carnie approached me.

    ‘Hey kid. You look like the kind who has a curious mind?’ he said looking sideways at me.

    I wasn’t sure what he was getting at but was naive enough to let him continue.

    ‘How would you like to purchase one of the most magical objects in the universe?’ At that moment he reached into his tattered jacket to grab something. I stumbled back for a second wondering whether this would have been an opportune moment to run.

    ‘Voila! The box of mystery!’ He shouted pulled out the a cardboard box with a question mark on the side.

    ‘It’s just a stupid box’ I said looking at it with a smirk.

    ‘To those with no imagination, yes. But to those whose mind wanders, whose nogging is neverending whose brain boggles, it can be whatever you think it is.’ He shoved the box in my hand with his grimy mitt.

    ‘As long as you never open it, it feeds on what you THINK is inside it. Whatever you think can be inside it actually IS and the box collects those imaginions…”


    ‘Imaginions. They are the particles that power the imagination. Without them you would turn into an accountant or lawyer or some other lower life form that has no soul.’

    I turned the box over in my hands and let my imagination go wild. I wonder what could be inside. A toy? Maybe some candy… or maybe a frog! At that moment, the box jumped in my hands!

    ‘OMIGOD! Hey mister did you see that..!?’ I turned up to shout to the stranger but he had gone.

    Eventually I did open that box… and that is why I warn you now. Get rid of that box while you still can.

  5. I had a mystery box once, a 1930s wooden Sunlight Soap crate I found in an attic. It had something in it that I could heard shifting around but since I was using the box as an attractive bedside table I didn’t want to smash it open. But what if it was stuffed full of money? Then when I was moving house I noticed some tiny writing on the bottom. The box’s mysterious contents were revealed: ‘Coathangers’. Bah.

  6. Back when I lived in Chattanooga, I would walk into the bar with a rumpled bag and sit and drink. People ALWAYS asked me what was in my bag. I would always refuse to tell anyone. More often than not, the inquisitive drunk would get angry. I always found that to be interesting.

    I would offer to let people reach into the bag, but they couldn’t look inside the bag. Not a single person would reach in the bag.

    What did I carry in the bag?
    A secret.
    That’s what.

  7. It’s Schrodinger’s cat. He’s getting really, really, really bored with being neither alive nor dead and wants someone to collapse the wave function already, damnit.

  8. We’re adults. We know that life… er, I mean the BOX contains nothing meaningful except for what we project into it, just like Lost contains and delivers nothing but bulwarks against revelation and knowledge, more mystery and aimless goose chase for spuds to puzzle over until bedtime. It’s necessary to preoccupy and distract the child… er, I mean the MIND, preferable to the howling nothing that we know is actually what is there. Choosing opacity over transparency, distortion over clarity, mystery over knowledge. Lynch is the master and does it about a million times better than Abrams but both understand the (artistic) value of it.

    The alternative of course is dick, (or worse) in the box.

  9. That’s really interesting. One of the big flaws in Abrams’s work has always been his inability to construct a satisfying payoff for a long mystery. Perhaps he hasn’t realized that many people want to open the box eventually and have what’s inside make sense. (Ideally, it would take your breath away with how unexpected, yet absolutely right it is. But very few people have ever pulled this off.)

  10. “It represents infinite possibility; it represents hope; it represents potential…”

    No it doesn’t. Its a box of known dimesion, weight, and cost. It has no obvious emissions and has remained at least relatively inert ever since he bought it. It actually represents a very finite set of possibilities. This doesn’t even function as a Schroedinger type box because it is mere cardboard and can easily be seen inside of with the right equipment.

    Startlingly Abrams actually makes a somewhat insulting metaphor with the box seeing as it is actually a startlingly UN-mysterious object. What is more interesting is his love of “the-way-things-work” which is anti-mystery and very scientific. What it really seems is that he is participating in a kind of personal asceticism. He could easily find out what is in the box but the self denial is what he is really interested in. The specific denial of knowledge (“mystery”) is what he likes himself, and what he likes inflicting on us. In the creative world of infinite possibilities the question becomes what should be revealed not what can be revealed.

    The basic premise is that suspense makes good storytelling… bravo.

  11. “The basic premise is that suspense makes good storytelling… bravo.”

    this is true, movies like Jaws are perfect examples. Spielberg fought to keep the shark out of the movie till midway through the movie.

    but you still need payoff. something tells me lost fans aren’t going to be excited if they’re left with a sealed box.

    I wached half of season one and decided i’m not investing until the whole thing is said and done.

