Accepting the Monster Into Your Heart

Director Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth gave us fantastical creatures and horrifying visions back in 2007. Its rich mythic texture also won it some surprising fans. Indeed, despite its critical rendering of the Catholic's Church's support of Franco's fascist regime, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops celebrated it for its symbolic representation of young Ofelia's frightening spiritual journey.

These symbolisms prompted Fresh Air's Terri Gross to ask del Toro about his own experience with religion and how it informed his films. "People say, "I accept Jesus into my heart," he responded, "Well, at a certain age, I accepted monsters into mine."

More and more, religious studies scholars are looking at both the sacred themes of horror and the horror that lies at the root of sacred narratives. Doug Cowan has analyzed how horror films borrow themes from religious narratives. Timothy Beal examined the monsters of the Hebrew Bible and found a bestiary of terrifying creatures. Kim Paffenroth has even found what he calls "a gospel of the Living Dead" in the zombie oeuvre of George Romero. John Morehead blog has an entire blog dedicated to the intersection of the scary and the sacred.

But these have been primarily academic and scholarly reflections. Could monsters offer a spiritual path? By this I don't mean as allegories of evil or symbolic threats to the soul, but rather as avatars of the sacred, fit images for spiritual contemplation. Can you accept the monster into your heart?

German scholar Rudolph Otto, in his now classic work "Idea of the Holy," argued that terror resides at the heart of authentic religious experience. He suggests that an encounter with the Sacred Other rips us down to the roots of our Being, explodes that Self that we try to turn into an enclosed, mini-cosmos. Otto called the feeling this evokes the "mysterium tremendum," really a kind of holy horror.

In Buddhist religious experience, the monster has long been a guide on the road to Enlightenment. "Guardian demons" or "wrathful deities" are multi-headed, fanged creatures ferociously wielding swords. But they are not embodiments of evil. Indeed, they represent the struggle to vanquish empty desire, monsters that aid us in the war against the self. Even Mara, the powerful demonic figure that tried to distract the Buddha from his quest for nirvana, serves in some Buddhist schools of thought as an image of the frightening fragility of human existence. He is demon god who teaches a threatening but necessary wisdom.

These ideas are largely foreign to American religious experience. Modern American Christianity, in more or less all its forms, seems to me to be part of a larger western project of suppressing monsters and the wisdom they can impart. In fact, Christianity has made a historical practice of transforming giants, unruly spirits, dark angels and rival gods into devils, demons and other embodiments of evil.

21st century western Christianity offers a universe at once irrational and boring, a clean and tidy monotheistic metaphysic both unbelievable and uninteresting. The placidity of mainline Christianity, with its quiet and sentimental Sunday mornings, promises no more than anodyne moral instruction and God as social construct. The hipster fundamentalism of the mega-churches also offers little in the way of mysterium tremendum. The opportunity to enjoy a latte during a church service while singing insipid praise songs represents a Sunday morning extension of the most banal aspects of American life.

Perhaps you can't really blame our priests, pastors and rabbis. The happy messages they concoct are largely reflections of our culture's various narcissisms, efforts to ignore the fragility of life and the reality of our own deaths. Even their angry messages of judgment are mostly just cheap shots, embodiments of their audience's petty prejudices and implicit hatred of racial and sexual minorities.

This is why so many of us would prefer to spend our weekends with a good horror flick rather than in churches and synagogues. Freddy Krueger the mythic trickster, Jason Voorhees the embodied wrath of the universe, vampires and zombies and their rich symbolisms of the cycle of death and resurrection, all have more to say to us than America's erstwhile spiritual leaders.

Horror offers a compelling spiritual path. Horror threatens our boundaries. We fear the knife of the slasher and the claws of the beast because they threaten to rend us, to tear our precious selves to piece. Our repulsion to blood and gore, as Freud himself once noted, is the terror of our dismemberment, the possibility that we will literally come apart.

But is the destruction of the self not the heart of authentic spiritual experience? Horror is by nature about excess, about the destruction of the safe parameters, about going off the rails. True spiritual experience offers much the same. In fact, everything else is crosses and crystals, bibles and blissed out consciousness raising.

Even the nihilistic impulses of horror offer a meaningful, if challenging, mysticism. In the worldview of horror is often found a bleak wisdom that recognizes the frailty and cruelty, as well as the elegance, of the universe. The celebrated work of H.P. Lovecraft, early 20th century horror writer, features human beings driven to madness when they realize that the cosmos contains powerful transdimensional monsters who can destroy all of human experience with carelessness and indifference. Lovecraft, an old school mechanistic atheist, abhorred religion. But his vision of how the human self could be destroyed when confronted with its own finitude contains wisdom almost completely absent from modern religious experience.

Guillermo del Toro's love of monsters has given us some important spiritual parables. His willingness to accept the monsters into his heart can be seen in Ofelia's pilgrimage of terror in Pan's Labyrinth, her encounter with terrible and terrifying creatures who offer frightening wisdom, gods and demons who are neither simple nor safe. For so many of us, the path of dark mysticism seems more promising than the infantile catechisms currently being proffered by our religious institutions and their leaders. We open our heart to the monster.