The Books of the Dead! muhuhuhahaha
April 4, 2013 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Why do horror stories often feature mysterious relics that often have information encoded in them, such as accursed old books, runes, etc.? What kinds of anxieties is this trope meant to express?

I'm giving a short talk on "found footage horror" (Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch, etc.) and found footage proper (more avant-garde and experimental stuff).

This question is pretty orthogonal to my general idea, so I'm late in considering it. I'd like any ideas on why the unearthed trove of information can be used in any way to create fearful suspense, and has done so for such a long time in the adventure/horror genre.

I'm not a reader of these kinds of works, generally, nor am I a scholar of literature, so I'm hoping for some people this is a no-brainer. But anything that can shed light would be welcome to me.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
At least one part of it probably has to do with the ability of words to alter your thinking and perception. Words do have power to alter your reality and can cause people to act in ways you don't like. There has always been suspicion of both charismatic speakers and of books.
posted by empath at 3:49 PM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think a big part of it is the historical position Christianity has taken on older religions - that they're evil, demonic, whatever. So you get all sorts of weird mystic and also evil overtones to Kabbala, Druidry, ancient Egyptian stuff, anything outside the realm of standard Christianity. Add in all of Lovecraft's Old Gods + racism wierdness, and everything unfamiliar ends up looking ominous.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:56 PM on April 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

Maybe it's a relic of a time when most people were illiterate and those few who could read--lawyers, priests--did so in the context of exercising greater power than the common people. Like empath says, words have power. It's easy to imagine that if you could read the same books as someone who has power, then you will have the same power they do.
posted by rustcellar at 3:58 PM on April 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think a lot of these tropes arose during the 19th and early 20th century when archaeology was beginning to make striking discoveries about forgotten parts of human history as well as prehistory. From the discovery of the Rosetta Stone onward there was the hovering expectation that we might learn huge exciting forgotten facts about the origins of our cultures and even our species. That stuff all lurks behind works by people like H. Rider Haggard and some of the non-Holmes writing by Conan Doyle and lots of early science fiction.

I don't know whether that helps explain why it's so compelling.
posted by zadcat at 3:59 PM on April 4, 2013 [14 favorites]

Forbidden knowledge - That Which Man Is Not Meant To Know - goes back to Genesis and beyond. In the absence of snakes and apples, knowledge is encoded in books.
posted by zamboni at 4:06 PM on April 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'd like any ideas on why the unearthed trove of information can be used in any way to create fearful suspense

Maybe this is too obvious to be stated, but I think a part of it is that the information might be conveying something very bad, which you might not understand until it's too late.

For example, when I was in New Orleans a year or so after Katrina, I found the X symbols on houses to be very disturbing. Partly the appearance of the symbol itself was disturbing to me, and partly that I knew it had something to do with whether or not there were dead bodies found in the house - but I didn't know how to interpret the X. So to me it was like a sign saying, "We might have found a corpse here."
posted by cairdeas at 4:11 PM on April 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Moreover, there are words in many religions you cannot say--YHWH, for example.

I'd like any ideas on why the unearthed trove of information can be used in any way to create fearful suspense

I suspect that part of the reason this works is the metatextual layer--the reader's fear, however absurd, that the author will uncover this secret text or demonic footage or whatever, expose the reader to it, and draw that reader into the fictional universe. It's why I found House of Leaves spooky, at least.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:14 PM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

As another example of someone not realizing what the information actually is or is about -- I remember this one time in my childhood I was running around in the park near my home. There was this area of short low trees with thick thatches of branches that hung to the ground. I was crawling around under there, and I came across something very cool. Colorful blankets were hanging down from one of the trees, and there was another blanket covering the ground underneath it. It reminded me of a carnival tent, and I could see pillows and other things inside. I was about to crawl in when my mom saw me and screamed for me to get away from there. I instantly felt revulsion towards the "tent" and ran away, even at the same time that I didn't understand what the big deal was. I didn't realize until *years* later that it must have been a homeless person's dwelling.

That example is about finding a physical thing, rather than text, but I think it is the same idea - that living in this world, you can come across many kinds of things created by other people, and they can appear very attractive at first, when you don't realize what they actually are.
posted by cairdeas at 4:19 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure forbidden books/writing are any different from any other horror macguffin--the cursed amulet, the monkey's paw, the haunted car/house. It's just a tangible thing to which evil has been attached for some reason.

