Spirit of Halloween

So it’s Halloween.  It’s also Sunday.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the spirituality of this particular day.  Now it’s often treated as a trick, a consumerist holiday with too much candy and befitting spooky decorations.  Like all holidays Halloween has evolved from its origins to how we celebrate it today.  Other than Wiccans and Neo-pagans, however, not too many take it seriously.  At Nashotah House, and therefore likely at some parishes scattered around the world, All Saints Day—which is tomorrow—was a day of obligation.  What we call Halloween was the day before this major festival of praising the faithful.  There is some evidence that All Saints was moved to November 1 to counter the lively celebration of Samhain, or the Celtic fire festival marking the onset of winter.

The Celts included an intellectual class known as Druids.  Druids seem to have been the “theologians” (oh, that word!) of the Celts and they mandated that their teachings not be written down.  A great deal of information was passed on by intensive memorization and only became known to us outsiders because after Christianization it began to be written down.  Their idea of the afterlife seems to have been that it was being born into the other world.  In the otherworld life was different and apparently in some respects better.  When our time there drew to a close, our death led to our birth into this world.  The cycle continued on and on.  Samhain was the time when crossing between worlds could occur.  Death wasn’t a cause for sorrow since the otherworld awaited.  Birth into this world was more problematic.

Fear of death seems natural enough to us.  Even though it’s inevitable and this world’s graveyards are full, somehow we seem to think we can avoid it ourselves.  Our evolved survival instinct runs out of control since we’ve eliminated many of the causes of death that have plagued our species (and many other species) for millennia.  Eons.  As we’ve done so we’ve distanced ourselves from death—dying in hospitals, our corpses prepared in funeral homes, buried and eventually forgotten.  To me, the Celtic idea, from a world where death was likely much more close to hand, seems a more healthy outlook.  Instead of fear, why not consider it a day of wonder and celebration?  To many, I know, that is a spooky thought indeed.  It’s more than a day of masks and candy, however.  And we might learn from it if we stop and ponder.


Angel of Harvest

It’s been a few weeks ago now, but one October Saturday we attended the Lehigh Valley Vegstock.  Autumn is the season for harvest festivals and a surprising number of them are now catering to vegetarians, or even vegans.  When I say that, it probably calls to mind a certain kind of individual—perhaps an aging hippie who’s probably into New Age and alternative spiritualities?  If so, you’re not the only one whose thinking goes along those lines.  Among the recycled, reused, and other earth-friendly tents was one that offered contemporary spirituality.  A lot was going on behind my mask so I forgot to take the name of the actual vendor, but I did find the use of angels interesting.

No, I haven’t been living under a rock.  Well, maybe I have.  Even so, I know that angels are popular and have been for several years.  Some people who find themselves uncertain about God are still down with angels.  Back in college—who knows anything at that age?—I did an independent study on angels.  The professor (who’s still at Grove City) didn’t provide much direction, and I soon found there wasn’t too much in our library about the subject.  Like demons and other monsters, scholars tend to shy away from the topic.  That, and I hadn’t yet learned how to use Religion Index One.  Now, of course, there’s the internet.  In any case, the idea of angels stayed with me through my teaching career.  After all, studying ancient gods does bring you into close proximity with other spiritual beings.  Even so, I was interested to see Archangel Metatron on the Vegstock vendor table.

Metatron isn’t biblical.  He makes his first appearance in Jewish literature, including the Talmud and Kabbalah.  Although my research interest was always toward the earlier era of the spectrum, it seems that much of our angelology was percolating during the period after the Hebrew Bible was written.  Jewish scholars were working out the complex spiritual world and later Christian writers would attempt to systematize it.  It is possible, and it appears in some traditions, that Metatron was actually Enoch, translated.  Enoch, who is biblical, receives just a few words in Holy Writ, but he eventually grew in importance.  Genesis indicates that he walked with God and was no more.  What happened to him?  Metatron was one possible answer.  There are other Metatron origin stories, I’m sure.  And one of them was right there in Tatamy in the midst of a harvest festival.


