AFRAID OF THE DARK Part 2:THE COAL CELLAR

A short blog post today as I get ready to head up to Asheville North Carolina to talk about Monsters in America at Malaprops bookstore. I’ll be there at 7:00 PM and will talk about “Love and Monsters” to get you ready for a scary Valentines Day.

But I wanted to continue my previous reflection on Monsters and evil, something that has become a real interest of mine because of some other writing projects I’m currently involved in. The focus here is on the idea of “natural evil” rather than “moral evil” although I’m increasingly seeing these categories as more intertwined that philosophers and theologians often claim.

I mentioned Francois Flahault’s wonderful little book Malice in my last post and I want to say just a bit more about it. Flahault spends a lot of time on Shelley’s Frankenstein in the book but he also tells us a bit about Frankenstein as a creature in his childhood imagination, an imagination fueled by Hammer film’s Curse of Frankenstein rather than the James Whale 1931 model.

Flahault tells of having to go alone into the coal cellar during childhood winters a place he described as barely lit by a “soot covered, dim bulb.” Almost as soon as he started filling the scuttle, he would sense a looming presence standing behind him, one with “giants bulk and stranglers hands.’ The monster at his back.

Finishing his task, he would run from the dark cellar into the well-lit family room where life proceeded as normal. In fact, he remembers that his family often looked at him strangely, as if wondering why he had rushed from the cellar as if he were pursued. Of course, he was being pursued by a Thing whose power dropped away as soon as he was back in the world of the light and the security a lucky child feels with their parents.

“All children are familiar with experiences of this kind,” Flahault writes “and, like passionate lovers who desperately strive to be free of an impossible love, with the passing of time they forget in the end.”

What did Flahault face in the cellar? What do we all experience when we are children in the dark or adults in the dark? What waits for us in the horror film or in the hospital room?

As I noted in my last post, evil may spring from our desire to defend our borders. But that desire is not in itself evil. Like the children we once were, we insistently seek to establish a self, one surrounded by protection and security and by other selves who love and protect us.

Lucky children get that but still fear those moments when they must enter their personal coal cellars. Lucky adults get it to but the hulking presence, what Flahault calls “the specter of absolute evil,” still presses behind us.

But does the infinite have to terrify? Is the presence that lurks behind us there to destroy? What do our encounters with evil, in all its forms, actually do to us as opposed to what we are afraid they will do?

Flahault’s experience makes me think of one of my favorite books from the last year. In Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls, a terrifying creature comes to see young Conor at midnight. Indeed, he comes again and again and seems to want something, seems to demand something.

We think, along with young Conor, that the giant thing at the window threatens. It has come to rend him to pieces as monsters do. We then begin to think the Ancient Thing is not a monster but a friend to help, Something old and of the timeless earth that will save Conor’s dying mother.

But it turns out that none of these things are true. The Thing that has come to Conor is indeed a monster. But it’s not there to save him or to sever his head. It wants to extract from him a terrible truth and it will stop at nothing till he screams this truth out, vomits it up, pulls it from inside him like an infected tooth.

What are we looking for in a horror movie? I think we are trying to negotiate our relationship to absolute evil.  I think we are entertaining ourselves with the darkness that takes away from us what we think we need in order to find the things we really need. And what we need more than anything is to speak hard truths…even if they have to be torn from us by the Thing in the dark.

Those who criticize horror movies, from all sorts of angles, want to protect us, want to make us feel secure, want to make us think that there is no such thing as the coal cellar.

We should militate against any effort to take our monsters away from us.  I say in Monsters in America that I “take my monsters seriously.” I meant this in a historical sense. As a historian, I think that understanding monstrous beliefs in every era of history helps to illuminate and explain that historical moment. But I also take them seriously in a much more existential sense.

Monsters and the horror they bring open up new possibilities for the human person, ways to make sense of the darkness of the coal cellar. They don’t turn on the light; they don’t take away our fears. But they teach us that we don’t have to run away from what we cant see, that darkness made visible offers its own kind of illumination.

I had hoped to talk in this post about the idea of “wrathful deities,” a concept from Buddhism that I think is especially useful in helping us to understand monsters and their relationship to the complicated notion of evil.  More on that in a future post.

We’ll take a break next week from all this oh-so-serious discussion and talk about “Love and Monsters” and my time working with Liisa Ladouceur and Banger films on their wonderful forthcoming project Satan: The Documentary.

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