The Holy

It’s perfectly natural.  Trying to make sense of things, I mean.  It’s been a little difficult in America for the past three years or so, given that nothing seems to add up beyond greed and narcissism supported by a senate majority.  Still, as I retreat into my horror films I realize that there’s a logic to it.  Over the past several months I’ve been attempting to articulate it.  You see, I have a couple of presentations to give on Holy Horror in October and one of the questions likely to arise is why.  Why bring together the sacred and the scary?  Those who’ve studied religion formally—and many who’ve not—are aware of Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy.  It’s outdated and I’ve been waiting for someone to write its replacement, but we’re past the era when one scholar corners the market.  Has nothing new emerged this past century?  Nevertheless, Otto’s main ideas still make sense, before he lapses into a Christocentric view.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans isn’t an incantation, but with a little imagination the Latin makes sense.  The holy, according to Otto is a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating.  To the laity in the pews this may be strange, but chances are pretty good that your minister has read this book.  In the monotheistic west, the divine is terrifying.  It’s not splitting hairs to suggest terror and horror differ, nor is it unreasonable to suggest they have much in common.  Horror seems more embodied—a working-class variety of terror.  Still, both have that element of fascinans.  We fear but we can’t look away.  I don’t have the time to sit and ponder that a Gilded Age academic had.  Otto didn’t have to keep up with Facebook and Twitter.

Although academia required far more than eight hour days, the time during those days wasn’t spent “on the clock.”  As one intellectual I admire once quipped, staring out the window is work.  Not as far as HR is concerned, however.  Productivity in an industry under stress is its own kind of mysterium tremendum, I guess.  It doesn’t really allow for unstructured hours to read, take notes, close your eyes, and read some more.  Work measures inspiration in terms of currency, which is one of the problems that stretches past beyond these last three years.  Struggling hard with an idea is like wrestling an angel until dawn.  You can’t win, and you can’t lose.  But when the sun clears the horizon it will be time to be at your desk and ideas will have to wait another day.

Mysterium Tremendum

HistoryHorrorFor those of us accustomed to ancient things, horror movies are remarkably new. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are scarce or even easy to understand. While it is beginning to erode, the academic derision of popular culture has long avoided the decidedly low brow genre of horror. It doesn’t know what it’s been missing. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is an insightful attempt to make some order out of a century of monsters and mayhem. Beginning at the stage when “horror film” was still just a demonic gleam in some vampire’s eye, Dixon points out that from the very earliest experiments with movies “horror” was a popular trope. It seems only natural that the idea of a full-length scary movie would be the expected development. What happened in Universal Studios in the 1930s is that business began making money out of monsters. Where there’s money, there be monsters.

Dixon takes us through the early days into the tired era in the 1950s when life was, apparently just so darned good that people weren’t really thinking about monsters. (Dixon’s analysis is a bit more sophisticated than that.) Horror films matured in the 1960’s and spun out of control in the ‘80s. His book continues up to the first decade of our current century. There’s obviously a lot that can be said about this, but what caught my attention, naturally, was how quickly religion entered the discussion. Those of us who approach horror with an open mind know that religion is its next-door neighbor. Indeed, one of the nihilistic aspects of the proliferation of horror movies since the 1980’s has been the lessening of this getting to know the neighbors. Horror, as Dixon notes, seems to have devolved to brutality and cruelty with no real message.

I’ve never been a fan of gore. I’ve watched my share of slashers, I suppose, but they’re not my favorites. Horror can—in the best of its offerings—be very profound. Indeed, it can even inspire thoughts not so terribly far from those generally classed as religious. For what is worship if not carefully managed horror? The concept of the holy as mysterium tremendum underscores this dynamic. Part of this connection is the appeal to emotion. Horror movies make you feel something, and that is a large part of their appeal. They can be more, however. A smart horror movie will feed your brain rather than just having zombies eat it. Academics, eventually, will catch up with it. Dixon starts to show the way.

Skewed Perspective 

Mysterium tremendum is the term often applied to numinous experiences. The sense of being in the presence of something both terrifying and compelling. Used to describe theophanies and divine encounters, it can also apply to entirely natural phenomena. As a child I visited Niagara Falls since I had relatives in the region. I would watch the Maid of the Mist with a fascination bordering on paralyzing fear. The boats seemed so small compared to the roaring falls. Surely serious danger was involved. Stories of passengers returning soaked and wind swept from the thundering cataracts only added to the mystery. We were poor, however, and couldn’t afford the thrill.

Many years later I returned with my own child. It was time to make an impression. We boarded the boat and came so close to the Falls that the draw of the numinous was overwhelming. Naked power. This water, were we not safely on a boat, would obliterate us, snuffing our lives with no more effort than it takes to fall from a cliff. A mere human could stand none of it. I was simultaneously humbled and invigorated. This was like touching a source of ineffable vitality. This was no mere boat ride. I was in the presence of something undefined. Distilled force deadly and blessed.

On my flight across the country yesterday, we flew over the Great Lakes. Between Erie and Ontario, we spied Niagara Falls. Navigating by air is usually a matter of inspired guesswork with me, but this was unmistakable. A large river near two Great Lakes, and a large misty curtain of spray, visible even from this altitude. Any remaining doubt was dispelled by the captain’s announcement . Here was one of the wonders of the natural world, tiny and silent from a gods’ eye view. Perspective, it occurred to me, made all the difference. Standing on the rim of that watery canyon, although the river is dammed and reduced, encompasses a sense of awe. Riding the Maid of the Mist close enough to be baptized in this unruly Jordan even more so. From above it was but one among many tiny features of a miniature landscape that had been conquered by an unnatural technology. Which was really real?