About Steve Wiggins

Associate Editor, Oxford University Press.

Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Pay Per View

One of the things editors can teach academics is that the latter should pay more attention.  Especially to the world of publishing.  An erstwhile academic, I learned to go about research and publication in the traditional way: come up with an idea that nobody else has noticed or thought of, and write about it.  It is “publishing for the sake of knowledge.”  (Yes, that is Gorgias Press’s slogan, and yes, it is one of my hooks—marketing, anyone?)  The idea behind this is that knowledge is worth knowing for its own sake.  Researchers of all kinds notice details of immense variety and there’s always room for more books.  Or at least there used to be.  The world of publishing on which academics rely, however, is rapidly transforming.  Money changes everything.

The world has too many problems (many of them generated by our own species) to pay too much attention to academics.  Universities, now following “business models” crank out more doctorates than there are jobs for employing said wannabe profs, and those who get jobs pay scant attention to knock-on changes in the publishing world.  Just the other day I was reading about “pay per use” schemes for academic writing that, unsurprisingly, came up with the fact that most academic books and articles lose money.  If someone has to pay to read your research, will they do it?  Especially if that research is on a topic that has no obvious connection with the mess we’re busy making of this world?  Probably not.  Publishing for the sake of knowledge is fast becoming a dusty artifact in the museum of quaint ideas.

For those still in the academic sector that means that research projects now have to be selected with an economic element in mind.  “Would anyone pay for this?” has to be one of the questions asked early on.  The question has to be answered honestly, which requires getting out from beyond the blinders of being part of the privileged class of those who are paid to think original thoughts.  Academia has followed the money.  A capitalistic system makes this inevitable.  How can you do business with an institution that doesn’t play by your accounting rules?  And academic publishers, which have difficulty turning a profit due to low sales volume, are bound to play along.  This situation will change how we seek knowledge.  More’s the pity since some of the things most interesting about the world are those that nobody would think to pay to view.

Fearing Hubris

I’m afraid of hubris.  You see, my academic career was not exactly distinguished, and as an editor you’re encouraged to keep to the background.  Still, when you write a book you need to promote it a little, which is one of the things I learned as an editor.  I was equally parts embarrassed and pleased to see the bookstore display for my upcoming book signing in Bethlehem.  I mean, although I wrote Holy Horror for a general readership, the publisher tends more toward academic books and their pricing, so this is not an inexpensive purchase.  Those who write are nothing, however, without readers.  Those chosen for interviews are writers who’ve made a sales impact or who have a university behind them.  When it’s just me, it feels like maybe I’m trying to ascend Olympus on my own initiative.

I was in the Moravian Book Shop to purchase Neal Stephenson’s Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.  I’ve fallen a bit behind on Neal’s work, largely because Goodreads challenges are measured in numbers of tomes read.  I was pondering this, book in hand, when I noticed—there I was with my own display.  You see, Holy Horror was meant as a guilty pleasure read for those of us who like the scary time of year.  The book price is the scariest part about it, however.  I feel a profound gratitude when anyone actually buys it.  Since there are now copies available on sites such as eBay, I’m guessing some who’ve read it want to recoup a little of the cash outlaid.  While all of this is happening, however, I know that I have to learn the art of book promoting.  Still, it feels like that self-promoting I was warned against as a kid, an unseemly thing.

Writing is a form of conversation.  When I’m in a room with a bunch of other people unless I’m the teacher I have trouble making myself heard.  I’m soft-spoken by nature.  I suppose it’s obvious, then, why a book signing feels hubristic.  Perhaps it’s appropriate for a book about fear to engender this sense of discomfort.  Entering the conversation has always been difficult for me.  At the same time, as the beneficiary of so many books, I feel compelled to give something back.  My insights, if such there be, won’t rock the world.  As I think of myself signing books, I wonder what I could possibly say to someone who’s willing to pay that price for something I produced.  If you’re going to try to climb that mountain, you’d better think about what you’ll say when you meet the gods at the summit.

