Haunted States

I’ve been going through a spate of watching “The Haunting” movies.  Just to be clear, I don’t mean The Haunting, by Robert Wise (1963), which is excellent.  Instead I mean movies spun off of the Discovery Channel’s series A Haunting.  Several years ago, between jobs and too near an FYE store, I picked up a cheap two-fer.  This set contained the television movies A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I watched them once and then traded them in to get something else.  The first one really bothered me.  The Connecticut story deals with a childhood cancer victim, and that alone is scary enough.  It had the limitations of a television movie and left me thinking it wasn’t too satisfying.  The Georgia haunting was more of a documentary, but it was also open-ended.

Then someone got the idea to make a movie out of the two.  The Haunting in Connecticut blows the plot over the top.  I kept thinking as I watched it, isn’t it in bad taste to make a horror movie based on the true life horror of tragic disease?  The protagonist of the story, Philip Snedecker, died about three years after the movie came out.  Although the plot generally followed the first movie an entire subplot was added to pad it out.  A nineteenth-century funeral director has enslaved a young man to be his medium.  The undertaker steals and marks dead bodies to enhance the boy’s powers.  These completely fictional characters intermingle with the real life tragic Snedeckers.  As you might expect, chaos ensues.

The oddly named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia also had to add an entire fabricated story to the troubles of the Wyrick family.  In real life the Wyricks moved into a house where their daughter started seeing things, including a kindly ghost named Mr. Gordy.  She also saw some sinister spirits.  So much so that her family invited a parapsychologist to investigate.  The theatrical version adds in a stationmaster on the underground railroad who was also a taxidermist.  Instead of helping all the slaves to freedom, he saved some for stuffing later.  No real motivation is given, beyond his enjoyment of sawdust and thread and death.  

While these two movies really didn’t help much, I generally find watching horror during a pandemic therapeutic.  Horror films sometimes help viewers envision worst-case scenarios and figure out how they might deal with them, learning from the victims’ mistakes.  I suspect that’s why, a few years back, the CDC posted instructions on what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse.  It was all about disaster preparedness.  Of course, in those days we had no idea what was really coming to Connecticut, and Georgia, and to every state of the union.

Not Sterling

Only indirectly has the coronavirus pandemic influenced my decision to read books of short stories.  Indirectly because bookstores are closed and I have several such volumes gathered here at home.  This particular collection includes a book “especially written for young people” called Chilling Stories from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  This is a book I had as a young person, discarded, and then regretted discarding.  I have to say that most books I discard I eventually regret.  When you’re young and moving from apartment to apartment, though, you can’t keep all your books.  Anyway, I re-acquired it several years back.  The book doesn’t list an author.  Instead, the title page says “Adapted by Walter B. Gibson.”  Gibson was best known for writing The Shadow series.  The end result is that I don’t know who wrote the stories in this book.  They have the ideas of Rod Serling, but the writing isn’t in his style.

When I buy a book (I got this one used on the internet, back when it was young) I like to know the author.  WorldCat lists Serling as the author, but the book was published pre-ISBN days, back when publishers could be a bit less than transparent about such things.  Other websites put Gibson first under authors, followed by Serling.  The publisher, Tempo Books, was an imprint of Grosset & Dunlap, which eventually came under the Random House/Penguin umbrella.  Originally publishing primarily children’s books, Tempo lists this book for young readers, although as an adult reader I wonder if it could appeal to young people today.  There’s no sex and any violence is really implied rather than explicit, but there’s some adult-level subtlety going on.  Books for young readers are much different these days.

Just recently my daughter introduced me to the increasing sophistication of levels of book genres.  Like most readers and writers I’m encouraged at how young adult books have taken off.  A future generation of readers is cause for hope.  There are now “new adult books.”  These are targeted at those college aged or just over.  Unlike young adult titles they’ll have sex and adult language.  My Twilight Zone book lacks these, and it also lacks the sparkle of Serling’s teleplays.  Serling was a playwright and screenwriter.  These stories clearly contain his ideas but not his ability.  I didn’t know that as a child.  I do know that I never finished the book before now.  One of the reasons, I expect, is that it didn’t really seem like I was reading Serling, even to my young self.  Still, ghost stories during a pandemic have their own appropriate place, and who doesn’t want to be young at heart?

