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This essay is excerpted from my collection of essays, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You . It appears simultaneously with my new book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying Too). .
A month after the September 11, 2001 attack, I wrote in this space:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy “des Schreckens” (to cause horror) and “Entsetzens” (terror, literally: dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad’s story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: “The horror! The horror!” It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, The Waste Land, with a quote from the Conrad story: “Mr. Kurtz, he dead.” 
In this essay, adapted from material first published in First Things magazine, I argue that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in precisely this goal: to employ the theater of horror to demoralize Americans. The culture has changed in consequence of the attack, to our detriment.
The “horror” genre supplied one out of 10 feature films released in the United States in 2009, according to the International Movie Database. During Universal Studios’ heyday in the 1930s, the proportion was one in 200; only a decade ago it was one in 25. Vampire teen heartthrobs meanwhile take first place on some lists of best-selling books.
By way of contrast, 716 horror features were released in 2009, compared to 39 Westerns, a ratio of almost 20 to one. During 1960-1964, Americans saw more Westerns than horror movies. The earlier date is pertinent because it includes two of the most fearful events in post-war American history, namely, the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of president John F Kennedy. Westerns invariably portray a well-understood form of evil and contrast it to the courage to stand up to evil. Horror films involve an evil that is incomprehensible because it is supernatural and so potent that ordinary courage offers no remedy.
Americans never were more frightened than during the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war might have erupted, and never more affected by an act of violence than by the murder of a president. But in the 1960s, Americans thought they understood what they most feared; today they appear to fear most what they cannot understand.
What has horrified them?
The element of incomprehension, that is, of the supernatural, distinguishes the horror genre from mere gratuitous violence. It is not the spurting blood or mangled flesh that defines horror but the presentiment that the world itself is disordered: Demons abound in the absence of a beneficent God, who is somehow absent.
There is nothing new in the monsters that infest popular culture, indeed, nothing particularly scary about them compared to the lurid products of the pagan imagination in antiquity. What is new is the unprecedented way in which they have proliferated in the American popular media.
In biblical terms, we may define horror as the presentiment that the forces of chaos have escaped their appointed bounds and that a good God no longer exercises mastery. Fear and awe of God differ radically from horror: We fear God’s punishment and stand in awe of his presence, but we are horrified when we no longer believe that God will do justice. One might mention in this context Psalm 74:
O God, my king from of old,
Who brings deliverance throughout the land;
It was You who drove back the sea with Your might,
Who smashed the heads of the monsters in the water;
It was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
Who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.
As Jon Levenson of Harvard University observes (in Creation and the Persistence of Evil), these are unmistakable references to a Canaanite myth discovered in the excavation of Ugarith (14th century BCE). “Each of these words occurs in some form in the passage just quoted. Without the Ugaritic literature, these allusions would remain tantalizing obscurities.”
In Levenson’s reading, creation ex nihilo in the sense of an instantaneous change from nothing to something fails to capture the theological implication of the biblical creation story.
Two and a half millennia of Western theology have made it easy to forget that throughout the ancient Near Eastern world, including Israel, the point of creation is not the production of matter out of nothing, but rather the emergence of a stable community in a benevolent and life-sustaining order.
The defeat by YHWH of the forces that have interrupted that order is intrinsically an act of creation. The fact that order is being restored rather than instituted was not a difference of great consequence in ancient Hebrew culture. To call upon the arm of YHWH to awake as in “days of old” is to acknowledge that these adversarial forces were not annihilated in perpetuity in primordial times. Rising anew, they have escaped their appointed bounds and thus flung a challenge at their divine vanquisher.
There is a radical difference, by the same token, between Christian apocalyptic literature and the corresponding subgenre of horror films: In the former, God manifests himself in the world and his mastery over the fearful apparitions never is in doubt. But God remains inexplicably absent while hell rampages in The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby.
Biblical faith has no need of theodicy (YHWH explicitly condemns the theodical arguments of Job’s friends in 42:7). Jeremiah’s famous accusation (Jer 12-13) against YHWH is neither a philosophical judgment of God nor a cry of horrified despair but rather an indignant demand that God rise up and destroy the wicked:
You will be in the right, O LORD, if I make claim against You,
Yet I shall present charges against you:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? …
Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter,
Prepare them for the day of slaying!
