We’ve got some strange ways of dealing with bad thoughts.

Want to hear a cool story?

In the 1280s, the Mongol warlord Hülegü Khan was getting ready to make war on the city of Baghdad — which was, at that time, the epicenter of the civilized world.

The Khan sent a threat letter to the Caliph of Baghdad that always sends chills up my spine when I read it. Here’s a sample:

Hülegü Khan
Hülegü Khan

“If you do not heed our advice and intend to oppose and resist us, ready your army and choose the battlefield, for we are prepared and girded for battle.

When I lead my army against Baghdad in fury, whether you hide in the heavens or on earth

I will drag you down from the celestial spheres;
I will toss you in the air like a lion.
I will leave no one alive in your realm;
I will put your city and your lands to the torch.

If you wish to spare yourself and your venerable family, listen to my advice with the ear of intelligence.

If you do not, we will see what God decides.”

Reading this letter is like hearing an epic speech from — depending on who you identify with, the Mongols or the Baghdadis — the hero or the villain of a movie. Either way, it’s the kind of smack talk that makes you stop and take notice — like when the Persians tell the Spartans, “Our arrows will blot out the sun,” and the Spartans answer, “All right, so we’ll fight in the shade.”

So far, this is an action movie.

1.

Want to know what happened next? The Caliph sent the Khan back a letter saying he wouldn’t submit, so the Mongol army showed up at Baghdad, chopped down all the palm trees for miles around, and catapulted them at the city.

Just picture that — thousands of palm trees rocketing out of the sky, smashing houses, marketplaces, mosques, city squares. It’s horrific, for sure — but you’ve got to give the Mongols points for thinking out of the box.

Now we’re in a war movie, though. It’s getting gritty.

Might as well finish the story. The Mongols did exactly what the Khan threatened. They captured the city, looted it for weeks, burned thousands of priceless books, raped and tortured just about anyone they could get their hands on — with impunity; this was all just business for the Mongols — while people who’d been instrumental in the resistance were impaled on stakes, flayed flesh-from-bone, or tied to poles and burned alive.

Yeah, I’m not posting a picture of that.

The chronicler doesn’t tell us what it sounded like, either, the pleading and screams — though you could imagine it, if for some reason you wanted to — but he says that by the end of it, the stench of rotting corpses was so overpowering that the Khan had to move his army’s camp upwind.

And now we’re in a horror movie.

But here’s the thing — horror is what lies at the bottom of the other two genres, too. Glory, action, smack-talk, cool battles and weapons — all those things exist for the purpose of piling up human corpses.

And yet, on some level, it’s pretty undeniable that in some way, there’s something cool about this story.

Why is that?

2.

A lot of people who find horror movies disgusting are the very same ones who’ll tell you they love action movies. Isn’t that odd?

Brain activity patterns associated with empathy
Brain activity patterns associated with empathy

Maybe not all that odd. I don’t like gore, but I like action. Movies with explosions and car chases are a way of facing death without really having to face it.

If you empathize with the main character, your brain chemistry rewards you as if you were performing those heroic deeds yourself, so you come out feeling pretty great. I love the feeling of walking out of an action movie at the end, all pumped up and triumphant.

At the bottom of it all, though, lie dead human beings — fictional or otherwise. Every time.

I point this out for the same reason I pointed out, in another article, that if you eat meat, you need to understand and accept the fact that another living being’s consciousness was snuffed out so you could eat its body.

And I say that as a daily carnivore.

Look, I don’t get any kind of sick thrill out of eating another living being’s body — or from focusing on the deaths in action movies. But if we don’t acknowledge those things, we’re being dishonest with ourselves about the stuff we enjoy.

Well, maybe a little dishonesty can be a good thing.

Maybe we all need a touch of insanity to keep us sane.

Because this is a side of human existence that’s always been with us. Throughout our history — and long before, I’m sure — we’ve been trying to make sense of the fact that we spend an inordinate amount of time slaughtering and getting slaughtered.

That quest has led us to some very interesting places.

3.

One approach is to romanticize it.

That’s the action movie. Some of us tell ourselves that if we ever faced life-or-death battle, we’d face it like a warrior, and die gloriously at the moment of truth.

Well. Psychologically speaking, it’s notoriously hard to predict how any given person, including you, will react in that situation, no matter how sure — or how well-trained — you are. But leaving that aside, the belief that you’d behave like a hero is one way of handling it.

There are other ways of dealing with it, too.

