Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Dark Theology

I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another.  Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug.  But flies keep coming back.  They won’t be ignored.  Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery.  I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects.  America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me.  Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King.  Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds.  Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long  pedigree and almost canonical status.

This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book.  Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing.  I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling.  Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund.  Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree.  King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction.  We dismiss such observations at our peril.  Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?

Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something.  As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers.  Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there.  I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life.  One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers.  In this field, answers are merely speculations.  We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions.  Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds.  We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.

The Lagoon

My current book project has me watching The Creature of the Black Lagoon again.  One of the Universal monsters—indeed, arguably the last of them—the Gill-man fascinated me as a child.  There was a strange contradiction here.  The creature had evolved in the Devonian Era and remained unchanged into the 1950s.  But the movie opens with a voiceover of Genesis 1.1.  There’s a mixed message here, appropriate for scriptural monsters.  Watching the film again brought back many of the innocent perceptions of youth, as well as the trajectory of my own life.  I don’t often get to the theater to see horror movies anymore, but at the same time the Universal monsters aren’t quite the same thing as modern horror.  As a genre it had to evolve.

Strangely, as a fundamentalist child, the evolution aspect didn’t bother me.  I was after the monster, you see.  The backstory was less important.  Growing up, at least in my experience, means that the backstory becomes more essential.  It has to hold together.  There are, of course, inaccuracies in the story—many of them, in fact.  Still, within the first three minutes Genesis and evolution are thrown together in a happy harmony that belied what I was being taught at church.  The Gill-man is a monster mainly for being a creature out of time.  When modern humans invade his lair, he defends his territory.  The story might’ve ended there, had he not spied Kay.  He doesn’t so much want to kill her as get to know her better.  For a movie posthumously rated G, it has a body count.  Five men die but the Gill-man apparently just wants to evolve.

There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Creature from the Black Lagoon with both the publication of The Lady from the Black Lagoon and the death of Julie Adams this year.  The Gill-man seldom shows up in the same billing with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, or the Wolf-man.  He’s a bit more inaccessible in his watery abode.  Both cold and hot-blooded, he represents how science and Scripture might get along, at least on the silver screen.  The film holds up remarkably well, if a modern viewer can handle the pacing.  Underwater filming was pretty new back in the day, and watching humans swim in many ways suggests the truth of evolution in its own right.  These aren’t the childhood observations of the movie, but rather the reflections of a guy wondering if there might not be some hidden wisdom in the monsters of yesteryear.

Dolls and Puzzles

Maybe you’re anticipating it too.  Annabelle Comes Home, I mean.  My latest book, Nightmares with the Bible, has a chapter on The Conjuring universe, and with the recent death of Lorraine Warren I’ve been working on another piece trying to fit this whole puzzle together.  “What puzzle?” did I hear you ask?  The puzzle, I answer, between what really happened in the Ed and Lorraine Warren investigations.  You see, the paranormal is one of those things we’ve been taught to laugh at, and we’re told that people who “see things” are dweebish kinds of gnomes that don’t see the light of the sun enough.  Reality television has brought some of these ideas into vogue, what with ordinary people gathering “scientific” evidence of ghosts and the rest of us scratch our heads while hoaxes are revealed on the B reel.  But still, Annabelle lives.

It has also been announced that The Conjuring 3 is in development.  For some of us—and I’m well aware that movie-making is an industry and that profit is its goal—the question of what’s real can be as haunting as any ghost.  You see, I buy into the scientific method, as far as it goes.  That caveat is necessary, however, since science is neither able to nor interested in assessing all the strange things people see.  Our senses can be fooled, and a great many people haven’t developed the critical ability to scrutinize their own observations skeptically.  Skepticism itself, however, need not become orthodoxy.  It’s like any other tool in our mental box—each has its own purpose.  A car engine is dismantled in order to rebuild it in working order.  And there may be a ghost in the machine.

That’s what gets me about this whole Conjuring thing, and beyond that the contested livelihood of the Warrens.  There may be such a thing as mass hysteria (the current state of the US government can hardly be explained any other way), but the Perron haunting that was the subject of the first film provides, I think, a good test case.  A family of seven living in a house where they experienced things not only collectively and individually but also in different combinations would seem to be a place where multiple angles could be used.  According to Andrea Perron’s written account, the Warrens’ investigation never really took off there.  That didn’t prevent a very successful movie franchise from being launched, loosely based on their story.  And getting at the truth is never as simple as buying your ticket online and waiting for the show to begin.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.