So it’s 31 October today, Halloween, the celebration of the icky thump! The immense popularity of this American holiday as it increasingly becomes a worldwide phenomenon begs the question: why are we so fascinated by horror, by the macabre…by the icky? Is it because as a species we are aware of our own eventual demise and want to believe that there is a life after this, or is it because being close to death and decay makes us, ironically, feel more alive?
Walter Benjamin says (in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) :
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order”.
It is more than that though. In fact, it is, I believe, because we are the big bad! All the monsters and the torture horror, our delight in the ghoulish and the human grotesque are manifestations of the inherent nastiness of our species. We project the rot within us onto those monsters (“well, at least we’re not blood-sucking fiends”) or the serial killer (“oh, how terrible, I would never do something like that”). The truth is we get an erotic thrill from seeing these things: we think to ourselves, “rather them than me”. Car accident scenes are wonderful petri dishes to observe just how base we humans are. How we gawk and tut-tut and exclaim as we ogle the ruin porn strewn, bloody and steaming, across the tarmac. You have to drag us away from the wreckage and even then we continue to clamour for images and descriptions of it in our headlines and online.
This nonsense that we are basically good is just that, nonsense. We are the most foul things of Creation. We are sentient meat with teeth, selfish and self-serving. We eat other creatures purely because we want to, not because we need to. We pretend that we give a damn about cruelty to animals whilst we herd them into our abattoirs and grin toothily over plates of steaming meat. We bitch about global warming while driving our big-ass vehicles, sucking on plastic bottled water. We whine about over-population, lack of employment, diminishing resources and the rising costs of things in our air-conditioned homes with our 2.5 children. And if we are not part of that demographic then we are part of the one that sits in squatter camp shacks plotting how to get those things while working on a 5th child. We are consumers and we will consume this planet and then ourselves until there is nothing left but rubble and corpses and then not even that.
So if you are looking for something scary this halloween, look no further than yourself or your fellow human. We are the bogey man! We are the big bad!
And… if you want to see something really scary look no further than one, Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), and his art.
Goya looked into the abyss that is the dark side of humanity and reflected our pretensions and foibles, our vanity and stupidity, the savagery, injustice, folly, and ignorance of our allegedly civilized species and society. We use the word humane and the phrases retaining your humanity and only human as though they are admirable things. What a joke! If you wish to insult me call me human or humane. I will not be pleased.
Nowhere does Goya depict the monstrosity that is humanity more horrifically than in Saturn Devouring his Son, where he peels back our veneer to expose the dark and monstrous core that is within all of us.
It was one of Goya’s aptly named Black Paintings, a group of 14 disturbing scenes painted directly onto the walls of his house during the final years of his life. This was after illness had left him deaf and the turn of political events in post-Revolutionary Europe had left him disillusioned with humanity and most everything else. It was not until decades after his death that the Black Paintings were cut from the walls and transferred to the Prado.
Now that is a scary story fitting for Halloween, all the more frightening because it is true and about us!
Bwa ha ha haaaaa!