Sunday, March 4, 2012

Final Reflections on "The Philosophy of Horror", Part Two: Religious Awe

One of the second solutions to the "paradox of horror" that Noel Carroll critiques in The Philosophy of Horror is this: that the horror genre compels our interest as readers, viewers, and writers because it invokes in us a sense of religious awe.

Carroll draws from Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, (what looks like a good synopsis of it can be found here), which offers an analysis of something called a "numinous experience":

numinous experience: an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity; which has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. 

The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a wholly other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy, and/or the transcendent.  (from Wikipedia).

So, according to Carroll's reading of Otto, an object of religious experience (something like God, or Other) is tremendous, causing fear in the subject, a paralyzing sense of being empowered, or being dependent, of being nothing, worthless (pg. 165).  In other words, this object - the numen - is awe-ful, resulting in a sense of awe.  

The numen is also mysterious; it is wholly other.  Beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, and the familiar.  And, according to Carroll's reading, this not only FREAKS us out, on a very primal level, it also fascinates us with its mysterious otherness (and right now, all Repairman Jack fans are looking very interested, I bet).

Carroll definitely admits the validity of these ideas, because lots of art-horror objects have power: they are fearsome, engender a sense of being overwhelmed, mysterious because they don't "fit in" with our world schema, rendering us dumb, trembling, astonished, paralyzed by their "otherness".

Here again, however, Carroll points out two issues he has with this idea, when applied with broad strokes to the horror genre: 

1. Like Lovecraft's treatise on cosmic fear,  Carroll feels that the idea of the numinous experience and religious awe is too narrow to apply to all works of horror.  In fact, he quibbles with the idea that monsters of horror need always be Other.  In many cases, they are.  The alien, forbidding concept of "Other" is a powerful theme running through many works of literature, from the aforementioned Repairman Jack series - in Jack's involvement in a cosmic battle between the Otherness and the Ally - to Lovecraft's works, even works like Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Willian Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe, though in those cases, Other takes on very primal, perhaps even racist (in regards to anything OTHER than white European colonialism) overtones.

But Carroll balks at the idea that this "otherness" should be applied to most horror monsters.  Once again, this can be very subjective, depending on one's definition of a "monster", but according to Carroll's work, the "monster" in horror is not necessarily horrifying because it is "other", but horrifying because it is the familiar warped and twisted, which derives its repulsive aspect from: 

"being...contortions performed upon the known. They do not defy prediction, but mix properties in nonstandard ways.  They are NOT wholly unknown, and this is probably what accounts for their characteristic effect - disgust." (pg. 166) 

Which makes a lot of sense.  Many times in books and movies, something is horrifying because it is the familiar or trusted made menacing and terrifying.  One Lovecraft story I can think of, off the top of my head, that focuses more on this than cosmic fear and "Other" is What the Moon Brings, a creepy little short story based on the idea that the friendly and the normal is warped and changed and made terrifying by the light of the moon.  There are plenty of other, more modern examples - I believe that Charles L. Grant's Oxrun Station novels invoke this terrifying sensation of the usual twisted into something warped and threatening, though there's a good dose of a frightening Other at work there, also. 

2.  Carroll's second issue with the idea of a numinous experience being applied to horror in general is this concept of tremendum, which, according to him, compels not only fascination, but also homage.  He doesn't feel this fits horror well at all, and this makes a lot of sense. We - and protagonists - may feel helpless in the face of horror objects, but we don't necessarily feel worthless, like nothing - dependent - before an object of horror as we would necessarily feel before a deity. Unless, of course - and this is my addition to the conversation - the horror story itself is designed as an indictment against religious and Other beings, which, once again, brings Repairman Jack to mind, because Jack is forced to comply with the Ally, serve Its purposes (ergo, pay homage), because the Other is so much worse, and because the Ally simply gives Jack no choice in the matter.

But anyway, according to Carroll, we - and characters - don't often feel compelled to pay homage to the monster, or at least often enough to make this solution broad enough to fit horror in general.  He certainly admits that in many works, cults or nefarious groups may pay homage to a monster to raise it from the dead, or bring about the destruction of the world, but these elements are only part of the story, and - from my perspective - these folks usually are not the protagonists, with whom most audiences feel the most sympathy for.

