What’s so horrific about religion (and religious about horror)?

In an interesting development, I’ve been selected as a potential “spot light guest” on SPIRITUALLY RAW, a (very) fringe-oriented occult/spiritual/conspiracy/New Age radio show with a 60,000+ daily listener base. I’ll be conducting a “pre-interview screening” live on air during a segment called “The Raw Factor” on July 5. Listener votes will determine whether I’m blessed with a full guest appearance later on.

The topic will be my long-running focus on the relationship between religion and horror, as expressed in my book Dark Awakenings (and also, maybe, my Divinations of the Deep). At the show’s website one of the producers and hosts, April Matta, has set up a page to advertise my upcoming appearance: “Religion and Horror: Matt Cardin, Tuesday, July 5.”

April has also encouraged me to use the site’s blogging capabilities and other functions to generate buzz, so I’ve obliged by writing and publishing a brief introduction to me and my work. And of course I’m reprinting it here. Click the title to visit the original, which has already started an interesting conversation.

“What’s so horrific about religion (and religious about horror)?

I’m a horror writer. Since I was a very young child, I’ve been drawn by a kind of inbuilt gravity to scary stories about supernatural things. This includes all of the standard elements of supernatural horror stories — ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, werewolves, demons, and so on — but around my teen years it started to tip definitively toward the type of fiction and film that’s generally called “cosmic horror” or “weird horror.” Probably the single most famous writer in this vein is H.P. Lovecraft, who has only emerged as a canonical literary figure in American and world letters in the past 20 years, with a serious acceleration in his ascent beginning about 2004. I devoured Lovecraft in late high school and all through college, and have gone on to become a scholar of his work, publishing various articles and essays about him in a variety of journals and at a variety of websites.

For my entire life I’ve also been possessed by a fierce religious and spiritual instinct. I grew up steeped in evangelical Protestant Christianity. Then as a teen an interest in comparative religion began to grip me as strongly as my interest in horror (which was also accompanied by an interest in fantasy and science fiction). To make a long story short, I began to devour texts both ancient and modern about various world religious and philosophical traditions. In college I minored (and almost majored) in philosophy, and studied all sorts of religions both academically and experientially, befriending people from various religious, cultural, and national backgrounds, and seriously pursuing various meditative practices. Several years after graduating, I returned to academia to earn a master’s degree in religious studies, which I earned over a span of seven years.

Also after my undergraduate years, I started experiencing horrific bouts of sleep paralysis, not just the semi-common experience of half-waking into a state of paralysis but the really nightmarish kind involving full-blown hypnagogic and hypnopompic visions of a demonic presence that assaulted me spiritually. At the time I didn’t know what was happening to me, because I hadn’t heard the actual term “sleep paralysis.” I went on to discover the writings of David Hufford, the scholar who in the 1970s began to resurrect for us denizens of modern consumer-technological culture an awareness of this ancient affliction. I’ve been fascinated to see the level of awareness about SP continue a steady ascent in the past few years, with a segment about it even being featured just a few months ago on Rachael Ray’s television show.

To regroup: How does all of this relate to horror as religious and religion as horrific? By way of an answer, consider this quote from Lovecraft, from the introduction to his seminal study of the supernatural horror genre titled “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

There is here involved [in the phenomenon of weird supernatural horror fiction] a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it.

Did you catch that? Lovecraft was talking about the first-hand experience of supernatural horror, the psychology and phenomenology of the actual human response to these types of stories — and more than that, the primal human response that gave rise to these stories and lends them their power — and he was comparing it directly to the religious response, to the inbuilt human capacity for what we call religious or spiritual experience. Significantly, his focus here resonates directly with the thought of the early 20th-century German theologian Rudolf Otto, who hypothesized that religion originally arose from an experience of what he termed “daemonic dread,” an overpowering sense of uncanny dread and awe at the psychological perception of a mysterious, awesome, utterly transcendent presence or reality that is inherently fearsome to the human sensibility as such. Otto also said this same response was elaborated in another human cultural direction when it gave rise to the ghost story. Lovecraft’s and Otto’s focus also resonates with many things said by William James, the renowned American philosopher and psychologist from the turn of the 20th century, who in his seminal book The Varieties of Religious Experience dwelt at length on the specific human responses of pessimism, depression, and horror to many aspects of life, and argued that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an overwhelming experience of cosmic horror born out of abject despair at life’s incontrovertible hideousness.

