I’m something of a horror buff. I won’t lie: I get a kick out of things that send most people fleeing in terror. In particular, I’m a fan of psychological horror. You know, the kind that makes you wonder whether you’re going insane? The kind that slowly creeps into your psyche, pushing aside what you know about reality to make room for demented fantasies? The kind that makes you jump at the slightest sound, see shapes in the dark where you know nothing lurks, and feel a gnawing sense of something being just, well, wrong with everything around you? That’s my cup of tea.
To change the topic entirely—but not, I assure you, without good reason—I must say that October is an awesome month. I think the most interesting thing about it is Halloween. Let’s take a moment and look at this holiday. It’s based on pagan rituals from yesteryear, yet few Christians I’ve met feel anything but affection for the event. It’s the one day of the year when jumping out of bushes with a fake chainsaw and a hockey mask to frighten children is considered socially acceptable (whereas doing this on any other day would likely result in bodily injury, jail time, or both). It’s a weird concept, all around: why do we dress up like monsters? Why do we give away candy to strangers? Why do we let our thoughts dwell on death, misery, and horrors too grim to imagine for more than a fleeting moment? If you explained this holiday to someone from outside American culture, I think they’d find it downright strange.
“So what?” you may be asking yourself, clever devil that you are. “Where is this going?” I’m getting to my point. Bear with me a moment or two longer.
As someone who appreciates horror, and psychological horror in particular, I derive unique pleasure from letting my mind wander to such realms as no mortal dare tread. Pushing out into the brink of madness is an exciting experience. At no time is this more deliciously topical than in the weeks prior to All Hallow’s, and I take every opportunity to indulge in creepy films, books, and video games during the month of October. But since I became an atheist—perhaps it would be better put as “realized I am an atheist”—I’ve discovered an unnerving—ironically, almost more disturbing than the horror I so enjoy—change in my appreciation of all things scary.
The change is thus: I don’t get as scared as I used to. Now, there may be many reasons for this: I’m growing up and thus feel more capable of warding off any boogiemen who might assail me; I’ve been exposed to so much horror that it takes more to frighten me; perhaps something else altogether. One possible cause, and the one I will now expound upon briefly, is this: I’m harder to scare because I’m firmly rooted in reality. As an atheist, I understand the power of the real world. I understand better than most how to live a life dedicated to believing true things, to following the course of the evidence wherever it leads, and most importantly, to dismissing ideas for which I have no logical backing. Like ghosts. And zombies. And haunted towns. And evil eldritch gods from beyond the stars.
Part of the draw of horror is the thrill of being afraid. We’ve all been there. Sometimes it’s fun to be scared. But being scared only works if there’s a legitimate reason to be scared, or alternatively, if one can convince oneself of such. In other words, the easier it is for a person to find something to be afraid of, the more likely they are to be afraid. And unfortunately, for someone who is as committed to the actual as I am, that task has become exponentially harder. It’s not as simple as wondering if there might actually be a real, unliving spook lurking in the darkened closet. There isn’t. I know there isn’t. The odds of there being such a thing are infinitesimal. Perhaps it’s a flaw in me, rather than an aspect of being an atheist, this inability to be as frightened by the unknown as I once was, but now that I’m a non-believer, the darkness isn’t brimming with demons and supernatural forces out for blood. All I’ll find there are the things I’d find if it were lit: furniture, coats hung awkwardly on chairs, curtains blowing in the wind, and just that damn cat again.
Now, although this new, shall we say, mental shielding I’ve developed has made it harder for me to enjoy the macabre, it also has benefits. I’m even less afraid of the dark. I can stride confidently into a “haunted” house or “spooky” old cemetery without so much as a flinch. And on a slightly different note, I can make a more sophisticated assessment of the effectiveness of the horror I do partake in. My evaluation is simple: if it scares me, it’s pretty damn good stuff. After all, it takes a lot more to spook me now than it used to. So if something gives me a chill up my spine and causes me to peer into the blackness around me with wide, panicked eyes, I know I’ve found a truly captivating work.
Being an atheist hasn’t ruined Halloween so much as… put it to the test. This holiday used to scare me with both hands tied behind its back. If the things that go bump in the night really want to get under my fresh atheist skin, they’re gonna need to take it to the next level. And I hope they do… because I’ll be waiting with a double-barreled shotgun.