Trending Horror

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.

Not Devil’s Tower

The Sourlands, apart from being the setting of Joyce Carol Oates stories, are one of New Jersey’s characteristic features. Although the Garden State brings visions of heavy industrialization to many imaginations, there are also lots of outdoor options for getting back to nature. One is the Sourland Mountain Preserve. No one’s sure of the origin of the name—was it named after a person, or was the land poor for farming? Could it have come from another language? No matter what the source might be, these areas are today criss-crossed with hiking trails—some of them quite rugged. On a sunny September weekend my wife and I decided to take a walk. The sunshine and cool temperatures made the opportunity beguiling. Although it’s not far from where we live, we’d never been there before. Time to look at a map.

The most distinctive point listed was the Devil’s Half-Acre Boulders. Geonyms, or place names, can be quite evocative. New Jersey and Pennsylvania along the Delaware both lay claim to some impressive boulder fields. The Devil’s Half-Acre was clearly a place for rock climbing, as chalk dust on the trail indicated. It’s not territory that you can get through quickly. But why devilish? Across the Delaware may lie the origins of the name. Near another boulder field, Ringing Rocks, is the site of a tavern along the Pennsylvania Canal. Said to have been the locale of lawlessness, haunted by the ghosts of dead canal workers, the location earned the same diabolical sobriquet in the early nineteenth century. What we found on the Jersey side, however, was an impressive jumble of massive stone and a rather popular hiking path.

“The map is not the territory” Alfred Korzybski once famously wrote. His expression was borrowed and adapted by religionist Jonathan Z. Smith in a book that’s still required reading for those starting out in the field. The point of the saying is that a map is an abstraction. The experience down here on the ground is very different from that projected from a bird’s eye-view. We can easily adjust to the concept however, using maps to tell us what lies ahead. The difficult work of digging a canal, or the unyielding nature of boulders, may symbolically point to the devil. At several points on the trail we had to pull out our map to make sure of our bearings. Trails are hard to follow over rocks. There was no literal devil there, but territory might just help to explain the name on a map.