Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.

Making Monsters

It’s not so much I’ve been away from monsters lately, but that life has intervened between them and me.  Life can be scarier than monsters sometimes.  In any case, the summer is when my mind turns back to haunting even as on the breaks during heat waves a whiff of autumn can be caught on the air of a July morning.  Yes, we’ve past the solstice and days are getting shorter.  Slowly, of course, but that’s what builds suspense.  And there are local signs that I need to get my haunting in gear.  It is finally time to get Holy Horror out of wraps and give the book a proper launch.  Being published around Christmas last year was poor timing for a subject so readily coded for fall.

I received the welcome news this week that the Moravian Book Shop—the oldest continually operating bookstore in the country—will be hosting a book signing for Holy Horror in October.  This is a fortuitous turn of events because when I first approached them with the idea the price of the book made the idea look unrealistic.  But we’re now thinking of autumn, and with autumn comes Halloween.  There have been a spate of horror films this summer, all of which I’ve unfortunately missed.  Time, as Morpheus notes, is always against us.  There does, however, seem to be a lively interest in the genre and the curious wonder what it has to say about what we believe.  Horror loves religion, and indeed, thrives on it.  So it’s been from the beginning.

October will also see the Easton Book Festival in this area.  I will be on the program for that as well.  While none of this is earth-shattering, these events represent the first successes in trying to build awareness of Holy Horror.  This was a book written for a general readership, but not priced for one.  Working in the academic publishing world, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar.  Many colleagues offer to read and spread news about your book.  It seldom happens, though.  Academic presses can’t afford book tours (especially if they have to price books at $45), but these self-driven presentations are opportunities to spread the interest in ideas.  That’s what those of us who write really want—to be part of the conversation.  We’re in the midst of a heat wave here.  It’s the height of summer.  Even so, those who know about monsters can feel them coming, even from here.

Identity Crisis

Living in Boston can be a heady trip for a budding academic.  Even if you’re across the river from Harvard and MIT, it’s a city known for its education scene.  Like many who studied there, I never wanted to leave.  A fringe benefit of being a student of religion was that a short trip would take you to Peabody.  Why?  Peabody was home to CBD—Christian Book Distributors.  In their showroom they had rock-bottom prices for something theology students crave—books.  That was many years ago now, and over time CBD grew to be the largest distributor of Christian paraphernalia in the country.  In my mind they’ll always be associated with happy little trips that ended in armloads of reading.  What more could you want?

A story by Emily McFarlan Miller explains why the revered CBD is changing its name.  Cannabidiol, a legal derivative of cannabis, is popularly known as cbd.  Lots of things share initials, of course, but these are the days of the web, and an internet search for cbd now pushes the distributor (at least the book distributor) off the first page.  One thing we all know in this online universe is that you’ve got to be on the first page.  CBD’s decision might seem extreme—changing the name of the business to get back on the front page.  Despite the amusing aspects to this story, it emphasizes something of an ongoing jeremiad with me: the web has redefined reality.  Think about it this way: when a digital image is over-enlarged it pixellates.  That’s because it’s composed of minuscule squares of a single color.   When brought together in a pattern, they form images we recognize.  It their basis, however, they are squares.

The earth, however, is an orb.  The natural state of falling liquids—the principle behind the shot tower—is a sphere.  Now, spheres together in a closed space leave gaps—just look at a jar of marbles and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s the order of the natural world.  Reality, if you will.  Tech, on the other hand, is pixels.  They fill the space better, and if done well can create the illusion of a curved line.  They can never, however, fit into a round hole of the same surface area.  The world has gone after the convenience of the internet in a small box.  It has changed the recording industry, the movie industry, and the publishing industry.  And just try to find your way to CBD on it.  You might have to change your search parameters.

Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

Born Once More

Every once in a while a reader, either here or on other social media, asks me what my religious beliefs are.  The expected answer to such a question is the standard label of a denomination of some sort.  My response, however, is that knowing the group I belong to (and I do) should not effect the way my thoughts are viewed.  With the exception of some groups suspected of mind control, standard religions are generally trusted as being motivated by pure intentions.  Having both attended and taught in seminary settings, and knowing a great number of clergy, however, it becomes clear that denomination is less important than one might think.  In short, I answer this question in the public forum of neither classroom nor blog as I truly believe there’s nothing to be gained by readers/students knowing where I personally seek meaning, denominationally.

It’s no secret that it was once the Episcopal Church.  (I could not have taught at Nashotah House otherwise.)  It was made pretty clear after being at said seminary for many years that the Episcopalians had no official place for me.  Even when I worked a few blocks from the church’s headquarters in New York City I could find no one willing to listen or consider my credentials.  Its Church Publishing branch wouldn’t consider me in their book wing.  Were it not for some former students who still minister to me, it was clear they did not miss me.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in Nativity Cathedral in Bethlehem on Saturday for their Celtic Mass.  The Cathedral itself is lovely with a négligée of wrought iron tracery for a reredos, appropriate for a city built by steel.  Eight angels with outspread wings stood atop it.  Like most sanctuaries, it was a place of refuge from the busy, noisy street outside.

The reading from Amos 7 stood out to me.  Lectionaries, by definition, take pericopes (selections) out of context.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line is actually part of a series of visions, but here stands alone with the episode of Amaziah trying to send Amos back to Judah.  The prophet responds by saying he’s not a prophet, but just a guy who’s received a message from God.  In ancient times there were prophets paid for their services.  They supported the government positions and governments made sure they were cared for.  The situation hasn’t much changed, at least among conservative religious groups under a Republican administration.  There were other parallels here, but saying too much on them might end up giving too much away.