The Ultimate Existentialist Horror
I remember, when I was very small, watching a film called Night of the Demon. I didn't know until many years later that it was an adaptation of an M.R. James story, 'Casting the Runes'. The film impressed and scared me. At the climax, the demon of the title arrives to claim the body (and presumably the soul) of the man foolish enough to have been somehow responsible for conjuring the thing up. I forget the exact details of the plot. I can barely picture any of the scenes to myself. I just recall (or seem to recall) a gigantic monster looking something like a charred corpse looming high over a length of railway track at night.
Although this outcome frightened me, for I was at an impressionable age, I didn't have too much sympathy for the demon's victim. It seemed to me, even back then, that it was his own fault for meddling with the forces of darkness, for aligning himself with the Devil. I grew up as a Christian and I was a truly devout child, utterly convinced that God existed and that his power was without limit of any kind. I assumed that omnipotence meant power without a single restriction. I was blissfully ignorant of the clever arguments of philosophers such as Anselm and Leibniz, who showed there must be a logical limit even to God's power (God, for instance, can't reduce his own power; that option is denied to him). As far as I was concerned, God could snap his fingers, if he chose, and the Devil would vanish into nothingness instantly. God could make time run backwards, cancel out something that had already happened, violate logic in any way he liked. God could do anything.
Armed with my unshakeable faith, I felt only scorn for black magicians who summoned up a demon and then fell prey to it. It seemed obvious to me that one should always fight for God and against the Devil. God, after all, was invincible and always right. If you fought for God, God would look after you, even if the Devil or one of his minions ripped off your head. Work for God and you go to Heaven. Work for the Devil and you go to Hell. The equation was simple.
I continued watching horror films throughout my childhood, and demons, vampires and werewolves, among other monsters, populated my dreams. But still I felt secure and safe under the protection of God. Even if one of those unholy abominations did get me, everything would be fine provided I didn't betray my allegiance to God. Better to be slsiced to little piece and go straight to heaven than to be a turncoat and remain whole, for human life is short but eternity is very long indeed.
I am no longer a Christian and haven't been for several decades, but I was recently filled with a feeling not dissimilar to that emotion I experienced as a child watching Night of the Demon. The object responsible was a book of short stories, John the Balladeer by Manly Wade Wellman, a collection of two-dozen tales and vignettes featuring Silver John, a sort of troubadour-hobo who aimlessly wanders the Appalachian Mountains with his silver-strung guitar, getting into all sorts of scrapes with hoodoo men, ghosts, fearsome critters, bigfoots (bigfeet?) and other supernatural or cryptozoological meanies.
The stories that detail his adventures are colourful and entertaining, but they aren't very scary. They lack tension. They lack tension because the main character, Silver John, quite rightly, is wholly devoted to the cause of good. He's God's man through and through. So evil can't touch him. All he has to do when confronted by an evil spirit is say a prayer and the evil spirit backs off. All attempts to bring him over to the Devil's side are doomed to failure, for John is no fool. He is immune to blandishments, threats and flattery. Even if a beautiful lady vampire sucks up to him, he'll always resist.
John the Balladeer is horror, but it isn't genuinely troubling horror. It's comfortable horror. The book would be troubling only to anyone who works for the Devil rather than for God, in which case it should serve as a timely reminder for that individual to come back over to God's side. After all, God is destined to win. Ultimately the Devil doesn't stand a chance. Why align yourself with the biggest loser in the universe? That's the message of this kind of horror. Work for God.
The same message is implicit in all supernatural horror, for in that kind of horror evil is a tangible force rather than simply an absence of good. And if evil is a genuine form of energy, good must also be a form of energy. If the Devil exists, God also exists. And God always rewards loyalty. Thus, although horrific on the surface, films such as The Exorcist or The Omen hammer home a reassuring message. The Devil exists and he's going to kill me in a horrible way because I refuse to submit to him? Great! I'm off for my first harp lesson beyond the Pearly Gates!
There is, of course, another kind of horror. A horror that not only doesn't make use of the supernatural but denies the supernatural. This other kind of horror may feature psychos, wife-beaters or crack addicts huddled under the glare of sodium lamps. It may be miserablist in nature, or it may be even more pessimistic and depressing than that. Some of this sort of horror might be characterised as existentialist. In other words, it is concerned with existence as it actually is (or seems to be), stripped of faith, hope and the consolations of metaphysics.
