Why is the human mind so eager to explore the darkness? What do we hope to learn there?
I. Paradoxes of the heart
Have you ever watched a movie that was so scary you couldn’t look away?
For as long as I can remember — and probably longer — I’ve been intrigued by monsters. At preschool age, I had what my parents called an “overactive imagination,” and a long series of nightmares from which I woke screaming convinced them to ban me from watching TV shows — even cartoons — involving monsters or horror of any kind.
What was I looking for in all this?
As might be expected, this ban only served to intensify my fascination. By junior high, my parents seemed to have accepted that this love of the unnatural wasn’t going away, and they let me devour everything I could find by Poe, Bierce, and Lovecraft (probably relieved that I was reading actual books).
As I eventually discovered, my dad shared my love for old monster movies; and by high school, I’d amassed a respectable VHS collection of classics (and not-so-classics) plundered from the “horror” and “sci-fi” sections of every video shop in town. By then, the only thing still off-limits in my parents’ house was “R”-rated horror, which might explain my college-age plunge through the nightmarish works of Miike and Fulci.
Again: what was I looking for?
Sometime in my early twenties, this question abruptly reared its head, and it nagged at me so insistently that I developed a sort of obsession with answering it in a way that satisfied me. It was here, I think, that my two great lifelong loves — mysteries and neuroscience — met for the first time. In a lifetime of exploring the mysterious, this was the deepest and most primal mystery I’d ever encountered: why is the human mind so eager to confront the dark?
The first serious meditation I found on the subject was Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror. The book’s thesis centers on the idea of “paradoxes of the heart” — i.e., that the unknown holds a powerful fascination for many people precisely because it’s so potentially dangerous. The more we fear something, it seems, the more we’re driven to learn about it — perhaps to test our mettle and prove our strength; perhaps because we sense that knowledge of a thing’s true nature is a form of power over it.
Or perhaps fear and horror are routes to other ecstasies. In his book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto argues that the root of all religious experience is something he calls “the numinous” — a sense of vast, powerful, and ineffable mystery that can’t be described in terms of other experiences. Otto explains this feeling as a sort of transformation — or sublimation — of the indefinable dread one might feel when walking through a forest at night, or the chill that runs up one’s spine when wind whistles through an empty canyon. It’s a feeling one encounters much more in wild places, when traveling alone — a sense of a place’s vastness, power, and Otherness.
II. From terror to ecstasy
Just as ancient rituals to appease spirits gradually evolved into acts of worship toward gods, a proper respect and appreciation for the numinous transforms dread into awe — terror into ecstasy — the mysterious into the holy.
One of my all-time favorite fiction authors, Algernon Blackwood, dealt with exactly this theme in much of his work. In his short story The Willows (which I can’t recommend highly enough), the narrator and his guide sail down the Danube river into an unusually wild swamp.
As night descends, both are overcome by feelings of dread and awe for the swamp’s alien vastness:
“Small things testified to the amazing influence of the place, and now in the silence round the fire they allowed themselves to be noted by the mind. The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect — as it existed across the border to that other region. And this changed aspect I felt was now not merely to me, but to the race. The whole experience whose verge we touched was unknown to humanity at all. It was a new order of experience, and in the true sense of the word unearthly.”
Blackwood — along with other writers such as Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft — helped develop the literary form known today as the “weird tale.” Though weird tales often contain elements in common with stories of the mystery, fantasy, and horror genres, they differ from these primarily in terms of the feelings they aim to evoke in the reader. Lovecraft described his own style of weird tale in this way:
“[It] has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
And indeed, in plenty of Lovecraft’s fiction we find a near-worshipful reverence for enormous spans of time and space, and for the inconceivable vastness revealed when the delusions of human civilization give way before the ultimate incomprehensibility of the cosmos.
III. The implication of a monster
In other words, while Blackwood tends to focus on the supernatural, Lovecraft typically makes a point of keeping his horrors and “gods” in the physical realm… even if that realm is a bizarre multiverse in which humans are mere prey — or worse, are of no significance at all.
Lovecraft’s narrators open their eyes not to unveiled supernatural horrors, but to the unfiltered facts of cold physical reality. In a way, Lovecraft was homing in on the true emotional crux of the weird tale: not the monsters themselves, but the concepts implied by their existence.
“H.P. Lovecraft once said that “suggestion [is] the highest form of horror-presentation.” I think of this as less an affirmation of the old saw that things are scarier in direct proportion to how well (or how much) you see them, and more an exhortation that it’s not the monster itself that’s so scary at all but rather what that monster, by its very existence, suggests. To put it another way, the thing that makes a vampire interesting … is not that it will suck your blood, but that it is a vampire at all. That it is a teratism, a thing outside of commonly accepted possibility. The better such a creature is understood, the more bound in rules it is, the more pedestrian and commonplace it becomes…”
But less explicit monsters lurk between the lines here: both Lovecraft and many of his narrators cling desperately to “fixed laws of Nature” as a bulwark against “assaults of chaos” — clinging, in other words, to logical, representational, Apollonian perceptions of the Umwelt; blockading their minds against the arbitrary, raw, Dionysian holistic reality they dread facing — and yet yearn to face.
In short, despite the very different approaches of Lovecraft and Blackwood, both of their horrors spring from somewhat of a common cause: the confrontation of the rational mind with an experience that is simultaneously undeniable and unclassifiable — an experience so original and immediate, so impossible for the rational mind to “re-present,” that it forces words to “turn back,” and compels the narrator’s ego to prostrate itself in heartfelt astonishment — to become temporarily like that of a child, awash in the pure “is”-ness of the moment.
