Category Archives: Monsters

Posts that feature monsters in a religious context

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Wolves Again

Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.

Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.

It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

Secularcist

It should be fairly obvious that I’ve been researching demons lately. In the current political climate, it feels like a natural thing to do. Where there are demons, there are also exorcists. Many times those who write books on their experience in this realm will lapse into something along the lines of, “If there are demons, then Catholicism has to be true. All of it.” Or something like that. I have to admit that reading the better written accounts makes me start to think that way. R. H. Stavis’ Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist is another approach altogether. A secular exorcist, Rachel Stavis doesn’t use the time-worn rituals of movie fame. And her book offers an interesting rationale for her exorcisms—she sees entities.

I have often wondered if “growing up” isn’t largely teaching ourselves to discount what we perceive as children. I’m sure I’m not the only kid who was told there are no such things as monsters but didn’t fully internalize that “fact.” Besides, some things are worse than monsters. In any case, Stavis states that she sees entities and it’s clear from the book that she does indeed believe this. This isn’t for show. She describes various types of demons and how she learned to exorcize them. It’s a fascinating account. Her explanations won’t convince everyone, and her answers of where demons come from remain somewhat vague, but her clients swear by her methods. And she’s upfront about wanting her work to increase the good in the world by banishing evil.

I know many Christians who’d be ready to stone a pagan even for such a good deed as exorcizing a demon. Stavis doesn’t belittle any religion, however, and leans a bit toward Wicca herself. As I read I imagined what a reader convinced of the rectitude of one and only one religions would say. Only Jesus can drive out demons? (Judaism had, and still has exorcists, as do some sects of Islam.) Since a demon is a Christian monster, only a Christian can drive it out? One of the more interesting facts of the history of exorcism is that it was, in the Middle Ages, sometimes an interfaith exercise. The three major religions represented in Europe (the Abrahamic triad) recognized that any of the three could drive out demons. Each welcomed the help of the others. We’ve gone backwards since then. We haven’t again yet reached the stage where we realize that anyone doing good is on the side of good. Even demons, it seems, are conservative these days.