Category Archives: Monsters

Posts that feature monsters in a religious context

Know Your Monsters

at-stakeEdward J. Ingebretsen is one of the most intelligent analysts of monsters about. That may seem like a small order, but it’s not—many people write about monsters, and Ingebretsen is one to whom attention is owed. At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Popular Culture is not an easy book to read. Narratively sophisticated, it takes on some issues we’d rather not have addressed. One of the great myths about monsters is that they’re all for fun. The current understanding of monsters gives the lie to that worn adage. Monsters tell us something extremely troubling about ourselves and we don’t like to have someone pointing it out. When hearing that some of the monsters considered are Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith, the prospective reader might wrongly assume why. The monster may not be whom one expects. Indeed, Bill Clinton makes his way into the discussion, as do Andrew Cunanan, O. J. Simpson, and Matthew Shepard. Be not quick to judge, however; you must pay attention.

As most writers on monsters recognize, religion often fuels them. Without belief monsters have no power to scare. We’ve probably all seen horror films that underscore this point. If a creature is unbelievable it loses its ability to be frightening. The movie invariably ends up in the B category and is appropriated for laughs or for an example of how not to make a film. Ingebretsen knows that to understand monsters we must understand ourselves. We too often allow unspoken prejudices (which are sometimes nevertheless shouted aloud) to inform our opinions of what is deviant or evil. Just look to Washington and see if you can disagree. The more we tease these monsters apart, the less they conform to expectations.

As implicated by his title, a great deal is at stake in coming to grips with monsters. They aren’t just for childhood Saturday afternoons anymore. It may be that they are one of the healthiest means for dealing with the steady stream of fear flowing from the District of Columbia. Without our metaphors, we are lost. Those set on destroying monsters have no concept of just how terribly helpful they are. You can’t be sure who the beast is, they are so very protean. They will, however, get you through some dark nights. Not without scars, but wiser, if a touch more melancholy, in dawn’s cold light. Take monsters seriously. It’s the only way to survive them.

Made of Clay

golemInvestigating a new field, at least on an academic level, involves a little disorientation. Part of this derives from the fact that academics didn’t use to write about monsters. Another part of it, however, is that those who do such writing have been doing so while my attention was elsewhere. It’s not easy to learn dead languages reasonably well. I didn’t pay much mind to the golem, being as it is, a “modern” monster. Probably responding to early modern pogroms, the golem was considered a defender of persecuted Jews. He was, however, a mindless defender. Made of animated clay, the golem was brought to life by magic and could only be killed in the same kind. Maya Barzilai has written a masterful account of how this monster relates to war. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters explores how modern golem stories (and there are many) tend to relate to situations of conflict.

I had read about the golem before, and had trouble locating many academic resources on the creature. Barzilai demonstrates how much there is to ponder. It seemed, prior to reading her book, that the golem was mostly obscure, but it turns out that many writers, artists, and filmmakers have appropriated the clay giant over the years. Those who trace the history of comic books suggest that Superman was originally a kind of golem figure. I hadn’t realized that the golem had his own short-lived comic book series. When a people are persecuted repeatedly, having a secret weapon may not seem a bad thing. But the golem is difficult to control. It rampages. It can kill the innocent. Barzilai raises the question of whether a people with an unstoppable weapon are ever justified in using violence.

That question hangs pregnantly over the present day. The rich white men that run this country feel that they’ve been oppressed. Not willing to admit that it’s morally reprehensible to treat women as objects (they’re “hosts,” we’re told), blacks as inferiors, or hispanics as illegal, they bluster away about family values that aren’t consistent with anything other than threatening those who are “different” into submission. And yes, the Jews are among those these white men scorn. I wonder where the golems have gone. It could be that, like those of us self-identified as pacifists, that those who know how to make golems simply can’t justify violence. Barzilai didn’t intend for this in her book, I’m sure. Still, each new era brings new perspectives to these monsters made of clay.

