Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
In C. S. Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath points out the distinction that Lewis makes between imaginary and imaginative worlds. For Lewis, the former, McGrath says, depicts a landscape having “no counterpart in reality,” whereas the latter seeks to convey “images adequate to” the depiction of a transcendent “reality.” The worlds of mythology are examples of imaginative worlds, and “the more imaginative a mythology, the greater its ability, Lewis says, to “communicate more reality to us.”
McGrath makes it clear that, in discussing imaginative worlds, Lewis does not mean that such worlds—or the works devoted to them—are allegories. They may be interpreted allegorically, but that does not mean that they themselves are allegories. As Lewis explains, his own Chronicles of Narnia can be allegorized, but that “of itself is no proof that it is an allegory.” Instead, his Narnia series, which presents an imaginative world, is a “supposal,” by which he means fiction that supplies possible answers to questions of a transcendent nature. Using Narnia as an example, Lewis writes:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress] represents Despair, he [Aslan] would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as he actually has done in ours? This is not allegory at all.”
Lewis makes several points:
- The writer's work asks or implies a question.
- Although the question is posed in or by a work of fiction, the question relates to an actual event or events in the real world.
- In the context of its imaginative world, the work poses an answer to the question.
Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz fails these tests and is, indeed, McGrath states, a work about an imaginary, rather than an imaginative, world. The world of Oz has no referent beyond itself. Narnia, by contrast, is shadow of another world which is itself the shadow of yet another world, just as, in Plato's thought, our sense perceptions of phenomena are shadows of the objects in the world and the world is itself a shadow of the transcendent world of perfect Forms.
An illustration of Plato's “Allegory of the Cave” pictures a man chained against a wall behind which men carry clay figures. The men hold the figures over their heads, and the upper portions of the figures are higher than the top of the wall against which the man on the other side is chained. A fire burning on a stone shelf of the cave, on the other side of the men, casts the shadows of the objects onto the wall in front of the chained man. Rather than seeing the actual objects—clay figures of a horse, a bull, and a pot—the chained man sees only their shadows. High on one of the cave's walls, a ladder ascends to the world above, where the sun shines in the sky. The objects the men carry are mere copies of the things in the world above—representations of the animals—and the shadows are copies, as it were, of these copies. Only in the unseen world above are the unseen, actual animals (representing, in the allegory, the Forms themselves).
Lewis's Narnia is somewhat like Plato's allegorical cave. The real world is Narnia, where Aslan dwells. Its copy is The Chronicles of Narnia, which recount the events in Narnia. The copy of the copy is our own world, a dim reflection of the imaginative world of the novels, which is, in turn, itself a faint likeness of Aslan's real world. The images that depict the world of the novels are the clay pots in Jung's cave, which represent, but do not truly reflect, the true objects themselves, any more than the objects truly reflect their transcendent Forms. As Lord Digory says, in The Last Battle, “It's all there in Plato.”
In attempting to envision Forms (i. e., in a Christian context, divine realities), Lewis depicts Christ as the lion Aslan, Satan as the White Witch, the fallen, unredeemed world as a frozen wasteland in which Christmas never arrives (until Aslan appears), and the Pevensie children are disciples. As McGrath points out,
Lewis's remarkable achievement in the Chronicles of Narnia is to allow his readers to inhabit this metanarrative—to get inside the story and feel what it was like to be part of it . . . . The Narnia stories allow us to step inside and experience the Christian story.
Do any horror stories accomplish something similar, creating imaginative worlds wherein the writer's work asks or implies and answers a question related to an actual event or events in the real world? Do any works of horror fiction shadow the true horrors of the real world in such a way that readers can enter their imaginative worlds and “experience” the stories depicting these landscapes? Do any of them give rise to myths? Are any horror stories mythopoeic?
The icons of horror that continue to resonate with readers and moviegoers may indicate which images have particular force in conveying feelings of terror and disgust (probably the two chief elements of horror). Often, these icons appear in literary works, but they are also present in the visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. Such icons include demons, ghosts, vampires, witches, and zombies, all of which have appeared in novels, short stories, or movies that meet Lewis's criteria, asking or implying a question related to what is (or is, at least, believed by some to be) related to an actual event or events in the real world, and pose answers to the question they pose.
To get just an intimation of the power these images of horror originally held for their audiences, we must try, to the best of our abilities, to envision the world as it was to them and to see, in this context, the supernatural beings they imagined as their enemies.
The world in which such creatures existed was a pre-scientific world wherein there was no well-established association of objective cause and effect. Demons, rather than bacteria, birth defects, viruses, radiation, or the like afflicted people with disease, blindness, or mental illness. They also animated human corpses, using dead bodies, as “vampires,” to drink blood. Demons also empowered witches to perform spectacular feats and wonders. The soul's survival of death enabled the existence of ghosts and zombies.
Today, we might call such a view of “reality” superstitious, but, for the ancients, it was simply the truth, the way things were, reality itself. Against such evils, such remedies as prayers, rituals, incantations were the only recourse which might prevail, and, only then, because God ruled over even the supernatural entities that afflicted humanity.
Horror is, like poetry, painting, sculpture, dance, and many other human enterprises, of religious, not secular, origin, and, despite the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and the Enlightenment, horror continues to tap the primeval aspects of our existence as human beings that religion once addressed and, indeed, continues, for many, to address.
Just as adults retain vestiges of their childhood experience, humanity retains traces of its primordial heritage. In our fiction and in the dark, dim recesses of our ancient selves, demons, ghosts, vampires, witches, and zombies continue to horrify us, just as, in times past, they possessed, haunted, stalked, hexed, and vexed our ancestors in the “real world” in which they lived. If you doubt this, spend a few minutes alone in a cemetery by yourself after dark or imagine spending a night alone in the catacombs, among centuries-old corpses and skeletons of the dead.
Then, you will begin to fathom the terrible terror felt by those who believed in things that go bump in the night, and reading Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King will take on a new intensity. In Platonic and mythopoeic terms, their works are, after all, shadows of the shadows of the Real Horrors awaiting us beyond this world.