Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.
Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.
As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.
Posted in Books, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Amityville, demons, George and Kathy Lutz, horror movies, Jay Anson, New York, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist
Ghosts appear whether they exist or not. People have seen them, we know, since as early as written records permit us to know. I first ran into Colin Dickey’s name in a review of the new Ghostbusters movie. The bio made mention of his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Then it was a matter of waiting until autumn to read it. It’s a book that will long stay with me. Dickey’s not out to prove or disprove ghosts—they are simply there (and sometimes not). Ghosts, however, teach us quite a lot about the living. What we value. What we fear. What we disdain. Some of the ghost stories in this book are famous and familiar, others obscure and pedestrian. What they all have in common is a sense of place.
This book is primarily about place. Ghosts seem to be generated by the fact that people have lived here before us. Focusing on the United States, Dickey points out that land stolen from others has inhabitants already. On top of Native American sites, we now have a few hundred years of European and African and Asian building. Lives lived on top of other lives. And although we can’t say for sure what ghosts are, they do seem to be associated with buildings, or at least places. Organized in a kind of concentric structure, the book describes ghosts of haunted houses, then haunted businesses and public buildings, including haunted outdoor spaces. And finally haunted cities. These hauntings are residue of our own making. We build, we inhabit, we die. Whether ghosts are just memories or uncanny feelings, they are ghosts nevertheless.
Combining a couple of my favorite ideas—ghosts and the sense of space—Ghostland is a rare blend of history and folklore. The architecture of our constructions functions like tombs for our imagination. We are spiritual beings, whether religious or not. Even if we’re in denial of that spirituality, we sense that somehow life doesn’t simply end. We’ve left a mark, a scratch, a dent. As long as those who’ve known us live, we continue on in their minds and lives. And some, it seems, remain beyond even that to be seen by strangers centuries later, maintaining the sacredness of space once familiar while living. Ghost stories are human stories, and Dickey is a sure guide along the way. He doesn’t tell you what to believe, but he tells you something you already may know but not realize. No matter whether they’re ever proven, or whether they even really exist, as long as there are human beings there will also be ghosts.
October slipped in this year, and now I find myself unexpectedly in the season of ghosts, monsters, and witches. Given the number of posts on this blog about horror movies, it stands to reason that these are a few of my favorite things. The nights are longer now and since I work in a cubicle all year round, I miss the daylight from 8 to 4 on most days. Judging by the billboards along highway 22, others have noticed that Halloween’s approaching as well. One of the odd things about being on the internet myself is that I don’t spend much time web browsing. Who has time? But when a friend sent me a story on witch windows, I had to take a look.
I’ve only been to Vermont twice. Of all the New England states, it, along with Rhode Island, are kind of out of the way for the areas I tend to visit. I’ve enjoyed my time in Vermont (and Rhode Island), but there just hasn’t been much of it. The article “Witch Windows Are Still A Thing And Here’s Why They Actually Exist” by R. J. Wilson points out an architectural feature I didn’t notice during my brief Vermont visits. Confined to the Green Mountain State, for the most part, are slanted windows in line with the slope of the roof. When I saw the photos in the article my first thought was that they were for admitting more light. Vermont is a northern state and already in September days are getting a little lean on light. These windows, however, are commonly called “witch windows.” Nobody really knows why they’re called that. As the Urbo article points out, nobody really believed that witches couldn’t enter through crooked windows.
People are quick to posit supernatural explanations for mundane things. It’s one of the more charming things about the witching season. We need not believe the explanations for them to convey some kind of meaning. Ghosts, monsters, and witches survive because they provide such meaning for us. They symbolize the things against which we have to struggle. Looking for light as the nights lengthen is a very human thing to do. We often house our monsters in the dark. There is utility in taking them out in the daytime to give them a closer look. Now that October’s here, of course, there’s less daylight in which we might easily see. If I were in Vermont I think I’d want a witch window too.
