(NOTE: This is part four of a five-part series on Hell and horror. You can read the previous portions here.)
“Falling…” sang Bowie. “As the world falls down…Falling…”
And so we did, as down and into night my guide and I progressed. I found that Bowie held a catlike grace and easy charm and knew his voice could soothe an angry foe. This soon was proved correct as we touched down in mired muck, the bottoms below Dis. There, seated on a flaming throne of bronze and wreathed in serpents’ coils and nothing else – a giant. Minos, once the King of Crete. He held me in his stony gaze and smoke emerged from twixt his lips as words like thunder crashed.
“I AM THE JUDGE OF JUDGEs,” Minos roared. “AND NONE DESCEND OR PASS BENEATH MY GAZE BUT THOSE WHO WITH THEIR FLESH-STAINED SINS DESERVE THE DEPTHS.”
“I note,” I said, “that ‘sin’ in this case means one doing with one’s body as one would. That seems a matter of free will, and yet detained here and arrayed below I see concentric rings of pain and thwarted choice – the ‘gluttons,’ those whose ‘lust’ led here and those who lived their hearts and spoke with honesty.”
“‘Tis best,” my guide then murmured in my ear, “If we don’t piss King Minos off. The bloke trains Minotaurs and feeds them Young Americans.” I nodded. “Peace,” soothed Bowie, “Minos, peace, o judge, for Charles is here as visitor and guest. Please let us pass and enter to the depths.”
“GO HENCE,” the giant thundered, “AND BE QUICK. THE SUNLESS VORTEX CALLS – AND CALLS FOR YOU.”
So on we went.
The persistence of belief in Hell is astonishing to me. About 3/5 of overall respondents to the Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study believe in an ethereal realm of eternal torture and unending sorrow. The number is much higher than that in groups like Evangelicals, Catholics, Black Protestants, and Muslims. This belief is persistent over time; although it has declined along with religious affiliation in general, it has not declined at the same rate, and the numbers suggest that a startling number of people who are otherwise not particularly religious (or, at least, “not affiliated”) share the belief as well. We seem to need a story of what happens after we die. That’s perfectly natural, if not a perspective I share. I consider belief in an afterlife a byproduct of human foreknowledge of mortality, which is indeed a bitter pill to swallow. My thoughts are closer to Thomas Ligotti (“We are gene-copying bio-robots, living out here on a lonely planet in a cold and empty physical universe.”) than Thomas Aquinas (“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary”).
Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky holds that a monotheistic, punishing deity arose out of human groups growing in number beyond the limits of reputational norm enforcement (and were also a byproduct of the insecurity and violence of pastoral communities). That’s an oversimplification of Sapolsky’s detailed, arduously-argued points, but the basic points are there and they are hard to disagree with, especially when you look at recent research regarding the moral effect of thinking about a wrathful god versus a loving god. The horrors of human sociability beyond the tribe/band size may require belief in an omniscient third party, whether God or State, who punishes lawbreakers and monitors the doings of all. How do we reconcile the obvious injustice and arbitrary nature of these authorities? Ideology and political illusions in one case, and an afterlife where the just are sorted from the unjust in the other. Hell exists to frighten us and force us to internalize a set of ethical norms that we apply even in situations where no other conscious being is present. Hell lives inside of us.
Whenever enough humans are gathered in one spot, it is distressingly easy to commit an antisocial act – from the minute to the cosmic – and get away with it. But while Raskolnikov and Nietzsche might live on dark, isolated mental islands where morality is meant “for the herd,” most of us – Satanists, atheists, Jews, Christians, and everybody else – realize that a set of ethics that keeps us from exploiting and harming one another. When we form communities, we produce cooperation and achieve greater results from our collective efforts than a crawling nest of self-defeating lobsters ever could. Here’s the tricky part: some of the norms and traditions that we’ve cultivated (i.e., not constantly beating the shit out of and killing each other, for the most part) are great, and some (i.e., prudishness regarding some sexual conduct by consenting adults, hierarchy, inherited property) are less than great.
Hell is a tapestry of real crimes and false crimes, stitched together by suffering – and in that regard, it has something in common with most of our other traditional tales of horror. From the “rules” regarding teenage morality in slasher films (as famously pointed out in Scream) to Dracula’s grotesque Victorian punishments of women who succumb to the pleasures of immigrant flesh, to the printing press of cash that is the Saw franchise, many horror stories are tiny Hells, “theaters of punishment” as Michel Foucault might call them. Deviation from the norm must be punished, whether by the State, by a god, by karma, or at the business end of an axe or a butcher knife, although in that last case we should keep in mind that supernatural (or near-supernatural) third party punishment of a transgression is what we’re talking about, not vigilante killings or plain old murder. As our religious scruples have lapsed and orthodoxy has waned, our need to punish sinners has remained, lingering in the stories we tell about vengeful ghouls and bloodthirsty monsters.
It has been a lovely tour of the underworld, hasn’t it? Next week, we’ll wrap up with a final installment of this tour of the infernal. As a reward for sticking with me this far, I think that next time you deserve a look at the frozen heart of the abyss, the very deepest core of Hell. Don’t you?
It is important to note that the content created for this blog is the work of disparate, brilliant authors and contributors. But that said, content does not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Madness Heart Press. — John Baltisberger
A Baptism for the Dead
Historical horror set in the mountainous West, in a landscape of death and madness.