Category Archives: Liminalities

by Matt Cardin

Supernatural Horror, Spiritual Awakening, and the Demonic Divine

Liminalities1The 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. Read the rest of this entry

To Cleanse the Doors of Conception: Psychic Dreams, Scientific Monsters, and Transcendent Realities

Dream researcher, Teeming Brain friend, and future Teeming Brain contributor Ryan Hurd — who has spoken about dreams, consciousness, sleep paralysis, and related matters at Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, the Rhine Center, and elsewhere — recently shared an account of an apparently precognitive dream that he personally experienced. As I was reading through it, in addition to finding his description of what happened to be rather fascinating, I found that a number of thoughts and recognitions were crowding forward from the peripheries of my awareness to announce the wider implications of such experiences. All of them have to do with the question of what’s really involved in and portended by exactly the philosophical effect Ryan identifies in connection with anomalous experiences in general, namely, a cracking of the “dam” of assumptions that lead most of us to explain away the significance of such anomalies for our worldview, or even to screen out a conscious acceptance and/or awareness of such things altogether. When this kind of breach in one’s personal cosmos is effected, the resulting flood of formerly rejected realities has the capacity to recast everything in ways that can be experienced as horrific, salvific, or even both at once. Read the rest of this entry

Anomalies, Materialism, and the Liberating Death of Ufology

On November 4, The Telegraph reported that the field of ufology, at least as it’s viewed and practiced in Britain, may be dead or dying:

For decades, they have been scanning the skies for signs of alien activity. But having failed to establish any evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial life, Britain’s UFO watchers are reaching the conclusion that the truth might not be out there after all. Enthusiasts admit that a continued failure to provide proof and a decline in the number of “flying saucer” sightings suggests that aliens do not exist after all and could mean the end of “Ufology” — the study of UFOs — within the next decade.

— Jasper Copping, “UFO enthusiasts admit the truth may not be out there after all,” The Telegraph, November 4, 2012

This assessment comes from several expert sources, including Britain’s well-regarded Association for the Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which has scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue:

Dozens of groups interested in the flying saucers and other unidentified craft have already closed because of lack of interest and next week one of the country’s foremost organisations involved in UFO research is holding a conference to discuss whether the subject has any future. Dave Wood, chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (Assap), said the meeting had been called to address the crisis in the subject and see if UFOs were a thing of the past. “It is certainly a possibility that in ten years time, it will be a dead subject,” he added. “We look at these things on the balance of probabilities and this area of study has been ongoing for many decades. The lack of compelling evidence beyond the pure anecdotal suggests that on the balance of probabilities that nothing is out there. I think that any UFO researcher would tell you that 98 per cent of sightings that happen are very easily explainable. One of the conclusions to draw from that is that perhaps there isn’t anything there. The days of compelling eyewitness sightings seem to be over.” He said that far from leading to an increase in UFO sightings and research, the advent of the internet had coincided with a decline … The issue is to be debated at a summit at the University of Worcester on November 17 and the conclusions reported in the next edition of the association’s journal, Anomaly.

These developments are in turn linked to the recent closing of the UK’s official investigations into UFO phenomena:

The summit follows the emergence earlier this year of the news that the Ministry of Defence was no longer investigating UFO sightings after ruling there is “no evidence” they pose a threat to the UK. David Clark, a Sheffield Hallam University academic and the UFO adviser to the National Archives, said: “The subject is dead in that no one is seeing anything evidential.”

