Eldritch Creatures: Within and Beyond
Priyanka Ruth Prim
(Ph.D Scholar, IIS University, Jaipur)
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”
Fantasy is something we are all familiar with. From the moment we begin to learn of the world around us and listen to the little stories and songs at the cradle from our mothers and grandmothers, we begin to weave for ourselves little webs of delicate silk. Just as Athena wove the tales of the gods and their deeds of daring in the clouds, so do we all equally share in creating majestic castles in the air. Not for nothing is it called ‘wool-gathering’.
In its earliest uses, fantasy meant what it had meant in Greek and Latin – a mental picture or the faculty of forming such pictures. In short, fantasy was nearly synonymous with imagination. Very early on, however, the word took on some negative connotations. A classical Greek derivative of fantasy meant, an apparition; and from that idea it is an easy step to something illusory, hallucinatory, extravagant, capricious or even insane. On the whole, one might say that from Dryden to Plato, fantasy meant either a mental image or appearance or (often with a negative implication) something unreal or supernatural. In more recent times, while the word imagination has replaced fantasy in its neutral sense, the association of fantasy with unreality has persisted. What is more commonly known as the uncanny.
The uncanny belongs to the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread. Much of what is accepted as uncanny, finds its roots in the supernatural. Supernatural horror has always found a niche for itself within the human psyche. The term ‘supernatural’ encompasses every event, power, creature or myth that the human race recognizes as being apparitional, unearthly, magical, or otherworldly. In other words, everything that is unnatural and cannot be explained by science. And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, not only does almost everyone believe in many such things, but also that every civilization in every era has given the unnatural not only shape and form, but most importantly, its own sense of reality by giving it an Identity.
When it comes to scary stories, there is not much difference between the primitive humans and the civilized ones. For example, just like our ancestors, we find it an equally enjoyable pastime to sit around a campfire and tell stories. In both cases, these stories may be real or imaginary and are often embellished or exaggerated in some form to enhance the unreal, ergo, exciting aspect of the tale. The difference lies in how evolved our imaginations have become to convince ourselves of the tangibility of our imaginary fears.
In this we are aided by the fact that fantasy and its creations are not always based in reality and are limited only in the manner of their interpretation, during both their creation and propagation. For our ancestors, the greatest fear may have been to imagine the possibility of the destruction of an entire settlement by a mad, rampaging mammoth. For us, the monsters have evolved from the possible to the impossible, the natural to the supernatural, the real to the unreal.
The familiar is preferable to the unfamiliar because it is safe. The known is better than the unknown because the mind acknowledges it as an unchanging constant. And no matter how mundane and monotonous it may be, the predictable is in many ways, always preferable to the unpredictable for similar reasons. The mind does not react in fear to what is known, but rather to what is unknown. This is true even in case of extreme real situations such as being caught during a natural disaster, or a hostage situation in a bank hold-up. We are afraid because we cannot predict the eventual outcome of such situations.
And yet, such events will always pale before modern monsters such as vampires and werewolves, or even little green men with antennae carrying blasters, simply because they cannot be explained or understood and have no basis in scientific fact. What makes this human mental phenomena fascinating then, is that if the mind cannot find a reason for its cause of its fears, it actively creates one. Our imagination gives it a name, a character profile and even psychological behavior patterns, which altogether make up its Identity. Humans like being scared by their own brand of favored fears. Eventually, over time, the created fear and its description are intertwined in meaning to such an extent that if we now read the word ‘vampire’ we see almost exactly the same blood-thirsty, humanoid creature in our mind’s eye.
Fortunately, this occurrence was explained by noted Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He theorized that when we read fairy tales and fantasy, we participate in a transcendent human experience. He coined a term for this experience, the “collective unconscious”. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is made up of characters, situations and images that have universal meanings that remain more or less static throughout time and over distances, both geographic and cultural. He called them “archetypes”. We encounter these archetypes in our dreams, in literature, folklore, religion and art, and Jung posited that they have special resonance for all human beings, throughout every time and culture.
A notable characteristic of Jung’s archetypes is that we recognize them in images or emotions. These have a profound effect on us and this implies that they have deep and primitive origins. They thus have a particular potential for significance and may be feared or revered as mysterious signifiers of things beyond our complete understanding.For much of human history, humans have endeavored to find answers to the inexplicable, the wondrous, the supernatural, and the uncanny, in an effort to understand the way the world worked. In the absence of scientific laws and logical interpretation of facts, they were left at the mercy of unfounded beliefs and superstitions. Humans naturally speculated about the unknown, inventing theories when no satisfactory explanations existed. This fascination with the supernatural, with changelings, goblins, fairies, and other eldritch creatures, has remained entrenched within the human psyche long after science provided rational knowledge of the world. Paradoxically, at least from a distance, we seem to enjoy the unknown that was previously a cause of fear.
