Sunday, June 9, 2013

Your Head is a Haunted House: Thoughts on Horror, History and Dreams

Now and then it is helpful for masters of horror literature and their critics to step back and reflect on the meaning and significance of the genre.  H.P. Lovecraft did just this in his famous essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), probably one of the most important things he ever wrote.  There has been much commentary since then, in dozens of books about movies and authors.

Though somewhat dated now, one of my favorites was Walter Kendrick’s The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment.  This book was written in the early 90s, just before the commercialization of the internet and its subsequent impact on society.  The Thrill of Fear is an interesting history and criticism of horror fiction and drama, putting books and cinema that were then current into perspective.  He was fairly even handed in his analysis of various works.

From the Graveyard to You 

Kendrick began his book by going all the way back to the mid eighteenth century “Graveyard Poets”.  Thomas Grey, who wrote “Elegy on a Country Churchyard” is a well known example.  These gentlemen attempted to teach moral and spiritual truths by using gothic, graveyard imagery to create both fear and a motivation for repentance.  But as the importance and centrality of religious sentiment began to fade in the nineteenth century, this moral message was gradually de-emphasized.  However, the supernatural settings and effects created by the Graveyard Poets and early gothic writers were retained and re-used in endless combinations in later work.  Think of all the recent novels and movies that still contain graveyards, tombs and churches.  Why should this be, in such a secular age? 

Kendrick makes a well substantiated point that virtually all the elements of a typical “horror entertainment”—books, movies, graphic depictions, computer games—were well established as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Essentially the same settings, scenery, plots, stock characters, and conceptions of the supernatural developed at that time are still in use now.

He is refreshingly honest in his appraisal of horror literature.  Once the Graveyard Poets had made their contribution, subsequent work was motivated by the desire for entertainment, as opposed to enlightenment, and certainly was focused on monetary gain.  The result is that horror entertainment has always emphasized effect or device over more literary qualities such as verisimilitude, characterization, or theme.  There are exceptions of course.  In fact, the horror genre has been a very conservative area of literature, as demonstrated by considerable repetition and little deviation from familiar and comfortable forms.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

One does not have to look far to see this conservative element.  Think of all the movie sequels, prequels, and re-makes, all the recombinant DNA-like anthologies of the old and the new in horror short stories.  For example,there have been numerous collections of stories inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, (for example, Ross E. Lockhart’s Book of Cthulhu anthologies), where creative talents attempt to develop and modernize Lovecraft’s contributions but are still reliant on the vocabulary and conceptualizations he formulated nearly 100 years ago.  Periodicals like Horrorhound, Shadowland Magazine, and the venerable Famous Monsters of Filmland provide a useful scavenging function in their retrospectives of older books and movies, with the accompanying paraphernalia.

With the historical perspective that Kendrick provides, horror consumers can see that what appears to be gratuitous and extreme gruesomeness in current horror is really nothing new.  What is new are the ongoing and impressive technical refinements in special effects, and perhaps the wider scope of subject matter now acceptable as content in horror literature.

What Will Happen Next?

A portion of The Thrill of Fear is given to Kendrick’s speculations about the future of the genre.  He makes a final observation that the current technical ability to “archive” and retrieve virtually all of the previous work in the horror genre will significantly affect the future of the field.  Remember, he is writing before the tremendous impact of the internet, and did not anticipate things like cloud computing, smartphones, websites and the like.  He predicts that it will be possible for would-be horror writers to access—via video, DVD, microfilm, CD-Rom, and now, internet—much more of the work of predecessors than earlier writers themselves were able to do.  He is not sure what effect this will have, nor are we.  But he is hopeful it will be a positive one.

In my view at least, it is possible that this unprecedented access will have two effects.  Because horror is made lucrative due to its adherence to familiar and popular forms, it will continue to be derivative and conservative.  Its market demands this.  The constant archiving of successful horror entertainment from the past, and its continued re-introduction in sequels, prequels and re-makes, will simply allow more efficient recycling.  Is this really so different from how Homer’s The Odyssey was created:  countless oral, (and probably visual) retellings over centuries?  Eventually works of horror will become more and more canonical, just as the books of the Bible did, over the next 250 years.  It will become a collective, cultural product, as many of the classics were.

However, the ongoing refinement of techniques, devices and effects in the horror genre, going back two hundred years or more, will continue contribute to literature and media as a whole.   A second result of all this storage and recycling of horror will be the contribution of technique.  Kendrick does not feel that works in the horror genre constitute “great literature”, despite his affection and respect for the field.  However, classical literature must still speak about death and the supernatural among other topics, and the  horror genre may supply some of the best vocabulary for this conversation.

Poe, Bierce and Lovecraft Dissed

It was surprising that Kendrick denigrates Poe in the book, basically concluding that his work was over rated and derivative.  He also gave short shrift to Lovecraft and his circle, (Derleth, Wandrei, Bloch and others), except to acknowledge their existence and to criticize the verbosity of Lovecraft’s “purple prose”.  Others have made this criticism as well, although Kendrick’s attitude towards Poe and Lovecraft seems heretical at this point in the book.  Ambrose Bierce was completely omitted—he was one of those transitional authors of the mid to late nineteenth century that mark the shift to more modern styles of horror writing. 