Obviously, this is all quite interesting. But more than that, it’s highly significant, and not just for people who are directly interested in UFOs. Despite the fact that the Telegraph article perpetuates the perennial rhetorical and philosophical foolishness of dividing the UFO-interested community into “believers” and “skeptics” (and also uses the word “enthusiasts” to maddening effect), it’s a very valuable piece of work, because it points to a deeply meaningful cultural moment for the study of anomalous phenomena, and also, more broadly, for our collective understanding of the relative meanings and statuses of anomalies, paranormal events, and material science. Read the rest of this entry

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 Read the rest of this entry

Awake inside the American Nightmare

In his 2011 book Liberal Arts at the Brink, Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, examines the way in which America’s liberal arts colleges, which have traditionally been based on “a uniquely American higher education ideal” embodied in “small classes led by professors devoted to teaching and mentoring, in a community dedicated to learning,” and which “produce a stunningly large percentage of America’s leaders in virtually every field of endeavor,” have come under assault by the culture-wide shift toward vocational education. Here’s the official description of the book and its argument by its publisher, Harvard University Press:

A former college president trained in law and economics, Ferrall shows how a spiraling demand for career-related education has pressured liberal arts colleges to become vocational, distorting their mission and core values. The relentless competition among them to attract the “best” students has driven down tuition revenues while driving up operating expenses to levels the colleges cannot cover. The weakest are being forced to sell out to vocational for-profit universities or close their doors. The handful of wealthy elite colleges risk becoming mere dispensers of employment and professional school credentials. The rest face the prospect of moving away from liberal arts and toward vocational education in order to survive.

Yesterday in a brief piece for Pacific Standard, Dr. Ferrall argued — compellingly, I think — that this trend has dire implications for an American polity already afflicted by a raging pathology: Read the rest of this entry

H.P. Lovecraft, Literary Hackwork, and the Horror of a Malevolently Indifferent Universe

Yesterday Geoffrey Pullum, Gerard visiting professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University and professor of general linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, penned a blog post for the Lingua Franca blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education about his recent visit to a couple of Lovecraftian sites in Providence. I was pleased to see Lovecraft being brought up like this at the Chronicle, and then I was even more interested when I noticed the tone of both Pullum’s post and some of the comments it had drawn. A lurking disdain for the Old Gent from Providence was on display right from the start, and I felt HPL was taking a subtle, and in some cases overt, drubbing of the type that properly should have been laid to rest with his ascent to canonical status around the turn of the new millennium. I also felt there was a misreading of not just his work but his worldview that was afoot.

Pullum starts his post on a strikingly negative note by recalling his first boyhood encounter with Lovecraft’s writing and giving it a retroactive trashing before allowing a backhanded compliment:

As a 14-year-old budding collector of supernatural horror fiction, browsing a bookstore in England, I happened upon a paperback collection of stories by H. P. Lovecraft. I opened it and read the first sentence of “The Lurking Fear”:

“There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear.”

That must be one of the worst opening lines in all of horror fiction, I now realize. It reads like an entry in San Jose State’s Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the ludicrous opening of the novel Paul Clifford by Edward “It was a dark and stormy night” Bulwer-Lytton. And when I tell you that the last words of Lovecraft’s tale are “They were never heard of again,” you may find it hard to believe that even a 14-year-old would not be sophisticated enough to laugh out loud. Yet somehow, for a boy craving escape from the mundane world of the suburbs south of London, Lovecraft’s overwrought ghastliness rang an eerie distant bell in some haunted mansion of my imagination.

— Geoffrey Pullum, “Lovecraft’s Providence,” Lingua Franca, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012

He goes on to describe how last week, after a day of teaching at Brown, “the fact that I am now living and working in Lovecraft’s beloved home town suddenly struck me as very significant.” Moved by this emotion, and setting out “For some reason I could not name,” he went and visited a couple of the famous Lovecraftian sites and structures in Providence — something I myself did several years ago during my sole (so far) trip to New England. Read the rest of this entry

Age of Philosophical Vertigo

Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:

In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate  where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.

Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:
Read the rest of this entry

On living well in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia: Notes toward a monastic response

Morris Berman may not have been the first person to offer simultaneous commentary on American culture and Fahrenheit 451 by observing that the former has basically transformed itself into the dystopian society depicted by the latter. Many people have noted in the decades since Fahrenheit was first published in 1953 that things have been moving eerily and strikingly in the direction Bradbury foresaw (or rather, the direction he tried to forestall; “I wasn’t trying to predict the future,” he famously said in a 2003 interview. “I was trying to prevent it.”) But it was Morris who most forcefully affected me with this line of thought when he laid it out in The Twilight of American Culture:

In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 — later made into a movie by Francois Truffaut — which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? Do not the data [on the collapse of American intelligence] suggest that most of our neighbors are, in fact, the mindless automatons depicted in Truffaut’s film? True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future generations — and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover — but the majority of citizens on the eve of the twenty-first century watch an average of four hours of TV a day, pop Prozac and its derivatives like candy, and perhaps read a Danielle Steel novel once a year

. . . [T]he society depicted in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead in video entertainment, a kind of “electronic Zen,” in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment counts . . . [The novel] is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of direct censorship of books — rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as it turns out, because most people don’t read anymore — most of the features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or perhaps no more than twenty years away. [1]

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You Are a Paranormal Phenomenon

The message, upshot , or bottom line of this Liminalities installment is stated in the title. What follows is simply a sketch of the train of thought and reading, extending over several years, that inspires such an assertion, as spurred by David Metcalfe’s recent report from this year’s Parapsychological Association conference in “Parapsychology and Intellectual Integrity: Words of Advice from Dr. Krippner.”

In 2010 Marilynne Robinson published Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, a book drawn from her 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” Her thesis was that the influential fusion of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and philosophy in the works of such thinkers as E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who argue that all human thought and activity is driven by and reducible to unconscious biological motives, has tended not so much to explain religion, art, and other quintessentially human endeavors as to explain them away, and that this in turn stems from a central attitude and approach that hamfistedly and unjustifiably attempts to explain away the very reality of human interiority. As a categorical contrast with and refutation of this approach, she emphasizes the reality and significance of the fundamental sense of “I-ness” itself:

For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently. Our religious traditions give us as the name of God two deeply mysterious words, one deeply mysterious utterance: I AM. Putting to one side the question of their meaning as the name and character by which the God of Moses would be known, these are words any human being can say about herself.

— Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 110.

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Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous

When the first of my sleep paralysis attacks occurred in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it was the onset of a period that I would later come to recognize or characterize as a spontaneous shamanic-type initiation via nightmare. I didn’t know that it would shatter the psychological, spiritual, ontological, metaphysical, and interpersonal assumptions that had undergirded my worldview and daily experience for so long that I had forgotten they were assumptions instead of givens. Terence McKenna, among others, has argued that, in accordance with the same principle that keeps a fish oblivious to the existence of water, the perturbation of consciousness is necessary for us even to become aware of the reality of consciousness as such. For me this was confirmed with lasting impact by the experience of waking up from a profoundly deep sleep to encounter a darkly luminous, vaguely man-shaped outline of a being that stood over me at the foot of the bed, and that shone with sizzling rays of shadow, and that represented a thunderous and sui generis — intended solely for me — black hole of a negative singularity, a presence whose entire reason for being was to draw me in and annihilate my essence. In the manner of dreams and daemons, the experience was as much cognitive and emotional as it was perceptual. There was no separation between these usually discrete categories. Nor was there a separation between the categories of self and other, between “me” and the assaulting presence. Horror was literally all there was, all that existed, all that was real — not as a reaction to an experience but as an organic and inevitable symmetry of being. I was not horrified. The experience was purely and simply horror.

When this proved to be not an isolated episode but an ongoing crisis spanning a period of months and years, and when the psychic effects began to leak into the daylight world and contaminate daily life with a distinct and inescapable background static of creeping nightmarishness, I knew something dire had happened. I had crossed some sort of threshold, and the most likely vocabulary for thinking and talking about it was the vocabulary of cosmic horror, which had been inculcated in me by years of obsessively reading Lovecraft, Lovecraft criticism, and the works of a whole host of associated authors. As explained previously, one of the results of this confluence was my horror novelette “Teeth.”

There was, however, another vocabulary I could have used, and it would have complemented the cosmic horrific one in mutually illuminating fashion. It was the vocabulary of consciousness change and high paranormal weirdness encoded in the idea of Chapel Perilous as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson. But this didn’t occur to me until much later.
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