Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness
What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.
One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.
… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”
— Jonathan Ryan, “Meaning to the Madness,” Christianity Today, October 10, 2012
Mr. Ryan’s article represents quite a welter of interestingness that I fully recommend you click through and read. But if you do, I also suggest that you beware its bald and, as it would appear — because the statement emerges so abruptly and incongruously — ideologically driven assertion of opinion in one key line:
Through this sacred terror, [Machen] created stories richer and more terrifying than anything Lovecraft could conceive.
Did you catch that? Mr. Ryan is saying that Machen, with his emphasis on sacred terror that finds an awe-ful warrant and fulfillment in a religious-ontological absolute, automatically and categorically trumps Lovecraft as a visionary and a literary artist simply because of that altered focus. This is the point underlying his entire article. And for what it’s worth, I humbly submit that it is not a supportable position, and especially not in its current rhetorically bombastic and dismissive (“than anything Lovecraft could conceive”) form. This is because it sets up a false dichotomy by misreading the distinction between cosmic horror and sacred terror as a case of diametric opposition. In point of fact, no such opposition exists, and even the distinction collapses when we look into the life, psyche, and writings of Lovecraft himself.
“The most profound effects, and also the most profound insights, come when cosmic horror and sacred terror are wedded in a kind of dark enlightenment that sees the horror in the sacred and the sacred in the horrific.”
The Old Gent from Providence was fully familiar with sacred terror as well as cosmic horror — a truth evident in his frequent evocations of mythic beauty and nightmarish awe right alongside the Yog-Sothothian and Cthulhuvian horrors for which he is better known — and in fact he fused them in some ways and at some times into a kind of hybrid vision of numinous horror. He, too, offered a creative-philosophical vision of awesomeness in much the same vein as the wonderful C. S. Lewis line quoted by Ryan in his article: “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again.” But he did it in non-theistic and cosmically value-neutral terms by framing the life of the human race as ultimately meaningless, and this does not invalidate the force of his vision when held up against that of a Machen with his mysticism of terror. It merely indicates a difference of focus and sensibility. The difference is substantial, but it is enfolded within the general responsiveness of both Machen and Lovecraft to the intrinsic weirdness of existence and consciousness and the awesomeness of the great realm of Ominous Otherness that confronts us all.
By way of exploring some of the deeper complexities of Lovecraft’s worldview and its resonance with and/or application to the very emotion and soul-state of sacred terror that Ryan writes about, I direct readers to the interview I gave to Lovecraft News Network, “Dark Awakenings and Cosmic Horror,” and also to one of the interviews I’ve given to John Morehead at Theofantastique, “Matt Cardin – Gods and Monsters, Worms and Fire: A Horrific Reading of Isaiah.” Additionally, for a look at an under-appreciated but psychologically and artistically central aspect of Lovecraft’s character, see my paper about his influence on Thomas Ligotti, “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets,” and my two-part article for Art Throb, “Lovecraft’s Longing – Part One” and “Part Two.”
Cosmic horror and sacred terror don’t have to be set up as opposites. For my money, and more pointedly, in my own experience, the most profound effects, and also the most profound insights, come when they’re wedded in a kind of dark enlightenment that sees the horror in the sacred and the sacred in the horrific. Therein lies the real subversion of our customary daylit worldviews by darkside realities, and the real transformation of dayside consciousness by its ever-lurking nightside daemon.