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There’s truth in terror

Anything that says otherwise is just distraction.

Photo by Luke Renoe

Last night I watched a horror film with my friend. The Ritual. Beside the beautiful cinematography and gripping emotional ride, the film left me with something else—something more profound. 

Fear. 

As horror films do.

The film may follow the traditional horror route of concealing the full presentation of the monster, thus heightening the terror it causes, until the very end. But even after the reveal in The Ritual, something remains. It’s the type of film that makes you hustle to the bathroom in the middle of the night because of what could rush down the hall toward you if you walk too slow, or don’t turn lights on as you go. 

Only later did I realize that something rich was residing beneath this terror—and all terror. 

Immediately after the film ended, I pulled up an episode of 30 Rock to cleanse our palettes. I had to elevate my mind and my focus from the darkness that was The Ritual. 

An hour later, I reflected on this. What was it about sitting in the dread, in the darkness, in the heavy weight, that was so uncomfortable? Is there perhaps something true to be discovered in terror and fear?

I wonder about my thalassophobia, the fear of deep, dark water,
about the infinite blackness of space,
and even wind blowing over the wide breadth of the prairie;
these voids present a horror all their own. 

We fear the expanse.

We’re scared of the unknown.

We’re terrified of death as it’s the thinnest of walls dividing us from the biggest mystery of all.

This realization is nothing profound—people fear the unknown—except that beneath our constructed worlds of comfort and distraction lies nothing but mystery, and therefore, terror.

Perhaps it’s the black corners of the universe that highlight something about the nature of reality: That there is a dark corner awaiting us all; there is an infinite mystery beneath the thin platform we call life, and all of our platforms are crumbling. 

There’s no such thing as standing on a shelf that won’t break down, dropping the occupants into the black mystery beneath. This is the nature of horror, when it’s done well. It reminds us that the universe we inhabit is 99.99% dark, unknown terror and everything else is just distraction. 

There’s truth in terror that there is not in 30 Rock. Sitcoms and the like are feel-good distractions that we rebound right back to when we get a taste of the void. 

Maybe we have something to learn from people who are afraid of everything—maybe they have a more accurate picture of reality. 

Recently, someone, a Christian, told me “I could never believe in a god I have to fear.”

I wanted to ask her if she’s ever looked around at the universe we inhabit…and then ask herself who made it. Have you ever seen black holes or tsunamis? What about when the Bible says that God dwells in deep darkness? What about death? What about the horror of Good Friday?

The natural state of all living things is terror. If you don’t believe me, just walk toward a wild rabbit, deer, fish, squirrel, or lizard.

Humans are the only organism on earth who has invented a means of distraction from this, and boy do we abuse it. Anything that removes our mind from the looming darkness which will one day consume us whole quickly becomes our addiction. It’s also why, as Pascal pointed out, the hardest thing a human can do is sit alone in a room for ten minutes. The dread sets in.

We love light, both natural and artificial, as an escape.

The artificial light shoos away the impending darkness—literal and metaphorical. When we eradicate the shadows from our rooms, we have control; we have distraction.

When we illuminate our rooms and hallways, we have control of our portion of the universe. Now it’s only the other 99.99% we have to fear. 

It’s also worth pointing out that light doesn’t actually make us any safer; it only makes us feel safer. You may be scared that an intruder is crouching in the corner of your bedroom. If he really were there, turning the light on wouldn’t put you in any less danger.

Now, the good Christian way to finish out this post is to remind us that Christ is the light in the darkness; the hope in the void. But perhaps that cuts short this meditation on darkness and terror. Perhaps a little horror can serve the thoughtful Christian well, and sitting in it for a while will cast us into the intellectual void which brings us closer to the source of all light, the foundation which does not crumble. 

My newest tattoo is the words “The center will hold,” and it comes in handy here. It’s partly from military origin—will the center of your frontline, where the fighting is most intense—hold up to the onslaught? Will the thing you trust to carry you through sustain you? 

In an existential sense, can the central focus of your life hold under the pressure of oblivion?

Or will your thin platform—whatever cheap substitute you’re using to distract yourself from the abyss—crumble beneath your feet?

Think on this.

Dwell in the darkness for a bit.

Let your mind roam out where there are both monsters and mystery, and don’t immediately retreat to the superficial distractions. These light and airy centers surely will not hold. They cannot sustain the burden of existence or the weight of fear. 

What do you see out there among the trees and the darkness?

How do you feel as you explore the vastness of the void?

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