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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.

The 1960s Redux: In our new age of apocalypse, is the consciousness revolution back on?

For the past few years, I’ve had a mounting sense that the abortive consciousness revolution of the 1960s and early 70s may have come back from the dead, riding on the wave of apocalyptic sentiment that’s been washing over us all since the late 1990s. Sometimes a new datum, or something that I interpret as a datum, enters my field of awareness and reinforces this.

Today, as on most days, I spent a few minutes browsing the latest updates at Tony Peake’s forum. That’s Anthony Peake, mind you, the British author of Is There Life after Death?, The Daemon: A Guide to Your Extraordinary Secret Self, and the forthcoming High Plains Drifters and Time, Dreams & Precognition. The first offers a revolutionary, scientifically-based theory of subjective immortality. The second elaborates on an idea included in the first: that we’re all divided into two separate centers of consciousness, and that the self which does things like read the words you’re now reading is the “lower” one which is ontologically preceded, accompanied, and guided by a higher one. The third will be a study of out-of-body experiences. The fourth is explained by its own title. For obvious reasons, Tony is occasionally described as a successor to Colin Wilson.

At his forum today, I found a mention of a new book, published in May and accompanied by a blurb from Tony, titled The Dark Man. Written by Deborah Wells, who, like me, is a participant at Tony’s forum, it is devoted to exploring the “mysterious dark presence . . . a tall, dark, gaunt man” that “stalks us through our dreams, our waking lives and our creative endeavors” and is pervasive in “the history of religion, philosophy, art, and literature.”

This struck me with an electrical jolt of personal significance. Why? Well, it’s obviously because of my own experiences with the dark man via my sleep paralysis episodes. And that surge of ecstatic and fascinated recognition as I first read about Ms. Wells’ book and then availed myself of the Amazon and Google Books previews helped to crystallize my aforementioned thoughts and feelings about a possible resurrection of the 1960s consciousness project. Because, as evinced by the very existence of her book, and Tony’s work, and a thousand other current and recent reference points, we are right now experiencing an epic fermentation of cultural discourse about consciousness, selfhood, the paranormal, scientific knowledge, and the nature of reality itself.

I was born in 1970, so my personal memories of the period are drenched in a misty air of mythic significance. When in my late teens and early twenties I discovered the intellectual/cultural/spiritual/philosophical legacy of 1960s — by obsessively reading Alan Watts, Theodore Roszak, Robert Anton Wilson, and other authors; by watching the likes of Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, Easy Rider, Harold and Maude, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! and 2001: A Space Odyssey about two million times; by studying the history of the civil rights movement, the hippie movement, the psychedelic culture, the Vietnam War and its attendant cultural insanity, the great worldwide protests of 1968, etc. — I wished fervently that I could have lived through that heady period, when it seemed as if the collective cranium of Western and global civilization was primed to erupt in a psychedelic expansion into new realms of thought, experience, and being that would inevitably lead to new patterns of social, political, religious, and cultural arrangement.

But of course we all know what became of that age. In America (and Britain), the excitement died a miserable death under the onslaught of various assassinations, scandals, economic calamities, and the eventual consolidation of the corporate consumer worldview under and after Reagan (and Thatcher). And that’s not even to mention the movement’s own inexorable centrifugal force and latent narcissism, which led it to corrupt itself from within.

So that’s the past. Now fast forward to the first decade of the 21st century, and what do we find? As in the sixties, everything seems apocalyptic. Everything seems poised to melt away and reveal an ugly truth lurking beneath the facade of what we have collectively agreed to call a normal way of life. For Americans especially, what primed us for this was the Y2K non-event. Then 9/11 deflowered us. After that, successive waves of tentative financial calamity, followed by our current and ongoing full-blown financial-economic collapse, erased our (illusionary) innocence entirely. Additionally, fears about serious and calamitous climate change have made significant attitudinal contributions, along with other ecological portents, fears about peak oil and 2012, and the first-ever wide-open recognition, by pretty much the entire public at large, of the entrenched and seemingly incurable corruption of our most prominent political and business institutions, as illustrated most recently by the collusion of BP and the U.S. federal government in creating a total fustercluck in the Gulf of Mexico.

And running neck in neck with this — again as in the 60s — we’re seeing a concomitant explosion of new discourse, expressed in books (including Tony’s and Ms. Wells’), films, music, and more, that appears to pick right back up where the original consciousness revolution left off. This formerly esoteric and marginal realm of investigation and experience, which deals with a true upending of conventional notions about selfhood, identity, time, space, and reality, presently appears to be snowballing into a major cultural force with transformative and mainstream-invading potential.

To name just one more example, only two weeks ago Rachael by-God Ray featured a segment on her network television show about “mysterious illnesses” — and one of them was sleep paralysis, a subject which, as indicated by the explosion of recent books and documentary films (one of which caught Ray’s attention), and by the solid backbone of scholarship established by Dr. David J. Hufford over the past three decades,

  1. is linked directly to religious experience, and is in fact an authentic firsthand religious experience of its own;
  2. is a classic instance of a major human experience that has been rejected by the dominant Western worldview of the past several centuries; and
  3. is manifestly edging its way into the mainstream of the Western first-world cultural conversation.

In short, I find this all quite astonishing, not to mention hugely gratifying. And although I fear my chosen data points in support of my conclusion or suspicion may seem idiosyncratic and weird, I don’t think this invalidates the suspicion itself.

So where’s it going to lead? Naturally, I have no idea. But I’m currently rereading Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger to remind myself of where the original consciousness revolution came from, and of the extent of its failure due to a tendency toward personal dissipation, as interacting with the violent backlash from a dominant mainstream culture acting out a psychological/neurological imprint of reactionary hatred and fear. At the same time, I’m wondering if maybe, just maybe, things might really have a chance to change this time.