Recently I gave an interview to the entertainment editor at the local daily newspaper in Waco, Texas, about the third installment of an annual horror film festival that I created down here a couple of years ago. The festival’s theme this year is “Horror and Apocalypse,” and one of the questions posed to me during that interview was an iteration of a question that I’m always asked whenever I talk about my long-running focus on the intersection of horror with religion, philosophy, and psychology: “What’s the connection between horror and the apocalypse? What do they really have to do with each other?”
This came just a few days after I was interviewed for Expanding Mind, the radio program hosted by Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust, and devoted to exploring “the cultures of consciousness: magic, religion, psychology, technology.” A large part of that one involved a discussion of why religion and horror should emerge as centrally related to each other in my thought and writing. This in turn came not long after my friend and fellow idea-driven horror writer T. E. Grau asked me something similar while interviewing me for his blog. It also came up when I talked to the Lovecraft News Network and to John Morehead of Theofantastique. Why horror-and-religion, always spoken as if in the same breath? Why these two together? How do you see them as connected? What led to your dual interest in both and your authorial tactic of using each to talk about the other?
The more I’m asked these questions, often by people who are themselves deeply invested in a similarly cross-fertilized creative career of exploring the very same thematic intersection, the more my answer, however long and involved it may be, tends to boil down to the same short and semi-rhetorical response: “How and why not? How are horror and religion, not to mention philosophy, psychology, and spirituality, not directly related, fused, intertwined, bound together in a synergy and a symbiosis so total and profound as to make the one not even discussable in the absence of the other?” To me, the connection is so obvious, so blatant, so patent, that I truly have to struggle to understand and communicate with those who don’t see it. (Such people, I hasten to added, are almost never my interviewers, the majority of whom know full well the deep connection in question and are living it out in their own thoughts and lives, and are only asking me about it in order to grease the wheels of the conversation.) But those who don’t see it are legion, those for whom the very idea of talking about horror — literary, cinematic, you name it — in relation to religion is shocking, if not authentically anathema. And this very fact, I think, says something important about the religion-horror nexus itself, and about the respective qualities and meanings of both horrification and religious experience.
In point of fact, horror and religion have always been bound together in the most intimate of entanglements. Look to the ancient Sumerians: you’ll find in their cosmogony the tale of Tiamat, the great chaos dragon who formed the original, primal substance of reality until her children, who were more anthropomorphic, and who were therefore the gods worshipped by humans, overthrew her. Observe that horror came first, before divine solace, in the most ancient creation story of which we’re collectively aware. Check the ancient Egyptians, those vital quasi-neighbors of the inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent, and you’ll find similar instances of daemonic monstrousness built right into their reigning theologies at nearly all points. The same goes for the ancient Greeks, some of whose creation myths involved the progressive overthrow of primal chaotic monstrousness — think the Titans, think Kronos devouring his children — in order to produce the ordered cosmos we have today.
Think of the Hebrew scriptures and their rivers of blood, not only in the heady apocalyptic visions presented in various canonical texts but in the actual cultural experience of the ancient Jews and their neighbors, whose religious practice hinged on blood sacrifice and whose lives were frequently filled with military massacres due to religious warfare. Think, too, of the awe-ful holiness of the Old Testament God, which transfers as well to the New Testament, where, echoing Isaiah, the Apocalypse of John speaks of the inhabitants of the earth shrieking and wailing as angels pour down bowls of wrath, and calling out in panic for the mountains to fall on them in order to hide them from the terrible gaze of the God who arrival announces their hideous demise.
Think, especially, of those places in the New Testament where Jesus performs his miracles, or where angels appear and make announcements to humans, and the deeper point — the point about religion’s genetic entanglement with horror — becomes even clearer. Because when angels appear, people are terrified. As the story in one of the four gospels has it, when an angel descends to roll away the stone covering the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, the centurions standing guard pass out in terror. When Jesus walks on water or heals the sick or drives out a demon, the response of the multitudinous onlookers is not, “What a wonderful thing this is! Praise God! I’m so thrilled!” No, far from being filled with joy and a sense of divine benevolence, they are — and the Koine Greek of the New Testament is very precise here — described as being filled with dread, awe, terror, trembling.