  12. The box had been with me for 20 years and nothing changed. It stayed as empty as ever except for the occasional odd twitch or weird noise which would stem from it ever so often. It was their when I went to art school and when I published my first comic book. It was there when I worked as a cartoonist in hollywood and did a stint doing horror special effects on a backlot for some b-movie.

    It watched in fascination on the sidelines as I fought ogres and dragons during many a night of dungeons and dragons and painted figurines.

    And then… I got a REAL job. I had to start focusing on paying a mortgage and paying bills. There was so little time for me to waste on painting or drawing or things that just would never draw a paycheck. It just seemed such a waste of time. And so the box just sat and waited.

    But thats ok. The box is used to waiting. It waited since the beginning of time. It waited for Davinci. It sat patiently for Quixote. It has sat for aeons and will sit more.

    But this time… this time was different. It was so close. So very close. It was tired of waiting and it needed just a little more. Just a tiny little push. And that when the box decided to takes it’s destiny and mine into it’s own hands.

  13. I had come home late that night and was tired. I hadn’t had anything to eat and was looking forward to going straight to bed. The bulb in the overhead light burst in protest as I flipped the switch so I tried to make my way across the room in the dim light being cast from the kitchen sink light.

    Now you can say it was my imagination or maybe perhaps I accidentally brushed the table with my coat but in the dim light I swear I saw something dart across the hallway.

    I wasn’t quite a cat… it wasn’t quite a radiator either. You know that shape you catch in the corner of your eye that never has a shape but you swear you saw? That’s precisely the shape it was but I saw it straight on.

    I grabbed the nearest lamp to try and well.. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do because I didn’t even know if I had saw anything now did I?

    At that exact moment, something darted between my legs. I tried to move and just got tangled further and started to go down. I made a mad grasp for whatever I could and ended up grabbing the end table which the lamp in my other hand was resting on and everything came tumbling down.

    I scrambled for the nearest outlet and plugged the lamp in to see not only what the hell I had just stumbled over but what kind of mess I had just created. My feet were tangled in extension chord that the lamp was plugged into and the floor was cover in soda from last night that had been sitting on the table.

    And their in the middle of the soda was a soaking cardboard box with a giant question mark on it… with the top opened and taped back shut with masking tape.

  14. As I stood there holding the sticky wet box in front of the blow dryer, the thing that freaked me out most was not that I may have just imagined a breakin. Nor was it that someone may be trying to mess with me by opening the box. It was that now there was something inside the box!

    I turned off the hairdryer and shook the box once more so I could listen to the rattle to see if I could tell what it was. I had had years of experience guessing presents by their rattle alone and I could get it right every time. A soft rustling was usually a sweater. A soft thumping was socks. Lots of hard soft rattling was a puzzle; clinky rattling was a snap together model. The problem with whatever was in that box now was that it the rattle kept changing. Everytime I thought I knew what was inside, the rattle would change.

    Thats when I had the idea that I lived to regret. I realized that there was a crack large enough in the seal that I could slip paper in there and that if I could slip enough paper in there, I could limit the rattle or change it. That way if there are moving parts, I’d better be able to tell.

    I made a long half inch piece of paper and rolled it around a pencil so I could rolled it under the crack easily. At first I didn’t think it was going to go and then it went easily. I started feeding it in slowly and then noticed something odd. On the other side of the box, I had some how managed to thread the other edge. I pulled on the paper and instantly dropped the box.

    The paper was coming out of the box with writing on it. I pulled slowly as each word came into view…’O-P-E-N M-E…’

  15. Years ago, a friend gave me a beautifully wrapped Christmas present. I could tell as soon as I held it that it was something framed. I could feel the back of it and the hanging wire. The paper was so amazing (handmade), I hated to open it. And then, I thought: Hey, maybe I won’t. I’ll just hang the package by the wire and leave it forever wrapped, a Dada ReadyMade, a gift that keeps on giving because it’s never opened. I told my friend my brainstorm and she said: “You better fucking open it or I’ll kill you!” I opened it. It was a nice Medieval woodcut print, expensively framed. It hangs in my bedroom. I like it and all, but I think it would have been far more interesting, very compelling, if I’d gone with my impulse (but maybe I wouldn’t have lived long enough to hang it).

  16. I sat down and had a long drink. Now it was one thing to play along with a childhood superstition but I was never quite sure whether I fully believed it.

    Now my mind was playing tricks on me. Of course, I have only had about 5 hours of sleep in the last couple of days and have been working long hours. My brain is pretty fried. And obviously, someone at work is trying to play with my head.

