Tag Archives: Orientalism

Lovecraft and Religious Exoticism.

Lovecraft and Religious Exoticism.

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.

af line art



af line art

Hi! I’m an archaeologist who likes games, video games, gaming, horror, the supernatural, and debunking pseudoarchaeology. Check out my vids for more on the above topics, and toss us a coin if you like what I do.

Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/Archyfantasies

Ko-Fi – https://ko-fi.com/archyfantasies

Twitter – @ArchyFantasies

IG – @ArchyFantasies

Website – https://archyfantasies.com/

Emai – ArchyFantasies@gmail.com.

Orientalism and Cultural Exoticism In Horror.

Orientalism and Cultural Exoticism


I’ve been doing a lot of study lately on Lovecraft and his writings. Mainly because I enjoy Lovecraft’s fiction and the cosmic horror and the Cthulu mythos that he created. I really like the fact that he had so many other writers working alongside him writing their own fiction and amplifying each other by using details from each other’s writings in their own writing. A writer’s echo chamber if you will. It was actually pretty ingenious, and personally, I think it’s one of the reasons why Lovecraft’s writing sticks around so well. He really did make a major impact on the genre of horror and weird fiction.

All that aside-

Lovecraft was writing in the early 1900s, as were many of his contemporaries in his writer’s echo chamber. Modern analysts and critics of Lovecraft are constantly pointing out the inherent racism and ethnocentrism in Lovecraft’s writings.

On the one hand, it’s hard to disagree with these critiques. There is indeed both racism and ethnocentrism in Lovecraft’s writings, frequently being a major focus of a story for Lovecraft. He used both of these elements as a way of creating horror and suspense. He wasn’t doing it in a way to critique or to satire the time he was in. They were simply elements of society, and he knew how to use them in his writing, and did. It doesn’t look like there were many topics that were off-limits for Lovecraft when it came to his stories.

On the other hand, Lovecraft was a product of his time. People like to point out how weird, or odd, Lovecraft’s behavior might have been. They also like to overly focus on his opinions of society. We’re not even to talk about Lovecraft’s cat, mainly the name of said cat, which I will not be repeating here. What I am saying, though, is that Lovecraft’s behavior wasn’t exactly shocking for the time. And that many of his contemporary writers wrote the same way, using the same elements, to get the same effects.

The early 1900s were not exactly a bastion of equality and forward mindedness.

I’m not defending any of this, it is precisely because of the early 1900s and the Victorian era before it that the field of archaeology has such a problematic past. I’m just saying if you weren’t a straight white dude, you probably had a rough time in both of those areas.

Because of this, by the late 1900s, we start receiving sharp critiques of society. We get terminology that actually helped change the language of fields such as sociology, anthropology, and archaeology. All of the ologies. One such term that we get is Orientalism.

Orientalism is both a term and a book written by Edward Said. The book Orientalism was published in 1978, and in it, Said makes a harsh critique of how the Western world perceived what was called the Orient. Said focused on the Middle East and the Eurocentric and ethnocentric representations of the Arabic and Muslim cultures. Particularly focusing on the amplification of negative aspects of the participants of these cultures as being superstitious, ignorant, lazy, mystical, uneducated… Basically, he was calling out racism. Said also had things to say about what we would call today appropriation of the cultural aspects of the Middle East for atmospheric, literary, or mystical elements.

Said’s book was controversial when it first came out since it was a very harsh critique of several academic fields of study. That being said, the points he makes in his book and that he advocated for after its publication, did actually change the discourse around research and theory dealing with the Middle East.

And this ties back nicely to Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was constantly using images of the Middle East and the Muslim religion in his writings. Going as far as in his youth to give himself a Muslim sounding name and dressing like an Arab. He wasn’t the only person that did this, it apparently was a common thing among the upper class of the time, for some reason. I’m sure we can all tie this back to modern problems with ethnically white people pretending to be an ethnicity they are not. Lovecraft was doing his playacting out of a sense of fascination with the Middle East. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand the mental process behind it.

The alter ego that Lovecraft created for himself, he then turned into a character in his books and made the most famous author of the most famous non-existing fictional book in possibly modern history. Almost everyone knows the name of the Necronomicon.