Most pointedly, the Gospel of Mark, which is held by most Bible scholars to be the earliest-written of all the gospels, and therefore to represent a more direct and less textually and theologically elaborated tradition of early Christian teaching, ends on a note of divine terror stemming from what is universally touted as the greatest of the Christian miracles and the very founding event of Christianity itself: the resurrection of Jesus. The ending to the book that most people grew up reading for the better part of two millennia, the one featuring instructions from Jesus about drinking poisons and handling venomous snakes, is actually recognized by scholars today as a tacked-on affair that was added later by some unknown hand. The book in its more ancient form ends with two women going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his corpse with oil, only to find him gone. A man (or angel) greets them and announces that Jesus is not there, that he is risen. The women “fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, and said nothing to anybody, because they were too afraid.” And that, as they say, is that. The earliest-written gospel — a word whose etymological meaning of “good news” seems most curious and dubious in such a context — ends right there, on a distinct note of supernatural dread.
Examples of similar tropes and trends from different religious traditions around the world could be multiplied at length, revealing a trajectory of uncanny religious horror arcing its way through human history and finding its way in particular to us Americans via the channel of our Puritan forebears with their witch- and demon-haunted worldview of perpetual hellspawned threat. Observing this, the point becomes clear: that something fundamentally disturbing, unsettling, uncanny, lies right at the heart of religion itself, as evidenced in the darkness infecting the religious and spiritual traditions of the human race since the dawn of recorded history (and therefore, presumably, since prehistoric times as well). And it comes out most pointedly in those religious contexts where the very idea, let alone the manifestation, of the supernatural itself is framed and experienced as fearsome, as terrifying and horrifying, as something that confronts us with a proto-Lovecraftian sense of metaphysical revulsion at the revelation of “things that should not be.”
So why, then, should people today still find it necessary to ask about the connection between religion and horror? When it would be more reasonable to ask if they have ever not been connected, why do so many of us moderns find it odd or shocking to hear their deep linkage called out and explicitly identified?
Perhaps — and here I may simply be indulging my own temperament and mistaking it for insight, or perhaps I may really be onto something (a judgment I will invite the reader to make for him- or herself) — perhaps it has to do with an unconscious recognition that only a few have ever named aloud, a recognition that is simultaneously implicit and explicit in all of those great biblical images of a wrathful God whose transcendent nature is categorically other than the natural world, so that, even though this nature is technically termed “holiness,” it emerges in human experience more as a tremendous, awe-and-dread-inspiring eruption of supernatural nightmarishness that is fundamentally corrosive both to the world at large and to the human sensibility in particular. In other words, perhaps it has to do with a psychologically subterranean sense of unsettlement at the notion that the divine itself, not just in its conventionally demonic aspects but in its intrinsic essence, may be fundamentally menacing.
Lovecraft noted something exactly like this when he wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature that “There is here involved [in the phenomenon of supernatural horror fiction] a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it.” Ten years earlier, the theologian and philosopher of religion Rudolf Otto wrote in his now-classic book Das Heilige (translated as The Idea of the Holy) of a stage in the history of religious experience that he posited as preceding, both psychologically and historically, the familiar divine dread of the “higher” traditions. He termed this earlier experience “daemonic dread” and “numinous dread,” and described it as something that “first begins to stir in the feeling of ‘something uncanny,’ ‘eerie,’ or ‘weird.'” Even more, he argued — in words that fully deserve to be presented in italics — that “It is this feeling which, emerging in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting point for the entire religious development of history.” Also worth italicizing is Otto’s contention that both the human religious traditions and the age-old tradition of telling ghost stories and other stories of supernatural fear stem from this same primordial category of experience.
If Otto is even close to right, and if Lovecraft is even marginally accurate, and if the whole record of human religious experience tells us anything for certain about who we are and what we’re like in the deepest layers of our selves, then religion and supernatural horror, more than just “going together,” in some strange sense are each other. You can’t have one without the other or the other without the one. If you try to think and talk about religion, let alone to have a religious experience, then horror is never far off, in precisely the same manner that the experience of dreaming always comes with a shimmering shadow of nightmare that hovers at its boundaries and might invade the dreamworld at any moment to tip it over into awfulness. If you read or watch a supernatural horror story, then religion is embedded right there in the midst of the metaphysically fearsome goings-on, regardless of whether or not it is overtly mentioned.
What’s shocking, in short, is not that the two things should be presented and talked about in tandem, but that anybody should ever have thought to separate them in the first place. How that separation occurred in popular thought is an interesting story in its own right, but it’s one for another time.