Natural Disasters

Like many, my heart goes out to those in Turkey and Syria suffering through the destruction and aftermath of a major earthquake.  Such natural disasters often bring out the best in people—empathy, love, and offers of support.  They lead to both tragedy and human warmth.  They also give us pause to reflect, if we will, on our worst behaviors.  Rescue efforts have been hampered, in Syria especially, by a weakened infrastructure, caused, at least in part, by foreign bombing.  And yes, the United States was part of that.  People who now feel our sympathy only months before faced death from us.  What is it about our species that makes us want to destroy one another through our own technology but then turns and wants to help when a “random” act of nature occurs?  We must prefer death on our own terms.

Image credit: Luca Comerio (1878-1940), Corpses of victims of the earthquake in Messina, via Wikimedia Commons

For me, part of this is reflected in how the so-called “culture of life” treats liberal social causes as the “culture of death.”  Those groups that support “the culture of life” are against abortion but desire no controls on gun ownership.  This is the same basic principle—we want to cause death on our own terms.  We want to play God and decide who is worth saving and who should be destroyed.  I have no doubt that if, say, a tornado destroyed an entire city block outside a convention center where the NRA was meeting that those at the conference would rush out to try to help find survivors.  When they reconvened, they would try to figure out how to protect their “right” to own and collect assault rifles.  Is this “culture of life” really worth preserving?

Meanwhile the people of Syria and Turkey are suffering.  Thousands are dead, winter is setting in, and Covid is still out there.  They need our help.  The amount we spend on aid will, however, pale next to the amount we spend on bombs, drones, and missiles.  I have to wonder if we never really stop to think about what we’re doing when we engage in behaviors that destroy others.  That weeping mother outside an earthquake-collapsed building could be the same mother outside a missile-collapsed structure.  With natural disasters we know that we all stand a chance of being victims.  We feel for those caught in the way.  Once politics enters the picture, however, and we have the ability to control who lives or dies, everything changes.


Pumpkin Season

A creature feature with a moral.  Not a bad way to think through ethical dilemmas.  You see, we don’t have a lot of extra money lying around, so when I need a pick-me-up I try to find something free to watch.  Well, free because I subscripted to Amazon Prime years and years ago for the free shipping and now it involves “free to me” streaming on select titles.  Often I learn about movies from browsing and that’s how I came across Pumpkinhead.  I’ve learned my lesson about just clicking through without checking it out ahead of time.  It turns out the Pumpkinhead, apart from having major studio backing, was pretty favorably reviewed back in 1989.  My wife and I were in Edinburgh at the time, newly wed and trying to concentrate on doctorates.  I hadn’t been bumped back into horror yet.

In any case, what is this moral?  What is this movie?  Set in the unnamed rural south, the movie involves the accidental death of a good, honest man’s son.  Some city slickers, hot rodding on dirt bikes, accidentally run the boy down.  This good man visits the local witch, against the advice of the locals, and she raises a demon for him—the eponymous Pumpkinhead—to get revenge on the meddling kids.  The moral comes in where the witch warns him that such revenge comes at a terrible price, and it does.  The man and the avenging demon begin to merge and his desire for revenge leads to his own demise.

Religion plays a role in this film as well.  One of the locals, wanting to help the final girl and her boyfriend—the only ones left alive out of the six city folk—takes them to a ruined church, figuring that a demon won’t enter hallowed ground.  He’s not exactly right about that, but an extended shot of the religious imagery makes you think about the nature of revenge and what it means in a Christian context.  Besides being the first film role for Mayim Bialik (only 13 at the time), it also spun off two sequels.  Being a good student at the time, I was completely unaware of all of this.  I learned about the film while trying to stay awake one winter afternoon and trying not to spend any money to do so.  Not a great movie, it nevertheless does feature repentance and it explores the consequences of being driven by a desire to get back at others.  And the monster isn’t bad either.


Scraps of Paper

My wife is a saint.  She doesn’t throw away the little scraps of paper on which I write notes to myself.  They’re everywhere.  And this even though I carry around a notebook to capture ideas.  Sometimes I left it in the pocket of another pair of pants, or on the bedside table.  And I need to write something down.  Soon the scrap is filled with vital info (at the time) and eventually gets mislaid.  When it’s found I need to go over it line by line to see if something remains crucial or if it was just prosaic (get oil change, set up eye doctor appointment, etc.).  You see, ideas can strike at any time.  I keep a commonplace book inside the door in case they do when I’m out jogging.  I now keep a separate notebook on the bedside table in case something occurs as I’m falling asleep.  And, of course, I keep my little zibaldone with me (when I’m wearing the right pants).