IV. The dark places of the earth
This is what’s so fascinating not only about monsters, but about any story or film that evokes quasi-religious feelings of terror and awe: these things leave us with a breathless sense of revelation about a certain idea, combined with an overpowering sense of that idea’s mysteriousness; incomprehensibility; ineffability.
Even stories without a hint of the supernatural or the “weird” can summon these feelings. In fact, The Willows is reminiscent of another — much more famous — story that also uses a river journey into the wilderness to evoke dread and awe: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Blackwood and Lovecraft, Conrad makes no mention of the supernatural or the cosmic, instead focusing on the numinous power of something much closer to home: the human psyche, and its place in relation to untamed nature.
Throughout Heart of Darkness, Conrad interweaves thoughts about the dark and ruthless jungle with meditations on the savagery of ancient and “primitive” mankind. As the character Marlow explains, modern, “civilized” man walks the thinnest of tightropes above the abyss of his own primal nature — and every man’s mind has a breaking point, beyond which it will slip back into raw atavism. Early in the story, Marlow reminds the rest of the boat’s crew that even familiar England was a savage forest not too long ago:
“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago … We live in the flicker — may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday. Imagine the feelings of a commander of a fine — what d’ye call ‘em? — trireme in the Mediterranean, ordered suddenly to the north; run overland across the Gauls in a hurry; put in charge of one of these craft … Imagine him here — the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina — and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages, — precious little to eat fit for a civilized man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay — cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death — death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush.”
“All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination…”
Thus, whereas in The Willows and other Blackwood stories, nature and its rational laws (or — to put a finer point on it — our belief that we can use logic to classify and predict nature’s behavior) are delicately suspended above the vast unclassifiable weirdness of the supernatural, in Heart of Darkness, rational human consciousness itself is suspended above the vast darkness of man’s primeval natural state.
The ultimate horror, then — and the ultimate ecstasy — is to stare straight into the unthinking, irrational chaos of nature itself; the chaos with which we feel a strange kinship, because we recognize it, on some deep unspoken level, as our own.
V. A childlike apocalypse
As Heart of Darkness progresses, Marlow’s feelings toward the jungle — and toward Kurtz, the rogue wild-man he’s tracking — undergo a transformation from dread to awe. Immersed in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” he becomes — much like the narrator of The Willows — overwhelmed with the sense that human civilization is no more than an insignificant island drifting in a vast and uncaring universe.
Here, the numinous is expressed not through supernatural monsters or interplanetary “gods,” but by abstract (yet naturalistic) concepts. As the jungle’s shadows swallow the boat, Marlow — echoing the narrator of The Willows almost word-for-word — muses, “The earth seemed unearthly.”
In other words, Marlow has begun to experience his Umwelt in a heightened, almost childlike way: as an environment that’s alien, raw and terrifying and immediate in every moment — and therefore, worthy of worship.
Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now — based loosely on Conrad’s story — evokes many of the same feelings through visual means: the enormity of the civilization-devouring jungle; the terror of unlit nights where predators lurk just out of sight. Parts of Coppola’s film feel as if they could be modern-day adaptations of portions of The Willows; it’s not hard to imagine a latter-day Blackwood setting his story in the mysterious jungle of Vietnam.
“What is found at the end of the journey is not Kurtz so much as what Kurtz found: that all of our days and ways are a fragile structure perched uneasily atop the hungry jaws of nature that will thoughtlessly devour us. A happy life is a daily reprieve from this knowledge.
If we are lucky, we spend our lives in a fool’s paradise, never knowing how close we skirt the abyss. What drives Kurtz mad is his discovery of this.”
Compare those lines with the opening of Lovecraft’s classic story The Call of Cthulhu:
“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.”
A bit more melodramatic, but the gist is essentially the same: the only thing that keeps us humans sane is the delusion that we’re somehow separate from the rest of nature; not subject to the same chaos as all other animals. When this delusion is shattered, we will — like Kurtz in Conrad’s story and Coppola’s film, and like Blackwood’s and Lovecraft’s narrators — plunge back into atavism; as Lovecraft puts it, we can “either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
As negative as it sounds, this plunge into the abyss is something many of us hunger for — not in spite of the revelations it harbors, but because of them. Like ecstatic tribespeople around the fire, we deliberately summon the gods that most terrify us. We yearn to see them face-to-face, precisely because they fill us with such dread.
V. Blank spaces on the map
Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, like Willard in Apocalypse Now, and like the protagonists of hundreds of weird tales, many of us feel ourselves drawn inexorably toward the alien and the strange — toward the blank places on the map. Problem is, not many such places are left.
As Marlow himself puts it:
“Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’
The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off. Other places were scattered about the hemispheres. I have been in some of them, and . . . well, we won’t talk about that. But there was one yet — the biggest, the most blank, so to speak — that I had a hankering after.”
Though the days of trailblazing jungle exploration are long-gone, “biggest and most blank” realms continue to intrigue us, precisely because they contain such potential — such suggestive hints of the numinous. We love them because we fear them — because they force us to confront them in all their naked immediacy.
The safety of nine-to-five life holds little appeal for us in comparison to the visceral power of the unknown. The promise of revelation and the threat of madness — are they really so different, after all? Both sing like Sirens to places deep within us. If Blackwood, Conrad and the rest are any indication, they’ve been singing to many of us for a very long time.
Shadows of the primordial savanna, held at bay by dying firelight, are far more than ancient history — we carry them, each one of us, somewhere at the edge of consciousness; in a place we find when we’re alone in an unlit house — when we avoid looking out the window because we half-expect to see something staring back at us — when we lie just at the edge of sleep, unsure if that scratching at the door is imaginary or real.
In those moments, our fool’s paradise falls away, and we remember what we’ve always been: naked apes huddled in dread against the night. And even still, the night — in all its forms — beckons us to stare into its shadows; to whisper, with awe, hints of its secrets.