Coins for the Ferryman: Horror as the Key to Our Dark Inner Depths

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The analysis of Horror is, like almost everything else related to the genre, paradoxical. Because the genre is so rife with archetypal imagery and taboo subjects, it seems that any attempt to rationalize or understand it in purely intellectual terms is ineffectual, or at the very least inadequate. Whereas most other forms of artistic expression benefit from the acumen of critics who educate the audience on what may otherwise be cryptic allusions, subtext, etc., Horror evidently functions somewhat differently. It is a wholly experiential genre and is therefore judged in large part by its effect, and more specifically by its affect, rather than by its structure.

Enduring works of non-genre (or “literary”) fiction have undergone countless autopsies by critics and would-be-critics, all of whom seem confident that they have pinpointed exactly what makes this or that story tick. Horror, by contrast, almost always manages to slither out from underneath our microscope. Oh, it may bear the explanations we impress upon it for a little while, but rest assured, Horror will always find a way to shed its old skin, which in this case consists of any number of after-the-fact explanations as to what we read and why. And like the serpent, Horror emerges from this molting as a creature even more vibrant and healthy than before.

Perhaps this trickster-like evasion of standard literary or cinematic criticism is to be expected, for any work of Horror worth its saltes draws its power from the deepest spring. Even works that demonstrate ineptitude in some technical areas that critics often highlight as the essence of “good art” can nevertheless frighten or unnerve an audience, and are therefore effective models of the field. Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves.

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In his 1985 book Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror, literary scholar James B. Twitchell posits the following:

 The art of horror is. . . the art of generating breakdown,  where signifier and signified no longer can be kept separate, where distinctions can no longer be made, where old masks fall and new masks are not yet made.  If images of horror often do not make intellectual sense, that is precisely because they are, in part, images of the uncanny, images from the subconscious, full of exaggeration and distortion.

Given this, how does one even begin to codify these images from the subconscious? Over the years I have amassed a rather sizable collection of Horror studies and have found that one of the more common symptoms plaguing too many of them is the whiff of apologia. Because Horror’s motifs and effects have been a constant in human culture from the dawn of civilization to our glittering postmodern age, some critics feel Horror simply must have some positive purpose. Space limitations prevent me from listing all the theories that have been put forth, but the lion’s share of them can be boiled down to one common mantra: “Horror art may scare or disturb us, but a rational, post-experience study of said art will help us to ‘understand’ what we have endured. And once we understand our fears, we may conquer them.”

I find such attempts at legitimizing Horror to be utterly pointless. No art is required to be utilitarian, and Horror art in particular does not need to be branded with a convenient raison d’être so that we may assuage whatever pangs of guilt we feel after enjoying a chilly helping of subconscious grue. And as an admitted skeptic toward the common belief that humanity is ever evolving toward a bright new Tomorrow, I view the very concept that Horror’s subconscious Muse may someday be codified and “conquered” as utterly risible. Horror, along with the Hades-like Deep that informs it, has always escaped our tidy rationalizations. I suspect this will always be the case, that it will always flutter off like some great shadowy moth before we can stick it with pins and trap it in our laboratory.

“Make no mistake: the act of settling into one’s reading chair or drawing in a breath as the cinema’s lights go down are the opening rubrics of a ritual. In performing these simple actions, we open ourselves up to the storyteller and take part in an Invocation of the denizens of the dark within ourselves.”

So if Horror’s power does indeed gush from that interstice where signifier and signified are no longer separate, as Twitchell suggests, then how does one even begin to analyze it? And more importantly, why bother attempting to study it at all?

For myself, I believe that the worth of such studies lies not in their ability to provide post-Horror comprehension, but rather in their potential for uncovering deeper Horrors still, Horrors as-yet-unrealized. For if this experience does bloom from the bottommost strata of consciousness, then any attempt to define it is to dilute it, to skim the merest amount from its surface and assume that this tiny specimen encapsulates the whole. Such a practice is one of equivocation, not comprehension. To truly comprehend Horror, we must first accept that such comprehension is impossible. Only then, in that state of paradox, in that state of wanting to know what we know to be unknowable, do we begin to appreciate the scope of the subconscious.

It is akin to standing at the edge of a great precipice. Just beyond our toes, the drop is dizzying. If we pull back, we may find a plethora of reasons and explanations as to why the sight of it affected us the way it did, but none of these can eradicate our memory of the sheer sway, the giddiness, the vertigo. In that moment, looking down into the abyss, we did not need our left-brain to quantify the possible fall in terms of inches, feet, and yards, for we deeply and powerfully felt its scope in the electrical immediacy of every bristling hair and tingling nerve.

This very column can be seen as an ongoing meditation on that moment at the precipice. I offer these thoughts not to archive past fears but to open up myself, and also you, dear reader, to potential future ones. For by musing upon that which has led us to feel as though we stood at that precipice, I hope not to conquer the feeling but to find a way back to it again. I meditate on past Horror to discover new and even more potent triggers that may result in future Horrors.

In the sphere of ceremonial magick it is commonly recognized that no ritual guarantees results. However, rituals, properly carried out, do offer the potential for results. Said results may not always be the ones desired by the practitioner, but the act of focused speech and action will create a “clearing” in space and time that would not otherwise exist.

