The Horror of Horror as Holiness

by Bob Wallace

All horror stories, whether fictional or real, have one theme in common: "attack." Stephen King wrote an entire book, Danse Macabre, about the concept.

Specifically, all horror stories are about Evil attacking Good. It can be described different ways: the monstrous attacking the non-monstrous, the unholy attacking the holy, chaos attacking order. All are different ways of describing the same thing.

Since fiction reflects life, it means this horror-story archetype exists in life. Unfortunately, it appears to be inherent in life. I have come to the conclusion that 90% of all horror in real life is caused by those usurpers and berserkers known as "people," specifically when they form that criminal and disorganized (to use Madeleine L'Engle's term) Black Thing known as the State.

That horror-story archetype exists in the most unlikely of places. Unbowdlerized children's fairy-tales are often blood-thirsty horror stories. My opinion is that fairy-tales, so little known these days, have migrated to the movies.

You'd be surprised where you find the horror archetype in movies. Is not The Sound of Music, of all things, partly a horror story about the sanctity and holiness of the family being attacked by the Nazis? Isn't Ferris Buehler's Day Off, the well-known story about a high school student fending off his Terminator-type principal (who will not stop), in some ways a horror story? What about the wonderful and magical A Christmas Story, a film about a kid dealing with bullies and the other traumas of growing up? Don't all of them contain elements of horror?

Do not all of Disney's immensely popular children's animated films contain some horror -- Bambi's mom being shot by the hunter, or Snow White under assault by the envious wicked witch?

Try this for a thought experiment. Imagine if all the horror elements were sucked out of all fiction, whether filmed or written. The stories would be boring, wouldn't they? Perhaps these horror stories are how we deal with bad things in the safety of our minds. Bruno Bettleheim, in The Uses of Enchantment, claimed that was the reason fairy-tales shouldn't be prettified. Children used them to deal with their fears -- like the terror of being deserted by their parents, in Hansel and Gretel, or having a loveless home, like The Little Match Girl. Adults, who are in many ways just kids writ large, do the same thing. If they didn't, Stephen King and Tom Clancy wouldn't be so popular.

Paradoxically, part of the horror in life is denying that it exists. I don't mean trying to remain innocent of horrible things, but instead claiming they're not horrible and are instead good things. Then we end up in Superman's Bizarro World, where not only do the cars have square wheels, but the whole planet is a cube.

More accurately, a lot of horror is not only denying that something is horrible, but instead claiming that it is holy. We're seeing that today with these wars. Some people claim they really aren't horrible; instead they are "holy wars" (and the word "holy" means to make "whole" or "healthy") to bring liberty, peace, democracy and happiness to all those benighted wogs on the other side of the planet. This sounds to me more like Bizarro World than anything else. Raining mass death and mass destruction on people to make them free and happy? Say what?

If we want to reduce the horror in the world, the free market is the best way to do it. It's what prevents war. Frederic Bastiat was right when he wrote, "If goods don't cross borders, armies will." As for the horror of disease, I doubt we would have much today if the State hadn't put the human race behind about 2500 years, if not more. That leaves natural catastrophes. We can't do much about them (except, when it comes to tsunamis, to pay attention to the old saying, "those who know the sea don't live by the sea"), but the amount of people killed by them throughout history is a drop in the bucket compared to people murdered by the State in the 20th century alone. Perhaps, the number of people who died from 1940 to 1945 alone is more than have died in all natural disasters.

What we've got today is something very creepy. When horror is seen as holy, then it is being transformed into a religion. That's why that deluded old fraud Jerry Falwell writes articles titled, "God is Pro-War." I used to wonder why a lot of legitimate spiritual teachers in the past claimed many people couldn't tell the difference between God and the Devil. I no longer do.

Contrary to the delusions of the rabidly secular, humanity will never give up religion. Perhaps everything is religion, including secularism. Don't the most extreme of environmentalists worship the Earth as the goddess Gaia, one that needs to be protected from the swarms of humanity polluting it? Is not "democracy" today being touted as the end to evil in the world? Wouldn't an end to evil and horror in the world actually be the end of the world? To immanentize the Eschaton?

The problem is when religion is perverted. That's when it goes from the holy to the horrible. Unfortunately, it's pretty darn easy for the human race to do this. Way too easy, in fact.

