The weather around here has been appropriately gloomy for the autumnal equinox. Although Hurricane Florence gave us a day of rain, the heavy clouds have been part of a pattern that has held largely since May. Given the gray skies, we opted to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds last night. My wife isn’t a horror fan, but she does like Hitch. We’ve watched The Birds together many times, but this is the first time since I wrote Holy Horror. I was somewhat surprised to recall how much Scripture plays into the script. This is mostly due to a drunken doomsday sayer in the diner. After the attack on the school kids of Bodega Bay, he declares that it’s the end of the world and begins citing the Bible. He’s there for comic relief, but the way the movie ends he could be right.
When I was writing Holy Horror I had a few moments of panic myself. Had I found all the horror films with the Bible in them? Could anyone do so (without an academic job and perhaps a grant to take time off to watch movies)? I eventually realized that I was merely providing a sample in that analysis. Several weeks after I submitted the manuscript I watched The Blair Witch Project. There was the Bible. The same thing happened last night under a glowering late September sky. The Birds has the Bible. Two weeks ago I saw The Nun; well, that one’s almost cheating. But you get the picture—the Good Book appears rather frequently in horror. That’s what inspired me to write the book in the first place.
Now that nights are longer, and cooler, the grass has somewhat poignantly relinquished its aggressive summer growth. Most of the ailanthus trees have been cut down (I must be part lumberjack). My outside hours are limited not only by work but by the fading light. In the words of the sage, “winter’s tuning up.” We moved to a house we saw in the spring as days were lengthening. Now we’ve come to the dividing line that will slowly leech the light from our evening skies. I suspect that as I go back and watch some of my old favorites again I’ll discover something I already knew. The Bible and horror belong together because both are means of coping with the darkness. Call it puerile if you will, but there is something profound about this connection. It just has to be dark for you to see it.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Memoirs, Movies, Posts
Tagged Alfred Hitchcock, autumnal equinox, Bible, Holy Horror, The Birds, The Blair Witch Project, tree of heaven
Timing has never been my strong suit. As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.” To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters. Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking. Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation. Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion. Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time. We’ll take whatever validation we can get.
Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters. Even the Bible, after all, has them. They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world. A world of hurricanes and Trump. A world lacking compassion and sense. Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands. Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless. Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close. Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving? When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world. Monsters have their practical uses indeed.
If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing. Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house. Moving is chaos embodied. Like monsters, it’s best left to the young. It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town. I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty. Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful. Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone. Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums. They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever. It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily. If you happen to miss it, don’t worry. It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Current Events, Just for Fun, Monsters, Posts, Travel
Tagged aliens, Medieval Monsters, Morgan Library and Museum, New York City, Occam's razor, Terrors, Wonders
Let me relish this a moment.
Thanks. You still there? It’s not too often, you see, that I get to feel like I’m near the front of the crowd. I began writing Holy Horror when there were a small handful of books on the market concerning horror and the Bible. I wasn’t aware of Brandon R. Grafius’ work at the time, but it sure is gratifying to see that others have noticed the connection. Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25 is pretty much what its title says. I’ll be having more to say on it in a different venue—don’t worry, I’ll let you know—so I’ll keep to the basics here. My spellcheck, and I’m sure not a few others, might have trouble identifying Phinehas.
In one of those weird, short, violent episodes for which the Good Book is justly famous, the story of Phinehas is clearly part of a larger, untold narrative. Like the sons of the gods marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6. The grandson of Aaron, Phinehas was one of the hereditary priests of early Israel. The Israelites wandering for their 40 years in the wilderness were nearly as xenophobic as the Trump Administration. When one of the chosen people chose a foreign wife, Phinehas, full of zeal, grabbed a spear and skewered the couple. Tradition says in flagrante delicto. This act of violence stops a raging plague sent by the Almighty, so Phinehas looks like a hero in context. If you want to read the story the subtitle tells you where to find it. Or you could read Grafius’ excellent book.
Horror, which should be already obvious, enters the picture in the form of theory. Yes, there is such a thing as horror theory. Grafius uses it to analyze this story, along with other methods. This is what I’m relishing. I certainly wasn’t the first to notice the connection. Many years ago Phyllis Trible wrote Texts of Terror, noting how the Bible seems less holy (my expression, not hers) when read from the perspective of a woman. Indeed, many accounts that seem like standard issue narratives of God laying down the rules and humans disobeying tend to fall pretty heavily on females. And the punishments used are fit for horror films. Grafius focuses specifically on slashers, but one gets the sense that this book is just the start of something larger. This reader, at least, hopes that is the case.
Posted in Bible, Books, Feminism, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Brandon R. Grafius, Holy Horror, horror films, Phyllis Trible, Reading Phinehas, Texts of Terror, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25
Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.” It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals. The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores. Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however. The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate. Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees. At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one. The smell almost knocked me off my feet. I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.” Whose version of heaven is this?
Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven. Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade. It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect. Heaven is, after all, a construct. The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death. In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place. Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance. The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems. As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.
A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do. We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment. In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees. We’re often taken in by the innocence of names. The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it. It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant. Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems. It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds. According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year. Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Environment, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts
Tagged Ailanthus, botany, Heaven, invasive species, Revelation, tree of heaven
Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips. In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics). Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”). When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.” It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even. Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was. It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.
Spellcheck disagrees. It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament. Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic. This blog should be proof of that. Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names. The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country. Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused. They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world. They say kap-er-NEE-um. Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.
When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day. Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue. Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth. That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name. Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor. Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!). Important people came from big cities and had family connections.
Some things don’t change much over the millennia. The famous often find their spotlight because of connections. If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first. And it would help to have some product endorsements. Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in. Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important. More than anything, you want something people can pronounce. And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.
Posted in Bible, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Archaeology, Boston University School of Theology, Capernaum, Fundamentalism, Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth, spellcheck