Alasdair Wickham (i.e. James Buxton). The Black Book of Modern Myths: True Stories of the Unexplained. Arrow Books, 2012.
Gregory Reece having already examined the worlds of ufology and cryptozoology, now turns his attention to the world of the horror story both in reality (or anyway purported reality) and fiction. Starting with his childhood encounter with Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Reece enters the realm of the supernatural, the realm of ghosts and domain of devils, exploring ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and Satanists.
He centres his study around the ideas of the early 20th century German theologian Rudolph Otto. Otto saw the origins of religion in the encounter with the numinous, the wholly-other, the mysterium tremendum, a tremendous terrible, terrifying, shudder inducing mystery. This is, says Otto, not the natural fear of burglars or wild animals, but the fear of the unknown and utterly unknowable. Otto also used the term mysterium fascinans, the fascinating, alluring mystery. The supernatural in its rawest sense is this mystery of the absolute other both fascinating and terrifying, the uncanny (unheimlich, the unhomely, the alien, the other), weird, eerie, sublime.
An example of this Other is provided in the introduction in Buxton’s book. As an orphaned child living in his grandparents house, he is awoken in the night by the sound of laborious, plodding footsteps coming up the stairs. He faces it, there is nothing there. Reece mentions perhaps one of the most evocative of the fictional representations of these footsteps, W. W. Jacobs The Monkey’s Paw, where a man who has lost his son is granted three wishes by the said (cursed) paw. His first wish for money comes true in the form of compensation for the death of his son, his second is for the son to return “in earthly flesh and blood”, and footsteps approach the door and start knocking, the third wish, of course, is to cancel the second.
For Reece and Buxton superstition is not to be seen as somehow a degraded form of religion, but its start, the fear of an uncanny that is nowhere as definite as ghosts or demons, which are products of cultural development and orthodox or semi-orthodox belief systems. Otto argued that the German “es spukt hier”, I translated as “it haunts here” rather than “here is haunted”, implies no statement about who or what is doing the haunting, merely asserts an emotion of uncanniness itself.
Reece’s study of the subcultures that have grown up around the supernatural and Buxton’s survey of Internet lore, point both to this mysterious uncanny otherness and various attempts to name, tame, control or expel it. The uncanny ghosts become the familiar spirits of Victorian spiritualism and the very gross materialism of ectoplasm. The ghosts become tourist attractions and the centre of popular TV series. Vampires and werewolves are tamed down to lifestyle choices and fantasy lives, the vampires merely take drops of blood and the werewolves join the Otherkin along with wannabe fairies and aliens. Ominous lights in the sky become nice nuts and bolts flying saucers carrying the space brothers, or mortal machines whose wreckage litters the fields of Roswell. People write Internet blogs recommending “consensual heterosexual sex” with succubi, denouncing those who might be dubious about this as racists.
Demons are perhaps the last of the untameable, if only because they are the essence of all that nice settled society finds wild and dangerous. But they offer, as well as terror, the fascination of release from society’s bonds. It could hardly have been a coincidence that resurgence of interest in demons and exorcism in both film and real life began at the period of the youth revolt, when parents saw there nice well-behaved offspring turn into foul-mouthed, dirty, unkempt images of the wilderness. The accounts of exorcisms in these books shows how very thin the line is between exorcism and honour killing. In its desperate attempts to control the forces of the wilderness, the habitat reveals its own terrible mystery, that the only way to control the world is to destroy it.
If we are constantly trying to tame the other, to make it a little less alien, then equally, as Buxton argues, this numinous, supernatural other breaks through. Create a new technology, and the other subverts it; electrify the world, and that which haunts, plays havoc with the electricity; create new forms of transport and the other mimics them; the telephone, the television, the computer, the Internet, the mobile phone all become haunted, vehicles for disturbing messages. The Internet becomes filled with sites dedicated to the uncanny, spreading belief across culture.
If we follow Otto, then all the belief systems of “believers”, all the attempts to explain numinous experiences as encounters with ghosts, aliens, cryptids, djinns, demons, boggarts or snarks are just as much conventionalisations as any explanation by sceptics. I suggest that this is because this mysterious, terrible, fascinating, mind shattering other, is not some spooky addition to the ordinary things in the world, but a way of seeking to express the apprehension of the uncanniness of everything as an integral part of the mystery of being. -- Peter Rogerson.