Of the Night

August isn’t too early to start thinking about vampires. The nights are already noticeably longer than they were in June and some leaves are just beginning to change on the trees. I’m thinking of vampires because one of my readers sent me a link to some investigative reporting about the “Highgate Vampire.” I’ve posted about this before, but the brief story, if you don’t have time to browse through my “monster” category, is that beginning in the 1970s a group of people came to believe a vampire haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery. This led to the publication of written accounts of the hunt for the undead. On a trip to London in 2012 I visited the Highgate Cemetery as my host for the trip lived quite close by. Apart from being the resting place of many famous people, the cemetery is moody and Gothic and it’s easy to see how, in days when it was neglected, it could’ve spawned such tales. Thing is, we know vampires don’t exist. So we’re told.

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Back to the story. My reader pointed me to the website Vamped, and now I’m afraid my limited time has just grown more limited. More specifically, there is a story by Erin Chapman entitled “5 Reasons Why a Wampyr Didn’t Walk in Highgate Cemetery.” The article investigates claims made in Sean Manchester’s book on the subject (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), demonstrating that his locations, photographs, and narrative don’t add up. The piece on Vamped shows a meticulous level of detail, comparing notes and photos in a way some of us simply don’t have time to do. Now I’ll sleep more securely on my next visit to London. I hope. The conclusions are disputed.

At this point some may be asking why an educated, rational adult is even addressing such questions. Why worry about something that isn’t even real? This brings to mind the realm of religion. Archetypes, whether they have an objective existence or not, are part of our consciousness. Supernatural beings of many varieties inhabit our heads, no matter how much garlic or holy water we happen to have lying around. Ignoring them can lead to problems. Do I think there is/was a vampire in Highgate Cemetery? I don’t think so. Do some other people sincerely believe it? I have to think yes. No matter which religion people follow, there will be entities that other people don’t believe. That doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The Highgate Vampire isn’t real for most people, but it is for others. And just in case, I’ll keep a bit of garlic around as the nights begin to grow longer.

Foiled Again

Few things travel as well as curses. Or so it seems in a news report from Serbia. Archaeologists in Kostolac, according to The Guardian, have excavated skeletons nearly two millennia old. That’s not news, since people have been dying as long as there have been people. What makes the find extraordinary are the gold and silver metal foils that have been found at the gravesite. Inscribed in Aramaic with Greek letters, these tiny missives were rolled and placed in lead tubes to be buried with the dead. Although translations of the inscriptions aren’t given, the fact that they contain the names of demons would suggest these might be curses against anyone seeking to disturb the tombs. Such devices go all the way back to the Pharaohs, and perhaps earlier. Nobody likes to have their sleep disturbed.

Serbia, for those unfamiliar with geography, isn’t exactly next door to ancient Aram. The burials and inscriptions seem to fall into the Roman Period, however, a time of cultural diversity. When cultures come into contact—in the case of Rome and prior empires, through conquest—new ideas spread rapidly. And sometimes old ideas. The Romans, in general, didn’t like competing religions. Then again, their idea of religion was somewhat different than ours. Ancient belief systems were more or less run by the state. They served to support political ends—at least they were upfront about it. Your offerings and prayers were to be given in support of the king, or emperor, and beyond that nobody really cared. Unless, of course, you were making curses.

Curses, it was believed, really worked. Even today in cultures where belief in curses persists people tend to be physically susceptible to them. We don’t want others to wish us ill. Perhaps that’s the most surprising thing about politics today. Our society has taken a decided turn towards the more secular. Candidates for political office, even if they personally believe nothing, can still cast curses on those who are different. They can claim support of their “faith” to do so as well. Words, in ancient times, were performative. They meant something. Curses were taken seriously because if someone were serious enough to say it, they probably meant it. They could be written down and preserved beyond death. Today, however, words are a cheap commodity. You can use them to attain your personal ends and discard them once they’ve outlasted their usefulness. Perhaps we do have something to learn from the past after all.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Copper scroll from Qumran, replica. Not a curse, just an illustration.

Personal Heroes

I’m not inclined toward hero worship. Sometimes I think it must be a personality flaw on my part. The cult of celebrity is so pervasive that I feel desperately behind the times when I read what web-savvy authors write. Or maybe the truth is that my heroes live closer to home. Or lived. I grew up in a small town as the child of a working-class couple, both of whose sets of parents were not educated beyond high school. We were simple folk. We didn’t have much money and we didn’t have elaborate demands. My mother put up with an alcoholic and then absentee father, raising three children largely on her own for the better part of a decade. (She eventually remarried and the three became four, but I want to focus on the early part of the story today.) She had a rough life. Her hero, not surprising for an only girl with four brothers, was her father. Her admiration for him, whether genetic or via learning, passed on to me. I can’t claim to remember him since my grandfather died just before I turned two and just before he turned 75. As I grew up, however, he became my hero.

