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.