Both Lovecraft’s alter ego, and the Necronomicon are products of Orientalism and cultural exoticism. The Necronomicon is supposed to be a book that allows for the communication with and control of Dijin. Dijin being closely tied to Pre and post Muslim culture and religion. You may find the mention of Dijin in some translations of the Old Testament as well. They were and, in some cases, are still believed to be spirits that dwell in the deserts of the Middle East. Most of us probably aren’t overly familiar with the true origins of Dijin or the real cultural implications of Dijin. The closest many of us even get to this concept is the genie from Aladdin. Which is a whole other topic.

But Lovecraft was fascinated with Pre-Muslim magical practices and the superstitions of Arabic culture. That’s not to say that he studied it in any deep capacity, or that he learned about it in any meaningful way. From what I can tell, Lovecraft did what many individuals do, and that is he learned just enough to be fascinated by it, and let his imagination fill in the holes.

This is almost perfectly what Said was describing as Orientalism.

Cultural exoticism is very closely tied to Orientalism. It’s effectively taking any culture that is other than your own and focusing only on the aspects that are strange, weird, or out of place when compared to one’s own culture.

That’s not to say these things truly are strange or weird. It’s because of someone’s cultural bias that it appears that way. Lovecraft took great advantage of this. He used things that appeared strange and weird to an early 20th century white European culture, and then blew them way out of proportion in his stories. Exaggerating the strangeness, the oddity of it all, and playing on the fears of his readers about foreign peoples and places to create horror and suspense in his short stories. It was incredibly effective.

It also wasn’t out of character for the time. I keep coming back to this point because I want people to understand that Lovecraft wasn’t existing in a vacuum. Lovecraft was writing the kind of things people at the time liked to read because, unfortunately, it reinforced their opinions of the world outside of their own. There are very strong parallels between the early 1900s and our own modern era. Especially in the early 2000s. That is a critique I will leave for others to make, but also you should be aware of my opinions on it if you read this blog.

Understanding the time that Lovecraft lived and wrote during, the influences on him by society at the time, and the reasons for the popularity of the elements of his horror are important in a variety of ways. None of them pardon racism and ethnocentrism, but I will caution people not to look into the past through a modern lens. You will not understand what is occurring, and it will cause erroneous conclusions to be drawn.

That being said, Lovecraft was a master of amplifying his readers’ fears and uncertainties and worries about the foreign or exotic world that they may or may not have had interaction with. That is the point of horror and sci-fi, which is to examine the world around us in a safe environment, that environment being the fantasy world. It’s not real; therefore, it can’t hurt us. It allows us to examine our fears and put an ugly face on it if we need to. We should also be taking the next step, and examining why these things are our fears, but a lot of writing never goes that deep.

Tying everything back up nicely here, Orientalism and cultural exoticism did not end in the 1900s. Both practices are alive and well today and can be seen openly being used in modern media, both fictional and nonfictional. It wouldn’t take very long to sit down with popular new sources and find a hundred or so stories that take advantage of people’s fears of the unknown, the foreign, and the culturally different. The same ethnocentrism and racism from the past is being used today. Perhaps the culture groups being targeted are different, perhaps the spaces that are considered exotic are different, but the elements are the same.

It’s important for us to be able to look back on aspects of our past to see the echo of those behaviors in our current day. It’s really the only way to open our eyes to it, be critical of it, and through that criticism work to change those behaviors.

Many people often ask if Lovecraft’s writings would be as impactful as they were if they weren’t written in the way that they were. I feel like this is a false question, there’s truly no way to know. In my personal opinion, however, I think that the elements that make Lovecraft’s writing truly impactful are not the ethnocentrism and the racism, but are the masterful use of fear of the unknown to create suspenseful stories that get under our skin. There is nothing wrong with using fears and uncertainties to write a story meant to scare the readers. But I think what takes a story from being a mere Penny Dreadful to a truly epic horror is the examination of those fears and the questioning and critiquing thereof in the story itself. Self-aware horror is more terrifying because you have to examine your own demons and justify your own fears, and sometimes those are the most horrifying things of all.

af line art

Hi! I’m an archaeologist who likes games, video games, gaming, horror, the supernatural, and debunking pseudoarchaeology. Check out my vids for more on the above topics, and toss us a coin if you like what I do.

Patreon – https://www.patreon.com/Archyfantasies

Ko-Fi – https://ko-fi.com/archyfantasies

Twitter – @ArchyFantasies

IG – @ArchyFantasies

Website – https://archyfantasies.com/

Emai – ArchyFantasies@gmail.com.