Again, one thing that's impressed me about Carroll's work is its breadth and meticulous critical analysis.  Also, his balance is to be admired.  He doesn't shoot down these ideas from his own opinions or beliefs, he's worked hard to maybe do the impossible - find an explanation that fits the horror genre in totality - and he certainly doesn't dismiss these solutions as worthless or without merit.  He simply, very logically, points out the problems he believes exist in the broad applications of these ideas.

That religion, spirituality, or belief in some higher power influences horror fiction and film isn't a surprise.  For many viewers and readers and especially writers, the consumption or creation of supernatural horror as an inspiration of, an homage to, or way of exploring the realm of the supernatural, spiritual, even the holy makes sense.  Supernatural horror, tales of dread, whatever they're called, deal primarily with the unseen world.  Faith, spirituality, and religion accept the unseen world as a given.  The two go well together, hand in hand.

The internet and literature abounds with very reasoned, logical studies of the relationship between horror and religion.  Author Mike Duran blogs about this relationship often, his most recent posts on the topic being: "The Apologetics of Horror", "What’s the Difference Between “Classic” and “Contemporary” Christian Horror?", "On 'Christian Horror' and Atheist Dread", and a pretty unflinching indictment that "evangelical" horror falls short of actually inspiring any terror or dread in, "Why Christian Horror Is Not Really Scary".  Critically acclaimed author and essayist Matt Cardin also blogs about religion and horror at The Teeming Brain.

TheoFantistique featured this review of a Rue Morgue article about "The Rise of Christian Horror", and another post entitled "Christianity and Horror Redux: From Knee-Jerk Revulsion to Critical Engagement". Academic studies such as The Sanctification of Fear: Images of the Religious in Horror Films are widespread and common.  I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of  Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, which I'll be reading as part of my studies this semester. 

But I agree with Carroll's assessment that the idea of "religious awe" doesn't hold well for the horror genre as a whole, especially for that second reason: if the "numinous object" is what holds terror and dread for us, holds us in fascination, it doesn't work for horror that features monsters or demons or beings that threaten and menace protagonists, because the protagonists don't revere it the same way it appears that Otto says someone focused on a "numinous object" would.  

Also, too, I'd assert there's a vast difference between horror fictions in which religion and spiritual matters are important and central, and horror that pushes the reader in a certain direction with  an evangelical thrust.  For example, in my opinion, there's a huge difference between William Peter Blatty's classic novel The Exorcist  and the Left Behind Series, a story of earth's last days, inspired by the Book of Revelations.   

The Exorcist is quite definitely a tale faith and the struggle between good and evil.  But it's thrust doesn't seem to be the ultimate conversion of the reader, which is something that becomes a stronger and stronger vibe throughout the Left Behind series.

I don't want to get off topic on this.  A post about my feelings concerning Christian Fiction in general and Christian Horror in particular could be a post all by itself.  Suffice to say, there's a big difference between a horror story pitting supernatural evil against supernatural good, or a horror story dealing with loss of faith, the struggle to believe, and a horror story that's more a cautionary tale, a "if you're not a good Christian and don't act a certain way, say the right words, accept Jesus into your heart, you're going to hell." 

An excellent alternative to the Left Behind series is Brian Keene's novella (I swear, he's not paying me to pimp him so heavily. His books just keep jumping to mind) Take The Long Way HomeIt's about four men caught in the middle of the chaos and aftermath of the Rapture. The difference between this work and Left Behind and others of its ilk is the story struggles and grapples with matters of faith and belief, rather than treating them as assumed, foregone conclusions.   

Interestingly enough, something like Take The Long Way Home and other stories like it actually come very close to the concept of "religious awe" as Otto and apparently Carroll define it, because in this case, the "monster" that causes all the violence and bloodshed is "God" - by calling all His believers home, leaving others behind to suffer. 

But, at the same time...this is God.  How can the characters not revere him and at least grapple with the concept of paying homage to Him, at the same time that they dread Him? 

A short story that also deals with this concept - but from a different angle, that of an avowed unbeliever facing certain death by defying a God who has finally come down to earth to rule - is "He Who Would Not Bow", by Wrath James White, in a horror anthology about faith and gender, Dark Faith

Anyway, I feel I've rambled a little too much on this one, possibly because despite Carroll's disqualification of "religious awe" applying to the horror genre in general, it's obvious that religion and horror are intimately linked.  In any case, tomorrow I'll look at Carroll's third critique of a possible solution to the "paradox of horror", attraction to the power of monsters.