My guess would be that the idea of a corrupted/poisonous object goes back to the understanding that everyday objects can be contaminated by decay...rotten food will ruin a container it's in, waste thrown into water makes it dangerous to consume. I have to think that a lot of horror is an exaggeration of our aversion to decayed things that might harm us.
posted by emjaybee at 4:23 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I want to say it was The 13th Warrior where the Arab outsider tells the Vikings that he can read and write and they don't believe him. One of the Vikings tells the Arab a name and has him write it in the sand. Much later the Viking recreates the writing in the sand and the Arab is able to read the name again. There are hints that this is some sort of witchcraft or evil.

Written words, inanimate artifacts as they are carry the power of living things. They can transfer knowledge that before could only come directly from another being. Who's to say that these mysterious writings even come from another human being? They have a life of their own...
posted by zengargoyle at 4:24 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

The "found manuscript" trope has been core to the Gothic since its inception--both Gothic novels themselves as found MSS (Walpole's Castle of Otranto) and, as you say, mysterious MSS and/or objects. One of Gothic narrative's animating features is a past that just refuses to stay past (ghosts, vampires, secrets coming to light, etc.), so these relics come across as either invading the present or being "victims," as it were, of the present's invasion--for example, the idiotic/foolhardy collectors, amateur archaeologists, etc. who populate M. R. James' fiction ("Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book," "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"). Sort of a disturbance of the temporal Force.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:26 PM on April 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: This is so excellent and helpful. On-demand literature seminar! AskMeFi ftw. Side effect: reading this thread may lead you to appreciate Paranormal Activity in some small way.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:28 PM on April 4, 2013

I was IMing a friend and he made a cryptic remark. I found it vaguely offensive so I ignored it and carried on chatting with him.

We were friends for a year or two. When important things in my life went sideways, he was there. Offered himself as a confidant. I'd thought, "gee, he can be really caring when you get to know him."

A year after that I saw him talking about something on Facebook which could only have been about the same thing he'd made the cryptic remark about. He and a friend were congratulating each other about torturing and killing an animal.

When he'd made the cryptic remark, he'd been giggling behind his hand about what kind of person he was, and how stupid, clueless me didn't know about it. We'd been friends for a couple of years by then.

So that's an example of seemingly innocent information encoded to hide something sinister.
posted by tel3path at 4:31 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Alchemists would often write about their "experiments" in coded language, as well as writing in Latin. Also, the Catholic church, not only would not translate the Bible from Latin into English but refused to let anyone else outside the church do it, because it would diminish the power of the clergy. So the idea of higher knowledge only being available in coded form has a long history. Occultism, in general, is full of the idea of secret knowledge, in book form and in terms of teaching. Only the anointed/chosen/initiate can receive the "imparted wisdom".
posted by doctor_negative at 4:49 PM on April 4, 2013

From the discovery of the Rosetta Stone onward there was the hovering expectation that we might learn huge exciting forgotten facts about the origins of our cultures and even our species.

Keep in mind, too, urban myths and modern folk tales like the "curse" of King Tut's tomb as well as all the Mummy's Curse type films, which are literally connected to archaeology and start springing up right around the same time as things like HP Lovecraft, the Necronomicon, etc.

I'm not sure forbidden books/writing are any different from any other horror macguffin--the cursed amulet, the monkey's paw, the haunted car/house. It's just a tangible thing to which evil has been attached for some reason.

It's also a way to connect evil to things associated with Ancientness. You never see "haunted" or "cursed" modern things, and if you do (for example the whole haunted car thing), it's sort of tongue in cheek. And even the haunted car is presumably a used car, haunted by the ghost of a teenager who died necking in the back seat. You never see a haunted iPhone 5 straight out of the package at the Apple Store.

I also wonder if it doesn't have to do with our penchant for telling stories in Medias Res. There's always backstory, and in horror, that backstory always takes the form of some terrible thing that happened a long time ago, but which was hidden away and kept secret until our unsuspecting hero opens the wrong book, or unseals the wrong tomb, or reads the wrong inscription aloud. The ancient artifact is really just a vehicle for backstory.
posted by Sara C. at 4:52 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

The ancient tome in particular also serves the narrative purpose of allowing the author to do a slow reveal of the details of their horror creature or whatever, in the form of a couple of "This is what I've been able to translate so far" and then "I was wrong, that word doesn't just mean 'lizard.' It also means 'devil-beast'!" and then "but according to this you can drive it back underground by..." sort of conversations.

It also lets the author give history to whatever horrible undying evil that you, and the audience, have never heard of, and even gives them the opportunity to dramatize earlier, failed attempts to stop or kill the thing.
posted by gauche at 4:56 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nobody seems to have covered this yet, but for me it's knowledge that is both (a) secret, and, by virtue of (a), unrecoverable. Secrets that are not only inscrutable but for which we are also lacking some sort of link between Now and The Past When Things Were More Raw And Pure to uncover.
posted by Shepherd at 4:56 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

It is fear of the unknown, pretty much. The particular flavor of that fear, in this case, is the fear that there is an intelligence behind whatever malevolent forces exist, and it is more aware and more powerful than we are.

Age lends a veneer of authenticity to these things, so what we'll usually do is have that evil knowledge be really old and in some sort of ancient tome. This works in terms of horror because it makes the reader (experiencing the story vicariously through the protagonist) feel small and powerless. Someone knows (or knew) something you don't know, and that knowledge is dangerous, and there is a lot of it, and you cannot understand it.

Also, if the knowledge has a history, there is work you can do to uncover it and understand it, which allows the characters to feel like they're getting somewhere, which is a good way to help drive a plot.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 4:59 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Enlightenment thinking, the written word is a symbol of reason and knowledge and tied up with the ideals of progress and the public sphere. After the shock of the Industrial Revolution, with the Romantics, you reject Enlightenment values, so you subvert Enlightenment symbols — therefore, writing which causes insanity, writing with secret meaning, writing embodying ancient powers unsubdued by modernity.

Warning: I'm just making this up as I go along.
posted by stebulus at 5:04 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is perhaps a little too workmanlike, but from the perspective of the writer, it also offers a way to present exposition in a way that fits the mood and tone of the piece, and pace that information so it appears only at the most convenient times during the plot. Calling up the entomology annex of the local university and getting a few dissertations sent over isn't quite the same.
posted by Andrhia at 5:18 PM on April 4, 2013

Fear of the unknown: there are forces at work that are larger than you. They can destroy you or keep things hidden from you. When it's dark, they are things watching and waiting, even though the rational mind says they don't exist.

Or just a symbol of man's ignorance in an increasing complex world.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:45 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

One other thing to keep in mind is the idea [pre-Enlightenment] that the ancient civilizations had access to vastly superior knowledge and technology than the present day, and it was presumptuous to think one could improve on the likes of Euclid, Archimedes etc.

In the present day, we know that we have outstripped what the ancients could achieve many times over, but for at least 1500 years that was the situation, and I think the idea still lives on in literary forms such as this.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:48 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

He's already been mentioned here, but M R James is a pretty important progenitor of the 'cursed manuscipt or object' horror subgenre. James was a medieval scholar who catalogued many of the Cambridge college manuscript libraries.
He is best remembered for his ghost stories, which are regarded as among the best in the genre. James redefined the ghost story for the new century by abandoning many of the formal Gothic clichés of his predecessors and using more realistic contemporary settings. However, James's protagonists and plots tend to reflect his own antiquarian interests. Accordingly, he is known as the originator of the "antiquarian ghost story".

James perfected a method of story-telling which has since become known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale usually includes the following elements:

* A characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university

* A nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature)

* The discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave

According to James, the story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself: 'If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"
In terms of the anxieties the subgenre is meant to evoke or comment on, I'd say that last quote is illustrative.

Wikipedia: M R James
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 6:06 PM on April 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

James's fusty old antiquarians are also often characterised by their hubris, excessive obsession with the past, focus on solitary scholarly pursuits and withdrawal from society. They pursue the past for their own gratification, without giving it the respect it deserves, and are punished for it.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made."
- John 1:1-3
posted by mkultra at 6:46 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

The idea that "all great knowledge is recent" is itself relatively recent. For something like a 500 years in Europe, all great knowledge was old. It was archaic writings from the Greeks and Romans, acquired in Europe from the Arabs in Spain.

The modern knowledge explosion only began about 300 years ago.

The idea that the ancients knew things we don't, things which may be very important and dangerous, is a cultural relic of that earlier era, I believe, when all important knowledge was ancient. And, of course, if they did know things we don't, then maybe they passed it down to us in dusty books and/or ancient artifacts.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:16 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Evil books and found footage are both examples of bad things that happened in the past that should not be revisited. They fall under the more general theme of forbidden knowledge. For an in-depth treatment of the theme, you might like Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography by Roger Shattuck.

Personally, I think the idea of forbidden knowledge is so compelling because we as humans are so curious. If something can be known, why wouldn't you want to know it? We want to explore, see, document, and communicate everything we can possibly experience. Just that something can be unknown tempts us to try to know it. (See: Garden of Eden, Pandora's Box.)

The moral behind the theme implies our very natures can lead us astray. That there are, in fact, limitations on our knowledge we should respect and things we should not know for our own good. Sometimes knowledge just leads to sadness or disappointment (sneaking a peak at your birthday presents), sometimes knowledge is a burden (like the sailor and the albatross in Rime of the Ancient Mariner), sometimes knowledge is tragic (like Oedipus learning he killed his own father and married his own mother), sometimes knowledge completely undoes us (such as in H. P. Lovecraft and the like).

The notion of forbidden knowledge in something like a book or a videotape is doubly tempting. A book or videotape was obviously MEANT to be viewed. There's something in there another person wanted to express or communicate. The object itself prompts a desire it, like poisoned candy.

Forbidden knowledge emerging in the present in the form of old books or other lost, then found, documents can also be symbolic of the dark characteristics of humanity we thought we'd outgrown or secrets we left hidden. Superstition, barbarism.

This theme can be extended to figures such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We not only have to safeguard ourselves from the forbidden knowledge of our collective past, but also from the figurative book of evil secrets in our own reptile brain.
posted by Boxenmacher at 10:13 PM on April 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've thought about how metaphor of 'key' is used when there is a need for some big change in situation, in real life and in fiction. Complex and multifaceted issues are simplified to some piece being causally essential. Think 'E=mc^2', DNA double-helix, assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as kind of keys we have extracted as important in complex stories. Keys are relatively simple, but important pieces that are necessary to bring out big changes. Scientific breakthroughs are stories of finding such keys. I think this kind of simplification of events to key moments is just a thing our cognition does.

Then it is reflected in culture, esp. in movies, where plots have to rely more on something visible or easily describable than in literature. Mosquito in amber in Jurassic park is a good example of something between physical key and informational key. Adventure movies seem to love physical keys, items in right places that cause complex mechanisms to buzz and whirr and change the environment and open a new chapter. In horror, books and runes can work as such keys, easily contained and visual packages that promise great changes: turn the situation from character introductions to supernatural or whatever is necessary.
posted by Free word order! at 1:05 AM on April 5, 2013

Writing is like creating a golem. You put a part of yourself - your knowledge - into an object, and even if you die that knowledge will not die; it wil be a part of your will that lives and does its work forever. That's weird, but also anxiety-inducing. A part of the will becomes separated from the body. We are always enduring these separations; think about the voice, which leaves us and goes through the air and does its business. Why is it so horrible when you hear your voice on a tape recorder and realise that it sounds worse than the voice in your head? Part of the sheer awfulness of that experience is the realisation that your voice isn't really yours, it's part of this shell that surrounds you that doesn't feel like you, that falls off you like the tail of a lizard. And then you read a book and basically from the beginning you're allowing it to transform you - either by putting knowledge into your mind or by giving you an emotional and aesthetic experience that might change your experience of being in the world forever. It's as anxiety-producing as any encounter with a human, except that the thing you're dealing with isn't human, doesn't have insides. If you're sobbing and shaking a book won't stop for a bit and make you a cup of tea and apologise. They're just these mindless zombie offshoots of people who may be dead, and sometimes they feel like they're your friends but they don't care about you, can't care about you, they're psychopaths.

Then there's the whole issue of taking something inside you. When you read, something goes in somehow, we all know that. It gets incorporated. Most people subvocalise at least part of the time when they read, which means that the book starts ventriloquising using you as a puppet, its words in your voice. A lot of horror is based on this arguably quite primitive response of disgust and fear when you realise you've eaten some bad food. A lot of the time, horror makes you feel sick, but the really awful part is that there's no way to vomit out knowledge that's entered your mind. You can push it away and push it away, but it won't get out. So then it feels like the knowledge of being poisoned, waiting for the poison to work on you, the short space of time when you can still draw a line between the poison and yourself. It also feels like the experience of being pregnant, having something - a seed, a piece of information - planted inside you that won't stop growing. All this stuff makes people anxious because it challenges the attempts we make to draw a sharp boundary around our bodies, to mark an inside and an outside. Language represents a permanent way in, a breach in the wall, and so it gets a lot of energy clustered around it, the way you would have a lot of guards around the entrance to your castle. The written word reaches long tendrils across vast expanses of space and time, and each of those tendrils can worm its way into the mind of a human.

Then there's the metatextual aspect, which people have alluded to above. As you consume the work, you are having the experience it depicts and is anxious about. You yourself have this 'bad thing - get it out of me' response, the feeling you sometimes get of wishing you'd never started watching or reading something, knowing that now there's no way to stop.

So forgive me for going a bit Lacanian on you, but I'm amazed we don't worry more about forgotten old books and amulets, frankly.
posted by Acheman at 2:45 AM on April 5, 2013 [14 favorites]

The forbidden knowledge trope epitomized by the magic book is also related to the more modern one of scientific hubris and discovery. Both involve the refusal to accept limits on what humanity can and should know, and some type of karmic punishment as a result. Jurassic Park and any movie/Twilight Zone episode in which a scientist tries to cheat death or prolong youth are just variants of the theme that the universe will punish us for striving to extend our reach.

I've always found most horror tropes to be profoundly conservative. Many of the prominent themes are about curtailing nonconventional human behavior and aspiration through fear.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:06 AM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wonder how much of this is a reaction to technology. Starting with the Industrial Revolution to the transportation revolution and then the information revolution, with the scientific revolution ... 250 years of ever accelerating incredible changes in society and our way of life. We know so much... and understand so little... and it can have such huge consequences.

"kālo'smi lokakṣayakṛtpravṛddho lokānsamāhartumiha pravṛttaḥ"
posted by Jacen at 6:50 AM on April 5, 2013

I think that a lot of *Buffy* subverts this treatment of occult knowledge. Not only does the supernatural have physical form, with an ass you can kick, but there's a process for dealing with every type of threat the supernatural can throw at you and the characters spend a lot of time going through Giles' library in search of the answers. Which they usually find, boosted with a healthy dose of intuition.

I don't think the timing of the series is coincidental, either. One of the earliest episodes deals, in an ostensibly conservative way, with the dangers of this newfangled Interwebs thing (this was 1997 when I had been using the Internet for a year, didn't have access at home, and maybe one workstation at most of the offices I worked at might have connectivity, but usually not more than one). All the stereotypes were there - antisocial, introverted net addict teen; Willow getting taken in by someone pretending to be someone he's not in an online romance gone wrong. The guy turns out to be Moloch the Corrupter; we all know that one, don't we, MeFites?

Anyway, Willow gives Moloch the Corrupter a good telling off, says she sees through him and she's not falling for his shtick, and thus his ass is kicked. We know that one, too, don't we MeFites?

So despite the superficial presentation of conservatism about the Internet, I can't help thinking that the massively increased availability of information, and consequent ability to solve problems, fits Buffy into the zeitgeist of the Information Age. Even though most of the information is contained in books and the Internet doesn't get much mention throughout the series, the mindset is pretty evident. Random examples: Cordelia looking for a "spiritual prophylactic" on the basis that she can't be the first person ever to need one, so a solution must be written down and accessible somewhere.

I think of Buffy as an anti-horror show - one that literally made me *less* afraid of the dark - and its treatment of knowledge as something to be sought out rather than kept occult is a big part of how that works. So you could see it as an example of a subversion of the trope you describe.
posted by tel3path at 11:02 AM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

The word 'occult' itself derives its meaning from 'hidden' and 'secret'. Occultism is defined by being the knowledge of mysteries, the awareness of things unknown to most. The more one is steeped in the knowledge of these things, the more removed one is from the perspective of the common man. In that framework, the very acquisition of these hidden truths is enough to separate the student from his prior peers and shape his world through mere awareness of the hidden undercurrents. This transformative aspect can be fear-frought in itself, divorced from any outside consequence - the idea that simply *knowing* is enough to open a gulf between one's current standing and the bliss of ignorance, a gulf that can only widen and never close.
posted by FatherDagon at 1:08 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Books cannot be trusted, because language is misleading. This was the crux of my MA thesis, which tackled Poe's Pym and Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness. Language is the great deceiver.

As FatherDagon notes, language has occult properties, yet on a daily basis we use it to communicate; we base absoloute truths on it. Yet, if we accept that it does not tell us the complete truth, the idea of using language as a basis for reality suddenly becomes quite an unsettling notion.
posted by New England Cultist at 4:01 AM on April 6, 2013

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