Zones of Twilight

The other day I saw a beautiful twilight moon.  This was in the morning twilight.  I suspect many people don’t realize that twilight comes twice a day.  Twilight is when dayglow either begins or ends but either before or after the sun itself is visible.  Most people are familiar with evening twilight since they stay awake until after dark.  Morning twilight, so full of hope, is beautiful to the point of being painful.  The other day it was twilight as work was starting—the days are beginning to lengthen since I’ve been starting work in the dark for months now.  A waning gibbous moon shown through a gauzy cloud cover in an indigo sky.  It was very cold outside, so I went to the window to take a picture with my phone.

The modern phone camera often misses the point.  I zoomed in on the moon—phone cameras are wide-angle, by default—and it kept sliding in and out of focus.  The sky was getting lighter by the second, and I was losing the opportune moment.  I tried moving the phone closer to the glass, then back a little.  Still out of focus.  Then I realized what was happening.  My phone was focusing on the dirt specks on the window.  (Hey, it’s winter, hardly the time to be out with the squeegee.)  It occurred to me that a life lesson was being offered.

Thich Nhat Hahn recently died.  He was a Zen Buddhist master, and his passing reminded me of the old Buddhist saying that the Buddha is not the moon but rather the hand pointing at the moon.  Religions often confuse the hand pointing for the truly sublime realm to which it points.  Worshipping the person instead of following her or his teachings is a standard feature of religions worldwide.  It is the reason for much of religious conflict.  Those who worship the figure soon come up with their own teachings that are unrecognizable when held up next to those of the departed leader.  They focus on the window, not the glowing moon beyond.  The sky was growing too light to capture the image that had struck me.  The moon was blurry in a way that my eye hadn’t experienced it.  The moment of teaching was past.  The lesson was over.  The best that I could do was spend  a long day working then try to recapture a moment that had occurred in twilight.


Movie History

We take much for granted.  Consider the movie.  We all know what movies are, and, prior to 2020 we all knew what the experience of going to the theater was.  Some of us even recall the drive-in experience.  Technology (and the pandemic) has changed all that.  People now watch movies at home, or alone on their devices.  Nevertheless, we still recognize what movies are and, being creatures drawn to story, we tend to enjoy them.  In fact, many theorists of myth see cinema as the new mythology.  Myths give us meaning and we tend to find meaning in films.  We also find information in them.  One of the points I’ve argued in my own work is that people learn about their religion from what they consume in the media.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith offers a compact introduction to how we got here in this little book.  The Very Short Introductions have wide recognition among those who want to learn something authoritative without taking too much time to do it.  This introduction to cinema history is a wonderful overview of a complex subject.  A few things became clear to me in reading it: cinema began as, and remains, an artistic industry.  Other art forms developed as personal expression of visual, aural, or written expression.  They eventually codified into art forms such as painting, symphonic music, or novels.  Cinema, instead, grew out of the film industry and sought to become a new way of expressing artistic ideas.  Clearly it has done so successfully.  Not only that, unlike other art forms, it has always been a business.

Initially, photographic equipment was too expensive for most dilettantes.  Studios brought together people with skills in the many areas required to put a movie together.  You needed actors, directors, film developers, sound engineers, props and crews to make sets.  Indeed, most art—such as book writing, or music albums—is a group effort.  Movies especially so.  And these people have to be paid.  Film has, and has always had, a profit motive.  While you get the sense that many artists would’ve painted even if they starved (and many did), and that most of us who write will do it regardless of not getting any profit from it, cinema would’ve collapsed without it.  There’s a lot packed into this small book.  For those who may have been reading about film for many years it will contain startling insights.  A wide-angle book with a variety of lenses, it brings many things into succinct focus.


Footprints in the Snow

Although my back’s grateful, many of the snowstorms rolling across the country have left just a small bit of snow here so far.  Small bits of snow create their own hazards, however.  A snow covered trail quickly becomes hazardous for jogging, so I walk.  This past week we had a little snow and temperatures low enough to dissuade many of those who normally walk or run the trail.  Those of us with desk jobs really have to make an effort to move.  When I was out I was surprised by a couple of things.  There were no other lunch-time walkers and it was above freezing.  The almost untrodden snow gave under my feet and in the patches where the sun made it through, was actually wet.  I took my usual constitutional and headed back to work.

These short, cold winter days are too treacherous for walking in the dark.  Black ice isn’t a myth unless you can slip and fall on a myth.  The next day it was bitterly cold.  Still, skipping exercise a day is a slippery slope.  I headed back to the trail.  At first my footsteps from the previous day had led to a regular set of tracks where the snow had melted down and the pea gravel had dried out.  Walking was safe here.  As I reached the further, more wooded end of the trail it was quite different.  Sheltered by the trees, my foot prints from the previous day had slightly melted and then refroze, leaving a track of ice that could easily twist an ankle.  I began to think of the concept of following.

We find those whose wisdom compels us.  We hear them in the classroom, the pulpit, or the street corner.  Or we read them in a book.  We might even see them on television or the internet.  They seem to have something we lack, so we follow them.  Their tracks often start out secure enough.  Dry patches in an otherwise slippery covering of snow.  We follow on, thinking we’ve found our way.  Somewhat further down the path, however, the tracks become icy, showing us that even the great leaders have their own hidden secrets.  The places where they too slip and fall.  The wisdom we seek is collective.  No one person has all the answers.  If that were so it should be obvious to us all.  Instead we need to strike out on that nearly unbroken snow to discover for ourselves.


Saint Maud is one of those movies that requires some thought.  (And I’ve been giving it plenty.)   It follows a brief time in the life of Maud, a hospice nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of one of her patients.  Maud has direct experiences of God, like Teresa of Ávila but the film doesn’t make it clear, until the very end, if she suffers delusions.  After the traumatic loss of a patient at the beginning of the film she becomes a devout Catholic and when she feels she isn’t succeeding in her mission she punishes herself by using medieval-level means.  She hears God talking to her and what he (yes, he’s male) demands makes the viewer wonder if she’s found the correct spiritual entity.  Moody, edgy, and theological, Saint Maud is another example of how horror and religion work together.

It’s one of those movies that, when you finish it you start looking around for someone to talk to about it.  Of course, I watched it alone, wearing headphones, so I had dialogue with my own imagination.  One of the founding principles of cinema was the realization that viewers liked to discuss what they’d just experienced.  The other horror fans I know tend to be academics far removed from here.  I don’t know any of them well enough to pick up the phone, or call up on  Zoom, and say “Hey, let’s talk about Saint Maud.”  The thing is, I understand some of the doubts and motivations of Maud.  It’s always that way when religious interactions are with an invisible, petulantly silent deity.  Kind of like watching horror movies alone.

Horror has proven to be a kind of therapy for me.  The stresses of life are many and unrelenting.  Watching someone even worse off can help, as long as it’s fiction.  The world we’ve created is a very unfair place.  Many people suffer so that a few can enjoy more than they deserve.  Their lifestyle is protected by lawmakers that they buy while others suffer.  I’d just spend a day hearing about such injustices, and then paying hefty bills, and it seemed that some weekend horror was just what the doctor ordered.  I’ll probably watch Saint Maud again once I’ve had time to recover, and to think about the implications of the story.  Horror and religion have a viable partnership.  Such films occasionally become blockbusters, but sometimes they’re smaller affairs waiting to haunt us on weekends after hearing about the sad state of the Frankenstein world we’ve all created together.


Prolonged Re-entry

It’s a trope as old as holiday decorations themselves.  We all know the house (or plural) where the Christmas decorations remain until it’s warm and light enough to go out and take them down.  The same thing happens inside our house, on a smaller scale.  Bits of the holiday—whether it be Christmas cards on the mantle, or the not quite spent candles from the Yule log—remain, while we reluctantly reenter BAU (business as usual).  It’s a process best taken slowly.  I suspect many of us find AU (as usual) to be not really ideal.  Too many bills, too much Covid, too much of a demand made on that non-renewable resource, time.  I know people happy to see the holidays go, but I’m already counting the days until they come again.

January, whose end is fast approaching, is a waiting time.  Waiting to recover from perhaps a little bit too much holiday spending.  Waiting for a bit more light and warmth.  Waiting for that package to arrive.  Waiting for the plumber to call back.  Waiting for, well, business as usual.  I read about holidays quite a lot.  They wouldn’t be special if they happened all the time, of course.  And we need the supply chain that demands steady production of goods and services from those not actually chained to a desk all day.  Still, I can imagine a different world.  One in which there is time to get the non-work stuff done as well as filling obligations to capitalism, pouring out our libation to the emperor.  Many analysts are suggesting technology has increased efficiency to the point that a four-day work week is optimal.  Who’s going to pay the same for less, however?

Time is a commodity.  I’ve got a lot of projects outside work that I really want to finish.  Some of them, like that junk car in my step-dad’s yard, could turn a profit if only I had the time to spend on them.  Meanwhile there’s work to be done.  Long days in front of the computer knowing there’s something more exciting after it’s all over.  When work’s done I’m too tired to get much accomplished.  It’s like the endless lapping of the waves on the sea shore.  Unchanging.  Persistent.  Aware there’s always a coming storm.  So I’m sitting here with Tom Petty, waiting.  Even if we don’t know what comes next.  Let’s call it a holiday.


H. P. Luca

Disney has a lot of cash lying around, which means they can buy things.  One of those acquisitions, some years ago, was Pixar.  In my mind Pixar is now Disney, but in fact it does have a different aesthetic.  One of Pixar’s recurring themes is acceptance of those who are different.  Luca is Disney with a touch of Lovecraft.  This Pixar animation feature is about sea monsters acclimating to human culture, only they turn back into sea monsters when they get wet.  Kind of a combination between The Little Mermaid and Splash.  Even the Italian village in which Luca and his friend Alberto show up looks like the Imboca of Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (yes, I know Imboca is in Spain and I also know it’s fictional).  The villagers are, predictably, terrified of sea monsters since they earn their living from the sea.

In Luca once sea monsters come onto land they become human.  In fact, their culture below the surface is pretty much like human culture above.  The Lovecraftian element comes in the sea “monsters” (those in Luca are generally cute) coming to live among humans.  Lovecraft was, somewhat infamously, a racist.  While there’s no excusing that, there’s also no question that his fear of “the other” often develops the creepy atmosphere for which he became posthumously famous.  Cthulhu and many of the other great old gods dwell beneath the sea.  Human interactions with them generally lead to the humans becoming insane because of the implications.  Here Pixar adds its own twist—maybe humans are insane already.  What we permit in our societies is often less than humane.  At least with Lovecraft we could blame monsters.

Monsters are a reflection of humanity.  We take what we least like about ourselves and project it onto often fictional creatures that dwell beyond the bounds of human habitation.  We fear those who are different.  In more current thinking, that means humans should be accepting of other humans who don’t conform.  Those who think different, or, more especially, those who look different.  Sea monsters, at least hominid ones, hold great symbolic value.  They live in a world we barely know and to which we have little access.  Their lives under the great pressure of all that water must be very different from ours.  It’s only when we get beyond seeing them as monsters that we grow as humans.  If you follow the Creature of the Black Lagoon series to the end you see this playing out in black and white.  Sea monsters have much to teach us.


Out of Hades

They went together naturally, like chocolate and peanut butter.  Just about seven months ago Jim Steinman died.  Then yesterday, Meat Loaf.  They were both born in 1947 and together they made one of the best selling albums of all time, Bat Out of Hell.  I’m saddened by the loss of perhaps the only truly Wagnerian Rock performer.  After I discovered Bat Out of Hell, raising some eyebrows among those who knew me as a kid, I was hooked.  I bought all the Meat Loaf and Steinman collaborations.  Not only was Meat Loaf’s voice big, it was also sincere.  It was easy to believe the stories he was singing to us, no matter how fantasy-prone they might’ve been.  Once I start listening to one of his albums I end up going through them all.

When we become aware of music helps to define it.  I became aware of Bat Out of Hell during my Nashotah House years.  Still fearful from my evangelical upbringing, I wondered what students might think when they came over.  (Nashotah is a residential campus, and this was largely before the days when faculty were fearful of being alone with a student.)  As strange as it may sound, for a best-selling album, I was unfamiliar with any of the songs before I bought it.  I’ve never been much of a radio listener.  I agonized quite a bit before finally buying the CD.  I quickly came to see why it was so popular.  More than anything, it was the sincerity of Meat Loaf’s voice.

That music saw me through some dark times.  Attending mass in the mornings and listening to Meat Loaf at night proved an effective elixir.  The longer I was at Nashotah the more I came to associate it with the titular geonym.  Eventually Bat Out of Hell II came out.  I was less slow about acquiring it.  The third one appeared only after my teaching career ended.  When things went south at Nashotah, I decided that I would perform some symbolic actions during my departure.  There was nobody there to witness any of them—no person is indispensable to an institution and you’re soon forgotten.  The last thing packed from our on-campus house was the stereo.  I went back alone to get it and the few last-minute belongings from well over a decade in a place of torment.  Just before leaving campus for the last time I cranked the stereo up and played “Bat Out of Hell” at full volume.  An era has come to an end.


Getting Used

Unknowing is a blessing in disguise sometimes.  There is so much to learn and, regrettably, little time outside work to do it.  Books are my life.  I work in publishing, so I know a passable amount about the book business.  I have much still to learn.  To support my research, which doesn’t include a university library, I often have to purchase academic books.  I know quite a bit about academic book pricing (hint: what the market will bear), and I know that it’s assumed academics have university professor-level salaries.  The “independent scholar” is as much a ghost as the next revenant.  So I buy books used.  The best clearinghouse I know of is Bookfinder.com.  They list other sellers who have the book and facilitate your buying of it.  I strongly suspect they take a small cut.

While looking for an obscure book (it pains me to say, for I met the author), I wondered if Amazon’s used copy had the lowest price.  So I went to Bookfinder.  The Amazon copy was there, along with seven comparably, slightly lower, priced other copies.  Reading the descriptions, I realized these were different vendors hawking the exact same copy of the book.  Some of the description wording was oddly specific and that led to this epiphany.  Down at the bottom was a lone seller some $4 to $5 dollars cheaper, selling the book directly.  Navigating to this page I discovered it was the self-same book—the same physical book being marked up by the other vendors.  Each reseller along the way, with wider reach, stopping at Amazon with the widest reach, was charging a finder’s fee for this same object.  It was available directly from the seller.

Used books are a thriving business.  Many publishers these days are focusing on “the electronic future,” scratching their heads that people are still reading paper.  What will happen to walking into that impressive library?  Have you ever walked into someone’s impressive iPad or Kindle?  It looks the same no matter how many electrons you add.  The internet has been taken with the photo of the late Johns Hopkins humanities professor Richard Macksey’s library.  Would it be possible to have walked in there and not been impressed with the obvious love of books?  As a Hopkins professor I doubt he had to resort to used books much, but I kind of think he probably did anyway.  Bibliophiles are like that.  A first edition is a thing of beauty forever.  And so I find myself on Bookfinder and I’m willing to give them a cut just for the privilege of holding a coveted book.

Richard Macksey’s home library. Credit: Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University

Making Noise

There’s a real danger, it seems, to having an open mind.  We live in a world defined and classified by materialists.  They hold sway not only over science and commerce, but in whether prestigious jobs are on offer.  Consider the case of William Roll.  Roll was a fully credentialed psychologist with an interest in parapsychology.  His book The Poltergeist is a classic in the field.  He’s now frequently called a “credulous investigator.”  What that means, of course, is that he listened to and sometimes believed the people who reported the paranormal.  For materialists that discussion is already closed.  Anyone who tries to pry it back open is ridiculed and called names.  (We’re all adults here, right?)  Yet his classic book still gives pause.

If you actually read it, “credulous” is not a word to suggest itself.  Could Roll have been tricked by clever pranksters?  Yes.  Most people, even clever pranksters, can.  If someone is caught hoaxing a phenomenon, does that mean the whole thing is a hoax?  Not necessarily.  It’s here the materialists swarm.  Interestingly, Roll acknowledges that there could be good psychological reasons for hoaxing after a genuine event.  The person caught hoaxing perhaps realized the benefits of the attention received when something unexplained occurred, and learned how to replicate, or at least imitate it.  People will do anything for attention.  Roll asked a bit more finely parsed question: does hoaxing discount genuine phenomena?  He even tried to get experiencers to the lab where controls could be put into place.  As this book demonstrates, he doubted some of the cases and did so openly.

I became interested in Roll after watching A Haunting in Georgia.  The Wyrick family maintains that the events happened (I’ve written about a book penned by two of the aunts), and they seem sincere.  The problem is money.  Once there’s potential money to be made the skeptics come out, claws bared.  The problem is we all have to make money to survive.  If that involves “capitalizing”—even that word betrays much—on weird things that happen to you, skeptics claim it’s all made up.  There’s an ulterior motive.  For most of us there’s an ulterior motive for going to work, too.  For me, Roll appears to have been sufficiently skeptical.  Statistical anomalies shouldn’t be simply dismissed.  If they are, it’s possible we’re missing something important.  While this book may not have aged particularly well, it is still worth reading with a mind at least a little bit open.  


Nightmares with Poe

A review of Nightmares with the Bible recently appeared in which the reviewer said he didn’t get the Poe references.  Indeed, the anonymous reviewer said the same thing.  What neither of them understood is that Edgar Allan Poe has been formative for my life and that book was a tribute to him.  Did Poe write about demons?  Not really.  Did he once claim that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic theme?  Yes.  I saw the opportunity, in discussing possession movies, to draw Poe’s observation into the conversation.  Could the book have been written without it?  Yes and no.  Yes, I could’ve written a book on demons without mentioning Poe.  No, I would likely not be writing books at all were it not for Poe.

Today is Poe’s birthday.  What is this strange attraction I have for him?  It began, as most things do for me, with growing up poor.  We couldn’t afford bookstore prices, and that’s even assuming there was a bookstore nearby (there wasn’t).  I found the majority of my reading material at Goodwill in Seneca, Pennsylvania.  The shop had a book bin or two with prices I could afford (books were a quarter, if I recall).  I found a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror there.  I probably heard about Poe from my big brother—he’s a good source for scary information.  Reading Poe, I wanted to read more.  We couldn’t afford Scholastic school fare rates, but I did find a four-or-five volume collection of Poe’s writings at Goodwill.  Foolishly, I bought only two—those with his stories.

By high school I was checking out biographies of Poe from the library.  Perhaps as the child of an alcoholic I identified with a man who seemed so tormented.  I count his stories still among my favorites.  My favorite short story is, I believe, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It has come back to me at several points in my life and I find myself thinking about that gloomy house.  Particularly the narrator’s arrival there.  So full of possibilities.  So much potential fear.  Those of us who consume horror have a gateway to it—some event, or influence, or person who introduced the aesthetic of fear to us.  For me it was Edgar A. Poe.  Nightmares with the Bible is of a piece with Holy Horror.  To leave Poe out of it would’ve been the worst kind of sacrilege.


Are Ghosts Monsters?

It’s a question as old as my interest in horror.  As a child I kept ghosts distinct from monsters.  Ghosts may be scary, yes, but they’re people who’ve died.  Then zombies came along.  I was too young to watch Night of the Living Dead when it came out (I was only six).  Depending on how far you want to go with this, among the classic monsters they’re pretty much all human.  Dracula is undead, but originally human.  Frankenstein’s creature is dead folks stitched together.  The mummy is a person reanimated.  The invisible man is, well, a man.  So is the wolf-man.  The latest of the Universal line-up, the gill-man was more a human-like reptile with gills.  To add a few other favorites, Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll.  Witches were magical women.  For sure, there are plenty of non-human monsters (Godzilla, the blob, and those various giant spiders) but it seems much of what we fear is warmed over human.

So ghosts—are they monsters?  I still have a difficult time sorting that out.  They seem different from other revenants, don’t they?  Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally don’t really pose an existential threat, do they?  (Unless one of them was a psychotic killer or something.)  Yet we still fear ghosts.  Many horror movies and novels feature them.  It seems more because they represent the unknown in a kind of ultimate way.  We can’t die to find out and then come back.  Although, it seems, that’s just what ghosts do.  That liminal line, or terminal line in the sand is the point of no return for the human imagination.  Yet on a dark night in a creaky old house it feels like more than just imagination.  Of course, other monsters could be lurking in the dark.

Image credit: Henry Justice Ford, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about horror is that it holds up a mirror.  We see what really does scare us and what we see reflected back is human.  We all die and most of us don’t like to think about that.  Ghosts force us to.  They make us confront perhaps the most primal of fears.  There are, of course, bad ghost—dybbuks and hungry ghosts and whatnot.  Of course they’re monsters.  But considering the garden variety, or perhaps haunted-house variety ghost suggests maybe our fears are misplaced.  Monsters can be scary.  Ghosts don’t have to be.  We classify them all together as horror, but that may be a hasty judgment.  As least for someone who used to be, and maybe still is, simply human.


In the Name of

I recently heard someone who’s obsessed with honorifics opine that we should never mention Martin Luther King Jr. without his full titles.  I think I understand the reason, but I was reminded of my wife’s experience in Edinburgh.  Being Americans we assumed that “Doctor” was the preferred title of academics.  While tying up a letter for one of the higher ups in the medical school, she saw he’d signed himself “Mr. Gordon.”  She corrected this to “Dr. Gordon.”  When she gave it to him to sign he lamented that she’d demoted him.  The highest honorific, beyond the exalted “Professor,” was the humble “Mister.”  I’ve never forgotten that story.  University folk are all about titles.

I made the mistake of addressing my advisor as “Doctor” when we first met.  “Professor,” he corrected me.  In the British system, at least at the time, a department had only one “Professor,” the rest being “Lecturer” or “Senior Lecturer” or “Reader.”  The latter three were all addressed as “Doctor.”  The Professor alone had that singular title.  As my wife discovered, on beyond Professor lay Mister.  I’m a pretty informal guy.  When I was teaching I did insist that students call me “Doctor,” in part because I was young (I finished my doctorate at 29), and I’m small in stature.  And soft-spoken.  So that students didn’t take to calling me “son”—some at the seminary were old enough to have been my father—I kept the boundaries clear.  If I ever get a teaching post again I’ll insist students call me by my first name.

This day is about Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was a remarkable man who accomplished amazing things in the horribly racist America in which he was raised.  Unfortunately Trump has ushered in a renewed era of racism and our Black brothers and sisters find themselves still having to fight for fair treatment.  This reflects badly on the white man, as it should.  Still, to rely on titles is to play the white man’s game.  We honor each other more deeply, it seems to me, when we recognize that titles are, by their very nature, means of asserting superiority.  We offer our personal names to those closest to us, to those who humanize us rather than seeing us as an office.  Honor is important.  Titles can lead to better jobs (but not necessarily).  They can lead to higher pay (but not always).  We honor Martin Luther King, Jr. today by recognizing his great accomplishments and by realizing we all still have much work to do before we all really have names.


Higher Learning?

I was reading, as one does, about a mental institution.  In the last century they were often called, rather insensitively, “lunatic asylums.”  The neurodiverse were often shunted away so that the rest of society could get on with business as usual (as if that’s sane).  There were any number of reasons sought for such individuals thinking differently.  The source I was reading had a short list and I was surprised to see on it, “over study of religion.”  It really said nothing more about it but it left me wondering.   First of all, it brought Acts 26.24 to mind: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad!”  Religion, from the very start, it seems, had the reputation of driving people insane.

Image credit: Published by W. H. Parrish Publishing Company (Chicago), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who’s spent well over half a century thinking about religion, reading about religion, and analyzing religion, I can see Festus might’ve had a point.  This way much madness lies.  I don’t think religion evolved to be thought about.  It was largely a fear reaction to being, in reality, rather helpless in a world full of predators and other natural dangers.  Although we’ve managed to wipe out most of our large predators, we’re still under the weather, as it were.  We can’t control it, and what messing around we’ve done through global warming has made it less hospitable to our species and several others.  And also the small predators, those that evolve quickly, such as Covid-19, are now the real challenge.  Facing fear was the real evolutionary advantage of religion.

Being story-telling creatures, we made narratives about our belief systems.  Then we started taking those stories literally.  Believing too seriously, we used those stories as a basis for hating and killing those with different stories.  We still do.  Can anyone deny Festus’ accusation?  I’m sure religious mania has, historically, led to some institutionalizations.  It was kind of a trope in the seventies, for example, that too much Bible-reading could lead to criminal behavior.  It’s not difficult to see why those trying to classify what might make an individual off balance might look to religion as an explanation.  Nationally, and very publicly, we can see strident examples of this promotion of irrational ideas on a daily basis.  Many of the large mental institutions have been closed down and many of the neurodiverse have been turned out to the streets.  Ironically, it is often the religious who try to care for them.  Understanding religion, it seems to me, might be a great public good.


