How does horror move from awareness of the actual world in which we live (as described in Part 1) to apprehension of the gospel? Horror brings into focus what it is that we should be afraid of, often by emphasizing the identities we construct from our fears or showcasing the absurdity of our attempts to suppress that which provokes our fear.

“We are living in a world which seems to be founded on the refusal to reflect,” Gabriel Marcel once wrote. The truth of ourselves, the disappointments and transgressions that make up our lives, and the truth of the world, in its futility and its violence, are too frightening to focus upon with the same concentration we give to other, more immediately advantageous things. These twin truths expose the fragility, the utter precariousness of our existence. How can we and our efforts retain their significance when the bottom of reality seems to drop out in this way? But the project of building and maintaining the kingdom of self so compels us, we spend ourselves burying the evidence that it is all in vain.

Try as we might to deny or dispel the darkness, the darkness will not be ignored; it will maneuver in whatever way it must to intrude itself upon us. Whether we acknowledge it or not makes no difference as the fact remains it is objectively here. Even our denials, however, bear its imprint. The structures and systems we erect to stave off or contain that darkness inevitably contain within themselves seedlings of the shadow.

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898)

In ancient times a community living in fear of a monster might offer sacrifices to appease that monster. Though this tribute would seem to keep the monster at bay, the truth of the matter is that the monster has simply negotiated an outcome that is far more advantageous to it in the long run. But it only becomes possible when that community’s elites calculate the new distribution of power and compromise their principles. For maintaining their status and position is a decision only arrived at by esteeming the lives of some as unworthy of protecting. Whether it is Athenians offering up their virgins and young men to be devoured by the Minotaur or the worldwide society luring youth to their gruesome ends in Cabin in the Woods, those who secure the detente become participants in the evil they aim to keep in abeyance. The peace that is secured through the sacrificial arrangement becomes a heritage of murder encoded within the community, for whom “peace” becomes acquiescence to permanent siege.

Many of our pretensions of sophistication are just this type of repressed and relocated fear of the dark. Our species has developed various processes and techniques to allow individuals the luxury of screening out this present darkness; compulsive habits and self-harming behaviors are widespread examples of coping mechanisms that help to “manage” stress and trauma. But we see the hurt and the futility these things inflict upon those who struggle with them and correctly assess their uselessness for handling that trauma; more than that, we bristle with anger at how these techniques so often make the situation worse. The veteran who drinks to nullify his post-traumatic stress wants desperately to escape the terror of his experience and the guilt of his surviving but finds there is never enough he can drink to vanquish the fear and the grief.

If we could be honest with ourselves, we would admit that the strategies and habits we take up to cope with the strain and hurt of life simply do not suffice. We may protest that they “work,” but what we really mean is that they temporarily allow us to disconnect and feel some vestige of control: they may briefly repress the symptom, but they cannot dislodge the disease. And indulging in these behaviors typically only drives the thorn deeper into our side.

But also at the societal level there exists vapor-thin barricades we believe will quarantine the darkness without. The fear that seeks above all else to banish not only its source but fear in itself will inevitably bring coercion and force to bear on the intransigent facts that conflict with it. The evil we would inoculate ourselves against perpetuates itself through our efforts. Scapegoating rituals in ancient Greece in which human beings were killed or expelled from the city were thought to keep the people safe from disaster. In a similar vein, civil religion is observed and enforced through such measures as threatening athletes who kneel during the national anthem. Demands for a border wall and provoking the suspicion that immigrants might be carrying diseases into the country perfectly encapsulates this illusory hygiene against horror. Demonic activity more often than not comes to light as insidious social infection that begins by speaking violence before it delivers on that violence physically.

Demagoguery draws its lifeblood from just these types of forces. Would-be rulers routinely stoke the fears, irrational and otherwise, of a people and gain a loyal following by promising to dispel those fears. The twentieth century is replete with examples of the horrors unleashed by tyrants who capitalize on fear in this way. Undisciplined, misdirected fear is a catalyst for the worship of naked power. And sadly, Christians are just as liable to this sort of manipulation as any other group. Whether it is allying with cretins and thugs or casting a blind eye to abuse, we cannot deny the part we, too, play in the world’s evil. We who should most suspect ourselves instead, and to an alarming extent, espouse a myopic triumphalism that projects our own shadow upon our neighbors. Horror dwells in our chapels nearly as comfortably as it does in the gulag.

