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Encountering Horror and the Holy
by Arthur Paul Patterson Horror and the Holy cover image

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 responsibilities.

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. Schneider’s 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.

Schneider’s theory doesn’t pander to reductionism or psychologization but roots itself in genuine literary analysis of the tales themselves and their affects on readers. To test Schneider’s 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 Schneider’s 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.

pull-out quotation 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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