Author Talks

Author talks are one of my favorite perks.  While work obligations mean I often can’t attend, I was glad to have caught this week’s visit by Mathias Clasen.  Clasen has been writing books on horror movies for Oxford University Press, and his talk strangely made me feel less alone.  Let me explain.  First of all, lots of people came.  Yes, Halloween is merely days away, but I get accustomed to thinking I’m the only one who watches horror.  Nobody close to me does.  Learning that many colleagues enjoy the genre was a boost.  Clasen runs the Recreational Fear Lab at Aarhus University.  Their survey of Americans found that 55 percent liked horror films.  I’m actually in the majority, which felt affirming.  

The Recreational Fear Lab studies various aspects of why people seek things that make them afraid.  This ranges from thrill seekers to those who cower in the corner of a theater to watch the latest slasher.  There were several takeaways from his talk.  One was that two main types of people subject themselves to horror: “adrenaline junkies” and “white knucklers.”  Adrenaline junkies are pretty self-explanatory—they like getting scared for the rush of it.  White knucklers, on the other hand, enjoy steeling themselves from fear while subjecting themselves to it.  They try not to scream, but keep control.  I was putting myself in the latter category when he mentioned that further research had revealed a third personality type: the dark copers.

Dark copers are those who use horror as therapy for themselves.  I immediately knew this was my group.  Some people, for whatever psychological reasons, find horror movies therapeutic.  They help us cope.  Interestingly, and in line with other materials Clausen has published, horror is good for people.  It has many benefits and if we deprive children from any stressful situations in their young lives they tend towards neurotic behaviors when they’re faced with stress as adults.  The Recreational Fear lab is a place for the scientific study of voluntary fear experiences.  They operate by grants and have many programs of study from a variety of disciplines.  And some of them watch horror.  Perhaps because when I started this blog I tended to write mostly about religion, I suspect many of my readers don’t really care for the horror posts.  They’ve been there from the beginning, however; my first month I wrote about werewolves, zombies, and Barnabas Collins.  Religion and horror are closely related, even if it makes me feel a bit alone to say so.


Not Quite Quetzalcoatl

It must be difficult to write the same basic story over and over.  And nostalgic adults like me can be tough critics as we try to recapture faded childhood glories.  Those memories fade like afternoon shading into evening, but still I can’t help myself.  Marilyn Ross wrote 33 gothic tales of Dark Shadows in the spinoff series from the long-running television program, and I’m determined to read them all.  In small doses.  The one, Barnabas, Quentin and the Serpent is actually a bit distinct.  The writing is still journeyman, that of a tired potboiler author, but the plot offers something a little different.  As in the last volume reviewed, Barnabas is free from the vampire curse for a time, allowing him to emerge in the daylight.  And his arrival at Collinwood is actually dramatic and well-timed.  The story is set in the nineteenth century.

Gerald Collins, a professor of archaeology, unexpectedly inherits Collinwood along with his daughter Irma.  They head to Maine from Mexico taking exotic creatures with them, including a dimetrodon that escapes and tries to eat them.  The story revolves around rumors that the professor caught and transported back a flying serpent.  At Collinwood (and let’s think about this a minute—if you add up the body count from all the novels you’ve got to wonder why there’s been no federal investigation) people start to die and reports circulate of a flying snake.  The professor’s going to be driven out of town because angry villagers think he brought this creature back with him.  It’s all very melodramatic.

As in the last novel, Barnabas acts as a detective.  Quentin, who is the werewolf cousin, manages to allude detection by disguising himself.  Even Barnabas is fooled.  The story tries to avoid invoking the supernatural—there’s no such thing as flying serpents—while allowing a werewolf to perpetrate a hoax.  It’s all good fun (except for that body count).  There’s a bit of vim here from our weary journeyman writer, but there are nine novels yet to go in the series.  Writing a series seems to be smart money.  Children (and I first read several volumes of this series as a child) like to complete things and can be loyal series fans.  I never read the full series when I was younger; they were haphazard finds at the local Goodwill book bin.  Of course they were still being published at that time.  I have to admit that I’m curious where it will go from here.  And I do miss Barnabas as a vampire.


