This is an extract from Eugene Thacker’s forthcoming Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 3 (Zer0, April 2015). It is the second of two extracts, the first of which (from vol 2 in the series, Starry Speculative Corpse) was published here last week. The two books (Vols 2 & 3) will be published simultaneously on 24 April by Zer0. – TS
For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not – and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror – to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place – some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
An opening that is, perhaps, unparalleled in horror literature. Poe prepares us to expect something incredible, but without giving us any particular clue as to what that will be. Regardless of what follows, we as readers are primed to experience something indefinite, something the narrator does not – or cannot – define in any concrete way. All that we know from this opening is that what the narrator has witnessed seems to defy all rational explanation. The narrator even questions himself – was it a dream, a drunken hallucination, insanity itself? This self-interrogation (before the narrative has even begun) raises the stakes of the story. Whatever abstract horror has happened, it cannot be explained by the narrator. And yet, it must be explained, there must be an explanation. The narrator is so committed to this notion that he is willing to question his own sanity so that the “Horror” can be explained. And, the narrator continues, if I can’t explain it then there must be someone else who can. In lieu of this, he can only hope that someone else (doubtless we, the “dear readers”) will come along and provide an explanation, some explanation, any explanation.
What cannot be accepted is that something happened for no reason. But this event is not just an everyday event. It has the character of being out-of-place, of not fitting into our everyday or even scientific modes of explaining the world. It threatens the order of things produced by we human beings, living human lives in a human world largely (we presume) of our own making. That something, that event, might threaten this order of things, and that it would happen for no reason – this is, for the narrator of “The Black Cat,” the real horror. It is a thought that cannot be accepted, without either abandoning reason and descending into the abyss of madness or making the leap of faith into religion and mysticism. It is as if, before Poe’s story has even begun, the horror tale itself is in a state of crisis, the narrator nearly having a break- down before us, only able to communicate himself in vague terms and uncertain utterances.
The story does go on, however. And through the narrator’s point of view, we encounter a string of events that involves depression, alcoholism, a fire, a tavern, a noose, strange portents, the cellar of a house, murder, inhuman wailing, and two black cats, which may or may not be the same cat reincarnated. “The Black Cat” gives us a classic example of an unreliable narrator, who suggests strange events that may be supernatural, but which are, at the same time, undercut by the narrator’s mental insta- bility. Was that shadowy burn-mark on the wall really an image of the deceased cat, or was our unreliable narrator just “seeing things”? Is the white patch on the black cat’s chest changing shape and forming the image of a gallows, or has the narrator had too much to drink? These and other conundrums produce the kind of suspenseful frisson for which Poe is well known. And the wavering of the story, between “it’s all in his head” and “it really happened” is also a hallmark not only of Poe’s work, but of the entire tradition of supernatural horror.
So much is this a cornerstone of supernatural horror that, almost a century later, H.P. Lovecraft could open his story “The Shadow Out of Time” with the following:
After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror, saved only by a desperate conviction of the mythical source of certain impressions, I am unwilling to vouch for the truth of that which I think I found in Western Australia on the night of July 17-18, 1935. There is reason to hope that my experience was wholly or partly a hallucination – for which, indeed, abundant causes existed. And yet, its realism was so hideous that I sometimes find hope impossible. If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing. He must, too, be placed on guard against a specific lurking peril which, though it will never engulf the whole race, may impose monstrous and unguessable horrors upon certain venturesome members of it. It is for this latter reason that I urge, with all the force of my being, a final abandonment of all attempts at unearthing those fragments of unknown, primordial masonry which my expedition set out to investigate.2
Lovecraft’s narrator expresses much of the same disbelief and commitment to explanation that Poe’s narrator does. But Lovecraft does give us more details. The narrator of “The
3 Shadow Out of Time” is one Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, Professor of Political Economy at Miskatonic University and resident of Arkham, Massachusetts. We are also given concrete references to a date (“July 17-18, 1935”), a place (“Western Australia”), and, it seems, an object of the horror (“unknown, primordial masonry”). And yet we know nothing more than we did with “The Black Cat.” Peaslee’s narrative is just as confused, uncertain, and delirious as that of the narrator of “The Black Cat.” Like the latter, Peaslee also questions himself, more than willing to attribute what he witnessed to hallucination or even insanity.
