The Past

by Margaret Pitcher

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It has ceased to surprise me that the prime period for stories of "ghosties and ghoulies and longleggity beasties and things that go bump in the night" matched, to a great extent, that period when Christianity succeeded in forcing into the murky depths of the unconscious the normal human expression of sexuality and sexual love. (Note: I don't say romantic love, that was an invention of the Romantic Period).

It is something of a cliche to say that vampires are a rape fantasy (or so male psychologists would have us believe). I have always thought they are either a desire to be somehow "inside" the beloved by means of that most magical of fluids, blood; or a reflection of the pollution caused by menstruation.

The werewolf is an expression of our desires to shrug off civilisation and its petty regulations and go off to the wilds and be our "true selves". The Jungle Book is a mild, later reflection of a culture that thought "going rough" was for explorers or the outposts of Empire.

Ghosts were caused by the vengeful desire to keep on punishing those who had committed grave sins such as murder or suicide - after all, the people of that period could never be sure that God hadn't gone all Christian and decided to forgive the sinners and let them into heaven.

Witchcraft was women's way of protesting their subjegation. Another theory I came across recently states that the upsurge of persecution of witchcraft, which made it more prominent, was engineered by the powers of State and Church, in an effort to distract the mass of ordinary people from the fact that they were starving, downtrodden and numerically superior. I would welcome comment on the idea.

Interest in these manifestations of the "Dark Side of the Force" largely died out in the educated masses during the "Age of Enlightenment", that period when the Church began to lose it's power over the mind of anybody who could read. It lingered in the minds of country people and those parts of Europe untouched by the new scholarship. There was a renaissance of interest in Victorian times (when minds were hedged in not by religious sanctions but by what was "done") though stories of that period such as "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" quite often used sceince rather than "eye of newt and toe of bat". Frankenstein (though somewhat before the Victorian Era) is considered to be the first of the horror genre, my reading of it is as a morality tale (and a longwinded one to my modern tastes). The one thing that Victorian horror had in common with that of earlier times was its air of repressed sexuality.

There have been periods when the horror genre has been very popular, but I doubt whether readers of "Dracula" or fans of "Hammer Horror" took it all seriously. A lot of the later stories of this type reflected the anticlericalism of that period, rather than the Church as a refuge from the Darkness and chaos.

I doubt if a film made today would be a big moneyspinner if it was "pure" horrow. Not that they aren't made and watched, but they aren't the ones that make a lot of money, get good reviews and - the 90's sign of success - get sequels made. Today's horror films are things like the "The Nightmare on Elm Street" series or Aliens out there witing for us."

Tonite, if I heard something go "bump", I wouldn't reach for the herb garden, I'd reach for the telephone to call the police or the magnum I keep to discourage burgulars. The ghouls of the latter half of the twentieth century are the mass murderers and dictators, the bombers of buildings and aeroplanes. We have regained our rights over our psyches, our sexuality, our expressions of our individuality, and replaced one set of fears for another.

At one time people stayed in at night, doors firmly barred, for fear of wild beasts, robbers or ghoulies. Then came gas and electric street lighting. We "reclaimed" the night and walked in the darkness without fear. Now we've lost it again. We don't go out walking in the cool of the evening, we drive locked up in our cars and have security systems in our homes that rival the moats and drawbridges of earlier times. Once again the darkness has become dangerous and we people it with our darkest fears. The media (electronic and print) feeds our fears as legend and folk tales fed the fears of previous eras. (And, so I understand, about as reliable a guide to the actual facts).

It is an interesting exercise to think of the "classic" horrors and look at your reactions to them.

.....Could I become HIV positive?

.....Do you really know who your latest lover is, will he/she get a fixation on you and stalk you at home and work?

.....Muggers who hang around dark places with bad reputations.

Incubi & Succubbi:
.....Angry spouses with scissors, will you remember his/her name in the morning, genetic engineering, theft of genetic material?

.....Juvenile minds armed with spray cans?

Every period has its fears and fantasies, dark signs of what it fears and tries to hide from itself. The only thing is - they had more imagination back in the Old Days!

Well I guess it shouldn't be all that much of a surprise that that the legends of ghosts and ghoulies arose in at the time they did. But the "why" is something else. Myself, I favour the theory that as Christianity and "Christian" rule extended its range, the deities and powers that people worshipped were reduced to "ghosties and ghoulies" and the like. Thus the Irish Sidhe, originally powerful demi-gods, eventually found themselves as leprechauns. The mighty elven warriors of olden times became pixies and garden gnomes. Those "deities" that were not absorbed by Christianity, that is, such as Saint Bridget in Ireland (was a Irish goddess) and Santa Clause (from the Russian "Father Frost", or god of winter). As for vampires and rape fantasies ... I think Freud and his obsession with sex has had too much influence on pshcyology). You are right, every society has it's daemons of the night, be they the threat of nuclear war or vampires.

Anyone want to comment on the possible link between witchcraft persecutions and the powers of "Church and State"? I don't see the need for any such link, I'm cynical enought that I can see people willing to make such accusations for either personal profit or out of spite, the church "merely" providing the opportunity. Mind you, the link was probably there. One thing that should be said, I think, is that throughout the middle ages, when witchcraft was a hot issue, "The Church" was not synonomous with Christianity. The majority of religious leaders and senior clergy would not have been Christians, in fact to be so would be a serious disadvantage in their power games, which goes a long way to explaining the unchristian behaviour of the Church during those times.

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