Rusticated Fears

I don’t recommend sick days.  This one was weird with all the symptoms of illness but really having them just be the side-effects of a shingles vaccine.  I don’t recommend it, but I was able to use the day, between dozing off, by watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.  This late 2021 documentary is over 3 hours long and I’d been wondering when I’d have the chance to view such a lengthy movie.  Besides, when you’re feeling utterly miserable, horror is a kind of elixir to make it all better.  Watching the film made me aware of just how many movies I haven’t seen.  Another way of putting it is that I still have my work cut out for me.

Folk horror, you see, has a natural appeal for those of us who grew up away from urban centers.  Much that we did in the small towns of my childhood was, frankly, weird.  As the interviewees make plain, cities are the centers of economic and cultural power.  The big educational institutions are there and those of us from the hinterlands might not obey the rules that city dwellers seem to absorb through their feet.  In reality, I suspect, urban culture largely derives from folk culture.  Those who venture away into the large cities take pieces of their home with them.  Cities tend to blend all this together and transform it into something different.  Those in rural areas, however, have their own way of doing things.

Perhaps it’s embarrassing to center this much, but it was clear to me in watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that much of the fear showcased to city folks (for movies tend to be shown in urban settings) is the weird religion of the country cousins.  Both the words “pagan” and “heathen” are references to those who dwell outside urban areas.  “Pagan” comes from Latin for rustic, while “heathen” means those out in the heath.  Mainstream religion is that of the cities—the Vatican is located in Rome, and the large mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals are in population centers.  There’s no telling what the country dwellers might get up to if left to their own devices.  And religion taken seriously can be quite dangerous to outsiders, as we’ve seen time and time again.  Folk horror never really went away but it is undergoing a resurgence at the moment.  As the documentary suggests, this tends to happen in times of social instability.  At least we have something to look forward to as the world collapses around us.  Folk horror will help us cope, if my experience is anything to go by.


Homegrown Haunts

The thing about the unknown is that it’s, well, unknown.  Like many people I’m interested in getting at the truth behind ghost claims, so American Hauntings: The True Stories behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies—from The Exorcist to The Conjuring, by Robert E. Bartholomew and Joe Nickell looked helpful.  Indeed, it is.  To a degree.  The book, however, devolves at points to debunking cases that aren’t in the movies and frequently asks “Why didn’t somebody take a picture?”  (In cases where there are pictures they say how they could be faked.)  Given the authors, you kind of know none of the claims will be accepted.  Even so, there’s a lot of good information here.  They do a great job of outlining the very probable hoax at Amityville.  For some of the lesser known cases they offer explanations harder to believe than the poltergeists they so abhor.

That’s the thing: for all the “hauntings” they default to poltergeists and then explain how poltergeists are faked.  They begin with An American Haunting, and move on to The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting in Connecticut.  Sandwiched in there is also the non-movie Don Decker case.  What struck me as strange is they often seem offended that movies embellish stories.  That’s what movies do.  They’re quite right about the money aspect, however.  They also take in films that make no claims about being true, such as Poltergeist, which drew inspiration from an actual case but didn’t make that assertion.  It’s also odd that they didn’t ask some of the writers about this.  I once met Brent Monahan, author of An American Haunting.  He readily admitted some of it was made up.  In other words, taking offense at the “based on a true story claim” feels a bit naive.

In some cases they speculate what might’ve happened without visiting the location.  It’s hard to tell if a leaky roof can explain things when you don’t specify if the room is on the first or second floor.  Also, suggesting a young boy is faking because a professional magician can duplicate effects raises its own set of questions.  If a kid is as good as a professional, why doesn’t s/he go on the circuit and make some money from it?  That kind of question, by the way, characterizes much of the skepticism in the book.  Why not become a magician?  Because we don’t have the whole story.  It seems to me that dismissiveness doesn’t really help to get at the truth.  Nevertheless, this book contains much that is useful and skeptical voices should always be included when attempting to sort our extraordinary claims, even if you never , ever want to be caught without a camera.