“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace of a new dark age.”
H.P. Lovecraft, first paragraph of The Call of Cthulhu
It is frightening when a writer encounters their subject synchronistically responding to events in the world at large. I had already planned to move our discussion of a compassionate encounter with school violence towards monsters. The sword wielding, silent, black-masked school killer who played “horrible, Halloween-type” music is a dark denizen stepping over the threshold made to order; a terrifyingly clear example of the type.
Society labels these killers’ monsters, what might we learn by taking this folk wisdom seriously? Carl Jung observed, “Possession, though old-fashion, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of ‘evil spirits,’ now we call them ‘neurosis’ or ‘unconscious complexes.’ …man himself has taken over their role without knowing it and does the devilish work of destruction with far more effective tools than the spirits did. In the olden day’s men were brutal, now they are dehumanized and possessed to a degree that even the blackest Middle Ages did not know.”
Many have taken Jungian thought to task for such statements yet regardless of one’s position on such things it is hard to deny that our monsters are still with us. David Skal makes the point in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror that by the number of books sold and dollars made Stephen King is the most popular storyteller in the history of the world. Bit surprising that, yes? When Christopher Booker fished around for the right way to start his survey of Western literature throughout history,The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he chose to open with ‘Overcoming the Monster’ as the first chapter. There is something very central to how we understand the world in these tales.
We have already expanded our focus from the risk factors specific to the young killers to study killing as it is understood by modern militaries, the violence professionals. Today’s subject is not wholly unrelated. According to The Monster Show Vietnam experiences found their way to the silver screen. War photographer turned makeup artist, Tom Savini, is quoted as saying “that much of my work for Dawn of the Dead was like a series of portraits of what I had seen for real in Vietnam. Perhaps that was one way of working out the experience.” (Echoes of blowback are heard in the wings as society’s actions come home to roost.) The author goes on to note another correspondence, “Horror films of the seventies and eighties began exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome: startle reactions, paranoia, endless scenes of guerrilla-like stalking, and, like traumatic flashbacks, endlessly repeated images of nightmare assaults on the human body, especially its sudden and explosive destruction.” I would note that some of these techniques, such as the shaky camera, have migrated to most genres in our time as we find them used in action, fantasy, and even romantic comedies touched by so-called black humor.
We are trying to get closer to the emotions involved in our collective society that confront our most existential fears. We are looking for the signature, as it were, of the particular anger and rage we engender. We want to understand the suffering involved as a first step towards a skillfully compassionate response. Sometimes the most compassionate response to a monster is to embrace it. It is hard work to integrate the shadow and refuse to dehumanize the other, to see the human in the face of the enemy as we looked at in last week’s post. Other times the most compassionate act is to put the monster down.
The un-killable razor-handed Jason of Friday the 13th torture porn is unlike Dracula or Wolfman, each of which eventually meet their demise, however difficult it might have been to bring it about. The monsters on our screens today differ from what previous generations had been exposed to and not just in the categories of more realistic special effects and additional bucket loads of gore. The plots themselves and the protagonists and antagonists that populate them are expressing something new in the history of storytelling. Christopher Booker argues the roots of these new stories can be traced back to the Marquis de Sade in so far as the new ‘modern’ story is one in which the bad guy wins, innocence suffers, and no final accounting is given for acts of atrocity.
Silence of the Lambs was the third film ever to win the “big five” Oscars for producing, directing, acting and screenwriting, showing its resonance with the times. It is also a perfect example of this new ‘modern’ story. In it the bad guy gets caught but the greater monster is set free as Hannibal Lecter managed to outwit the forces of order which might have protected his young victims from his cannibalism. All the while he expresses a chilling degree of horror without mythical or supernatural trappings. Evil here is the deranged human mind.