And yet, what is more terrifying that insanity is the possibility that “it” really happened. This is a crucial twist in both Poe’s and Lovecraft’s stories – what is horrific is not that one is insane, but that one is not insane. At least if one is insane, the strange, terri- fying “it” can be explained in terms of madness, delirium, melan- cholia, or in terms of clinical psychopathology. But other option is, for Peaslee, unacceptable: “If the thing did happen, then man must be prepared to accept notions of the cosmos, and of his own place in the seething vortex of time, whose merest mention is paralysing.” The stakes are, perhaps, even higher than they were with “The Black Cat,” for here Lovecraft situates human beings and human knowledge within the vast, “seething vortex of time” and the anonymous, “lurking peril” that portends only “monstrous, unguessable horrors” for the human race.
The dilemma for Peaslee (again, before the story has even begun) is this: either I stick to what I know, and forcibly reduce everything to illusion (madness, drugs, temporary insanity, whatever), or I accept what is real, but then because this is so alien to what I know, then I really know nothing at all. This notion – that I cannot accept what is real – is the core of this type of story that Lovecraft himself referred to as “supernatural horror.”3 As with “The Black Cat,” the result is a threat, one that promises to destabilize our most basic presuppositions about the world (especially the world for us as human beings), but it is also a threat that is unspecific (though “cosmic”). In “The Shadow Out of Time” horror is not just the horror of fear or of a physical threat, but an indefinite horror. Language falters, as does thought.
This is all in that opening paragraph. But “The Shadow Out of Time” also goes on. In the process we are witness to other, menacing dimensions, ancient archaeological findings, telepathic possessions, and fleshy geometries so ancient they are alien, all of it undermined by Peaslee’s own incredulity towards the reality that he cannot accept. Again, the horror of philosophy. In this sense stories like “The Black Cat” and “The Shadow Out of Time” sit squarely between those stories that do have rational explanations (for instance, mesmerism in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” or the fourth dimension in “The Dreams in the Witch House”), and those that appear to verify the supernatural (for instance, resurrection in “Morella” and “The Outsider”). As different as they are, Poe’s tales and those of Lovecraft deal in some way with what is essentially a philosophical problematic, well-known to students of Aristotelian logic – that everything that happens has a reason for happening, and can thus be explained. This “principle of sufficient reason” not only grounds philosophical inquiry, but some of the basic principles of story- telling as well, especially in those genres – such as horror – where what is often at stake is the verification of something strange actually existing.
Horror of Philosophy. It’s all in your head. It really happened. These mutually exclusive statements mark out the terrain of the horror genre. And yet, everything interesting happens in the middle, in the wavering between these two poles – a familiar reality that is untenable, and an acknowledged reality that is impossible. The literary critic Tzvetan Todorov calls this ambiguous zone “the fantastic,” in his seminal work of same name. Discussing Jacques Cazotte’s 18th-century occult tale Le Diable amoureux, Todorov provides a definition of the fantastic:
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination – and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality – but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.4
While Todorov is primarily concerned with analyzing the fantastic as a literary genre, we should also note the philo- sophical questions that the fantastic raises: the presumption of a consensual reality in which a set of natural laws govern the working of the world, the question of the reliability of the senses, the unstable relationships between the faculties of the imagi- nation and reason, and the discrepancy between our everyday understanding of the world and the often obscure and counter- intuitive descriptions provided by philosophy and the sciences. The fork in the road is not simply between something existing or not existing, it is a wavering between two types of radical uncer- tainty: either demons do not exist, but then my own senses are unreliable, or demons do exist, but then the world is not as I thought it was. With the fantastic – as with the horror genre itself – one is caught between two abysses, neither of which are comforting or particularly reassuring. Either I do not know the world, or I do not know myself.
