The German theologian Rudolf Otto was born in 1869 in a town called Peine, near Hannover in Prussia. Unfortunately, very little is known about his early life until he began his formal education, so this brief biographical sketch is little more than an overview of his academic CV. It is known that he studied theology and philosophy at the University of Erlangen, writing his dissertation on Martin Luther’s understanding of the nature of the Holy Spirit, before taking a post as a lecturer at the University of Gottingen in 1897. Here he taught courses on theology, the history of philosophy and the history of religion. Later, he was appointed professor of systematic theology at Gottingen, and in 1914 he became professor of theology at Breslau until 1917, when he was hired as professor of systematic theology (again) at the University of Marburg. He retired in 1929, but continued to live in Marburg for the rest of his life. He died in 1937.
Unlike many scholars of religion of his day, Otto’s experience was not solely limited to the Christian context. For a year, beginning in 1911, for example, Otto travelled widely through Northern Africa, Egypt and into Palestine and the Middle East. His journeys took him through India, China, Japan and the USA before finally returning to Germany. These travels expanded his awareness of the fact that the category of religion is not necessarily synonymous with ‘Christianity.’ His experiences in these disparate contexts influenced his thinking to include the many varieties of religious expression found throughout the world’s cultures, paving the way for a phenomenological approach to the study of religion that looks beyond surface differences towards an altogether stranger foundational impulse and experience.
Otto is arguably best known for his groundbreaking book Das Heilige, translated to English as The Idea of the Holy (first published in 1917), in which he developed his concept of ‘the numinous’ as a core underlying aspect of religious experience. This idea of the numinous, defined as the ‘wholly other,’ is the main focus of this presentation, and it is a concept that is particularly well suited to exploring through the weird fiction writings (as well as some of the attempts at replicating them in film), of Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft, as we will hopefully see. Before we move into the realms of weird fiction and horror, let’s find out a little more precisely what Otto was referring to when talking about the numinous.
For Otto, the numinous referred to the ‘non-rational’ component of religion, that is the element of religion that cannot be explained in purely sociological, economic, political or doctrinal terms. Religion is, after all, a particularly complex and nebulous category that can be analysed in all of these fairly mundane and highly reductive terms (Bowker, 1973). We can quite easily approach and understand the sociological functions of religious belief, or look at the power relations within organised religions, create psychological profiles of religious believers, or critically analyse the textual component of religious doctrine, for example, and yet, in spite of all of this, there remains an aspect of religion that is much more difficult to apprehend or understand in such simplistic terms. That aspect is religious experience – the element of religion sought out and described in mystical traditions, or which leaks through unexpectedly into the mundane sphere in the event of ostensible miracles, visions, and other seemingly supernatural or paranormal occurrences. It is this transcendent ineffable aspect of religion, grounded in direct feeling and emotion, that Otto refers to as numinous.
In an attempt to begin his analysis of the non-rational numinous, Otto discerned within this unique mode of experience two distinct but somehow complimentary characteristics, which he labelled the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinans. Otto was acutely aware of the numinous’ ability to be simultaneously terrifying (the tremendum) and beautifully fascinating (the fascinans), the fear and awe of the supernatural that we, as a species, for whatever reason, cannot stop searching for – what Otto referred to as the religious impulse. For Otto, this yearning for the sacred has its roots in the irreducible horror and beauty of the holy as a distinct kind of experience, and it is here that weird fiction, in its vivid explorations of supernatural and cosmic horrors and wonders, can begin to illuminate just what Otto was attempting to distill as the underlying basis of all religious expression.
Let us turn first to perhaps the greatest (or at least most influential) vampire story ever written, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, first published in 1897. As a whole, Stoker’s masterpiece plays with a wide range of religious ideas, but in a surprisingly tacit way for a book that deals with a supernatural struggle of good against evil. In an article on ‘Religion and Superstition in Dracula’ (2005), for example, John Watters argues that the novel portrays a clash between traditional Catholic Christianity on the one hand, steeped in ritual and mystery, and a more rational, modern and scientific form of Protestantism on the other. According to this interpretation, the Dutch doctor, metaphysician and vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing serves as the crucial link between these two competing worldviews, for he ‘understands the necessity of using “tradition and superstition” to destroy “tradition and superstition”‘ (2005:115), thus bringing forth a new, modern, scientific worldview.
