In the 1999 cult classic movie “The Blair Witch Project,” three young people enter a strange Maryland woods to make a movie concerning old rumors about strange deaths that have occurred there. Grizzled locals warn them to call off their project. But Heather, Mike and Josh are typical hip, secular and profane twenty-somethings whose breezy narcissism prevents them from perceiving danger. Their habitual insouciance, including cursing God and ridiculing those who tell them to go home, leads to their ultimate disappearance and presumed death in a ruined house. The movie moves through a strange crescending sense of horror even though no sign of a slouching evil Presence is ever explicitly shown.
How is it, that the “wealthy curled darlings” of our time—often young but not always so—seem oblivious to the enchantments of nature that not many generations ago formed a kind of unposted boundary between the safe and the unsafe?
My friends will know that for several years I have been fascinated by an essay written by Lisa Polito titled “Everywhere is Here” (Oregon Quarterly, Winter 2008). In this story concerning the death of James Kim in the Oregon wilderness in 2006, Polito tries to understand why a young, upper-class family from San Francisco would find themselves in the vast forests of southwestern Oregon, cut off from the world around, burning the tires of their late-model Saab in a desperate attempt to attract attention to their plight.
On their return to the Bay Area from Seattle at Thanksgiving, the Kims had decided to take a detour across the mountains to the coast rather than stick to the main highways. As Polito retraces their harrowing journey deep into the untamed woods, their world begins to fall apart. Their two cell phones prove useless, their four-wheel European sedan cannot match the ruthlessness of nature, and their sense of invulnerability quickly ebbs away. Having run out of fuel, James takes off on foot for help while leaving wife Kati and two daughters with the car. Days later, after the family is rescued, James is found face-up in the water of Big Windy Creek, sixteen miles away, having frozen to death.
Polito speculates that the Kims, like so many people in our technological times, had been lulled into a false sense of security, and had lost the age-old instinct of Here versus There. The primeval anxiety that used to afflict those who left the comfortable Here and traveled to the alien There has largely disappeared, replaced by a nonchalance that sometimes fails to register danger. “Emboldened by this easy, instantaneous connection to civilization, quite literally at our fingertips, we step through our front doors virtually fearless,” she writes. “With a cell phone in hand, everywhere is here.”
Camille Paglia recently wrote about young women on American campuses who give little thought to their dress, who walk confidently along paths and into places no coed from the 1950s would have gone alone, apparently oblivious to the peril that lurks in the dark.
One of the unrecognized effects of contemporary secular worldviews is that they have flattened the moral terrain. They have told us that everything is pretty much the same, that we construct our own reality, that materiality is all there really is, that the spiritual dimension of the world is an internal orientation, nothing more, and that we are more or less free to experiment with ideas, habits and images with no consequences.
Young-adult literature reflects a now-habitual blending of right and wrong, good and evil, innocence and guilt, so that it is difficult for the mind of today’s typical adolescent to grasp the notion that there are hidden dangers of every sort in the world, some natural, some spiritual; and that, even more, those dangers can be and should be avoided.
In my own experience, having grown up in the Mid-Century Moment of America (Michael Barone) where Here and There were more clearly delineated than they are now, I watch today’s popular habits with alarm. I am often considered retro because of my negative views of tattoos. I find the omnipresence of Netflix troubling because many people who are untrained in critical thinking and ignorant of historical trends receive much of their information through Hollywood downloads. I find the postmodern, indifferent shrug a threat to civilization, and the casual attraction to outré behavior a soul-killing reflex. I was recently stunned, and outraged, by a group of guitar-toting youth who had taken it to be their right to intimidate a small band of Christians in a nearby small city.
Today’s incipient barbarism is different from that of ages now gone. Today’s barbarians have little fear of the cosmos whereas our prehistoric ancestors knew that the world was a menacing realm best treated with respect. They keenly sensed both Here and There. Their response was pantheism and superstition, to see all of nature as fraught with unpredictable forces to be placated. Today’s barbarians are atheistic, or perhaps post-theistic; they scoff at the notion of Here and There.
Paradoxically, it was the coming of Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel that tamed much of that primitive fear and menace, that “disenchanted” much of the natural world, and allowed a safe zone for the development of modern science. But the Christian gospel also warns us that the Prince of Darkness is still largely in charge, and that He must not be trifled with.
But today’s fashionably bad boys and girls, fascinated with their transgressions and impatient with older subtleties, have no time for such distinctions as Here or There.
Until it is too late, as it was for Heather, Michael and Josh, as well as James Kim.