Story Shapes: Grotesque

Story Shapes: Grotesque

[Editor's note: This is a portion of Travis's Hutchmoot session entitled The Shape of the Stories We Tell.]

Since it’s October and Halloween is approaching, it’s a good time to talk about scary stories. “All stories are about the Fall,” said Tolkien. If this is true (it is), then one of the most important ways to shape our stories – or perhaps one of the most important shapes in our stories – is the use of the Gothic, or the grotesque, or simply put: horror.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft, godfather of the modern horror story, in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Fear and supernatural terror have been part of literature as long as story has been around. Lovecraft wrote, “Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings.”

Lovecraft is interesting on this subject, because one of his most oft-used examples of this cosmic terror is distorted shapes. When the protagonist sails out to find Cthulhu, he finds his place of dwelling to be filled with shapes that he cannot even describe, that do not correspond to any of the shapes in our world, and that are terrifying. He describes “The Unnamed” in a story by that title:

It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory.

Why engage in this kind of terror?

In a preface to a book called Letters from Hell, George MacDonald takes up the issue of Christian engagement with horror.

I would not willingly be misunderstood: when I say the book is full of truth, I do not mean either truth of theory or truth in art, but something far deeper and higher – the realities of our relations to God and man and duty – all, in short, that belongs to the conscience. Prominent among these is the awful verity; that we make our fate in unmaking ourselves; that men, in defacing the image of God in themselves, construct for themselves a world of horror and dismay; that of the outer darkness our own deeds and character are the informing or inwardly creating cause; that if a man will not have God, he can never be rid of his weary and hateful self.[1]

MacDonald argues that horror shows us the “awful truth” of dehumanization – what happens to human beings who stray from their created purposes. We see this kind of gothic imagery in our best monster stories: vampires, goblins, zombies, and werewolves are all humans or former humans. MacDonald argues that we should “make righteous use of the element of horror.[2] Moreover, he gives a warning to those who oppose the use of horror in art:

Let him who shuns the horrible as a thing in art unlawful, take heed that it be not a thing in fact by him cherished; that he neither plant or nourish that root of bitterness whose fruit must be horror – the doing of wrong to his neighbor; and least of all, if the indifference in the unlawful there be, that most unmanly of wrongs whose sole defence lies in the cowardly words: “Am I my sister’s keeper!”[3]

In other words, when we fear the use of horror, we dismiss something of great value: an imaginative engagement with the consequences of rebellion against God. In fact, we become cowards ourselves, comfortable in our sin, committing the very evils we say we should not be reading in a story. When we throw out the horror genre altogether out of fear of Satanic influence, we give in to fear itself, become cowards, and lose a valuable conduit for truth. This is not to throw discernment out the window in our storytelling, but we err on the other side when we pharisaically rule out the genre altogether.

Christ himself used grotesque elements in his stories. Gehenna, undying worms, a rich man in the torment of hell, murder, and life after death all play roles in Jesus’ stories. He had actual encounters with demons who drove people insane, caused them to throw themselves into fires, screeched and screamed, and the evangelists did not shy away from these stories when recounting Jesus’ life. In a world where horror is real, stories must contain monsters and demons. Evil should not be celebrated, but it should be portrayed in our art, music, and movies.

Many horror films, especially those containing supernatural terror, belong to the symbolist tradition of storytelling. In other words, horror films belong in the fantasy fiction genre. They are fairy tales, in essence, because they use imaginative worlds and creatures to create a myth-like experience that conveys truth. So the Ring Wraiths of Middle Earth are gothic figures, monsters of horror that fit alongside zombies and vampires as symbols of dehumanization.

Dr. Ann Blaisdell Tracy believes that “the Gothic world is above all the Fallen world, the projection of a post-lapsarian nightmare of fear and alienation.”[4] She wrote,

…novels with Gothic overtones might best be identified not as those which contain some superficial trapping like a ruined monastery or the rumor of a ghost . . . but as those . . . which contain imagery or action pertinent to the Gothic/Fallen world., i.e. wandering, delusions, temptation.[5]

Horror and Gothic stories, then, help us put symbols and images onto the many nameless and shapeless fears we experience in this Fallen world. They give us an imaginative context for thinking about what it means to live in a chaotic world that is not as it was created to be.


[1] George MacDonald, Preface to Letters from Hell, Anonymous. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1887), Vi-vii.

[2] MacDonald, viii.

[3] MacDonald, ix.

[4] Ann Blaisdell Tracy, Patterns of Fear in the Gothic Novel, 1790-1830 (Ayer Publishing, 1980), 313.

[5] Tracy, 327.