But, just as Otto sought to uncover the non-rational, experiential, core of the religious impulse, it is not these doctrinal aspects of religion (i.e. the clash between Catholic and Protestant theologies and science), that we are most concerned with in the context of this chapter (though it is undoubtedly an interesting subtext within the novel). Rather, it is Stoker’s descriptions of uncanny, weird and mystical horror that are of key importance in elucidating our understanding of Otto’s concept of the numinous. We are most interested here in Stoker’s attention to detail in describing the sensations, feelings and emotions of horror, and how he conjures these in his readers.
Take, for instance, one of my favourite scenes from the novel, when Jonathan Harker first sees Dracula crawling headfirst down the castle wall like some kind of giant monstrous bat. Here, Harker’s suspicions that there is something deeply weird about Count Dracula are finally confirmed. Harker explains in his diary:
I was at first interested and somewhat amused […] But my very feelings changed to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window, and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like giant wings. At first I could not believe my eyes […] but I kept looking, and it could be no delusion […] I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear – in awful fear – and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of… (Stoker, 1999:45-46).
This horrific sight, and Harker’s reaction to it, conjures perfectly the mysterium tremendum through an inversion of the normally assumed laws of nature (with which we are so familiar). Gravity is defeated, and it is terrifying to behold – repulsive like an ungodly miracle – and yet it is deeply fascinating and draws our gaze. We cannot help but look in terror and awe at the spectacle through Harker’s eyes – what is this creature, and what does it mean that this is happening? Have we slipped through into some other world, or has a trace of some other world leaked through into our own? We can imagine Harker’s horror at seeing this, and his inability to stop himself from staring in disbelief as the feeling of encroaching terror builds within him.
To my mind, the essence of Dracula’s weird numinous quality is captured wonderfully in a seminal scene from Hammer Studios’ 1970 movie Scars of Dracula, directed by Roy Ward Baker. The scene shows Dracula and his vampiric harem in their natural habitat, wandering somnambulistically through the passages and chambers of the Count’s mouldering castle. It is almost as though we have slipped through into another world – the world of the vampire – a limbo world between the living and the dead (again a breakdown on the usually assumed laws of nature). Dracula and his maidens are haunting their lair, like zombified spiders awaiting their prey, who wander in unwittingly entrapping themselves in the vampire’s hypnotic web. The atmosphere is particularly eerie, otherworldly and, of course, numinous. Indeed, Otto comments specifically on the numinous quality of haunted spaces as a primeval form of religious experience (1958:126-127). Again, the spectacle is terrifying, but we can’t help but be fascinated by what we are seeing, we can’t look away – we are drawn in (and perhaps this is just another seductive tool in the vampire’s repertoire, luring us in with their otherworldly fascination). In this scene we are given a glimpse beyond the veil, seeing what the ‘wholly other’ is actually like in its own habitat, before it finally consumes us.
This same numinous intensity was also captured beautifully in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu (itself an illegitimate retelling of the Dracula story). The numinous is particularly tangible in the scenes where Jonathan Harker first meets the Count after his long journey through the Carpathian Mountains. Their encounter is infused with a slow-burning tension and dread, which gradually builds to a crescendo when the Count snatches his first taste of Harker’s blood after he inadvertently cuts his thumb with a rusty bread knife. These moments, to my mind at least, capture the very essence of religious dread – an awe inspiring fear arising from a confrontation with the wholly other.
Dracula represents the opposite end of the ‘sacred spectrum’ – so profane, unclean and diseased that he becomes spiritually powerful and highly dangerous (cf. Douglas, 2005:123), an embodiment of what Otto refers to as ‘daemonic dread,’ the ‘mysterium horrendum’ or the ‘negative numinous’ (1958:106-106). He is the opposite of ‘godly,’ and yet still somehow ‘sacred.’ Beth McDonald, in her book The Vampire as Numinous Experience (2004) writes of the functions of the vampire as a numinous encounter, she explains that:
The numinous value, or sacred functioning, of the vampire myth lies in the influence that an encounter with the numinous has on the individual. In vampire literature, an encounter with a vampire [induces] an effect or condition of perception which allows the reader, and perhaps the character, to experience a sense of powerlessness in the face of someone or some thing supernaturally powerful […] (2004:37)
It is this powerlessness in the face of the supernatural that runs at the core of Otto’s conception of the numinous experience.
