When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.I run around with an older crowd.Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.I guess this is a young person’s playing field.I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.It’s also a coping mechanism.
One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.Clinically engineered in a clean room.
Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons
Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.My laptop’s a few years old.While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.
A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.“Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.
Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.All pretty straightforward.Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.One aspect, however, does hold horror.The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.
It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?
The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.Many people don’t like horror.I get that.It is, however, part of the larger picture.
History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.Neither really is.Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.Herein lies the dilemma.With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.There is no way, though, to test the results.
Eventually a decision has to be made.Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.The problem is that centuries have intervened.That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.Historians know, however, that no originals exist.We have no original biblical manuscripts.Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.At the same time the stakes have not changed.The consequences are eternal.Those who choose must do so wisely.
It would be incorrect to say that I choose to watch and read horror.What would be more correct would be “Horror compels me to read and watch it.”Those of us mesmerized by the genre tend to be a reflective lot.We ask ourselves the question others frequently ask us—why watch it?And yet, horror films tend to do very well at the box office.Some even become cultural icons.Of the many books analyzing horror, it would be difficult to suggest one more influential than Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart.It has been in just about every bibliography I have read in the subject.It’s easy to see why.There are lots of gems in this book, and it does indeed address the paradox at the heart of it all.
Philosophy, due to the very fact that there are competing schools, doesn’t attempt to provide the answer.It offers an answer, one that hopefully makes sense of the overall question.What question?The one with which I began: why do people get into horror?Carroll comes down to a deceptively simple answer, but I would make bold to suggest it does so at the cost of having undercut the religious element.As in nearly every book on horror, Carroll does address the connection with religion.He finds it lacking, but the reason seems to be his definition of religion.He follows, perhaps a little too closely, Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.No doubt, it’s a classic.Still, it doesn’t encompass the broad scope of religion and its genetic connection to horror.
At many points of The Philosophy of Horror I felt compelled to stand up and cheer.I didn’t, of course, since much of the reading was done on the bus.My ebullience was based on the fact that here was an intellectual who gets it, one who understands that horror is pervasive because it is meaningful.Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste.It’s not, however, simply debased imagination, or arrested development gone to seed.There is something deeply compelling about horror because it helps us to survive in a world that is, all paranoia aside, out to get us.Yes, it engages our curiosity, as Carroll asserts.It satisfies more than it disgusts.It also defies explanation.Perhaps that’s the deep connection with religion.It can never be fully explained.That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.And this book is a valiant effort indeed.
It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve.A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia.It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows.As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness.I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate.Now it started to feel therapeutic.
My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.”The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive.It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil.In other words, horror can be heuristic.Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination.One of the most common responses is the question of “why?”Why would anyone want to watch such stuff?My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried.Horror is not often what it seems.Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.
The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability.Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel.These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before. Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine.Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman.If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here.As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.”In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already.We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly.I’m seldom ahead of the curve.I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front.Call it a survival technique.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.
Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.
While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.
When I first began this blog, generally focused on religion, I felt the need to justify posts about monsters. Now, some seven years and several books later, I have come to assume monsters and religion are close kin. Many scholars who explore monsters are those in that amorphous field of “religious studies” who’ve come to realize that terror and the sacred are not far apart. In fact, the Bible contains many stories that could be understood as horror, if taken literally. When my wife sent me a story in The Guardian, “Guillermo del Toro: ‘I love monsters the way people worship holy images’” I once again found the connection reinforced. In the article by Jordan Riefe, del Toro comes more than once to religious themes as he describes his fascination with the macabre. Here’s a guy about my age who’s not afraid to admit that he likes the scary stuff and has, indeed, become famous for it.
I have to admit that Guillermo del Toro has a way of pressing my buttons. I’ve watched a number of his films and they can be scary even with subtitles to read. Perhaps the reason is that del Toro understands implicitly the tie between religious thinking and the monstrous. An invisible man of infinite power whose revealed will comes in contradictions is certainly a source of fear. So is a child who wears a burlap sack painted like a mask over his head. Known for his fear-inducing creatures, del Toro was raised a Mexican Catholic. He ties this upbringing with monsters in this story. Riefe records him as saying, “I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.” In a mythical world where perfection rests only with divinity and people are told to be perfect, monsters are certain to emerge.
Until quite recently horror was considered a lowbrow genre by academics. As such it wasn’t really worthy of exploration. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that scholars of religion—the new lowbrow—were among the first to take their disfigured friends seriously. Science tells us there are no monsters. We live in a rational world with evolution taking logical steps—if unguided—to more efficient means of survival. That doesn’t stop us from lowering the shades as night draws on. The monsters may be in our heads, but we might also find them in our souls. When we’re informed that such souls are nothing more than imagination we have a very good reason to be afraid indeed.