But perhaps this is fitting in the late modern West where banal evil is regnant and the universe is distinctly disenchanted. The modern, buffered self has asserted its dominance and broadcast its anthropocentric propaganda beyond the confines of our planet. Everywhere humans have looked they have found mirrors confirming the superiority they have presumed for themselves. They have issued eviction notices to the old powers which had been thought to rule. Now securing prospects and shoring up luxuries is the chief end of man. Choosing the right college, landing the right job, owning a home (or two) and saving for retirement are of paramount importance and we think it’s a sign of our maturation when these matters become our preoccupation. But this amounts to a channeling of the old ancestral fears into newer, more utilitarian vessels. And they cannot stave off the reality of pervasive evil. Without fail, horror will insinuate itself into every effort we make to evade it. For the man who works seventy hours a week and can’t remember the last time he got a full night of sleep, horror is home. The torment of constant performance will make the horror palpable. And the nausea of the bitter question asked too late in life, “What was this all for?” is the horror all too many inherit.

But even prior to that, this quarantining strategy gives rise to a lifeworld devoid of depth, stagnant in its monotony and stripped of wonder. There is no space for awe in such a setting and our aptitude for marvel and our recognition of genuine danger cannot but atrophy. It is an exhausting and exhausted posture to assume before the world. But there is something absurd to this strategy. For although it has been enormously successful in formally banishing a vast swathe of motives and grounds for our fear we haven’t entirely unlearned the habits of mind that accompany those old fears. Its reach does not extend into the molecular depth of the occulted world that vastly exceeds our social constructions. The secularization that would squeeze out these capacities leaves a vacuum for the horrors resident in the cosmos to exploit. The hollow interior can only collapse under the force they exert from without. For the old powers haven’t gone anywhere.

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A child has no delusion that it is otherwise. A child is all too aware of the overwhelming scope of darkness, of its suffocating dread, its visceral density and gravity; heavy as a millstone, frigid like a deep grave, enveloping like the farthest fathoms of the ocean, terror-inducing like water filling the lungs. A child grasps intuitively the threat that darkness is— not merely what is concealed within it, but the absence it substantially is in itself.

The typical modern adult is so encumbered by the cares of the present world-system they lose sight of what it means to viscerally fear the shapelessness that is the absence of light. To be without light is to recede from life—it is a proleptic encounter with death. A child who has not yet been conditioned to embrace the diminished world of modernity has not experienced the hiatus between the literal and the symbolic. Emmanuel Levinas wrote once that death is “the impossibility of every possibility,” “absolutely unknowable” and “foreign to all light”; it “marks the end of the subject’s virility and heroism.” It is “the end” of this virility and heroism because it calls the bluff of the modern, rational self. The darkness that death is unravels all our vain conceits and our blood freezes as we feel our selves reduced to nothing.

A child thus has a pre-linguistic grasp of the fundamental rupture in the being of the world that darkness, this side of the Fall, typifies, and sin names. Horror is the phenomenological apprehension of this rupture, a rupture we all too regularly spread yet farther with our sinful words and actions.

The urgency of darkness and its dread exposes the tedious cares of adulthood and its priorities as what they are: soporifics contaminated with the disease they claim to treat. The ineptitude and guilt of secularized adults is disclosed through their misplaced fears. The Lord commends the inclination towards faith that characterizes children and warns his adult listeners that anything short of that posture will close the kingdom off to them (Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17). Ingredient in this is the readiness to believe that something could strain and bend the (often) artificially imposed limits of rationality. A child is more ready to “come and see” than is an adult (John 1:39, 46), whose pragmatic cynicism inclines him to inaction and stale certainties.

But this is not to say that a child has a properly calibrated fear. Rather, the intuitive fear response of a child is a witness against the narcolepsy of unimaginative, (dare I say it?) faithless adulthood. Yes, a child must learn that it is only a pile of clothes in the corner, not a monster; that nighttime needn’t inspire mortal terror. But the adult, in turn, must remember that monsters are real—more real than the security or the prestige he works to accumulate. The intelligences that predate human existence are very real and they hate us. And they will not be impressed by our curriculum vitae or moved to pity by the amount in our bank accounts. But perhaps as terrifying as that, we are often accomplices in their campaigns to degrade and destroy human life.

There are many who would mount the protest that the darkness of the world is due to the corrupting belief that the world is a dark place, that if enough positive thought and action could be mustered then the world would become safer and more loving. But every view that assumes a basic perfectibility to the world and to human nature shipwrecks itself upon the rocks of reality. The cross of Christ and the necessity of its horror dissolves every attempt to sterilize the world of its horror. The world is what it is, and the blinders we would impose on ourselves cannot change it.

Horror becomes a servant of the gospel when it critically examines our fears and exposes them as inadequate. Evil seeks our ruin, but the horror genre intends to jostle us out of our stupor. Its judgment to some of us is: What you fear is unworthy of your fear. To others: You are not nearly afraid enough. To all of us it will say, This is what you should rightly fear. And when we defensively insist, “That’s not what I am,” horror pronounces: Yes you are.