Existentialist horror is the kind of horror that is generated and propagated by atheism. Get your head ripped off by a demon and your soul will be fine (provided your allegiance is still to God), so that moment of bloody violence doesn't really matter. What are a few minutes of head ripping pain compared with the bliss of Paradise? But have your head removed by a psycho in a cosmos where God doesn't exist and you are in real trouble. You don't have a soul in such a scenario. So there's nothing better awaiting you after your head plops to the ground. You are dead. Just dead.
Because, let's face it, our main fear is the uncertainty of what happens to us after we die. That uncertainty is the horror locked away inside every instant of every hour of every day of our entire lives. That question. And there are two possible outcomes and both have their own terrors: eternal life is a daunting prospect. But eternal oblivion is worse. There's no point denying it. If we're going to be strictly honest with ourselves, endless oblivion is what we dread most. A cosmos where there is no afterlife, a purely mechanistic universe with no place for souls. The theory that our souls are purely by-products of our minds, and that our minds are merely by-products of our brains, is called epiphenomenalism. When our brain dies we have no more mind, and thus no more soul. We became nothing. Oblivion. Oblivion until the end of Time.
This is a hard prospect to swallow. The meaningless universe. Yet it takes only the appearance of a single ghost, vampire or demon to disprove it. The moment a supernatural representative of the force of evil turns up, it means there is hope again. If supernatural evil exists, then supernatural good must also exist, which means God exists, which means Heaven exists. Just one demon, however small, just one, and the afterlife is back on the agenda! So when an innocent character in a horror book or film is confronted with a genuine demon, he or she should fall to their knees and cry, “Thank you, thank you! You're my ticket to Heaven! I do have a soul after all. No eternal oblivion for me! The afterlife, here I come!”
There's a very cruel story by the French writer Villiers de L'Isle-Adam called 'Torture by Hope'. It's about a man imprisoned in a dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition. He is going to be tortured by them the following day. Then he notices that his cell door has been left unlocked. What a mistake by his jailers! Bursting with hope, he opens the door and creeps down the corridor towards the exit. He is almost free! Suddenly an inquisitor jumps out and cries, “Tricked you!” (I'm paraphrasing, please understand). It turns out that the prisoner had been allowed to escape that far, or rather that the illusion of escape was given to him as part of the torture, for to fill someone with false hope is the worst torment.
There is a television show that takes the concept of torture by hope to its ultimate limit. Frankly, it is the ultimate existentialist horror. The fact that it doesn't seem to be horrific makes it all the more horrible when one truly considers the implications of its core message. That core message is grim, soul-eroding and profoundly nihilistic.
The show in question adopts the format of the paranormal investigation. A group of characters set out to probe into hauntings. These characters include Fred, a typical alpha male; Daphne, a dumb but foxy redhead who is possibly Fred's lover; Velma, an intellectual (lesbian?) analyst; and a pair of pragmatic, hungry survivors, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. The last character in this list lends his name to the show itself. Scooby-Doo.
Every episode of Scooby-Doo follows a highly formalised schematic. A ghost (or demon or other paranormal bugaboo) is reported in a lonely location. The investigators repair to the scene. They meet the ghost but fail to be deterred from the investigation by it. As they dig deeper into events, the workings of the atheistic clockwork slowly become apparent. There is no ghost (or demon, etc). It is merely an illusion, a man in a mask! The impostor is carted off to prison and the five heroes move on to the next case in a psychedelic van. Somewhere behind all this, in the furthest reaches of metaphor, an enormous Richard Dawkins must be rubbing his hands in glee, looming over the dénouement like the absolute antithesis of the demon in Night of the Demon.
Scooby-Doo offers false hope. A ghost, a demon. Supernatural horror! Therefore the afterlife is real! We won't cease to exist after our deaths! We may even get to visit our loved ones who have passed on. God does exist after all! Everything really is right with the universe! There is no bleakness or despair woven into the fabric of reality. Take me into your arms, sweet Lord! Thank you, ghost! Thank you, demon! Give my regards to that sucker Satan as I preen my angel's wings…
Yes, Scooby-Doo offers that hope, the greatest hope that can ever be offered… and then snatches it away! Every single episode it does this. It is a staggeringly cruel thing to do. It is the ultimate existentialist horror. But people persist in regarding it as a comedy. And that only deepens the horror, the horror. Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you? Shuddering in the grip of angst, despair and abandonment, that's where!
Copyright Rhys Hughes 08/03/11