I recently saw a story posted on social media about a man in Florida who was mauled, drowned and eaten by an alligator while he tried to break into a house. It was posted as a humor story. The top comment said something like, “LOL serves him right.”

Again, I’m not getting indignant here. I love dark humor — shocklingly bleak humor, in fact. It’s my way of dealing with the fact that people get mauled and eaten by alligators (and other people) every day on this earth, and that’s what’s been happening for hundreds of thousands of years. If you don’t go a little crazy and laugh about it now and then, you’ll go a lot crazy and do something much worse.

The modern horror story was also born out of war. Oh, there’d always been stories about ghosts and zombies and the underworld — and I’ll get to those in a minute — but I’m talking about writers who wrote war stories — Maupassant, Bierce, Crane — and went right on to write the first (in retrospect) modern horror fiction.

They didn’t know they were inventing a genre. They were writing about war; about the things they’d seen; the things they thought about at night and saw in their dreams. Invisible monsters that flew out of the woods and left bodies in ribbons.

And then there are the older stories.

The world’s earliest known mention of “zombies” (I’ll explain the scarequotes in a second) is found in the ancient Sumerian story of Nergal and Ereshkigal, around 2100 B.C.

“I will shatter the door, the bolt I will break in pieces,
I will shatter the threshold, I will tear away the doors,
I will bring up the dead that they may eat and live!
And the dead shall join themselves to the living!”

Sumerian cylinder seal showing the gate of the Underworld
Sumerian cylinder seal showing the gate of the Underworld

The reason I put “zombies” in scarequotes is that these are really more like what we’d call ghosts — souls that rise out of the underworld, bodiless, to feed on the living. But the rhetoric sounds very zombie-ish to us today — which brings me to my point: Why do we still recognize this ancient Sumerian rhetoric today?

Souls without bodies, bodies without souls — why would we think up any of this in the first place?

Why would so many ancient cultures be so seriously, earnestly afraid that dead people would come back out of the grave — one way or another — to get them?

Why would we still be so interested in this same idea, four thousand years later — whether we actually believe it or not?

4.

It’s because we’re all trying to deal with the same fact that humans have been trying to deal with for all that time — and long before: The fact that we know things about the world that we’d rather not know.

Charred human body in Pompeii, Italy
Charred human body in Pompeii, Italy

Ever since I went to Pompeii, especially, I’ve been trying to get my head around the fact that history isn’t just littered with corpses — it’s packed to bursting with them, built on sprawling layer-on-layered foundations of violently destroyed human bodies.

And all around the world, things just like what the Mongols did to their captives are still happening.

Right now. At this moment.

Maybe you avoid those kinds of disturbing stories like the plague. It really doesn’t matter because it’s all part of your culture, and you’re going to hear about the concepts one way or another.

Some jerk will tell you about some sickening thing that happens in the infamous movie or the book you’ve been purposefully avoiding, or about something that happened in history, or that’s happening right now in Africa or the Middle East or wherever. They’ll tell you about it just to get a reaction out of you.

And then you’ll know about whatever horrific thing it is. That knowledge will be there, in your head, and you’ll have to deal with its existence, one way or another.

Maybe the easiest way is just to stop thinking about it.

But see, that’s the funny thing about the brain.

You can’t just say, “Let’s stop thinking about it.” It doesn’t work that way. Your brain isn’t a computer; you can’t just delete a file you don’t want. The knowledge, the thought, the neural activity pattern — whatever — has to go somewhere.

Our brains have to find a way to integrate this knowledge into ourselves, and keep on functioning in the world. And pressing down on a thought is like pressing down on a ball —

Eventually it’s going to pop out in some weird direction.

Maybe you’ll fantasize about yourself as an action hero.

Maybe you’ll sit and meditate and accept that all these things are part of the world, and we just have to accept it.

Maybe you’ll tell yourself that all this carnage is part of a divine and meaningful plan.

Maybe you’ll self-identify as a jaded horror fan who can watch anything, no matter how disturbing.

Maybe you’ll make a joke about it.

Maybe you’ll pretend it’s not part of you, or just try to forget it.

Maybe you’ll plunge straight down into the abyss (this is my personal preference) and transmute your terror into a quasi-religious kind of ecstasy.

Here’s my point:

These are all different versions of the same thing.

We’re all afraid of some of the things we know. We’re all trying to find some way to integrate this stuff — the things we know that we don’t want to know — into ourselves; to make it make some kind of sense.

Because at bottom, it really doesn’t make any sense.

And so, we’re left with the fact that, in our own personal ways —

We’ve all got to go a little crazy now and then.

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