Making Frankenstein

Some days ago I mentioned reading a book about Frankenstein.  This was Making the Monster: The Science behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, by Kathryn Harkup.  I’ve read several books like this, many of them written about on this blog (search “Frankenstein”—there is a search box out there!), about the context of Frankenstein.  The base story is all the more compelling for having been written by a teenager who’d eloped with a married man who would eclipse her literarily.  Mary Shelley never got rich off Frankenstein, but it is one of the best known novels of the nineteenth century.  It had an impact during the author’s lifetime and has continued to have one these centuries later.  Harkup, however, is a scientist.  Her specific interest, apart from being a female writer herself, is in the science of the story.

Arranged thematically, Making the Monster covers several of the developments which would’ve been “in the air” at the time.  Mary and Percy Shelley both read science also, and knew many of these things.  There was the question of reanimating the dead that coincided with the early dissections of humans that made the modern study of anatomy possible.  There were medical breakthroughs—some of the more difficult parts of this book to read—and there were experiments with electricity.  There were cases of children raised in the wild that had been found and their subsequent stories documented.  There was evolution (in the form known to Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus), there was revolution.  It was a time with so much happening that Frankenstein became a cathartic outpouring of the human soul amid the science that both Shelleys atheistically accepted.

Much of this book is fascinating, even after reading other similar accounts to the background of the novel.  What really brought it all together for me, however, was reading through the chronology at the end.  It takes me several days to read books.  What with the monster of daily work I often forget some of what I’ve read along the way from introduction to conclusion.  Having a chronology at the end reminded me of just how much information is packed in between these covers.  The narrative covers about a century (longer, if you include the alchemists), and shows how Mary was using fiction to address some very real science.  Harkup never loses track of Mary Shelley’s personal experience, however.  Estranged from her father, constantly on the move, widowed fairly young, losing several children, treated poorly by aristocratic in-laws, hers was a story of perseverance and ultimately influencing the western canon.  It shows that science and art can assist one another to make us all more human.  And the monsters left behind endure.

Frankenstein’s Family

The story of Frankenstein has many unexpected twists and turns.  I’m currently reading a book about the writing of the novel—something I’ve done a number of times before.  There was an aspect of this story that hadn’t really caught my attention too much, but then, circumstances changed.  Suddenly old information became new.  It all started with a missed opportunity from childhood. 

It was a real puzzle.  Although my grandmother lived with us her last years, I never knew the name of her mother.  There had been hints.  My grandfather’s book with birthdays in it listed the first name, so I had a Christian moniker and birthdate only.  She’d died young, I knew, somewhere in the Washington, DC area.  This had been the state of my knowledge for many years.  My grandmother died before I was a teen, and before I took any interest in the family story.  I knew her heritage was Germanic, her father having been a first-generation American.

So young Mary Shelley (technically Godwin) was on a tour of Europe with her lover Percy.  Although they both came from distinguished backgrounds, they were cash poor.  Running out of money they made their way back to England as cheaply as they could.  They passed near Castle Frankenstein along the way, although there is no record that they actually visited it.  The name seems to have stuck, as does the story that they potentially learned about a mad scientist who’d lived in that castle.  This scientist was a theologian who dabbled in alchemy and experiments with dead bodies.  I know what you’re thinking—it’s like a puzzle piece we desperately want to go in this place but its fit’s ambiguous.  We’re not sure how much of this Mary Shelley knew.  The alchemist’s name was Johann Konrad Dippel.  I’d read about him before.

I’d spent nearly an entire summer some years back working on my grandmother’s family, finding little.  Just two years ago I did a casual search on “Find a Grave,” and to my surprise, I found my great-grandfather.  I knew it was him because his second wife’s name matched information from all the family records.  The cemetery record, in Maryland rather than DC, had his first wife’s name.  It was that easy.  After decades of searching, a few keystrokes revealed the mystery.  When it also listed her parents, the significance of her mother’s maiden name—Dippel—escaped me.  Now I have no way of knowing if this is the same Dippel family of Castle Frankenstein, but it put flesh on the bones of my long-standing interest in monsters.  Seeking them out may be the same as learning family secrets.  Perhaps it always is.