The Great God Pan
‘Religious dread’ (or ‘awe’) would perhaps be a better designation. Its antecedent stage is ‘daemonic dread’ (cf. the horror of Pan) with its queer perversion […] the ‘dread of ghosts.’ It first begins to stir in the feeling of something ‘uncanny,’ ‘eerie,’ or ‘weird.’ It is this feeling which, emerging in the mind of primeval man, forms the starting-point for the entire religious development in history (1958:14)
Very often textbooks for students of religious studies use an extract from the chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) to explain Otto’s category of the numinous. In the chapter Ratty and Mole come unexpectedly face-to-face with Pan while searching for their friend, experiencing the mixed emotions of fascination, joy and terror that Otto identifies as characteristics of the numinous:
“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”
“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!” (Grahame, 1980:108)
This famous encounter is an undeniably vivid illustration of Otto’s conception of the numinous, but there is another literary vision of Pan that is equally as evocative, and equally as illustrative of Otto’s concept, and it takes place in Arthur Machen’s weird 1890 novella The Great God Pan.
The story begins with Dr. Raymond, who is fascinated by what he calls ‘transcendental medicine,’ and his colleague performing some experimental brain surgery (‘a slight lesion in the grey matter […] a trifling rearrangement of certain cells, a microscopical alteration’), on a young woman in the hope that it will open her mind to all the wonders of nature as it truly is, behind the veil of illusion (echoing William Blake’s cleansing of the doors of perception). Dr. Raymond explains to his colleague how the two worlds, the physical and the spiritual, are simultaneously separate and yet immanent, veiled only by the physiological structures of the human brain:
Look about you […] You see the mountain, and hill following after hill, as wave on wave, you see the woods and orchard, the fields of ripe corn, and the meadows reaching to the reed-beds by the river. You see me standing here beside you, and hear my voice; but I tell you that all these things – yes, from that star that has just shone out in the sky to the solid ground beneath our feet – I say that all these are but dreams and shadows; the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes. There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision […] beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil; but I do know […] that you and I shall see it lifted this very night from before another’s eyes. You may think this all strange nonsense; it may be strange, but it is true, and the ancients knew what lifting the veil means. They called it seeing the God Pan (Machen, 2010:4-5).
Machen’s portrayal of the numinous is one of a transcendent reality that interpenetrates our own, an idea also explored in his novel The Three Impostors (1995), where strange mysteries bubble away beneath the surface of everyday life. It lies waiting just beyond the illusory veil of reality we are so comfortable inhabiting, requiring only a simple neurosurgical procedure to be revealed. But, when it does finally break through, the numinous can be extremely powerful, and extremely terrifying:
[…] her eyes opened […] They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed […] the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh (Machen, 2010:12-13).
In Machen’s novel, Dr. Raymond’s experimental patient is overwhelmed by the mysterium tremendum, at first staring in awe and wonder at the revelation unveiled before her eyes, and then screaming in terror at its frightful immensity. Three days later she goes completely insane, and worse still becomes impregnated with the child of the Great God Pan.
Lovecraft’s definition of ‘cosmic horror’ is actually a remarkably close approximation of Otto’s notion of the mysterium tremendum. Lovecraft’s fictional world is one of ineffable cosmic horrors. In his historical overview of the development of weird fiction, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927), Lovecraft writes that:
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space (Lovecraft, 1927 :107).
For Lovecraft, then, true weird fiction, by its very nature, should invoke in the reader a sense of profound uneasiness and dread, it should hint at the inability of the human mind to comprehend the true nature of reality, which is far more terrible than we can imagine (as Machen’s surgical revelation of Pan suggested), and it should cause us to question the stability of our faith in the established laws of nature (think again about Dracula’s inversion of the laws of gravity). For Lovecraft, in fiction at least, true horror emerges at the point when we realise that we are not even coming close to understanding the complexities of the cosmos in which we insignificantly live. Our rational scientific models are conceived as a ‘safeguard’ against chaos, but our fixed laws are just an illusion – a psychological defence mechanism to protect our sanity from the ‘daemons of unplumbed space.’ Jesse Norford summarises the philosophy that arises from this perspective when he writes that Lovecraft’s:
[…] fictional universe creates a paranoid and misanthropic vision of human life as a disease and the reality beneath the veil of ordinary life as a creeping, crawling chaos that would blight the mind if ever fully revealed (Norford, 2012:172).
