Supernatural Terror in Management

H.P. Lovecraft (1890 - 1937) was an author who achieved middling success - the vast majority of which came after his death.

Lovecraft is probably best remembered for three things. The first: a penchant for prose so purple that it veers into the ultraviolet. The second: his deeply problematic politics - he was xenophobic, racist, sexist and anti-Semitic. Even by the 'standards of his day', he was a wrong 'un. His third legacy: an intriguing approach to writing terror, with a focus on cosmic entities that are less 'actively malevolent' than 'chillingly disinterested':

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute... The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers a terrible and omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind for cryptic and wholly extra-terrestrial reasons, and thus clearly belonging to spheres of existence whereof we know nothing and wherein we have no part."  - H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1927)

There’s never been a successful, or even enjoyable, mainstream adaptation of Lovecraft’s work. Lovecraftian fiction does not crack (or even chip) the best-seller lists. In terms of absolute popularity (here measured by Google searches), Lovecraft is far outstripped by other horror titans, say, Poe or King

And yet... Lovecraft is perpetually at the centre of some niche cultural shitstorm, as the value of his contributions to literature (#3) are questioned in light of his marginal talent (#1) and objectionable beliefs (#2). His legacy has been propped up - continuously, and for over a half century - by a self-sustaining community of authors, small publishers, and scholars. What Lovecraft lacked, and still lacks, in popular success, he makes up for in fan loyalty. An entire ecosystem that exists with the singular and self-reinforcing purpose of keeping Lovecraft 'important'.

There's a lot to be questioned about this, including: 'Is Lovecraft actually important?' But, to, what's even more interesting is the why. Why is it so important that Lovecraft is important?

One answer can be found in 'terror management theory' (TMT). In Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker proposes that most human decision-making stems from the perpetual anxiety surrounding the inevitability of death: 

"The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man." - Ernest Becker (1973)

With our mortality always looming on the horizon, we devote ourselves to ways of making our lives meaningful or significant. Religion is the obvious way of 'managing' this terror, but so are other tactics - anything from a focus on our children to our allegiance to a sports team. We look for immortality by finding ways to link ourselves to a legacy. Similarly, we surround ourselves with people who share - and therefore reinforce - our same idea of significance. People who will also understand that the Kansas City Royals winning the 2015 World Series is, in the cosmic sense, significant.

TMT also explains why it is so important that Lovecraft is important. The reverse is also true: people that don't share our values cause us anxiety. If my self-esteem is wrapped up in the 76ers, my children's ballet, or Lovecraftian fiction, and you don't find those things significant to the same degree I do, you're literally threatening bid for immortality. This mirrors the essence of Lovecraftiana: the soul-crushing terror that comes from realising that we, and everything we do, has no meaning.

Broadly, TMT helps us explain why any fandom is so important - and why any challenge to a property (books, sports, whatever) - can feel like a disproportionate, existential threat to its fans. Specifically, Lovecraftian fandom provides us with a blueprint for how a fandom can be perfectly composed to assuage TMT:

  • Steep learning curve - Lovecraft's work is no longer hard to find, but it is still hard to get into. The steep learning curve of his style not only adds a sense of accomplishment, but also fosters an us/them sense of an 'in-group'.

  • Unlimited depth - Once 'in', there exists an infinite amount of associated material to keep sifting through. This allows for never-ending immersion, as well as the opportunity for niche specialisation.

  • Sense of purpose - Whether that is defending Lovecraft from obscurity, revisionist interpretations, or simply from modernity, Lovecraft's 'threatened' status gives his fans a rallying cry. 

  • Tangible achievement - There are rewards for participation: whether that's recognition, publication, or literal awards - the Lovecraftian community recognises its own. 

  • Personal relevance - Lovecraft was a reclusive, awkward, white male outcast who spent his life writing angry reviews and burying himself in remote correspondence. His twin hobbies were decrying the state of the modern world, and publishing 'unappreciated' work. But now he's important. You can see how that could give a certain sort of audience hope.

Lovecraft makes a great example, as he is particularly niche. Also, I really like taking the piss out of him. But it isn't hard to see how this same framework applies to everything from, say, gamers to Gooners, Buffy fans to soccer-moms. 

Get: Anxious people
To: Devote themselves to a (productive) purpose
By: Offering a legacy


Federico Babina

(Archiatric by Federico Babina)

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