Feeling Used

It may be perverse of me, but it makes me happy that used copies of all my books can be found on Bookfinder.com.  I discovered Bookfinder many years ago and it is a wonderful site for cash-strapped ex-academics, or anybody who loves books.  There is almost nothing you can’t find here.  Some of the books are very expensive (if they’re rare), but generally you choose the condition you’re willing to accept and how much you’re willing to spend.  The other day I was looking for a research book there and decided to type my own name in, just for fun.  I suppose some authors, having received next to no royalties, might be upset to find themselves on the used market.  For others it’s a kind of validation that their books are overpriced.

I’m a book keeper.  (Not, I hasten to add a bookkeeper.)  If I read a book I want to be able to refer to it again.  That’s one, but not the only, reason I don’t quite trust ebooks.  I’ve had electronics die on me and they can cost many books’ worth of dollars to replace.  Even then you can’t be sure some software upgrade hasn’t deleted the content you paid for.  At least sitting on a shelf you can find an actual book again.  I know some people prefer to read a book and then set it free—a kind of read and release method.  I suspect some folks buy used books just to sell them.  Still, to know that books are available is cause for celebration.  We may survive this after all.  At least our words will.

Bookfinder has been a lifesaver for us independent scholars who don’t have university library privileges or research expense accounts.  The collections of books individuals amass are as unique as the person her or himself.  A family friend was once won, I’m guessing, by visiting us years ago and saying, “You’ve got interesting books on your shelf.”  (In that apartment shelves covered all available wall space in every room except the bathroom.)  Having books around is kind of like having kids.  Some are new, some adopted.  A few you’ve even produced yourself.  They make you glad when they’re around.  Bookfinder occasionally has items that not even Amazon can find.  It doesn’t sell books directly, but puts you in touch with vendors who work with vendors who actually have the goods.  It’s all very complicated but it works.  It actually seems to showcase one of the things the internet does particularly well—puts people in touch with actual books, to be read offline.


In Praise of Paper Maps

One of the tricks, I’ve mentioned before, for getting around accessing books I can’t afford, is the used book market.  Now Amazon is probably just about as bad for small business as Walmart is, but it does seem to have its logistics down.  (Most of the time, anyway.  Early in the fall I ordered some horror movie DVDs.  One of them was out of stock and Amazon eventually sent me a notice that it was lost in shipping.  Would I like another, at no extra charge?  Shipped to the same address?  Of course I said “Yes!”  But they shipped it to my mother instead.  Most of us are probably embarrassed about what we watch and don’t want our mothers to know.  In any case, she had it forwarded on and I received it a mere two months after ordering it.)  They also let you track it.

If, however, you buy used books from Amazon, you may need to go with a separate vendor’s shipping.  (I tend to use BookFinder.com, but lately it’s been routing me back to Amazon.)  So it was I ordered something with a projected delivery date of October 25–29.  Not too bad.  It’s not like I need it for a book I’m writing or anything.  I was cheered, then, when on October 14 it was tracked to Secaucus, New Jersey.  I used to go through Secaucus every day on the bus.  Twice.  Surely I would have my cheap source before the 25th!  But my package likes Secaucus, apparently.  Once it got there every day the USPS tracking system assured me it hadn’t moved at all.  “You signed up for delivery on October 25–29 didn’t you?  Well, you’ll get it then.  Perhaps.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if shipping had the option of “Your package is pretty close, do you want to collect it yourself?”  Then on the 22nd I learned it was in Glendale Heights, Illinois.  It arrived on the 25th.

Why do I write these things?  (This isn’t the first time, young man!)  It’s because I think they’re funny.  To me, a society that has lost its heart to technology has to be ready for some laughs now and again.  (Some of my critics think I’m complaining; I guess I need more irony in my diet.)  Life during a pandemic has become one of having stuff shipped.  From last year’s toilet paper from China to my current academic book that’s just too expensive to buy new, I sit with my ear cocked for the Amazon footstep on my front porch.  And occasionally getting into my car to drive to a distant post office just because, well, it’s easier for me to find them than for them to find me.


Listening to History

One thing fascists around the world are attempting to do is rewrite history.  Inevitably white, they want to paint themselves as good and superior.  Actual history, however, shows just how destructive and cruel “civilization” has been, particularly to original inhabitants of colonized nations.  Over the past several months I’ve been reading about indigenous peoples.  We’ve been led to believe they were unfortunately wiped out, that they no longer really exist, or that our governments treat them fairly to make up for past injustices.  Such myths must be dispelled and we need to hear from those who’ve lived their experiences.  Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Nugi Garimara, or Doris Pilkington, is the record of one such remarkable experience.  Although made into a film in Australia, it’s a story with which I was unfamiliar.