The most powerfully shocking traumas human beings can suffer are those delivered at the hands of another human being. Knowing that there is a conscious hate that desires to see you suffer and die is profoundly traumatic. In On Combat Lt. Col. Grossman asks us to consider our different reactions between our home destroyed by a hurricane that leaves all our family in the hospital and our home invaded by a gang who burns down the house and injures our family members. In both scenarios the house is lost and our entire family ends up in the hospital, yet in one there is a rage that thirsts for justice that is wholly lacking in the other.
The sadistic human murderers of these ‘modern’ stories remove the distancing feature of supernaturalism which is why they are recognized as some of the most extreme embodiments of the horror genre: Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are representative examples. Remove the element of fiction and we are in the hell realm of snuff films. It should surprise no one that a country that chose to atavistically return to torturing prisoners of war should reflect upon itself in such dark mirrors.
We have come a long way from a Hobbit and a handful of men slaying Smaug the dragon or Professor Abraham Van Helsing pounding a stake through Dracula’s heart.
Of course most people prefer their monsters with the mythical elements in place, a sign of health of sorts. We have already spoken of how tragedy teaches the lessons of an ethical universe just as certainly as comedy does. Whichever way the storytellers twist their tale it can serve to nourish and educate us if the author is in touch with the underlying archetypal wholeness beyond the grasp of the ego. As careful observers of the flow of life through the generations, storytellers cannot help but be in touch with the great archetypal themes. They form the foundational functional relationships on which our self-consciousness is architected.
Though for a time it might have looked like sexy vampires were the dominate myth of our times I would suggest the zombies outpaced the bat by far. It is worth noting that both are creatures categorized as undead. Together they serve as the shadows of the Christian Mass for a once Christian culture. The vampire drinks the blood of the living and the zombie eats the flesh, specifically preferring to eat the brain actually, of the living.
Contemplatives will not be surprised to find flesh and blood at the heart of our monsters. The body is the ego’s phenomenological horror, destined as it is for sickness, old age and death; an unforgivable insult to our ego specialness. So we are at war instead of peace, in the fallen world instead of a sacred one. Most esoteric systems eventually map their symbols back into the body, often at the expense of the surprised neophyte. Catholic Christianity offers an almost embarrassingly blatant public exposure of this same mapping. One way to maybe understand a bit of why the body plays such an important role in true spirituality, short of direct experience, is to appreciate the role of the body as the root of our metaphors and our metaphors as the root of our cognition as documented in such works as Body in Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason by Mark Johnson.
The undead – they experience life but are not really living. Do you think anyone in the overdeveloped world might feel that way as they go through the motions of working and shopping day after day? They experience life but are not really living. . . The unrelieved pressure to survive and get ahead in our consumer driven, industrial society stresses many of us to the point where the world becomes grey. We are afraid to fully feel so we protect ourselves by adopting a kind of narcotic numbness to the realities we encounter. The undead are popular as a mirror in which we see our existential situation.
The sexy vampire of Anne Rice’s novels or the Twilight series or the vampire who started it all, Dracula himself, all have a certain sophistication zombies lack. They have powers and plans, schemes and goals. It is as if the head had been cut off from the heart and now obsessively plots satisfaction of its hunger for blood in a vain attempt to once again know the warmth of human emotions. Ego isolated in its tower, commanding its troops in the war of me against all is terrified, though it doesn’t want anyone else to know. The ego fears emotions – the depths of their reaches in ecstasies both light and dark sweep it away. To feel this deeply, to experience such an enormous capacity for pain, in a universe the ego fears may be meaningless, is the worst of curses.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula arguably captured the essence of the vampire monster when the protagonist defies God to strike him down. If you really exist God, the logic runs, I’m about to commit a horrendous crime so strike me down right now, right here where I stand! The vampire is a fitting culmination of our Faustian age. It has been almost one hundred years since the death camps of WWII, are we not still reeling from the silence of the heavens? Can anyone deny we seem hell bent on preparing another dark assault against the heavens in another futile attempt to force “god” to answer us?
