Saturday, April 2, 2016

Horror Theory: Preliminary Thoughts on a Blasphemous Trinity

Over the past two years The R’lyeh Tribune has featured summaries and discussion of important theoretical views of horror entertainment.  Examples have included applications of Marxism and Freud, H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism, Kirk Schneider’s hyperconstriction/hyperexpansion model and so forth.  There are other views yet to be investigated:  feminist and gay perspectives, sociological studies, and examinations of regional or ethnic horror.

This essay gathers and codifies some random suspicions and speculations of my own.  These have appeared haphazardly in various earlier posts.  Lacking credentials, specific academic training, or professional experience in these matters, I admit that for now these ideas must remain the bloviations of an amateur, until such time they can be shored up with reliable arguments and actual supportive evidence.  Nevertheless, as an American, I have the constitutional right, indeed the God-given right, to express whatever opinion I may have, regardless of how uninformed or even misinformed I may be about the subject.  Finally, no claim to originality is made about these notions, nor can be, ever.

It seems that horror, religion and the psychological process that creates dreams, visions and nightmares form an unholy triumvirate, each contributing substance and inspiration to the other two, and all derived from the same underlying material.  Which material is comprised of the primordial fear of death, the terror of life’s ultimate meaninglessness, and the intuition that other realities exist beyond the one we know.  Like that more familiar and comforting Trinity with a capital ‘T’, this one consists of three different entities united in one substance.  If you share this perception, then the scope of horror is quite wide, capable of filling every corner of our lives with what the disciple Paul calls "fear and trembling".
What is this base material from which “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind” emerges, along with its sublimely intricate expression in religious ritual, and its more prosaic therapeutic appearance in horror entertainment?  Traditionally, this substance has been called the unconscious or the subconscious mind.

But it seems presumptuous and defensive to call it this, as if it is merely the opposite of what we experience as consciousness, or worse, that it is somehow beneath the operations of our conscious selves.  It may indeed lie beneath our nominally conscious mind, but more like the ocean lies beneath a boat—enormous, powerful and overwhelming.

In fact, it is not un- or sub- at all; it is the consciousness, a vast roiling dark sea on which our puny daytime awareness floats precariously, a tiny, lantern-lit boat, easily snuffed out in a big wave.  Perhaps it is a microcosm of the original void, still present inside every human skull, which was “formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep”, across which hovered a spirit, a manifestation of horror and awe.  What does this base material know that we do not know?

H.P. Lovecraft, in his nearly scriptural work, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) says:

There is here involved psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it, and too much a part of our innermost biological heritage to lose keen potency over a very important, though not numerically great, minority of our species.

He is referring to the creators of weird literature and presumably also those who enthusiastically consume it.  More recently, Robert M. Price, in the essay that introduces his wonderful anthology Acolytes of Cthulhu, Short Stories Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (2014) playfully compares horror fandom to the behavior of religious cults, and defends Lovecraft enthusiasts against the depredations of “the unregenerate mundane Wilson”, (that is, the notorious Lovecraft critic Edmund Wilson).  At the same time, Price makes some insightful comments about the nature of reality, the creation of horror literature, religion and morality:

There is no objective “real world”.  All lives are essentially scripted fictions running their course in the context of some fictive narrative universe or other.  Everyone is a “creative anachronist”, but we Lovecraftians, like our cousins in other Buddha-fields of fandom, have elected to live a minority, sectarian existence…

Price later on makes an important and useful point about religion and morality.  Religion does not have to be about ultimate and absolute truths, much less about moral codes, an attitude he describes as “a sad and Puritanical definition of religiosity”.  (As a Calvinist-sympathizer, this comment was somewhat chastening to me.) 

Price sees religion as being an aesthetic experience, one that can nurture our imaginations.  Religion as a creative experience, an art form, is something we can “agree to disagree about”, while at the same time arriving at a practical consensus about how to live with one another peacefully and respectfully—Price would separate religious experience entirely from morality and ethics.  Couldn’t an attitude like this help us circumvent so much of the religiously inspired violence in the world today?

Probably not, but it’s worth a try.

Religious practice containing elements of Lovecraftian horror to create aesthetic, meaningful experiences already exists among some occult practitioners, and has been developing since at least the early 1970s, if not before.  S.T. Joshi and John Steadman, among others, have commented extensively about this.  And though he—it?—has not been generally accepted by mainstream congregations, Cthulhu as many know has now appeared as a contender in the 2016 presidential election, (see

It does seem that in contemporary society, given the decadent and dwindling status of traditional organized religions, horror entertainment functions as displaced religiosity.  Think of all the slasher flicks and torture porn in which teenagers or college kids—the target of campus evangelization efforts—are impaled, dismembered or worse for some lapse of moral judgement or for committing some injustice.  In the absence of religious orthodoxy, do we turn to horror instead for guidance, catharsis and redemption?
Dreams, nightmares, “visions”—these inform horror literature but are also cited in the holy scriptures of most of the world’s religions.  Numerous examples could be given: the dozens of prophetic visions recorded in the Bible, the numerous dream diary notes of Lovecraft and his colleagues, living and dead which find themselves transmuted into strangely compelling horror fiction.  It would be interesting to examine how a given specimen of dream material is determined, either individually or collectively, to be merely a nightmare, the germ of a horror tale or myth, a prophetic vision, or divinely inspired revelation.

Dreaming of course is ultimately a neurochemical process mediated by physiological structures in the brain.  It has a material basis, despite its use in supernatural undertakings.  Portions of the brain that are active during dream cycles are determined by human genetics.  While neuroscientists have not demonstrated the presence of any localized “God spot” responsible for religious experience, it appears that humans—in fact all mammals—are wired for dreaming, and in this respect have a capacity for visionary religious experiences of some kind.  Or visionary horror.  It is “part of our innermost biological heritage” as Lovecraft says.  It is still not clear why this should be so.
Nightmare, horror, religion:  can these nebulous and disturbing aspects of the primary consciousness, over which our tiny daytime sense-of-self floats—can these be personified, as the Greeks did with their pantheon of deities who represented elemental forces?  Can they be assigned positions like the Members of that other, better known, better trusted Trinity?  I cannot be the only one who has noticed that H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith occupy roughly the same places in this blasphemous Weird Trinity as the afore-mentioned Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.   

Isn’t Lovecraft—who often referred to himself as “Grandpa”—the father god, with his Old Testament preoccupation with idolatry and unhallowed stone circles and nameless rites on hilltops?  Isn’t Howard his son, whose superhuman characters cast out, (and behead) demons in between philosophical speculations about the nature of Crom, the other gods, and their proper relationship with humankind?  Finally, isn’t Smith the decadent spirit who helps believers navigate the darkening ages via necromancy, sorcery and cunning?  Are these three, all individuals, yet all derived from the same substance, indeed the same publication, worthy of our worship?  Is there a hell for us if we give it to them?

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