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Hallowed Horrors: A Primer

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 | Hallowed Horrors

By JESS PEACOCK 

Welcome to the inaugural installment of Hallowed Horrors, a new regular feature here at Rue Morgue that will examine the intersection of the horror genre with religion and theology. Of course, there are numerous ways to approach such a topic, from examining overt examples of religion in horror (i.e. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, etc.), to horror selections that imply greater theological content (i.e. Martyrs, the REC series, etc.), to fright fare that, while not overt in its religious suggestions, might exist as an avenue through which theological concepts can be explored metaphorically (i.e. It Comes at Night, The Autopsy of Jane Doe).

And then there are movies such as Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water that manage to not only deal with overt religious subject matter (the Amphibian Man is, after all, a god), but deeper theological considerations as well as their sociological implications (more on The Shape of Water in the next installment of Hallowed Horrors).

No matter the approach, the monsters and assorted terrors contained within the horror genre often come to serve as dark prophets within popular culture, unmasking hidden edifices of oppression in their role of monstrum, the Latin origination of monster meaning “that which reveals itself.” From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein serving as a metaphor for slave revolt, to the anti-capitalist strains of the zombie films of George Romero, to the racial politics of Get Out, the horror genre indeed and in deed has something to teach us.

Now, you might be asking, what does capitalism, racial inequality, social oppression, etc. have to do with religion or theology. More than you might realize.

One does not have to spend too much time reading the Hebrew Bible before being confronted with narratives of unspeakable social and cultural oppression. The story of Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jewish people – and their subsequent liberation through the efforts of Moses – is a powerful myth that serves as a model for how modern society might work toward a common good and away from structures of political, economic, and ideological oppression.

The Kaiju-ish battle between Moses (backed by Yahweh) and Pharaoh (seconded by Ra) is a blueprint for resistance, a refusal to take part in a structure of imperial consumption where restless productivity (i.e. capitalism) is emphasized over the value of the individual. This biblical prototype for revolt lies at the heart of Liberation Theology, which was borne out of the political and economic unrest of 1950s & 60s Latin America – and which also relies heavily on a Marxist critique of society, focusing on radical social transformation through an emphasis on God’s preference for the poor.

Considering the recent report from Oxfam which revealed that the world’s richest 1% claimed 82% of all wealth created in 2017, it quickly becomes clear that a story such as the exodus out of Egypt might have something valuable to teach us today.

The narratives we construct tend to be the narratives we enact…for better or for worse.

As a species we seek to not only share stories, but to live within those stories. The narratives we construct tend to be the narratives we enact…for better or for worse. It is my contention that the horror genre and the monsters to be found within are stories of survival as well as metaphors for resistance against oppression and fear, thusly serving as an extension of liberationist thought.

An excellent example of this can be found in the criminally underappreciated film Daybreakers (2010) from the Spierig brothers, which tells the story of a world conquered by vampires. The movie touches on many interesting issues, not the least of which is the problem of oppression and what happens when the subjugated suddenly find themselves in charge – a topic of great concern within Liberation Theology. Throughout the film there are several clues that weave a backstory of the emergence of the vampire, their rebellion against and war with humanity, and ultimately the usage of their newfound power (physical as well as political) to turn the tables on their former oppressors rather than pursuing peace with those they had come to see as entirely other.

In addition, the subplot of the Subsiders (blood deprived vampires who have gone feral) is an interesting statement on how we treat the impoverished and homeless. In the film, a group of Subsiders – some still dressed in their Sunday best – are shackled and forced into the noonday sun to be immolated as members of the citizenry look on, uncomprehending of the truth that the very monsters they fear are, in fact, themselves. This speaks to the unnerving trend of criminalizing the homeless within society versus ameliorating the social sin of homelessness itself.

The sharing of these horrific and monstrous narratives can become an act of resistance that challenges social patterns of oppression. We might even view the horror genre as praxis. In other words, monstrous narratives can change the world by changing us. The horrific leads us to a larger consideration of not only what it means to be alive under the shadow of death, but what it means to be alive together. Liberation Theology stands in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, and seeks redemption not only for the oppressed, but for the oppressor as well. However, it is the voice of the historically voiceless that must be given priority.