Although it hasn’t always been this way, one of the most characteristic aspects of the modern horror film is the sequel. Some franchises spin into countless sequels and remakes, until their iconic anti-heroes become household names. The Conjuring diegesis participates in this somewhat, but instead of having a repeat fiend, it’s a theme that comes up time and again, tied together by the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I’ve written about The Conjuring before, as well as The Conjuring 2. Prior to the sequel there was a prequel of sorts—more properly a spinoff—Annabelle. Not attaining the critical regard as its originator, Annabelle nonetheless did quite well at the box office, as horror movies often do. The idea behind the movie was to give some backstory to the doll that appeared in The Conjuring.
According to the Warrens, there really is such a haunted doll. Technically it’s not haunted. They call it a conduit through which a demon seeks to entrap a human soul. This past summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, received higher critical marks than its initial installment. All of this is to say that I had to see the original Annabelle in order to try to make sense of this whole series. Despite its failings, the movie once again shows the interlaced nature of horror and religion. It opens in a church and the priest, Fr. Perez, makes several appearances in the story as the Form couple struggles with the demon inside the doll. Pregnant and vulnerable, Mia Form is traumatized when two cult members invade and then die in her home. Annabelle Higgins, one the intruders, dies holding the doll, bleeding into it. She and her accomplice are satanists, trying to raise a demon for nefarious purposes. (I suppose those are the only kinds of purposes to raise a demon, actually.)
The plot takes various twists and turns, never veering far from the main conceit that the demon wants Mia’s soul. I won’t give any spoilers in case any readers are even further behind in their movie viewing than me. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most thoroughly religious horror films I’ve seen. The Conjuring 2 will pick up the story again with the Warrens and a demon disguised as a nun (and a sequel to both The Conjuring universe and the nun are in the works). Critics are certain religion is dying. If popular culture is any measure, that conclusion is far from certain. Sometimes it’s a bit preachy, but it’s there in horror. Even a possessed doll knows that.
Posted in Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Annabelle, Annabelle: Creation, demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, horror movies, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2
Supply and demand may seem to be an odd framework to apply to religion, but it obviously exists within the polity of churches, synagogues, and mosques. What the people want does influence what’s on offer. Watching movies about demonic possession isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Demons are scary, and it doesn’t help that, historically speaking, they’ve never really been properly defined. Francis Young has provided a service to the curious with his book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. The book is just what it says, an examination of how Catholics have formally dealt with demons, or more properly, demoniacs, over the centuries. Young notes the protean nature of demons at the beginning—they meet cultural expectations of their time rather than obeying theological niceties. What to do about them?
Long relegated to the realm of epilepsy and mental illness, possession has gone through several periods of ascendency and decline. Indeed, in the nineteenth century it looked as though exorcism, in Catholicism, might have been on the endangered species list. Science was calling the reality of the spiritual world into question and nobody likes to be thought naive. With few exceptions, the move toward eliminating the role of the exorcist was gaining steam. Then in the twentieth century the demand for exorcism revived. As Young notes, a large part of the increasing interest arose from the novel and subsequent movie, The Exorcist. Possession was something so little talked about for so many years that it proved a rich ground for a new kind of monster that was eminently believable. The church, after all, never said there weren’t demons. Since that time, interest has been waxing once again.
Part of the reason would seem to be that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. When our main sources of authority in that realm are eroded, we start looking elsewhere to find succor. Ironically, outside Catholicism the mainstay of exorcism has been among various evangelical Protestant groups. They may not have an ancient ritual to use, but what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. Their demons are culled from a literal reading of the Bible. And interest among Catholics, in this strange supply and demand rubric, has meant that more exorcists are being trained and made available. The world that Young leads his readers through is one in which strange things reside. He makes no judgment about demons or their reality. He does, however, provide a very thorough history of what the Catholic Church has done about them, when the demand exceeds supply.