Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Rudolf Otto

Writing in the early 20th Century, a German religion philosopher named Rudolf Otto described this via negativa concept of God as a "numinous experience." This experience is akin to an epiphany or sudden realization that the enormity and inscrutability of God (for example, upon entering a grand Cathedral) is an overwhelmingly religious experience. It is an experience that can prostrate the believer in deference to the "Almighty." Otto sees this reaction as a non-rational factor to the overall idea of the divine; the believer who is overcome by the imposing effect of cathedral architecture has had a numinous experience.

Otto describes three characteristic aspects of the numinous experience. He labels them as follows:

  • Mysterium - the esoteric quality and otherworldliness of the experience; the extraordinary and unknowable qualities associated with the numinous.

  • Tremendum - deals with the vastness, greatness, and staggering powerfulness of the numen that cows and humbles the individual.

  • Fascinosum - the utter attractiveness of the numen that draws the individual completely in; allures the believer by captivating his will without actually obliterating his freedom on choice.

Otto explains that mysterium and tremendum form the daunting quality of the numinous experience. They contrast to the fascinating quality (fascinosum) of the experience. Together the daunting and fascinating combine in a contrasted experience that isolates the believer in a paradoxical situation of dread and desire. Otto says that this is distinctly different from basic human fear [5]. In an essay on the gothic imagaination S.L. Varnado explains Otto's work further; to Varnado the numinous is an intense experience

that has innate connections with the intellect. The numinous, which in its more primitive forms gives rise to the belief in ghosts and other supernatural fantasies, is still present in purified form in the higher manifestations of religion. This experience, with its associated forms and connections, its dichotomies between 'sacred and profane,' between 'natural and supernatural,' 'rational and non-rational,' and its often fragile but sometimes strong relations to the human sense of the 'holy' is, I believe, the essential goal of the Gothic writer, and so far as it is achieved, his central distinction [6]

See also Lilia Melani's "Otto on the Numinous," English Department at Brooklyn College.