Sunday, June 30, 2013

Horror Therapy (HT) for Individual and Collective Nightmares

The writings of H.P. Lovecraft are filled with references to dreams, or may often be dreams themselves, fashioned into short stories or poetry.  In some of his work, as in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, he actually steps back from the story to discuss his own psychology and philosophy of dreams. 

Shorter writings—prose poems like Nyarlathotep, The Strange High House In The Mist, and Celephaïs, and poems like The Nightmare Lake appear to be elaborations of entries from a dream journal, or perhaps, a nightmare journal.  How Lovecraft uses dream imagery as a fictional device was discussed in earlier posts.  In Lovecraft’s stories, dreams provide a means to communicate with other beings, open a doorway to other universes, are a channel for prophecy, and forge psychic links with malevolent entities and past events. 

Horror and Science Fiction as Dream Therapy
Is it possible that Lovecraft recorded and elaborated on his own nightmares so that his readers were spared this difficult and unnerving work?  In view here is the notion that horror writers and horror media producers are doing the “dream work” for the rest of us.  Science fiction also has this function—recording and creatively displaying the nightmares of our society for conscious reflection.  The most recent example of this is the aptly named Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) which contains explicit references to such current anxieties as the ethics of covert war, use of drone attacks, terrorism, and the horror of 9/11.

May You Stay… Forever Jung
Just as the dreams of an individual appear to go through cycles of development—see Carl Jung’s insightful alchemical metaphor of the nigredo, albedo and rubedo stages of dream imagery—surely something similar must occur in our social and collective unconscious.  Briefly:  our dreams appear to go through a phase where death and deterioration are a dominant theme, (nigredo), then a fluid and changeable state, (albedo), and finally a bright, energetic phase where a solution or synthesis of the psychic problem is produced, (rubedo).  The process, which repeats itself again and again, roughly parallels the alchemical transmutation of lead into gold.  Something like this seems to go on with horror and science fiction over time.

We can apply these Jungian categories to some of Lovecraft’s more dream laden material.  His poem, The Nightmare Lake is clearly a nigredo stage dream:
                        I saw the stretching marshy shore,
                        And the foul things those marshes bore:
                        Lizards and snakes convuls’d and dying;
                        Ravens and vampires putrefying;
                        All these, and hov’ring o’er the dead,
                        Narcophagi that on them fed.

The Strange High House In The Mist is in the intermediate, albedo stage:

                        “All around him was cloud and chaos, and he could see nothing
                        below the whiteness of illimitable space.  He was alone in the sky
                        with this queer and very disturbing house…” 

Randolph Carter’s return to his Boston home at the climax of The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, is an example of the last stage, which is the rubedo:

                        “Stars swelled to dawns, and dawns burst into fountains of gold,
carmine, and purple, and still the dreamer fell.  Cries rent the aether
as ribbons of light beat back the fiends from outside.  And hoary Nodens
raised a howl of triumph when Nyarlathotep, close on his quarry, stopped
baffled by a glare that seared his formless hunting-horrors to grey dust.”

Lovecraft and Racial Fears
Why is Lovecraft often suspicious of foreigners and their unfamiliar ways and appearances?  Asians and Africans seem almost always to be members of cultic conspiracies in his fiction.  He writes near the beginning of The Call of Cthulhu:  “The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical looking negro…” 

Later in the story, another character, the doomed Norwegian sailor Johansen, fights off a boatful of “swarthy cult-fiends” but is later apparently assassinated by “two Lascar sailors”. (Lascar, or Lakshar, is an old term that refers to sailors or servants from India).  The implication seems to be that people of color are conspiring to bring back Cthulhu in order to destroy white Western Civilization circa 1928.

Why in 1928?  Throughout the 1920s in America racial conflict increased markedly because of the immigration of various ethnic groups as well as the internal migration of African Americans into northern cities.  White supremacist movements, segregation and public lynchings all increased in these years.  In Massachusetts, not far from Lovecraft’s home, the notorious trial of Sacco and Vanzetti resulted in their execution for robbing a shoe factory and killing two men.  Italian immigrants, it is believed they were unjustly charged because of their anarchistic political beliefs, and because they were foreigners.   It seems reasonable to suspect that fear of miscegenation and being overwhelmed by other ethnic groups is reflected in Lovecraft’s depiction of the Cthulhu cult.  

We are uncomfortable and dismissive of racial and ethnic stereotypes from the vantage point of the 21st century, but Lovecraft and his contemporaries would not have been—it was part of their fears and their world view, which was changing even then.   

Where Have All The Monsters Gone, Long Time Passing
And speaking of the 21st century, why is it, with the exception of Cloverfield (2008) that our cities are now relatively free of gigantic marauding monsters?  It was not always so.  Why are our farms and towns no longer being destroyed by enormous ants, (Them, 1954), a giant octopus, (It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955), giant locusts (Beginning of the End, 1957), giant spiders, (Tarantula, 1955) a Venusian dinosaur, (20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957), or invading aliens, (Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, 1956)?

Probably it is because our nightmares have changed.  What we are most afraid of at the moment has changed.  We are very much afraid of something else right now.

Nightmares Past, Present and Yet to Come
Why are our homes now menaced by the walking dead?  Why is there such a popular film franchise as Saw (I-VII)?  What are our collective nightmares about today?  Fears about government surveillance, terrorism, identity theft, immigration reform, national security, disease, technological change--Lovecraft and his contemporaries would find many of these very familiar, because they are inherent in the human condition. 

Dreams and nightmares are a kind of hypertext for our minds, both individual and collective.  Click on them and you are taken somewhere else, a place where something unknown can become known to you.  What will be the subjects of future horror media?  Given that horror and science fiction entertainments are a kind of dream journal for the entire society, they provide the valuable service of bringing our deepest fears into consciousness, where we can deal with them.  What is it that we need to be talking about with our therapist?

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