Awakening from the Nightmare (Part 1): Religion, Horror Movies, and Self-Awareness
The horror film as a tool for transcendence
Years ago as part of my master’s degree in religious studies, I took a communication class in which the entire semester was devoted to horror cinema. It was an acutely enjoyable experience. The evening class meetings, consisting of lectures, discussions, and film screenings (The Exorcist, The Shining, and more), were the high point of my week.
This happened during a particularly rich period of creative ferment, when my graduate studies in religion, my self-guided reading in related matters (philosophy, psychology, counterculture literature, ancient Greek drama, supernatural horror), and my institutional Christian religious involvement were combining with my hangover from several years of nightmares and sleep paralysis attacks to produce the short stories that would soon be published in and as my first book, Divinations of the Deep. The film class became part of that ferment, and for my final paper, I ended up combining several of my interests to write about a deep connection that I had begun to intuit between horror movies, especially those featuring significant gore and a prominently self-reflexive approach, and spiritual experience. I titled it “Awakening from the Nightmare: The Horror Film as a Tool for Transcendence.”
Although I liked the way it turned out (as did the professor who taught the class), I never went on to seek formal publication for it, though I did share it online in a PDF that I cobbled together from some of my stories and essays under the title Mindful of Horror — which, as I have just now noticed, I publicly posted 20 years ago this very month. Around the same time (two decades ago), it also appeared ever so briefly at the now long-defunct website Imaginary Worlds.
With today’s post here at Living into the Dark, I’m bringing this paper to a wider audience for the first time. Those who have read either my Dark Awakenings or What the Daemon Said might find this present offering to be especially interesting, as my essay/paper on Romero’s Living Dead films that appears in those two books is actually a kind of evolutionary descendant of this one. In fact, the Romero paper’s basic argument, and even some of its paragraphs, came directly from this earlier work. There’s also the fact that at one point in the Romero paper, I actually mention this one.
As I was reading back through “Awakening from the Nightmare” to prepare it for publication here (by tuning up the prose and updating the footnotes to reflect the current edition of Chicago Style), I noticed that I still find its central claim to be pretty compelling, if a bit fanciful. And of course the basic subject matter continues to be of deep personal interest, and on more than just an academic level. I hope that you, too, might find something of value in it.
Because of its length, I have divided it into two separate posts. Click here for Part 2.
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Awakening from the Nightmare:
The Horror Film as a Tool for Transcendence
The universe is nothing else but God: what else is new? There is no need to leave the physical world behind. It’s like watching a movie: the images come and go; the screen remains. But if you just want to see a blank screen, why be there at all? Pass the popcorn, please.
— Stephen Mitchell
The way into the nightmare is the way out.
— Thomas Ligotti, “Severini”
The year 1917 saw the publication of the book Das Heilige, a title commonly translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, by the German theologian Rudolf Otto. This book went on to have an enormous influence on such diverse fields as theology, philosophy, psychology, literary theory, and film theory. Today most students of these subjects are familiar with at least the rudiments of Otto’s argument.
His thesis was that the core of religion is found in the experience of the “numinous,” a term he coined to refer to “the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine.” The earliest rudimentary religious experiences of the human race, he said, were not pleasant glimpses of divine love and light, but were instead shudders of dread at the terrors of a mysterious and unknown universe. “Religious dread,” as he called it, is “the feeling of ‘something uncanny,’ ‘eerie,’ or ‘weird,’” that, “emerging in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting-point for the entire religious development of history.”1 This idea has proved to be seminal. S. S. Prawer writes, “Otto’s contention . . . that the numinous is an essential constituent of all religious experience has rightly been challenged . . . but no one, I think, will sever again the connection he has made between the numinous and the uncanny.”2
While I will not pursue precisely this theme in what follows, the connection Otto established between religious experience and dread forms the starting point of the current investigation. In this paper, I will take Otto’s thesis for granted, and will attempt to push the argument even further by positing a connection between religious experience and outright horror. Specifically, I will argue for the ability of horror films to induce an experience of religious transcendence in their viewers. This ability is tied inseparably to two distinct trends that have become prominent in the contemporary horror film: the liberal use of explicit gore and a penchant for overt reflexivity. The argument will proceed by examining the ways in which these trends act in tandem to increase the viewer’s sense of self-awareness, resulting in an experience of transcendence. Because I employ a specific understanding of the meaning and significance of the terms “self-awareness” and “transcendence,” I will devote space to considering these issues. It will also be necessary, here at the outset, to devote some space to a general consideration of the religious uses of film, especially within the horror genre.
