Secularism and the Nature of Evil

by Graham Veale

Each generation has a different nightmare and each nightmare reveals something about that generation. Giant ants and radioactive dinosaurs made audiences scream in the 1950s; a few decades later,The Beast from 20000 Fathoms and Them would seem quaintly comical. Radioactive monstrosities would be replaced by invincible serial killers in the 1980s; psychopaths in Halloween masks would later be parodied by the Scream franchise. The disparity between the nightmares of the 1950s and 1980s is easy to explain: audiences in the 1950’s were unsettled by the gargantuan power of the nuclear bomb; their more affluent children worried about an unpredictable and seemingly inexplicable rise in violent crime.

Horror films provide a window into a society’s anxieties. Viewers must be able to suspend their disbelief long enough to enter into the world of the film; they must be frightened of the very idea of the onscreen threat. Recently, however, film producers have found it easier to shock than terrify; the bizarre, grotesque, blood soaked torture scenes of Saw and Hostel do not leave room for a subtle play on cultural phobias. Hollywood has tended to rely on body horror to deliver shocks rather than chills.

The supernatural is the best way to deliver the latter. Indeed, attempts have been made to resurrect the old fashioned ghost story. After all, a sociopath in a hockey mask cannot disturb as much as the uncanny and unseen. American studios offered remakes of Japanese horror films.  But

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while The Ring  and The Grudge were profitable, they were hardly memorable. More recently Paranormal Activity  seemed poised to revive the genre; rather than encapsulating the fears of a generation, however, it is better known as the source of ceaseless, tedious low budget sequels.

Producers cannot quite recapture the quality of Victorian tales of terror. Older ghost tales aimed to pleasantly chill the blood. Terror was supplied by inhuman wraiths, less rational than humans but more calculating than beasts, all animated by relentless, unforgiving malice. Yet the Victorians could enjoy the danger from a safe distance. They lived in a moral universe; every world, even a world of pure fiction, was God’s world. Their ghost stories were cautionary, even moralistic. Evil inevitably led to destruction; only goodness was eternal.

It isn’t healthy to dwell on the diabolical or to trivialise the demonic, so we should not mourn the demise of the ghost story. Yet the malevolence that haunted Bram Stoker or MR James represented something very real, something every human being can be tempted to. Perhaps, then, the appeal of such ghost stories did not pass away because our world lost faith in the supernatural. After all, the secular age hungers for fantasy like any other. Rather, the ghost story died because we no longer believe in absolute good and absolute evil; we abandoned a moral universe…

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Secularism and the Nature of Evil – Saints and Sceptics