Tappings From Outside: The Supernatural in Literature and Films
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The dread of the unknown, manifest in the childhood fear of the dark, is the oldest and strongest kind of fear that mankind has known. For much of human history, little was known of the scientific laws that govern existence. Humans naturally speculated about the unknown, inventing spirits, spectres, werewolves, ghosts and monsters. As rational knowledge advanced, many people retained an interest in the supernatural. For some, it was easier to understand than the daunting world of science; for some others, it was a fanciful escape from the mundane.Frightening or horrifying stories of
various kinds have been told in all ages. Horror and fantasy have been with us, in one form or another, for as long as literature has existed. In their effort to contemplate life, death, and the universe, the different religions of the world and the beliefs and superstitions that accompany them acted as fertile breeding grounds for supernatural horror. The supernatural has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness. Literature thus gratified man’s quest to make sense of the supernatural phenomena.
The elaborate ceremonial magic, which flourished from pre-historic times, contained rituals for evoking demons and spectres. Cosmic terror was a recurrent feature in the earliest folklore, archaic ballads, chronicles and sacred writings of all races. Later, the Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes, by and large, reaffirmed man’s belief in the supernatural. During the Middle Ages, the East and the West alike were busy preserving and amplifying the dark heritage, both of random folklore and of academically formulated magic and cabalism, which had been handed down to them. In the Orient, the weird tale tended to assume a gorgeous colouring and sprightliness which almost transmuted it into sheer phantasy. In the West, it assumed a terrible intensity and convincing seriousness of atmosphere which doubled the force of its half-told, half-hinted horrors.
It is in poetry that we first encounter the permanent entry of the weird into standard literature. The Scandinavian Eddas and Sagas thunder with cosmic horror. From prose literature we have Malory's Morte d'Arthur. In Elizabethan drama, with its Dr. Faustus, the witches in Macbeth, the ghost in Hamlet, and the horrible gruesomeness of Webster we may easily discern the strong hold of the demoniac on the public mind. Then came the Gothic novel. The Victorian era was arguably the most productive time for the Gothic genre. Laden with supernatural experiences and insanity around every corner, the Gothic created a distinct genre of eeriness and morbidity. Horace Walpole in 1764 published The Castle of Otranto, a tale of the supernatural which was destined to exert an almost unparalleled influence on the literature of the weird. Soon the Gothic novel flourished with writers like Anne Radcliffe who made terror and suspense a fashion.
Supernatural fiction is a subset of fiction in which paranormal ideas are central to the plot. This can include ghosts, extraordinary human abilities, or fantasy creatures. A broad term, supernatural fiction can include horror fiction, fantasy, and even science fiction. The field of supernatural fiction has been popular in literature since the 1800s, crossing over into film and other media in the 20th and 21st centuries.
After the advent of the novel in the 1700s, supernatural fiction remained a popular form of literature with works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel whose movie adaptation has had an enduring appeal for subsequent generations. Other early masters of supernatural fiction include Henry James, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe. Authors of fantasy and science fiction such as Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Rice Burroughs also told supernatural tales. In modern times, the phrase supernatural is often used interchangeably with horror to describe the works of Robert Bloch, Lovecraft, and Stephen King, among others.
Films and television shows often incorporate the elements of supernatural fiction for their own devices. Interest in the supernatural has developed in other literary genres, leading to hybrids such as the supernatural romance. This popular story form incorporates supernatural elements such as time travel, ghosts, or vampires to complicate its central romantic relationship. A prime example of supernatural romance is the Twilight series of books and films created by Stephanie Meyer.
Making a foray into the dynamics of the human mind which fears the unknown while retaining a love for its imitations in literature and films would be interesting and illuminating. Film and literature’s fascination with the supernatural is no less complex today: Whether ‘weird fiction’, Hollywood’s fairy tale reboots, literary mysticism, the vampires and werewolves of the Twilight books and movies, or the vengeful ghosts and giant monsters that wreak habitual destruction in Japanese cinema, popular culture has never been more magical.