    But I NEVER told anyone about the box! The only person who ever knew about the box was the same old creepy carny who gave it to me that day.

    I took another look at the tape that was placed on the lid to reseal the box. Obviously the box has been opened so it’s ok if I open it now, right? But why was the boxing asking me to open it if it already HAD been opened.

    Oh GOD! I’m now rationalizing this as if it was an animate object. Simply because of some typing on a piece of paper. I took a look at the paper again. The words were gone. Great. This all HAD been a figment of my imagination. I had another swig from the bottle and went to bed. I placed the box on the pillow next to me, gave it a stern glance and said ‘stay’.

    I watched a couple seconds half expecting it to make a run for the door and then let my head collapse onto the pillow allowing the box to soak up what it could of my bizarre dreams.

  17. MAKE Magazine should have mystery box contest. The boxes would do something — whine, vibrate, move — until opened.

  18. There’s no infinite mystery here folks, move along. There’s no insurmountable hope — there’s what’s in in, and there’s what’s not in it. Just open the stupid box. Those who don’t open the box are only fooling themselves. On purpose.

  19. @ ABLESTMAGE: I’m not sure if you’re aware but Abrams is not opening box in honor of his grandfather (it’s at the end).

    Plus he’s got better things to do.

  20. So J.J. Abrams is basically pushing the limits of the McGuffin past any normal level to some kind of McGuffin OCD level?

    Wonder what The Maltese Falcon would be if he got his hands on it.

  21. There are structural problems with that attitude. The thing-you-don’t-know may be endlessly interesting in its own right, but it has trouble interacting with other story elements.

    A known and determinate story element has a knowable meaning or value — let’s arbitrarily call it six. When it interacts with the thing-you-don’t-know, the meaning of that interaction remains partly unknowable: 6x.

    The real problem — and this is pertinent to what happened to the Lost storyline — comes when you introduce another undefined and so-far-unknowable element into the story. When it interacts with another open-question so-far-undefined story element — call it xy — the number of contingent meanings that interaction can have is indeterminately huge.

    That’s not a good thing. It’s too many open questions for the reader to hold in his or her mind. That mental space of potential meanings, which the reader has been maintaining, collapses into no meaning at all beyond plain old xy. This can happen within the space of a sentence.

    If the story comes up with a concrete meaning for x further on down the road, the contingent meanings of y will probably have to be brought up again, if you want to have any chance of the reader following what’s going on when you finally concretize y.

    Surprise revelations really need to pay their own way.

  22. #35
    “That mental space of potential meanings, which the reader has been maintaining, collapses into no meaning at all beyond plain old xy. This can happen within the space of a sentence.”

    ….ummm I think it happened to me just there.


    So, maybe opportunity that his grandfather wanted him to have is in it, and not having opened it sooner made him miss it. Now it’s filled with grief. Just open it.

  24. The next morning I had woke up to find the box doing nothing. The tape had gone and the box had returned to its normal state. Naturaly it had made me want to think it was al my imagination but I knew better.

    The box was always making me think things and imagine things. And then it hit me. In some ways the box could be responsible for my life as it is! All I do all day ong is imagine things; cartoon characters, movie monsters, fantasy landscapes. I had made a career out of my imagination and somehow I knew that the box was responsible.

    I decided then and there that I was going to figure out what this box was and what was in it. But how do you figure out what’s in a box that you can’t open? Well who says I can’t open it? I mean, what could be the harm? It obviously wants me to open it.

    Bt what if opening it stops it from doing whatever it is doing? It somehow is enabling me to benefit from using my imagination in my career. No, I can’t risk it. I have to find some other way. I’ll just revert to the scientific method.

    So for the next few weeks I decided to measure and weigh the box every day to see if anything changed. I also started writing and drawing again at the same time. And every single day, the values were always the same. Though the rattle would return, the weight would stay the same.

    And that’s when it hit me. I can’t weigh this with a REAL scale… I have to use an imaginary one! So I drew up a scale with a spinnable pinwheel for the weight measure going from 1 to 100 in ounces. I placed the box on it and started drawing.

    I drew furiously for about and hour glancing at the pinwheel every few minutes but again nothing happened.

    Dammit! I thought for sure this time I had it.

    And that’s when I remembered what the old carnie had said. Imaginions. That’s what the imagination is made of. That’s what it must be made of!

    I ran to the drawn scale and ripped out the pinwheel and quickly drew another with a measure of imaginions going from 1 to 1,000,000 (I honestly had no idea what to expect). I stuck the pinwheel back in the scale, put the box back on it and ran back to the drawing table and began to scribble again.

