Archetypes, Myths, and Horror

The description on this blog states that it includes an exploration of archetypes and myths as they relate to fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Before I get too far on posting on this blog it would be a good idea to explain what I mean by this. While I have reflected on various elements related to this for the last several years, an essay for a new religions intensive course provided me with an opportunity to do some additional reading and draw various elements together.

By myths I do not refer to what might be a common understanding as an unhistorical or untrue story. Rather, I draw upon Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe’s definition of “myth” as a “story with culturally formative power.” They elaborate on this and state:

This definition emphasizes that a myth is essentially a story – any story – that affects the way people live. Contrary to many writers, we do not believe that a myth is necessarily unhistorical. In itself a story that becomes a myth can be true or false, historical or unhistorical, fact or fiction. What is important is not the story itself but the function it serves in the life of an individual, a group or a whole story.

Myths are expressed in great abundance in the popular culture of postmodernity. Television programs, motion pictures, animation (especially Japanese anime), video games, comics, and books frequently depict the mythic, both drawing upon previously existing myths and creating new ones for a fantasy hungry culture. Star Trek and The X-Files from television, and the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings motion pictures provide well known examples of this phenomenon, and a plethora of other examples could be provided from video games, comics, and animation which are lesser known by the broader public but which find a large and growing base of consumers. These expressions of popular culture entertainment draw upon various mythic elements (Star Wars and The Matrix explicitly so), and provide a window into the spiritual yearnings of the culture.

This demonstrates not only the importance of myth in postmodern culture, but also the significance of the cinema in shaping cultural ideas, especially in relation to spirituality. The Australian filmmaker George Miller, best known for his film such as the Mad Max trilogy and Babe, came to recognize that his films tapped into something deep and important in people who had viewed them around the world. Miller goes further and states that in his view “the cinema has replaced the church as the arena for storytelling.” Church leaders may wish to take notice of the implications of this if they hope to recapture the Western imagination.

But how are we to explain the existence of these myths? Why do they have such power in touching the psyche of people in various cultures? Why is there great similarity of myths across cultures? And why do many of these myths speak to our need for spiritual transformation and redemption? The answers to these questions may be found in the convergence of three disciplines – that of religious phenomenology, Jungian psychoanalysis, and folklore studies.
Each of these disciplines shed light on the existence of certain motifs, commonly referred to as archetypes. From within religious phenomenology, Mircea Eliade noted that religions draw upon archetypal patterns in their rituals which connect those in the group to the divine and their place in time and the historical process. In the arena of psychoanalysis Carl Jung has been influential in his work which described archetypes as a set of mental principles or cognitive structures that that are universal in the human race and which form the collective unconscious. In folklore studies a review of the Motif-Index of Folk Literature provides evidence of the similarity of mythic motifs from various regions around the world. The result of the convergence of these independent lines of scholarly research is important. As Philip Johnson has stated:

From each of these disciplines some remarkable parallel conclusions have been reached concerning the significance of myth and symbol and their relationship to the human condition of spiritual alienation. Recurrent patterns of mythic motifs include nostalgia for a lost paradise, yearnings for a utopia, and the universal hero slaying monsters.

A few words must be said in critical interaction with Jung and Eliade’s views on archetypes. These ideas must not be accepted uncritically, and critique has been raised both in terms of the individuals who developed the notions of the archetypes, as well as the concepts themselves. It must be acknowledged that Jung and Eliade, as well as the mythologist who’s work provided a popular expression of Jung’s ideas on myth, Joseph Campbell, were “associated with the politics of the extreme right, even, according to some charges, with sympathy for fascism and anti-Semitism” according to Ellwood. Further, Noll has put forward the thesis that Jung “underwent a visionary initiation into the Hellenistic mysteries of Mithras,” and that he later developed his theories as part of “what was essentially a new religious movement.”

While the political and religious views of these individuals must be considered carefully, particularly as they may have a bearing on the development and validity of archetypal motifs, problematic personal views and affiliations do not necessarily invalidate the idea of archetypes themselves. Researchers must be careful to consider the historical and cultural context in which Jung, Eliade, and Campbell developed their views, and we must be careful to avoid the genetic fallacy of rejecting an idea or argument simply because of where it originated.
Beyond the personal considerations and moving to critical interaction with Jungian conceptions of the archetypes, there is no need to accept a strictly Jungian interpretation. These ideas can be reinterpreted, as McKenzie has done in developing an archetypal apologetic for the Resurrection of Christ from ancient pagan myths.

Finally with reference to critical interaction with archetypes, we must remember that the existence of a common collection of archetypal symbols in the human consciousness has been recognized by three independent disciplines of study. This would seem to suggest that a genuine phenomenon exists within the human psyche across cultures and times. This then becomes an important area for Christian interaction, particularly in light of cultural developments in the Western world.

One area where myths and archetypes are most clearly expressed in popular culture is science fiction films dealing with extraterrestrials which provide examples of the existence of alien Messiah figures. Ruppersberg notes that in science fiction films, “underlying the motif of the alien messiah is the mythos of the Christian messiah,” and that several films have drawn on this Christian myth in the construction of their science fiction stories. Examples include Starman, The Last Starfighter, and perhaps most explicitly, The Day the Earth Stood Still. At times the alien Messiah also dies and rises again as in The Last Starfighter and The Day the Earth Stood Still, drawing upon the resurrection archetype and Christian conceptions of a dying and rising Messiah.

We might also discern the archetype of a “yearning for Paradise” and with it hopes for restoration. This myth is closely connected to the idea of salvation from beyond, and hints of it may be discerned in science fiction films dealing with UFOs, such as Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the climactic final scene a giant alien “mother ship” descends upon an enraptured humanity appearing almost like an alien technology’s version of the Christian hope for the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem.

Other examples could be provided of archetypes and myths that surface in horror films, and the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis provide explicit examples readily recognized by Christians. My hope with this blog is that through my own reflections on these issues as they surface in popular culture, and through interactions with other Christians interested in these topics that we can explore the sigificance of myth, archetypes, popular culture, religion, and what it means to be human.

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There are 1 Comments to "Archetypes, Myths, and Horror"

  • Steve Hayes says:

    I don’t know if you know of this quote from Nicolas Berdyaev:

    “Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically.”

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