BY JESS PEACOCK
In his 2008 book Sacred Terror, Douglas Cowan, a professor of religious studies at Renison University College in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, wrote, “…religiously oriented cinema horror remains a significant material disclosure of deeply embedded cultural fears of the supernatural and an equally entrenched ambivalence about the place and power of religion in society as the principal means of negotiating those fears.” Whether a reflection of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s uncanny unheimlich or German theologian Rudolf Otto’s terror and awe-filled power of otherness found within his mysterium tremendum, the horror genre – and the disturbing malformed oddities contained therein – often finds itself in an irreverent embrace with religion. Cowan addresses how these “cultural siblings” wander amidst the shadows of a theological and spiritual fear of the cosmological unknown, are preoccupied with death and decay, and address, to some degree, questions of theodicy, or the existence of evil, pain, and suffering in a universe supposedly controlled by an omnipotent and benevolent deity.
In his latest book, America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King, Cowan parlays the broad religious groundwork of Sacred Terror into an intensive examination of King and the 71-year-old bestselling author’s belief “in the power of narrative, the ability of a well-told story to affect people at the most profound levels.” For Cowan – as well as for King – very little is as profound as the inexplicability of the unseen order and our stunted religious attempts to make sense of the theophilosophical thin spots inherent in faith practices.
In the following interview for Hallowed Horrors, Cowan discusses his new book, what he really feels about organized religion, and the cultural importance of Stephen King. In addition, Cowan discusses his involvement with Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film, “a collection of writings exploring the cultural history of religion in horror cinema,” available from House of Leaves Publishing.
In your latest book, you dissect the canon of Stephen King through a theological lens, building off your work and analysis in Sacred Terror. Why King in particular? Why not, say, Rice or Barker or Straub? What, for you, sets King apart?
The easy answer is that if you ask people to name the most popular horror authors of the late twentieth century, King would almost certainly be in most people’s top five, if not at the top—and that whether they are horror fans or not. He’s simply in the pop culture air we breathe—more so than most others. The more complex answer, though, is that one of the things that I’ve tried to do in all my books on popular culture is to look at movies, television, and genre fiction in a way that presents an invitation to further study, rather than the kind of foreclosure that says the question of a particular author has been answered. That is, you could very well do what I’ve done with a number of other writers—including the ones you mention. I want books like this to be an invitation to see what I’ve done with King and apply it to authors or genres that you find interesting or compelling.
I also wanted to demonstrate, once again, that pop culture products that are routinely dismissed by the academy have a lot more to offer than we might think. That is, why are novels and stories that are regularly disparaged as boarding lounge fare so popular? To say it’s mere escapism is simply intellectual laziness. King has been criticized for his ubiquity, for the sheer size and range of his work, as though writing dozens of novels that millions of people read to tatters is somehow a mark of low craft. It’s amazing how few such critics ever stop to ask why he is so popular, why so many copies of his books sell and circulate, why so many readers keep coming back to his dark well for their scary stories. Put differently, they do not ask why genre fiction matters. That, I think, is part of what I’m trying to understand here.
“This, in the end, is what interests King himself: questions, not answers.”
King undoubtedly is in the midst of a renaissance, perhaps instigated by the success of the IT film adaptation. What is it about his work that seems to be speaking to a new generation of fans?
I think there are a couple of reasons. First, though, I’m not sure I would say that he is having a “renaissance,” certainly not in the way I think Lovecraft is at the moment. What we’ve seen around the release of the new It (which I really, really liked) is the standard studio marketing strategy to sell one product or other off the success and popularity of another. People may be seeing his name more at the moment, but that’s because It is a major theatrical release, which is not something King’s work sees regularly. King’s popularity, however, has been fairly steady for decades. If the marketplace is any indication, King’s books have always sold well—which explains the willingness of publishers to bring out new, somewhat standardized editions. Certainly, the bookstores I haunt have always stocked his work in mass quantities compared to other authors. Indeed, I’ve often gone looking for a particular Straub or Barker (whose work, you may know, was the inspiration for Sacred Terror) and been disappointed, but rarely with King. That says something about the durability of his storytelling ability and his storyworld appeal.
Second, without wanting to make too much of what we might call the nostalgia factor—the new generation of horror fans turning back to the books that thrilled their parents—what I argue in my book is that his appeal lies less in the answers he provides than the questions he relentlessly asks. This, in the end, is what interests King himself: questions, not answers. And his books routinely deal with what I call “properly human questions”—questions that we ask because we are human, not because we belong to this or that faith—but which are often characterized or exalted as “religious questions.” If his work is “speaking to a new generation of fans,” and I suspect it is, it’s because they have the same questions we all have, the same ones storytellers have been weaving their tales around since the campfire and the cave.
