At home with the ghosts

“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

from “Ars Poetrica” ~ Czeslaw Milosz

I just finished watching the first season of American Horror Story. I am not going to lie–the show creeped me out, profoundly disturbed me, and left me feeling as if the ridiculously good short-sale I have put an offer on may merit much deeper research. (I’m now thinking way beyond inspections and appraisals; considering missing person’s reports and coroner autopsies detailing the precise cause of death and psychological stability of all previous tenants. Maybe I’ll consult a medium, too?)

While this gruesome TV series (based on the history of a famous California “Murder house”) feasted upon the many unformed embryos of essays and (oh-so) clever stories that once resided somewhere in my gizzard waiting for birth, I was forced to consider what gives rise to such twisted distractions in me. Am I really so dark? One immediate clue popped to mind from a lecture I attended at the Glen Workshop last summer. Given by the writer/director Scott Derickson (known for The Excorcism of Emily Rose, Hellraiser: Inferno, and Sinister), the lecture addressed the concept of “dark transcendence” in art and the horror genre.

To paraphrase Derickson’s key points, we (human beings) are fascinated (and terrified) by horror stories because they require us to face that shadowy patch of darkness that resides within each of us. Horror stories are ultimately about brokenness, isolation, sin and the supernatural. Horror stories grapple with mortality and fear, and like the ghost stories told in the episodes of American Horror Story the horror (the horrible) hurls us away from the trite explanations of science and reason and into the spiritual and metaphysical murk of the carnal (or the embodied life). This seldom-traveled back-alley of mystery, faith and doubt defies easy explanation and consolations. It is raw and unapologetic. Often we turn our eyes before any blood spills–we turn the channel before things spiral out of control. But according to Derickson, in our willingness to face the worst things imaginable we find another way to transcend them, through that darkness, rather than in spite of it.

Speaking philosophically about artistic representations of evil, when we have such painful real-life horrors (Sandy Hook, Columbine, etc.) to deal with almost daily, may seem a bit naive or unnecessary. And when I heard Derickson’s lecture (well-articulated mind you) and watched clips of his movie Emily Rose, I wasn’t fully convinced either. The darkness felt too heavy to rise–I wasn’t sure about the transcendence nor the aesthetics of horror. But hearing Derickson’s own reflections about “nearly” going to see Dark Knight Rising at his local theater in Colorado where the shooting occurred and then watching American Horror Story, I began to gain a different, more malleable perspective. What I came to discover was that the horror we can watch (or read about) from a distance is a vehicle for seeing and responding to our own deep-seated fears and horrors. We scare ourselves to remind ourselves that we are still alive–that there are things to live for. We may not find a better understanding or that elusive motive for evil that we are always seeking through horror, but we may come to see the glints of light that contrast with our own darkness.

Case in point: The fictitious ghosts (living and dead) within the American Horror Story “murder house” were all “souls” with heavy regrets, fears, and tragedies in their history. The house was teeming with its horror-schtick psychotics, megalomaniacs, sexual deviants, and creepy monster-men, but it was also a home to lonely teenagers, heartbroken mothers, and unrequited lovers. The many dysfunctions of the dead in the show were shared with the living and by the end of the series (though almost all the characters had succumbed to death) a community was formed. This is something I could relate to. A need for community–a place where my brokenness could be shared and mended. The house (a thing of ultimate dread throughout the show) became a home to one family who stewarded it and guarded it against the ghosts within and the living without.

I know this all may sound really weird, I get that, but I think there was some dark transcendence going on there. This show (and horror as a genre) is not for everyone, for sure. Don’t go download this series and blame me for your nightmares! But consider what Milosz tells us about poetry “our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.”

I say, best to get to know the creepy neighbors in the living room rather than bump into them in your attic.

3 thoughts on “At home with the ghosts

  1. I just finished season one about a week ago and loved it. I was scared and uncomfortable at the same time…..thanks for this post! I love this sentence above….We scare ourselves to remind ourselves that we are still alive–that there are things to live for. Can’t wait for season 2!

  2. Thanks, Christy. I guess season 2 is a completely different storyline. I liked (i.e. was disturbed by) season 1 so much I am afraid to try the new one for fear of disappointment. You’ll have to let me know how it goes…

  3. Pingback: Look! – Sicinski on “Barbara” and “Zero Dark Thirty”; Greydanus on “It’s a Wonderful Life”; “American Horror Story”; “Universal Soldier”; “Twin Peaks” Teaser

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