≡ Menu

Holiness and Horror

“My terror was the salute that mortal flesh gives to immortal things.” — Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces disturbed me. In fact, the scene that the above quote comes from haunted me for weeks after reading it.  In it, the protagonist Orual persuades her beautiful sister Psyche to break her vow and look upon the mysterious mountain god to whom she was betrothed. When Psyche does, she awakens his wrath. Amidst a cataclysm of lightning and splitting rock, Psyche is sent into exile, “to wander, weeping, from land to land; weeping for her lover,” while Orual is left to suffer the realization of her folly.

For some reason, the image of Psyche sentenced to wander the earth, to endlessly relive her sin, stuck with me. It was one of my first realizations that holiness and horror could be mysteriously intertwined.

We don’t often connect horror with holiness. In fact, we tend to see them as polar opposites. While holiness involves purity, light, and righteousness, horror involves fear, impurity, and evil. But the truth is, holiness and horror are far more aligned in the Christian worldview than they’re not.

In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Wikipedia defines “numinous” thus:

According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.

Interestingly enough, the root idea of “holiness” is “wholeness.” In this sense, encountering the numinous means both

  • Experiencing the “Holy” other
  • Experiencing the “Wholly” other

Fear and trembling — or horror — is not just about shock or gore, but about an encounter with Something both Holy and Wholly Other. It is the “salute of terror… mortal flesh gives to immortal things.”

C.S. Lewis’ illustration in The Problem of Pain is helpful in understanding the numinous:

Suppose you were told that there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a might spirit in the room” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking–described as awe, and the object which excites it is the Numinous.

The visceral fear of a tiger is nothing compared to the awe and dread and disconcertion one would feel encountering the Invisible. But this is exactly the terror induced by the Living God. The apostle Paul describes Him as the One “who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (I Tim. 6:15-16). Paul concluded,

“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…” (II Cor. 5:11)

“The terror of the Lord.” Apparently, experiencing the Holy contains its own unique terror. Which could explain why the apostle John, upon seeing the glorified Christ, “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). Which is the exact opposite we’d do upon seeing a tiger.

So while perfect love may cast out all fear (I John 4:18), fear is very much a part of encountering Perfect Love.

Experiencing the Holy, the numinous, is at the heart of the Christian religion. Later on in The Problem of Pain,  Lewis ties the idea of the numinous to religious development

…when men identify them [the gods], when the Numinous Power of which they feel awe, is made the guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation.

So not only does mankind instinctively intuit something Other, we seek to put a face on it, to personalize the Ethereal  This phenomenon, as Lewis points out, finds its fulfillment in Christ. Christianity is unique in that this “Numinous Power” — this sense of any real morality or holiness — came to earth, became flesh, and dwelt among us.

“…and we beheld His glory, the glory of the One and Only” (John 1:14)

The ultimate Horror is the God-Man, that the Numinous became flesh and dwelt amongst us, that the Unspeakable spoke. Even more terrifying, is that we killed Him.

Holiness and horror intersect at the cross of Christ.

It’s sad that so many have distilled horror, both its psychological components and its genre representations, into something purely pulp, much less something that needs avoided for sanity’s sake. If Jesus Christ is the perfect convergence of a Personally Other, then perhaps horror is also inexplicably bound with our own wholeness.


Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Tim George August 8, 2012, 6:06 AM

    Excellent thoughts Mike. This avoidance of real horror was best illustrated to me by a conversation I had with a woman who I gave your first novel to read. “Did you like it?” I asked. “I can’t get through the second chapter,” she said, “it was too scary.”

    What’s confusing about that conversation is that I know for a fact this middle-aged woman read all the Harry Potter books, loves Walking Dead, and devours vampire novels like they are food itself. When I asked her how she could like zombies and vampires and be made fearful by The Resurrection, she answered without hesitation, “Because I know those things are fake and the stuff in that book is real.”

    I’m still mulling over the implications that conversation but one thing is obvious to me, I think you probably accomplished your purpose in writing the novel.