Coincidentally

I hope I never become too sensible not to pay attention to coincidences.  With the death of Max von Sydow falling the same week as the time change, the full moon, and Friday the thirteenth, I’m left feeling a little vulnerable.  I mean, what do we do now that the Exorcist is gone?  A couple days ago, when the moon was full—the last full moon before the vernal equinox—I awoke before 3:00 a.m.  Thinking Daylight Saving Time would have me groping for a few extra minutes abed, instead I found myself wide awake at the hour when monsters are thought to be afoot.  As I put my feet to the floor I saw the brilliant lunar light beating through the blinds like midday.  It was remarkable how very light it was.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  Of course, getting any law passed without numerous riders and bickering is unlikely, but I do wish they’d get on with it.  That having been written, the time shift has been remarkably easy on me so far this year.  Perhaps those of us regularly awake in the dead of night adjust a little more quickly.  Keeping out of New York with the coronavirus lurking, I’d rather deal with my own monsters anyway.  I remember my amazement at seeing Max von Sydow unchanged from Fr. Merrin to Dr. Naehring.  Then I looked up just how much makeup the Exorcist had to have to age himself several decades.  He was a young man when The Exorcist was filmed.  At this time of day anything is believable.

Friday the thirteenth is a bit of lore grown from Christianity.  Friday was inauspicious because of Good Friday and the thirteenth lot fell on Judas, who, along with the others, made thirteen.  It was as if some demon were afoot on such Fridays.  These bits of Christian lore made their way into popular culture and then crept into horror films.  A good deal of Nightmares with the Bible revolves around The Exorcist.  So I sit here before sunrise with a bit of just-past full moon shining in, not too tired from losing an hour on Sunday.  It’s not difficult to think of scary things at this time of night.  Of course, demons traditionally come out around 3:00 a.m.  This week has been like that.  And without Max von Sydow, we want to be very cautious around demons.

Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Horror Homework

Although I haven’t been writing much on horror here lately, I’ve been doing my homework.  At least for homeroom.  Horror Homeroom, that is.  I’ve published on Horror Homeroom before, and, surprisingly, they’ve let me do it again.  This piece is on the films of Robert Eggers.  It’s pretty unusual for me to get in on the ground floor with a director’s oeuvre, but my wife has a tolerance for what is being called “smart horror” or “intelligent horror,” or even “transcendent horror,” and so we can get to the theater to see movies like The Witch and The Lighthouse before they go to DVDs or Amazon Prime.  In order to write up my thoughts about these two films I had to rewatch them a few times.  There’s so much going on here that both stories are difficult to summarize.

Holy Horror treated The Witch in the context of its biblical worldview.  The Calvinistic religion of William, and by extension, his family, is pretty scary stuff.  In The Lighthouse we find two men each grasping for their own ideas of the divine, as found atop the eponymous structure they inhabit.  Both films explore the psychology of isolated individuals, and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds frightening things.  We are social creatures, even those introverts among us.  When deprived of the interaction of those who think differently (hear this, o Republicans!) we soon begin to wilt.  We need not agree with all we hear, but conversation cannot be had without being open to at least the possibility that one might be wrong.  Nobody wants to think they are incorrect, but unless they can admit that possibility, there will be no discussion, by definition.

Horror quite frequently thrives on separating people from their fellows.  One of the fascinating aspects of the genre is the way in which it does this.  Groups, even, that separate themselves from the rest of humanity soon begin to behave in odd ways.  Checks and balances are necessary for any health in a society.  Those who claim absolute positions often can’t admit this.  Do I hear the violins of Psycho coming to life?  I suppose community is why I try to publish once in a while in wider venues like Horror Homeroom.  Even people who like to watch horror prefer not to do so alone.  Maybe having seen The Witch and The Lighthouse in theaters was a crucial part of their impact upon me.  And what is a good shudder without someone with whom to share it?