Garimara is the daughter of an indigenous aboriginal woman who experienced life under the “civilizing” of West Australia.  Molly, the author’s mother, and two of her sisters—Daisy and Gracie—were separated from their family at the ages of 14, 11, and 8, respectively.  They were sent 1600 kilometers—very nearly 1000 miles—away to a school that was run as if the government believed Jane Eyre was an instruction manual.  Although they knew that runaways, who were always caught, were shaved, whipped, and put in an on-campus jail on bread and water, Molly decided to escape with her sisters.  Over nine weeks they managed to avoid the trackers and walk the 1000 miles home.  This all took place in 1931.  Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is an engrossing book that should be widely read.

Many questions remain.  Since the story is written from the memories of an aging Molly, there are gaps.  After making it home Gracie was “captured” and sent back to the school.  Molly was eventually tracked down and also returned, but she again escaped and followed the same route back home.  The authorities, implacable, believed that whites knew the best way to handle indigenous peoples, calling the department responsible “the Protector of Aborigines.”  We need to listen to the voices of those whose land was stolen.  We need to ask them how to make current circumstances more just and fair.  Yes, the indigenous lifestyle clashes with capitalism.  We’re becoming aware that their lifestyles tends to be healthier and more fulfilling, and yet we persist.  We are, it seems, living through the slow crumble of the capitalistic system.  When it all comes down we would be wise to learn from those who know alternative ways of being in the world and can find their way home in hopeless circumstances.


A Day with Books

A day with books.  Is there any better kind of day?  Before I lapse into poetry I want to put in one more plug for the Easton Book Festival.  Today is the last day for this year, but keep an eye out for next October.  And you can still catch the videos from this year’s session on the Festival website.  Writers can be skittish creatures, you see.  We spend time alone and try to get our thoughts into words.  We don’t always have regular gatherings.  That’s what makes book festivals, well, festive.  I didn’t want to appear in person to plug Nightmares with the Bible—it’s too expensive.  As a friend said, “What’d you do to make it that expensive?”  I was glad, however, to be in person to interview my friend and colleague Robert Repino.  The interview will be posted on the Festival website.

An unexpected pleasure is finding acquaintances that you didn’t know were writers.  As I said, some of us spend most of our time alone.  And even for someone who spends so much time with words it’s difficult to describe the species of euphoria that talking about books evokes.  It makes me wonder why we don’t do it more often.  Since the pandemic is still with us—the pandemic that interrupted the natural progression of the Book Festival, which began in October 2019—in person events were held outdoors.  It was a bit on the cool side yesterday, with some sprinkles of rain, but few sensations match spending a day outdoors in October.  If you’re not in this area, please support your local book festival.  If you don’t have one, maybe talk with your independent bookstore owner.  It can happen.

As I’ve mentioned before, many of us who write make very little money at it.  When people ask why we do it, pointing to events like the Book Festival supply the reason.  Call it fellowship, or communion, or just a gathering of the hive mind, but finding the other book lovers in your community is a worthy way to spend a Saturday.  Book and Puppet has the distinction of hosting the event, with support from Lafayette College and a few local sponsors.  It’s also the only bookstore in which I’ve seen my actual books on the shelf.  I know it’s a sacrifice to order stock that moves slowly.  Halloween, however, is nearly here and that’s the crowd for whom I tend to write.  Why not spend a day with books?  It’s the best kind of day.


Skin In

It took me back to my younger years.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film.  Wide ranging and insightful, this book was a delight to read.  Published in 2000, it discusses many movies that I watched in the eighties and which had somehow managed to be overrun by other stimuli since then.  I like to think that, even if recall isn’t instant, that we never truly lose the books we’ve read or movies we’ve watched.  (Some we may wish to forget, but that seems a sure way not to achieve that goal!)  As her subtitle says, Krzywinska’s book analyzes possession, witchcraft, and voodoo.  Since there are so many examples of these the discussion has to be selective, but she’s got a keen eye for choosing evocative films.