The Religious Uses of Film, or Vice Versa
The use of movies as tools for spiritual exploration is an established and growing trend in America. On the simplest level, this becomes evident from a consideration of the thematic content of the films being produced and released on a nationwide scale. In the year 1999 alone, American audiences found themselves drawn in huge numbers to the Christian apocalypticism of End of Days and the evangelically-produced The Omega Code; to the Taoist influenced philosophy of the “Force” in The Phantom Menace and the quasi-mystical Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist overtones of The Matrix; to the supernaturalism of The Blair Witch Project, The Haunting, The House on Haunted Hill, The Mummy, The Sixth Sense, and Stir of Echoes; and to the surprisingly deep exploration of Christian spirituality in Stigmata. The year 2000 saw the release of What Lies Beneath (a traditional ghost story), Final Destination (a story about death’s desire to reclaim those who cheat it), The Ninth Gate (an occult-oriented supernatural thriller), Bless the Child and Lost Souls (supernatural thrillers with overtly orthodox Christian theologies), Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which references Wicca), and, perhaps most significantly, a re-edited version of The Exorcist, which in addition to being one of the most significant films in the history of the horror genre represents yet another fictional exploration of horror within an orthodox Christian theological setting.
This trend points directly to a hunger among audiences for stories dealing with religious and spiritual issues, or at least with the theme of a supernatural or transcendent reality.3 In late 1999, after a summer in which the highest grossing films were The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project, William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, said in regard to the resurgent popularity of supernatural thrillers at the end of the twentieth century, “One of the prime allures of the supernatural thriller is that there is a world of spirit and that death doesn’t mean our final destiny is oblivion. So when the film of the supernatural is a truly good one, the public is strongly drawn to it.”4
“There is a hunger among audiences for stories dealing with religious and spiritual issues, or at least with the theme of a supernatural or transcendent reality.”
This fact is not lost on filmmakers and Hollywood executives, who are well aware of the rampant spiritual hunger among contemporary audiences. For example, the makers of The Omega Code explicitly set out to exploit cinema’s potential for proselytizing. Paul F. Crouch, Jr., son of Christian media mogul Paul Crouch and the director of second unit photography on The Omega Code, told Pat Robertson in a 1999 interview on The 700 Club, “It’s easy, as a Christian—you can get a neighbor or unsaved person into a theater; they may never darken the door of a church, but you can get them into a movie theater. We’re hoping that Christians will use this as a witnessing tool.”5
In a more secular vein, Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures, echoed Blatty when she reflected on the box office winners of 1999: “Any movie that is about death being not so bad or so final usually works.”6 A prime example of this mentality at work can be found in the tag line chosen by Universal Studios to promote its 1999 remake of The Mummy. In 1932 Universal enticed audiences to see the original film by promising them an experience of, in the words of one trailer, “creeping, crawling terror that stands your hair on end and brings a scream to your lips.” By contrast, in 1999 a key element of the ad campaign for the remake was the assertion that, far from being the end, “Death is only the beginning”—a claim that, while menacing in its context, still plays directly on the idea of immortality.
