To escape the harsh realities of a fractured career, I turn to celluloid. Lest Hollywood distract me too much, I strictly limit my movie viewing to weekends when I can let down, for a few moments, my constant anxiety. Since my religious antennae are always prickling, I notice implications sometimes in unexpected places. So this weekend’s fare included two ghost stories. Both of them utilize religion to resolve the haunting, but in very different ways. An American Haunting purports to be based on real events involving the putative “Bell witch” of Tennessee. The movie takes many liberties with this scant folktale, including a church condemning a seemingly upstanding member and a Bible being dismembered as the angry spirit attacks the Bell family. In the end, the plot is confused by a revelation of family abuse and the viewer wonders who it is that tears apart Bibles.
The second part of my double-feature was The Screaming Skull, a 1958 horror film that fails to raise a single follicle in fear. Nevertheless, the moody movie does provide the Dies Irae for Stanley Kubrick’s opening theme of The Shining as well as a sense of isolation that would also inform the latter exemplar. The religious element comes in the form of a priest who is a close friend to a clandestine murderer. With the help of a ghostly screaming skull, the priest is the one who eventually solves the murder and rescues the intended victim of our erstwhile protagonist.
Nearly half a century separate these two ghost stories, and the role of religion in them has reversed. In the 1950s the clergy were society’s protectors. Even though Rev. Snow is the only main character who does not actually see the ghost, he is a safe haven for the victims of evil. Fifty years later, it is the church that sets up the haunting of the Bell family by its unyielding laws. The family quotes the Bible at the spirit and the ghost tears the Bible apart. There is no sanctuary here. Films, no doubt, reflect social attitudes. When the foundations have lost their hold, confusion results. Who is to blame for the suffering of Betsy Bell? The movie leaves that up to the viewer. There is no solid Rev. Snow to whiten the sins of this world. Only ghosts remain.