Fear and the Reality of Horror, Part 1

Is there a place for fear in Christianity? And if there is, what value does […]

Ian Olson / 10.26.18

Is there a place for fear in Christianity? And if there is, what value does the horror genre bring to the Christian life? To answer these questions we must uncover what sort of world it is we inhabit, and we mustn’t be too hasty in presuming to already know. For if the world is a certain way, then a certain kind of fear may be the only fitting response to it and the proper stimulus to action.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” H. P. Lovecraft once opined, “and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Lovecraft was confident at the time that few psychologists would contradict his claim, but the prevailing opinion today is not unequivocally in his favor. It’s easy to read into Lovecraft’s assertion an unintentional laying bare of his own origin and development as an individual. Frail, regularly ill, congenitally grief-stricken, incorrigibly afraid of attachment and distrustful of difference, the historical Lovecraft was in many ways compressed into being by a litany of fears, the same fears that animated the eldritch imagination of the Lovecraft of fiction.

Yet these Lovecrafts were one and the same, and his fiction encapsulated the profoundly misanthropic outlook that framed his short and pitiable life. And yet it appears that at no point was he ever tempted to seek refuge from his fears and revulsions in religious belief. Lovecraft correlated the “oldest and strongest kind of fear” with the development of superstition and religion — two sides of one coin in his eyes — as solutions for coping with the overwhelmingly disproportionate power of non- and anti-human forces in the universe. However well-intended these solutions may be, they are human fabrications fatally dependent upon illusion: for in Lovecraft’s mind, it was settled beyond dispute that ours was not a fundamentally friendly cosmos, nor were there benevolent deities residing somewhere in that cosmos. And even if there were such, there was little likelihood they would be disposed to help the frangible bipeds of one tiny planet with their petty concerns. The immensity of a largely empty universe gave the lie to human delusions of significance.

That universe, for Lovecraft, is the purely accidental result of random forces, out of which some beings rise to prominence and power for a time but ultimately collapse back into the nothingness from which they meaninglessly began. The events that take place in this universe may be briefly convenient for some of us at any time but this is only temporary, for they will most assuredly become hurtful again. There is no real equilibrium between peace and suffering in Lovecraft’s view, just as there is no principle of conservation that makes the good we attempt perdure beyond the moment of our action. The inexorable forces of decay bring our endeavors to nothing, for our intentions do not survive the lifespan of our works. Integrity demanded we not pretend this could be overcome or redeemed. Existence itself was a kind of horror for Lovecraft, just as it was for Nietzsche before him, for to be alive was to suffer purposelessly.

Interestingly, though he believed modern philosophy and science had discredited religious belief, he was also convinced that both were equally delusional as strategies for overcoming the inherent inhumanity of the cosmos. None of these worldviews could deliver what they promised: a dignified way to withstand the brutality of a profoundly alien universe. Friedrich Schiller, in his essay “On the Sublime,” identified this very condition as the basis for humanity’s self-determination. “Nothing is more unworthy of man than to suffer violence,” he writes, “for violence annihilates the human idea.” It is a dispute to our claim to humanity, as he sees it.

Surrounded by numberless forces all of which are superior to him, and exercise a commanding control over him, his nature is such that he considers himself entitled to freedom from all violence. It is true, through his understanding he increases his natural powers by artificial means, and to a certain extent he succeeds in ruling all physical things by physical power. There are remedies for every thing, says the proverb, except for death. But this single exception, if it really be one, extinguishes the vital essence of the idea of humanity. He cannot possibly be a being endowed with an absolute will-power if there is even one case where he is absolutely obliged to do that which is contrary to his will. This one terrible thing to be obliged to do without willing will accompany him like a ghost, and as is really the case with most men, will abandon him a prey to the blind terrors of his fancy; his boasted liberty is absolutely nothing if he is bound only in a single point.

Schiller insists we must integrate the world and our wills to assert our freedom and enjoy our exalted status as “the ones who will” over against all that simply “must” once more. Lovecraft would rightly deride Schiller’s optimism that humans could succeed in exerting themselves over nearly all natural limits up to that single point (“if it really be one”). Even now, no less than in the early twentieth century, every attempt of ours to defy the universe’s limits steers us painfully back into the corridor of constraints that frame our being. Every technical advance our species makes, impressive though it may be, ultimately testifies to our finitude and fallibility. In fact, such advances may thrust us unknowingly into the abyss or aid and abet violence and hatred. The fallacy of universal human progress definitively shipwrecked in Lovecraft’s era. But there is an obstinacy to this illusion that seems to attach itself to fallen reason, and Lovecraft has powerful resources in his work for critiquing its presumptuousness.