Monsters and the horror they generate come to represent psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s unheimlich, the incarnation of the uncanny disturbance of our comfort. Monsters are the other, the rejected, the inversion or malformation of the natural order. This connects closely with the commonly shared human fear of societal decay and untimely death, which is, to some extent, what horror and religion are all about. Perhaps more important, however, is the ability of the unheimlich to disturb social norms, imbuing the horror genre with the power to reveal invisible social structures of normativity.

In addition, Jung’s unheimlich is enmeshed with what German theologian Rudolf Otto described as the mysterium tremendum, an encounter with otherness resulting in a mindboggling experience of both terror and wonder. Interestingly, the concept of the mysterium tremendum put forth by Otto was meant to convey the effects of a distinctly religious encounter, a brush with the divine or an agent thereof. Which begs the question, if the horror genre is also powered by this tremendous mystery, might we then consider it a tool or symbol of the divine? Perhaps more interesting to consider is the question of whether the presence of the divine itself inherently horrific (see Hebrews 10:31)?

Weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft believed that the horror genre emerged in its present form as a repressed shadow to modern religion. Judeo-Christian mythistory and the horror genre bear a striking resemblance, each filled with terrifying tales of bizarre malevolence unleashed on humanity by way of unfathomable numinous entities. These entities might manifest in the form of Dracula, fearsome angels, Cthulhu, or the ancient deity Yahweh who, much like the Great Old One, takes very little issue with the death of scores of innocent people by way of floods and plagues. Interestingly, the liberation granted to the Jewish slaves in the Exodus narrative is only made possible through the monstrosity of the Hebrew god, culminating in “the destroyer” (Exodus 12:23) murdering en masse the first born of Egypt, making this common Sunday school tale a revolt metaphor through the imagery of the horrific and the phantasmagorical.

Considering the perspectives of Jung, Otto, and Lovecraft, it should not come as much of a surprise that the horror genre is overflowing with meaning and metaphors. Whether the narratives seek to unmask invisible systems of oppression or, possibly, to maintain them (see my article “Horrors of the Holy” in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Rue Morgue), the horror genre uniquely straddles the liminal space between life and death, order and chaos, self and other, and gives us a glimpse into the sublime horror of the interminable while reminding us of the delicate nature of the corporeal.

Hallowed Horrors will delve into all of these topics and more.

Despite Lovecraft’s admonition in The Call of Cthulhu that, “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far,” I hope you’ll return for future installments of Hallowed Horror as we ignore his advice (let’s be honest, Lovecraft is problematic) and venture ever further from the shore, wading deeper into the dark waters where gods and monsters embrace, and the sacred and the profane are often indistinguishable.

“The Firstborn Slain” by Gustave Doré

In my next column I will be examining Guillermo del Toro’s stunning fairytale The Shape of Water, which recently garnered a truckload of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. At that time, we will discuss the nature of the other in religion and the role of the dying god-man motif in mythology and entertainment. Until then, feel free to find me on Twitter @SuchADarkThing for questions and comments.

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water…the nature of the other in religion and the role of the dying god-man motif in mythology and entertainment.

Jess Peacock
JESS PEACOCK is the author of SUCH A DARK THING: THEOLOGY OF THE VAMPIRE NARRATIVE IN POPULAR CULTURE ("Smart and insightful" - FANGORIA) from Wipf and Stock Publishers. He has contributed to RELIGION DISPATCHES, RUE MORGUE MAGAZINE, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, and is the former editor-in-chief of STREET SPEECH, a social justice publication produced by the Columbus Coalition for the Homeless in Ohio. Among his academic distinctions, Peacock is the recipient of Methodist Theological School in Ohio's Ronald L. Williams Book Prize in Theology and Ethics, as well as The Matey Janata Freedwomen Award for his research and work in women's issues and is the recipient of the Heldrich-Dvorak Fellowship from the Popular/American Culture Association. He currently writes the HALLOWED HORRORS column for RUE MORGUE online, and his similarly titled book is scheduled for release in early 2019 from Wipf and Stock. Jess is currently a PhD student living in Chicago and can regularly be heard on the LEGACY OF THE MARSTEN HOUSE podcast available on iTunes.