How Horror Changed After WWI

What exactly constitutes horror? Being spooked by the dark, and by the dead who might return in it, may have haunted the earliest human consciousness. Ceremonial burial predates all written history; the act apparently represented an effort to placate the corpse so it would not make an unwelcome return. The roots of religion itself may be in this impulse, with gifts to the dead constituting the first ritual.

In fact, much of what we think of as “natural human life” may stem from the terror of death and of the dead. Even sexual desire, and our constantly changing conceptions of gender roles that accompany it, may have much to do with the terror of the dead. The urge to reproduce, once inextricably linked to sex, may have a connection to a neurotic fantasy of cheating death by creating an enduring legacy. You can test the primal strength of this cultural idea by noting how no one questions the rationality of reproduction, even in a world of rapidly dwindling resources. Meanwhile, people who choose not to have children often receive both religious and secular disdain as selfish, the breakers of an unspoken social contract, or simply odd.

Does the fear of death that drives us mean that horror has always been our dark companion, a universal human experience in which cave paintings and movie screens are simply different media for the same spooky message? Not exactly. The idea of death and ruin as entertainment, even something one could build a lifestyle around, appears first in the 18th century in novels like Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Commentators called this taste Gothic because the interest in ruins and castles called to mind the Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages.

Our contemporary term “goth,” used to describe everything from a style of music to black fingernail polish, of course comes from those 18th-century goths. The wealthy of that century could fully indulge this new fascination, turning estates into faux medieval manors and forcing their servants, on top of all their other indignities, to appear at parties dressed in robes that made them look like what Clive Bloom describes as “ghoulish monks.” It’s hard to call this precisely a popular taste, as the novels of suspense that inspired these ideas were damned or banned in some places and very few people had a suitable estate, or enough money or servants, for playing haunted house.

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“Much of what we think of as “natural human life” may stem from the terror of death and of the dead. Even sexual desire, and our constantly changing conceptions of gender roles that accompany it, may have much to do with the terror of the dead.”

“Horror” in today’s sense had yet to be born. The word existed, but it had an appropriately weird history. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “horror” first appeared in the 14th century as a synonym for “rough” or “rugged.” Over centuries, the term started to carry the connotation of something so “rough,” in the sense of “sordid and vulgar,” that it caused a physical shudder.

Once Gothic romanticism appeared in the late 18th century, the word “horror” showed up in poetry and prose in something close to the modern sense. English Romantic poet Robert Southey’s praise of “Dark horror” in 1791 echoed his interest in eerie works in Germany. Even here, the word suggests something a bit sordid rather than spookiness for fun. In a 1798 treatise entitled “On Objects of Terror,” English essayist Nathan Drake used “horror” interchangeably with “disgust” and advised artists only to “approach the horrid” rather than actually enter its darkened halls. In Drake’s view, “horror” meant physical revulsion, not a good scare. Even into the 1800s, the meaning of the word always suggested the body in a state of intense distress. A medical manual from 1822 used the word in this way: “The first attack [of sickness] commences with a horror.”

“The war has left its imprint in our souls [with] all these visions of horror it has conjured up around us,” wrote French author Pierre de Mazenod in 1922, describing the Great War. His word, horreur, appears in various forms in an incredible number of accounts of the war, written by English, German, Austrian, French, Russian, and American veterans. The years following the Great War became the first time in human history the word “horror” and its cognates appeared on such a massive scale. Images of catastrophe abounded. The Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, one of the stars in the firmament of central Europe’s decadent and demonic café culture before 1914, wrote of how “bridges are broken between today and tomorrow and the day before yesterday” in the conflict’s wake. Time was out of joint. When not describing the war as horror, the imagery of all we would come to associate with the word appeared. One French pilot passing over the ruined city of Verdun described the landscape as a haunted waste and a creature of nightmare, “the humid skin of a monstrous toad.”

The horror of the Great War consumed the lives of soldiers and civilians alike; it sought them out in their sleep, their imagination, and, bizarrely, in their entertainments. The “horror film” had existed almost from the time of the invention of the motion picture itself in the late 19th century. But a new kind of terror film manifested in the years following the Great War. The spook shows not only became more numerous; they took a ghastly turn, dealing more openly with the fate of the dead, even the bodies of the dead. Moreover, an unclassifiable kind of fiction began to appear, frequently called “weird” (as in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, 1923) because there seemed no better word for it. The public, and its practitioners, began calling it horror fiction. Art and literature pursued some of the same themes, even though at the time a strict division between “high” and “low” culture prevented many critics from seeing horror on canvas or in poetry, and still prevents a few today. British modernist Virginia Woolf wrote that certain feelings proved no longer possible after 1914; a sentiment might be expressed in words, she felt, but the body and mind could not experience the sensibilities “one used to have.”

By the same token, new feelings about death and the macabre began to seek expression. The root of these new cultural forms had a specific and terribly uncomfortable origin: the human corpse. Stirring up the primal, perhaps universal fear of the dead, the Great War had placed human beings in proximity to millions of corpses that could not be buried. Worse, many could not be identified, and more than a few did not even look like what we think human bodies should look like. Shells, machine guns, gas, and a whole array of technology had muddled them into misshapen forms, empty matter, if still disturbingly organic. The horror of the Great War, traumatically reenacted over and over and over after 1918 down to the present moment, drew its chill from the shattered, bloated, fragmented corpses that covered the wastelands made by the war.

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“The “horror film” had existed almost from the time of the invention of the motion picture itself in the late 19th century. But a new kind of terror film manifested in the years following the Great War.”

My reading of the roots of horror in the Great War is anything but Freudian. That said, Sigmund Freud appears throughout this account as one who not only was affected by the war but also made some interesting observations about how 1914–1918 transformed European culture and consciousness. He complicated his own ideas because of the conflict, conceding that a death instinct may play at least as important a role in how human beings experience life as sexuality and childhood traumas related to it. Thanatos can be as significant, sometimes more significant, than Eros.

One of the ideas Freud entertained concerned how the war changed the subjects that fiction might explore. “It is evident that the war is bound to sweep away [the] conventional treatment of death,” he wrote in 1915. While his own sons and many of his students fought at the front, he declared, “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. People really die; and no longer one by one. But many, often tens of thousands, in a single day.” Freud hoped, and he expressed it only as a hope, that the return of “primitive” passions, a kind of “bedazzlement” with death, would end when peace returned. He would be mightily disappointed.

One unlikely voice, who indeed had luckily avoided service in the Austro-Hungarian army, helped explain this new, festering reality. Walter Benjamin loved hashish and women too much to get around to writing a proper history; instead, he wrote essays of such beauty and depth that we are still puzzling and wondering over them almost 80 years after his death. He did, during the period that this book covers, fitfully scribble at essays, fiction, personal reflections, and a sprawling unfinished work he called simply “The Arcades Project.”

In 1936, four years before his untimely death, Benjamin wrote an essay he called “The Storyteller,” in which, amid his meditation on the nature of memory, he said this about the Great War:

Was it not noticeable that at the end of the war men returned from the battlefield grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What 10 years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but the experience that pours from mouth to mouth.

Benjamin of course knew about, and often criticized, the vast literature that the war produced, especially those works that talked of the “sublimity” of conflict, praised the “beauty” of unremitting violence, and often shaded over into fascism’s dreams of mythic warriors. He wrote the words above about the armless veteran one saw at the café, the cousin who had been at Ypres or Gallipoli and sat silent at family gatherings, sometimes staring off into the middle distance. He wrote of the men who wore masks meant to hide their terrible facial wounds, disfigurements sometimes made even more eerie by the first, halting efforts at combat plastic surgery.

Of these men’s experience of war, Benjamin continued:

A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in the countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds and, beneath those clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.

These vulnerable bodies—millions of which would be transformed into corpses by history’s first fully mechanized killing machine, which we call World War I—haunt every decade of the 20th century. Their eyes, filled first with shock and soon with nothingness, became the specters of despairing creativity for a generation of filmmakers, writers, and artists who themselves often went about their work with shattered bodies and psyches. All of the uncertainty and dread that folklore and popular tale had ever associated with automata, the disconcerting effect of a mirror, shadows, and puppets seemed suddenly to become historical reality in the sheer number of millions of dead, millions more permanently disabled and disfigured, and bodies that came marching home like empty husks, the person whom family and friends had known before 1914 having been left in another place.

We must write of such things, Benjamin counseled, “with as much bitterness as possible.” For many in his generation, bitterness even proved too weak a concoction.

I hope the air feels thick with static, the smell of an alchemy gone awry, a precursor to what Benjamin once described as a “single catastrophe” that tore history apart like a massive explosion, “piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Because not only did single acts of horror happen, they produced a world of horror that we still live in, both in our imaginations and in our daily lives. The artists, writers, and directors who experienced the Great War, most of them directly, never stopped having the same nightmare, over and again, a nightmare they told the world. Meanwhile, like a spell gone wrong, the Great War conjured up a new world, a sort of alternate reality distinct from what most people before 1914 expected their lives to be. It was a dark dimension where horror films, stories, and art became a Baedeker’s guide to the new normal rather than entertaining diversions. Monsters had come out of the abyss.

I have tried to write of these things with as much bitterness as possible.


From Wasteland: The Great War and The Origins Of Modern HorrorCourtesy of Counterpoint Press. Copyright 2018 by W. Scott Poole.