C.S. Lewis noticed this perversion when he described evil as "bent" good. Satan, after all, was the head angel until he got bent. Perhaps "evil" really is nothing more than just bent good. The holy made horrible by being twisted into horror. Isn't that what the word "blasphemy" really means?

Emile Durkheim, who is most famous for writing about religion, is best-known for the terms, "secular" and "profane." The profane is the everyday world in which we all live. In this context, the term is not a pejorative one. That everyday world can sometimes be boring, sometimes somewhat meaningless. To some people. But not to everyone.

The "sacred" is that realm of awe and reverence that lies beyond the work-a-day world of the profane. Durkheim saw seven main characteristics of what people perceive as the sacred:

  1. a recognition of a belief, or a power.
  2. seeing there is an ambiguity to that power. Sacred things are positive and negative, helpful and dangerous.
  3. the sacred is non-utilitarian -- everyday work is utilitarian, but the sacred is beyond the everyday.
  4. the sacred is non-empirical - it is beyond empirical nature.
  5. the sacred does not involve knowledge -- it is not based on knowledge from the five senses.
  6. the sacred is "supportive and strength giving" -- it raises the individual above himself/herself.
  7. the sacred imposes moral obligations on humans and elicits great respect.

In other words, anything can be a religion, whether for good or evil, whether it is true or false. Durkheim thought that God was society deified. He claimed religion is "the sacrilisation of society's requirements for human behaviour." To him society was greater than the individual. From it, people drew strength and support and meaningfulness. He saw the worship of God as the disguised worship of society, the entity upon which the individual depended.

I, on the other hand, disagree with his view and see the idea of God as society as idolatrous. Also, the idea of the State as God is idolatrous.

Still, Durkheim had a point. Many people conflate religion, society, and the State. They seem to think they're all the same thing, or that God supports their society and their State whole-heartedly, to the exclusion of other States and societies. This belief is not holy; it is a horror.

History backs up the idea that conflating religion, society and States is a horror. Both the Nazis and Communists thought they had God on their side (or what they perceived as "God." The Communists saw it as history, powered by the force of dialectical materialism. Still, it was their religion, and their god). More people were lost at the battle of Stalingrad during WWII -- the bloodiest battle in history -- than the US has lost in all its wars combined. No one is quite sure how many casualties there were, but it's estimated at between one and two million.

People are indeed "fallen." But they cannot be fixed by looking to such idols as the State. The State's main tool -- indeed its only tool -- is force: coercion and violence. Breaking some more, what is already broken, will never fix it.

When we take Durkheim's characteristics of the sacred, and apply them to the conflation of God, society and State, that perverted concept becomes more clear:

Some people believe in the power of the false trinity of God, State and society, they see an ambiguity to it (but many deny the bad, instead seeing only the good), it is supportive and health-giving to them (war can give meaning to people's "profane" lives), and they respect it and see it as imposing moral obligations -- sometimes ones they think they should force on other people by violence.

What we have then, today (and we've had it in the past) is the sacred and holy being perverted into the horrible -- but some people still claim it's sacred and holy. Instead of realistically assessing war as murder and destruction, they instead warp it into something they believe is holy and sacred and good. Perhaps some wars are inevitable, but at least see them for what they are. As far as I'm concerned, idealization is idolization--and all idols require murder. Don't say that God supports your leader, your country, your society, your State and your wars, while the Devil supports your opponents. That is idolatry.

There should be a name for that conflation of God, society and State. As far as I know, there isn't one. But I do know that when you name something, you have some power over it -- that is the one thing all stories about magic agree upon. Once you know something's True Name, you've got some power over it. Until you name something, it's just a fuzzy concept. People know something's there, but they're not quite sure what.

Such a naming can be a start in breaking the spell something has over people. Until that day comes -- and people believe in it -- there will always be those who will enthusiastically claim that what is horrible is really sacred and holy, and then be shocked when the results they seek aren't as they intended.

published at Endervidualism on  1/27/05

Bob Wallace has a degree in Journalism. Formerly a reporter and editor, now an author, Bob penned I Write What I See. Visit his Shameless Book Promotion Page and his Page Full o' Fun. He also blogs. Bob has previously written articles and essays which have been published by LewRockwell.com, The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times, Strike-the-Root, and The Price of Liberty, in addition to Endervidualism.