Those who believe electronics will save us suggest putting everything in a notes app.  The problem is that I have several.  I do most of my initial writing in Scrivener.  When it’s time to share either with a publisher or a colleague, I convert it to Pages, and then to Word.  But my devices also have Notes, which I can see synced on my phone.  That makes it handy for shopping lists and such.  Then there’s also Text Edit, which I use for rtf documents.  Where an idea gets saved depends on which app I’m using at the moment.  More scraps of paper, virtually.  I need to write it down so I remember what’s where.

All of this led to a rather embarrassing situation the other day.  As usual, I’m at work on another book.  Since writing about horror isn’t something I was trained to do, I have to do quite a bit of bibliography building along the way.  This is the kind of thing you learn in higher education, so no worries.  The thing is I had started a bibliography in one app and began writing the book in another.  I’d very nearly finished a draft of the book when I just happened to scroll through the folder where my former bibliography was kept.  I was stunned to learn I’d already done this work since I didn’t remember recording this at all.  I suppose the solution would be to record all my thoughts.  But that would be too dangerous.  And besides, when would I have time to review them all?  I guess I still prefer scraps of paper, even if they’re sometimes electronic.


Everything

It’s been getting a lot of press, Everything Everywhere All at Once has.  It’s been winning awards and it demonstrates that absurdism isn’t dead.  Absurdism is an essential element of existentialism, the philosophical school with which I most closely identify.  I had no idea others found it so appealing.  This movie’s difficult to encapsulate—the summary on Wikipedia is actually not bad—but it has to do with human potential when living in a multiverse where every decision splits the ‘verse into new bubbles where your actions play out in all possible ways.  And, of course, it’s tax season.  There are clearly elements of The Matrix here, as well as Brazil.  And it’s distributed by A24.  The message is good, as the story plays out.  The images are impressive and confusing and will make you think.

From the time I left home I’ve looked for two main elements in movies—they should make me feel and make me think.  When they do both they are successful.  Everything Everywhere All at Once is successful.  It also reminded me of how healing existentialism can be, which is what drew me to it in the first place.  Life, or to point a finer point on it, consciousness, is absurd.  You can follow the same rules and get different results each time.  And you have to live with the consequences.  If you think about it too much it leads to despair.  I need, and it seems others do as well, to be reminded once in a while that absurdity is endemic in this universe.  How else can we explain Trump?  Existentialism breaks in on reality and I used to self-medicate with Nietzsche and Kafka and Camus.  Lately I’ve been using horror.

The thing about absurdity is that it’s funny.  We may not laugh about what the universe hands us as much as we should.  Existentialism also holds that darker element called dread.  Sometimes that comes to the foreground.  In my own life, I guess I thought getting a Ph.D. from a major, internationally renowned, research university might help.  I had forgotten the role absurdity plays in all of this.  Everything Everywhere All at Once shows the universe, or multiverse, is the ultimate trickster.  There are those, serious scientists, some of them, who believe that each decision does split off another universe and that all possibilities play out somewhere in the multiverse.  Even if that’s true, we’re stuck in this one.  It makes sense, therefore, to laugh at it once in a while.


Urban Tiger

Many things are universal.  Ghosts, for example.  What ghosts do and how they behave, however, can be culturally specific.  The Jangsan Tiger is sort of a ghost and sort of a creature, and it has a religious backstory.  Of course, I’m referring to the Korean horror film, The Mimic.  I found it while looking for Mimic on Amazon Prime, but that definite article made this one free and it had received pretty good ratings.  Released by the careless trespass of a murderer, the Jangsan Tiger stalks a family that really just needs a break.  The parents, Hee-yeon and Min-ho, lost their son five years ago.  They move to Mt. Jang with their daughter (Joon-hee) and his mother, believing that the distance from Seoul will do them some good.  The Tiger, however, has other plans.