How many desperate acts of evil are just such misguided and backhanded ways of trying to force a revelation from the far side of divinity, so seemingly hidden and silent across the abyss separating it from our fallen world? Like a spoilt child in a tantrum, mankind wakes up to the vastness of the universe, age of the earth, inexplicable cultural diversity over evolutionary time periods and the undeniable rise and fall of numerous civilizations and cries out in terror for the lost God of his ancestors. There is emptiness in the center of the throne room. In Western terms we might say God will not be forced as the Tarot’s Tower and the book of Job teach.
The zombie on the other hand is just a shambling mindlessness driven by a hunger for flesh. Ouch. Can you not see how well this captures the dead-end of extreme consumerism? Our appetite for flesh grows ever more out of control as year after year our pornography and violent entertainments grow increasingly extreme. How do we react? Numbly shambling into the future. David Skal sees the same correlation commenting, “A razor edged social satire, Dawn of the Dead peopled a shopping mall with flesh eating zombies, an indelible image of consumerism gone mad.”
Consumer goods are fashioned out of the flesh of the earth: crude oil for our plastics and transportations to and from the factories, stores and landfills; rare earth metals for our endlessly distracting electronic gadgets; coal to fire our power plants; and wood to build our McMansions and provide the sawdust needed for the particleboard IKEA furniture to fill them.
The final detail about the zombie as shadow mascot for consumerism I would like to mention concerns their preference for dining on brains. We have spent some posts looking at brains as the seat of self-awareness. The zombie seems to believe that sentiment expressed by the H.P. Lovecraft quote that started this post – that the sooner we can eat our way back to brainless unconsciousness the better!
Consumerism is basically the diminishment of meaningful human activity to the singularly important act of purchasing. The powers that be have every incentive to remove as viable options any and all human activity that is not dependent on buying and selling in the marketplace. This is why we are all Bowling Alone as the study of the disappearance of public spaces by Robert Putnam was entitled. This is why the productive home of just a few generations ago has become such a thing of the past. Gardens and canning and front porch conversations with neighbors, where is the profit in that?
What I see in all these things, the school shootings and the types of monsters populating our collective nightmares, is a stage of societal transformation. Awake to the possibility that we could thoroughly trash this planet in our greed, violence and ignorance and that the cosmos would seemingly just roll along with or without us has shaken our values to the core. The monsters that resonate with us in our stories and the monsters appearing in our societies are harbingers of the transformation.
At one point a feel good message about this transformation was all the rage as the New Age movement of crystals and light seemed to be leading mankind to its destiny. Peace was coming in the Age of Aquarius; our time of crisis would also be our time of waking up. The belief seemed to be that while the road may be bumpy we were well on our way to utopia at last. Today we recognize the philosophy of the enlightenment – progress through reason and science – co-opted, lies tattered and torn at the heart of this New Age fantasy. It was really just the same old apocalyptic dressed up in secular drag.
As the transformation proceeds all around us it becomes more undeniably obvious that all is not going to be sweetness and light. As fossil fueled industrial society wraps up burning its second half of earth’s crude oil resources over the next century or two the smart money will not be placed on either utopia or its intellectual sister, the end of the world. We will also not go screaming with horror into a new dark age as Lovecraft warned. We will walk the path of collapsing complexities so skillfully illustrated in works as Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, Michael Greer’s The Long Descent and James Kunstler The Long Emergency.
Our monsters will accompany us along the way, as will our angels. Opportunities to turn our backs on consumerism will continue to abound. Maybe it’s time to sit again with our neighbors on the porch and have a good long neighborly conversation about just what kind of life we want for ourselves and our children. Contemplatives have learned by turning their eyes within that the glory and dignity of our species is never going to be found in a store. Gardeners the world over have learned no ease of access to food can substitute for the chance to actively participate in the fertility of the soil. I know it sounds too small and easy to suggest planting a seed and sitting can guide individuals wisely through these dark and challenging times, yet I believe they can. They offer a kind of monster protection.
While idling away our time on the front porches maybe we will start talking about what democracy looks like when corporations are not persons and money doesn’t equal votes. We just might be able to fashion some monster traps out of thoughts like that.