Finally, it is important to recognize that the reality of this phenomenon is evident not just in the decisions made by movie studio executives and marketing managers but in the reactions and comments of moviegoers themselves. When asked about the religious use of film by a reporter from The News-Leader in Springfield, Missouri, in 1999, a twenty-something man confessed, “Honestly, I’d rather go to a movie than go to church. Am I looking for entertainment? Not necessarily. I’m looking for something that moves me. . . . Gen-Xers aren’t moved by organized religion; we’re moved by movies.”7
Religion and the Horror Film
When we specifically consider the horror genre, we find that examinations of horror films in relation to religious experience are hardly new. For instance, in 1979 Ron Rosenbaum argued that the irrational evil represented in horror films produces a longing in the viewer for a superior force capable of overcoming the evil. In Rosenbaum’s view, such films provide a sense of spiritual security to modern secular-minded moviegoers by encouraging, at least temporarily, the belief that transcendent benevolent forces may indeed exist.8 In a similar vein, Will Rockett writes that “in feeling a strong attraction toward certain films usually identified as horror, audiences are seeking transcendence, or at least confirmatory contact with the sublime or transcendent.”9 Commenting directly on Otto’s thesis, Rockett writes of “a kind of symbiosis between the demonic and the divine” and says horror films “provide the contact with the transcendent, be it downward to the demonic or upward to the divine, which a rational, secular society tends to rationalize away in philosophical abstraction even in its religion.”10
My argument in this paper differs significantly from previous explorations of the subject in that it attempts to delineate the means by which horror films might induce an actual experience of transcendence in the viewer. To the best of my knowledge, previous discussions of the subject have confined themselves primarily, or exclusively, to the intellectual and aesthetic levels. The focus has been on the viewer’s thoughts and emotions, on the ways in which a given film might excite thoughts about or emotions of transcendence. An example of this is provided by Rockett, whose stated field of inquiry in his book Devouring Whirlwind is those films “most likely and best suited to lead an audience into a sense of personal . . . transcendence.” In this connection, he writes of the “emotional and mental condition of wonder and astonishment” engendered by such films, and he asserts that this condition “is itself a penumbral form of transcendence: one certainly does not achieve complete illumination in such a way, but one is also not lost in complete shadow. This is a middle world, between the regions of darkness and light. Here everything seems possible, even one’s own ultimate transcendence.”11
“Horror films, used as religious rituals by people in search of transcendence, may actually have the capacity to produce an authentic experience.”
But note that transcendence of the type Rockett describes is still seen from a distance. It is an object of thought and emotional reflection, not a matter of the viewer’s actual, immediate, firsthand experience. My goal in this paper is to demonstrate a means by which horror films might be able to breach this barrier between the intellectual/aesthetic and existential levels. As noted above, audiences are already using films for religious purposes. It is but a small leap to the recognition that watching a film might serve as a true religious ritual. Mark Boyer, an instructor in the religious studies department at Southwest Missouri State University who uses spiritually-themed films to spur discussions in his classes, says of his young students’ use of film, “This is their religion. They can be a very faithful group, but their ritual is film.” 12 It is important to understand that, for those who use film in this manner, the viewing experience provides something far more important than mere entertainment or intellectual stimulation. Just as the proper goal of, for example, Christian faith is not a mere intellectual assent to Christian doctrines, nor a mere mechanical participation in Christian rituals, nor a mere aesthetic appreciation of Christian liturgy, music, art, and iconography, but an actual experience of transformation and transcendence, so I am arguing that horror films, used as religious rituals by people in search of transcendence, may actually have the capacity to produce an authentic experience.
The term “transcendence” has been used in so many different ways that it is necessary to specify its meaning in the current context. Etymologically, the word carries the connotation of climbing over something, so that one may speak for instance of transcending a wall. In theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam the word is often used to refer to God’s existence outside the material universe, external to and beyond the limitations of space and time. In philosophical circles, if a truth or reality lies beyond the limits of possible human experience, it is said to be transcendent. The second college edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “transcend” as “to go beyond the limits of; overstep, exceed,” and specifies the philosophical and theological meaning of the term as “to be separate from or beyond (experience, the material universe, etc.).”
