When I was younger, back when I Believed, our church showed a the youth group a video about demon hunting. It’s hard to believe that this happened when I think about it, but it did. In the video, the Southern preacher talked about demons, and then did a recreation of his battle with a Satanist who had demons under her control. The Satanist was powerful and dangerous, but the preacher was never seriously threatened, because he had God on his side. Demons are real and terrifying, but evil cannot touch a righteous man.
This memory went through my mind as I filled in a huge gap in my classic horror reading and finally got around to reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Two major things struck me about the book, about modern horror, and about the world.
The first is that Dracula is in every way not existential horror.
The second is the reason this was so striking. I realized that, in a very real way, nearly all modern horror is, in fact, existential horror.
If you don’t know what existential horror is by that name I’ll provide a brief definition. Existential horror is the kind usually attributed to Lovecraft. It features characters who learn that the world is dangerous as terrifying. The universe does not care about humans, and there is no one watching out for us. To understand the full nature of reality would be not to achieve ultimate wisdom, but to go absolutely insane.
Much of modern horror does not have these specific features. However, almost all of it follows the same underlying themes. Even when the danger isn’t supernatural at all. Even when the threat comes from zombies, or a man with an axe. It still almost always has certain properties. The world is not safe. Your comfortable life could easily be changed into something dangerous and terrifying. There is no one watching out for you, and things are not necessarily going to be alright.
This is a fundamentally existentialist theme, even in the most mundane examples. That neighbor you thought was an upstanding member of the community might have a stack of bodies in his fridge. He might decide to kill you and your children, and there is nothing in the universe specifically there to protect you.
I didn’t realize how pervasive this approach to horror was until I saw a counterexample. Because Dracula is very much not this type of horror.
Warning: Spoilers for this 118 year old novel. Now you know a little more about my radical view on spoilers.
One of the central characters in the first half of the book is a woman named Lucy. She is beautiful and sweet and beloved by all of the other characters. After awhile she starts to sleep-walk. She starts to grow pale and feel awful and act strange. One character, Van Helsing, tries to save her, but his efforts are thwarted. Lucy dies, returns as a vampire and starts to feed on children. It is then that Van Helsing reveals to the others that what they are dealing with is supernatural, that Lucy is now an abomination, not the real Lucy, and that for the good of everyone they now have to destroy her.
How do you think the characters react? In almost any modern story, this would be very gut wrenching and difficult for the characters. They would struggle over whether this monster was still Lucy, whether they were killing a woman they loved. Even when they accepted that she needed to die, they would have great difficulty looking into her face and ending her unlife. It would haunt and torture them to have to do this.
Not so in Dracula. Not at all. They have difficulty believing Van Helsing about what’s going on, but once they do they are all very happy to put an end to her and save the real Lucy. When they kill her, her corpse acquires a look of release and serenity.
Later on, when Van Helsing is explaining about Count Dracula all of his powers, he also explains that when it comes right down to it they, the humans, have the upper hand. God is on their side. Dracula is an unnatural creature and the world hates him. The world wants him destroyed. His powers come from corrupting what is natural and right, and such corruption seeks to right itself.
One of the characters waxes about how wonderful it will be to free Dracula’s soul from his torment. The torment of being powerful and evil, in which the Count clearly takes great delight. There is no room for genuine love of evil. Anyone who feels that way must not really be a person. They must, as Van Helsing puts it, have a “child’s mind.” When they finally kill him, just before he turns to dust there is a look of peace on his face. The Count, who has been doing evil in the world for hundreds of years.
One of the central themes of Dracula is this: There are dangerous and terrifying things out there, but at the end of the day God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.
The characters are ironclad in their worldview. They never see proof of God, save that crucifixes and the like work against their enemies. They don’t need proof. God is out there. They understand fully the fundamental nature of the universe and their place in it. Nothing that happens causes them to question this understanding, anymore than finding a new and more deadly species of parasitic wasp would cause a biologist to question their basic understanding of biology.
In modern horror, shattering the worldview of the characters is basically a given. Sometimes it is at a very high level—they thought they were safe in their workaday lives, and that feeling is annihilated. Sometimes it is more fundamental—they thought there was a loving god, but actually the universe is ruled by terrifying, hungry things that view humanity as playthings or food.
Even horror that keeps elements such as a loving God still annihilates the safety of the characters’ worldview. There is plenty of horror about demon possession in which God is still shown as a powerful force that can fight the demons. But even in those cases, the characters learn that they are vulnerable in a way they never thought they were. That demons are just as real as terrorists and serial killers, and that they might attack them at any time, without warning.
We no longer live in a world where most of us have an ironclad worldview. Modern horror has to be existentialist, on some basic level, if it is to fully resonate.
No matter how powerful the God, demons are still to be feared. Evil can, in fact, touch anyone, no matter how righteous.