Last post I touched on the concept of Orientalism and how it’s used in a lot of Lovecraft’s writing. This post I want to focus on something specific, mainly Lovecraft’s use of religion and superstition in his stories.
When we talked about Orientalism, I also brought up the idea of cultural exoticism, which is the Othering of things outside of our own culture. It’s ethnocentrism in practice, and Lovecraft used it a lot. Jason Colavito in his book Cult of the Alien Gods mentions how Lovecraft was fascinated with the Muslim religion for a brief while. That fascination did not appear to lead to greater education about the Muslim religion for Lovecraft. It seems that Lovecraft merely learned a few tidbits about the Muslim religion and ran with the rest of it in his imagination. We see these details peppered throughout his stories. Of course, there is the mad Arab, the author of the Necronomicon, whose name was also the alter ego of Lovecraft himself for a while. We see Lovecraft’s weave in superstitions of Djin and the mysterious city of Irem, in his short stories.
Lovecraft’s heavy-handed poetic license didn’t focus entirely on the Muslim religion and culture. He was also fascinated with the ancient religions of European countries as well. Several stories highlight this fascination showing the superstitions Lovecraft imagines ancient peoples might have had. He, of course, uses his own cosmic pantheon as stand-ins for any real gods or spirits. Lovecraft was building a brand after all, even if that exact concept hadn’t been developed yet.
Lovecraft enjoyed creating horror in his stories by tapping into the past and weaving it into the future. Unfortunately, so often, the characters he chose to represent this ‘living past’ were foreigners, or economically depressed individuals, or those who would be considered poorly educated. Lovecraft used classism as much as he used racism in his stories to create distance between the reader and those he wished to mark as pitiful or horrifying.
So what exactly am I describing when I say religious exoticism?
Perhaps the best examples that pop into my mind immediately are such things as the lost city of Irem and the idea of the Necronomicon. Irem is part of actual folklore as being a city that existed before the pyramids in the great desert of Arabia. The inhabitants of the city were supposedly giant individuals or even Djin. Some claim that the citizens of Irem where those that built the pyramids, and/or where the Djin enslaved by Solomon to build his temple.
Lovecraft took this story and ran with it in his own tail “The Nameless City.” But Lovecraft, of course, embellished his story with details and ideas that were not originally part of the folk-story.
He did something similar when he created his mad Arab and the Necronomicon. The book of course as many may know is supposed to be a text on how to summon and control Djin, and is supposed to be one of the most powerful and terrifying books ever written. The Necronomicon is completely made up, though there are some texts that may or may not have been the influence for the Necronomicon. There is varying evidence to suggest if Lovecraft would even have been aware of the existence of these old books or even the actual existence of these old books. Neither of these details are important to our conversation today.
What is important is that once again Lovecraft took one particular detail, his fascination with the Pre-Muslim magic and belief in Djin, and ran with it. I don’t think Lovecraft puts any true facts in either his story of Irem or the Necronomicon’s many incarnations. He didn’t need to, he was telling a story trying to create an atmosphere of horror and suspense and danger, and did so by taking just enough reality and then embellishing the crap out of it, without true care for accuracy.
As we have been learning in our shallow deep-dive into Lovecraft and all things he influenced, this religious exoticism of Lovecraft’s did not end when he stopped writing. As far as is using it as an element for storytelling, Lovecraft’s cabal of writers; friends and students, continued to use these elements in their own stories and his writing style has definitely influenced writers ever since. We talked about the long reach of Lovecraft when we talked about the 25th anniversary of “In the Mouth of Madness” by John Carpenter. It’s always fun to have a little geek out moment.
But we can still see the impact of religious exoticism in the modern-day. And here I wish to tie-in a recent article I wrote about dybbuk boxes. A very brief recap of what a dybbuk boxes, supposedly it’s a Jewish spirit box meant to contain an evil spirit.
Now the reason I compare the dybbuk box to Lovecraft’s writing is that there was a movie released in 2012 called The Possession. The inspiration for the movie came directly from the original dybbuk box that was sold on eBay. I covered the dybbuk box in its history on the Paranormal Archaeology blog. And in my investigations of the dybbuk box, I found that it is a completely made-up object, however, there is enough independent belief in the reality of a dybbuk box that they are quite popular now. And it’s my honest belief that the reason the dybbuk box is so popular is because of its connection to the concept of Jewish mysticism.
The Jewish religion does have a branch that is concerned with mysticism, it is not a very well-known branch to the average person. Many people may not even know that there is Jewish mysticism. But like all religions, including Catholicism and many Christian denominations, there’s always an element of the mystical and/or the magical.
That being said the dybbuk box is not Jewish in any way, not only is the dybbuk box completely made up, but the concept of a dybbuk box is counter to actual Jewish mysticism. But that’s not the important detail is it? Much like Lovecraft to took a few ideas from the Muslim religion and ran with it to create his nameless city and his Necronomicon, the original creator of the dybbuk box took a few ideas of Jewish mysticism and cobbled them together to create a completely fake artifact that he sold on eBay as a haunted box. Much like Lovecraft’s creation of the Necronomicon has spawned several iterations of the book to the point where people have even tried to create genuine copies of the Necronomicon and sell them to the public, the dybbuk box is quite popular on the Internet. They can be purchased even now on sites like eBay and if you go to YouTube you can find several videos of people investigating and opening the dybbuk boxes, many of them believing they are having some kind of supernatural experience in the process.
What allows this to occur is the mysterious and unknown elements of religions that are foreign to us. For example, the idea of speaking in tongues is very strange to many who do not practice it. Yet for religions that believe that this is a tenement of their religion, it’s not strange at all. Yet how many horror movies have we watched the past where strange cults become possessed and start speaking in tongues? Why is this frightening to us? Why is it a staple of horror movies throughout the years?
Because it is a not well known, mysterious, religious practice, whose significance may not be evident to those observing from the outside. It is the same thing with Jewish mysticism, it serves a purpose within the religion, and is misunderstood by those outside of it. Catholicism has the same issues with their saints and the Vatican. How many times have we heard of a great Vatican conspiracy? Why is this, because the Vatican is secretive. It is the same thing with Lovecraft and the Muslim religion and made up pagan religions. Things that are not well understood by outsiders are easily seen as things to be suspicious of or even fearful of.
For Lovecraft, these were the perfect elements to create horror stories that would stick with his readers for generations to come. For those of us living in the modern era, where we should be more understanding of the differences of others, religious exoticism should be a warning sign to us.
When we step back from entertainment and see religious exoticism in practice in our lives we should be wary. How many times have we had arguments with people around us about sharia law or the practice of praying five times a day while facing east? How many times have we seen or heard horror stories of Muslims, or Sheiks, or even Indigenous peoples practicing their religions and being attacked for practices that seem strange to outsiders? Here in America, we tend to see everything through a Christian filter one way or the other. Whether we are believers or not. It affects everything that we see and do and affects the decisions we make about people around us. Have you ever stop to wonder why multiple spouses are frowned upon? If everyone is a consenting adult, is anyone truly being harmed? But yet we refuse to allow for legal polygamy, and we look on with suspicion to those who practice it.
This isn’t me advocating for polygamy, this is me trying to point out the religious exoticism affects us even today. And the idea that exotic elements of other religions are things to be feared are traits that we have deep inside of us. Lovecraft used them as a way of making a story, we should be examining them as warning signs of our own personal biases. The next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to the religious practice of another, you should perhaps look inside first and figure out why it bothers you. Is it because someone is doing something that seems wrong to you because it’s occurring outside of your own culture? It might be scary to find out how often that is really the truth.
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