Saturday, September 27, 2014

Horror Theory: Your Mind as Slide Projector

It seems part of our natural inclination toward idolatry and hubris that we repeatedly compare our minds to some technology we have created.  There have been many examples of this throughout history, involving new, complex or marvelous inventions as the subject of the comparison.  Thus over the centuries the workings of the human mind have been compared to that of steam engines, light bulbs, electrical currents, telephone switchboards, and more recently, computers. 

Current attempts by some neuroscientists to reduce mental and even spiritual phenomena to an elaborate calculation involving genetics and neurochemistry at the cellular level is also an example of this metaphorical thinking. But it is an idolatry; the transcendent quality of the human mind and soul will hardly be lodged in the interstices of matter.  In our self-congratulatory awe of the machines we have created we forget that we ourselves our created.  “What a piece of work is man!” as Shakespeare has Hamlet say.  To be fair, the human mind can seem overwhelmingly complex both in structure and activity.  In situations like this, it is common to use metaphorical thinking in order to understand an entity that is subtle and mysterious.

Metaphorical thinking attempts to explain the unknown in terms of the known.  It chiefly involves drawing superficial comparisons between something not fully understood and something that is concrete and familiar, or at least more readily comprehended.  Metaphorical thinking does not produce knowledge per se, though it often masquerades as such.  As in poetry, it serves principally to alter one’s perspective or point of view—at least one’s appreciation—of some object.  Metaphorical thinking is crucial to politics, advertising, religion, philosophy and psychology.

An early example of understanding the human mind in terms of a new and popular technology is described in Terry Castle’s “Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie”.  The extract that I have is from Ken Gelder’s fascinating anthology of horror criticism, The Horror Reader (2000).  Phantasmagoria is defined these days as “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined”, as Merriam Webster’s dictionary puts it. 

We have all experienced phantasmagoria in literature, film, at rock concerts, and after imbibing certain substances.  Castle reminds us that phantasmagoria once specifically referred to a technological marvel of the early 1800s, a precursor to the modern slide projector, (and later cinematic technology), called the “magic lantern”.  The device was used to stage “ghost shows” which were immensely popular in France and England at the time.  Castle describes the magic lantern, invented by Athanasius Kircher in the 1600s, as follows:

“Kircher’s device, from which all of our modern instruments for slide and cinematic projection derive, consisted of a lantern containing a candle and concave mirror.  A tube with a convex lens at each end was fitted into an opening in the side of the lantern, while a groove in the middle of the tube held a small image painted on glass.  When candlelight was reflected by the concave mirror onto the first lens, the lens concentrated the light on the image on the glass slide.  The second lens in turn magnified the illuminated image and projected it onto a wall or gauze screen.  In darkness, with the screen itself invisible, images could be made to appear like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air.”

Castle goes on to describe the showmanship involved in conducting a typical magic lantern show, which used scary and gothic imagery from history, mythology and biblical themes, set to creepy music and sound effects, and projected in sepulchral locations.  The illusions were of sufficient quality to frighten many in the audience.  These shows were very popular, so much so, that by the 1860s technological advancements created a market for “do-it-yourself” magic lantern kits for domestic use.

Because of the technology’s popularity, references to phantasmagoria began to show up in the horror literature of the time; Castle cites examples from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) and especially Ligeia (1838).  Describing the images depicted on tapestries and drapes in the bridal chamber, the narrator of Ligeia, who is admittedly an imbiber of opium, remarks:

“To one entering the room, they bore the appearance of simple monstrosities; but upon a further advance, this appearance gradually departed; and, step by step, rounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk. The phantasmagoric effect was vastly heightened by the artificial introduction of a strong continual current of wind behind the draperies—giving a hideous and uneasy animation to the whole.”

Fans of H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith can probably recall similar passages from the more hallucinatory passages of stories like The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943) or Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933) among others.  Though produced nearly a century later, these stories seem to contain an echo of phantasmagoric imagery.

Clark Ashton Smith, for example, makes explicit reference to the magic lantern in his The Red World of Polaris, (an interesting story retrieved from obscurity in 2003).  An alien overlord shares the contents of its mind with the crew of the starship Alcyone, using a similar device:

“One of the delegation left the room forthwith, and returned with a singular instrument, scarcely comparable in its form to anything used on earth, with many lenses of a transparent material arranged behind each other in a frame of spiral rods and arabesque filaments…There, as the men gazed, a picture suddenly sprang into life, as if from the slide of a magic lantern, and filled the entire opposite face of the wall.”

Another example of phantasmagoric imagery can be found in the climax of Lovecraft’s The Haunter of the Dark (1936), when the now supernaturally disordered mind of Robert Blake can no longer produce a grammatical sentence:

“…There is a monstrous odour…senses transfigured…boarding at that tower window cracking and giving way…I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wings—Yog-Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye…”

Castle notes that phantasmagoric imagery in literature often indicated the operations of a diseased, traumatized or intoxicated mind.  From here the technological metaphor appears in psychological speculations about the nature of hallucinations and perceptions of supernatural phenomena.  Phantasmagoria shows appeared at a time when the rationalism of the so-called Enlightenment was being applied to the debunking of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena, as well as the broader effort to understand the human psyche.  It was a ready-made technological metaphor; soon, supernatural phenomena were seen as projections of a diseased mind, just as the magic lantern projected contrived images of ghosts.

That images of supernatural horror may be projections of the mind instead of perceptions of external phenomena is seen in many ghost stories as well as horror, science fiction and fantasy generally.  One example that comes to mind is the Freudian entity that attacks members of the starship crew in the magnificent 1956 film Forbidden Planet.  It turns out that a scientist has been using alien technology to amplify his intelligence, which has also resulted in projecting and giving form to repressed feelings of anger and rage—“Monsters from the Id!”

Castle makes the astute point that rationalist attempts to debunk and internalize supernatural phenomena as products of a disturbed psyche have in effect “spectralized” the mind.  Insofar as frightening thoughts and images can recur and terrify, the mind may be said to be haunted and disturbed by phenomena no less real because internal.  Instead of explaining away supernatural phenomena, Castle feels that the rationalists merely blurred the lines between reality and the products of a disordered mind.

A special case is the nature of dreams, which Castle does not address in her article. Nor are there persuasive explanations from the rationalist camp for these nightly phenomena that we all experience.  In our dreams we create entire worlds ex nihilo with which we interact as if they were real, in which “we live and move and have our being.”  Where do these worlds come from?  What sustains them while we are there?  What sustains the real world we think we know?

The phantasmagoria shows of the early 19th century illustrated the wonderful tension and ambivalence between supernaturalism and rationalism.  As in our movie theatres today, audiences knew that the illusions were artificially created, technologically contrived.  Yet they were still terrified by them and sought them out, even applauding improvements in the effectiveness of the “special effects”.  From a psychological and even religious perspective one can ask why—if we in fact no longer believe in ghosts, demons, monsters, and the like—we seek ever more graphic and technical proof of their existence in our horror entertainments.  Is it that we are merely trying to get a closer look at the contents of our minds?  


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