We have laid out for us, then, three broad categories for understanding the world and humanity’s place within it. Schiller has already presented us with a picture of a primarily neutral world capable of use and development by human beings to whom falls the responsibility of engineering better versions of it and themselves. This view characterizes the modern period which, depending on the ideology it espouses — whether socialist, capitalist, logical positivist, or any other — seeks a kind of mastery over the natural and social world and presumes humanity is up to the task. There is also the view that the world is fundamentally keyed to humanity’s needs and desires; it is our proper home and recognizable as such. Natural evil can take place within it, but this is best understood as the consequence of individual moral evil. Finally, there is the pessimistic outlook of a Lovecraft or a Nietzsche: the world is constitutionally against humanity. Chance and violence lie at the heart of the universe which is, in the end, the inadvertent arena in which the weak are trampled in the random fluctuations of dominance that epitomizes its history.

This last category tries in no way to hide the absurdity embedded within human behavior and the processes of history and the laws of nature — it emphasizes this absurdity to disparage the naive optimism of other outlooks. At its best it refuses the easy consolation of a Leibniz, for whom this is the best of all possible worlds. It becomes almost an ethical imperative to bring the world’s absurdity to light to counter the absurdity of such a glib pronouncement, deaf as it is to the real, unresolved suffering of countless creatures. His rationalization of Lucretia’s rape is notorious, for Sextus Tarquinius’ evil “serves great things”: Rome is freed from tyranny and the empire that will emerge from this new foundation “will show noble examples to mankind.” This consequentialist long view all too regularly parades evil as if it was good. If this is the best that theodicy has to show for itself, then to hell with it.

At its worst, however, it advocates a resignation to that absurdity. Collapsing into fatalism brings about a cynical disposition that elides into self-preservation above all else. In the end, it does as much to ameliorate the world’s suffering as the naive optimist. Unlike Schiller and Nietzsche, Lovecraft did not hold out a heroic possibility for human life to transcend horror and suffering; for him,”The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” Our microscopic stature in the universe points up our ultimate insignificance, but it has also kept us safe from reaching out and into deeper horrors. At least, it has thus far.

None of the aforementioned outlooks, however, are Christian at their core. For a Christian understanding of the world unflinchingly avers the existence of evils and horrors that defy reason, but it does so while simultaneously confessing that the disorder that makes these horrors possible is not intrinsic to the world. All was made good in the beginning, but something has gone terribly wrong. The gospel discloses a terrifying reality: that we are estranged from the source of all life and light and love, and subsequently from the cosmos, each other, and even our own selves. All is not well, and all is not for good in “the best of all possible worlds.” It registers a protest against an instrumentalist view of evil that allows us to go on with our business and ignore its depth and ramifications. And this is why the horror genre is so useful for illuminating the substance of Christian hope, particularly in a secular age such as ours.

Horror effects something more than mere recognition of danger or unpleasantness because it does more than simply depict situations that provoke such feelings. Horror holds before humanity the truth we so diligently deny: that the world lies shrouded beneath death and the regime of powers hostile to us. Though the world should be our home, we are not all that welcome in it. On the best viewing, it is largely indifferent to us; on the worst, it is actively hostile. We humans intuitively feel we belong here and yet we regularly wreck ourselves upon limits we cannot reconcile with that intuition. The more we consider it, the more gnawing our anxiety becomes: are we strangers in the only world we have ever known? Where is the hospitality that ought to belong to our existence in this world? For instead there is an aloofness and animosity directed against us. Where did it originate? How can it be that we recognize This is not how it should be if our only experience has been this single, unwelcoming world? And how can it be that so many people do not recognize this?

There must have been a primal emotional state of contentment from which these subsequent negative emotions are derived, against which they are measured as the standard. If fear really is the archetypal human emotion then how can this evaluative aspect have any content? If we are programmed, as it were, to assume a basic stance of and respond to external stimuli with fear, then what occasioned that need in the first place? Fear must have arisen historically as a response to something that ought not to be. But again, the “ought” places before us a limit, as we can ascertain that something should not be but we cannot definitively state what should be there in its place. If human beings are adapted to survive in a world as remorselessly vicious as ours appears to be, then how could this protest ever have arisen in the first place? And if this assessment doesn’t originate in our immediate experience as individuals and yet we experience this falling short on a regular basis, then it would seem an inherited memory, some inborn cognizance of the differential belongs to our species collectively. For we have only the vaguest notions and barest outline of what positively ought to be. The evaluation embedded within our fear and outrage is a judicial sense but it is limited almost entirely to critique, as it cannot in itself fully explicate the proper conditions of human existence and blessedness.

But horror points the way to reality. And as Halloween draws nearer, we will shed more light on the usefulness of this dark reminder.

Find Part 2 here and Part 3 here!

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


4 responses to “Fear and the Reality of Horror, Part 1”

  1. ceej says:

    “Horror holds before humanity the truth we so diligently deny: that the world lies shrouded beneath death and the regime of powers hostile to us. Though the world should be our home, we are not all that welcome in it…are we strangers in the only world we have ever known?”

    profoundly stated, Ian. Thanks for writing this timely piece. edge of my seat for part 2…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *