Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy Halloween!

I love Halloween.

Halloween is, to me, a celebration of a primal human need; the need to, for lack of a better term, play: to hold mock-battles, to imaginatively incarnate the evils and trials of the world into villains and monsters so that they can be slain. You can’t beat up lust or anger, but you can beat up vampires and werewolves. It’s tough, and they’re dangerous and all, but you can do it. If not, there’s always silver bullets, wooden stakes, big honkin’ shotguns and other monster-killing paraphernalia.

The point is, the impulse to create monsters and horror – to scare ourselves – is a good and healthy one (though, like all things, it can be perverted). It’s fun to be scared by a ghost story or a horror movie, just like it’s fun to jump out of an airplane with a parachute on. Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, and so on wouldn’t be any fun at all if they were chasing us for real of course. But in fiction we enjoy the shiver of dread as we watch the stiff, painfully-rehearsed way Dracula pours the “very old wine,” all the while keeping his eyes on his victim. We like being creeped out by Kharis’s glittering black eyes (or, for the more discerning tastes, the creaking menace of Imhotep). Monsters like that not only scare us, but they comfort us as well; they take up residence in our consciousnesses and serve as endless sources of jokes and knowing references.

It’s play and story-telling; two of the most ancient of mankinds weapons against evil. They help us to make sense of the senseless; to trap it in images and make it vulnerable, rather like how Nancy pulls Freddy from the dream-world into the real-world, forcing him to fight on her terms (man, I love Nancy!). Stories and games can make us braver, more resilient to the trials and temptations of life.

See, the trouble is that real evil is something that is both very like nothing (indeed, there is no such thing as pure evil, because evil is only a negation or corruption of something good) and, as such, it is very subtle and impossible to pin down. The devil can take any shape or persona he likes. Stories, and especially horror stories, are attempts to ‘pin him down:’ to force him into a specific shape for the duration of the story so he can be defeated. This helps us build ‘habits’ for defeating him in the real world. The more and better stories we ingest, the more monsters we vicariously defeat, the more horrors we imaginatively endure, the more ‘trained’ we become to face him.

That’s one part of it. The other is that a really good horror story will showcase something of the ‘bad news:’ the fallen nature of humanity. Take Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance, in which the good doctor discovered just what was lurking inside his own soul and lost himself to it. Or The Picture of Dorian Gray, about a depraved young man’s inability to escape his own conscience. Or Halloween, about the irrational evil lurking beneath the surface even in the most ordinary of places.

C.S. Lewis (who knew how to write horror very well) said that Christianity has nothing to say to people who don’t think they need to be saved. A good horror story helps show just how deadly and universal evil really is, and how foolish we are to think that we’re “okay just the way we are.”  No, the world has too much corruption, too many spiritual dangers and temptations for us to think of ourselves as ‘safe.’ Being confronted with zombies or ghosts or werewolves invites us to look at ourselves and the world we live in, to see the darkness lurking just out of sight, and so to realize just how scared we ought to be.

Of course, fear doesn’t have the last word; we don’t live in a world of Lovecraftian elder gods, but of the One God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ and died to save us from that very evil that so frightens us. We can enjoy imaginary fear and danger all the more because we know that, in the real world, we don’t have to be afraid.

Vivat Christus Rex!

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