Apart from the well-timed jump-startles and stings (this movie “got” me more than once), the story is filled with pathos.  Parenting is probably the biggest emotional gamble a person can take.  The Jangsan Tiger imitates voices and convinces its victims that it is someone they love.  The children actors are particularly effective and their crying is difficult for any parent to watch.  This is horror that pulls at your heartstrings.  The family, as expected, begins to crumble under the pressure.  Religion comes into it because a shaman, ostracized from society, had summoned the Jangsan spirit in a kind of Faustian bargain.  He sacrificed his daughter and now that he’s released again, sacrifices others who are lured into the cave on Mt. Jang.

Interestingly enough, the actual mountain Jangsan—the movie is based on an urban legend—is in real life the site of an active mine field.  Somehow this moves the film from urban legend territory into that of parable.  Many of the scary stories we tell our children are intended to keep them safe from dangers they really can’t comprehend.  Adults plant minefields to make the land unsafe.  The real tiger prowling those lovely hills is one that walks on two legs.  And what that monster craves is human sacrifice.  Now, I can’t claim to understand the entire plot of the film.  Between subtitles and the lack of cultural experience, I’m merely a spectator to something that feels deeper than just a movie.  Those who spend time with horror know that it’s often sophisticated and intelligent.  It’s a genre that appeals to both the mind and to religion.  There’s a reason the shaman stands between worlds.


Sunk Costs

The other day, in a fit of post-holiday tiding up, my wife found something that she couldn’t reach to put away.  As I took the thing and dutifully began to return it to its high cubbyhole, I realized that it was something we no longer needed.  Now, we’re very careful about not just throwing things away—this attitude of disposability has led to far too many landfills and rampant pollution.  So what was this thing?  It’s a dryer vent brush. After a couple years in our house, and with the awareness that the previous owners clearly ignored things like lint build-up in dryer vents, I purchased this brush to weasel in through the outdoor vent and try to get as much lint out as I could.  The old dryer died a couple years later, and we bought a more environmentally friendly heat-pump dryer.  Heat pumps require no vents, so the brush, in its high cubby hole, had simply been forgotten until it got in the way of something else.

This is an example of a “sunk cost.”  Economists, those purveyors of the dismal science, tell us never to worry about sunk costs since you can’t get your money back.  I suppose this is the impetus behind yard sales.  We’ve always been careful with money—we have to be—so purchases like this brush are calculated to meet a current need.  An investment.  Looking around, I see a number of sunk costs—there’s an extraneous office chair just a few feet from me at the moment, made superfluous when Gorgias Press moved offices and gave away office furniture that wouldn’t fit into the new place.  That’s the chair I’m sitting in at the moment.  The other, cheaper chair, however, is still functional.  Something’s telling me a yard sale might not be a bad idea.

But do I want neighbors to see the things we’ve accumulated over the years (and there seem suddenly to have been so many years)?  Some of the stuff obviously could have a future life.  The dryer vent brush was only used for a couple of cleanings and still has much life left, for an inanimate object.  Much of the technology that we’ve sunk money into would serve only as museum pieces, however.  And those costs tend to be much higher.  We try very hard to reduce, reuse, and recycle.  We give books away to little free libraries, if it’s clear they’ll never be opened again in this house.  But I can’t help wonder if sunk costs are a plague of capitalism and consumerism.  There’s got to be a better way.  And while I’m pondering it, I have a funky blue brush to use for scratching my head.


Of Ewes and Groundhogs

I need more time to prepare for Imbolc.  Or Groundhog Day, whichever you prefer.  Candlemas for you Catholic holdouts.  February 2 has the trappings of a major holiday, but it lacks the commercial potential.  Too many people are still working their way out from under Christmas overspending and tax season is just around the corner.  Still, I think it should be a national holiday.  My reasoning goes like this: since the pandemic our bosses now have our constant attention.  They’re in our bedrooms, our living rooms, our kitchens.  I see those midnight email time stamps!  We’re giving them a lot more time than we used to and seriously, can they not think about giving us a few more days off?  Some companies strictly limit holidays to ten.  

Can’t recall where I found this one…

Others, more progressive, have simply dropped the limits on paid time off.  And guess what?  The work still gets done.  I could use a day to curl up with a groundhog, or to go milk my ewes.  (Being a vegan, perhaps I could just pet them instead.)  What’s wrong with maybe two holidays a month?  (We don’t even average out to one per month, currently.)  I always look at that long stretch from March, April, and nearly all of May with some trepidation.  That’s an awful lot of “on” time.  (Our UK colleagues, of course, get Easter-related days and a variety of bank holidays.  Their bosses, I understand, would rather go with the more heartless American model, but tradition is tradition, you know.)  What if I see my shadow and get scared?  What am I to do then?