Drawing all of this together, what, therefore, is the upshot? What am I getting at regarding religion and horror, both individually and in relation to each other? My point is that when we focus on the question of religious or spiritual experience, we’re necessarily treading on shared ground with the very same primal psychological experience or response that underlies and gives power to supernatural horror. In precisely complementary fashion, when we respond to stories of weird supernatural horror, we’re opening ourselves to a fundamentally religious or spiritual experience.

For me, this was all a mass of definitely existing but mostly unarticulated ideas and emotions until my experiences of sleep paralysis impacted my overall worldview and intellectual/emotional sensibility in such a way that the underlying ideas began to come clear. All of my horror fiction has been written from that experiential centerpoint. I also pursued my graduate work in religious studies with a view to exploring and explicating the religion-horror connection. Most recently, in the past few years I’ve been gripped increasingly by an interest in the muse, daimon, and genius of artistic and literary creativity, since my own creativity has been fueled by and connected to all of the things discussed here in a way that’s analogous to the ancient model or metaphor of the daimonic muse as a real spiritual force or entity that drives and inspires writers and artists. This in turn has raised questions about the ontological status of that force or entity, and I’ve been pursuing them at a blog I created for that specific purpose, titled Demon Muse.

And that’s what I’ll be talking about this July 5 on Spiritually Raw.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on June 27, 2011, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Great post. I’ve had some profound sleep paralysis experiences, too, with similar worldview changes. I was also taking melatonin at the time—which is a tryptamine, like DMT. Coincidence? Maybe.

    • As I recall, melatonin was actually the first thing that Rick Strassman looked at in the hope and expectation of discovering a natural substance in the body that might be responsible for, or directly involved in, the generation of spiritual and mystical experiences. This was because of his pre-existing interest in the pineal gland for this purpose; that’s where melatonin is manufactured. It was only afterward that he turned to the DMT research for which he’s now so famous. His hypothesis that the pineal, in addition to melatonin, also contains endogenous DMT that’s responsible for mystical and spiritual experiences is still unsubstantiated, but no less gripping.

      Interesting to hear of the changes wrought upon you by SP. There’s been a fair amount of speculation about the relationship between the entities encountered in SP and the entities encountered in the DMT experience. There’s a hypothesis in the air that both classes of beings “hail” from the same “place” and “inhabit” the same “hyperspace.” It’s certainly a provocative enough possibility to hold my attention.

  2. I probably missed it, but what time is the show airing on the 5th, Matt?

    Also, would it help if we post our interest in your interview on the Spiritually Raw website, or would that hurt your cause (as it might seem like spamming)?

    • Thanks for the interest, Ted. The show airs at 9 a.m. CST and is available by clicking the “listen live” link at Spiritually Raw’s main page. As I understand it, my interview will take place as one of the first things in the lineup (but that may be incorrect).

      If you want to express interest at Spiritually Raw’s site, I can’t think that would hurt anything, since they want to increase their presence and exposure. Again, I appreciate it.

      • Looks like I’ll have to set my alarm a little earlier that day. 🙂 (prays to various deities, real and otherwise, for a podcast, just in case)

        As for the interest, I really have no choice in the matter, as I love your writing (both fiction and non), and have followed a similar path from Evangelical upbringing to an adult fascination with comparative religious study and cosmic horror.

        Nothing preps the mind better for the latter than movies like “Left Behind” and fiery sermons about the Rapture, the Antichrist, and Armageddon (sans Bruce Willis), all the while wondering if one is “saved” from all these coming, reality-rending horrors.

        • Yes, many aspects of a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Protestant upbringing (or even a really good, old-time Roman Catholic one) truly provide excellent food and fuel for a later interest in religious horror. As for all of those worries about being saved from the coming cosmic horrors, I find it’s best not to waste any nervous energy on it. Because hey, nobody’s getting out of this thing alive.

  3. Agreed, on all points.

    The first cosmic horror my brain ever crafted happened in childhood dreams, with things of vast immensity weighing down on me, being lost on the crest of vast labyrinths (although I partially blame Time Bandits for that), or giant doorways opening in the sky, too far for me to reach in time.

    I find that the more I write, the more religious horror and “take THAT, Fundies” comes out in my stories. Perhaps childish, but a necessary purging, for sure.

    • Sounds like a wonderfully evocative dream. As for Time Bandits, boy, what a boon to the imagination that movie was. Exquisite. And excellent to hear that it may have affected your actual imaginal life.

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