When I first decided to put this series together, I was planning on using several different sources as jumping off points for each post. But the more I consulted Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1, the more I realized how essential it was to providing a solid foundation for how we should look at horror cinema (and, by relation, all elements of horror culture). Thacker brings the reader to a point where they must confess three things: 1) That there are things in the natural and ‘supernatural’ realm that are hidden from humanity and outside of our complete comprehension and control, 2) That the only way the world-in-itself can show its ‘hiddenness’ is by its own self-revelation and, in the realm of horror, this revelation of ‘hiddenness’ is often frightening or hideous to humanity and 3) Humanity is not in control of the world, or realms, around them and that the Planet (world-without-us) could, indeed, exist without us. Basically what Thacker does is destroy a humanist conception of the universe much like Copernicus did in ripping the earth from the center of the solar system. At the end of the day, Thacker and, hopefully, this series have shown that the supreme realization for us is: we are not nearly as important or central as we think we are.
But as successful as Thacker’s argument is in drawing out human fragility and lack of centrality, it does so without giving us something to hope for in the face of that extremely dark (and rather depressing) realization. All we have now is a truthful understanding of our mortality and a conception that the world we live in is larger, and, often, darker, than we first were willing to recognize. But where is the hope in the face of these horrors that are being revealed from the cosmic void? If what Thacker argues is it, then we end up in the same plight of Albert Camus in his famous inward struggle with the Absurd in The Stranger. We begin to see hope as an error. A mere human-created illusion for the ‘later-on’:
In a universe suddenly divested of illusion and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land.
At best, we become mere fodder for the “ghoulies, ghosties, and long-legged beasties” and, at the worst, we buckle under the burden of this cosmic horror and turn on others, or, even, ourselves.
Yet still we hope, and we do so in the midst of the absurdity and our inability to fathom all that is around us, seen and unseen. Thacker is not the first to attempt to rip hope from the cold and weary hands of the masses–a project which never has and never will work. Hope is ever enduring. In the face of cosmic horror, whether it be inhuman killers, zombies, creatures, or even the, mere, dark night of the soul, hope still comes raging through our minds. While hope is not often an element of the descriptive nature of cosmic horror, it is man’s first revelation after groping around in the darkness for so long.
Some would say that Christians are in a (unique?) position to recognize the descriptive truth of the narratives found in horror films, the very same truths at which Thacker, in his own way, arrives. Indeed, believers can only benefit from thinking on the truth behind these films: that we are fragile, that we do not have control, and that there is a bigger and darker nature of the world that we do not completely comprehend. Scott Derrickson, director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Sinister (2012)–and a major starter for my thinking on finding the intersections of Christianity and horror–states this truth in his essay, “Behind the Lens: A Christian Filmmaker in Hollywood”:
The church loves truth in its prescriptive form, truth that says, “Here’s what’s wrong, and here’s how you fix it. Here’s the diagnosis, and here’s the cure.” The truth of the artist, although far more often descriptive, is still truth. Church people are uncomfortable with too much descriptive truth. It’s often ugly, confusing, disorienting, problematic, wild and sensual. But prescriptive and descriptive truth don’t cancel each other out. They coexist. Films and screenplays can contain prescriptive truth, but unless they’re also saturated with descriptive truth they won’t work. The most common problem of Christian art [is] that it tries to get to grace too quickly. It’s uncomfortable with tension. It’s uneasy with any questions left hanging.
The horror that presents itself day-in and day-out in reality gives us the chance to not get to grace too quickly and to struggle with the descriptive truths with which evil in this very world can challenge us. In some senses, if we are able to approach horror cinema (and its personifications of evil) in a reflective and honest way without jumping to ‘prescriptive’ diagnoses, then we may become better at being reflective and honest in the face of the everyday horror that fills the news headlines. Reflection on the descriptive nature of evil, or cosmic horror (if you will), regardless of the medium, can afford us a more comprehensive understanding of what was required of Christ’s death on the cross and may drive us to the awe-ful love of God. Instead of faltering in the face of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, we should, instead, come to embrace the “holy terror” of which Arthur Machen spoke. Jonathan Ryan, in an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” for Christianity Today, describes Machen’s answer to his contemporary’s cosmic horror:
Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God—or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.” Through this sacred terror, he created stories richer and more terrifying than anything Lovecraft could conceive. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again.”
Most modern horror filmmakers avoid Machen’s worldview; they may not like Lovecraft’s cosmic horror of despair, but to confront Machen’s hope-filled holy terror may prove too much for the imagination.
The grounding of the hope that we have in the midst of the despair lurking in the shadows of the hidden world is a holy and loving God. Much like the entities of horror films, and as Machen, himself, saw, the God of the Bible reveals himself from ‘behind the veil.’ God descends. This revelation, Christ, the God-man, is the object of our hope. We don’t reveal God, he reveals himself to us. “I once was lost, but now I am found/ Was blind, but now I see” is the anthem of the weary traveler who has seen the darkest reaches of the ‘kosmos’ (or world, in the negative sense). Unlike the self-revelations that the ‘Planet’ may afford us, the self-revelations of our God are good, life-affirming and proclaim our freedom from the bondage that this world places us in. This dichotomy is summed up perfectly in Galatians 4: 3-7 (NKJV):
Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
And just in case you want more Lovecraft, here is the ever-classic, though cheesy, 1985 adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West-Reanimator” in its entirety.