Fear and the Reality of Horror, Part 3

Find the other installments in “Fear and the Reality of Horror” here: Part 1 and […]

Ian Olson / 10.31.18

Find the other installments in “Fear and the Reality of Horror” here: Part 1 and Part 2.

The perpetual complication that hinders the attempt to understand evil is that of isolating what exactly evil is in its being. In many ways it seems as plain as the meaning of time: immediately intuited as a resource or a medium, yet upon closer inspection totally evasive of discursive reasoning. One feels time “slipping away” and yet, when asked, one cannot account for what it is that is receding or pressing in upon oneself. It is simultaneously palpable and yet intangible.

So it is for evil, as well. We all can identify any number of things — statements, actions, laws, symbols, people — as evil, and yet lack for answer as to what it most basically is. How can we go insisting on evil’s reality if we cannot identify where and how it operates? But we feel the urgent need to denounce, not simply assess, certain things as evil in spite of our deficient knowledge precisely because they are so horrible and horrifying, they demand not censure, but condemnation. For in our inmost depths we recognize in evil the impossible longing for nothingness, the nothingness that believes it has defeated God.

The rupture in the world’s being that horror fiction hones in on is fundamentally an absence. Before it ever takes shape as action, evil is nothing. If all that is was brought into being by a good God who pronounced his creation “good,” then it would seem that existence, absolutely considered, is itself good. There is no rival realm of existence where all that is is bad; God is the maker of all things, and nothing he made was fundamentally bad. The origin of evil, then, must come prior to our experience as individuals but subsequent to God’s creative speech-act. The rebellion that sin is in its essence was and continues to be a swerve away from the goodness of being towards the nothingness that creation is defined against. We cannot say, “The nothingness that pre-existed the creation” as that would be absurd. Nothing was prior to God’s act of creation — even nothing.

Evil is a lack that finds expression in the agency of creatures who further the drift towards nothingness that began with this rupture. The darkness that erupted onto the cosmos at the Fall issues from this rupture and aims at its expansion in order to encompass all that is. In a way this sounds like nonsense: how can an absence expand? But a black hole operates on a similar principle, insatiably consuming and enlarging itself through negation. Nature’s night, to use Charles Wesley’s phrase, similarly enshrouds the universe, propagating emptiness.

J. R. R. Tolkien, the consummate philologist, struggled to give expression to this tangible privation in The Lord of the Rings. Wanting to do justice to the complexity of evil, he found himself simultaneously pulled by two seemingly opposing currents. The first portrayed evil in positive terms as an antagonist to be resisted through force. The second emphasized evil as an infectious or addictive lack.

A ponderance of overt displays of supernatural power could suggest evil was the activity of a being equal and opposite to God. This had to be resisted, yet not at the expense of the dominion of Sauron being a concrete threat inhabiting time and space, now calculating, then moving to strike. But even as this was taking place, the saga’s profoundest meditations upon evil would come through the narrated danger of Tolkien’s heroes, not all of them noble, struggling to resist the temptation to use the Dark Lord’s weapon against him. It was as he was contemplating the nature of Sauron’s lieutenants Tolkien thought it likely that “wraith” originated as a form of the verb writhe, “to twist or bend,” or, earlier, “to bind or fetter,” with the archaic past participle, writhen (from the  Old English wríðen, “to twist, torture”). This was related etymologically then to “wrath,” the verbal form of which, “wroth,” literally meant “tormented, twisted.” (Interestingly, the proto-Germanic root itself was “wraith—.”) “Wreathe” belonged to the same lexical family and overtly presents the picture of being curved in on itself, connecting both Luther’s image of fallen human being’s self-preoccupation and Sauron’s Ring of Power. Tolkien discerned the link between the painful curvature and constraints of wrath with the being of those who have died and yet persist in malevolent undeath.

Tolkien’s Ringwraiths were thus twisted entities bent beyond recognition by evil, an evil that made overtures to them from the outside yet consumed them from the inside. In appearance they are black robes draped over nothingness, broadly resembling the outline of a man. But absence is what their form, such as it is, emphasizes. The demonic powers of our world take similar form as the ground and motivation of their activity is the same ravening hunger to subsume what is into nothingness. The wrath that torments and twists those who succumb to its lures does not stop there, however: it seeks the ruin and misery of all as the law of its being. Wrath is woven into the nexus of cause and effect as the necessary consequence of the rupture of sin.

We are left having to affirm one double-sided truth. We are victims of evil in this world, yes — of that there can be no doubt — but so long as we are in this world we are also participants in its regime. We do and yet do not deserve the horrors native to our world. How can it be, then, that we go on speaking of the “monstrosity” of evil, if it seems that we are always already implicated in it? Why do we clamor for resolution if there is a fittingness to the experience of horror as judgment? It is because we recognize that the tragedy of horror is more basic than the judgment upon sinful creaturehood. Horror fiction presents us with both a “No” and a “Yes” to the dilemma of sin.

