“He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts.”
- Bill Denbrough, IT (1985)
I know this line from Stephen King’s novel IT, but recently I found it referenced in King’s book Danse Macabre (1981) as being from a story called Donovan’s Brain, where the main character resists the power of Donovan’s will (emanating from his brain in a vat) by reciting the line that Bill D later recites to resist the horror of his own childhood memories as they return to him in force after the reemergence of their nemesis Pennywise in Derry. It was a very effective line in his own novel, and I was pleased to find it was a reference to an earlier story by another author. King’s work is filled with such references, if you read carefully.
I started reading Danse Macabre at the end of June as a follow-up to reading Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature (1945) last month. King’s book is a great summary of horror fiction in English since HPL’s essay, by yet another teller of the tales of the genre. King’s style here is informal and even colloquial; it is not an ‘academic’ work in either tone or style—and it doesn’t need to be. I felt, as I started reading it, that I was sitting in a pub in Maine, stationed across the table from King, listening to him go on about the genre he loves and in which he so often writes. It was a great read.
I appreciated hearing King’s take on various authors from the 20th century; many of whom I had read while others I’d never even heard of. I was especially intrigued with his discussion of Shirley Jackson (author of The Haunting of Hill House, 1959), and his references to H. P. Lovecraft, whom King indicates was one of his early influences. Because of references to HPL in Danse Macabre, I recently read HPL’s The Colour out of Space and was stunned by his referencing of science and his ability to paint a vivid picture of the setting; a haunted wood and a blasted heath—in a way that made me feel I was there. I may have judged HPL too much by his earlier stories, yet the criticisms I referred to in my earlier blog may still stand, at least with regard to his earlier work, even if later in his writing career he was striving for a more ‘literary’ style of horror. More on HPL later. As for King’s book_
Reading Danse Macabre, I found myself asking: “In a world full of real horrors; why might horror fiction be important or relevant?” Does it contribute anything to an earthen spirituality or naturalistic philosophy? I can give the standard answers (i.e., that it helps us deal with our fears in an imaginary context; that it reveals something about our subconscious baggage; that it helps us face a world full of horrors, just as social novels help us deal with the more ordinary pathways we walk each day), but can we go further—is there a deeper level of significance to the genre?
A personal reason for me to be reading about horror is that I want to revise my former ‘supernaturalist’ approach to its meaning and import. I used to think that horror dealt with potentially real ‘supernatural’ threats to our existence, and that reading it could ‘prepare’ a person to better understand and be able to endure supernatural encounters (lol; really, I did used to think such things when I was young), whereas ‘terror’ dealt with natural and human threats to our existence; those that don’t stem from any supernatural source. While this distinction worked when I was a supernaturalist, it doesn’t work any more; so my understanding of horror – in film and literature – has to be re-thought and revised. That in itself gives me sufficient reason to venture into a re-analysis of this old favored genre. Yet there is more to it.
What does horror say to us when set into a naturalistic worldview. How are its themes to be taken; how are they to be understood? It is obvious (to me, now, at this point in my life) that reading horror is not something that can be done in a ‘literalist’ mode; the stories are not fully realistic in content and are often unusually constructed—full of irrationalisms in both plot and character development. This is because the genre intends to throw our rational ‘pretensions’ into disarray. One way in which horror frightens us is through the disfigurement of daily life; our well-ordered, well constructed social environments that facilitate living our lives from day to day and that can empower us to become our best selves. Horror presents a disruption of these ordinary, everyday lives; not just their outward structures and processes, but in our inner lives as well.
King points out in Danse Macabre that the horror story is an interloper; it comes into our ordered world and dis-arranges it. It throws us into confusion and incites dread, terror and other emotions usually associated with the loss of control over our circumstances. I think it is in this dimension of the horror story that we should find its potency to comment on life and experience. It is not the literal monsters that we should be afraid of (though we may well fear what they stand-in for, metaphorically and allegorically), but rather the breakdown of self, relationships and society that the monsters instigate or ‘reveal.’
