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The Insanity That Keeps Us Sane
By Ben Thomas Posted in History, Culture on April 17, 2016 0 Comments
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We’ve got some strange ways of dealing with violent thoughts.

Hey, 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:

Hülegü Khan's letter to the Caliph of Baghdad, 1258 CE
Hülegü Khan’s letter to the Caliph of Baghdad, 1258 CE

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, “Drop your weapons,” and the Spartans reply, “Come get them.”

So far, this is an action/adventure movie — or maybe a hit TV series:

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.

And suddenly, we’re in a war movie. The vibe is getting grittier.

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 ten thousand burning corpses.

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 full-on 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 causing pain and death to other human beings.

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

For the full saga of Hülegü Khan and his family, check out the "Wrath of the Khans" podcast series at Hardcore History.
For the full saga of Hülegü Khan and his family, check out the “Wrath of the Khans” podcast series at Hardcore History.

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 all these cool stories, though, lie dead human beings — fictional or otherwise. Every single 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 about our entertainment can be a good thing. Maybe we all need a touch of insanity to keep us sane.

Because this is a side of human experience that’s always been with us.

Throughout our written history — and long before, I’m sure — we’ve been trying to make sense of the fact that we human beings spend an inordinate amount of time inflicting pain on one another.

A plaque in a museum in St. Petersburg
A plaque in a museum in St. Petersburg

That quest has led us to some very interesting places.

One way of processing the world’s violence is to romanticize it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) battles for his life against the Crow Indians who killed his wife and son.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972) battles the Crow Indians who killed his wife and son.

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 many other ways of dealing with the inevitability of death, too.

Do you agree with any of these comments? If so, which one(s)?

Let’s talk about these different approaches.

I love dark humor — shockingly 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 the trauma of war.

Oh, there’d always been stories about ghosts and zombies and the underworld (I’ll get to those in a minute) but I’m talking about writers like Stephen Crane, Ambrose Bierce, and Guy de Maupassant, who experienced the horrors of the American Civil and Franco-Prussian wars — and processed those experiences by writing stories that would become the first (in retrospect) modern horror tales.

"La Rivière du Hibou" ("The Owl River") adapted from Bierce's short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
“La Rivière du Hibou” (“The Owl River”) adapted from Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

At the time, Crane and Bierce didn’t realize they were co-inventing the 20th-century horror 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.

A generation later, film directors like Abel Gance and James Whale emerged from the carnage of World War I — and forged the 20th century’s horror mythology from the shards of their own battlefield trauma.

And then there are the much older stories.

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

“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 scare-quotes 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 human beings think any of these horrors up 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?

It’s because we’re all trying to deal with the same uncomfortable fact: We know things about the world that we’d rather not know.

Charred human body on display in Pompeii, Italy
Charred human body on display in Pompeii, Italy

Ever since I visited 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 — as you read this sentence.

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 troll 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 human 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 — or as the villain, who isn’t bound by so many rules.

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 just different ways of dealing with the exact same problem.

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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