“Transcendence” as I am using it here combines several elements of the above definitions. A helpful starting point is provided by Rockett: “To transcend is to pass over or to go beyond the limits of oneself and to feel that one is in communion with that which is distinctly ‘other,’ or outside one.”13 This definition synthesizes the ideas of surmounting a barrier, of experiencing something that is usually beyond experience, and of joining with something that is usually separate. Most importantly, it brings up the issue of human selfhood, which stands at the center of my argument.
Everyone has an accustomed sense of who they are and how they are related to the surrounding world. We generally operate under a very specific assumption about the demarcation between “me” and “you,” “self” and “other,” “inner” and “outer.” This demarcation creates the complementary fields or zones of subjectivity and objectivity. To myself, I am a subject and everyone else is an object. That is, I know myself from the inside, I know myself as myself, and concomitantly I know everyone and everything else as external to and other than myself. The same situation holds true for you, the reader. As you read these words, you are the subject of your own selfhood, and the ideas on this page are being communicated to you from a mind that is other than you. You are you, and I am I—although to yourself I am a “you,” and you are “I”—and, generally speaking, never the twain shall meet.
To experience transcendence is to be moved somehow beyond one’s ordinary sense of identity, to experience a breach of that normally impassable barrier between inner and outer, self and other.
The shorthand way of saying all this is that we each have a distinct sense of identity. To experience transcendence is to be moved somehow beyond one’s ordinary sense of identity, to experience a breach of that normally impassable barrier between inner and outer, self and other. Someone or something that was formerly an object is now perceived as a part of one’s own subjecthood. One discovers that one can validly say “I” in reference to something that one formerly thought of as a “you” or an “it.” One’s sense of identity has been widened or enlarged to include an “other.”
In their various ways, the doctrines, rituals, and spiritual exercises of the world’s religious traditions are all means of inducing an experience of transcendence among their adherents. For example, Vedantic Hinduism teaches that the normal waking experience of finite, separate selfhood is an illusion or mirage, and that all apparently finite beings are in reality manifestations of the absolute Self known as Brahman. The point of Vedantic rituals and spiritual exercises is to bring the adherent into an actual conscious experience of identification with this transcendent Self. In the west, Christianity is often said to represent the theology of transcendent theism, in which God is viewed as wholly separate and distinct from the world and the believer. But Christian theology also contains the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, which lives inside the believer, on the near side of the self-other boundary, so that one’s true self is understood as being “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Buddhism, historically an offshoot and reformation of Hinduism, takes for its primary focus the nature of the self, and it seeks to deconstruct the customary sense of selfhood in a quest to awaken people to the wider reality of their unconditioned “Buddha nature.” Examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely from these and other traditions.
Of course, the means by which these traditions seek to produce an experience of transcendence are varied and idiosyncratic, as are the guiding visions of the type of transcendence being sought. Naturally, the same holds true for horror films used as religious rituals: The nature of the transcendence being sought, as well as the means for achieving it, is peculiar to the subject matter itself. As specified in the introduction, the transcendence available through the religious use of horror films centers on the viewer’s capacity for self-awareness.