As Levenson comments: “The answer – and please note that there is an answer here – is nothing like those rationalizations proposed by the philosophers: ‘Drive them out like sheep to the slaughter.’ The answer to the question of suffering of the innocent is a renewal of activity on the part of the God of Justice. In light of the answer, it becomes clear that the question is not an intellectual exercise but rather a taunt intended to goad the Just God into action.” Jeremiah recounts dreadful events, but he is outraged rather than horrified. That is the decisive difference.
The faith of the West too easily devolves into philosophical rationalization about divine justice rather than persisting as faith in the covenantal relationship with a just and loving God. We then become vulnerable to a neo-pagan foe that wielded horror as an instrument of policy.
What produces monsters is not the sleep of reason but the absence of faith. God’s creation metaphorically banished the monsters from the world in the biblical creation story. If we cease to believe that God will rise up as of old and fight our fight, then we will reify the world’s evil in the guise of fictional monsters. That is the secret of our morbid fascination with the horror genre.
Why do Americans pay to watch images as revolting as the cinematic imagination can discover? Many things might explain the vast new market for uncanny evil. If you do not believe in God, you will believe in anything, to misquote G K Chesterton; and, one might add, if you do not feel God’s presence, you will become desperate to feel anything at all. Terror and horror are at least some kind of feeling. After pornography has jaded the capacity to feel pleasure, what remains is the capacity to feel fear and pain.
But there is to the horror genre a pattern, of highs and lows, that may reflect something specific about Hollywood’s feeding of the mood of the United States – something about America’s encounter with truly horrible events, from World War II through Vietnam and down to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the lingering conflict in Iraq. Terror loiters in dark corners just off the public square.
Among all the film genres, horror began as the most alien to America. The iconic examples of the genre in the 1930s required European actors and exotic locales – vampires from Central Europe, for example, and zombies from Haiti. The films were noteworthy precisely because they were so unlike the cinematic mainstream: In 1931, the year that Frankenstein and Dracula first appeared, the worldwide film industry managed to make and release 1,054 features, of which only seven could be called supernatural thrillers.
After retreading the same material for 20 years, Hollywood finally put a stake through the genre’s heart. By 1948, the few horror films being made were the likes of Abbott and Costello encountering Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster. Laughing at monsters was emblematically American – and remained so, as when Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder did it, perhaps best of all, in 1974 with Young Frankenstein.
In other words, Hollywood gave us a small run of exotic-origin horror films in the 1930s, all drawn from European fiction: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Portrait of Dorian Grey. After World War II, however, these nightmares of tormented Europeans were mostly naturalized as sight gags for American adolescents.
And that was how it was supposed to be. The monsters had a different meaning in their Old World provenance. The pagan sees nature as arbitrary and cruel, and the monsters that breed in the pagan imagination personify this cruelty. Removed from their pagan roots and transplanted to America, they became comic rather than uncanny.
America was the land of new beginnings and happy endings. The monsters didn’t belong. After 1946, Adolf Hitler had been crushed, and that was that. Americans did not want to think about it anymore. And at the height of the national self-confidence that followed, the horror genre almost disappeared from American film. In 1950, for example, Hollywood managed only four films in the genre, all B-movie filler.
Horror recolonized American culture during late 1960s. The genre jumped from 2% of all films to 6% between 1968 and 1972. The homegrown American horror film, moreover, evolved from summer-camp slashers to truly disturbing portrayals of torture and madness.
As the online commentator Marco Lanzagorta notes, “A renewed interest in the horror genre” arrived “in the late 1960s, most probably due to the success of sophisticated and revolutionary horror films” in the vein of Night of the Living Dead (George Romero’s 1968 surprise B-movie hit) and Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski’s 1968 major-studio release).
