Supernatural Horror, Spiritual Awakening, and the Demonic Divine
The major theme that I have pursued in my books and other writings is the complementary nature of the divine and the demonic. Or rather, it’s the truth of the divine demonic or demonic divine, that searing fusion of the horrific with the beatific in a liminal zone where supernatural horror and religion are inextricably merged with each other, and where it’s not just the conventionally demonic that is the source of deepest dread and horror, but the very divine object itself: God, the One, the Ground of Being. If God is or can be the ultimate horror, then the experience of religious illumination or spiritual awakening is inherently dangerous, since it constitutes a true personal apocalypse, a removal of reality’s obscuring veil that can be experienced not just as a wonderful liberation but as an awe-ful nightmare. “It is a dreadful thing,” says the author of the biblical Book of Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” who is “a consuming fire” and should be worshiped “with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 10:31, 12:28-29). The experience of numinous horror thus reveals itself as a route to, and maybe a marker of, an authentic spiritual transformation, although of a sort whose unpleasant subjective aspects often call into question its fundamental desirability.
It has been one of my most passionate pleasures and obsessions in life to read and hear other people’s explorations of these things. This is why you’ve seen me refer so many times to, for instance, Rudolf Otto’s seminal formulation of the idea of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum and daemonic dread, and Lovecraft’s open recognition that the psychology of weird supernatural horror fiction and its basic emotional response is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it,” and William James’s assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an experience of cosmic horror and despair at the fundamental hideousness of life.
Right now I would like to call your attention to two items in this very vein that are distinctly separate in objective terms but intimately related in their articulation of the demonic divine conundrum. The first is a clip from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. The second is an excerpt from an interview with contemporary spiritual author and teacher Richard Moss. Both of them articulate a very important truth: that one’s individual perspective and inner state at the moment of a supernatural parting of the veil is what determines whether the experience will tilt toward the divine or demonic.
Jacob’s Ladder was written by Bruce Joel Rubin, whose other most famous screenplay is Ghost, for which he won the Academy Award. Both films deal with divine and demonic spiritual forces, and both were released, rather remarkably, during the same year (1990). Rubin himself is famous for his personal and abiding interest in deep spiritual matters, as seen in the widely reported fact that after attending film school at NYU he left the U.S. and went on a global quest for spiritual enlightenment, which led him to live for a time on the Greek isle of Paros and in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal. After Jacob’s Ladder was released, he revealed that one of his major inspirations for it was The Tibetan Book of the Dead with its depiction of the bardo, the purgatory-like liminal state where a deceased soul must let go of all its attachments, including those of personal identity, on the way toward liberation into ultimate reality. Additional inspirations were Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and, of course, the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” in the Book of Genesis. “Hollywood is the dream factory, the place that takes people into the most secretive parts of themselves,” he told the Buddhist magazine tricycle not long after Jacob’s Ladder and Ghost were released. “Sitting in a dark theater staring at a big screen, people are very vulnerable. In this openness you can, if you want to, give very important lessons to an audience. You can touch the deepest part of the mass mind, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
In one pivotal scene in Jacob’s Ladder, the protagonist, Jacob (Tim Robbins), is receiving a treatment from his beloved chiropractor and quasi-mentor, Louis (Danny Aiello). Jacob is a postal worker in New York City who happens to have a doctorate in philosophy and a painful personal history that involves the loss of a beloved child and a horrific wartime experience in Vietnam. The film begins at a point when his life is becoming increasingly disrupted by bizarre spatial and temporal dislocations that include hallucinatory assaults in which demon-like figures show up during his daily life to frighten him, threaten him, and in one instance even abduct and torture him. Louis is a warm and wise man who helps to stabilize and comfort Jacob during all of these traumas, and in this clip, after having listened to Jacob fearfully describe some of what he has been seeing and experiencing, Louis astounds him by offering an alternate perspective that recasts all of it in a dramatically new light.
How did you get your doctorate without reading [Meister] Eckhart? . . . Eckhart saw hell too. You know what he said? He said the only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life. Your memories, your attachments — they burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul. So the way he sees it, if you’re frightened of dying, and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.