Lovecraft’s horror is ineffable, a fact alluded to by the unintelligible guttural names of his pantheon of alien deities. Their names are not even remotely meant to be pronounced by human tongues – Cthulhu, Yog Sothoth, Shub-Niggurath – these are nothing more than human approximations of the sounds of their names. Lovecraft’s daemons are completely ontologically alien. In Otto’s terms they are representative of the ‘wholly other,’ the very definition of the incomprehensible numinous.
The physical characteristics (if we can even use that term to refer to inter-dimensional gods), of Lovecraft’s pantheon also express this ‘otherness.’ Yog-Sothoth is perhaps the best example of this; while many of Lovecraft’s creations are described using features we are at least vaguely familiar with (tentacles, eyes, wings, etc.), Yog-Sothoth is described as entirely other, as these extracts suggest:
It was an All-in-One and One-in-All of limitless being and self—not merely a thing of one Space-Time continuum, but allied to the ultimate animating essence of existence’s whole unbounded sweep—the last, utter sweep which has no confines and which outreaches fancy and mathematics alike. It was perhaps that which certain secret cults of earth have whispered of as YOG-SOTHOTH, and which has been a deity under other names; that which the crustaceans of Yuggoth worship as the Beyond-One, and which the vaporous brains of the spiral nebulae know by an untranslatable Sign […] (Through the Gates of the Silver Key, co-written with E. Hoffman Price, 1934).
[…] great globes of light massing toward the opening, and not alone these, but the breaking apart of the nearest globes, and the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch, hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster which was the lurker at the threshold, whose mask was as a congeries of iridescent globes, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos beyond the nethermost outposts of space and time! (The Lurker at the Threshold, co-written with August Derleth, 1945)
Such extracts read like mystical tracts attempting to convey the nature of reality as revealed during ecstatic visions and reveries, the likes of which might be found in any of the world’s religious traditions. Take, for example, this extract from the writings of the Christian Neoplatonist mystic Pseudo-Dionysius:
Beings are surpassed by the infinity beyond being, intelligences by that oneness which is beyond intelligence. Indeed the inscrutable One is out of reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, this supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered up by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. It is and it is as no other being is (cited in Hicks, 1999:80).
The numinous-wholly-other-ness of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean inter-dimensional entities is expressed wonderfully in the 1970 film version of The Dunwich Horror, directed by Daniel Haller and produced by Roger Corman. Instead of creating an elaborate B-movie monster costume to represent Wilbur Whately’s twin, the film-makers chose to signify his presence using weird flashing lights, interspersed with cut-up footage of tentacles, and abstract writhing horrors, overlain with a soundtrack of terrified screaming. Admittedly, this decision was probably greatly influenced by the film’s limited budget, but the overall effect was to successfully conjure the un-speakable, ineffable otherness of Lovecraft’s pantheon of alien gods.
Horror literature and the films that are inspired by them, especially those within the sub-genre of weird fiction, provide an ideal springboard for thinking more deeply about key themes in the study of religion – especially Otto’s concept of the numinous.
These stories play with religious ideas, and distort them, leading to new insightful metaphors and interpretations. In their revelation of the horrors and wonders that lie beyond the illusory veil of everyday sense experience, these stories challenge our understanding of our own place and role in the multiverse, encouraging us to ask questions about the nature of human life and its relation to a much wider cosmic context.
For Lovecraft, who was a staunch, scientifically minded, atheist (Houellebecq, 2008), the awe, fear and horror of the cosmos was one of emptiness, meaninglessness and futility. Human beings are of little significance in the grand scheme of the unforgiving multiverse, which is indifferent to our existence. Lovecraft explores the mysterium tremendum not so much as a transcendent or sacred reality, but rather as its antithesis – an excessively profane and cruel cosmos with no hope of salvation. His is a numinousness of the alien wholly other, incomprehensible and deeply, deeply weird.
