Philosophy Theology

The Theology, Philosophy, and Aesthetics of Gothic Horror

The image of the Gothic is something usually depicted as something dark, depressing, and horrifying. The Gothic was, for a time, nearly synonymous with Catholicism, especially in the Protestant world where Gothic was associated with darkness and superstition like Catholicism was depicted as being—and this was reinforced and propagated by British Gothic horror often being set in Catholic backdrops from the likes of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Maturin. While there is still an anti-Catholic, Protestant, and Whig legacy to this day with Catholicism being culturally envisioned as an old castle of darkness and horror, there is, in fact, a strong connection between Catholicism and the Gothic not simply because of literary products of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Why did the Gothic become synonymous with Catholicism? While the Gothic tribes were, for a time, Arian, they were the first of the post-Roman “barbarians” to adopt Catholicism as their religion with the baptism of Clovis being a consequential event for the future of Christianity, Europe, and the world. Clovis’ baptism brought the rest of the Frankish tribes to Catholicism instead of Arianism. One by one, the rest of the Gothic tribes in the post-imperial West also began to adopt Catholicism like the Visigoths after the Council of Toledo.

The history of the Gothic peoples mirrors the theology of pilgrimage presented by St. Paul to the Galatians and developed by St. Augustine in his masterpiece The City of God. Part of the calamitous events that brought down the Roman Empire in the west was the migration crisis of the Goths, which was a refugee crisis, when the Huns invaded and put to flight the Goths who fled westward to escape the furious storm winds of the Hunnic invaders. In their migration period they adopted Arianism before settling down in the western territories of the empire after being invited to foederati service in the imperial armies.

Gothic history is a near perfect temporalization of the Christian drama. The Gothic peoples were restless pilgrims driven from one homeland, nominally enslaved by the Romans, directly enslaved by the Huns—the “Scourge of God”—and were hardened in war. The Goths not only warred with the Romans, they warred with the Huns before being instrumental in the defeat of Atilla at the Catalaunian Plains in 451 A.D. It was only after two centuries of war that the Gothic peoples were able to settle down from their restless pilgrimage to lands that they could call their own; only to have these lands be conquered by the eventual Islamic invasions which culminated at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D.

While the Roman Empire provided the politico-juridical structure and the establishment of Nicene Christianity as the de jure religion of the empire by 380 A.D., the survival and consolidation of Christianity was mainly due to the Goths. Clovis’ baptism, the conversion of the Visigoths under Reccared I, and the rise of the Carolingians is when structural Christianity, Catholicism, truly became its own. In a very real sense, the development and survival of Catholic Christianity was because of the Goths more than it was the Romans. Had Clovis not converted the Franks would have remained Arian. Had the Visigoths not converted, they would have remained Arian. Sigismund of Burgundy, who was Catholic, put pressure on the Arian Ostrogothic Kingdom to keep a favorable tolerance of Chalcedonian Catholics in Italy before the consolidation of the Carolingian Empire and the formation of Catholic Christendom solidified the marriage between the Goths and their heirs with Catholicism.

Guilt, Sin, and Horror

One of the distinctive markers of Catholicism and Western Christianity has been the emphasis on Original Sin, Original Guilt, and the depravity of man. While St. Augustine never taught total depravity in the manner of the Calvinists, but Augustine did articulate the view that man could never sustain the good (union with God) without God’s help. Catholicism has affirmed this essential dogma ever since the Council of Orange.

The idea of “Catholic Guilt” has long been a trope and another demarcating aspect of Catholicism in distinction to the uppity-happy-go-lucky Protestantism of contemporary Evangelicalism. Original Sin and Original Guilt originally, pardon the pun, went hand-in-hand. That “all sinned in Adam” once implicated all in the sin of Adam. That is, the sin of Adam is a sin that we all committed and are guilty of committing. Though we have come generations after Adam, we still bear that mark of original sin, original guilt, and restless anxiety and shame for the depraved actions that led to the Fall. The modern Catechism argues that Original Sin, Fall, and Guilt are ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act.’” While post-Vatican II Catholicism has tried to soften its original harshness, the state of Original Sin still entails a contracted guilt irrespective of whether one is personally guilty of the act of the parent. As the Bible teaches, and as Catholicism affirms, the sin of parents is imputed and implicated in children (cf. Dt. 5:9; Lv. 16:21; Nu. 14:18; Is. 53:6; Rm. 5:12); this is, in fact, contracted, and enters into the state of existence, even if the children did not commit the sins of the parents.

