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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