    After a couple seconds I glanced over and noticed that the hand was on 200,000 imaginions. Did I forget to put it at 1?

  25. Exactly the same enjoying of mystery experience we’ve all have during “Cloverfield” ARG.

    I like him. He’s a smart one.

  26. Ok now I was doubting my results. I had to accept that it actually was 200,000 and not that I had forgotten to calibrate it. If this thing fed off my imaginatin then I had to let my imagination get the best of me and go with it otherwise this experiment was going to fail. After all, if you are going to measure imagination, you can’t keep doubting your your non-scientific evidence.

    So we have our first measure. What next? Size? How do I measure how much is inside a box I can’t open though? Especially when it’s contents are imaginary. Hmmm. Tricky.

    Ha. I got it! I ran to my closet and started rummaging through the top shelf throwing down old board games, holloween costumes, christmas decorations. No… nothing here.

    I checked the boxes under my bed. Old comic books, drawings, an old pairs of sneakers and… AHA! It was under an old Creepy crawlers kit twhose contents had mostly crustified.

    My old magic kit from when I was 12 years old. I had learned this stupid trick where you could pour milk into a paper cone and then crush the cone but secretly all the mlk went into this secret funnel that ran down your arm.

    I have to do this trick in front of someone else though because I know how the trick works. And it’s going to have to be someone naive and impressionable who isn’t going to know this old trick.

    Knock Knoc Knock.

    ‘Hello’ said the 45ish older woman.

    ‘Hi Mrs Johnson. I was wondering if your son Owen would want to help me with a project that I’m doing for work.’

    ‘It’s not one of those monster movies is it? I don’t want him getting nightmares and bad ideas from you.’

    At that moment Owen popped his head around the corner putting his jacket on one arm. ‘Awww mom, geez’.

    ‘Welll just don’t keep him up too late ok?’

    ‘I won’t Mrs Johnson. Thanks. Cmon sport, I got something cool to show you’

  27. ‘So you just want me to stand here and hold this box?’ Owen said quizzically. He stood there with his hands out in front of him, palms up with the Box in the center like he was taking some weird cubed form of communion.

    ‘Yeah just stand there like that. I’m practicing a magic trick that I have to do on Letterman. I’m going to pour milk into …’

    ‘… pour milk into the box yeah yeah yeah. I’ve seen this before but isn’t there like some sort of trick like a tube or something?’

    ‘Do you see me wearing long sleeves?’ I asked him with a smile. He gave me a weird look.

    ‘Y’know on second thought…’ I grabbed the box from his hands. ‘I probably need someone a bit more knowledgeable in the field of magic.’

    ‘Hey, no I can do it’ He said grasping at the box.

    ‘I KNOW you CAN do it but thats not the problem, Owen. The problem is this’ I knelt before him with the box in front of our eyes and grabbed a lamp to illuminate it.

    ‘Ok… to be completely honest. I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone ever. This box is a magic box.’

    ‘Yeah right tell me another one’

    ‘Yes, I know it just looks like cardboard but it actually collects ‘magic’. I mean look at how old this is. I have had this since I was a kid but it looks like the day I first got it. I have spilled and stained and crushed this box and it still looks like it always did.’

    I spun the box around in my hands and then handed it to him. ‘It was given to me by an old carny and it works as long as I don’t open it. And the thing is that sometimes there is nothing in there and other times there IS something in there.’

    Owen gave it a shake and the box did nothing. He looked at me sideways half trying to figure out if i was trying to trick him or not.

    ‘I don’t know how it does it, it just does. And I’m actually trying to figure out HOW it it does it but I need the help of someone who believes in order for this to work. Can you help me?’

    ‘He looked at me for a while with a raised eyebrow and then handed me the box in an open palm. ‘It’s just a stupid box’.

    ‘Damn shame… could have been a frog in their’ I said smiling at him.

    At that moment, the box jumped from his hand to mine.

    ‘Omigod!’ he screamed and grabbed the box from my hand shaking it againand then looked up at me with amazement when he found there was no rattle.

    ‘You better not be tricking me!’ he threatened.

    ‘If I’m tricking you then I’m tricking myself and we’re in this together. You ready to find out whats in that box?’

    ‘Damn straight!’

  28. I like it!

    Now the real mystery is, where can I find the font that the question mark is printed in?

  29. I tend to agree. The mystery does need to lead somewhere but foreplay is part of the seduction; and where it leads may not be what you wre expecting. Ever seen the Crying Game?

  30. Dammit Xeno. You made me care and then nothing.
    I’m guessing the end of your story is in the box.

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