The following is an abstract of a talk I gave at the UU Gage Hall Forum in Charleston on November 4. Pick up a copy of Monsters in America here.
In the final episode of last season’s Walking Dead (“The Dying of the Light”), we get the following exchange:
Rick: You’re a man of God…have some faith
Herschel: “I don’t pretend to understand God’s plan. Christ promised the resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.
This is one of the many examples of how religion and horror intersect in popular culture. Moreover, some of our personal and historical experiences with religion are frankly horrific…much of religion depends, it’s easy to prove, on a invoking a sense of terror and creating images of the evil and monstrous Other.
Are there more subtle ways in which horror and the sacred intertwine?
On Halloween, I spoke at a Zombie symposia sponsored by Emory Medical School and the Emory Center for Ethics. Neuroscientists talked about zombie brains (which parts work and which don’t), philosophers speculated about zombies as an illustration of the problem of determinism versus free will and I think I was there mainly to talk about how awesome zombies are and to ask the question “why can’t we be more interested in werewolves.”
But I also spoke on a panel dedicated to religion and the zombie to speculate on possible relationships between our interest in the walking dead and matters of religious faith. And in fact, another scholar present talked about the phenomenon of “zombie theology:” and the zombie walk phenomenon which has been known to feature a “zombie Jesus” as part of the festivities.
This made me ponder a comment made by director Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro is known for, among other things, his extraordinary Pan’s Labyrinth. This is a film that features a spiritual journey through a world of monsters that reflect the real-world monstrosities of Franco’s fascist Spain.
In an interview around the time of the film’s release, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross asked Del Toro about his personal views on religion. He responded that he knew that other children spoke of accepting Jesus into their hearts but that at a certain point, he accepted the monster into his heart.
Sadly, he did not elaborate. But could the monster offer a spiritual path?
What would a theology of horror look like?
Religious traditions other than Christianity have suggested ways that the monster can be a path to spiritual authenticity. In Buddhism, for example, the “guardian demons” or “wrathful deities” are ferocious creatures but are not only not evil, they are guides to enlightenment.
The Christian tradition, in contrast, has tended to suppress its monsters and turn them into simple demons. This was certainly true as Christianity made its way through Europe in the middle ages, taking stories of giants, fairies and dragons and attributing their powers and personalities to demonic beings.
But what if we accepted the monster into our hearts instead? What would that look like? Here are several thoughts:
1.) Horror can, despite attempts to suppress or to sublimate it, offer a compelling spiritual path. And this is in part because horror threatens our boundaries. It is by nature a story of excess…creatures with too many eyes or too many heads or appetites too horrific.
This is not just about blood and gore…indeed blood and gore is not just about blood and gore. If we don’t like the viscera, it could be because our stomachs aren’t very strong. But that begs the question…what is it that troubles us so much about those kinds of images? What’s really evoking the nausea?
In his 1919 essay The Uncanny, Freud described horror as being, at root, about the fear of dismemberment. This is in turn is “gross,” repulsive to us, because it’s a fear of the destruction of the self.
And yet, this is exactly the goal at the heart of many of the world’s religious traditions, the dissolution of self or at least the dissolution of the illusion of the self. The self “coming apart” actually is for many traditions the apex of spiritual practice, rather than something to be dreaded and feared. Freddy Krueger as bodhisattva? Maybe, yes
2.) We’re not just talking her about losing the self in some kind of symbolic sense. The horror tradition could also be seen as a kind of sentiment about death, a poetry about death, sometimes a comedy about death.
Indeed, the popularity of horror films (maybe the zombie genre in particular) is something of a “return of the repressed” for western society. Much of European and American culture can be said to be in a kind of denial of death that has its roots in the period between and following the world wars, when historical catastrophe became too much too bear, the body count simply too high.
We became a culture that pretended it did not have to die.
The horror tradition allows death to remerge in our consciousness. It’s a way to meditate on the meaning of one’s own demise, not unlike (as John W. Morehead has pointed out in an essay in The Undead and Theology) the graveyard poets of the 18th century.
3,) Finally, for those of us who are non-theists, indeed for those of us who are essentially nihilists when t comes to questions of ultimate meaning, the horror tradition offers a reflection on the nature of unmeaning.
Certain elements of every horror film develops the notion of the absurd and raises questions about the significance of human beings when so much violence can be done to them, sometimes by creatures more or less indifferent in their cruelty.
This can evoke a kind of contemplation, a contemplative attitude toward the nature of the universe that George Santayana described as “an immense engine” both “beautiful and cruel.” The insight that the universe can be cruel, that it can be full of terror, does not have to insight madness (though in all Lovecraft’s tales it does). It can also evoke a sense of wonder, a kind of ecstatic atheism.
This of course also involves an encounter that we don’t especially like or want to have, harsher realities about life and existence that our culture’s hyperrealities are meant to help us hide away from.
One of my favorite novels from the last couple of years is Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls. An ancient wild and forestry Thing comes to the bedroom of a young boy night after night, terrifying him and demanding something of him…asking him to tell a truth. Conor’s mother is dying of cancer and there is something he must say out loud to himself to be able to be ok.
The Monster becomes an avatar that tells him “Here is the end of the tale…all you have to do is tell the truth…if you speak the truth, you will be able to face whatever comes.”
Horror does indeed try to force on us unpleasant truths or, better, pull unpleasant truths out of us. In religious traditions from Islam to Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity, this is the beginning of wisdom.
For more of my reflections on horror and religion, see these pieces in Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Killing the Buddha. You might also be interested in an interview I did with Fangoria here.