When I became a member of a local horror writer’s association, I completed a questionnaire as a means of introducing myself to other members. The questions were not intended as a litmus test for membership so much as a way to open up discussion of shared interests and aspirations. Here were a few of the questions:
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Have you ever seen one or had an encounter that you would like to share with us?”
(Haven’t seen one, but I have heard them…)
“Are you superstitious?”
“What truly scares you?”
(Any threat to private property or personal liberty.)
“Have you ever seen a psychiatrist, or has anyone ever thought you might need one just because of what you write?”
(No, but it has been suggested.)
These questions make me think of others that I now direct to you, my readers: Do you feel there are things in this universe that are still beyond our understanding? Do events at least occasionally seem affected by supernatural forces or entities? Are some of these forces good while others are evil? Do you feel that dreams are more than the random firings of neurons in the visual cortex of the brain? Do dreams appear to have psychological and spiritual significance? Do you have any religious beliefs or insights about how the world is sustained, and what purpose your life serves in it?
Of course, the correct answer is yes to all of the above.
But what if you answered no to any or all of these questions? I imagine I would be inclined to do so if I were more of a materialist, or my faith lay with science and objectivity, or if I were an atheist. It seems that one’s belief about the possibility of supernatural forces acting in the world—beginning with the Big Guy in the Sky—could have an impact on one’s ability to appreciate, criticize, or create horror literature.
Time for a disclaimer: your humble blogger is an unreliable Christian, very susceptible to Calvinist notions, who believes that
1. There are no random or meaningless events anywhere in the universe.
2. Humankind is the crown of creation, the only intelligent life form in the cosmos—a self-evident fact that is horrifying all by itself.
3. The world we know is sustained and moved by both the love and wrath of God, whose primary concern is our personal welfare.
4. Earth is not our final resting place—not for our souls, nor even for our bodies.
5. There is a lot that we do not understand, even about ourselves—another disquieting, self-evident fact.
(Not everyone would agree.)
In short, the world view espoused here is the exact opposite of H.P. Lovecraft’s, (and S.T. Joshi’s) cosmicism.
Seriously, would you rather believe that you and the rest of humanity are insignificant victims of implacable forces rampaging a tiny speck of a planet somewhere in the cosmos? Do you feel you are inconsequential and powerless when you look at the stars above? There are medications to help with this. There are prayers to help with this. It is the devil whispering the ancient lie: “You do not matter.”
Cosmicism in its various forms seems indicative of insecurity, low self esteem and lack of faith—an amalgam of atheism, depression, and lack of confidence. If one truly believes humanity is insignificant and powerless in the face of cosmic forces beyond our control and understanding—why struggle? If you are a writer, why have a plot? Why not simply acquiesce in passivity and anxiety, as so many of Lovecraft’s characters do?
Seriously, would you not rather believe you are the Crown of Creation, an immortal and all powerful Deity at your side throughout the fight, with a destiny that includes bringing earth life to all the dead planets that surround us in the heavens? (To be fair, there are medications and prayers for this condition, too.) If one believes in human agency, supported by an ever vigilant and omnipotent Creator, why not struggle against the darkness—or read and write about characters that do so?
Your humble blogger has long believed that horror and religion are two halves of the same coin. Sociologically speaking, it seems that the primary concerns of horror—death, what happens immediately before and after death, and the significance of human life in the face of death—have been displaced from religion, their traditional venue, to horror entertainment.
Without an abiding faith and appreciation for the supernatural and for the religious, what would be left as objects of horror? What type of horror is possible for an atheist or materialist? Exaggerated biology? Graphic depictions of human violence? Well intended experiments gone dangerously awry?
A thoroughly materialist world view would seem to allow only for those horrors that can be objectively explained and demonstrated: hyperbolic chemistry and physics, machines running amok, Westerns with lasers—in other words, science fiction. Can those who deny the possibility of the supernatural honestly write, appreciate, or seriously critique horror entertainment? Are we not commanded by Mark Twain and others to “write what we know”?
What would happen to horror if it were completely emptied of supernaturalism? There would be no vampires, zombies or werewolves—unless they were substantiated by weird biological science. The field would be completely devoid of demons, wizards, witches, witch doctors, ghosts, and necromancers. Vitally—or perhaps morbidly—important processes and procedures would be lost: exorcism, reincarnation, psychic possession, and “justice from beyond the grave”.
Much of horror literature is unintelligible without religious understandings about the afterlife and the consequences of transgressing “the rules”. Even the officially atheist H.P. Lovecraft filled his stories with churches and biblical references. In the context of American horror fiction, what would we have now without awful discoveries like that of Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown?
One could ask what would attract thoroughgoing atheists and materialists to stories about supernatural horror. Would they not be prone to denying the assumptions which underlay such work? Yet they are undoubtedly attracted to this material, whether in the form of literature, film, role-playing games, or graphics. It must be acknowledged that some atheists—Lovecraft among many others—are also quite adept at creating it.
And in this there is hope and solace for us all. Horror literature that contains a supernatural element, which speaks to justice and the eternal struggle of light against darkness, which is life against death, will always engage a readership. It addresses the deepest anxieties of the human condition, just as religion does. Certainly the field of horror is diverse and broad enough to encompass a plurality of world views, even those that may incur the risk of eternal damnation.
My advice, if I may be so presumptuous, is that writers of all metaphysical stripes ponder their walk with whatever they conceive their Savior to be—“Just a Closer Walk With Thee”. And then write passionately about all the horrible things that will happen if they do not.
Some of the ideas touched on in this article are developed further in these earlier posts: