Horror is a genre of worst-case scenarios, narrowly avoided or not. The monster must feed, the slasher must kill, the demon must possess, the alien must infect, and we mortals, we normals, must defend and escape or die trying. There’s a reason that one of the most recently popular and influential movies in the category named itself after this imperative, boiled down to two simple words: Get Out.
Not all horror stories work that way. In some, the protagonist does not escape from or kill the beast, but nor is she simply killed in turn. In these stories, the protagonist enters into a state of communion with the very horror that has spent the rest of the movie threatening her life and her sanity. The process may be voluntary or not. The embrace of the evil may be gleeful or reluctant, and the outcome may be triumphant or tragic. But in the end, the dangerous, deranging, demonic forces at work are greeted not as destroyers, but as liberators, freeing the human protagonist from his human concerns once and for all, the life he once led forgotten in favor of a supernatural, superhuman new state of existence.
This is transcendental horror: stories that climax with the protagonist entering a state of ecstatic or enlightened union with the source of the horror they’ve experienced. It should surprise no one that during the dreadful year of 2019, two of the most acclaimed horror films in theaters — two of the most acclaimed films, period, though neither won at Sunday’s Academy Awards, and one of them was only recognized in the opening number — were works of transcendental horror. (Warning: Spoilers follow.) In Ari Aster’s Midsommar, our heroine Dani (Florence Pugh), her brain smashed to a pulp by grief, dread, betrayal, and copious psychedelic drugs, becomes the smiling queen of the pagan cult that has slaughtered her friends and driven her insane.
And in Robert Eggers’s Oscar-nominated The Lighthouse, the young “wickie” known as Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) endures weeks of abuse at the hands of his deranged supervisor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), slowly losing his mind to nightmares and alcohol poisoning in the process, until he is able to touch the mysterious force animating the off-limits lantern in the titular lighthouse. He is literally enlightened by this act, though it leads inevitably to his own slow death.
Aster and Eggers are both old hands at this kind of ending. In Hereditary and The Witch, the debut horror films that put them on the map, the teenage protagonists wind up as powerful and esteemed components of the satanic cults that spent each film dutifully destroying their families and their sanity. Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria plays out in much the same way, with the gifted dancer played by Dakota Johnson accepting her chosen-one status and using it to purge a witch coven of loyalists to its old leader before assuming control of the coven herself. Each movie positions the climactic act a bit differently, but in each case, a human protagonist transcends their ordinary life in mystical fashion, leaving the world they knew behind.
As near as I can trace the transcendental-horror subgenre’s origins, they lie in the body-horror boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Spencer (Jack Nance), the hapless protagonist of David Lynch’s Eraserhead accidentally destroys the body of his monstrous baby, he unleashes a power surge that eventually leaves him in the embrace of the spectral woman who lives inside his radiator, as white noise and white light slowly overwhelm the sound and sight. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome concludes when the sleazy television exec played by James Woods embraces his biomechanical mutation by shooting himself in the head with the gun that has replaced his hand, declaring “long live the New Flesh” in the process.
Hellraiser writer-director Clive Barker’s short stories, collected in the seminal six-volume series Books of Blood, are rife with characters who achieve spiritual apotheosis by embracing their physical destroyers; perhaps the most striking of these stories is “In the Hills, the Cities,” which centers on a pagan ritual that’s best described as “What if Midsommar were a kaiju movie.” This passage from the story, in which the protagonist Mick leaps aboard a towering colossus so big it defies imagination, lays out the transcendental horror phenomenon as well as anything I’ve come across:
The earth was gone from beneath him. He was a hitchhiker with a god: the mere life he had left was nothing to him now, or ever. He would live with this thing, yes, he would live with it — seeing it and seeing it and eating it with his eyes until he died of sheer gluttony.
He screamed and howled and swung on the ropes, drinking up his triumph. Below, far below, he glimpsed Judd’s body, curled up pale on the dark ground, irretrievable. Love and life and sanity were gone, gone like the memory of his name, or his sex, or his ambition.
It all meant nothing. Nothing at all.
As writers, screenwriters, and directors, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Barker were intent on probing the extremities of physical existence, treating the human body as the ultimate source of horror. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they probed our viscous innards until something resembling spiritual ecstasy poured out. They beat out a path that less embodied, more esoteric stories could take later on.
If transcendental horror feels familiar, then maybe you’ve read about the monumental horror-image — a source of scares in horror films in which the characters encounter a being or object that’s more frightening for the horror it represents than for anything it actually does. In many cases — the sacrificial structure from The Wicker Man, the Pazuzu statue from The Exorcist, the god Leviathan from Hellbound: Hellraiser II — these are, in effect, religious idols, intended to be worshipped or to be a focal point for religious observance. In these cases, however, the protagonists don’t experience a transcendental state when they encounter these objects. Rather, it’s the antagonists — cult leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee), demonically possessed Regan McNeil (Linda Blair), and mad scientist Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) respectively — who commune with these symbols, at the protagonists’ expense. That perverse sensation of a tormented hero or heroine giving in to the horror and transcending normal experience as a result doesn’t apply.
Borderline cases exist, too. While The Shining’s Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) winds up frozen stiff and looking rather pathetic in the process, some part of his soul lives on in the eternal recurrence of evil in the Overlook Hotel, as indicated by his presence in a decades-old photograph on the wall. On the flipside, in Cronenberg’s version of The Fly, scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to fuse his mutated fly-self with the bodies of his lover Ronnie and their unborn child as some new holistic entity, but he is thwarted and badly mutilated in the process. Even so, in both cases, monstrousness affords the afflicted with a shot at immortality or superhumanity, whether or not the characters are able to take full advantage.
Sometimes a touch of transcendental horror is all that’s required to elevate a film’s climax from a mere “down ending” into something more mysterious and harder to shake. Because what the narrative offers us is not all that different from what stories of martyrdom, or tales of witchcraft and devil worship — martyrdom’s dark mirror image — offer believers, from antiquity to the present day. For martyrs and saints, their horrifying ordeals brought them closer to God; for witches and Templars, who in the fevered imaginations of their detractors were said to have literally kissed the Devil’s ass, their self-abasement before Satan was the prerequisite for power. We want to believe that there is virtue in suffering, that pain and has some kind of up side, that whether alive or dead we can reap some kind of benefit from pain, humiliation, torment, torture.
More than anything else, that is what films like The Lighthouse and Midsommar offer, in their own dark way. Ephraim and Dani are made to endure the tortures of the damned — their spirits battered and abused, their connections to life outside the sphere of suffering severed, their brains tampered with to a hallucinogenic degree. Yet on the other side of all this, they see things other humans can’t, and they achieve a power the normal world cannot offer them or abide at all. If you were within reach of something that made every awful thing you’ve been through worthwhile, wouldn’t you reach out and touch it? To paraphrase The Witch, wouldst thou like to live, or die, deliciously?