The slasher subgenre is notorious for depicting the outcome of immorality. But while these films have been criticized for their depictions of horrendous violence, they also, intriguingly, tacitly reinforce traditional mores and ethical norms. The unspoken rule in this genre is: do not transgress the Law. Without fail, the murderer will dispatch any and all who so violate the Law, often in ingenious ways that mirror the transgressor’s indulgence. For these reasons it usually tends to be high school or college students who take advantage of an unsupervised night or weekend away to throw off the moral constraints that normally bind them. The killer, meanwhile, has no intrinsic connection to upholding the Law: his enforcement of its principles is effected through the negative examples of his victims.

But they remain victims. Though the viewer recognizes a poetic justice to the impending doom of these characters, the protest arises in us as we watch — something has to be done to stop the antagonist. And this is why the trope of the innocent final girl is so crucial. Though she could boast in her moral superiority and the survival it seems to effect, she instead becomes the avenger of the victimized guilty. The slasher is a morality play that not only portrays the disastrous consequences of sin, but also provides retribution for those sinners.

A moment in Bram Stoker’s Dracula illustrates another register of this “No” and “Yes”. Mina Harker has been vampirized by Count Dracula but has not yet succumbed. In this liminal state she is able to perceive what Dracula sees and hears and can supply Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters important information for hunting Dracula down. Reeling between humanity and the undead, however, she recognizes the plight of Dracula and urges compassion for him:

”I know that you must fight…but it is not a work of hate. That poor soul who has wrought all this misery is the saddest case of all. Just think what will be his joy when he too is destroyed in his worser part that his better part may have spiritual immortality. You must be pitiful to him too, though it may not hold your hands from his destruction.”

Dracula must be stopped, and yet his own salvation is at stake in the group’s quest to defeat him. Mina’s connection with Dracula establishes her as a Christlike intermediary who can soften the hate of her husband and his fellow monster hunters. Standing at the threshold of living death Mina can recognize that she, too, may yet need pity. In her recognition of the potential for and increasing likelihood of a shared fate between her and her tormentor, Mina can reckon herself not so far removed from Dracula.

Almost half a century later, Simone Weil, writing on the eve of the Second World War, will caution, “Let us not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less inhuman than our opponents we will carry the day.” Perhaps Mina would add, “And let us not think ourselves incapable of becoming as brutal and inhuman as they.” Monster hunters must at times take pity upon their opponents as they are the first victims of their evil. They must remember that they are susceptible of the same monstrous outcome as their opponents, and this should deeply, cavernously humble them. But this pity does not release them from the responsibility to resist that evil.

Horror fiction preserves the dialectical turns of the real world, of real humanity. The best of horror will not glamorize evil even as it depicts the naked power and purity of its will; it will neither elevate nor demote humankind beyond where they belong: hedged within the painful and confusing boundary between two ages. Real horror, however — the infuriating and terrifying horrors of this world— would drive us to a half-truth. In the film The Exorcist, Father Merrin explains why he thinks a young girl is being demonized: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as…animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” Real evil instantiated in the here-and-now would keep our focus only upon how we are imperiled, destitute, without integrity, deserving of judgment; it would wrench our gaze exclusively upon the “No” without the accompanying “Yes”.

As the hour of his arrest drew close, Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples and said, “The ruler of this world is coming”; a terrifying prospect, no doubt, to his hearers. But he went on to say, “But he has no power over me” (John 14:30). The phrase rendered here as “power over” can also be understood as “claim upon,” (literally, “he has nothing in me”). Unlike all of us, there is nothing that gives the Evil One leverage over him, no wrath awaiting him as his just due. And so when the Son enters into the negation that the cross is, his death is not the recompense of his wrongdoing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, his liquidation is the annihilation of all that is distorted and monstrous about us. To absorb wrath in our place is to annul the claim the Evil One has upon this world and upon us. He was “the ruler of this world” — perhaps in some sense he still is — but the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrated that rule was coming to an end. The love that spoke the universe into existence loves with a love that exceeds the rebellion of his creatures.

This in no way overthrows all of our fears. But it does relativize their power. The fallen powers of the world, whether rebel angels, enslaving institutions, demonic ideologies, or the contagion of hatred that descends upon human beings and impels them towards violence — all are malevolent forces mobilized to degrade and destroy the image bearers that populate that world. They must not be ignored. But responsible action requires we understand that with which we have to deal. Horror fiction pierces the lethargy of custom and makes the world strange once more. There is nothing escapist about it, for it is a focused re-immersion into the repressed reality of our world and ourselves. And in that re-immersion of our moral imaginations we are compelled to look to the strange triumph of the Lamb of God who defeats our horrors with love.