Paradoxical Psychology

In college I took enough psychology courses that I could have minored in it, had I simply declared it.  Focused on ministry at the time, this declaration never happened.  My own psychological issues (who doesn’t have them?) show up, I suspect, to those skilled at spotting such things, and friends sometimes suggest books I might enjoy reading.  As a result I recently finished Paradox and Counter-Paradox by Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Luigi Boscolo, Gianfrancro Cecchin, and Guiliana Prata.  Attempting to summarize the study would necessarily over-simplify what is clearly a very complex topic—what used to be called schizophrenia—but the basic idea can be explained.  These psychoanalysts worked as a team to help patients with (since it was the 1970s) schizophrenia.  Realizing that the basic mental processes are developed within a family, their practice used group therapy to treat families rather than singling out the “sick individual.”  This book is an account of the methods they used.

Seeing schizophrenia as a family issue rather than an individual one, the therapists saw the identified patient as often a child trying to keep family expectations in order.  The psychoanalyst team called this a “game” played by families seeking homeostasis—the perceived state of balance between members to assure that things stay the same.  The psychotic member enables this to happen and families, as recounted in some of the cases, clearly try to manipulate the situation to keep this strange and awkward balance.  The doctors used paradoxical (thus the title) scenarios to treat such families and reported a good rate of success.  The focal point of their work was often not on the “sick” member, but on the group dynamics which led to the sickness.

The idea is a fascinating one.  We are all members of families (with some exceptions), and the way our group functions is, for the most part, acceptable.  Dysfunction, however, sometimes leads to psychosis, which, according to these authors, is a state of affairs best treated on a family scale.  While it may be easy for me (having grown up in a clearly dysfunctional family) to see this, I sometimes wonder at how widespread mental issues really are.  Our species lives a highly unnatural existence for evolved beings.  Our work together in family units often leads to conflicts, overt and subtle.  Children—often the identified patients here—can see such things much more clearly than we frequently suppose.  Afraid of the consequences, they learn to play the game to keep the situation stable, if untenable.  There’s great insight here, even if the book is a touch outdated; our learning about the human mind is never-ending and it makes perfect sense to pay attention to the context when wondering about the results. 

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.

Scrolls Not Living

Of the many ancient finds in Western Asia, none captured the imagination like the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The timing and romance of the find itself, the scandals that almost immediately broke out, and the subsequent “secrecy” over the contents made the secular news.  I’m convinced that a large part of the mystique has to do with the somewhat spooky name—Qumran scrolls never caught on, even though it is more accurate for many of the documents.  Their discovery came after the Second World War when people were wanting good news, and, perhaps, an indication that all of this stuff was somehow predicted.  Enter the scrolls.  No doubt, these documents gave us quite a lot of information on the Second Temple Period—the time from the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple in the sixth century BCE until its destruction under the Romans in the first century CE.  Now the scrolls are back in the news.

A story by Nicola Davis in The Guardian announces that the origin of the scrolls is once again open to interpretation.  The reason is somewhat technical—scrolls that were written on vellum (animal skins) had to be prepared for writing.  One of the steps involved chemically treating the writing surface with a fine powder (the details are beyond me) so that it could be written upon.  We’ve reached the point where the salts left behind can be tested for place of origin.  The Guardian story notes that the Temple Scroll—one of the important non-biblical texts—was not prepared at Qumran (the site where most of the scrolls were found).  That means that the scroll itself came from elsewhere, depending upon with whom you speak.  The scrolls gather controversy like the Ugaritic tablets gather dust.  

Part of the charm here is that there are many unanswered questions about these ancient texts.  Who exactly wrote them is debated.  Their find-spot suggests they were hidden away by the quasi-monastics who lived in nearby Qumran, but this doesn’t mean they necessarily wrote them.  It’s still debated whether the Qumran community was made up of Essenes or not.  One thing we do know about them is that they were able librarians.  The scrolls themselves are symbolic of the strife in the region, having been discovered just as Israel was declared a nation.  The scrolls were quickly politicized.  They were kept under the auspices of a small group of academics and priests for many decades.  And they still have a way of catching headlines.  Even when its a matter of who powdered their faces.