Given the degree of self-reflexivity in genre horror today, we are, most likely, well aware of the various ruses through which the fantastic is introduced. Contemporary films such as Cabin in the Woods (2012) self-consciously play upon genre conventions as well as on our expectations as viewers. If a character sees something supernatural we immediately question them: was it a dream, are they on drugs, are they insane, or is it simply a bit of visual trickery? We are also aware of how quickly an apparently supernatural event in a horror story – such as the actual existence of vampires or zombies – gets recuperated into the under- standing of how the world works, thereby becoming quite unexceptional and normal – even banal. Biology, genetics, epidemiology, and a host of other explanatory models are employed in providing rational explanations for vampiric bloodlust or the resurrection of zombie flesh. Either way, the hesitation before the fork in the road is quickly resolved. Only in that brief moment of absolute uncertainty – when both options seems equally plausible and implausible, when neither thought can be accepted or rejected, when everything can be explained and nothing can be explained – only in that moment do we really have this horror of philosophy, this questioning of the principle of sufficient reason. It is for this reason that Todorov qualifies his definition by stating that the “fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty.”5
This uncertainty lasts but a moment; the dilemma it presents to us is between two mutually exclusive, though equally plausible options. Rare are the works of horror that can sustain the fantastic for their entirety. An exception is the well-known Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which aired in 1963. Based on a short story by Richard Matheson of the same title, it is a study in the fantastic, and manages to sustain that uncertainty up until its end. The episode centers on the character of Robert Wilson (played by the inimitable William Shatner), a very normal, middle-aged businessman and husband, who is returning home from the hospital after a mental breakdown. “Bob” (as he is referred to in the episode), along with his wife Julia, are boarding an airplane as the episode begins. In the austerity that has become a hallmark of the original Twilight Zone episodes, the entirety of the episode takes place within this airplane. Pensive and nervous, Bob is continually reassuring himself that he is cured, and that everything will be alright. Thus, before anything strange has even happened, we have been primed to “explain” anything unusual in light of Bob’s mental illness. En route, the airplane enters a storm. Unable to sleep, Bob glances out the window. Unsure of what he sees, he looks closer, and we as viewers see what he sees: a strange, grotesque creature outside, hunched over the wing. Director Richard Donner uses juxtapositions of shot and reverse-shot to let us “see” through Bob’s eyes, while also judging him with suspicion, knowing what we do of his mental illness. Through a series of tension-filled events, Bob becomes convinced (as perhaps we do as viewers) that there is a strange creature on the wing of the plane. To our frustration, however, Bob fails to convince his wife or the flight engineer – each time he attempts to draw their attention to it, the creature vanishes. We, along with Bob, are deprived of the sole verification of the actual existence of the creature – that others witness it as well, and that it is not merely the product of an over- active imagination.
And yet, while we may attribute the creature to Bob’s mental illness (as Julia and the flight engineer do), we as viewers also see the creature. We are the “others” that bear witness to the fantastic event, though we are not, of course within the story world. This play between the “uncanny” (Bob is hallucinating) and the “marvelous” (the actual existence of the creature) continues throughout the episode. Things become even more tense when Bob sees that the creature is pulling apart the wing of the airplane. In a climactic scene Bob takes matters into his own hands, attempting to kill the creature, opening the emergency escape hatch and forcing the plane down. Exhausted, delirious, and bound to a stretcher, Bob is taken out of the plane to an ambulance (interestingly, the director uses a point-of-view shot here, as we look up and see a policeman looking down at us). As the camera zooms out from the airplane, a final shot reveals something strange, which forces us to accept Bob’s claims as true. This apparently objective evidence of a “something” out there returns us again to the fantastic, caught between the uncanny and the marvelous.
Contemporary works of horror have taken up techniques for sustaining the fantastic that we see in authors like Matheson. An example is the film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), made by South Korean director Ji-woon Kim. The film is loosely based on a well- known Korean folktale, “Janghwa, Hongryeon,” which tells the story of two sisters, Janghwa (“Rose Flower”) and Hongryeon (“Red Lotus”), the death of their mother, an evil stepmother’s plotting, the strange murders of the sisters, and their return as ghosts that haunt their family and the town in which they live. Kim’s film introduces us to the teenage sisters – Su-Mi and Su- Yeon – who are spending a vacation in a remote lakeside house with their father and stepmother. Eventually the family dynamics are revealed – the morose, passive father, the manipu-lative stepmother, and the sisters, one of them rebellious (Su-Mi) and the other timid (Su-Yeon). But, like “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the film opens in a sanitarium, as Su-Mi, slumped over a chair in white gown and long black hair, is being gently questioned by a doctor. Here again we are primed to suspect everything we see in terms of mental illness. Throughout the film – most of which takes place in the house – we witness the family drama between the sisters and their stepmother. Su-Mi has a series of disturbing dreams concerning her birth mother which blur the line between dream and reality.