The horror genre itself seems to be on an upswing of popularity. You write in your introduction, “…the stories we tell play an indispensable role in the ongoing human quest to understand our place in the universe.” If this is true, what does the horror genre say about this quest and, perhaps, the universe itself?
These are the questions we ask; the ones religion claims to have answered: Who are we? Where do we come from? What happens when we die? Does our life (or our death) have meaning and purpose? How do we understand our place in the universe? The problem is, claims to religious certainty notwithstanding, we have no reliable answers to any of these questions—which is why we keep asking them. For me, the two genres that ask these questions most profoundly are science fiction and horror (including their hybrids and cross-overs). Science fiction because it’s the great “What if?” genre, horror because, as King does, it asks us to ponder “What if we’re wrong?” That is, what if we’re wrong about how the world works, that our suffering is result of adolescent play-time among aliens whose regard for us may be less than the microbes on our own skin (Under the Dome), that everything our religious beliefs tell us about death is wrong, that something far more terrifying than life waits on the other side (Revival), that death itself is not what it appears (Pet Sematary). Because it both builds and preys on our fears, more than any other genre, horror challenges our certainties about the way we think the world works, and, as I have written, most especially when it comes to religion.
Considering its subject matter, can horror ever really be separated from religion or theology?
I call religion and horror “cultural siblings,” not because one builds on the other (even though it often does), but because both are concerned with the same questions of meaning, purpose, and reality. What you’ve asked is the basic question lying at the heart of Sacred Terror: when we want to tell a scary story, why do we so often dress the stage with religious props, cast religious characters, or draw on religious ideas and ideals? It’s because religion itself begins with fear: our ancestral fear of the dark, for example, our first attempts to understand why bad things happen, the stories we tell and rituals we perform to influence our gods and calm our anxieties about existence. We’ve known this for millennia. Fear precedes religion in the human experience, and religion is one of the layers of culture that we use to alleviate our terror of mortality. More than that, though, what makes religion and horror “cultural siblings” is our ambivalence about our beliefs. As I said in Sacred Terror, “the issue is not one of secularization (as many would presume)—that horror discloses to us the abandonment or minimization of religious belief in late modern society—but an overwhelming ambivalence toward the religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and mythistories by which we are confronted, in which we are often still deeply invested, which we are distinctly unwilling to relinquish, and we just as often only minimally understand.”
Have you been watching Castle Rock? If so, do you see it connecting with any of the themes you discuss in your book?
I confess that I haven’t. For one thing, the new It notwithstanding, I’m not really a fan of the way King’s work has been translated to the big and the small screens, particularly because most of the really interesting bits in his novels and stories are often left out, in many cases, the very bits that actually explain the story the filmmaker is trying to tell. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Stanley Kubrick.) More than that, though, I like to have a bit of critical distance from pop culture products, to be able to see them more in their entirety before I think about writing about them. Consider the endless train of Philosophy and Insert-Current-Popular-TV-Show-Here books, many of which are written during the first couple of years of a series’, say, five-year run. While many of these essays may be interesting, they are often intellectually hamstrung simply because the story isn’t finished yet.
We also don’t know how durable the appeal of a particular product will be. For example, when Avatar first appeared, people wanted to learn the language, modern Pagans read their own religion into it, books appeared examining its essential nature mysticism—all as though the film signaled a significant cultural moment, a shift, rather than the latest iteration of every “gone native” movie you’ve ever seen. Where is it now? Certainly, however derivative it is (it’s one of the movies I think James Cameron simply phoned in), it has its fans, but it hasn’t had the cultural durability many of those fans insisted it would have. Returning to your question, if Castle Rock does connect with themes in my book, and I have no doubt that it will, it is because these themes are endemic both to human questions of meaning and existence, and King’s multifaceted probing and challenging of the answers we think we have. Every time we say, “Here’s the answer,” he responds, “Really? Check this shit out…” The answers change, but the questions remain. (Shameless plug: this is precisely the dynamic I explore in Magic, Monsters, and Make-Believe Heroes: How Myth and Religion Shape Fantasy Culture, which is due out in January 2019).
In a review of your book, Christianity Today stated, “Cowan…shares King’s disdain for organized religion [and] extends those reservations to religious belief itself.” I find this assertion somewhat surprising, as both Sacred Terror and America’s Dark Theologian, in my estimation, pay a great deal of respect to religion and belief without the patronizing praise. How do you feel about the magazine’s assessment?