    • Alan O August 8, 2012, 10:20 AM

      That’s a fascinating response the woman gave you, Tim.

      It reminds me of an article on Ted Dekker I read once, where he described the time early on in his career when a woman approached him at a book signing, obviously irate. She told him she would never read another of his books, citing several instances that had scared her. “But those things are real…they happen,” Ted replied. Her response was: “Yes, I know. The reason I hate your books is because they force me to think about it.”

      It’s an interesting paradox: Certain Christians object to “speculative” fiction because they feel it strays from the truth. Yet fiction that attempts to portray more realistic evil is panned for being “too scary”…

      Nice post, Mike…*totally* agree that fear, trembling, and horror are not just about shock & gore. The deepest, most transcendent horror is wrapped up in that word: awe.

  • Jason Brown August 8, 2012, 11:57 AM

    I had a conversation once, a couple of months back, with a small group of mid-school boys and I asked them what they horror was. They listed the typical cliches of today’s mainstream “horror” movies- blood, gore, heavy violence, and swearing. I was surprised they didn’t mention sex (like in Piranha, THE worst “horror” movie I’ve ever seen and I agree with an extra in that film, that they were making a porno, not a drama), but I didn’t mention that. Instead, I told them what horror was supposed to have been about, they mulled it over. Soon after that, saw one of the boys again, reading the graphic novel version of Frankenstein. I asked him what he thought of that horror story and he said “It’s not scary, it’s actually very sad.” He wasn’t even halfway through. I told him that horror, originally, wasn’t meant to scare us to death every time we watched or read it, but to evoke emotions like sadness, get us to consider implications like that and gave him a couple other story examples that were classics. He liked that there was someone who didn’t think the same way everyone else did but had somewhat archaic, yet insightful views to today’s controversial genres.

  • Melissa Ortega August 9, 2012, 1:56 PM

    Beyond excellent. This post is just what I need as I plod through the first draft of my current WIP.

    I adore Til We Have Faces. It is my favorite of all Lewis’ books. Its’ many shades of meaning fell on me for a good straight six months after I turned the last page. And now you’ve just given me more to chew on.

    I had never heard the tiger/ghost quote. It is fantastic!!

    The novel that spurred this similiar horror in me of late is Life of Pi. The ending is horrific, though, in my opinion, fake. In the moment the reader hears it, he is forced to imagine a voyage without a Tiger, to picture life without God, and the picture is horrible. It sends him running back to good, yet untame, beauty of the Tiger. Those few short pages of horror made all that came before that much more intense and revealed something in its readers’ hearts. Not a Christian story, but a strong faith story. Or perhaps, better said, a good Puddleglum story with a Silver Chair ending that believes in the Sun even though it cannot see it.

  • DD August 9, 2012, 6:03 PM

    When many Christians hear “horror,” they run away. Modern horror usually has little resemblance to Poe, Lovecraft or even Hitchcock. Yet those are far more scary. Maybe because the book or movie gore-slash fests often look so fake and written with implausible plots makes them more tolerable to their fans. Once in awhile, a good, creepy film like The Ring comes along. Old school horror is less common in novels, though King owes a lot to Lovecraft. Just started The Telling and happy to see allusions to the old master.

    • Kevin Lucia August 9, 2012, 6:10 PM

      A good number of modern horror novels aren’t gore-fests at all. I’d recommend authors like Charles Grant, T. M.Wright, Norman Prentiss, Al Sarrantonio, Ron Malfi, and Mary SanGiovanni, among others.

  • Kevin Lucia August 9, 2012, 6:12 PM

    Mike, regarding “holiness and horror”, I highly recommend this gothic novel, which I just finished, and will be podcasting on soon:

    The Monk, by Matthew Lewis. With the exception of one overly-windy bit of back-story, it’s a pretty good read, and definitely sets for an excellent model for not only “religious horror”, but the modern horror novel.

Leave a Comment