As any of my regular readers know (both of you!) I don’t really review the books in my “reviews.”  I limit myself to about 500 words and I don’t like to give spoilers.  A Skin for Dancing In would require quite a few words even to summarize.  Krzywinska covers demonology, possession, sacrifice, paganism, witchcraft, voodoo, and more, in several movies.  What really struck me in reading this was that she comes to a similar conclusion to what I’ve found—people learn about these things through film.  Scholars tend not to write much about such things (although this has improved somewhat since the turn of the millennium).  The average person doesn’t read academic books, and since culture has become “rational” there’s not much talk about such things from discoursing heads.  Still, movies.

These topics make for great movies.  One of the points I’ve made in my own work is that what we know about demons comes from the cinema.  It seems that we should pay close attention to what movies tell us.  They’re the “public intellectuals” that many academics want to be.  A Skin for Dancing In is a good example—it’s compelling, if a little academic, but very hard to find.  It’s difficult to lead public discussion if your book is limited to university libraries and those who have access to them.  Of course, you don’t need a talented scholar to tell you how to watch a movie, but I was reminded here of many films I thought I had forgotten.  And what’s more, I have a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger world of cinematic possession.  This is one of those books I wish I’d found sooner.


EBF

The third annual Easton Book Festival is underway.  As part of it Eric Ziolkowski, the chair of the Religious Studies department at Lafayette College, interviewed me about Nightmares with the Bible.  You can watch the interview here.  And be sure to check out the other offerings of the EBF—it’s hybrid this year so much of it is online for those who can’t make their way to Easton.  We’re all looking forward to the day when the festival can be in person again, as it was in 2019.  As part of tomorrow’s program I’ll be interviewing my friend Robert Repino about several of his novels.  That event will be live and outdoors, but I suspect it will be posted on the festival website later.

The EBF is a shining example of what books can do for a community.  People have been turning back to books with the pandemic.  Those of us in the publishing industry are keeping an eye on this.  While academic usage has shifted to electronic, the wider market has been favoring print books because, well, people like books.  Andy Laties, one of the proprietors of The Book and Puppet Company, has spearheaded efforts to continue this celebration of books even as a pandemic has changed the way we do everything.  Easton isn’t a huge city, but the Lehigh Valley is a book-friendly place.  When the will to organize book lovers exists, wonderful things can happen.  Books can build a community as well as be a community.

A friend recently said that the problem with writing books is that too many people do it.  I don’t see this as a problem.  Many self-published books do far better than those I’ve sent through more traditional channels.  They may put pressure on traditional models, but pressure isn’t always bad.  The route to publication is actually full of roadblocks—some accidental but many intentional.  One of the largest barricades is the fact that the publishing industry is a rather small one.  Major publishers have been monopolizing for years, bigger companies buying out successful smaller ones, so that the highway to publication now has many toll booths that require exact change.  There have always been those who can find their way through by an alternate route.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be part of the conversation.  If you’re near Easton come on out in person—bring a mask—and see what’s happening tomorrow.  If you’re not in the area take a look at the free content online.  I’m sure you’ll find something you like.


New Monster

The Babadook is a horror film about loneliness.  Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it has an arthouse cinema feel to it.  I missed it when it came out in 2014—it didn’t receive major billing and publicity in the United States—but it gained critical acclaim as intelligent horror.  It follows the small family of Amelia and her son Samuel, who has special needs.  I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers here because I think you should see it if you haven’t already.  Amelia’s husband died in a car crash taking her to the hospital to have their first child.  That haunting tragedy drives the film.  And when you throw a monster called the Babadook into the mix, loneliness and sleeplessness make the dark something to fear again.

With wonderful acting, the story of childhood monsters highlights the continuing plight of single mothers.  How are you supposed to survive when you have a child that requires constant supervision and yet you need to make ends meet?  And if sleeplessness begins to distort your sense of reality all kinds of things seem possible.  

