“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft)
No convincing villain ever thinks of themselves as a villain. A bad guy is rarely as cartoony as our childhood programing would suggest. And sure, I am disappointed by the lack of outright maniacal laughter in our culture, but that would seem ridiculous outside of a film. That shouldn’t suggest that what a villain does isn’t monstrous, just that they think of monstrosity in a different way. Even the people who do bad things just to be called evil create that persona for a specific reason. Finding that reason is what makes a monster sympathetic, and simultaneously, gives us a way to define their evil. Without this reason, we have no way to understand the monster or villain, and thus, no way to understand why they do things and why they are so threatening. So, what happens when we encounter a monster with absolutely no visible intention and no sympathetic background?
I am generally more interested in sympathetic villains and monsters because that dynamic complicates the viewer’s position. Are we allowed to sympathize with someone who does terrible things in a film? How can we reconcile their actions with our morals? The villain is arguably more compelling than the protagonist because they put us in this troubling position. However, monstrosity is even more terrifying when it happens for no reason. I would argue this is because we go to the movies to momentarily ‘fix’ our society by metaphorically solving our broader systemic anxiety. I’ve mentioned this a few times on the blog, but suffice to say, monster and horror films show us what our culture is anxious about. By defeating that evil at the end of the film, we get to feel like we have solved some bigger issue, or we at least get a better idea of what we are afraid of and why. Alternatively, if that monstrosity is a reflection of ourselves, we get a better understanding of our own experience. Perhaps going to the movies to understand ourselves through other people’s stories and experiences might seem narcissistic, but we are kind of narcissistic as a species. You can call this narcissism or empathy, it operates very similarly in this context.
So, when we have no indication of what drives a monster or villain, or why they cause so much harm, we cannot find ourselves in that portrayal. If a monster operates outside of our understanding, we cannot anticipate anything it does. Without definition, the monster is limitless.
What is the Sublime?
This sort of existential fear established itself in Gothic and Romantic literary works, particularly the kind which use the term ‘sublime’. The word ‘sublime’ is not the same as beautiful or lovely, as it refers to an all-encompassing and terrifying experience, where we encounter something which is so beyond us that it makes us feel utterly insignificant. Romantic poets often used the word to describe nature, which suggests that mankind has a parasitic relationship with nature, and that ultimately nature will turn against us because it is so monumental. It’s why there are so many landscape images where the subject is tiny in comparison to some giant mountain.
The sublime also appears in some of our classic monster texts like Frankenstein, which fixates on Victor’s rape of nature, and then nature’s terrifying revenge. And then came H.P. Lovecraft, who is frequently credited with creating nameless horror.
If you are unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s work, he created an entire mythology and religion which both threatens mankind and is so beyond them that it drives them insane. Many of his characters stumble across conspiracies which they begin to uncover before something horrifying happens to them. Sometimes the conspiracy is that there is something wrong inside of us, some threatening gene which could emerge and transform us at any moment. Other times, it is that we have a set of old gods who couldn’t care less about our world or species. The true horror in Lovecraft works is that we are insignificant to the universe, and that it is fruitless to try and understand something which is so beyond us. Many have suggested that this existential horror is the direct result of World War I, as many returning soldiers felt displaced at home, and traumatized by the seeming meaninglessness of who lives and dies. While some authors and directors dealt with this trauma by creating sympathetic monsters who also felt displaced and ostracized by the world (like James Whale’s Frankenstein), Lovecraft suggested otherwise. It isn’t just that the world is without reason, it that there is a reason, but we could never understand or perceive it, let alone control or protect ourselves against it.
It is crucial to note that although he created this interesting genre, Lovecraft was a notorious racist and his work is a reflection of that racism. However, because of its ongoing popularity, many have taken up Lovecraft’s old gods and his cosmic themes and placed them in new works, often to discuss and highlight institutional racism and misogyny. His work has thus become so much more than he could ever have done, as although he created the tools used by these artists, they have expanded his work and made it more compelling.
Lovecraft Country is an incredible example of this focus, as it returns to many of the themes introduced by Lovecraft and uses them to examine the underlying racism of Lovecraft’s work, in addition to the ongoing racism in America and beyond. By comparing Lovecraft’s work with America, the series suggests that just as America is widely celebrated and painted as this victorious nation, both it and the celebrated Lovecraft work perpetuate and encourage systemic racism and violence.
I plan on writing more extensively about Lovecraft Country (2020-) once the first season is over, but until then, I’ll note how interesting it is that the series includes two kinds of monsters: the individual and the broader and almost unsurpassable kind. We encounter a Lovecraftian monster in each episode, often things like demons and hellhounds, but we also encounter racist figures, like cops and shop owners. Each of these represents an individual monster, the kind which disappears at the end of the episode once they are either defeated or the characters escape from them. They rarely appear in multiple episodes, unlike the other kind of monster in the series. The characters similarly deal with a broader kind of monster, specifically, Lovecraft’s mythos and American society. The old gods are referenced multiple times in the series, and several cult figures are killed in the second episode for trying to control these gods. But the old gods from Lovecraft’s universe are just one ongoing threat in the show, as racism is another ongoing antagonist which takes many forms. Each of the characters deal with racism from multiple places and people, which suggest that it is just as prevalent, violent, and undefinable (in that it appears in different people throughout the episodes) as the old gods.
By using the same language to describe the old gods and racism, the series suggests that just as its characters are unable to identify or name Lovecraft’s old gods, so too is America unwilling to identify and name its own racism and the violence caused by racism throughout its history, and the history of the world.
Lovecraft is just one influence in existential horror. There are lots of films which refuse to associate with Lovecraft while still dealing with the issues around inexplicable evil. For example, the Nothing in The Never-Ending Story comes from a similar perspective. The Nothing destroys the world by feeding off it, and this hunger is the only thing the characters know about it. It sweeps across the land with no intention other than destruction, and as a result, it is beyond our sympathy. What makes the Nothing so terrifying is that it doesn’t even notice our protagonist. We have no way to know what the Nothing wants or why because its victims are so insignificant to it. The Nothing doesn’t torture people or enjoy the destruction; we get no emotion at all. As such, the Nothing has the perfect name, as it embodies the existential fear that everything we do and believe will one day be swept away by something which will barely pay attention to us.
So, What is Cosmic Horror?
Here’s a hypothetical. Imagine you are a child who has spent the entire afternoon building a massive Lego city. It is your greatest achievement and you have used every single piece of Lego you could find, even the stuff that had fallen underneath dressers and bookcases. As you step outside for some air, a sudden foot comes down from the sky, squishing your house. There is no explanation and no malice, at least none that you can tell. You are upset about your house, that’s pretty reasonable, but there’s also a part of you that is disappointed that your hard work and Lego meant absolutely nothing to this creature or to the universe. Magnify that emotion by some insane number and you will get a small sense of what it means to feel sublime dread, that dreadful and insane emotion once described by Lovecraft and The Never-Ending Story. I would argue, given that sense, that the greatest and most fearsome of monsters is thus the one who doesn’t know or care to see our accomplishments as a species. Our greatest fear isn’t annihilation, as that would suggest we were at least some type of threat. No, our greatest fear is being dismissed without any explanation. I guess humanity has some approval issues to work through…