Halloween is finally here, and I’m on my way to work. Over the weekend I noticed youngsters about in costume, heading to a local business that was holding, apparently, some kind of ghostly do. For me it’s just another day—Halloween isn’t an official holiday in any government’s book. Business as usual. Still, I can’t think of Halloween without recalling Nashotah House. I began, and effectively ended, my academic career at Nashotah. Idyllically located in the woods, it was a seminary that knew how to celebrate Halloween well. We were expected—required, actually—to be in church for a good part of the next two days for All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. But Halloween night we were allowed to be afraid.
Gothic writers often used to focus on places like monasteries and churches for moody frights. Nashotah began its life as a monastery, but soon turned into a seminary. The stone buildings were old—for this country—and gothic in design. We had an on-campus cemetery with a bona fide black monk. Students reported seeing ghosts, and with such a small population of religiously devoted people the imagination grew like toadstools. One morning at around 5 a.m. the door handle to my apartment rattled loudly. I’m sure it was just someone trying to get into a forbidden chapel whose only access was through my rooms. Thunderstorms echoing through the kettle moraines that surrounded the Wisconsin campus could be impressive indeed. On Halloween the maintenance man drove a hayride through harvested corn fields and the cemetery where opportunistic ghouls would pop out to frighten the slow-moving, exposed riders.
Since those days Halloween has instead become just a day of work. No more the grandeur of All Saints’ Day being an actual holiday, holy day, followed closely by All Souls’. This is just another day except for the kids who can come around and get some candy if I’m not too tired to hand it out later. I suspect this is why I spend so much of October reading about monsters and ghosts and scary movies. I no longer have a Halloween to focus my energies. So here it is Halloween. It’s dark outside and I’ll be standing in that dark, waiting for a bus. When I climb off at the end of the day, I’ll be sharing the nighttime streets with children who are perhaps the only ones who celebrate holidays as they should be commemorated. Already a month ago I began noticing the Christmas displays in local stores. It was my first real scare this season.
Just a quarter of an hour, studies show, of time in the woods can reduce stress. I suspect that if those fifteen minutes are spent running from a bear the opposite might result, but in general time in nature is an incredible solace. The weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative for October walks in the woods around here, but yesterday my wife and I managed to spend some time, along with many others, in Hacklebarney State Park, one of New Jersey’s gems. Living in the most densely populated state, to gather from the number of hikers we saw, encourages time in the woods. It was good to be reminded of the compelling scent of autumn leaves, the wonder of seeing their colors in the daylight when daily commutes begin and end in the dark. When work days are spent in the grayness of the city. Being out with nature, to borrow words from the Good Book, restoreth our souls.
I suppose there’s nothing really logical about it. We’ve built civilization to protect ourselves from nature. Solid walls to keep predators out. Heat, running water, and electricity so that we can surf the internet without ever going outdoors. Permanent settlement always within reach of cell phone service and work email, we are the scions of civilization. Being unplugged just for an hour or two—even fifteen minutes—can feel like salvation. If that fifteen minutes is spent among rocks, trees, and the peculiar light that reflects off a lazy river. The internet will always wait, won’t it? Thoughts of work can be suspended until Monday, can’t they?
Hiking among the other expatriates of civilization in what used to be the Garden State contrasts so sharply with the image we project to the world. The Chris Christies and Donald Trumps who bluster that nature is there to be exploited. They may not say so with words, but lifestyles speak so much louder than syllables. Gaining wealth requires putting one’s own agenda first. We’re out here picking our way carefully over a rocky path. We have to stop frequently to let others go by the other way, or to let those faster than us pass by. But we’re all out here for the same reason. It’s a beautiful autumn day and spending it indoors feels wrong. I know that even getting online now feels like my time is being demanded by a million distractions. Unplugging, walking at a moderate pace, feeling the cool air and breathing the aroma of fall deeply into tired lungs, I can feel the stress draining away. If only for a day.
“Want College to Pay off?” the headline asks. It depresses me. I’m an unapologetic idealist. Cost-benefit analysis has its place, but that’s not all there is to education. Or better yet, cost-benefit analysis isn’t just about money. The article has suggestions for finding good paying jobs, which is what higher education is all about these days. Getting an education to increase knowledge and to benefit society in that way has become the mark of true naivety. We tell our kids not to study the arts, humanities, or literature since there are no jobs in these fields. We want them to be able to survive in a culture that has cool devices but which has lost its soul. Pretty strange for an institution (or “industry”) that began primarily to study theology.