The same can be said of Horror art. For make no mistake: the acts of settling into one’s reading chair and drawing in a breath as the cinema’s lights go down are the opening rubrics of a ritual. In performing these simple actions, we open ourselves up to the storyteller and take part in an Invocation of the denizens of the dark within ourselves.

Perhaps the “results” of Horror are much like that of magick as well: they cannot be projected beforehand. All people can do is weigh the risks and then, if they so choose, open themselves up for an encounter with forces which remain decidedly outside the parameters of our day-to-day involuntary “meditation” of working, socializing, fretting, eating, paying bills, and so on. We invoke the dark and must accept that it will manifest as it wills.

“Horror’s aim is to speak the unspeakable, to draw its audience up to (and often beyond) the thresholds they use to define themselves.”

Sometimes it will impact us in the way we hope. Other times it won’t. But these forces are not ours to control, and just because we have chosen — wittingly or not — to place them “outside” our definition of reality doesn’t mean they will remain there. Our waltz with these unruly, abject images and sensations will never end, because we are inextricably bound together with them. Horror art plays not by our rules but by theirs. We may attempt to define Horror, but in the end it is Horror that defines us. It allows us to put up fences to distinguish “clean” from “unclean,” “right” from “wrong,” but it will breach those boundaries as it wills. The thresholds are malleable, and I believe the “contamination” we experience via Horror is to our benefit. Without it, the human race would grow even more complacent than it already is. The more time one spends at the borderland where “I” overlaps with “Other,” the more one’s masks begin to crack and definitions begin to pale.

So “Echoes from Hades” continues to roam this shadowland. I do not write this column because I wish to map the area. Think of these meditations as the coins the ancients used for paying Charon’s tariff. Perhaps if we stand as willing customers on the bank of the river Styx, the Ferryman will take us onto his raft and row us into those strange depths that our lamps of reason can never illuminate.

 

Image: “Charon” by h.koppdelaney via Flickr under Creative Commons.

About Richard Gavin

Richard Gavin is the author of CHARNEL WINE, OMENS, THE DARKLY SPLENDID REALM, and AT FEAR’S ALTAR. He has been praised by Publishers Weekly and hailed as a master of numinous horror fiction in the tradition of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and H.P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi calls him “one of the bright new stars of contemporary weird fiction.” Richard lives in Ontario, Canada.

Posted on May 20, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Echoes from Hades, Psychology & Consciousness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who first famously said the words “Suspension of disbelief” . Gregory Leadbetter in his book titled Coleridge And The Daemonic Imagination describes The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner in this way.. really excellent book by the way

    “The poem displaces the illusion of human mastery with a story of transfiguring exposure to forces beyond the limits of human knowledge – aptly represented in the ship’s arrival in the southern seas. […] [T]he self-inflicted vulnerability represented by the sea voyage becomes a form of potential: the possibility not so much of changing what they find, but of being changed.”

    “The poem navigates the crossing of physiological, environmental, and religious boundaries as it follows the mariner from willing exposure to superhuman forces towards a daemonic gnosis. Fascination with the transnatural re-makes him in its image: he becomes “a something transnatural” with the power to fascinate, through the touch of look and language”

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Daniel, and for sharing this fantastic and apt quote. I will definitely seek out Mr. Leadbetter’s book.

    All best,
    Richard

  3. Space limitations prevent me from listing all the theories that have been put forth, but the lion’s share of them can be boiled down to one common mantra: “Horror art may scare or disturb us, but a rational, post-experience study of said art will help us to ‘understand’ what we have endured. And once we understand our fears, we may conquer them.”

    I agree that the idea of simply “conquering” fears through some sort or rational analysis is misguided, but I think there’s some kernel of truth in the idea that we are drawn to horror in part because it lets us explore and play with our fears and maybe integrate them in some way…think of the way children, after experiencing some scary incident, will often put versions of the scary event into their own imaginary games for some time afterwards (I remember someone telling me that after their kid got scared by the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, dinosaurs started showing up in the kid’s games). More of an ongoing dialogue with our fears than an attempt to conquer them, I think.

    • There’s something that films like Jacob’s Ladder or videogames like Demon’s Souls do for imagining a view of the soul and its place in the world that goes beyond fear itself. Romero’s zombie films are about our existence in the world, and the mystery of existence, far more than it was ever about our fears or our anxieties. It’s not right to say that zombie films make us feel better about the world because what horror movies do at their core is disrupt our assumptions. Horror is about awareness.. more than anything else.

      • Absolutely, Daniel. A disruption of assumptions — particularly that we are stationed at the summit of all life-forms — is crucial to great Horror.

        Horror is indeed about awareness. It is about exercising (not exorcising) the uncanny in order to remind us that our boundaries are of our own making. This is not to suggest that one take behavioral cues from Horror, but Horror does often act as a pleasantly unpleasant reminder that, to some degree at least, we have all built our houses upon sand, so it is wise not to stomp about too heavily and proudly because the foundation is not nearly as solid as it seems…

        Best,
        Richard

    • An “ongoing dialogue with our fears” is certainly part of what “Echoes from Hades” is about. That’s a nice way of putting it, Jesse. Thanks for commenting.

      Best,
      Richard

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