Evidence of this behavior is given credence by the literary and cinematic expressions for the exercise of imagination. One has only to read books such as Bram Stoker’s 1987 gothic novel, Dracula, or any of the popular young adult novels such as the Harry Potter series and one cannot escape the continued fascination we still have for creatures that were once considered ‘damned’ and ‘beasts’. These also include, of course, one of the pioneering characters of scientific horror, Frankenstein. These characters evoke an insidious fear within us, born of a feeling of helplessness and frailty before the supernatural strength, abilities and other attributes of these beings that make them superior to humans.
Within cinematic references one can just as easily turn to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Widely enjoyed by movie-goers of all ages, it would be difficult to find a child exposed to reading fantasy, who does not find the romantic notion of swashbuckling, sword-fighting pirates appealing even as an adult. Whether as readers of the novel Frenchman’s Creek or R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, one gains a certain familiarity with the world of pirates and the myths that belong to that world, particularly Davey Jones’ Locker and his ‘pet’ Kracken, a Kaiju-type beast of the underworld that finds echoes in other movies like King Kong, Godzilla and Pacific Rim.
Several literary devices such as comics and novels, cinematic adaptation and the visual arts have all embraced the supernatural realm. Be it E.T.A. Hoffmann’s psychological maneuverings in his story The Sand-Man, Shakespeare’s Hamlet; cinematic ventures such as zombies in World War Z, vampire movies like the Underworld and Twilight series, The Haunting in Connecticut paranormal activity rendition; or comics adaptations like Spiderman, Superman, Batman, etc.; the supernatural phenomenon is everywhere and is not only firmly entrenched within the human psyche, but has in fact been expanding and evolving in different ways.
At this point, it is of note to mention one of the earliest definitions of the ‘uncanny’. In 1835, German philosopher Schelling, in his Philosophie der Mythologie postulated, ‘Uncanny is what one calls everything that was meant to remain secret and hidden and has come into the open’. What is important to understand about the uncanny is that it is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar. This means that it is not whatever is unknown and unfamiliar about persons and things, sense impressions, experiences and situations, that evokes in us a sense of the uncanny. The quality of the uncanny arises from the manifestations of irregularity in behavior or form or appearance in what is familiar, in such a manner that they remain unnoticed by an individual until such time as to provoke the maximum emotive response. Thus the favorite doll or the gentle sister possessed by a murderous demonic spirit is an excellent example of the uncanny.
Let us take here a single cinematic example. The premise of a movie titled ‘Mirrors’ (2008) is one of many similar psychological supernatural horror movies avidly watched these days. A normal, average family is being targeted by an evil force/demons that use mirrors and reflective surfaces to hurt people in the real world. The connection to the real world is made through ‘psychological madness’ and death. The supernatural beings are more powerful than human and can influence them through reflected actions and also by being directly involved. However, at the end of the movie, the fear of the power of the supernatural is demonstrated when the protagonist dies in real life but his reflection lives in the mirror world, thus exacting a form of revenge.
Another instance of supernatural horror arises from the motif of the double. This has been treated in detail by psychologist Otto Rank in his 1914 work, Der Doppleganger. In this work, what is discussed is the idea of the double, the mirror image, the doppelganger as a trigger for the uncanny. A belief used to great effect in the novel series Vampire Diaries as well as its television adaptation, is that the existence of a doppelganger was an insurance against the extinction of the self. Twins, similarly, were seen as two halves of the same person, sharing one soul. Conversely, the idea also existed that the ‘immortal’ soul was the first double of the body. The above example now becomes clear. The body off the protagonist dies, but his double, his mirror image, his soul, still lives in the mirror world. The mirror world now becomes part of the realm of death where the immortal soul lives on.
Humans, however, no matter to steeped in faith and beliefs, often rise from the depth of their unquestioned faiths and begin looking for an explanation of supernatural phenomena. Like all magic tricks, we want to know ‘how it happened’. Superstitions are no longer left without being explored and explained. Therefore, as postulated by Arthur C. Clarke, “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet”.
Human are a species that are not only given to imagination but are also curious by nature. We look for answers to puzzles and intrigues that attract and capture our attention. We still believe in dragons and unicorns, magic rings and mermaids. We want to know what is at the end of the rainbow. And even if we realize that many of these things are fictitious, we still want answers to things that can be explained. Therefore, Arthur C. Clarke’s quote was used to great effect to explain the difference in understanding inter-space travel in films like Thor and Race to Witch Mountain. We feel vindicated to hear that on Asgard, magic and science are the same thing. Similarly, the movie World War Z, examines the science behind the zombie plague, theorizing the global spread of a virus that attacks healthy cells, turning the living into the undead. The supernatural and scientific worlds did collaborate much earlier in the making of the first Jurassic Park film that brought dinosaurs to life on the cinematic screen.
In several parts of the world, scientists and amateur volunteers, like the individuals in the movie Insidious and its sequel, actively search for haunted houses and examine the area for spirit residue in an effort to prove the existence and/or presence of ghosts. Such ventures have become popular enough to have inspired their own television series as well, which is a good example of how much interest the supernatural create.In order to understand the psychological impact of supernatural phenomena, a quote by famed radio commentator and news journalist during WWII, Edward Murrow, is apt. He once stated, “The obscure we see eventually. The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.” What is obscure is the supernatural, yet its power, its necessity, its danger and its presence in our regular lives, is something that is easily accepted by most people. We believe in it and give it form and power over ourselves. In essence, we create our own supernatural beliefs. The reasons for doing so, were once not so obvious, however, answers may be found within science.