The earliest universities focused on the then-related fields of law and theology. Since people took religion seriously, this was not the mere diversion that it is today. There are those counter-cultural warriors who study theology to take parishes to combat their increasing irrelevance, but really, the study of law and theology parted ways long ago. Neither one guarantees the return on investment that they used to. Society’s interests are in racing ahead with technology—discovering even faster ways to text while driving, or better ways to ignore those walking down the street with you. Or making money so you can build large towers in major cities and name them after yourself. We call that success. Thinking deeply about an issue, looking at it from multiple angles, and critically assessing it, these are “luxuries” that aren’t “worth” studying. College must, as the headlines say, pay off.
The rapidity with which this has transpired is truly amazing. We allow electronics to drive our culture. Who has time to keep up with all the posts, tweets, and grams that populate every second of every hour? We crowd-sourced knowledge into some great wikipedia of human experience that substitutes for taking time to look closely and think through the implications. It’s not that I despise technology—I use it quite happily daily—it’s just that I think there’s something more. I studied ancient religions and I see many of those archaic patterns beginning to repeat themselves in electronic format. It’s as if by replacing theology with technology we’ve lost sight of just a piece of what kept progress moving forward. Maybe I need to go back to college. I’m just not sure of the cost-benefit analysis.
It’s that spooky time of year when nights have surpassed days and the chill in the air suggests an oncoming period of bleakness. Leaves are raining down off the trees and strange sounds fill the dark. So when a friend sent me an article on The Vintage News entitled “Website ‘Died in House’ can tell you how many people have died in your home & how” I had to look. At the story, I mean, not the actual website. You see, I’m not sure if I want to know too much about those who lived here before me—or died here before me. Like many people near a major city, we rent. I’ve never owned property (never had a job that paid well enough to do so) and as a renter you’re limited in what you know about your home. We’ve lived in our current situation a decade now. Of the four families in the two houses that make up the property, we’ve been here by far the longest. The house, however, has been here even longer. Has someone we’ve not met?
We live in a rational age, but we still fear ghosts. Belief in the lingering spirits of the departed goes back to the earliest written records and, we have every reason to suppose, far before that as well. We just can’t seem to shake that feeling, no matter what our rationality tells us. I didn’t go to the actual website, but Vintage News reports that it is a paid service. You want to check your address, you’re going to pay. And the results only go back to 1980. I don’t know about you, but to me it seems there’s a lot of years before that to wonder about. I mean, I was in high school in 1980 and there were lots of houses in my town that looked pretty old even then. If you’re going to pay to learn about ghosts, you want to be sure you’ve got the older periods covered as well.
I’ve lost track of the number of places I’ve lived. Some of them have been fairly old and some I have been curious about. Would I want to know if anyone had actually died there? I’m not so sure. One of the seminary houses I lived in had a spooky, neglected feel. I never saw anything that most people would characterize as a ghost, but I knew nothing of the history of the place when I moved in. It never occurred to me to ask. Now you can ask. A few keystrokes and a few dollars and you can learn if your house has “that kind” of history. The question is, with the increasing hours of darkness, and the wind whistling through the gaps around the windows, do you really want to know?
Back when I first started this blog, I regretted that I had read Douglas E. Cowan’s Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen so long ago. You see, I try hard to post on a specific book only once—there’s really no rule about that, but I read a lot and don’t like to play favorites. Since it had been a year or two since I’d read it, my memory was a touch hazy about the details at the time. I did a post anyway. Now that we’re in the thick of fall, and my daily commute both begins and ends in darkness, I decided to read it again. This particular book is validating for a guy like me. Many scholars feel they need to apologize for such low brow peccadilloes as watching horror movies. I mean, don’t scholars read all the time? And when they’re not reading, surely they have better things to do with their time than watch cheesy exploitation films? My generation, however, has started to come to terms with this basic disconnect. A few of us have somehow made it past the bouncers.
Cowan’s book is the one I first read that dared make explicit what many of us feel—religion and horror are not so different. As a sociologist of religion Cowan brings a specific lens to the subject, and his book analyzes different societal fears (sociophobics) that these movies address. And even though he admits being a bit squeamish, he brings an impressive number of films to the table. The fears of hoi polloi, it turns out, are often the very same ones religion seeks to redress. After reading his book the first time, my list of must see DVDs grew. The same happened this time around.