I think I posted on Facebook that I considered two-and-a-half stars from Christianity Today something of a win. (Insert wry smile here.) It’s important to understand what CT readers and reviewers are looking for: reality-maintenance for their particular belief structure, rather than a dispassionate analysis of religion and horror. That is, they want “The Gospel according to Stephen King,” which allows them to map their own theological beliefs onto particular cultural products, rather than a book that challenges the veracity of those beliefs (indeed any beliefs) and points out how King does that and why. “The Gospel according to…” phenomenon is the process of rendering theologically palatable stories, novels, and movies that would otherwise be considered spiritually dangerous to particular religious communities. Unfortunately, it far more often than not renders the stories, movies, games, whatever saccharine in the push to bend them to the service of evangelical Christian norms and values. They also tend to be classic, and extended, examples of what I have written about quite a bit as the good, moral, and decent fallacy. I’ll say a bit more about this below.
What do you consider King’s greatest work?
There are a number of ways to answer that. The one whose ideas probably keep me up at night is Pet Sematary, which King initially didn’t want to publish because even he considered it too disturbing. His greatest work is probably The Dark Tower, which I don’t talk about in the book because he is explicit that it’s high fantasy (however horrifying some of its elements) and I am interested in his genre horror. In terms of the kind of thing that I’m trying to get at in America’s Dark Theologian, I would say the parallel novels Desperation and The Regulators, which was originally published under the Richard Bachman pseudonym. I know that it’s popular to say that The Stand is his most religious novel, but I simply don’t think that’s the case, and which is why I spend so little time on it in the book. Desperation is far more interesting theologically and religiously than The Stand. It considers the dynamics of conversion; questions of suffering, morality, and evil; the nature of god and the problem of theodicy; and the dilemma of futility and our place in the universe—and all done on a much more personal, intimate scale than the grand sweep of The Stand. Also, and this is likely to anger and appall some readers, I think The Stand ends with kind of a cop-out, a kind of Kingian deus ex machina that marks a story the writer simply doesn’t know how to end. Neither Desperation nor The Regulators do that. They leave the reader as anxious at the end as at the beginning. And that’s important in horror, it seems to me.
One of the misconceptions about the horror genre is that it’s intended to make us feel better at the end, that the monster is defeated. For me, it seems people who argue that horror is about resolution simply haven’t been paying attention. Because if that is the appeal of the genre, explain to me its durability, explain the issue of the sequel, explain the reboot, and explain Hellraiser, Part, what, 9 now? The fascination with horror, with scary stories, with things that go bump in the night, is that they are not defeated, the monsters are not destroyed, the world is not rendered safe. As I concluded Sacred Terror, “No matter how powerful our halogen headlights, the darkness and all the fears that live within it still exist on the ragged edge of the light we use to keep them at bay…darkness is our natural condition. Light is the intruder, a temporary island of relative security in a larger, largely uncharted ocean of dark.” That’s why we keep asking the questions and telling the stories.
You also recently wrote the introduction for Scared Sacred. What can you tell me about this project and why are you involved?
What I think is so great about that Scared Sacred is that it’s other people pushing the same kinds of questions I explore in my own books. That’s exactly what excites me is that cultural conversation about the importance of these topics is expanding. I became involved when the editors contacted me and asked if I would write the introduction, which I was delighted to do, and some signed copies of Sacred Terror are being offered as crowd-funding incentives. I’ve seen a number of the early essay drafts, and they’re really, really interesting, and some of the layout and formatting for the book, which is awesome. I couldn’t be happier to be involved and I think the editors are doing a tremendous job.
Scared Sacred seems to represent a growing interest in the academic study of horror or monster theory. Do you see this line of academic inquiry gaining momentum or respectability within the academy?
I certainly hope that’s the case, because this line of inquiry, perhaps more than most, exposes what I consider one of the principal flaws in the way we approach religion, both culturally and academically: the good, moral, and decent fallacy, that is, the popular misconception that religion is always (and should always be) a force for good in society, and that negative social effects somehow indicate false or inauthentic religious practices. The short answer is: it isn’t always a force for good, it hasn’t always been the mediator of morality, any claim to decency exists more in the exception than the rule. These are the simple facts of religious history, and horror, more than any genre, holds up a mirror and whispers, “Look…”
For more on the socio-religious relevance of the work of Stephen King, check out the Hallowed Horrors article “Scars Can’t Come Back”: Stephen King as Contemporary Lamentations.
“I couldn’t be happier to be involved and I think the editors are doing a tremendous job.”