The Evil Eye: On Apotropaic Horror

There is much to learn, boy. There are places other than here, and limits far beyond what anyone has even considered, nor dreamed of exploring.

—Matthew Bartlett,  The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities

In many ways modern horror fiction serves as an apotropaic charm to ward off the dark forces lurking both in the imagination and the world about us. Human imagination and the artistic impulse have from the beginning sought to control the deep fears and terrors of the unknown surrounding humans on all sides. From the cave paintings of Lascaux to the most daemonic art of the 21st Century the ability to visualize and capture the powers of darkness in an image thereby dispersing and warding off their destructive powers has been central to both painting and literary horror.

People once believed that the doorways and windows of buildings were particularly vulnerable to the entry or passage of evil. On churches and castles, gargoyles or other grotesque faces and figures such as sheela na gigs and hunky punks were carved to frighten away witches and other malign influences. Figures may also have been carved at fireplaces or chimneys; in some cases, simple geometric or letter carvings were used for these. When a wooden post was used to support a chimney opening, this was often an easier material for amateur carving. To discourage witchcraft, rowan wood may have been chosen for the post or mantel.

Similarly the grotesque faces and figures carved into pumpkin lanterns (and their earlier counterparts, made from turnips, swedes or beets) at Halloween are meant to avert evil: this season was Samhain, the Celtic new year. As a “time between times”, it was believed to be a period when souls of the dead and other dangerous spirits walked the earth. Many European peoples had such associations with the period following the harvest in the fall.

John H. Elliott in his massive trilogy Beware the Evil Eye Volume 1 – 3: The Evil Eye in the Bible and the Ancient World describes the power of fascination and aversion as the central motif of our ancient fears of absolute evil. From the ancient Medusa, Gorgon, and other mytho-folkloric creatures to our modern day artificial eyes of AI controlled surveillance cameras the notion of the Evil Eye as both perpetrator and apotropaic ward-charm persists.

The concept of the Evil Eye is a millennia old and geographically widespread folk belief complex and one of the most widespread and behaviorally influential beliefs in the ancient world. This belief holds that certain individuals (humans, gods, demons, animals, and mythological figures) possess an eye whose powerful glance or gaze can harm or destroy any object, animate or inanimate, on which it falls. Through the power of their eye, which can operate involuntarily as well as intentionally, such Evil Eye possessors (also known as “fascinators”) are thought capable of injuring, withering, or obliterating the health and life, means of sustenance and livelihood, familial honor, and personal well-being of their hapless victims. The Evil Eye is believed to harm nursing mothers and their babies, breast milk, fruit bearing trees, crops in the field, milking animals, and the sperm of men. All persons, things, and sound states of being, however, are deemed vulnerable, but especially children, the beautiful and successful, and what is most prized and essential to survival. The more attractive, beautiful, flourishing and outstanding the object, the more likely an attack from an Evil Eye.

Franz Mesmer theorised the existence of a natural energy transference occurring between all animated and inanimate objects; this he called “animal magnetism”, sometimes later referred to as mesmerism. Mesmer’s theory attracted a wide following between about 1780 and 1850, and continued to have some influence until the end of the 19th century. In 1843 the Scottish doctor James Braid proposed the term “hypnosis” for a technique derived from animal magnetism; today the word “mesmerism” generally functions as a synonym of “hypnosis”. Mesmerism enjoyed a success that hypnotism never has. Mesmerism was embraced by royalty. A number of creative geniuses, Dickens, Dumas, Poe and others practiced mesmerism.

Horror tales are replete with such “fascinators” from Poe to Thomas Ligotti. In Ligotti’s tale Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes the anti-hero has been invited to a local home of the nouveau riche to entertain them with the supposed parlor tricks of his mesmerists trade. When asked about his strange and fascinating eyes he says:

They ask if I had them altered in some way, suggest that I’ve tucked some strange crystallized lenses under my eyelids. I tell them no, that I was born with these singular optic organs. They’re not from some optometrist’s bag of tricks, not the result of surgical mayhem. Of course they find this hard to believe, especially when I tell them I was also born with the full powers of a master hypnotist…and from there I rapidly evolved, advancing into a mesmeric wilderness untrod before or since by any others of my calling.

—Songs of a Dead Dreamer

What’s fascinating in Ligotti’s tale is the sense of how susceptible most people are to such extraordinary powers of imagination and hidden persuasion. In this tale the dark magus of the tale’s central plot entraps his host and guests in a dream world in which a beautiful young woman performs various somnambulist tricks and performances to the delight of all. And, yet, the point of the tale, a didactic satire on those whose superficial elitism and power are show in the end to be mere facades of boredom and nullity, ends with the awakening to reality as their eyes are unleashed from the mesmerist’s trick ploys and apotropaic charms to reveal the true beauty to be a mere corpse, a grotesquerie of macabre and deathly semblance.

