Despite all sophisticated or resentful denials, the reading of imaginative literature remains a quest to overcome the isolation of the individual consciousness.
—Harold Bloom, On Modern Horror
When I began reading in my youth I understood intuitively what later I would begin to know in earnest: we all need to know that someone, somewhere, in life or thought shares in our secret beliefs. For the most part we feel our way into thought in the beginning, we seek others thoughts attentively for agreement or disagreement with our hunger for that indefinable rapport. Some find their answers in religion or philosophy, they find certain thoughts or ideas that lead either to a life of ritual and normalized devotion or rigor that becomes for them a safety net against the unknown. When they find such a secure haven against the threats of emotion or reason then they stop thinking for themselves and let the system of philosophy or religion take over so that they no longer have to go it alone. Others who cannot accept such systems of belief either in religion or philosophy continue in their search for something else, for a knowledge which no human has ever penned nor some philosophical tract or religious scriptures put into words or actions. Unsatisfied with the known worlds of philosophy or religion these seekers after forbidden knowledge continue, alone, and in isolation; and, yet, here and there they see glimmers of that dark light jut out of the fragmentary pages of some book of madman’s eye, a hint of terrible knowledge that offers a doorway into the unknown. The closer one gets to that threshold of unknowing the more one knows that deep and dreadful sense of horror and fear that the truth one is about to uncover might just be too much, that it might lead one to death or madness; and, yet, we persist, we continue in our task to discover in outward form the dark hinterlands of our own inner experience. Why? Why do we love to court disaster more than safety and security? Why do some of us push ourselves to the limits of the human? Why enter into those corrupted and ruinous worlds of unknowing that can only lead us into insanity of suicide?
When we come upon certain writers whose thought seem to verify the secret beliefs about existence we have always believed but never had words or thoughts for then we feel a desperate need to read and reread everything of that author’s works and biography to know what it is that he/she has so carefully discovered to the point of obsession. When we come upon such authors we feel a certain shock, a sudden realization that this other has said what I have ‘felt’ for so long but never had an inkling how to put visualize or think it. This awakening takes us out of ourselves, takes us out of our isolated unknowing and helps us realize that we are not alone, that, yes, there is at least one other person who has shared the dark contours of our hopes, dreams, and fears.
I’ve read vast troves of work in literature, philosophy, science(s)and history, yet it is the imaginative worlds of crime and horror fiction that have awakened in me a sense of the dark and terrible truths lying in the abyss beneath the everyday surfaces of our lives. It is from these authors that I discovered the things a yearn for and the things I fear both in others and in myself, so that it is from them that I discovered that primordial sense of just how slipper the passage is from pleasure to pain. Anxiety in the face of the unknown overwhelms us all to the point that we need certain fictions to mask the intolerable sense that reality is not as it seems. Many as suggested in the beginning of my essay find in philosophy or religion acceptable fictions to keep the ruinous truth of this darker world at bay. They hide in the comfortable zones of reason or the irrational realms of ritual and liturgy to assuage the sadomasochistic pleasure/pain at the heart of the Real.
“To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle [….] Without cruelty there is no festival.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals / Ecce Homo
H.P. Lovecraft in his essay on Supernatural Horror offered a succinct statement on this dark secret at the heart of fear:
Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure, and because our feelings toward the beneficent aspects of the unknown have from the first been captured and formalized by conventional religious rituals, it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.1
In that long trek of our early hominid ancestors out of the African jungles and savannahs to the far corners of time and space, unto to the final worlds of our present global civilization we were shaped by the forces of mystery and fear. Our need to combat that fear and the mysteries of the universe and unknowing surrounding us on all sides led us to develop strange tales of evil and the monstrous to circumscribe the human realms of safety from the dark worlds just outside us. The wastes, deserts, jungles, ocean and mountains of the inhabitable extremes were populated by us with demons and fairies and forces of darkness and light. Out of these hundreds of thousands of years of evolution we evolved patterns that would shape our humanity, tales to protect us from the terrors just beyond the campfire and safety of the hearth. In our own cynical age we skip by this long history as if it were contemptible, as if we were all moderns and secular atheists who have no need for the childish superstitions and folkways of our ancestral dreamtime. Then why do we crave the darkness, why to we fill our cinemas with slasher and cosmic horror and devastation? Why to we love superhero comics brought to life on the screen, fill our eyes with Tolkien’s hobbits, and feel the desperate need to walk with the Walking Dead on television? Why so many films of crime and sex where humans perpetrate the bloodiest and most nasty crimes upon each other: the madness, obsessions, and the deranged mentation’s of the most corrupt and evil creatures to mask the human. Why are we so fascinated with awe and fear?
Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.
—H. P. Lovecraft
Watching the History or Travel Channels of late I’ve been fascinated by the strange superstitions surrounding America’s love affair with alien history and ghosts. There is a grand narrative or conspiracy of fear presented weekly on these channels that bring forward men and women who seem to be experiencing events beyond the normal worlds we all inhabit. Alien visitation and adduction, government cover-ups, creatures, monsters, disappearances, ghost hunters, mediums, messages from the dead, and malevolent beings from the hinterlands of some multidimensional realm just beyond our senses. All these programs seem to sell, repeating the same stories over and over to the point that they replace reality with these fantastic worlds. Suddenly the reality of modernity and the Enlightenment vanish into the cosmic underground replaced by these paranormal worlds of monstrous imagination. It’s as if the mundane truth of our work-a-day world of political turmoil and anguish were being channeled off into the nightmares of the outer dark. What dawned on me after questioning other members of my family and friends as to why they like to watch these festivals of horror and alien imaginings. People seem to watch and read about such things to escape their own fears of the unknown. If they can believe that others are experiencing anguish and anxiety in their lives being shaped by hideous forces outside their control it brings them comfort to know they are not alone. Fear of the unknown become familiar if it is garbed in the strange and alien fictions of shared illusion. Aliens and ghosts are our secular world’s answer to religious doubt and fear of the dark throngs of our ancestral nightmares. We may have left the jungles of the African veldt long ago but the hauntings of that primal world still exist in our reptilian brain and will not be easily dismissed. We are haunted by the secret worlds of our ancestral anxieties and need our fiction to keep those monstrous worlds at bay. Even in an age of science, science has yet to dissuade us of our primal terrors.
Humans cannot live in a vacuum of doubt and anguish even in a secular age, they need fictions and narratives that will help them put the demons in their lives to rest, to push back the darkness and the unknown fears surrounding them in emotional anguish. Humans need security blankets and will if it is presented in a logical and acceptable, even reasonable manner believe in the most irrational ideas, notions, and unreason. We need our illusions as long as they are shared by others, even the fake one’s that hide from us the truth of the real historical forces that are determining our lives not as part of some global conspiracy but as part of the elite ministrations of political ideologists and their rich and conspiratorial controllers. The true conspiracists are those who promote it rather than its victims. Our hollow lords in high places build our nightmares out of the mass mythologies of our secular age to keep our fears occupied by false worlds rather than the economic and political nightmares that are all too real and discomforting. We are all slaves to our own fears and imaginations, and would rather believe in the fictional nightmares of imaginal fabrications than in the literal darkness of orchestrated political and social enslavement.
Supernatural or paranormal tales and fictions assuage that pain and anxiety in a form that puts a distance between it and an all too real mundane world of work and anxiety; and it’s this distanciation, this distancing from the Real that motivates us and keeps us chained to the myths of ancestral fear and terror. We need our illusions because the real world is too close to us, too much with us now and always. To imagine, to image forth and put a mask or face on the dark contours of our fears and terrors, to allow the demons of the mind and heart to roam in objective and fantastic narratives is easier for us to control than the real world of our lives. The illusive realms of hauntings, the unseen, and the unknown are much easier to control through imaginative need than the real world of political and social chaos, therefore we fill our lives with literary and filmic worlds of monsters, aliens, and criminals to keep the truth of our enslaved lives hidden and invisible. We believe that if we can make the darkness visible in art, literature, or film we need not deal with our own personal darkness. So we build our worlds of nightmare to protect us from the uncertainty of our actual lives. If we can unmask the demon beyond the threshold we believe we can control it rather than ‘it’ us; and, yet this mistaken belief is the root of all war and mayhem, for we are the perpetrators of a universal horror show that is all too real and manifest as the permanent form of fear and terror in our lives.
- Lovecraft, H. P.. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature: Revised and Enlarged (Kindle Locations 356-360). Hippocampus Press. Kindle Edition.