At first glance the Puritan divines of early New England should seem to be as far from horror films, on the cultural divide, as phenomena can be. After all, academics long ago declared “genre fiction,” and particularly Gothic and horror fiction, to be lowbrow at best, and generally of no cultural worth. The amazing success of scary movies only underscores this point. Edward J. Ingebretsen (S.J.), however, begs to differ. His wonderfully insightful book, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, is a surprising study of how religion and terror share much that is essentially human. On this blog I have, from time to time, claimed that religion and horror are close cousins. In fact, they may be siblings. Since studies of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are often produced by Reformed, or at least Protestant, theologians, it may be that a Catholic thinker will catch aspects often overlooked. The Puritans, with their Calvinistic underpinning, had a worldview that holds much in common with standard horror fare. Ingebretsen suggests that to map Heaven, you must also map Hell.
The map conceit works well as the reader navigates through unconventional ways of thinking. The fears of the Puritans included the fear of God, and those who read or watch horror have noticed that nothing scares like the divine. It may not be on the surface, however. Even those not accustomed to deep digging can, upon a few moments’ reflection, see that the Gothic writers of the American canon have drawn repeated from this well. Many literary experts (well, some) celebrate H. P. Lovecraft’s atheistic rationalism, but enjoy his tales of the old gods nevertheless. His modern heir, Stephen King, is quite open about the potential fear of religion. He even blurbed the back cover of the book.
As society grows continually more secular, the religious impulse will not disappear. Sublimation, the process of changing states, may hide what is happening from the casual eye. A close look shows, however, that the same fears Mather and Edwards unleashed on witch-addled, spider-fearing New Englanders, have come back to us in pulp and celluloid. Religion has its earliest roots in a kind of holy fear, it seems. The innovative human mind, however, with its drive to rationalize, devised mythologies that make fears seem plausible. Those mythologies are relatively easy to believe. Everybody likes a good story. Stories, with all their twists and turns, can leave you lost in the woods. It’s good to have a map. I would suggest Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell. You may still be scared, but you may feel more sophisticated for it.