The gravity of guilt in the Catholic doctrine of sin, however “nice” modern happy-go-lucky accompaniment Catholicism tries to outwardly act, reaches down into the depths of man’s being. This constitutes the “deep anthropology” of Catholicism compared to the shallow anthropology of Protestantism. The deep anthropology of original guilt, fleeing from the past, unable to own up to mysterious primeval events that drive people into anxious guilt, is not only an integral to the Catholic understanding of the human person, it is one of the hallmarks of Gothic horror.

The ancient crime and inherited guilt is one of the hallmarks of traditional Catholicism. The clouds and the weight of the “original guilt” bear down on the individual psyche of some veiled crime which haunts one’s very being.

Fyodor Dostoevsky captured the essence of Gothic horror perfectly in Crime and Punishment, the best Catholic novel written by a non-Catholic. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, viciously and brutally murders a hag pawnbroker with a hatchet. Convinced that he could do great things with the money which the pawnbroker does not do despite the ability to do so, Raskolnikov is a perfect exhibited case study in the futility of Pelagianism and Jacobinism as he is overcome with dread and horror for his crime and he literally becomes a glutton for punishment, suffering internal torment before confessing his crimes though another has confessed to the crime. His penal punishment is relatively light, but his internal torment is what constitutes the punishment of Dostoevsky’s novel. It is internal, interior, and psychological. It is the same psychological guilt felt by Coleridge’s ancient mariner after killing the albatross of harmony.

Hell is not merely an eschatological place. It is, indeed, a spiritual place—the internal quarrelling between law and criminality, grace and nakedness, brutality and regeneration. The sinful man is wickedly tormented, as Augustine explains in Confessions; sinful man is like the runaway slave who delights in his being chased by the law and only flees because of his anxiousness and guilt but entertains his anxiety and guilt by playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can with the Divine Law and Divine Justice; sinful man, in his grief and guilt, his torrential state of internal anxiety, his lust for lust, but his soulful attempts at restraint, all show a guilty depravity but his guilt testifies not to a total depravity but a recognition of wrongdoing which leads to a sense of guilt, of wrongdoing, which is absent in the Calvinist account of total depravity where man feels no remorse, or guilt, for his wrongdoing—the feeling of guilt presupposes a goodness looming over the individual telling one what one has done is wrong. Man delights in being chased by Divine Law and thinking he can escape; man is thrilled by wrongdoing and has ecstasies of fantasies for escaping punishment.

The impetus of Catholicism is that man must sink into darkness to come to the light. It is in man’s plunge into wickedness and darkness that, through his emerging insanity and feeling of guilt, that the dim candlelight of truth, beauty, and goodness wars with him to become a partaker in the Divine Energies to be co-worker and co-creator with God. Christ crucified did not make all our problems disappear. On the contrary, what Christ did for our sins ought to horrify you that God would go to such great lengths to wash away the sins of the world and yet you, despite all your problems, struggle to be honest at the sacrament of reconciliation where God does not demand self-expatiation for the remission of sin but the open and honest confession of sin to Christ in the persona of the priest.

The horror and torment of man, that quintessential hallmark of the Gothic cultural milieu, may have intended to mock the “dark” and “superstitious” religion that Christ founded, but that depth and penetrating insight into the torment of man is the essence of Catholicism. The depth of the depravity of man depicted in Gothic fiction and horror is the depth of the depravity of man in his state of wickedness, enslaved to the lust of licentious “liberty” thinking he could do great things, even greater than God, which obliterates all boundaries, borders, and the natural law, to let loose the violence of man.

Gothic horror often deals with sexuality, sexual torment, and graphic violence. One of the common polemical retorts against Catholicism is that it is obsessed with sexuality, sexual violence, and blood imagery. But how did Catholicism arrive at this nexus of the intersectionality of sex, violence, and the sacred?

The Biblical account is unclear whether Adam and Eve had sex before the Fall. The later Augustine affirmed, in The City of God, that sex was part of the plan of the unfallen world, but he doesn’t commit on whether Adam and Eve got it on like in John Milton’s Paradise Lost where steamy, nude, and titillating sex causes Satan to be jealous of what he sees. What is clear, however, is that sex occurs after the Fall with all the pains and oddities along with it: shame, guilt, and disappointment.

