Fear and Dread

Paul Newman. A History of Terror: Fear and Dread Through the Ages. Sutton, 2000.

A history of fear from the earliest times to the present day in less than 250 pages is perhaps a tall order, and some coverage is of necessity superficial. Alien abductors, satanic abusers and other modern night terrors get their place in the final chapter, but perhaps the most interest is the evocation of the theme of panic and the encounter with Pan as a symbol of the implacable otherness of wild nature. This is a theme which both Andy Roberts and Patrick Harpur have discoursed upon recently: the sudden absolute terror of wild places, wherein human beings are unwanted intruders. We can see this in a number of contexts, from climbers on Ben Macdhui to Jerry Clark's encounter with 'The Lady', a variant on La Llonaca or Resurrection Mary, both victim and transgressor, perhaps echoes of Amerindian nature goddess, nature as all devourer and all creator.

This terror is however not only found in desolate places; one encounters it tales of haunted houses. Scott Rogo tells of awaking in the night in a 'haunted house' with the feeling that 'something horrible' was staring at him from wall next to the bed, forcing him to flee in panic. Given the circumstances of his death, this image of wildness in the heart of the house is disturbingly prophetic. Rogo's experiences in that house are reminiscent of the 'hag' experience, and as Newman informs us, Pan originally left his victims 'paralysed with terror'. There are clear connections between the hag and Pan experiences. Ronald Siegel's vision of the hag as Lilith the night-demon bears this out. In his hag experiences he encounters images of prehistoric monsters, fungi and Cretaceous forests, surely representing modern western cultural images of totally antihuman wildness. He had feeling of uncontrolled sexuality, heard a sort of suggestive whisper in his ear, and the smell of tobacco smoke, The idea of the women reeking of tobacco smoke as a symbol of debauchery and transgression is a nice cultural touch.

The images are all of the violation of cultural order, indeed the earliest meaning of the hag experience, that of the woman on top during sexual intercourse, was in Tudor and Stuart times a major symbol of the reversal of the natural and social order, and a descent into chaos. If there are ecstasies of joy, which Abraham Maslow called 'peak experiences', then there also 'trough experiences', anti-ecstacies of terror, or of soul shattering despair, such as T. C Lethbridge called 'the ghoul'. In a hag-like experience, Henry James Snr, was reduced to a quivering wreck by the encounter with a vision of 'something evil' squatting like an octopus in the chair opposite. This was presumably the experience which caused to his son William, the psychologist, to half-believe in demons. William had his own trough experience of existential terror and despair, haunted by the vision of a deformed, epileptic patient. Compared, of course, with the humanly produced horrors of out time, these experiences are nothing. The dark terror creeping up in the hag experience, threatening to crush the life out of us, in some symbol of the universal predator, possibly conjured up by literally life threatening sleep apnia. But remember that the hag experience is often connected with beliefs about witchcraft and psychic attack, i.e. interpersonal conflict. The malevolence is not outside coming in, it is inside, bottled up, paralysed rage and fear.

When James backed away from his poor patient, seeing a reflection of his own decay and dirt, was the real terror not the glimpse of the radical evil which that distancing and recoil from 'the other' could lead. To see in the face of the 'terrible other' our own dark side, to exorcise the demons and boggarts from own imagination, into the external world, where they will sooner or later take on the faces our neighbours will always lead to the summoning of real terrors. The we will know that the Universal Predator, bringer of death and destruction is ourselves.  Peter Rogerson.


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