Opinion piece: Chaos and Oblivion, a Brief Essay on Morality in Horror

I recently read a review of H. P. Lovecraft which described the gods of his mythos as “evil”. This surprised me because, though they savage, feed off of and demand blind worship from humans – like Hitler crossed with a boy band – they’ve always seemed to exist on a plain so alien to ours that they can’t be couched in our terms.

What does “good” and “evil” mean to an octopoid creature from light years away? Why shouldn’t it have its own morality, which can’t be compared or even understood within a similar context to ours? I’m not the only one to have considered this, of course. In his Lovecraft biography, Against the World, Against Life, French writer Michel Houellebecq compared the relationship of Lovecraft’s gods to humans with humans’ to animals:

“In order to imagine how they might treat us were we to come into contact with them, it might be best to recall how we treat “inferior intelligences” such as rabbits and frogs. In the best cases they serve as food for us, sometimes also, often in fact, we kill them for the sheer pleasure of killing. This, [Lovecraft] warned, would be the true picture of our future relationship to those other intelligent beings. Perhaps some of the more beautiful human species would be honored and would end up on a dissection table – that’s all.”

Do we think of wilderness tribes as evil, just because they hunt to survive? Maybe in the era of white man’s burden, but even then the white man was no better; they hunted too, and not even for survival. They hunted for sport, as a rich man’s pursuit; to slay a noble lion, armed with only its physical nature against our superior weapons, was all in good fun, and still is to many.

It doesn’t seem evil to many of us because animals exist on a plain much lower than ours; they lack self-awareness, complex thoughts, fashion sense. Likewise, in Lovecraft’s world, those “evil” gods might think of us as lacking such things, and perhaps to them we do.

They’re so far above us in terms of consciousness that we’re like cows in a field, mindlessly chewing cud with no perception of the bolt gun awaiting us. We defend ourselves as the lion defends its pack, not because we’re “good” but because we’re responding to our natures against the superior weapons of others.

This view of the supernatural can be applied to other fictions, like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Though based on traditional human morality – family, friendship, duty and fate – the TV show makes it clear that this morality means nothing to demons. It’s not that they’re against us (though they are), but simply that they’re not us.

We destroy them because they threaten our reality, but why should we expect them to understand it? It’s like that Chinese riddle about the tree falling in a forest with no-one around to hear it: in a reality where no-one cares about family, friendship etc., do those things even exist?

As I understand the show’s mythology, two realities adjoin: one of humans (which was once dominated by vampires but later gave way to mortals) and one of demons. Though terms like “hell” are used, they’re more allegorical than literal; the demon reality would be hellish for us, therefore it’s described as hell.

Buffy, of course, is much warmer than Lovecraft in a spiritual sense. Human relationships matter in Buffy, and are seen as vitally important. But its villains can still be observed through Lovecraft’s lens.

I appreciate the show because, unlike its successors in the genre (Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries etc.), it depends on a solid, austere and classical mythology. Humans don’t become vampires; humans die and a new entity “sets up shop”, to quote Buffy Summers, in their bodies.

In Twilight, Edward and Bella not only fall in love but reproduce; this proves they’re the same species, which is all wrong. Demons aren’t humans, or vice versa; if they were they wouldn’t be interesting as a group. Twilight‘s vampires are just diseased humans.

You could argue that Buffy falls in love with a vampire, Angel, too, but Angel was merely a human with vampiric urges and abilities. He’d been reassigned his human essence, which distinguished him from vampires. In other words, he was given our morality.

The purpose of this essay, I think, was to show how anthropocentric we humans can be. We view reality in relation to ourselves, like Douglas Adams’ sentient puddle, whose thoughts were imagined thus by Richard Dawkins: “‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in; fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well; [it] must have been made to have me in it!’”

Horror fiction can shatter this anthropocentrism, this supreme arrogance which dictates that our perceptions are uttermost and applicable to a whole universe. To quote Clive Barker, creator of Hellraiser, it “shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”

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