Lon K. Montag Asks: What Horrifies You?

I get scared sometimes.  It’s true!  Not often, but sometimes.  And I’m not talking about your garden variety “scared” — you know the type, the tiny “fears” we experience every day, from “I’m scared I’m going to be late” to “I’m scared I’m going to fail this exam [or lose this contract, or whatever]” to “I’m afraid they’re going to run out of tickets for the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises.”  No, I’m not talking about these weak, watered down versions of fear.  I’m talking about the primordial stuff.  The type of fear that comes along and tenses your muscles, if you’re lucky, and prepares you for action; the kind of fear which, if you’re unlucky, paralyzes you and leaves you at the mercy of whatever predators might be lurking around the corner and in the dark.  I’m talking about that fear which makes your heart pound and finds your skin suddenly saturated with sweat…

Only a handful of moments stand out in my memory as being truly scary.  I remember one very clearly.  It was in the latest hours of the night.  I was sitting on the counter in my kitchen conversing with a cousin; it was in this conversation that he introduced me to the horrors of Helter Skelter.  In gruesome detail, with the seemingly infinite darkness and desolation, and who knows what, lurking, in the desert surrounding the house, my cousin outlined for me the horrendous story of the Tate Murders.  I felt my jaw drop open in disbelief as he shared with me what occurred that night: the stabbings, the painting of walls with blood — the lot of it.  I felt something that night which I don’t ever recall experiencing before: true horror.  It dawned on me then, that it was possible for anyone, at any time, to be subject to such brutal business; after all, the monstrous perpetrators wore human faces like the rest of us; their ilk could be anywhere and, moreover, anyone, couldn’t they…?  — Similarly, the narrator in a movie called Fallen once mused: “You never know.  Down to the smallest thing.  The man who passes you on the street – catches your eye.  Does he know you?  Did you go to school together?  Is he a homicidal maniac who hates you on sight?  Or is it nothing….?  Nothing at all…”  Surely a scary thought… — The fact that humanity could carry within it such senseless and destructive capacities…for the first time, I felt fear at the horror that is man.

The second time I felt this primordial fear was in that same house.  I was home alone, up, once again, at the darkest hours of the night, and reading Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot.  This source of horror was an entirely different sort than Helter Skelter; this was a more fantastic sort of danger; in some sense, ‘Salem’s Lot involved a threat from the outside as in Helter Skelter, but in an important way, Helter Skelter revealed the horrors man carries inside of himself and manifests, while King, in ‘Salem’s Lot, gave us monsters who can’t truly be said to be human; they’re the damned — so their blood-lust is easily explicable through appeal to their need for a particularly ghastly sort of sustenance.  But, for all this talk of inhuman monsters, it wasn’t Barlow, King’s Dracula surrogate, which inspired within me such fear.  It was the slow turning of the town to the undead, the amplification and spread of corruption and perversion as more and more of the townspeople became vampires, which caused my body to shiver and my skin to break into gooseflesh.  As I looked up from the book, I began to notice the darkness in the rest of my house kept hazily at bay by the light…And I thought of that same light being visible from the outside, signaling to any-one or -thing passing by that someone is home…

So let’s talk about these phenomena.  (And bear with me; things might get a little dense for a few paragraphs.)

Martin Heidegger notes that the things we fear are threatening to us (178).  Fear becomes alarm, Heidegger says, when that which makes us afraid intrudes suddenly (181); and when the object of our fear is something entirely unfamiliar, fear becomes dread.  Dread + alarm = terror (181).  But let’s go back for a moment to the beginning: fear.  The object of our fear is threatening to us.  This entails a few things, only some of which we’ll excerpt here: (1) The object of our fear is detrimental to us in some way; (2) the amount of fear we experience is proportionate to distance: the closer the threatening force or object is, the more we fear it and, conversely, the farther away it is, the more abstract it becomes, thus the less we fear it; and this last point is one which I find most interesting: (3) that which threatens us “carries with it the patent possibility that it may stay away and pass us by; but instead of lessening or extinguishing our fearing, this enhances it” (180).

Heidegger says little more about this last point.  But I find curious and intriguing the idea that something threatening can inspire more, rather than less, fear by keeping its distance.  This is amazingly counterintuitive.  The very bedrock of fear seems to be the possibility that there’s something in the world which can harm us, that the feared can cause some sort of tangible damage; this is why we fear it at all.  So how is it that the possibility of something passing us by can enhance our fear?  One answer comes immediately to my mind: what is unknown is threatening to us in the traditional sense (i.e. capable of causing harm) and the fact that it passes us by leaves open the possibility that it will return; when the feared strikes, we can’t help but confront it and one way or another, face our fear, which dissipates it — but if the threatening other remains un-confronted, then it’s still lurking somewhere out there which causes within us fear at the perpetual possibility that it will strike.