The Transcendence of Self-Awareness
By all indications, human consciousness is unique in its capacity to be aware of itself. A cogent explanation is provided by E. F. Schumacher:
[M]an is able to think but is also able to be aware of his thinking. Consciousness and intelligence, as it were, recoil upon themselves. There is not merely a conscious being, but a being capable of being conscious of its consciousness; not merely a thinker, but a thinker capable of watching and studying his own thinking. There is something able to say “I” and to direct consciousness in accordance with its own purposes, a master or controller, a power at a higher level than consciousness itself.14
Schumacher makes audacious claims about this power, saying that it “opens up unlimited possibilities of purposeful learning, investigating, exploring, and of formulating and accumulating knowledge.”15 It is because of self-awareness, he says, that humans have a freedom not known by animals, in that our “faculties are indeed infinite; they are not narrowly determined, confined, or ‘programmed’ as one says today.”16 Self-awareness is thus the specifically human quality, which means that its powers “have to be developed and ‘realized’ by each human individual if he is to become truly human, that is to say, a person.”17
Schumacher himself provides the statement linking the issue back to the thesis at hand: Not only does self-awareness make us human, but it “is the power that makes man human and also capable of transcending his humanity.”18 This can be seen in the immediate phenomenology of human selfhood. When I exercise self-awareness by directing my attention to the continual stream of my own consciousness, I discover that a portion of my identity lies forever beyond my ability to grasp or comprehend. The very act of being aware of my awareness is accompanied by the realization that on an even “deeper” or “higher” level, there is awareness of my awareness of my awareness. And so on, in layer upon layer of intensifying subjecthood, seemingly ad infinitum. I can never attain a position of being finally and decisively “one up” on myself, precisely for the reason that I am myself. Just as the eye cannot see itself, or as teeth cannot chew themselves, or as the hand cannot grasp itself, so it is that I, as a self-aware subject, can never become absolutely aware of myself. Significantly, a number of established spiritual traditions, most notably Zen Buddhism, focus explicitly on this elusive insight and employ various meditation exercises to intensify the direct apprehension of it.
When I exercise self-awareness by directing my attention to the continual stream of my own consciousness, I discover that a portion of my identity lies forever beyond my ability to grasp or comprehend.
However one arrives at this point of realization, and whatever the degree to which one experiences it, it is precisely as Schumacher has said: The exercise of self-awareness opens the door to a conscious realization of my own infinite depth as a self, and this constitutes a very real experience of transcendence. Paradoxically, I seem to stand “over” or “behind” myself in a position of observing transcendence, and the self that I formerly held to be the real me—that is, the Freudian ego, which, as the Latin meaning of the word suggests (“ego” means “I”) is the habitual locus of self-identification for most people—is seen to be only a small part of a greater whole. Extra-conscious elements of my total selfhood that have hitherto been experienced as decisively “not-me” are now recognized—and, more importantly, are experienced—as fundamental to who and what I am.
Furthermore, although it lies beyond the scope of this paper to pursue the subject in any detail, it might so happen that with this new consciousness of my infinite depth as a self, I will begin to experience a new sense of communion with other selves, since the realization of my own suprapersonal depth carries with it the intimation that other conscious beings derive their selfhood from the same transcendent source. And all of this is due simply to an increased and clarified experience of the self-awareness that forms the foundation of my everyday consciousness as a human being.
READ THE REST: Part 2
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 14.
S. S. Prawer, Caligari’s Children: The Film as Tale of Terror (Oxford et. al.: Oxford University Press, 1980), 124.
In light of the current paper’s focus on horror films, I have highlighted films that fall within the speculative realm in general and the horror subgenre in particular.
Liane Bonin, “The Author of ‘The Exorcist’ Says ‘Never’ to a New Sequel,” Entertainment Weekly, September 15, 1999, https://ew.com/article/1999/09/15/author-exorcist-says-never-new-sequel.
Transcription at CBNNow, accessed November 20, 1999, http://www.cbnnow.com/living/ae/entertainment/omegacode.asp.
Rick Lyman, “The Chills! The Thrills! The Profits!” The New York Times, August 31, 1999, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/film/083199horror-films.html.
Diane Majeske, “Searching for Their Souls on the Big Screen.” The News-Leader, September 25, 1999, A5.
Ron Rosenbaum, “Gooseflesh,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1979, 90.
Will H. Rockett, Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), 6.
Rockett, Devouring Whirlwind, 10, 20.
Rockett, Devouring Whirlwind, 50–51.
Majeske, “Searching for Their Souls,” A5.
Rockett, Devouring Whirlwind, 6.
E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 17 (Schumacher’s emphasis).
Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 22.
Ibid. (Schumacher’s emphasis).
Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, 44 (emphasis added).