*

The relationship between sex, violence, and the sacred is also attested to in the pagan theogonies. In the Enuma Elis, the god Marduk must fight with the water goddess Tiamat. Tiamat self-generates from her own eggs the serpents, dragons, and other monsters of lore. The chaotic watery and fluid abyss that is Tiamat’s domain possess a direct challenge to human life; so Marduk challenges Tiamat and slays her by shooting an arrow into her mouth like ramming his phallus down her throat and choking her. Marduk stands over his naked prey:

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood,
And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

From Tiamat’s fertile blood Marduk fashions man to be the toiling servants of the gods who forever remember this primordial chaoskampf and its sexual overtures in their rituals to him.

Like all mythology, even Norse mythology captures the birth of the gods and life in a chaotic watery struggle between the hyper sexual water god or goddess and the sky god or land god of male order. The encounter usually ends with the male god of order penetrating the female god or water serpent with a prolonged object as an extension of himself. This is usually through the mouth or chest which kills the beast and results in a limp god or goddess beneath the dominance of the god of order.

Hesiod’s Theogony is equally graphic in its sexual violence and through that violence the birth of the gods. Cronus, conceived in hatred for Uranus, slices off his penis and the blood from Uranus’ castrated sexual organ drips onto Gaia’s fertile body which births many monsters; when his castrated penis and its sperm land in the womb of the primordial sea goddess (Thalassa) and it swishes and swirls about, Aphrodite is born from this act of sexual violence and ascends out of the dark abyss from “white foam.”

As Hesiod poetic and graphically puts it:

As soon as Cronus lopped off the genitals
with the sickle, they fell from the mainland into the much-surging sea, so that the sea
carried them for a long time. Around them a white
foam from the immortal skin began to arise. In it, a maiden
was nurtured. First, she drew near holy Kythera,
and from there she arrived at Kypros surrounded by water.
From within, a majestic and beautiful goddess stepped, and
all around grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite
[foam-born goddess and fair-wreathed Kythereia]
gods and men call her because she was nurtured in foam
(187-197).

Virgil’s Aeneid too, captures an element of sex, lust, love, and the sacred when Aeneas charms Queen Dido. Virgil’s mythopoetic story is the spiritual myth of Rome and stands directly contrast to the more brutal, empty, and materialistic founding myth of Romulus and Remus. Yet, Aeneas falls in love with Dido and if not for the gods intervention and Aeneas’ pietistic duty to his father, family, and countrymen, who would have stayed as Dido’s lover. On a hunting a trip they retreat into a cave and make love—it is the sexual sealing of Dido and Aeneas in this moment that is the cause of Dido’s downfall and cursing of Aeneas and his children (Rome) when he flees and she thrusts Aeneas’ firm and hardened blade into her chest and then burns on a pile of his disposed belongings he left while fleeing. The Punic Wars, which this story gives mythopoetic justification for, was a sacred war for the Romans—their very survival, the survival of them and their gods, depended on their success.

Returning to Genesis 6, when God was so aggrieved at the wickedness of the world that He decided to bring a cataclysmic flood, it was because of sexual lust between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” who gave birth to the Nephilim and the strong heroes of antiquity. The “sons of God” slept with the “daughters of men” and impregnated them to create a new hybrid race of demi-god beings who terrorized the world before being wiped out in the flood. And yet, as John Milton reimagined:

So spake our general mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved,
And meek surrender, half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her beauty and submissive charms
Smiled with superior love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the clouds
That shed May flowers; and pressed her matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance and to himself thus plained:
Sight hateful, sight tormenting! thus these two,
Imparadised in one another’s arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss; while I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.

*

The first movement to sin is the inability to control the passions. The most obvious passion that rules our lives is the sex passion; and in times past it would be cathartically ejected in the most brutal and sadistic of ways. From Sumer to Babylon to Athens, the origins of the sacred are in sex and violence. This is why sacred sex and harlotry was a deep ancient ritual that Christianity had to do away with, but not do away with in an androgynous sense, but to do away with in spiritual struggle and war.

Struggling against sex has long been a hallmark of Catholicism and an aspect of Gothic fiction. The femme fatale, often a naked spirit or demon that tempts the protagonist into wickedness and death, is everywhere present in Gothic horror. She calls like the Nymphs of old, but with full splendor on display for the weakness of the flesh, which leads men to death. There is something both repulsive and enticing in the nakedness of the femme fatale; there is a sense of the sacred in sex because sex is the manner by which to fulfill the first commandment of God to “be fruitful and multiply”, yet there is a sense of repulsiveness to it because of the reality of the Fall and the punishments to the soul and body as a consequence of the Fall.