A good part of A Tale of Two Sisters takes place within this realistic mode – though the lush, shadowy, mesmerizing cinematography gives even the “realistic” scene a hallucinatory feeling. These scenes are punctuated by the fantastic. At one point, family friends are visiting for dinner. When one of them inexplicably begins choking, she falls to the floor, and – still choking – sees something eerie and impossible beneath the kitchen counter. And yet, just when we expect the marvelous and the actual existence of the supernatural, the film turns again. The father, confronting the increasingly rebellious Su-Mi, attempts to explain to her that she is not well – suddenly the camera point of view shifts, and we as viewers suspect that Su-Mi has not been fighting with her stepmother, but with herself, acting out the role of her projected image of her stepmother. We are back to the uncanny. In a stark, mesmerizing, final scene, the real stepmother returns one night to the lakeside house. In the roo where Su- Mi’s mother had died, she witnesses something inexplicable. We are back to the fantastic, suspended between conflicting points of view and a series of impossible happenings.
The fantastic, then, is central to supernatural horror, though, as Todorov reminds us, the sorts of questions it poses can even undermine the genre itself. The fantastic may exist only briefly, or it may span the duration of the story itself. While the questions that the fantastic poses may be answered, moving us towards either the “uncanny” or the “marvelous,” the questions themselves are more important than the answers – they are moments in which everything is up for grabs, nothing is certain, the ground giving way beneath our feet. Within the genre conventions of horror, the fantastic interjects questions that are, in another guise, philosophical questions.
With this in mind, we can suggest a different way of approaching the horror genre. Certainly the products of genre horror – given its low-brow history – are more often regarded as entertainment, and this is, to be sure, an important part of the genre. But there is no reason why we cannot, at the same time, appreciate the works of genre horror for these sorts of – dare we say – philosophical questions they raise, as well as the ways in which they question our presumption to know or understand or explain anything at all. Hence the title of this series – Horror of Philosophy – which has several meanings. Certainly any reader of difficult philosophy books will have experienced their own kind of horror of philosophy, reinforced today by public intellectuals, who most often use philosophy as a smokescreen for selling self- help books and promoting the cult of the guru.
But the title also means a certain way of approaching the horror genre, which inverts the idea of a “philosophy of horror,” in which philosophy explains anything and everything, telling us that a horror films means this or that, reveals this or that anxiety, is representative of this or that cultural moment that we are living in, and so on. Perhaps genres such as the horror genre are interesting not because we can devise ingenious explanatory models for them, but because they cause us to question some of our most basic assumptions about the knowledge-production process itself, or about the hubris of living in the human-centric world in which we currently live.
In the second volume of this series – Starry Speculative Corpse – I proposed “mis-reading” works of philosophy as if they were works of horror. There we saw how each philosophy contains a thought or set of thoughts that it cannot think without risking the integrity of the philosophical endeavor itself. In this volume – Tentacles Longer Than Night – I would propose we do the same. Except that, in this case, we will be mis-reading works of horror as if they were works of philosophy. What if we read Poe or Lovecraft as philosophers rather than as writers of short stories? What if we read Poe or Lovecraft as non-fiction? This means that the typical concerns of the writer or literary critic – plot, character, setting, genre, and so on – will be less relevant to us than the ideas contained in the story – and the central thought that runs through much of supernatural horror is the limit of thought, human characters confronted with the limit of the human. In short, we will be taking the horror genre as being essentially idea-driven, rather than plot-driven (and this certainly bears itself out in writers such as Lovecraft and his circle). In fact, I would even go so far as to say that what is unique about the horror genre – and particularly supernatural horror – is its indifference to all the accoutrements of human drama. All that remains is the fragmentary and sometimes lyrical testimony of the human being struggling to confront its lack of “sufficient reason” in the vast cosmos. And even this is not sufficient.
