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  It’s outdated and I’ve been waiting for someone to write its replacement, but we’re past the era when one scholar corners the market.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.

Taking It Seriously

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.

Creature Feature

Gregory L. Reece’s Creatures of the Night is a strangely profound book. I picked it up to read on the plane home from Chicago and I wasn’t disappointed. Promising to explore ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and devils, Reece suggests that maybe the key to such fascination rests with the late Rudolf Otto. I had over a decade of students read Otto’s famous little book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto, whose palindromatic surname suggests something uncanny, characterized the holy as the fascinating mysterium tremendum, the wholly other. (I will refrain from calling it the wholly holy.) The mystery that makes us tremble. The monsters that haunt our nights and imaginations are aspects of this utterly other.

Along the way Reece proves an able tour guide. He recognizes, as I have repeatedly stated in this blog, that religion and fear are conjoined twins. He also knows how to get your skin crawling. For Reece there is no question that such things are real. Real doesn’t mean that they are physically lurking outside your window at night—for who is to say that only the physical is real?—but they are as real as religion. No doubt strange things have transpired in history and continue to occur. And the reason we go into church may ultimately be the same reason that we watch a horror film.

As Reece comes upon the topic of demons the air in the room (or plane, or bus) thickens. Here we have documented accounts of impossible events. No amount of rational training can remove the shudder from these stories. Explanations of epilepsy only go so far before terror takes over. By herding them together with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, Reece stakes his claim that they all are real. Rational reductionists may shrink our world down so tightly that no room appears in the inn for our creatures of the night. But those who are honest, even among the reductionists, will admit to a mysterious tremor, even if unintentional, on a dark and stormy night.

Gothic Religion

Every great once in a while, you run across a book that seems to have been written just for you. I’m cheap enough to wait for most books to be issued in paperback (and storage is getting to be an issue in our cozy apartment), but sometimes the urgency is too great and I can’t resist. In Providence a few weeks ago, I visited the university bookstore—one of my favorite places in town. On the new arrival table was Victoria Nelson’s Gothicka. For what seemed inexplicable reasons, I always found Gothic tales among my favorite growing up. Poe was a standard, but he was accompanied by other stories that elicited the same cocktail of sensations, accompanying a dark and mysterious atmosphere with a suggestion of menace. Transfixed by even the mere presence of this book, I knew I was in the power of a force to which I would eventually succumb. And, unexpectedly, the book helped to explain part of my childhood.

Not every book I read has to do with religion. Far from it. I expected Nelson to discuss literature and movies and culture—all of which she does—but not necessarily religion. The first three chapters proved a revelation in that regard. Nelson deftly explains how Gothic largely overlaps with the characteristics of religion, bringing the supernatural into human lives and insisting that we tremble before it. Perhaps best explained by pastor Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy; the transcendent is something that terrifies as well as compels. In a culture where organized religion appears to be losing ground, Gothic offer the opportunity to tremble before the supernatural, and many people find it almost a religious experience. As becomes clear, the “almost” may appropriately be dropped.

Tracing the trajectory of my own reading interests, Nelson next provides an insightful chapter on H. P. Lovecraft. In many ways the initiator of worship of the dark divine, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and kith and kin represent an undisguised secularization of deity. At the same time, the trembling is still very much present—indeed, it is a native part of the experience. Lovecraft, who was an atheist, understood the literary utility of gods. They frightened and haunted him with their very non-existence. That is power. Gothic acknowledges and embraces that power while never relinquishing its darkness. Nelson’s Gothicka holds the potential of a journey of self-discovery. As she ranges deeper and deeper into that world, the reader discovers just how much it is part of being human in a world tormented by fallen gods.