What motivated so many Americans to subject themselves to such torment? Perhaps the explanation is that, with Vietnam, horror had returned as a subject in American life. United States troops were engaged with an enemy that made civilian populations the primary theater of battle, fighting a different and terrible sort of war. The images of civilians burnt by napalm transformed my generation. Until our adolescence – I was already 12 when John F. Kennedy was killed – America’s civic religion was taken for granted. In 1963, my peers and I put our right hands over our hearts when the flag passed; by 1967 we did not flinch at flag burning. Horror over a war in which civilians could not be distinguished from combatants destroyed America’s civic religion, and it was, I suspect, also the beginning of the end of mainline Protestantism.
Long after the fact, Francis Ford Coppola took Joseph Conrad’s tale of horror in the jungle and transplanted it to Vietnam. Compared to what we had seen on television, the Apocalypse Now of 1979 seemed trivial, but it gave permanent images to the post-Vietnam national mood: the sense of being lost in a nightmare of pointless and pervasive cruelty.
As data drawn from the Internet Movie Database shows, the horror genre grew from insignificance during the 1950s to 6% of all releases by 1972, in the last phase of the Vietnam War. A second spike came in 1988, driven by a bumper crop of sequels to established series (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Critters, Friday the 13th, and so on).
But what accounts for the six-fold increase in the total number of horror films released since 1999? Subgenres such as erotic horror (mainly centered on vampires) and torture (the Saw series, for example) dig deep into the vulnerabilities of the adolescent psyche. Given the success of these films over the past 10 years, the number of Americans traumatizing themselves voluntarily is larger by an order of magnitude than it has ever been before.
There are any number of possible explanations for this phenomenon. What the bare facts show, however, is that moviegoers are now evincing a susceptibility to horror. People watch something in the theater because it resonates with something outside the theater. To see the cinematic representation of horrible things may be frightening, but the viewer knows that it is safe.
And the sense of safety we derive from watching make-believe things helps us tolerate the prospect of real things. What in the world today horrifies us the most? The horror that attended the Vietnam War had far-reaching cultural effects even though not a single shot was fired on American territory. All the more so should we expect the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath to have such consequences.
Random acts of terror against civilians seem a new and nearly incomprehensible instrument of war to most Americans. That is why they have such military value: The theater of horror has a devastating effect on our morale. The same is true for suicide attacks, which continue on a scale that has no historical precedent.
The enemy’s contempt for his own life is, in a sense, even more disturbing than his disregard for ours. Nor should we underestimate the cultural impact of the torture debate. Not only has America considered regularizing an abhorrent practice, but our armed forces have became entangled in countries where torture is a routine and daily matter. Americans do not need to imagine what might be going on in Afghanistan. On YouTube they can see videos of young Muslim women being tortured for minor infractions.
Starting on September 11, 2001, Americans were exposed to an enemy that uses horror as a weapon, as did the Nazis – who never succeeded in perpetrating violence on American soil. In its attempt to engage the countries whence the terrorists issued, America has exposed its young people to cultures in which acts of horror (suicide bombing, torture and mutilation) have become routine.
As long as we insist that there is no fundamental difference between our outlook and theirs – and as long as we make only weak attempts to take responsibility for the civic outcome in such cultures – their horror becomes ours. In World War II, America portrayed its cause as a crusade against the forces of evil. Today, we send female soldiers wearing headscarves under their helmets to show cultural sensitivity to the Afghans.
How much damage the souls of Americans have incurred in consequence of this exposure to real horror, we cannot say. But the growing morbidity of America’s imagination as shown in the consumption of cinematic horror suggests we might heed the tagline of Jeff Goldblum’s 1986 remake of Vincent Price’s The Fly, made famous by Christina Ricci in the 1993 spoof Addams Family Values: Be afraid – be very afraid.
1. It’s Not the End of the World, It’s Just the End of You: The Great Extinction of the Nations by David Goldman. RVP Publishers (September 19, 2011). Price US$22.95, 384 pages.
2. How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too). by David Goldman. Regnery Publishing (September 19, 2011). Price US$27.95, 256 pages.
Spengler is channeled by David P. Goldman. Comment on this article in Spengler’s Expat Bar forum.