Your fingers weave quick minarets,
Speaking secret alphabets
--Doors, “Ship of Fools”
Everyone likes secrets. We all want to know them, harbor them, divulge them. Secrets make us powerful. They put us, and not others, “in the know.” They generate curiosity, envy, fear, and a host of other, not always subtle or decent, emotions. They also make us holy, in the literal sense of the word, which is “set apart.” Secrets set us apart from others. Secrets make us stand out. They make us special, in our own minds if not in the minds of others. This is the appeal of the esoteric--or part of it.
But in horror fiction, the esoteric takes on another dimension as well. In horror fiction, the esoteric is dangerous. It threatens. It could harm or even kill. It is, therefore, in some sense, evil. The esoteric is blasphemous or heretical or treasonous, and it--and its devotees--must be put down, must be put to the stake, if necessary; they must be crushed that we may stand; they must be slain that we may live. The esoteric separates those who know, the initiates and the masters or adepts, from those who want to know, the uninitiated, the ignorant, the unenlightened.
The esoteric has been with us always. In Judaism, the Cabbalists claimed secret knowledge. They alone, they said, understood the true, the mystical, the actual meanings of the Hebrew scriptures. In Christianity, mystics and others also claimed to know what others of the faith did not know. The Gnostics crippled, and nearly killed, the early church by insisting that only they knew the secrets of the Gospels and, therefore, how to be saved from death and damnation. Even Jesus, in the Gospels, says that the knowledge of some scriptures are hidden and may be revealed only to those he elects to know and understand them. Some have ears, but they may not hear, and some have eyes but they may not see.
Throughout the Middle Ages, secret societies organized around esoteric doctrines and texts; many, perhaps in altered forms, are with us still: the Rosicrucians, the Freemasons, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Although many may laugh at the absurdity of such secret orders, others are curious about them, or envy their members, or are afraid of them. They fear their secret alphabets, their hidden texts, their clandestine meetings, their strange symbols and rites and rituals. In many cases, outsiders, peering in, see Satan in their midst and conclude that these cults are composed of devil worshipers.
When one examines many of the esoteric texts of secret societies, one finds not so much doctrines to fear as teachings that amuse. It is difficult to read many of these sects’ secret writings without smiling or even laughing out loud. For example, “The Esoteric Philosophy Homepage” offers its visitors a perplexing welter of strange ideas, half-baked notions, and assorted trivia, perhaps with a few lotions and potions thrown into the pot--or cauldron--for good measure, offering tips on such seemingly profound matters as:
- “Esotericism: Energy in the Universe” (something conventional physicists will want to read, no doubt)
- “The Nature of Consciousness” (answers to age-old questions about which psychologists admit continued confusion)
- “Education in the New Age” (for staid professors, perhaps, who still labor under the influences of Benjamin Bloom, John Dewey, and their ilk)
- “Esoteric Healing” (for physicians who’ve yet to heal themselves)
- “Esoteric Laws” (for lawyers to argue about)
- “The Process of Evolution” (for neo-Darwinists)
- “The Nature of Illusion” (for the David Copperfields among us)
- “Reincarnation, Karma, and Past Lives” (written, perhaps, by Shirley McLaine)
- “The Christ and the Buddha” (for two-thirds or so of the planet’s faithful)--
and dozens of more articles concerning claptrap and nonsense. The site truly offers something for everyone--and that, it seems, is another appeal of the esoteric. It’s all things to all people. As the Freemasons say, one’s faith doesn’t really matter among lodge members; anyone of any religious background, or none, may be a member of the Craft. The esoteric is something like the child (or puppet) in the Pinocchio song:
When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true
However, such fulfillment is available only to the members of the cult, the sect, the inner circle, the secret society. To others--namely, the world at large--the opposite conditions apply: ignorance, disappointment, failure, despair, death, and destruction.
As one might suspect, horror fiction makes good use of secret societies.
A hooded figure scurrying about dark, subterranean chambers among shifting shadows in pursuit of God-only-knows-what are frightening because, well, they’re nameless, they’re faceless, and theyre hip to God-only-knows-what dark secrets and may, who knows?, be hell-bent on taking over the world. Often, their haunts are the dungeons of medieval castles, catacombs, caverns by the sea, or mountaintop retreats, protected and remote, situated, at times, upon unhallowed ground whereupon even angels fear to tread.
In most cases, cults, sects, and secret societies don’t really threaten society (as far as we know, anyway) (although Germany has outlawed Scientology), but, occasionally, as in the cases of the Jim Jones mass suicide at Jonestown, Ghana, the FBI’s murder of the Branch Davidians in the massacre at Waco, Texas, and the Heaven’s Gate members’ mass suicide in San Diego, California, such secret orders do do harm, albeit mostly to themselves--to date, at least. They have proven that they can be dangerous, even deadly. By not being open about who they are, what they believe, and what they are about, secret societies perpetuate the mystique that makes them feel special and unique, a self-appointed elect.
As long as the devotees of such organizations skulk about among rats and bats and cats, or whatever it is that they do skulk about among (the imagination is one’s only limit when one considers secret societies and their doings), they will appeal to outsiders and to horror fiction, which, more often than not, is concerned with the plight or the perspective, or both, of the outsider. Their mystery is their appeal, and their secrecy makes them mysterious. They have a secret, and they won’t tell. We want to know what they know, to know their secrets. It’s as simple, and complex, as that.