Monsters on the Horizon
I can likely count on one hand the amount of times in my life I’ve experienced a sense of overwhelming awe. Awe is the right word, but it lacks what I’m trying to convey. It’s not quite one thing but rather a combination of things—like an all purpose seasoning. Let’s say Awe is the main ingredient, but there is also a sense of fear and dread. But neither of which are exactly related to horror. Take for instance one experience.
I was visiting Marvel Cave in Branson, Missouri. And hold that thought for a second. People, if you don’t know anything about Missouri, know this: it is The Cave State. They don’t say it on our license plates, but they should. Missouri has more than 7500 caves. That’s just the ones we know about. You want a conceivable place where you might find hidden treasure? Hideaway bandits? Ancient monsters? Missouri is your huckleberry. Oh yeah, Huckleberry Finn! We got him too! Anyway, Marvel Cave is one of the biggest and has maybe the largest cave “rooms” in North America called The Cathedral Room. It’s the first room you enter and you have to walk down a literal tower of staircases in order to reach the floor.
On my first visit as a child, we enter the cavern and I peer over the edge of the tower and I don’t quite register what I’m seeing. My eyes aren’t quite adjusted yet, as a shaft of brilliant light blazed into the subterranean darkness. I look down on what looks to me like a hazy pond, maybe ten, fifteen feet below me. Then suddenly it hits me that I’m not ten feet from the floor, but more like 100. That wasn’t a hazy pond, it was just a wispy fog in the upper atmosphere of the room. The enormousness punched me in the gut. When I initially walked in I thought the place was big, but then my senses were assaulted upon discovering that I was wrong, that it was really, really, really big. I reeled. I remember gripping the cold, damp handrail until my body re-calibrated itself to the immensity.
That sensation stuck with me. Awe. Dread. Fear. Not horror. A very real sense of smallness. Overwhelmed. Enveloped. All that and more rolled into one. Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy speaks of a feeling or sensation that mankind experiences he calls the Numinous. One term he uses to help us think about it is mysterium tremendum, or the Aweful Mystery. He dives far deeper than what I’m trying to convey—but it’s in the wheelhouse. A sub-category for sure. I’m going to call this sensation I’m speaking of Tremendum. It’s close enough for our purposes.
Now for something odd. I think most people can relate to my experience in the cave. If not a cave, you’ve likely experienced something similarly overwhelming. Maybe you’ve felt it in a raging thunderstorm. Maybe at your first glimpse of a mountain or the ocean. But I have also experienced that sense of tremendum in an unusually specific way. Don’t laugh. But here it is. It’s whenever I see or even sometimes imagine enormous monsters on the horizon. Of course the way I see monsters on the horizon is through film and television or art. Again, it’s not a sense of horror or fright. I’m not talking about the willies. It’s a sensation simultaneously dreadful and thrilling. And it wasn’t until I experienced it again the other night that I even realized the connection.
Getting geared up for the new Godzilla vs Kong movie, I turned on the Netflix anime Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. And let’s just get this out of the way: Woof. It’s terrible. But there is a scene early on when Godzilla is seen on the horizon and wham! Tremendum hit me.
That one scene held me for the rest of the movie and its equally horrible sequels. And it was also due to that scene, upon further reflection, that I realized I’d had that same sensation in previous Giant Monster flicks. I had it during the first King Kong vs Godzilla movie when King Kong rose up from the sea.
I had it again in the most recognizable scene in Kong: Skull Island.
And it isn’t limited to just King Kong and Godzilla. It hit me a couple times during the second season of Stranger Things.
Even Jurassic Park.
And in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Both in his story and in the artwork his tale has inspired.
I was thinking about all of this while I was driving the other day. I looked out across a large open field with a bright blue sky, dotted with white clouds, and I filled that sky with a gargantuan imaginary creature. Boom. I conjured that sensation like a Harry Potter spell: Monstrum Tremendum!
What is it about enormous monsters on the horizon that brings on this sensation? And you know what? It can’t be just me. Otherwise why would they keep putting these scenes in their books, shows, and movies? Whether through intentional design, innate aesthetic feel, or some mixture of both, I don’t think the artists who craft these visions are doing so haphazardly or by mistake.
Somehow—whether through pure imagination or imagination achieved by artistry and applied to a medium—we have stumbled on to some sort of resonating truth when we imagine monsters on the horizon. Sort of like how a sad heart finds a voice in a minor chord. This image seems to pair up with something deep inside us that we can’t fully explain with words.
What does it mean? Well, what does a minor chord mean? We can’t answer it. At least we can’t answer it exhaustively. Which is to say, it means something. It points to something. Something other. Not like us. Bigger than us. Something beyond ourselves. Something ancient. Something in the world and yet older than the world. Something beyond the world. Something.