For Machen, however, human beings are components and participants in a much broader worldview encompassing many overlapping worlds, with many different inhabitants. Machen was, of course, deeply religious, and his fiction could be understood as a reflection of his personal cosmology, a mystical Celtic spirituality. His fiction, therefore, highlights the immanence and transcendence of the numinous, ever present just beneath the illusory veil of reality, and exceedingly powerful when it slips through into our mundane sphere.
Stoker created a timeless character, perpetually resurrected on the silver screen, who embodies the numinous, but not the kind of numinous we would usually associate with scriptural religion. Dracula’s is a terrifying, soul destroying, numinous quality. He is, then, the embodiment of the negative numinous, the darkness that counterpoints the holy as Godliness. Dracula is a symbol of the primal fear and spiritual danger associated with the unclean, the profane and the dead.
Each of these works expresses a different, admittedly frightening, aspect of the mysterium. The philosopher of religion John Hick proposes what he calls a pluralist approach to the study of the world religions, wherein idiosyncratic religious systems represent ‘different human responses to the same ultimate transcendent reality.’ Hick refers to this transcendent reality as the ‘Real,’ which is, in itself, ‘beyond the scope of human conceptual understanding’ (1999:77). Dracula, The Great God Pan and Yog-Sothoth might also, therefore, be understood as expressions of the same transcendent ‘Real,’ representative of each author’s attempt at capturing something of the uncanny essence of its mysterious nature.
Above all, and perhaps most interestingly, these works of fiction and film put us in direct contact with the numinous itself (cf. Kripal, 2011). Weird writing and filmmaking escape beyond the confines of the page or screen and touch the reader in strange ways, activating our species’ deep seated cosmic fear and wonder. In a sense, therefore, these works teach us about the numinous through firsthand experience, rather than through abstract scholarly theorising. By means of the written word, Stoker, Machen and Lovecraft were able to invoke some of the same emotions and feelings of fascination and terror that Otto described in The Idea of the Holy, which is very powerful stuff for a genre that finds its expression in pulp paperbacks and B-movies.
Bowker, J. (1973). The Sense of God: Sociological, Anthropological and Psychological Approaches to the Origin of the Sense of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Douglas, M. (2005). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge
Grahame, K. (1980). The Wind in the Willows. London: Ariel Books.
Hick, J. (1999). The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm. Oxford: Oneworld.
Houellebecq, M. (2008). H.P. Lovecraft: Aainst the World, Against Life. London: Gollancz.
Kripal, J.J. (2011). Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lovecraft, H.P. (1927). ‘The Supernatural in Fiction.’ In H.P. Lovecraft (2005). At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition. New York: Random House.
Lovecraft, H.P. & Price, E.H. (1935). Through the Gates of the Silver Key. In H.P. Lovecraft (1999). Omnibus 1: At the Mountains of Madness. London: Voyager.
Lovecraft, H.P. & Derleth, A. (1945). The Lurker at the Threshold.
Machen, A. (2010). The Great God Pan. Cardigan: Parthian.
Machen, A. (1995). The Three Impostors. London: Everyman.
McDonald, B.E. (2004). The Vampire as Numinous Experience: Spiritual Journeys With the Undead in British and American Literature. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922). Directed by F.W. Murnau [Film]. Germany: Prana Film.
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979). Directed by Werner Herzog [Film]. Germany: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion.
Norford, J. (2012). ‘Pagan Death: Lovecraftian Horror and the Dream of Decadence.’ In E. Hamiton (Ed.) (2012). The Gothic: Probing the Boundaries. Oxford: Interdisciplinary Press (pp. 171-178).
Otto, R. (1958). The Idea of the Holy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scars of Dracula (1970). Directed by Roy Ward Baker [Film]. United Kingdom: Hammer Studios.
Stoker, B. (1999). Dracula. London: Scholastic, Inc.
The Dunwich Horror (1970). Directed by Daniel Haller [Film]. USA: American International Pictures.
Watters, J. (2005). ‘Religion and Superstition in Dracula.’ In C. Fierobe (Ed.) (2005). . Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Sepentrion. (pp. 109-122).