Much of the argument and many of the insights that Paul Nathanson shares with readers of his Over the Rainbow: Secular Myths of America can be applied to the horror genre. Taking a leaf from Micea Eliade, Nathanson points out that the cosmos--the orderly system that originates from chaos as a result of divine creation--represents the “familiar world,” whereas chaos corresponds to the world of the unknown, which is inhabited by “ghosts, demons, and foreigners.” We can apply Nathanson’s observation, by way of Eliade, to the garden of Eden versus the great wilderness beyond it. Into the familiar world of the cosmos, Nathanson observes, the unknown can erupt, via kratophanies, hierophanies, and theophanies; the unknown, like the sacred, can also be repeated through myths and rituals. The sacred becomes a way of orienting a tribe or a nation, Nathanson states; it delineates that which is desirable by separating the sacred and the profane or the sacred and the secular.
There is always a sacred center to the world, Nathanson, echoing Eliade, points out. This center, the axis mundi, is often a “mountain, city, temple, palace,” or island, whereat are met heaven, earth, and hell. The revelation of the sacred is the revelation of the real.
The axis mundi need not number one; there can be several, or even many, of these sacred centers. As Nathanson points out, every spatial hierophany or consecrated space is “equivalent to a cosmology.” There are, after all, many sacred mountains, cities, temples, palaces, islands, groves, wells, hills, and other such centers of the sacred life. However, all such places have something in common, Nathanson says. In existential terms, they form a “sacred cycle in which cosmogonic events” are experienced anew from time to time “through the ritual reenactment of myths by which man recreates,” or repeats, “the act of creation” that is represented by the sacred calendar and year; these mystical rituals reenact the original creation of the gods.
In religion, to be real is to have meaning, Nathanson contends, and for a ritual act to have meaning, it must symbolically repeat its sacred, prototypical event, whether spatially or chronologically, since the cosmos is the prototype, or archetype, of reality itself. The harmony of the cosmos is desirable and to be embraced; the disharmony of chaos is undesirable and is to be rejected. Moreover, Nathanson observes, the cosmic interpretations of reality are both communal (Israel, the Church) and individual (the Jew, the Christian). This twofold character of the cosmos led the question of whether paradise is future and otherworldly or here and now.
According to Nathanson, the tension between these two possible understandings was never resolved, but has been allowed to enrich the concept of paradise, as does the possibility of one’s understanding it in either literal or figurative terms. For example, we can glimpse eternity from within time (before our own individual deaths) or paradise from within history (before the end of history). Indeed, as religious faith declines, utopias sometimes take the place of paradise, just as the idea of progress replaced the idea of providence, with destiny being seen as something better than, rather than a return to, the origins of things.
By definition, the city, in ancient times, was a walled enclosure, and by including some persons and things, it also excluded others. That which was within the walls was part of the sacred place, paradise. That which was without the walls was part of the secular or the profane world, and, as such, was, as it were, exiled, condemned, or damned. With this understanding before us, it is easy to comprehend why Nathaniel exercised such passionate devotion in the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls following his return from the Israelites’ dispersal into Babylon.
The difference, Nathanson says, between paradise lost and paradise regained is the snake: in the former, it is present; in the latter, it is absent.
In horror fiction, these themes are often invoked, whether overtly or symbolically. There is the sacred center, or axis mundi; myths and rituals, or their equivalents; and an orientation toward that which is valued and that which is devalued; there is inclusion, and there is exclusion. For example, we can also apply this concept to Heorot, the hall of Danish fellowship, and to the wilderness, inhabited by the monstrous, outcast Grendel that lay beyond its walls. Likewise, think of Eden, Jerusalem, or, for that matter, Yggsdrasil or the Hellmouth. Just as Grendel and his mother (and, later, the dragon) are alive and well in the fallen world of the Danes’ Heorot (and, later, in Beowulf’s own realm), they are absent in these regained versions of these sacred centers. They have been not banished or exiled, but destroyed, just as, in Buffy, the Hellmouth is destroyed (although, as it turns out, there is another elsewhere).
Paradise shifts from the garden to the Promised Land to the frontier, Nathanson points out, and is, at present “located. . . in outer space.” It is also invaded, or overrun, for a time, and is abandoned in favor of a new paradise or until the pilgrims’ return. The interval of the sojourn is one of maturation if not, indeed, perfection, so that, as the sojourners move into a new paradise or return to their home, it is they, not the sacred center, that has changed. They have become the home that they sought elsewhere, sinners become saints, just as Beowulf earned immortality by his heroic deeds or Buffy passed her powers to hundreds of other “potential” slayers.