All of this talk of the unknown and un-confronted leads us directly into dread territory.  Dread, as we saw, can be thought of as fear in the face of the unknown.  And, as we saw above, the unknown haunts us with the omnipresent possibility of future confrontation.  But there’s more to say about the unknown’s terrible power.   When one lacks knowledge, one is said to be in the dark (a conceptualization which goes back at least as far as Plato and his Allegory of the Cave).  Let’s understand this metaphor by being a little literal-minded.  In regards to “being in the dark,” I suggest that the lack of sight at night (or in the dark, generally) makes every shadow, every hollow, and every alley into the den of a potential predator.  Which predator in particular?  A mugger?  A serial killer, psycho, or rapist?  One doesn’t know (though one might have suspicions) — and this is one of driving force behind dread.  The common saying is, “Better the devil you know than the one you don’t” — which means, in other words, that a known quantity, no matter how bad, is likely to be preferable because it is known.  So the unknown carries with it not just a perennial threat to the future, but the possibility of being the worst thing you can imagine…or something worse.  These points, on the face of things, seem to take care of the known vs. unknown dichotomy.

But things aren’t that simple.

We have the unknown / known bifurcation; and in my anecdotes above, I hinted at the important distinction between interior and exterior horrors.  Let’s look at the possible combinations: unknown & interior, unknown & exterior, known & interior, known & exterior.  We can have known threats inside and outside of us: the howl of a wolf in the nearby woods or the inclination to violence you might have (which you’re well aware of) — these are known quantities.  There are no real mysteries here; and the former is exterior and the latter is interior.  But the rustling of the leaves, and the steady anticipatory breathing, in the shadowy patches of brush to the side of the trail you happen to be walking down at night, this suggests some potential danger you can’t possibly put your finger on — it’s unknown and exterior.  Unknown and interior would be something like the monstrous forces dwelling in the depths of the human soul (a portion of which I was introduced to when I was first told of Helter Skelter); this threat is something which you can’t quite identify, but you have this vague feeling (the internal equivalent to rustling leaves and anticipatory breathing) which suggests that something’s there beneath the surface…waiting for its moment to strike.

So I’ve constructed some neat little boxes to lock our fears inside…This academic theorizing somewhat robs fear, dread, and terror of their potency (in the abstract, anyway)…I think, though, that there’s perhaps one horror which won’t be so easily dispatched with…

In the spectacular “Freddy’s Book,” novelist John Gardner writes of a brave man, a powerful man, a knight, named Lars-Goren, who meets the devil in a forest.  Of this meeting, Gardner writes, “Lars-Goren, needless to say, was in a panic himself.  Stumbling along the path, numbed and blinded by his fear, nearly falling from time to time, clutching his chest with his large right hand to make the hammering of his heart less painful, he tried to think out, slowly and reasonably, what it was that so frightened him” (81).  Lars-Goren knows that he doesn’t fear death, for he’s fought many battles and spent much time in battle-tents filled with the dying and dead.  What is it about the Devil which inspires so much paralyzing fear in him?  He has no luck finding an answer, though not for lack of trying.  Later, Lars-Goren’s wife suggests that it is perhaps rage which caused his reaction; but rage?  At what?  (And is this explanation even plausible?)

Only later when Lars-Goren meets the sneering ghost of a woman he allowed to burn for witchcraft does Lars-Goren understand his alleged rage.  The ghost says, “I have come to tell you you are a coward and a fool, for you shiver at a Nothing — mere stench and black air, for that is what he is, your wide-winged Devil — and in the presence of the greatest evil ever dreamt of, the fact that we exist in the world at all, helpless as babes against both evil and seeming good, you do not have the wit to blanch at all” (226).  Lars-Goren banishes the ghost but experiences an epiphany as a result of their exchange: “It was rage that made me tremble [at the devil]; fear that the chaos is in myself as in everything around me” (231).  Still, knowing that the Devil he met — that creature whose evil machinations he couldn’t divine a reason for — knowing that thing he now journeys forth to fight, might just be a manifestation of the indeterminate evils in ourselves, and of existence, Lars-Goren continues on because he feels that he must do whatever he can, fight whatever it’s necessary for him to fight, to make the world safe for his son, even if it’s ultimately a fool’s errand.  And so Lars-Goren fights.

Horror takes many forms, not all of them so simple and determinate.  To experience rage from his first meeting with the Devil, Lars-Goren, on some level, must have known something rage-inspiring, even if it was opaque to his consciousness.  But, surely part of Lars-Goren’s reaction was something other than rage…Surely, it was, in part, fear and, dare I say, terror.  Imagine: fear, terror, and rage, all at once, all inspired by the same creature.  How could this come to be?  Perhaps: fear, because one has encountered an exterior, inhuman, creature which one can, to some extent, know (if only provisionally); dread, because there is still much unknown about this Devil; terror, because of the dread plus the suddenness of the confrontation; and rage, because such evil is, to some extent, indeterminate (thus undefeatable) and omnipresent (because it inheres partially within us all).

Perhaps, then, the Devil is, in this sense, the ultimate horror.

I’ve never met him, so I can’t say.

But, the season for such musings is soon to be on us…So perhaps now’s the time for you to ask yourself…”What horrifies me…?”

  • Gardner, John.  Freddy’s Book.  Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1980).
  • Heidegger, Martin.  Being and Time.  Tr. Macquarrie, John and Robinson, Edward.  Harper Perennial (2008).
  • Hoblit, Gregory, dir.  Fallen.  Perf. Washington, Denzel and Goodman, John.  Warner Bros. & Turner Pictures (1998).

P.S. Of course, books could be, and have been, written on the subject; I’ve only scratched the surface here.  We’ll have to come down this road again, you and I…And, bring a light, won’t you?  Just in case.

All original content copyright 2012 by Lon K. Montag: Excerpt freely, but please acknowledge the source.

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