Whether Lovecraft is considered a great writer, or even a consistently good one, it would be hard to miss the considerable influence he has had on fiction, movies and television later on in the twentieth and twenty-first and centuries.   Lovecraft’s work exemplifies the point Kendrick makes regarding how horror entertainment emphasizes use and reuse of certain trappings and devices for emotional effect, as opposed to general edification.  Lovecraft’s stories have never been translated well into film by themselves, but Lovecraftian elements are frequently seen in literature, movies and games, now more than ever.  The field owes him some gratitude for such notions as elder gods, hereditary horror, genetic abominations, forbidden texts, and horrible old ruins.  But he did not create this vocabulary so much as compile it in his work.

Foxhole Religion

A tradition view of the motivation for creating and consuming horror literature and movies is the fear of death, specifically the fear of being dead and of what follows death.  Kendrick sees the development of horror literature as related to our increasingly sanitary distance from death and dying, and our attempts deny our own mortality.  Fears of death and dying are repressed, and so later emerge in our “scary entertainments”.  He seems to imply that this is how we manage this fear in the absence of a convincing and compelling religious sensibility. 

While Kendrick may not have reached the Nietzschean conclusion that “God is dead”, he suggests that American culture at some level already has.  In my view, the popularity of horror is not so much a consequence of the ‘death of God’ as a first step toward recovering that religious perspective that has been in eclipse for over a hundred years.  After all, it is our personal and collective death and deterioration that force us to ask the big questions, the religious questions, that various helpful and clever technologies have been unable to answer.  We know more and more how best to live, but not why, in the face of our assured destruction.

So it seems to that archiving and codifying horror literature and film will take society circle back to the Graveyard Poets of the eighteenth century.  We will want to complete the equation they proposed, that the gruesome end of a life well lived equals deliverance, or redemption, or enlightenment.  It seems that the fear created and enjoyed in horror is not the fear of death—for there are worse things than death—so much as the fear of God.  The true horror, the horror underlying all others, is not that of death and decay, (which are transient states in any case).  It is the horror of meaninglessness. 

Your Head is a Haunted House

The Thrill of Fear provides an interesting examination of the evolution of “haunted house” imagery in horror fiction, beginning with graveyards, crypts, mausoleums and charnel houses, and later incorporating elements of gothic architecture in mansions, castles, and cathedrals.  The archetypal haunted house contains in its shadows interrelated features of age, decay, filth and neglect.  For those familiar with the dream psychology of Carl Jung, this is reminiscent of his notions about the nigredo, albedo and rubedo phases in the transformation of dream imagery over time.

Jung used an alchemical metaphor to categorize different stages of dream fantasy as an individual’s unconscious wrestles with some problem or frustration.  Like the transmuting of lead into gold, the unconscious refines base material in three stages, which are broadly speaking, dark, intermediate and bright in quality.   The nigredo is the initial point in the cycle of imagery, and is composed of themes of decay, disintegration, dismemberment, and gloom.  Things are falling apart or are being destroyed.

A house can be seen as emblematic of the dreamer’s mind or his or her understanding.  To dream of a house, of exploring forgotten or hidden rooms, has often been interpreted to mean that the dreamer is exploring or recalling forgotten capacities, memories or interests.  If the dream house is a haunted house, a nigredo house, it may be that a previous understanding, set of assumptions or perspective on an issue is being torn down or is disintegrating to make way for a new one.  In a dream, this will typically happen in a dark, gloomy, wet, creepy place, and will involve images of death, decay, filth, bones, violence, dismemberment, and so forth.  This is the stuff in nightmares, and with the fear and revulsion there will also be the experience of heaviness, difficulty in moving, and desperate attempts to escape. 

According to Jung, two other phases follow.  There is an albedo phase in which dream imagery and objects change form and shape, shifting back and forth, and become lighter and more illumined—options are being considered.  Finally, in the rubedo phase, a synthesis or solution is achieved, characterized by brightness, color and energy.  In other words, the cold dark base metal of nightmares is transformed through an intermediate quicksilver stage to bright, warm gold.

You Can Try This At Home   

This unconscious process can take some time, perhaps across several nights or weeks.  If you make it a practice to record and summarize your dreams each day, you will likely see that the material you collect will resolve itself into these three categories offered by Jung.  Whatever you may think of psychoanalytic approaches to dream interpretation, Jung’s notion of the nigredo, albedo and rubedo stages of dream imagery provides a useful framework.

(I recorded me dreams religiously back in the 70s and 80s and have not been the same since.)

Why do this?  Would-be writers of horror entertainment have often been encouraged to collect and analyze their dreams for source material.  An example of this advice can be found in an older article by J.N. Williamson, “A World of Dark and Disturbing Ideas” in Mort Castle’s Writing Horror, (1997).

Perhaps you need to visit a haunted house, a nigredo house.  Something keeps drawing you there.  As you lay in bed, try to clear your mind and concentrate.  Think of your basement, think of the mysterious crack in the floor near the wall—is that the plumbing you hear, or something else?  Now, go ahead and fall asleep—you are on your way.

And Though This World With Devils Filled…

In our collective unconscious, what might it mean that an entire society is preoccupied with haunted houses, or for that matter—ghosts, vampires, zombies, mutants, contagion, graveyards?  What great idea of the self, what edifice of understanding, needs to be dissolved in order to make room for some newer, brighter insight?  Insofar as horror entertainment is the dream journal for the entire society, works in this genre can document our cultural nightmares and collective fears.  Looking at them again in the morning may give us a glimmer of what is surely coming our way.

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