The sacred is, first and foremost, an encounter with the forbidden, the violent, and the dark. To use the language of Edmund Burke, the sacred is the sublime. That which excites our passions into a frenzy is that which is sacred. That which scares us and sends a thrill down our spine is the sacred. The dark, the haunted, and the terrible which bring us to energy (life) out of our complacency (death) is the sacred.

Eros is  central theme in Catholic theology. God is not merely a God of agape but also a God of Eros. Divine Eros is what draws God to love His people, and the nature of Eros compels man to seek the source of Eros which is God Himself. As Julian of Norwich demonstrates in her tome, The Revelations of Divine Love, the marriage of God with man and man with God is by the twin exhibition of erotic longing. While Catholicism spiritualized Eros to the idea of “Platonic idea,” Divine Eros as the desire of the soul still exhibits all over it the foamy and gooey carnal reality of bodily sex. Divine Eros overwhelms the human eros of the believer, in this meeting of the two desires, human eros is completely overwhelmed and taken into another sphere of experience – a metaphysical dying and rising in the bosom of God.

But as seen in Hesiod, the origins of the sacred in sexual violence is not something good and benign. It is a brutal and grisly mess. It leads to rebellion, death, and hatred. The origins of the sacred in paganism is sex and violence leading to war and conquest. The origins of the sacred in Christianity is sex and violence leading to the redemption of man. Hence why Gothic literature ends in the salvation of sex, through marriage, like in the Castle of Otranto, because by overcoming the carnal temptations of the faux sacred, the true sacred of internality deifies the body and brings the felicity only possible by becoming divinized partakers of the Love of God; or like The Romance of the Forest, ends in succumbing to the temptations in which death, guilt, and the compulsion to confession close the story. Sex and violence can lead to death or new life. Sex is sacred. Violence is sacred. But whether sex and violence lead to death or life remains a most sublime mystery.

The Gothic understands the depth of sex, sensuality, and the sacred and how they often blurringly conflate together. The Gothic understands this reality because Catholicism understands this reality. “Few venture as thou hast in the alarming paths of sin.” The centrality of sex, violence, and the sacred in the Gothic tradition is because sex, violence, and the sacred are at the core of man’s being and very much define man’s existence—especially in his post-Edenic “nakedness,” his nakedness from grace. Like Goodman Brown, sometimes we need to stumble upon a good old orgy to be awoken from the slumber and to reconnect with the idea of the sacred and the moral heart and moral order being inflamed by moral failing, especially sexual failings.

Now, we shall turn to the obvious in Gothic aesthetics and the quintessential characteristic of the traditional post-Carolingian aesthetic of Catholicism: The aesthetic of horror.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom is an integral aspect to Christianity and Catholicism in general. The atmosphere, aesthetic, of Catholicism is meant to inculcate fear and dread for precisely that reason—fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and fear of the Lord crushes the hubris of man thinking he is on equal footing with God and forces him to recognize the radical asymmetry between God and man leading him but to bow his head in shame and humiliation, or pious reverence, at the sight of God.

While it was Edmund Burke’s attempt to defend the notion of the beautiful instead of the sublime in his famous aesthetic essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke’s reflections on the sublime became a catalyst for Gothic aesthetics and romantic literature and consciousness in the decades after his writing. Burke defined the sublime as “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which on the part of pleasure.” Burke’s definition of the sublime is a great entry point into understand the aesthetic of Gothic sublimity and Catholicism because of the emphasis on totalizing asymmetry which bears down on the individual and makes him feel uncomfortable and insignificance in the presence of the sublime.

Moses is reminded by God that, “Thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20) which reaffirms the asymmetrical relationship man has with God. Job, too, informs his friends, “As soon as he shall move himself, he shall trouble you: and his dread shall fall upon you. Your remembrance shall be compared to ashes, and your necks shall be brought to clay” (Jb. 13:11-12). Even with Christ as the Mediator, the return of Christ will be a spectacular image which will blind man in a wicked splendor upon His return, “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword” (Mt. 10:34). Isaiah gives the most sublime imagery concerning Christ’s victorious return in fiery judgement:

“For thus saith the Lord: Behold I will bring upon her as it were a river of peace, and as an overflowing torrent the glory of the Gentiles, which you shall suck; you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you, and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see and your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb, and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants, and he shall be angry with his enemies. For behold the Lord will come with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind, to render his wrath in indignation, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For the Lord shall judge by fire, and by his sword unto all flesh, and the slain of the Lord shall be many” (Is. 66:12-16).

