Category Archives: Monsters

Posts that feature monsters in a religious context

Museum Monsters

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.

Scriptural Slashers

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.

Nun Among Them

Life is sweet when watching a horror movie counts as research.  It’d be sweeter, of course, if a university paid for it, nevertheless, I went to see The Nun on its opening weekend.  My wife gamely went with me (no sponsor was paying for this) on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Now, if you haven’t been following The Conjuring universe, you might not know about The Nun.  The full story will be revealed in Nightmares with the Bible, which is coming along nicely.  Suffice it to say it’s a movie about a haunted convent in Romania.  Those who know the Dracula tradition will perk up at the mention of the location.  The scenery is quite lovely in a horror genre kind of way.  And it also has ties to The Conjuring diegesis that bring the story full circle.

Ghostly nuns, it turns out, can be scary.  Religion, after all, involves coercion and threat as well as love and salvation.  Sister Irene, the protagonist, is a novice nun sent on a mission to investigate said convent.  The film reveals both an awareness of religious motivation and a seeming lack of research regarding monastic life.  Sister Irene, for example, tells the students at her school that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally.  It’s “God love letter to humanity.”  Well, parts of it are.  Still, the struggle with biblical literalism is a present-day issue that the movie addresses head on.  It was difficult to believe, on the other hand, that even a novice would walk into a chapel where someone is praying and call out “Hello?”.  Many years at Nashotah House taught me something.

Cloistered environments, although not part of most people’s experience, are great locations for horror.  For example, the first night she spends in the monastery Irene is told that the great silence is observed until dawn.  Did I mention that in chapel no one can hear you scream?  There’s an element about that in actual cloistered life.  The discipline of secrecy is heavy and full of threat.  We spent a great many silent days at Nashotah House and the sense of violation as sin was heavy indeed.  The part that truly stood out, however, was where the nuns used their only recourse against evil; they had to pray.  In the world of action movies, striking out with whatever is at hand is the expected response.  Spiritual entities, although the film does relent, can’t be touched except with spiritual threats.  The praying nuns looked so helpless in the presence of a demon.

There were less than a dozen people in the theater.  The Nun may not be a runaway hit.  The devoted will see it, however, and some of us will include it in our working life as a kind of spiritual exercise.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.