In her work Literature and Fascination Sibylle Baumbach reminds us that all such horror narratives or medusamorphoses simultaneously introduce and elicit fascination. Using fascination as secret strategy to draw readers into a potentially dangerous and yet irresistibly seductive narrative, they absorb strategies of attraction and repulsion, alternately releasing these forces as their tales unfold to excite and torment our imagination and bind us to the reading experience. As argued, medusamorphoses, however, do not end here. While consistently applying fascination’s dual mechanisms to draw readers in, they acquire an apotropaic function. These narratives of fascination reflect upon, and even expose, the luring powers they exert. They reveal their techniques, unveil key mechanisms of fascination and, as a result, alert readers to their extreme forces of duality. They disclose and develop strategies to overcome fascination to sustain narrative progression, facilitating readers’ understanding of their tensions and their release and opening up a meta-discourse that allows for deep reflections upon mechanisms of narrative seduction and cognitive disorientation, which are at once unsettling and enticing. (Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2015 edition (July 30, 2015) 253)

Francis Bacon, philosopher and essayist, in his essay “On Envy” would elaborate on such powers of the evil eye:

There be none of the affections which have been noted to fascinate or bewitch, but love and envy. They both have vehement wishes; they frame themselves readily into imaginations and suggestions, and they come easily into the eye, especially upon the presence of the objects, which are the points that conduce to fascination, if any such thing there be. We see, likewise, the Scripture calleth envy an evil eye, and the astrologers call the evil influences of the stars evil aspects, so that there seemeth to be acknowledged, in the act of envy, an ejaculation or irradiation of the eye; nay, some have been so curious as to note, that the times when the stroke or percussion of an envious eye doth most hurt, are when the party envied is beheld in glory or triumph, for that sets an edge upon envy; and besides, at such times, the spirits of the person envied do come forth most into the outward parts, and so meet the blow.

Thomas Mann in his great tale of boyish love Death in Venice would describe the power of the puer aeternus (or “beautiful boy”) to fascinate and mesmerize:

Aschenbach could no longer relax in his seat. He sat bolt upright as if about to commence some sort of defense or flight. But the laughter, the hospital smell wafting up to him and the beautiful boy’s proximity combined to mesmerize his head and senses in an unbreakable, unescapable dream spell. In the general bustle and confusion, he found the courage to glance over at Tadzio, and as he did, he could see that the beautiful boy, on returning his look, also kept a straight face, as if he were patterning his own behavior and expression after Aschenbach’s, as if the general merriment could have no power over him as long as the older man didn’t join in. This childlike and insinuating imitativeness had something so disarming, indeed overwhelming, about it that the gray-haired Aschenbach had to force himself not to bury his face in his hands. It also dawned on him that Tadzio’s habit of getting up and taking in air might actually be a kind of gasp, perhaps a constriction in the chest. “He’s sickly, he’s probably not long for the world,” Aschenbach thought again in that matter-of-fact way that is sometimes the strange product of emancipated intoxication and longing. And pure protective love, along with a certain extravagant satisfaction, filled his heart.

—Thomas Mann, Death in Venice and Other Stories

This sense of fascination and longing, a sense of yearning involved in the powers of the evil eye to lure and allure, to control as if from a distance, as if by magic or some psychic or vitalistic power of hidden persuasion seems to be at the core of such tales.

Edgar Allan Poe saw Mesmerism as an “illuminating force” that is capable of binding the mind and body. He has discussed the topic in: “Mesmeric Revelation,” “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” narrated the use of  msemeristic arts to hypnotize his dying friend M. Valdemar, who will stay in mesmeric trance also post mortem. Experiment of such kind had never been conducted before, so the results were completely unexpected to every participant. Mesmerism was meant to relieve symptoms of illnesses and heal the patient. As M. Valdemar however was in the state of dying, mesmerised  hours before his expected death, the hypothesis of the experiment was to separate the mind from the body and the aim to see how long and to what extent death could be postponed.

A modern day inheritor of this tradition of the macabre and grotesque Matthew M. Bartlett in his recent collection The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities describe the effects of fascination to lure our imaginations into such strange places when the protagonist of a short tale relates how as a young boy, having grown up in a strict Catholic family he’d seen a fascinating poster of a mesmerist magus on display in a glass-cage:

Greyson had become interested in magic not because of having seen a performance nor perused a book, but because of a poster. In a glass display adjacent to the door of the Civic Hall, dramatically lit from below, the illustration depicted a long-limbed Spettrini on a field of purple, a gothic iron fence with intertwined skulls and snakes in the foreground and tilting and split gravestones behind him. He was dressed like a vampire, in a tuxedo with a black and red cape, his fingers bent, frozen in mid-gesticulation, his nails black and long. Between his hands a bat hovered upside down in streams of psychic energy, drawn by the artist as one might sketch a range of hillocks. One thin eyebrow was arched and his hair, black as an oil slick on a moonless night, was combed back and plastered flat to his cranium. His mustache was waxed and stuck out from the sides of his face like pipe cleaners. The very words on the poster seized Greyson’s imagination. Enchantments. Levitation. Necromancy. Resurrection. Its purpose was to advertise Spettrini’s upcoming performance at that very hall…

—Matthew Bartlett,  The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities

Greyson would go on to become Spettrini’s student, enter the dark magus’s world of mesmerism and magick. In his later years as his powers began to wain, after his body and mind gave way to the entropic pull of death and decay he would once again discover his old master in a stark way. His old mentor had discovered the secret passageways between worlds, opened the portals to those infernal regions of magick wherein the allurements of the evil eye entrap us in the wilderness of power and illusion. Here Greyson would here the voice of his master edging out of the bleak abyss of blackness: “Come back to me, it said. I have so much to teach. There are passageways to be conjured, paths to be struck through the walls that confine us to this world.” Even as Greyson escapes to the safety of the road and his speeding car he will turn one last time like Lot’s wife to espy the fatal scene:

White and black hairs were sprouting on the roof of the house, crawling up like a profusion of snakes. The dormer windows went white, and eyeballs, blue and blazing, rolled down into view like window shades. The front door widened, moldings splintering and falling to the ground. It bent into a grin as on either side the half built-houses began to rise like jagged arms, sending clouds of dirt into the air. The road began to split and crumble. Greyson turned again and ran as Spettrini pushed himself out of the ground and the house that was his head ascended into the night sky.

Please get your own copy of Matthew’s new collection The Stay-Awake Men & Other Unstable Entities!

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