This leads us to the case of Richard Moss, who is widely renowned as a spiritual author and teacher of the mystical and nondual variety, and who also, interestingly, has a deep connection to the Tibetan spiritual traditions. In the 1970s he was a practicing physician when he experienced a spontaneous, dramatic, and traumatic spiritual awakening. Its intensity eventually led him to abandon medicine and pursue a new path of full-time spiritual work.
In an interview for the 2011 book The Dance of Stillness: Exploring the Nature of Spiritual Awakening, Moss talks about the way the experience of “the dark night of the soul” has been central to his spirituality, and how this has led him at times to encounter the demonic aspect of the divine with terrifying intensity. In particular, and right in keeping with the point Rubin makes in his Jacob’s Ladder screenplay, Moss emphasizes that one’s individual state and perspective determines which face the divine will manifest during a spiritual/liminal/daimonic eruption:
Formlessness is terrifying to our egos, to our sense of personal identity. I truly believe that deeper consciousness is a continuous process of descending into the dark, which is that which is beyond our ability to understand and often seems threatening to us. And as we’re being called toward a new consciousness, the ego perceives that as darkness. I mean, I would say that, if God got near us, and we were still in ego awareness, that would be terrifying, and our perception then of God would be as Demonic. If we weren’t in ego awareness, and we were able to relax and just rest into being, and God got near us, it would be an honor, bliss, nirvana.
But I think you don’t stay there. People don’t stay there and aren’t meant to stay there because their next cycle would be to go back into the world and try to reorganize matters, so to speak, in a more coherent, more integral, integrated process. So the dark night for me was the loss of meaning, the loss of wanting to live, the loss of anything in life that seemed fulfilling. And it was hard to trust, very hard to trust, and there was an enormous amount of fear. The more my mind tried to understand what was happening, the more fear there was. I had to make my peace with not knowing. I would wake up each day and I would say, “OK, if life gives me nothing but this, I will say ‘thank you.’ I’ll be grateful.” So for awhile after the extraordinary period of wholeness there was a period of fear, nothing but this incredible raw vulnerability. And like St. John of the Cross, I came to call it the Dark Night of the Soul.
I don’t think it’s one thing. There’s a kind of turning inward that’s almost contrary to everything that life had been about, that I experienced. I felt that I had been brought to the experience of union, and then afterwards sort of cast down into darkness and had to find my way again, slowly. It’s so far in my past now, yet when I talk about myself I say, “One hand reaches out beyond this world into another dimension, which we can call transcendence,”‘ — so I sometimes just use the image of holding an angel. And the other hand reaches down into something so dark and disfigured, anguished and agonized, that I call it almost demonic.
And I really believe that when people get too high, something tries to pull them down into the earth, into the body, which is what we often talk about when we mean demonic. And when people get too locked into the rigidity of ordinary life, then something comes to break that and lift us out of it. And so the Dark Night of the Soul is a kind of descent into a kind of “no man’s land” until you develop the ability to be present in it. Once you can, you are operating a wholly new consciousness.
And that, at bottom, is the entire point: to reach a state of “operating a wholly new consciousness.” In his tricycle interview, Rubin said, “I really look at the world as a depiction of the internal state of man. The external and the internal mirror one another, and I see that larger evil as basically a depiction of man’s own unconscious relationship to himself.” This is profound, fascinating, and, as those of us can verify who have done some of the inner work that Rubin and Moss recommend, undeniably true.
But the Shakespearean “rub” of the thing is that for those of us who, for some reason, are destined/doomed to have our primary means of awakening be a repeated encounter with the divine’s demonic face, it can sometimes be difficult, if not downright impossible, to know whether it’s really an awakening that we’re experiencing or a Lovecraftian, sanity-destroying encounter with a reality that is monstrous in its essence instead of just appearing as monstrous to us.
Posted on July 25, 2013, in Arts & Entertainment, Liminalities, Religion & Philosophy and tagged h. p. lovecraft, movies, nonduality, religion and horror, rudolf otto, spirituality, william james. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.