I may be agnostic now, but I was raised in the Catholic Church. A childhood that was haunted by the smell of burnt candle wax and images of torture as objects of reverie. It was here that I was told about the most terrifying thing my young child mind would ever experience: what the church called transubstantiation. This idea that something can appear the same and be changed on the spiritual level.
That this piece of wafer was actually parts of a corpse. That this glass of wine was really blood. An idea that terrified me to the bone, and key to this idea of ontological horror. That on the outside something appears normal and unchanged. But somehow, deep down in the bone of it all, it had gone rotten.
Ghosts play into this, hauntings and haunted houses all play into this. Possessions and ritual all play into this. A key example that I point to so often (other than numerous Shirley Jackson novels and stories) is Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals.”
In this story, everything in the house of a small suburban family becomes haunted. It doesn’t change on the outside. Nothing appears any different. Nevertheless, they fear the haunted things. And this spreads like a plague, infecting the bones of the family and tearing them apart.
This is the perfect example of ontological horror. This idea of haunting laid bare the whole concept of weird fiction in one fell swoop. The toothpaste becomes haunted, they won’t touch it anymore. The TV becomes haunted, they won’t watch it anymore.
The objects look the same. Somehow they were changed on an ontological level.
Obstructions in Reality
This is not the only way we can experience ontological horror in a piece of weird fiction. There are other ways to change things on a symbolic level. You feel a change viscerally without being told anything changed at all.
Reality itself begins to warp a little. Not all the way strange; just enough to disturb us on an impressionistic plane of thought. The dread of a piece increasing symbolically, all by creating strange combinations that question our own perceptions. And we wonder, why does this make us feel such apprehension?
Yet we feel strange. It is the being-in-itself¬ exuding wrongness. But in a way that’s hard to grasp and explain. It feels . . . off.
A black rag caught in a fence. Crude circles of rock in freshly mown front yards. A blur of color seen out of the corner of an eye. A shape of a dog, moving through a fog.
These things unnerve us. But why? Because something feels off. We can’t explain it. Reality has become sinister without us even realizing it. It affects us viscerally and deep in the gut.
Masks Reveal and Conceal
Another form of ontological disturbance is the concept of a mask. It changes the outward appearance, yes. But it occults the person behind it. It turns them into a symbol, and it changes them on a symbolic level. The wearer is silent, or only speaks in hushed riddles.
The person wearing this item has changed. Rooted in the bone. Congested in the body. The mask itself was the form of change, and by obscuring the person behind it, it creates that same sense of ontological horror. That there is a wrongness that can’t be explained. A wrongness that isn’t quite wrong. It disturbs us.
Our Bodies Betray Us
This differs from the usual body horror of Cronenberg and Clive Barker, two artists who turn the body into grotesque parodies of our own. Those two melt and mash and gore them up into monsters. But ontological horror is different.
Here the body horror is under the skin. You feel normal. Everything on the outside might be perfectly fine, but inside there is something changing. Your skin burns and itches. Your limbs move without you making them move. Your own body attacks you.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis about ten years ago. And I can say I know this as a truth: that the body may look normal, and still be an enemy to your own existence. That it changes in a way invisible. Unseen. It’s like you’re haunted by your own skin.
Explanations Are Anathema
Ambiguity is key to ontological horror. You can’t understand completely why something feels off. It needs to be like mist, constantly moving and obscuring. The wrongness needs to be there, just under the surface. Keeping you at arm’s length. Making you feel weird, and distanced and just off.
The world has tilted sideways and you will never know why. And that is one of the sheer pleasures of this kind of fiction. To be teased and unsettled, to peel back the layers of the world and see yourself, standing there. And the mirror’s reflection is askew. Just enough, that your eyes don’t quite look like your eyes anymore. That you’re grinning in the mirror, and you don’t understand why. Why are you smiling?
Yet, you can’t stop. And that, my friends, is ontological horror. That is the key to weird fiction.
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