On Supernatural Horror (A Personal History). Granted, I may adopt such a method of reading, but that still doesn’t guarantee that I will necessarily like what I’m reading. After all, there’s no accounting for taste. At the same time, it would be misleading for me to say that this interest – in reading horror as philosophy – comes from a purely academic or scholarly impulse. There are personal motives too. Although I wouldn’t say I’m your typical horror fan (whatever that is). I have my likes and dislikes certainly. I never tire of watching Argento’s Suspiria or Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, and no matter how many times I teach Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” I’m always mesmerized by the lyrical and slightly dazed descriptions of the seemingly alive, hushed movement of the willows as they seem to imperceptibly move closer towards the narrator. Do those choices – rather than, say True Blood or Walking Dead or Saw 3D – make me a horror fan, or not? And if I consider Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly a horror film? If I consider Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal as important to the genre as Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stoker’s Dracula?
Such questions are, perhaps, not worth trying to answer. What I can offer is this short anecdote. When I was younger I was not an avid reader. Strange thing for a recovering English major to say, perhaps. I blame society; I grew up in the era of cable TV, home videos, and video games, so reading was, at best, something one had to do for school. But I also grew up around books and music, especially books, stacked row upon row in my father’s studio. For my birthday one year my parents gave me an illustrated edition of Poe’s stories. I recall reading “The Pit and the Pendulum” and finding it unlike anything I had read before. Part of the reason was that most of the story is virtually without plot. We as readers are simply dropped into this strange, dark, otherworldly scene with a sole character and an anonymous, swaying blade. We know nothing of who the character is, why he is there, where he is, if any of this is even really happening, or if it is a mere dream or hallucination. It is only at the very end of the story, in the last few lines, that we learn the character is being subject to torture by the Inquisition. But everything up until that point is strangely un-moored from the usual stuff of narrative fiction. Poe had written an abstract horror story, a study, a thought-piece, a meditation on finitude, time, and death.
This is of course one stock-and-trade interpretation of the story, but for me, at that time, it suddenly revealed something about the horror genre I had not expected: that the horror genre is as much driven by ideas as it is driven by emotions, as much by the unknown as by fear. A few years later, I discovered some of the Ballatine “Adult Fantasy” editions of Lovecraft on the bookshelf. I had the same revelation in reading “The Colour Out of Space”: the characters in the story are confronted with something utterly inhuman and unknown, something that exists but at some other level where our senses are barred from access. The horror came not from what you saw, but from what you couldn’t see, and even beyond that, what you couldn’t fathom, what you couldn’t think.
This was not limited to literature, either. Again, I grew up in an era when the low-budget horror film was big business, and so yes, I saw Halloween, Friday the 13th, Return of the Living Dead, and the rest. But on Sunday afternoons one of the local TV stations would show old horror films produced by Hammer Studios (many of them starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), as well as Roger Corman’s Poe adaptions produced for American International Pictures (many of them starring Vincent Price). What Corman did with the film images, Poe had done with language. The eerie opening of The Pit and the Pendulum is matched only by the closing scenes of the painterly, Piranesi- esque labyrinths of caves and tunnels. Almost a third of The Masque of the Red Death is devoted to a totally plot-less series of scenes that take place in strange, abstract, monochromatic rooms that reflect the moods of the characters. Again, abstract horror, idea-driven.
I Can’t Believe What I See, I Can’t See What I Believe. Re- reading some of these works today, what I find the most appealing is the way they can be read on different levels. This is a cliché, I know, but it is the thing that keeps me coming back to certain works (and not others…). Literary critics typically refer to this as allegory. When Dante, for instance, is taken by his guide Virgil on a tour of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, he undertakes a journey that is both real and symbolic, literal and allegorical. In the Inferno, we as readers are to understand that Dante really does encounter the Wood of Suicides, the dismembered Sowers of Discord, and the frozen, cavernous pit in which he finds a brooding Satan. But on the allegorical level Dante’s journey is an interior one, which we understand as the spiritual journey of an individual. Dante himself was aware of this. In his writings he discusses allegory at length, noting both the different types of allegory (a frequently-used literary technique in the Middle Ages), as well as the way that his own Divina Commedia employs allegory. For instance, in a letter written to Cangrande della Scala, a nobleman and patron of the arts, Dante explains the use of allegory in his own work:
For the clarity of what will be said, it is to be understood that this work [the Divine Comedy] is not simple, but rather it is polysemous, that is, endowed with many meanings. For the first meaning is that which one derives from the letter, another is that which one derives from things signified by the letter. The first is called “literal” and the second “allegorical” or “mystical”… And although these mystical meanings are called by various names, in general they can all be called allegorical, inasmuch as they are different from the literal or historical. For “allegoria” comes the “alleon” in Greek, which in Latin is alienum [strange] or diversum [different].6
In this letter, Dante not only distinguishes the literal from the figurative, but he also notes the relationship between them. Although the allegorical derives from the literal, for Dante it is also more profound, ultimately having for him a mystical signif- icance.