Hollywood hasn’t been a friendly place for female directors.  This film was shot in Australia.  I’m not sure that sexual parity is better there, but this movie is a great example of what can happen when a woman shows what horror means to her.  Not too many horror movies have female directors, yet.  It seems to me that women have many things to fear and have much to show us about what horror can be.  It seems to me that loneliness, although often part of horror, isn’t often the focus.  We would rather look away than to see it because it’s too painful.  Horror compels us to look at what we’d rather not see.

Aside from all of this, the film gives us a new monster.  The Babadook was invented for this film and although we don’t have to worry about whether it’s real or not, the issues it brings to the fore certainly are.  There is darkness inside people.  Even those of us who try to do what is right struggle against it.  Often it takes quite a lot even to admit as much.  This movie lets the dark out and finds a new narrative path through which it might flow.  Although a box office success—earning more than it cost—The Babadook is still little known.  It should be discussed more because intelligent horror has some important lessons to teach us.


Interview Two

October turns the northern hemisphere mind toward Halloween.  It must be strange to receive northern media while living in the global south—Halloween occurs just as spring is getting underway.  I guess that’s what May Day’s for.  In any case, in the United States Halloween thinking is in nearly full swing.  My last two books, while not Halloween themed, look at horror films which, in keeping with October, are on everyone’s mind this season.  And it’s been quite a week for interviews.  The second half of my podcast interview on The Incarcerated Christian was posted yesterday.  If you want to hear more fun Q & A with Robin and Debra, click here.  I’ll post more about this Friday, but tomorrow my interview with Eric Ziolkowski of Lafayette College will air as part of the Easton Book Festival.  The festival’s going on right now, so be sure to check out the offerings online.

One bit of advice that I give as an editor: if you want to make it as an author you need to promote your own work.  Some of us were reared to believe that it’s in poor taste to do this, but in the internetted world it’s pretty much a requirement.  Something I learned from political activism is that every election is local.  Getting noticed also has to start in your own backyard.  I love doing interviews.  It’s always flattering to know that someone’s read your book and wants to know more about it.  I’ve started to explore the newish area of religion and horror.  From what we see in the news, it seems like it’s an area that’s likely to take off.  But only if those who work in it get their stuff out there where it can be seen.  (Or heard.)

Neither Holy Horror nor Nightmares with the Bible have sold very well.  They’re expensive, and academics, who will spend money on books, are still trying to decide if this area’s worth exploring.  I admit that there’s a puerile kind of naughtiness to taking monsters and “low brow” entertainment as a subject of study.  Horror, however, has lots of fans.  Perhaps not in the academy, but in the real world.  I like to think such marginal areas bring people together.  Horror, like demons, isn’t going away any time soon.  Instead of running away from what you fear, why not try embracing it?  If not even that, please consider the free content available on The Incarcerated Christian and the Easton Book Festival.  After all, Halloween’s just about here…


Kindred Spirit?

Possession stories have a poignancy to them that perhaps other horror stories lack.  The loss of self-control is a frightful thing.  Lisa Tuttle sets this up well in her novel Familiar Spirit, a tale that has recently been reissued.  The threat against a young women—the usual target of possession—leads to some scary moments here.  As the story unfolds Sarah has to deal with personal loss as she learns that the house she’s just rented is inhabited by an unfriendly spirit that seems to be a demon.  This is a haunting story that features a strong protagonist who ultimately has to decide what she really values most.  It’s a book that stays with you.

I discovered Tuttle by reading a book on female horror writers some time ago.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that female victims of possession match Poe’s dictum about the most poetic topic being the death of a beautiful woman.  That may sound sexist to modern ears, but Poe was a product of his time and he was a keen observer of what made stories memorable.  Possession has largely become a female phenomenon over the centuries.  The biblical stories about possession tend to have male victims, but by the Middle Ages the balance had shifted.  That gender imbalance continues today.  A friend recently asked whether shifting awareness of the gender as not strictly binary might change this in the future.  It’s a fascinating question, especially since we really don’t know what demons are.

Possession is a clash of the unknowns, which is fertile ground for fear of the unknown.  Feminist studies have begun to share space with studies of masculinity and both have been joined by analysts who study gender as nonbinary.  I suspect many of us really didn’t know about such things before the internet began to bring them to our attention.  Many people don’t want to accept such facts.  The world is easier to live in when everything is black or white, male or female, this or that.  Most things, we’re beginning to learn, are on a scale.  Human society, as it takes this into account, will inevitably, if slowly, change.  The old guard (angry white men, mostly) refuse to accept facts, trying to equate them with the person with the loudest voice.  This too is a kind of possession.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers for Familiar Spirit, but if you’re like me it’ll give you many things to think about.


Documenting Horror

Watching documentaries always seems to raise questions.  I recently found A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss on YouTube.  Produced by the BBC in 2010, the set of three episodes is a selective walk through the horror genre through the eyes of an insider in the film industry.  Divided over three segments, he covers early horror (primarily Frankenstein-related movies), British horror, and the American horror revival beginning in the late 1960s.  It occurred to me while watching this that horror is often—but not always—an intellectual genre.  Many of the plots and ideas are sophisticated and puzzling.  At one point Gatiss says it is nearly the perfect genre for movies.  I would tend to agree.  Many of the payoffs of horror are the reasons I go to see a movie.

Of course, documentaries involve interviews.  While discussing religion and horror—the two are closely related—in the third segment, he considers the impact of what I termed the “unholy trinity” in Holy Horror: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  His primary interview for this set was with David Seltzer, the screenwriter for the last of these.  At this point my memory took me back to an interview on one of the extras for my DVD edition of The Omen.  In that interview Seltzer mentions that the antichrist is at that moment (clearly this was shot shortly after the movie came out) walking the earth.  In my mind I compartmentalized this to interpret his stance as that of a religious conservative.  The idea of the Antichrist, after all, is post-biblical, at least in the sense that end-time scenarios are developed.

The Gatiss interview was filmed many years later and he asked Seltzer if he believed in the Devil.  “No,” Seltzer laughed, stating that if he did he wouldn’t work on movies like The Omen.  People’s opinions change over time, of course.  And the Devil and the Antichrist are two separate characters as they develop after the Bible was completed.  Still, I had to wonder if his earlier interview included that comment about the Antichrist being alive now wasn’t intended as a bit of spooky propaganda for the movie.  It’s difficult to know what someone really believes.  Most people mouth what their ministers say, not really considering where said clergy get their information.  For these many years I’ve been thinking that The Omen was considered as some kind of documentary by the screenwriter.  Documentaries always seem to raise questions.


Steel Industry

It was a building on Broadway, just south of Times Square.  I don’t know the name of the building or remember what business it may have housed, but I did notice on my quick walks through Manhattan on my way to the bus that it was being renovated.  The facing had been removed and an exposed I-beam bore the words Bethlehem Steel.  From coast to coast, and even to ships at sea, Bethlehem Steel was a major supplier.  Today the factory is still.  There’s a poignancy about such giants falling.  The world as we know it was largely constructed from the products of the still impressive, rusting reminder of days of glory.  No doubt the air is healthier to breathe and the noise level much more suited to humanity, but standing here next to this behemoth it’s easy to fall into a reverie.

I grew up near heavy industry.  Nobody in my family was directly involved, but my hometown had a steel mill just across the river and my next hometown housed an oil refinery.  Both are closed now and the area has been in an economic depression that has lasted for decades.  Industry on this kind of scale requires workers willing to sacrifice much in order just to survive in an industrial world.  Over 500 workers died over the years at the Bethlehem Steel plant.  Factory life involved dangerous jobs with machinery containing material at over 3,000 degrees, and single pieces of equipment that could easily crush a person beyond recognition.  Workers were in some sense expendable as the collective, the nation, grew.  The factory never shut down, running all through the night, seven days a week.  The profits were enormous.  So were the costs.

Global warming was well underway as the greenhouse gases belched into the sky.  Bethlehem Steel wasn’t the only polluter, of course.  Heavy industry, industrial farming, individual cars—we seem to be determined to poison the air we breathe in order to make money.  If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we’re all connected.  Rising prices and supply chain breakdowns have underscored that we all depend on each other worldwide.  Climate change has already assured that disruptions will continue and likely worsen.  There’s a kind of autumnal beauty in desolation.  These great steel stacks stand rusting and silent beneath a leaden but too warm sky.  Actions have consequences, and those that affect many create ripples that become waves.  We have created monsters but we can’t control them.