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Today would have been his birthday, and I’m thinking about Homer Sitterley, my hero. He grew up on a farm in upstate New York and tried to better his circumstances. He taught in a one-room schoolhouse, which you could do in those days without a college degree. He also met my grandmother in that schoolhouse, which you could also do in those days. He had to change careers and became a civil engineer—still with no degree. He started and supported a family of five and moved around the country trying to keep his spouse happy. Back in the 1920s and ‘30s they moved from Virginia to Montana and back to the east, eventually settling in New Jersey, where my mother was born. They finally moved to Pennsylvania where my three brothers and I were born. He died there in August of 1964.

Homer Sitterley may have never worn a cape like one of his silly grandsons did in college. He didn’t have any super powers beyond the strong will to survive in a hostile and thankless world. He never grew rich despite hard work and few outside his family knew his name. He is a hero nevertheless. His kids were upstanding people: religious, polite, and kind. Their children—my many cousins—are good people. In a world where superheroes are shown increasingly as flawed, the real heroes are simply human. And my personal hero, although he never knew he was—and is—was a man who cared for his family to the very end. He was only human. And all the more heroic for being so.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Mars Bars

It brings tears to my eyes. A little guy millions of miles from home. The only spark of acknowledged intelligence on the entire planet. It’s his birthday and he’s singing “Happy Birthday” to himself. It’s downright depressing. The guy, however, is the Mars rover Curiosity. It is a machine. The headline, however, jerks an emotional response from all but the coldest of individuals: “Lonely Curiosity rover sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself on Mars.” It’s that word “lonely.” It gets me every time. Then I stop to think about machine consciousness again. Empirical orthodoxy tells us that consciousness—which is probably just an illusion anyway—is restricted to people. Animals, we’re told, are “machines” acting out their “programing” and not really feeling anything. So robots we build and send to empty planets have no emotions, don’t feel lonely, and are not programed for sadness. Even your dog can’t be sad.

Amazing how short-sighted such advanced minds can be.

We don’t understand consciousness. We’re pretty wowed by our own technology, however, so that building robots can be brought down to the level of middle-school children. We build them, but we don’t understand them. And we may be losing part of ourselves in the process. An undergraduate I know who works in a summer camp to earn some money tells me a couple of disturbing things. Her middle-school-aged charges are having trouble with fine motor skills. They have trouble building basic balsa-wood airplanes. Some of them can’t figure out how paperclips work. One said she couldn’t write unless she had access to a computer. This camp worker’s supervisor suggested that this is typical of the “touchscreen generation.” They’re raised without the small motor skills that we’ve come to take for granted. Paperclips, it seems to me, are pretty intuitive.

Some 34 million miles away, Curiosity sits on Mars. An exile from Earth or an explorer like Henry Hudson? Or just a machine?

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Machines don’t always do what you tell them to. I attended enough high school robotics sessions to know that. Yet at the local 4-H fair the robots have a tent next to the goats, the dogs, and the chickens. We’ve come to love our devices. We give them names. They seem to have personalities. Some would claim that this blog is the mere result of programing (“consciousness”) just as surely as Curiosity’s programmed singing to itself out in the void. I’m not for turning back the clock, but it does seem to me that having more time to think about what we do might benefit us all. This constant rush to move ahead is exhausting and confusing. And now I’m sitting her wondering how to get this belated birthday card delivered all the way to Mars.

Let Us Prey

ProjectedFearsI grew up with horror films. Not that my mother encouraged or approved this behavior, but I was a kid with a lot of phobias. With no father around to protect us from what dangers might lurk out there, I tried to learn how to cope by watching others face monsters. That innocent childhood pass-time, like most simple pleasures, disappeared into the adult world of analyzing and being serious and making money. Then it came back. After a series of unsuccessful relationships the old rejection phobias led me back to my beloved monsters. I suspect that’s why I like reading about horror films so much—it’s an exercise in self-understanding. Kendall R. Phillips’ Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture is a pleasant Saturday afternoon’s viewing, but for adult monster boomers like myself. Phillips admits up front that academic respectability is hard to come by for horror movies, but that is starting to change. We are beginning to read the script.

Phillips walks the reader not only through the ten movies he’s selected, but also through what was happening in American culture at the time. The horror movie proper is not yet a century old, having begun with Universal’s 1931 monster pair of Dracula and Frankenstein. Phillips shows that what scares a culture changes over time. Indeed, one gets the sense that it is horror movies that lead us in our fears. Highlighting ten culturally significant films, this book guides us through the highs and lows of the last century. The last entry in the book dates from 1999, nicely encapsulating what made us afraid during a most remarkable and, if we’re honest, a most messed up century. Clearly those who purvey horror will have their own choices for significant entries. Phillips does an admirable job of justifying his choices: Dracula, The Thing from Another World, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, and The Sixth Sense. Each reflects its age, and each impacted its culture.

It should come as no surprise that religious elements—both in culture and in the movies—are up for discussion here. Consciously or not, religion deals with our fears and frequently moves us into the realm of horror. Now that we’ve entered a new era—much has happened already this millennium—the nature of our fears has been changing. To assess cultural impact we need some distance. Books like this help us to understand ourselves, but only after sufficient time has passed. I am confident, however, that when future analysts look back on this insane time that they will find unexpected answers to questions we can only begin to utter. We stare at the monster in the room with us, paralyzed and unable to scream. Or even text. And they will note that religion played a role in our nightmares even as we expected technology to save us.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.