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Magickal Morality and Horror

A marveilous newtrality have these things mathematicall, and also a strange participation between things supernaturall and things naturall. – John Dee, Astrologer, Mathematician, and Sorcerer

Not all horror is supernatural. Broad swaths of the genre rely only on human nature (or Nature-nature) to provoke dread. From psychological horror to plain, straight-ahead, good-old-fashioned slasher movies, it is often the mundane world that provides the biggest frights. A significant portion of horror and dark fantasy, however, are undergirded by magick. They operate according to supernatural or supernormal forces that can be shaped, directed, and (often poorly) controlled by humans and other creatures. In horror, as in other approaches to the fictional idea of magick, a question seems to then naturally arise. This question takes the form of a distinction that must apparently be made between good or benign magick – often shorthanded as “white” magick – and bad or malign magick – often shorthanded as “black” magick. In short, in a world haunted by such potent power, what happens when the “bad guys” get their hands on it versus when the “good guys” do?

Broadly speaking, I’m not a fan of fiction that breaks down so neatly or that puts characters into boxes in such a fashion. Good, well-crafted horror – good fiction – shows us the grey, blurry area where real people live, the shadows between good and evil, if such can even be considered coherent concepts to begin with. Thus, when a story presents me with a system of black-versus-white magick, I’m often left with the desire for a more ethically complex take on the subject. Horror fiction’s record in dealing with the complexities of a subject like magick has been, thus far, mixed.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has caused quite the stir in the occult community, and has drawn reactions both positive and negative (my own response to the themes of Satanism represented in Season One can be found here). I can certainly appreciate the show’s appeal. It provides a mix of campy fun, incessant horror pop culture references, and surprisingly well-researched bits of witchcraft, but if you pull back from the show’s action just a bit you can see the magick in it for what it is – Christian witch-hunt fiction straight out of the Malleus Maleficarum, a black-and-white world of pacts with the devil and power granted in exchange for the loss of autonomy. It’s clever, it’s a lot of fun to watch, and it perpetuates the same old Go(o)d v. (d)Evil paradigm that has been clogging up human affairs for millennia now.

Sabrina relies on the magick of witchcraft; Hereditary presents us with a coven of a very different and specific sort, practitioners of the venerable art of Goetia, invokers of Paimon, to be precise. Ari Aster did his homework; Hereditary presents us with hints and dark inklings of the magickal doings of someone engaged in what I would call “real” high magick, which is to say magick taken from a series of grimoires that purport to provide mages with access to a wide variety of demons with whom to strike various bargains. Hereditary is not the only film to invoke these forces.  A Dark Song is another film that deals with magick as it is practiced by “real” magicians – specifically, it portrays an incredibly intense ritual taken from the Lesser Key of Solomon, one that involves the invocation of forces both benign and malign. In this case, the magick itself may be “grey” but the distinction between demons and angels is clear, and the boundaries of morality as defined by religion are kept intact, even as our mages bend and/or break the rules of this cosmic order. It’s a confusing mixed message, which is true to life and, as far as experience has shown me, the fog in which ritual magick is actually practiced. In the case of Hereditary and A Dark Song, the horror of magick – or the magick of horror – is that it comes tinged with the demonic, smelling faintly of sulfur but just clean enough that a magician can hope their robes will one day be, I suppose, “washed in the blood of the Lamb” as the saying goes.

That brings us to my favorite portrayals of Western magick in dark fantasy and horror, the ones where we really get into the grey area of powers and principalities. My favorite mage to appear on the page is one John Constantine of Hellblazer fame. Now, if you are only familiar with Constantine from the live-action adaptations, let me say right up front that while NBC’s version with Matt Davis was a cut above the 2005 Keanu Reeves film, no live-action Constantine has done Hellblazer justice, nor is one likely to. The source material in the comics is just too blasphemous, too dark, and too morally tricky. These are, of course, the very traits that make the comic so goddamned good, and if you’ve never read them and would like to see a world of double-crossed deities, exorcists-for-hire, and assorted terrible behavior by supposed protagonists, I bet you to give them a perusal. They are truly some of the finest horror comics ever produced, not to mention some of the finest portrayals of the horror of magick – an amoral, directionless magick – that one could ask for. Or, in a pinch, one can pick up the books or catch the Syfy adaptation of The Magicians, a series that operates as a sort of gleefully amoral grad-school Hogwarts scenario, and – like Hellblazer – shows us what magick can do in the hands of people who are neither all-good nor all-bad. It’s terrifying, it’s beautiful, and the moral murk in which the characters struggle provides a surprising amount of realism and grounding for some pretty far-out magick.

John Dee was a philosopher, astronomer, alchemist, sorcerer, and scientific advisor to the British monarchy. In his occult philosophy, the forces that undergird the universe take no sides. Whether they be the powers he understood as natural or the ones that he classified as existing “beyond” nature, the lines of power of our Universe as Dee conceived them are ever neutral, ever ready to be pointed wherever human nature would point them. That’s horror; the terrifying knowledge of our utter freedom and our tremendous power.

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