Imbolc is part of an old system for dividing the year into quarters that fall roughly half-way between equinoxes and solstices.  I go into this a bit in my book, The Wicker Man, due out in September.  That movie, of course, focuses on Beltane, or May Day, but the point is the same.  Look at what happens when you deny your people their holidays!  You’d think that the message that showing employees that you value them makes them more loyal might actually get through.  Businesses, however, have trouble thinking outside the box.  Take as much as you can and then ask for more.  What have they got to lose by giving out a few more holidays?  Otherwise each day becomes a repetition of a dulling sense of sameness.  Rather like another movie that focuses on this most peculiar holiday.


Gothic Days

The tradition of telling ghost stories during the months of long darkness has evolved over time.  Since the time seems right, I watched a movie for which I read the book some years ago.  I recall that The Woman in Black is moody, and gothic.  What I don’t remember is how it ends.  More than one source—at least one from someone I know and one from a book—suggested I should see this movie, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a haunted house movie, set in a haunted village and the production values (unlike some movies I’ve recently watched) are quite high.  This film was a reboot in a couple of ways; there was an earlier film version, and it was also a new Hammer production.  In the latter capacity it broke records for Hammer box office earnings.

You see, Hammer, in its first incarnation, struggled for any kind of respectability.  The company almost single-handedly kept horror movies alive while US studios moved more toward sci-fi-themed projects, before the rebirth of modern horror.  Fans knew to go to Hammer for their monsters, but society folks (and those who wish to be society folks) don’t find horror worth any attention.  From my amateur point-of-view, such movies give the viewer a lot to think about.  The problem, as with most underdogs, is that a few bad examples tend to get all the attention.  Life is scary.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to live it, but it does mean that we might learn something from other people’s mistakes.  Or we might find ourselves haunted.

The Woman in Black is set in Edwardian times.  (I often ponder why we still refer to historical eras by the British monarchs—Elizabeth, Victoria, Edward, etc.—in a world finally moving away from imperialism.  Still, it’s convenient.)  Perhaps not quite as evocative as the Victorian Era, but still moody enough.  Although there are some disturbing scenes, this is no slasher.  Like the novel it’s the tale of a vengeful ghost, wronged in life and out for revenge.  While the end of the movie isn’t the same as the novel (okay, so I looked it up!), it’s similar.  And perhaps it’s best considered a parable of parenting.  No amount of training can prepare you for it, and although it’s supremely rewarding, it’s also very scary.  Susan Hill, the novel’s author, lost a child and that sense of haunting pervades both book and movie.  Gothic is often about grieving, and perhaps about learning something from it.


The Romantics

It takes one to know one—or so they used to say.  My current preoccupation has me learning about the Romantics.  This isn’t the same as “romance,” although both words derive from the Old French for “verse narrative.”  Novel, in German, is Roman.  In any case, Sir Walter Scott cordially embraced Washington Irving when the latter arrived unannounced at Abbotsford.  Reading the account in Irving’s own words, it sounds like a bromance, and some modern interpreters—inclined as they are to look for genital contact—have suggested Irving, a lifelong bachelor, might’ve been a homosexual.  Although there’s nothing wrong with that, I do wonder if it misunderstands the language of the Romantics.  To borrow a sentence from Andrew Burstein (more to come anon): “This had to do with intimacy, not sex as we understand it.”

I recently gave a talk about Herman Melville’s spiritual orientation.  I mentioned his close friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  During the discussion period the question of whether they might’ve been lovers was raised.  I’d read this before.  I don’t know what went on in Melville’s bedroom—it’s none of my business—but I think the Romantics were all about intimacy.  We’re now familiar with the genre of bromance.  Guys, usually two, pairing off for pursuits of significance to both of them.  Or two women. I think of all the great same-sex pairings throughout literary history and wonder where we’d be without them.  Since our culture has long demonized sex, our mind is constantly creeping between the sheets.  Who touched whom?  Where and when?  Isn’t intimacy enough any more?  Where’s the Romance?  I’m no prude, but I wonder if we misread sex and the Romantics.

Louis Janmot, Poem of the Soul – On the mountain, public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Romantic Movement produced the culture I taught myself living in a run-down house with no spending money.  I borrowed recordings—actual records—of Beethoven symphonies from the library that I had to listen to with headphones because nobody else wanted to hear that kind of thing.  I read Poe.  I read about Poe.  Gothic, a subset of Romanticism, became my muse.  I had no intimate friends with which to share this.  Not until seminary—that place where such unusual, unspoken things occur.  Of course I was in Boston, the most Romantic of American cities with New Bedford to the south and Salem to the north.  To the east the boundless ocean.  We still read the Romantics.  We still read about them.  I can’t help but think we might misunderstand them.  Yes, Irving and Scott were together “from morning to night,” but thinking back to my own Romantic ideals as a teenager, I suspect they just talked.  Intimately.


Unfinished Business

Photo by Reid Naaykens on Unsplash

As a person who likes to finish what he starts, it’s pretty unusual for me to walk out of a movie.  When I say “walk out” I really mean “click away,” since streaming is how we watch movies these days.  Since I’ve been writing and publishing on horror movies and religion, I try to watch what I can without breaking the bank (which is pretty fragile these days with inflation and whatnot).  There have been, however, three movies, or television series converted to movies, that I have walked out in the last couple of months, all of them free.  I want credit for watching them, but sometimes I just can’t claim it.  The first one was for health reasons.  Amish Witches: The True Story of Holmes County is not a true story, but a television movie cashing in on current interest in isolationist religious movements.  I had to stop watching because the hand-held camera movement was making me extremely nauseous and time off work is too precious to waste being sick.  It wasn’t that good anyway.

Then some weeks later I started to watch Legends of Sleepy Hollow.  If you’re a regular reader you know that I’ve been on a Sleepy Hollow kick lately.  This series, about which the internet is mostly silent, is an Amazon Prime original.  It may be set in the upstate New York region around Tarrytown, but the vignettes I made it through had nothing to do with Sleepy Hollow and were thoroughly depressing rather than scary.  I decided this series, formatted somewhat like a movie, was something I just couldn’t finish.  I don’t have time for watching things that aren’t what they seem to be.

In addition to Sleepy Hollow, I’ve also been interested in holiday horror.  This is the theme of my forthcoming Wicker Man book, and I’d toyed with the idea of writing a book on the topic in general.  I knew there was a movie called Happy Horror Days, which I felt compelled to watch for any scrap of academic respectability.  (If a title tells you it’s directly on your topic, well, you investigate.)  I managed to make it to the Fourth of July before this truly execrable film just clearly became a waste of time.  The stories feel incomplete and the racist undertones (which may have been an attempt at social commentary) or that final episode left such a bad taste in my mouth that I had to walk away.  I’m not such a horror fan that I’ll watch just anything, but I don’t like to read spoilers before I watch movies.  It’s a dilemma, but to make good use of limited time I may start walking out more often.  Especially if it’s free.


Library Respect

I didn’t know what to do.  All my life I’d been told “library books aren’t your books—treat them like they belong to somebody else.”  And here I was with a checked-out library book with uncut pages.  This was in Edinburgh, and to make matters more interesting, it was an interlibrary loan book.  What was I supposed to do?  Finally I found the sharpest butter knife in the drawer and carefully cut the edges.  (This was before uneven pages became trendy again.)  Then, some time later I was reading another library book and I found writing in it.  Writing!  Who did this borrower think s/he was, writing in a book that belonged to someone else?  And what was more, the writing was done in ink.

Perhaps some readers get so caught up in a book that they forget it’s not theirs.  As for me, I’ve never been so bold as to think others would want my thoughts in a library book.  That’s what notebooks are for.  Of course, since that experience I’ve found many library books with writing in them.  These days when I have to buy books for research, not being affiliated any more, I tend to get them used.  From libraries often.  I look for the designation “very good” in the description since this specifies “clean” interiors, generally since they were library books.  I’m guessing that those who classify used books operate under the same delusion that I used to—people don’t write in library books.  The most recent three or four ex-library books I’ve ordered (all “very good”) have had ink writing and underlining in them.  You can see this at a glance.

The most recent one arrived the other day and on my initial thumb-through I found the now expected ink markings, but also two pages stuck together by a wad of gum.  This passes beyond the realm of unthinking behavior to criminal, at least in my mind.  Who sticks chewed gum between the pages of a book?  A book they don’t even own?   I did what anyone would do: I checked the book out on Internet Archive and wrote, in ink, the obliterated words in the margin.  I’m the first to admit I’m sensitive about books.  When I buy a new one I try to finish it with no sign that it’s even been opened.  No creases on the spine, no banged edges.  When I fail in this I feel badly, like I’ve hurt a friend.  At least I don’t have to worry about cutting the pages.  And even if I do, I know that it’s a trendy look these days.


Being Sapiens

Sometimes you need some distance to appreciate an object.  A telescope may be required if it’s a distant subject, like a rare comet (if the skies aren’t perpetually cloudy).  At other times a microscope is more helpful.  Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind made a pretty big splash a few years back.  Big name people, who presumably don’t have the time to get into the historical weeds—and yes, it’s quite overgrown out here—blurbed the book and it made it onto the New York Times Bestseller list.  It’s not a little book, and like most such works it’s  a synthesis that historians approach with trepidation.  Such projects occasionally make great observations, like the astronomer with her telescope.  But those who look up from their microscopes often say, “well, that’s not exactly right.”

How do you summarize 2.5 million years or so?  You have to be very selective and you have to keep backing up to pick out the things that help this story make sense to you.  Harari (my autocorrect keeps wanting to make him Harris, which sort of fits his overall thesis) divides human history into four parts, generally revolutions: the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, and the scientific revolution.  Along the way he tries to pick out the major developments.  One of them, of course, is religion.  While some of the details are overstated, his big picture here is helpful to read.  Religion has helped us, but it’s also hurt us.  Perhaps the latter more than the former.  For this we need a microscope.

His part on science and the economy was both insightful and disturbing.  I don’t believe, for example, that capitalism is necessary for advancement.  We too quickly claim that socialism doesn’t work without ever really giving it a fair trial.  Instead we let wealthy industrialists come up with new ways to keep us entertained and compliant while they handle all the money—leave it to the big boys.  The future comes to resemble them.  And we’ve seen where that gets us.  Summarizing a big book like this that covers many thousands of years isn’t a straightforward or easy task, just as trying to pick out the highlights of our history can’t be.  Part of the problem is that we’re still in the middle of it.  Things may happen—the Covid-19 pandemic is a notable example—that change the course of the river.  Since this book was published before that happened, who’s to say that things might not turn out quite differently than anticipated?  This is a provocative book, but I need to get back to my microscope.


Keys

Do you know the difference between “Voodoo” and “hoodoo”?  Well, The Skeleton Key does.  This is a movie I watched at the recommendation of a friend.  I get a sense—perhaps based on stats, or maybe lack of engagement—that you folks that kindly read this blog generally don’t watch the same movies that I do.  Nevertheless, I hesitate to give away spoilers for films I think more people should see.  So we’ll explore hoodoo instead.  But first, I can give you the basic idea of the film, in case you’re one of the few who takes recommendations from this blog.  Caroline is a young hospice nurse who feels guilty about not being present when her father died.  She gets a job with a couple in a decrepit southern Louisiana mansion where he’s dying and she’s doing fine.  

Caroline isn’t from the south, however, and she senses that something’s not right.  A modern girl, she doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but she slowly becomes convinced that something strange is happening in the house.  That something turns out to be hoodoo.  Critics weren’t particularly kind to the film when it came out in 2005, but I found it moody and engaging.  There were some exciting scenes and I enjoy haunted house movies generally.  And this one uses a lot of religious imagery, even though hoodoo is better thought of a form of spirituality than a formal religion, like Vodou is.  The movie defines the difference as one between religion (Vodou) and magic (hoodoo).  There’s some truth in that, but scholars are inclined to class magic and religion together.

Hoodoo consists mainly of folk spirituality that involves some magical beliefs.  Like Vodou it’s of African origin, mixed with the cultures experienced by slaves in the new world.  Unlike Vodou, it doesn’t have any kind of formal structure.  The reason it’s treated with suspicion, in general, is because it’s of African origin and doesn’t fit well with northern European ideas of the way the world works.  Skeleton Key makes pretty heavy use of hoodoo as a plot point and it isn’t alone in using African traditions to inculcate horror.  The Believers, many years back, did a similar thing with brujería.  Although these folk traditions are generally kept separate from “religion,” they tread similar ground with similar aims.  And since they’re “foreign”—at least to button-down white Christianity—they’re treated with utmost suspicion.  I think Skeleton Key handles this well, and if you’re one of the few who takes recommendations on movies, I’d suggest it’s worth seeing.


Othering Offering

I get to feeling a bit anxious when nobody else publishes me for a while.  It’s a strange kind of validation, I suppose.  No matter my motivation, I knew as soon as I saw The Offering that I would have to write something about it for Horror Homeroom.  The article is now available here.  Horror, as one of the more intelligent genres, often has much to say about things such as religion and esoteric beliefs.  In the article I compare it to other recent Jewish horror such as The Possession, The Golem, and The Vigil.  All of them are worth watching.  Religion often addresses those things that scare us, whether secular or sacred.  Movies like these often make me ponder the sense of belonging that religious communities offer.  At least in the best of times.

These three movies each have their own posts on this blog, but the point of the Horror Homeroom article is to try to look at them together.  Judaism can be a particularly delicate topic.  Not only the Holocaust, but also subsequent political developments have led to dangerous situations for Jews in the real world.  Theirs is an old and rich culture, persecuted largely by Christians who ironically blame Jews for their own salvation.  And hate them for it.  Nevertheless Jewish culture and belief persist.  It’s telling that even when they invent a protector, such as the golem, they come to realize that it too will turn on them in the end.  Most horror movies, if they participate in religious worldviews, do so from a Christian point of view.

Some colleagues recently asked me to name some Protestant horror movies.  That’s a tricky question to answer because the American context is still largely Protestant as a whole.  And when you want to take on monsters and demons you generally call a priest.  Even movies like The Last Exorcism have Protestant clergy using Catholic crucifixes.  As I’ve stated elsewhere, Asian horror movies have also come into their own, often reflecting Buddhist or Hindu outlooks.  So we find religion and horror intermingling worldwide.  Movies are more than just entertainment.  They can be, and are, teaching tools.  We should pay attention to what goes on in their classrooms.  Not only can we learn about ourselves, we can also learn about those that we, or society, tend to “other.”  Like high school, there are a variety of classes you might take.  The day always starts, however, with homeroom.


Melvillian Thoughts

I’ve posted about Moby-Dick a number of times on this blog.  I make no bones about the fact that it’s my favorite novel.  Still, I don’t know much about Herman Melville as I’d like.  Only what you can learn from reading his novel and a few other books.  The thing is, I’m really growing an interest in the literature of the American Renaissance.  While Washington Irving isn’t my favorite writer, he was perhaps the earliest of the Renaissance crowd.  Consider this, these writers all lived during Irving’s lifetime: James Fennimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville, William Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott.  Many others as well, but what heady times!  Can you imagine walking into a bookstore and seeing all the wonders on offer for the first time?

But back to Melville.  I was recently doing some further reading about him—I need a good biography, actually—and learned some things I didn’t know.  I knew he’d gone to sea, but I wasn’t aware that his mother raised him with a strict Calvinism (which explains much in Moby-Dick), but that he eventually returned to his father’s Unitarianism.  Indeed, Melville’s work displays many of the values of the Unitarian tradition.  Moby-Dick is largely his struggle with religion, laid out in terms of Ahab and the great white whale.  Melville spent a period of his life, before Moby-Dick, as a successful writer.  In a way that seems unimaginable to us today, that novel was a flop and he eventually had to take on a pedestrian job, although he kept on writing.  I have to admit that I’ve read none of his other novels.  I’m just blown away with his most famous work that I’m a little afraid of being disappointed in his other efforts.

I know a few novelists.  Of only one of them have I managed to read all their works, and that’s because this particular author only wrote one novel (which made a big enough splash to get reviewed in Time).  My dilettantism has been a characteristic of my life.  I’m too curious, perhaps, and there’s not enough time to read every work of every author I admire, even those I personally know.  I haven’t given up joining their ranks someday.  One of my novels is currently out for consideration, but I have no real expectation of success.  The best I can do in these circumstances is to read the work of those who managed to succeed, even if they didn’t live to see it.  And to wonder what it must’ve been like when so much talent appeared at the same time in a very young country.