In his letter Dante goes on to suggest such a reading of the Divine Comedy: “The subject, then, of the whole work, taken in the literal sense only, is the state of souls after death, pure and simple. For on and about that the argument of the whole work turns… If, however, the work be regarded from the allegorical point of view, the subject is man according as by his merits or demerits in the exercise of his free will he is deserving of reward or punishment by justice.”7
So, I continue to find the horror genre interesting not just on a literal level, but also allegorically. Now, as Dante knew, you can never really separate these from each other – the allegorical relies on the literal, just as the literal can be fleshed out or made more alluring by the allegorical. In other words, you need all those creatures, you need all the gory details of their metamorphoses, you need those tortured descriptions of a character’s inner state as they confront something utterly alien – the allegorical level doesn’t erase them; in fact, it brings them out even more. In a way, this runs counter to much literary criticism, enamored as it is of the higher levels of abstract, symbolic meaning, which quickly depart from the literal and rise up to those interpretive heights. But horror is “low.” It is flesh and fluids, mud and material formlessness, inhuman matter of life reduced to primordial physics and cosmic dust. It is the literalness of horror that makes it horror; it is not “as if” an unnameable, tentacular, other-dimensional entity were feasting on your soul – it really is. And that is that. There is something about the literalness of horror that forces our language and our thought to stop dead in its tracks, a kind of tautology of “it is what it is” and yet the “it” remains indefinable, unmentionable, a thick and viscous and vaguely menacing “thing on the doorstep.”
The allegorical is, then, in the service of the literal, and not the other way around. But what are these allegorical levels? How is the literalness of horror fleshed out in allegory? For me, there are several levels at work. First there is the literal level of the story itself, inclusive of the characters, the setting, strange happenings, and the conflict and resolutions that ensue. At its core are a set of feelings that we usually identify with horror stories – fear, terror, suspense, and the gross-out effect. But often we as readers or viewers get the sense that an author or director is out to explore “issues” – say, pertaining to mortality, morality, religion, science, politics, conflicts between “us” and “them,” or what it means to be human. At this level, which starts to become allegorical, a horror story may explore very human issues through the lens of monsters, gore, and the supernatural, a story filled with human drama… in spite of the fact that such beings are very non-human. These are the sorts of paradoxes that allegory makes possible. How many viewers have identified with Boris Karloff’s lumbering sensitive monster on seeing James Whales’ production of Frankenstein? The same follows for modern examples, where our sympathies and antipathies drift and glide in different, often unexpected directions (a case in point is the sympathy for thezombies that is often evoked in George Romero’s films). These levels are not really separate from each other. A reader can be aware of the literal and allegorical levels at the same time – in fact, I would argue that the best horror fiction even demands this of us as readers. And this brings us to a third level at which genre horror operates – and that is the level of the horror genre itself. Some of the most interesting products of the horror genre are also about the genre itself. This is especially the case today, as horror film and TV programs increasingly rely on the viewer’s knowledge of the genre and its rules, in order to play with or even break those rules. Some films make knowing, winking references within the film, others use game-like or puzzle-like structures to create suspense, and still others incorporate modern, technological devices into their stories, which serve as a
commentary on the act of watching horror film itself. Looking over some of the classics of horror fiction, one question that pops up again and again is whether the horror genre as a whole was to be identified with the supernatural. We are well aware of the gothic tradition of supernatural tales, as well as the creature-feature films of the 1930s and 1940s. However, since the days of films like Psycho and Peeping Tom, the horror genre has also explored psychological terrors, the terrors of our inner worlds. But if everything can be explained by science and psychology, then are we not in the adjacent genres of science fiction or the thriller? What then makes a work a part of the horror genre? Fans are still split on these sorts of questions, which will never be definitively answered. But if you grew up watching horror movies in the 1980s, you were well aware of this inner conflict, if only on a subconscious level. There were some films that were steeped in the supernatural, where the horror relied on what you didn’t see (The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist). Then there were those films that dispensed with the supernatural completely, the stalk-and-slash films that came out of the Italian giallo tradition and led to classics such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. In these films you saw everything, you even saw more than you wanted to see. Either the horror was what you couldn’t see or the horror was what you could see all too well, either you had supernatural horror or you had extreme horror. (This dichotomy was evident in horror fiction too – on the one hand you had authors such as Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti, or you had authors associated with “splatterpunk”; and it continues to this day, for instance, in the dichotomy between “torture-porn” and J-horror films.) And even within a single film that conflict manifests itself – while Kubrick’s The Shining is basically a haunted house story, it is precisely those elements that drive the main character to become a homicidal maniac (the supernatural becoming the natural); and we often forget that the masked killer in Carpenter’s Halloween was referred to as “The Shape,” taking on almost super-human qualities (the natural becoming supernatural).
