Monday, February 10, 2014

Thinking About Horror

It seems that nearly everyone who even dabbles in horror will quote Mr. Lovecraft's first line from his essay on Supernatural Horror in Literature, you know the one that goes; "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear..." Yeah. Whatever.

Down the page a bit, the third paragraph to be exact, is something that we find much more interesting:

"Man's first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. Definite feelings based on pleasure and pain grew up around the phenomena whose causes and effects he understood, whilst around those which he did not understand -- and the universe teemed with them in the early days -- were naturally woven such personifications, marvelous interpretations, and sensations of awe and fear as would be hit upon by a race having few and simple ideas and limited experience. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part. The phenomenon of dreaming likewise helped to build up the notion of an unreal or spiritual world; and in general, all the conditions of savage dawn -- life so strongly conduced toward a feeling of the supernatural, that we need not wonder at the thoroughness with which man's very hereditary essence has become saturated with religion and superstition. That saturation must, as a matter of plain scientific fact, be regarded as virtually permanent so far as the subconscious mind and inner instincts are concerned; for though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings round all the objects and processes that were once mysterious; however well they may now be explained. And more than this, there is an actual physiological fixation of the old instincts in our nervous tissue, which would make them obscurely operative even were the conscious mind to be purged of all sources of wonder."

Instinct and Emotion formed the earliest responses to environmental stimuli. Our deepest reactions are rooted in the irrational and are saturated in fear born of ignorance. As we learn more, we see past and see through the things that once terrified us. Sure. But as we move forward, this same principle, this ingrained process still functions, still twists things into fearsome figures and half-formed impressions that disturb and evoke discomfort or worse. It's part and parcel of the baggage we carry within us all, a legacy of our ancestry that cuts across all times, cultures and social media.

The Unknown is not only scary, but it triggers the darker impulses we barely apprehend or understand, let alone have any real control over, that swirl around deep below our civilized facades and avatar-like masks of conformity. It unlocks the feral squealing genii lurking within the deepest recesses of anyone, everyone, all of us. The horror is not the monster, the abomination, the alien, not even the Unknown--it is our reaction to things outside our comprehension or comfortable frame of reference. Horror is a mirror. A cracked mirror that reveals things we'd rather not face, things we don't understand, things we can't just ignore so they'll go away. Intrusive things. Transgressions from outside. Alien presences looming over the threshold we're going to have to cross one way or another. In a sense it's like social media and how it has invaded all our lives, and yet it's just as easily something old, a Machen/Bierce-style survival from the deep past if you will.

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