Tuesday, October 31, 2023

G.K. Chesterton's Defense of Scary Stories from a Christian Perspective

G.K. Chesterton was a mystery writer, literary critic, and revered Catholic theologian. On October 16th 1909, he wrote an article for The Daily News titled "The Nightmare", which is a work of literary criticism regarding why scary stories are so delightful, but also their potential dangers. Unlike later reactionary Christians, Chesterton is fully on board with the telling and enjoying of scary stories, so long as we remember that they are nothing more than "toys".

Many Christians believe scary stories are evil in themselves, because they associate anything scary with what they interpret as bad feelings as opposed to what they interpret is good, but there is no such thing as an evil story, unless the person hearing the story is evil and when hearing it abandons any sense of Christian hope that lies in his heart. A story changes perspective depending on one's beliefs and disposition, and when a true Christian hears a scary story it will always be with a Christian perspective, and as long as the temptation to judge it as merely evil or demonic is avoided, it can be beneficial if the story contains even a kernel of benefit, and usually scary stories do (for example, in scary stories evil is usually viewed as bad and the audience is usually encouraged to root for the good). It is the same as reading the Bible, where one's interpretation of it first and foremost depends on their personal beliefs and disposition - to some it can inspire piety and holiness while to others it could inspire unimaginable horrors, rebellion and even murder.

You can read "The Nightmare" here, though he does touch more on this subject in other writings of his as well. Below is an excerpt:

There is nothing so delightful as a nightmare - when you know it is a nightmare.

That is the essential. That is the stern condition laid upon all artists touching this luxury of fear. The terror must be fundamentally frivolous. Sanity may play with insanity; but insanity must not be allowed to play with sanity. Let such poets as the one I was reading in the garden, by all means, be free to imagine what outrageous deities and violent landscapes they like. By all means let them wander freely amid their opium pinnacles and perspectives. But these huge gods, these high cities, are toys; they must never for an instant be allowed to be anything else. Man, a gigantic child, must play with Babylon and Nineveh, with Isis and with Ashtaroth. By all means let him dream of the Bondage of Egypt, so long as he is free from it. By all means let him take up the Burden of Tyre, so long as he can take it lightly. But the old gods must be his dolls, not his idols. His central sanctities, his true possessions, should be Christian and simple. And just as a child would cherish most a wooden horse or a sword that is a mere cross of wood, so man, the great child, must cherish most the old plain things of poetry and piety; that horse of wood that was the epic end of Ilium, or that cross of wood that redeemed and conquered the world.

* * * *

In one of Stevenson's letters there is a characteristically humorous remark about the appalling impression produced on him in childhood by the beasts with many eyes in the Book of Revelations: "If that was heaven, what in the name of Davy Jones was hell like?" Now in sober truth there is a magnificent idea in these monsters of the Apocalypse. It is, I suppose, the idea that beings really more beautiful or more universal than we are might appear to us frightful and even confused. Especially they might seem to have senses at once more multiplex and more staring; an idea very imaginatively seized in the multitude of eyes. I like those monsters beneath the throne very much. It is when one of them goes wandering in deserts and finds a throne for himself that evil faiths begin, and there is (literally) the devil to pay - to pay in dancing girls or human sacrifice. As long as those misshapen elemental powers are around the throne, remember that the thing that they worship is the likeness of the appearance of a man.

That is, I fancy, the true doctrine on the subject of Tales of Terror and such things, which unless a man of letters do well and truly believe, without doubt he will end by blowing his brains out or by writing badly. Man, the central pillar of the world must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made.

* * * *

Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare to-night; she whinnies to me from the rocking tree-tops and the roaring wind; I will catch her and ride her through the awful air. Woods and weeds are alike tugging at the roots in the rising tempest, as if all wished to fly with us over the moon, like that wild, amorous cow whose child was the Moon-Calf. We will rise to that mad infinite where there is neither up nor down, the high topsy-turveydom of the heavens. I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.