These are, arguably, the two poles of the horror genre – extreme horror and supernatural horror, people doing things to people and non-people doing things to people, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” and “I can’t see what I believe.” Perhaps the horror genre is really defined in the space between these two poles, in the passages between them. This slipperiness has now become a hallmark of the genre, with authors such as Brian Lumley, Clive Barker, and China Miéville taking us from one pole to the other, and giving us rich, complex, story worlds that also bring together elements from several genres – fantasy, science fiction, the detective genre, historical fiction, and so on.
Is there another level beyond even this, a fourth allegorical level to the horror genre, one that actually takes us out of the world of story-telling itself? If so, perhaps that level would take us beyond the horror genre and into more general reflections on religion and religious experience. Now, by “religion” I do not simply mean the organized, institutional religion that we commonly associate with the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But that leaves a lot open. Contemporary philosophy of religion has had much to say on the boundary that divides religion from non-religion. Some argue for the value of alternative traditions, be they pagan or “Eastern,” while others argue for a more complex and internally fraught understanding of monotheisms like Christianity, while still others argue for a sense of an everyday, polyglot spiritual awareness outside of any particular religious institution. But one commonality all these positions have is that they articulate a basic relationship between the human being and the limit of its capacity to adequately comprehend the world in which it finds itself. That experience of limits can be called “religious” (William James preferred the phrase “religious experience”), or, more narrowly, “mystical” (from the Greek adjective mustikos, or “hidden”). It broadly denotes an encounter with something essentially unknown, what theologian Rudolf Otto called “the numinous,” an encounter with the “wholly other,” a meeting with the horizon of our own understanding as human beings and the limit of thought this entails. That encounter may begin as the encounter with another person or other people, with a certain place or site, or with a book or a film or a work of music, or it might simply begin from a seemingly everyday, banal observation.
Whatever the case, this encounter with the unknown does not result in the kind of spectacular, beatific visions of light typically evoked by the word “mysticism.” In fact, if one looks at, say, the tradition of Christian mysticism in the Middle Ages, what one finds are texts that are filled with ambiguity and ambivalence – evocations of “divine darkness,” or “clouds of unknowing,” or of the “dark night of the soul.” They contain accounts of intense physical and spiritual suffering, of desert battles with legions of demons, of ecstasies and mortifications of the flesh, of passions so unhuman they can only come out as cries and sobs, of corpses happily entombed in an amorous embrace. If anything, we are presented with questions without answers, and problems without solutions. Should we say, then, that religious experience often runs counter to religion? But what counts as “experience” in this case, when we are at the limit of the senses and of thought? This is the “religious” allegory that I find so fascinating in the horror genre. But the 13th century context of, say, Dante’s Inferno is markedly different from the late-20th century context of, say China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Our contemporary horror stories are written in a world in which religious fanaticism routinely exterminates religious experience, a world in which scientific fanaticism explains and controls everything, a climato- logical world, after Nietzsche’s “death of God,” where there seems little faith, lost hope, and no salvation. And perhaps that is even another level at which the horror genre operates, if only obliquely. It is noticeable in those works that dare to delve into these other levels, especially this last level of a religious horror, where we pass beyond the pedantic world of humans doing bad things to other humans, and suddenly realize not only that the world remains indifferent to us, but that the world is and has always been mostly an inhuman world. Not a comforting thought. But then again neither philosophy, nor religion, nor horror, is meant to comfort.