It requires a certain maturity of character to both realize and admit that horror meets a deep need. We don’t like to feel vulnerable. More than once, armed with my Ph.D. and years of training my rational faculties, I’ve still ended up sleeping with the lights on. I can tell fact from fiction, but there’s an itch that horror scratches which other genres just can’t reach. As much as I enjoy science fiction on the screen, its debased little brother has fingernails just the right length. As Cowan points out, fear is one of the primal human emotions. The world we’ve constructed hasn’t eliminated fear—although I can’t recall the last time I saw a cougar or wolf in the wild—but has constructed it as more of our own making. In our own image, I might suggest. And since nobody likes to be alone during a scary movie, it gives me some comfort to know that Dr. Cowan is out there, somewhere, watching with me.
Rituals frequently outlive their purposes. Some skeptics may claim that rituals—particularly of the religious sort—really don’t mean anything at all, but in fact they do. Rituals have logical origins, or at least that seemed logical at the time. Atlas Obscura ran a piece by Sarah Laskow on “London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211.” Such a story invites commentary on many levels. One is that the items payed in rent—6 horseshoes, an axe, a knife, and 61 nails—don’t seem to be commodities her royal highness actually needs, or could even make use of. Still, it’s easy to see how this ritual rent has a logical origin. Axes, knives, nails, and shoes for six-legged horses were all quite practical in the Middle Ages, one assumes. They won’t help you get onto the internet any faster, though, so one wonders how they might be of use now.
Another question a story like this raises is that of government itself. Rulers both in monarchies and democracies have a habit of skimming off the top. It’s been some time since we’ve had a president who purchased his own loaf of bread or could even guess how much it costs the rest of us to do so. In Britain the question may be even more salient—the royal family is among the richest in the world and yet they still take an axe, a knife, horseshoes, and nails for a property that, as the article states, nobody even knows where is? I guess it’s the price we pay for feeling safe under the watchful eye of those who already have too much. The property itself may be a legal fiction, but the payment is real enough.
Wonder what the rent on this place is?
There are those who declare rituals empty, and therefore meaningless. To me that seems a hasty judgment. Our rituals reflect what we’ve historically believed. Those beliefs may have changed over the years, while the rituals continued in their own way. But they are reminders. Reminders of something once held to be significant enough to take time and resources in order to ensure the smooth running of—in the case of religious rituals—the universe itself. On the smaller scale, however, our secular rituals contribute to a system that always has favored the rich. It likely always will. You see, rituals are not easily broken. And even if all they can extract are items of little practical use, those who already have will be glad to accept even more. This is the reality behind rituals and rites.
Weekends, it seems, are incomplete without being among books. You might think that someone who works in publishing might want to get away from books in the off hours, but quite the contrary. I love a good walk in the woods in autumn. Especially if it’s followed by a trip to the local independent bookstore. It just feels right being among books. I realize that I’m in the minority by expressing such an opinion, and that the book buying (and book publishing industry) is (are) small compared to other forms of passing one’s time, but they are significant beyond their size. My wife and I have scoped out the various indie book sellers all around. When we have to take the car in for service, we drop it off, have lunch at a diner, and stroll down to the bookshop. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Here’s the sign on our Clinton indie. In case you can’t make it out, the legend says “This is a book shop. Cross-roads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts. Against the ravages of time. Armoury of fearless truth. Against whispering rumour. Incessant trumpet of trade. From this place words may fly abroad not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time. Not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in truth. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a book shop.” I especially appreciate the sentiment of sacred ground. Indeed, sanctuaries of all sorts often house books. As libraries experience funding difficulties, civilizations are in the throes of collapse. Just to have books around me makes me feel secure.
Some months ago we had to have a refrigerator replaced. Our apartment has a strange, offset back door that makes getting anything of size in or out difficult. The front door is a fairly straight shot, but just beyond the entryway I had set up a bookshelf after we moved in. The appliance guys came in, jaws literally dropping. “I’ve never seen so many books in one place,” one of them said. They then complained and told me they couldn’t get the old fridge out as the landlord had said they’d be able too. “Your books are in the way,” they complained with accusatory tones. I had to unload the books from two shelves and move them while they watched. I, the lover of books, was duly chastened. I’m afraid my love affair with reading has only become more passionate since that day. The books are back on their shelves and they’ve been joined by more friends. What is a weekend without books but a wasted opportunity?