Who can stand before the sight of the conquering and victorious Lord of fire and not be filled with fear and trembling? After all, that is what St. Paul reminds Christians, “Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence,) with fear and trembling work out your salvation” (Pp. 2:12). The sight of God, even Christ, is one of an awesome and blinding splendor! Far different is this Christ of the Scriptures than the Christ who holds toddlers pointing at flowers under the sun…

The Gothic aesthetic, ambiance, and feel is one of asymmetrical dependence. In the great halls, chapels, cobwebbed cellars, etc., there is no mistaking that man is not the center of the universe but an insignificant piece of dust and for dust we are and to dust we shall return. The victory of the Cross is not a victory of sunshine, for as St. Luke informs, “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land” (Lk. 23:44). Like Catholicism, Gothic aesthetics understands that it is not the sunshine on the other side which is the consummation of salvation but the darkness of death that was. In Catholicism, it was Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the Cross that wrought salvation to the world—the resurrection, though important, and integral to the Christian message, is not what achieved salvation. The Prophets prophesy a Christ who will be bruised, pierced, and rejected; that is the messianic achievement.

Salvation came from Christ’s atoning sacrifice. It is Christ’s humiliating sacrifice that revealed the asymmetrical and radical love of God—that Christ would be humbled and humiliated and killed in such way, “even to the death on the cross,” is what Christians preach. “For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). In Catholic churches, unlike Protestant churches, the message is, indeed, Christ and Him crucified not Christ and His resurrection. The Christ on the Cross is not the empty cross of burial or resurrection but the Christ of Crucifixion who “humbled himself…even to death on the cross.” The sight of Christ and Him crucified should send a shiver down the spine of any God-fearing individual to see the lengths of God’s self-emptying for man. When one looks at Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Elevation of the Cross” or Matthew Grunewald’s “The Crucifixion,” one should be horrified with piety and drop to his knees and bow his head in shame and humiliation knowing that he is not capable of going to those lengths to show his love of others.

The Gothic aesthetic of horror, like the Catholic aesthetic of horror, understands that fear and trembling is the truest embodiment of the sacred. It is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. By taking away the mystery, by stripping away the tremendous, we are just left with a banal aesthetic fascination which is, according to Nietzsche, the reality of the nihilistic man who is empty of everything and merely visits the world for aesthetic experience before moving to the next place like a museum shop of aesthetic experiences and that’s it. By stripping away the gravity of dread, of terror, and of horror, the tremendous mysterious dread that is essential to religion is replaced by the empty, grandmotherly, and undemanding god of chocolate pleasantries.

The aesthetic of horror captures the reality of man’s radical dependence, belittling, and even humiliation, on and from The Other. That totalizing Other which man cannot look at and live is, of course, the God of Christianity who is “an all-consuming fire” instead of the pleasing and “ambrosial fragrance” of the Platonists, the god locked in eternal self-contemplation of Aristotle and the Stoics, or the non-existent empty space matter of atheism where man is god. Aaron’s sons were swallowed up in fire for the impiety and irreverence; Sodom and Gomorrah burned to ash for their iniquity; Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt for looking back with regret of the sinful life being given up for the better life in the free city that is above; and the reprobate will be smitten by Christ’s flaming sword upon His return with His army of chariots. That is the God of scripture, of revelation, and of Catholic tradition—not this rosy, effeminate, and grandmotherly Christ who kisses boo-boos and hugs you like you’ve never been hugged before. One can only approach the God of revelation, the True God of scripture, with fear and trembling, bowing and genuflecting at the awesome totality of God’s power, lest one be consumed by the fire.

The Other, in Horror, becomes the monster, the terror, the demon, that one must overcome “with fear and trembling” to achieve salvation. In the end of Gothic Horror, just like with what Saint Paul says about working out one’s salvation in fear and trembling, the hero overcomes the monstrous and totalizing Other to achieve salvation, redemption, and closure. The aesthetic of Gothic Horror has become, in our age starved for aesthetic sublimity and the reality of radical dependence on the Other, the greatest expression of humanity’s most primal, ancient, and natural impulses and instincts.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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