KIRK SCHNEIDER IS an existentialist-psychologist
interested in the transformative effect of horror literature on readers.
He advocates a form of bibliotherapy using horror literature and cinema
as a means of exploring our human condition, its limitations and its
His book Horror and the Holy: Wisdom-Teachings of the Monster
Tale separates horror into two categories: those tales like Dracula
that constrict and imprison the consciousness, reducing it to a microcosm,
and tales like Frankenstein that expand the consciousness, mirroring
the macrocosmic dimension. In many horror stories there are elements
of both tendencies but usually one or the other predominate. For a tale
to be truly horrendous, constriction or expansion must be felt to an
infinite degree and results in a lack of boundaries. Schneiders
theory is summarized well in the preface:
|Horror and the Holy opens with
four psychological assumptions: (1) classic horror
(and by analogy the self/cosmic relation) is both ecstatic and terrifying;
(2) the basis for this condition is infinity (or
the holy); (3) the further we pursue the ecstatic,
the more we unveil its terrifying context; and (4) the
encounter with this context (as opposed to the denial or passive
acceptance of this context) promotes vitality and social sensitivity.
In addition to Dracula and Frankenstein, Schneider analyzes
the horror classics: House of Usher, Phantom of the Opera,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and movies such as: The Birds,
Vertigo, and Alien among others. These tales put
flesh and blood to his theory. They graphically illustrate what goes
wrong when human beings rub up against the edge of infinity and encounter
the sacred. The holy is not an altogether pleasant concept
since it can lead either to chaos or obliteration. Reading tales of
terror can morally exhort the reader to respect limits and have compassion
on those swallowed in the pull of the infinite.
Schneiders theory doesnt pander to reductionism or psychologization
but roots itself in genuine literary analysis of the tales themselves
and their affects on readers. To test Schneiders theory, I read
several tales from Edgar Allan Poe
and found that they comfortably fall into his categories with precisely
the psychological effect he predicted. Berenice, the story of a man
obsessed with the slow deterioration of his cousin bride, bears out
Schneiders view that the constriction of consciousness can lead
to a compulsive obsession with even the smallest object, such as teeth
as in the case of this story. The mental world of Eaegus, the protagonist,
became so small that it could be contained in a box on his desk.
I am prone to expansion fantasies. After a virulent argument with a
professor at college over some academic ego clash, I had an experience
where my imagination became unrestrained and my reason unhinged. I had
what Stanislav Grof calls a spiritual emergency. Driving
alone on a highway after the altercation, I began to see into the Otherworld
filling it with a blend of my own rage and apocalyptic
images of totality that were truly frightening. I saw red star burst
explosions over the cityscape of Vancouver and ominous symbols on the
license plates of passing cars, many of which took on the look of hearses.
Obviously my uncontained rage filled my mental cosmos and resulted in
destruction. Luckily my grotesque musings were not connected to any
deeply held ideological fanaticism or Frankenstein project. After cooling
down, giving my head a shake, I returned to consensual reality and put
the experience in its limited framework of an egocentric tirade.
Schneider suggests reflection on literary horror offers a manner of
seeing intoxication or passivity in the context of what he calls wonderment.
Wonderment is both to wonder at and wonder about the
experience of horror and the holy. To honour horror is to respect its
limitations, to use it as a vehicle for social and personal change.
Honouring horror of the holy is to see the marvelous in the madness
expressed, and conversely the madness in the marvelous. These
catch phrases suggest that madness has its marvelous qualities, its
ironic compensations. Those with mania or hyperextension have an uncanny
quality of charisma and charm that could lead, if harnessed for constructive
means, to reform and innovation. In the same way, depressive constriction
could lead to a deepened facility with minutia. This mastery of the
microcosm could become available for service to humanity.
Reading horror while pondering the question, what impedes the usefulness
of the madness for a positive outcome, is the clue to resolving
our social and psychological imbalances. What prevents the appreciation
of the marvelous is our isolation and panic. What if Frankenstein were
capable of community? What if Poe used his deep intuition of the macabre
for experimental psychological research?
The madness of the marvelous essentially is about psychological
idolatry, attributing an infinite value to a finite object. This is
especially true of the obsessive romantic attachment that moves from
the freedom of being in love to the chain of jealousy and abuse. Some
objects like sex, power and knowledge are so entrancing that reason
must apply her full work in order to keep balance.
The moral of horror is to curb excess. This moral is tucked within the
plot of most horror tales and provides us with cautionary tales to live
our lives by. These tales, telescopically or microscopically, reveal
the trajectory of our hyper-expansion or hyper-constriction to its infinite
conclusion and horrify us in the artful depiction of the result. Such
is the wisdom of horror.
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