The Tarot's trumps, or Major Arcana, mapped onto a Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Image Source: Tarot Hermeneutics. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Behind the tropes and clichés, what is horror? What purpose do horror stories serve? Horror reveals impulses in ourselves which we fear and do not understand, such as the savage motives behind murder. For example: 2006's Black Dahlia (directed by Brian De Palma) was based on the 1947 unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, and was disturbing enough that writer James Ellroy (who famously wrote a quartet of novels about post-war L.A., and included the Dahlia case for his own reasons) now asserts that he will never again publicly discuss Short (see my blog post on this case, here); or the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974; based on the 1950s' Ed Gein case in Wisconsin, see it below); or Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986; see it here; based on real life killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole). In a week when the LAPD is reopening the Mason Family case to investigate 12 additional murders, the headlines remind us that reality is worse than any horror drama.
Horror additionally asks us to challenge what we understand to be real and then reaffirm it, according to our common values. A Catholic review from Jake Martin of a fictional account of a boy who kills his classmates, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), confirms this point:
In a third and related sense, some horror stories are actually morality tales. They show the path the protagonists must take out of darkness, once a violent act has ripped apart everything that makes reality sensible. This severe trope is often used by director David Lynch, whose forays into surreal horror often involve a return back to a good piece of cherry pie and a great cup of coffee. Lynch will take his audiences to the edge and well beyond it, but he always insists on the final reassertion of sanity over insanity.the film is not "yet another installment in the pantheon of post-modern films intent upon assaulting the human desire to give meaning to the world." Instead, ... [Martin] says, We Need to Talk about Kevin in fact needs to be talked about, as what it is attempting to do by marrying the darkest, most nihilistic components of contemporary cinema with a redemptive message is groundbreaking."
Elaboration of Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree of Life symbol. Image Source: Heroes Journey Tarot.
Fourthly, horror involves an esoteric aspect that binds the previous three issues together, namely, the moral relationship between the human soul and knowledge. Horror denies a skeleton key that connects all these things. Occult horror typically deals with this problem. One of the most famous lines from horror writer H. P. Lovecraft states a related maxim at the opening of The Call of Cthulhu (1926) very clearly, and the sentiment lies at the core of all his work:
This is why, as with M. R. James's ghost stories, so many of Lovecraft's cautionary tales involve Faustian scholars who have strayed off the well-lit and humble path that leads to safe and limited knowledge.The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Occult horror stories often involve a character who knows too much or who seeks excessive knowledge, depicted sexually in Christian terms as Original Sin (which is why the teenagers who have sex in slasher horror flicks inevitably die). In occult horror, a character who violates the warning against excessive knowledge is heading right back to Genesis and eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Several of Roman Polanski's films refer to this idea, with protagonists pushing further and further to solve some arcane mystery or problem: The Ninth Gate (1999) is a good example. Similarly, Clive Barker's Hellraiser franchise depends on a character solving a magic puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, to gain access to forbidden secrets and thereby enter hell's other dimension.
Less is said, in pop culture biblical horror vehicles at any rate, about the other tree in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life. Its meaning has been widely interpreted in religious and mystic terms, but the Tree of Life is arguably more significant than its notorious counterpart. This is because the latter may show the road to ultimate forbidden knowledge, while the Tree of Life symbolically encapsulates that knowledge: it is a "full model of reality" and a 'path to god.'
Along with Hindu chakras, the Tree of Life has been adopted by occult circles, and has attracted Millennial gnostic revivalists of Christian and non-Christian persuasions. Some of the things they believe are breath-takingly strange.
The reason that these bizarre symbols are given any credence, in earlier times or now, is because they claim to provide humanity with 'one answer.' The ultimate aim of the occult has long been to find one key to all knowledge. The Tree of Life's Kabbalistic diagram supposedly provides this key, by offering a snakes and ladders game to anyone seeking to understand its aspects, be they cosmic, theological, philosophical, economic or sexual. With surprising practicality, akin almost to a 12 step program, this Tree of Life diagram dictates definite paths which one could apparently follow to find enlightenment and it explains how to get from point to point.
Wiki: "The tree of life is represented in several examples of sacred geometry and is central in particular to the Kabbalah (the mystic study of the Torah), where it is represented as a diagram of ten points." Each point on the diagram is considered to be an aspect of the divine; the aim, like most human undertakings, is to get to the top of the diagram, not settle out at the bottom.
In her history of the Tarot, Cynthia Giles argues that the Italian Renaissance Tarot card deck was mistakenly mapped onto the Tree of Life's Kabbalistic scheme, and was also falsely associated with the mythology of the ancient Egyptians. The Tarot has therefore at times wrongly been viewed as the skeleton key to all knowledge:
Giles observes that a simple, holistic map of life is universally desired by human nature, and hence is the transcendent goal and promise of many religious, spiritual, mystic and occult systems of thought.By thus connecting all seventy-eight Tarot cards with the complex structure of the Kabbalah, it seemed possible to form a complete system which interrelates number, word, and image. This sort of grand synthesis has been a compelling goal of esoteric investigation for centuries ... . It's apparent that the Kabbalah and the Tarot resemble one another in certain respects, but there is no evidence at all to suggest that the Kabbalah and the Tarot were ever linked in any intentional or dependent way. The similarities between the two systems are important not because they indicate a common source, but because they reveal certain basic concepts embodied in both. Once one begins to pick up the threads that run between the Kabbalah and the Tarot, it's possible to follow these threads in many different directions - to alchemy, to astrology, to Native American religion. The Greek mystery religions, Hawaiian Kahuna magic, Chinese Taoism, Tibetan Buddhism - all of these systems of thought (and many more) have elements in common with those of the Tarot. [Cynthia Giles, The Tarot: History, Mystery and Lore (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), pp. 31-32.]
Horror tropes tell us that a single answer to all of life's problems will be forever denied to us. This is a big psychological contradiction, both with religious belief and occult systems, because by contrast, horror stories promise catharsis, relief, some resolution, but never a full answer, never total completion. And - they contend - if one seeks otherwise in this world (and perhaps even in the next) one profanely challenges the very nature of the human condition: in other words, finding the key to all life's problems is asking for trouble.
See all my posts on Horror themes.
See all my posts on Ghosts.