Bound only by the laws and constraints of a culture specific society, the human mind is essentially a primitive thing. Psychologist Sigmund Freud gave us a detailed explanation of the structure of personality or what makes up the human psyche. The primitive mind, the Id, that pushes for immediate gratification of what is called the ‘pleasure principle’. The Ego, that mediates between the Id and the Superego. The Superego, that plays a moralizing role. Curiosity is one of those impulses that are controlled by the Id. In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which stems from instinctual impulses. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and lend a supernatural character to certain aspects of mental perception.
What is important to remember is that fear exists in the one place we can never escape; in our mind. And instinctual responses have only two outlets when the primitive mind recognizes a threat: fight or flight. Given that fear is a mental perception of unexpected or unnatural events, the mind is forced, due to the pleasure principle of the Id that drives the need for the satisfaction of curiosity, to confront the uncanny, thereby greatly increasing its effect on the mind. Thus a cycle is formed and maintained, unless the mind finds a way to completely reject the primitive convictions; in such cases the perception of the uncanny ceases.
Such a marked difference can be found if we examine one of the most popular supernatural creatures of literary and cinematic fame; vampires. Were we to make a comparison between, shall we say, Anne Rice’s creatures of the night as presented in Interview with a Vampire and Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight saga, we immediately notice a marked change in the presentation and indeed perception of these supernatural creatures. The newer generation of vampires are more people-friendly than the deadly, blood-sucking bats of legend and folklore. They are no doubt still beautiful and seductive in appearance and behavior, but they no longer always prowl in dark alleys, hypnotizing hapless victims and sucking them dry. Not only have the primitive convictions inspiring fear been rejected, they have been converted and directed into an entirely new perception, thus recasting the stereotypical vampire in a friendly light.
On the overall scale, however, what is important to understand is the reason for the attractiveness of supernatural or uncanny horror to a vast majority of people. The reason, as it were, for the compulsive return to fear and whatever triggers it in the human psyche. As stated above, the nature of humans is to explore, to be curious, to investigate. What we do not understand, we research in order to find answers that will make sense to us within the framework of our grasp of the world and its workings. It remain, however, impossible to investigate any part of the supernatural or uncanny with relation to the human psyche, without also investigating our own relation to the mysteries of death.
The most primitive source of fear, one which has remained unshaken since primitive times, is the mystery of death. Our unconscious remains as unreceptive as ever to the idea of our own mortality. Biology has so far been unable to decipher the necessity for death; whether it is part of the natural course all life must take, or whether it could perhaps be unavoidable. Also, the issue of death is followed by the more spiritual problem of the afterlife. Despite claims laid by psychics, mediums and spiritualists, there is no definitive answer to the question of the afterlife. Even those who claim to be able to speak with the souls of the departed – another aspect of the uncanny – are unable to agree on anything about life after death. In the face of such insurmountable odds, the mind struggles to find answers anywhere, and perhaps the easiest method is through the imagination.
The quest for answers to the mysteries of death have led us for centuries down the paths of magic, myth and fantasy. And every fairytale needs a good old-fashioned villain to help the protagonist grow in wisdom and maturity. Death and the means to conquer it or overcome it, gave rise to several theories and fantastical beliefs. The Fountain of Youth, the Master of Death, the Apples of Idunn, immortal comics characters, humans becoming gods; all such instances point towards the intensity with which humans wish for a solution that will save them from the end of life. To either push death back or to overcome it. It is this fear of inevitability that evokes a fear of the dark, of the unknown of the uncanny. Because death is the one subject of which the primitive mind cannot grasp either the complexity or its simplicity.
If we look back at Edward Murrow’s quote given above, then we see that we have seen the obscure in our explorations of space and in our investigation into the atom. But any possibility of understanding the obvious, that is death, remains out of our reach. And when we do not see the obvious, that is when we see the unexpected in what should be familiar. And so begins fear.
In conclusion, I would only like to say that despite the negative connotations ascribed to fear, its symbols and motifs, its characters and creatures, this fascination with the supernatural is here to stay, having found an expression in every age of human civilization. Whether they are benign or cruel, supernatural creatures continue to remain at the forefront of our imaginations. It is said that everyone likes a good mystery. There is no greater mystery than one that is continuously unknown. Literature and the cinema and other mediums have tried for years to provide answers, and from those answers we are free to choose the ones we like best. The psychology of the human species is as intriguing as is its response to the unknown. Perhaps in the years to come, we shall be better able to face our fears and come to accept the supernatural as a regular part of our lives, instead of something that only occurs behind closed doors and spooky, twilit, cobwebbed rooms. Let us welcome the supernatural and hope that it might someday lead to a true understanding of life.
Freud, Sigmund. A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. Horace Liveright, Inc., 1920. Gutenberg.org. Web. 2 August 2015.
---. The Uncanny. Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.