The horror story touches upon deep fears; some of which we may be consciously aware of, but also – and even especially – those of which we are as yet unconscious. Our species has evolved through hundreds of millennia, most of which were spent in small bands that lived in dangerous ecozones where predators lurked in the darkness every night and also preyed upon our ancestors in broad daylight. I cannot help think that some of what horror awakens in us is the sense of ‘the threat in the darkness;’ the predator ready to pounce that we cannot see. Our senses have evolved with a pattern-detecting and pattern-projecting ability that enabled our ancestors not only to ‘see’ a potential predator in the tall grasses afar off, but also to construct an illusion of one in the darkness_ where a predator might be – or might not. The advantage of the first ability is to discern predators at a distance in the daylight, by noting patterns in the distance that say, “predator here.” The second ability allowed our ancestors to escape from potential predators in the dark_ but sometimes there would be a misfire; this pattern-discerning ‘sense’ might also “imagine” one where there was no actual threat. Better this, though, than not detecting a predator that is there, lurking in the dark. _This, for me, seems to be the basis of our ability to ‘see’ ghosts’ and other patterns – whether in a ‘misty bog’ or in the shadows in an old, unlit house – that frighten us, because one response to ‘seeing a predator’ is to run for your life. It evokes a fear response; adrenalin rushes—and you flee to safety (at least you hope so). How similar this seems to people walking around in “haunted houses” or entering other potentially dangerous locations (‘dangerous’ because our view of the horizon is constrained and even obscured) and feeling the fear-response. “There is danger, here!” _our evolutionary wiring is telling us.
Horror can often be about more than individual fears and “fight or flight” responses. King pointed out that the horror story is sometimes about something a whole culture fears, and the story – in its novel form as well as in a film made about it – may become a ‘cultural phenomenon.’ [e.g., “The Exorcist” (1973)] Other stories strike different groups within society in differing ways; and become iconic for those groups. [e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)] Other horror tales may frighten the hell out of one person but leave another person laughing. Horror operates on all of these levels. The ‘monster’ is not a literal thing that is to be feared; it’s rather what it stands for – in our own minds, in a group’s apprehensions or in a whole culture’s ‘psyche’ – that matters. At each of these levels of reaction and engagement with the horror story, our evolutionary heritage is operative.
Reading Danse Macabre, I continued my own process of naturalizing the horror tale, coming to appreciate the way in which such stories work on us; the role they have played in literature and film, as well as the role they are playing in the gaming world. As to this latter venue_ It has been an interesting experience to encounter orcs and vampires and other malevolent fictional creatures in the recent D&D board games and then in “Mansions of Madness” over the last couple years. There is often a moment when I get so into the story level of the game that it incites actual apprehension in me. I ‘know,’ rationally, what is going on; yet I experience a kind of primal response to the ‘monsters’ that initiates the same kind of fear experience one can have in a theater or while watching a horror film at home. It is “the suspension of disbelief” that draws me into the world, whether it’s a game, a movie or a novel.
As I continue thinking about the role of horror in spirituality, I am struck by just how much of the literature on spirituality, mysticism, and piety is focused on finding peace, getting over our fears and living a full life, empowered – by whatever inspires us, be it a divine being, a story or a sense of being wide awake in Earth & Cosmos – to become the best version of ourselves as we can be. _And this is important; we need a place of peace; a “Cave of the Heart” or a “Dolmen of the Spirit” – as I tend to call it. I wonder, however, if perhaps the role of horror in a contemporary spirituality – whether religious or naturalistic – is to invite us to meditate and reflect on the darker side of life and ourselves; to come to terms with what we – as individuals and as a species – are capable of, positive and negative, and through such meditation to confront the darkness in our lives, in our world and in and the dangers inherent in living in the Cosmos itself. Perhaps meditation on horror plays a complementary role to meditations on the Cross in traditional Christianity spiritualities? To meditate on the Cross is to reflect on an horrendous murder; the murder of God in human form—and through that narrative reflection to come to grips with our potential for violence and the awful things that can and do happen to us and to our friends, relatives and to our whole species. It is through contemplation of the Cross that a Christian finds touchstones of their own – and our whole species’ – salvation. What if meditation on horror stories might play something of the same role?