Every Halloween is an intense reminder to me that religion and horror go hand-in-glove. All Hallow’s Eve has become a secular candy-infused target for conservative religious figures, and yet these critics are not wrong to lament the religious inversions that are on display. We become the monsters we should fear. We masquerade in identities it would be better not to claim. I find the thought of living in Superman’s world as equally disturbing as I believe it would be to live in Freddy Kreuger’s. If conservative religious voices express their concern that these actions make us less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, I think they’re on to something. (However, they are decisively less persuasive when they claim that weakening this boundary means we are crossing the line separating good and evil.) Let me explain.
A basic interpretation of ritual, Emile Durkheim’s, for instance, suggests that ritual operates using cyclic rhythms to interrupt the banality of everyday life. Rituals express significant chronological and spatial differences. Eliade’s formulation of these ideas, especially in The Myth of the Eternal Return, suggested that this was a religious predisposition of all humans. In the modern world, Eliade feared, we have lost our religious bearings. Ritual has lost its ability to express sacred time and space.
When Jonathan Z. Smith came along to tear down the ritual model as built by Eliade and Durkheim, one of his significant contributions was to distinguish between the religious actor’s imagination and their expectation. Ritual became an act of imagining–not a true expectation of change. In this respect, Smith embodies every fear Eliade had about the demystified or disenchanted modern world. Smith’s ritual world is one where ritual agents imagine their magic works. However, at some level, even if unspoken, ritual agents know their actions are not magic. In a perfect world, Smith argued, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to speak symbolically. Our rituals would always have the exact effects that we ascribed to them. Rain when we asked for rain. Healing when we desired healing. And so on.
If this seems difficult to follow, consider this. One of the major theological elements in the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over transubstantiation. When the host (the bread as the body of Jesus) is consecrated, is that material truly changed into the body of Jesus? Even hardened Catholics have difficulty explaining why the wafer still appears to be a wafer. The theology of change in essence without change in form is a delicate bit of spiritual prestidigitation. Protestants, by contrast, more openly say that the wine had not changed from alcohol to blood. For them the change is symbolic.
Back to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural expression where normative beliefs and practices are passed from generation to generation. In this sense, folklore is very much the mechanism for passing ritual expectations. It preserves the sense of imagination while sustaining expectations. What is the key to good storytelling? Getting the listener to ask “Then what?” What happened next is the folktale’s engine.
We have two overlapping but distinct genres. Folklore is not always horrific. Horror is definitely not always folklore. Horror is often fictional, which certainly makes a difference since folklore like myth always strives for truth. But that’s not the rub. Horror is the genre whose object is the production of terror. I say terror here for two reasons. First, I don’t want to confuse the genre with its product. Second, I want to emphasize the kind of terror the Rudolf Otto evoked in his famous use of mysterium tremendum et fascinas. This is the numinous–that which is wholly other, that tells us simultaneously to look away but also compels us to look. This is the beating heart of horror–actions which are beyond reckoning that both invite and discourage attention.
Let’s return now to horror and its Halloween critics. When we play as devils, they say, we risk becoming demoniacs. Smith’s ritual corrective suggests that religious agents can more readily separate the imagination they employ while wearing masks from the reality that they do not become what the masks represent. We are a society at play, not a society playing at becoming. That religious folks think becoming the monsters is possible is notable.
The challenge of the genre of horror is continually producing experiences that are wholly other. It shares with religious ritual the goal of playing convincingly while acknowledging that becoming is not ruled out. Despite Smith’s objections, we live in a world where a vast majority of people believe, beyond all factual evidence and reason, that becoming just might be possible. This explains the urgency in critics’ voices as well as the attraction of Horror. There is a remote possibility, the genre seems to say, that this could happen. That slim chance is what makes us share a protagonist’s doubt about whether they locked the back door. That possibility is not folklore’s “what happened then” but rather horror’s “what if this really happened?”
The speculative core of horror is one of the reasons I think it is inevitably, and fundamentally, religious. It is the spectrum of religious behavior and thought that preserves the terror of radical possibilities. A serial killer is some absurd form of hideous, blasphemous miracle. The return of ancient world-destroying gods? Another grotesque possibility.
Finally, however, I think that beyond possibility, it is terror that pushes all horror into the religious. That of which we are terrified–physical, psychical, or mental harm–cut deeply into the core of religious bodies, souls, and minds. It causes us to question whether bodies are sacred. It make us wonder whether our souls are secure. It make us wonder whether our minds are whole.
The damage horror inflicts–and one of the reasons I don’t flatly reject horror’s religious critics–can be quite real. Terror opens interrogative room. This isn’t the same space as the miraculous. This is a space where reality is inverted, subverted, and rejected. It can be profoundly emotional.
Horror, when it is at its most horrific, is our own lives tipped just slightly out of balance. It makes the whole world unheimlich (unfamiliar in the sense of uncanny). We lose our sense of being at home. Thus while folklore preserves our world; horror breaks it down until it is no longer familiar to us.
Otto claimed that this disorientation was fundamentally religious. This Halloween week I find myself agreeing with him. So, is horror religious? Yes. Absolutely.
Thought Experiment Addendum
On Twitter Daniel Silliman suggested that one way to test my inquiry would be ask “could horror be irreligious?” He said he didn’t think so. I agreed. Can you think of a way for horror to be irreligious? I’ll note that to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia’s suggestion that irreligion can be indifference, rejection, and hostility to religion seems unhelpfully broad. It notes right away that religious rejection (atheism, for instance) is different from hostility to religion (antitheism). This suggests we might be better off limiting the discussion to indifference to religion. After all, if one is hostile to religion then one is still dealing with religion. So, to be more precise, can horror be indifferent to religion?