There is hardly a book more popular to occultists or the genre of horror movies than the Necronomicon. It is filled with spells, runes and various texts to summon demons, spirits and further otherworldly creatures (what actually makes it a so-called “grimoire”).

The tales surrounding this fabricated text – that only was published as a joke in a number of different editions in the late 1970s – are manifold. And even though its contents are partly based on the existence of numerous real non-Christian collections of tales, spells and rituals as well as on a purely fictional origin, the Necronomicon and related collections are important ingredients to a number of horror movies.
Most prominently this is true of the Evil Dead films (1981, 1987, and 1992) and the corresponding TV series Ash vs. Evil Dead. After all, that book was “invented” by one of the masters of the horror tale, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), and it is part of some of his stories published in the 1920s. Later horror writers also referred to it and designed their own fabulous genesis of the book, even citing it along other (real) publications of ancient texts; already then, this practice was meant as a hoax.

Over the years, the Necronomicon has started a career of its own, since the various references to and recycling of it in horror movies have little to do anymore with the primary item once conceived by Lovecraft. This naturally is related to the power and standing of books or the book culture in Western civilization, where they represent order, history and most of all credible sources of information. While the books “of good and evil” referred to here, on the other hand, contain “knowledge” of another kind. “‘Dangerous Knowledge’ threatened to introduce chaos into order, through controversial texts – pamphlets, pages, letters, diaries, and book-length works – that questioned and confronted established, codified understandings of the social and natural worlds. …. Individuals and societies thus employed the book to map their social and cultural identities, as well as their mental universes; yet, at the same time, they were constrained by it.”

The mapping of distant realities and – in the worst case – scenarios, tools, spells and strange forces confined to those books, but released upon summoning, reading or dreaming, gives these special texts their power; at least, some people would enjoy this kind of “easy way out” of reality. Naturally, as movies and here especially horror movies tamper with this idea and introduce all kinds of books, sermons, scrolls, and texts connected with supernatural powers. Some of these are evil, while other texts may contain the cure and could be able to stop the powers unleashed.
Others, again, may leave the reader insane, possess them or drive them to murder and suicide, as some texts actually have their own very strong will and easily master their readers. Even if the many horror movies of that kind did not invent the powerful, magical text – as authors such as Lovecraft and Friedrich Murnau already provided the blueprint in the 1920s – some of the most successful and influential horror movies are based on this idea.
Furthermore, the idea of having such a written text available, even if hidden somewhere in a distant country, has inspired mankind for centuries. These fictional books have all the features that lack our normal understanding of the media. “The spell books, grimoires, and similar magical tomes that fill horror films narrow this separation, however, merging reading and action into a single, seamless process. Reading aloud from the pages of a magical book can – without any further action on the part of the reader – summon beings of unimaginable power, open gateways between worlds or dimensions, and orchestrate magical forces capable of completely unweaving the fabric of reality…. With no safety mechanism or fail-safe circuits. …. Idle curiosity is in the hands of the impetuous or the unwary, sufficient to bring about disaster.”

The altogether 19 authors assembled here in 21 essays offer their own interpretations of those very peculiar texts in horror movies that span almost one century of directorship from Murnau’s Faust (1924) to It Follows (2015).
Numerous types of scrolls, texts and books are covered as they appear in many American horror movies, including the bible (and some of its – obviously – lost chapters); each text with its peculiar power and effect on the reader and the world around him. As Lovecraft basically invented the idea of the powerful spell book (and many other original plots and scenarios), the first part of the collection is devoted to his groundbreaking tales. Followed by the theme of books as instruments of disruption, the horror connected to diaries, a history of spell books and curses in horror films, while the last section deals with horrific texts in the movies of directors from Argentina, France and Japan. Numerous horror movies are taken into consideration among themThe Prophecy, Malefique, The Appeared, The Beyond, The Babadook, The Whisperer in Darkness, Hocus Pocus, Night of the Demon, Death Note, In the Mouth of Madness, Warlock, as well as the TV series Supernatural.
An altogether entertaining edition (even though some essays are a bit short) that eloquently connects literary criticism, (supernatural) semiotics, film studies, and once more identifies books and texts as carriers of information, power, order and culture – no matter who reads or cites from them… Considering the many novels, short stories and movies informed by magical books, it is astonishing that a title like that was released only now.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2018

Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper (eds.) Terrifying Texts. Essays on Books of Good and Evil in Horror Cinema. McFarland, 2018, 268 p.