By Any Other Name

nakedundeadGood and evil. Well, mostly evil, actually. No, I’m not talking about Washington, DC, but about horror movies. Cynthia A. Freeland’s The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror is a study that brings a cognitivist approach to the dual themes of feminism and how horror presents evil. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Like many philosophers Freeland is aware that topics are seldom as straightforward as they appear. Feminists have approached horror films before, and other analysts have addressed the aspects of evil that the genre presents, but bringing them together into one place casts light on the subject from different angles. Freeland begins this process by dividing her material into three main sections: mad scientists and monstrous mothers (which allows for the Frankenstein angle), from vampires to slashers, and sublime spectacles of disaster. Already the reader can tell she’s a real fan.

One of the simplistic views of horror is that these kinds of movies—particularly slashers—are misogynistic by their very nature. Feminists, including Freeland, question that assumption. Horror is a genre with a decidedly checkered history. Some films do feature mostly female victims to male monsters. Not all do, however, and even those that do may be saying something other than the obvious. Looking for the locus of evil in these movies provides a lens that focuses the meaning somewhere other than the surface. This is one of the benefits of philosophy—probing questions may be asked and unexpected answers may result. Along the way you can have a lot of fun, too. Especially if you watch horror movies.

A large part of the criticism probably arises from the fact that film making was, for much of its earliest history, run by males. That’s not to say women couldn’t do the same thing men were doing, but the opportunities simply weren’t there. Most film makers, I expect, have trouble getting out of their heads to think about how someone of a different gender might perceive this kind of movie. Fear, we are told, is “coded” feminine. It seemed natural to such film makers to put the female in peril since both women and men would respond to it. Since then it has become clear that fear isn’t coded for gender. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of modern horror is that we all have cause to be afraid. Fear is no respecter of gender. Freeland’s analysis, now getting on in years, correctly looked ahead in many respects. Especially concerning the ongoing presence of evil.

Alternative Reality

devilsdominionIt is a caution that may become increasingly necessary as Trump’s supporters of “alternate facts” begin to sink their insidious hooks into feeble American minds that magical belief is part of our culture. While most would deny it in any kind of direct way, from the earliest days we have been a credulous lot. Richard Godbeer explores this historical affinity in The Devil’s Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England. Mostly concentrating on the events that led up to the Salem Witch Trials, and some analysis of the trials themselves, he traces the origins to such belief back to the theology of Calvinistic Congregationalists who held undisputed sway in the earliest days. Without benefit of clergy who might urge them to look at the world as a good creation, people instead saw evil and the Devil lurking everywhere. Magic was a regular component of their intellectual diet.

Now, some three centuries later, it’s looking as if things haven’t changed much. Those closest to the highest office in the land—and more frightening still, the most powerful single office on earth—are claiming that facts can have alternatives (what used to be called “lies”) and that if a rich man feels offended reality must be rewritten to make him feel better about himself again. The rewriting of history and science and law is really a mere trifle if you can claim “alternative facts” whenever you please. I wonder what you might find in Alternative Facts on File? I had a chance to thumb through recently and here’s what I found:

Alternative fact 1: Donald Trump didn’t win the election after all! We got the wrong guy in the White House. It’s a fact. Alternative fact 2: the Electoral College was abolished on November 8, 2016. That means that the popular vote wins the White House and Hilary Clinton is, in fact, President of the United States. Go ahead and challenge me on any of this Sean and KellyAnn—for any of your facts I can offer alternatives and they are, by definition, equally valid. Who’s with me? As long as alternative facts are now official discourse supported by the White House, let’s use them to the advantage of the entire nation. Is there a lawyer in the house? Even a Jesuit would do. The one I feel sorry for, however, is Richard Godbeer. His fine book has had to play Devil’s second fiddle to the new reality of post-truth Washington. Maybe the White House really does believe you can shake the Devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding. Wake up, America—you’re being laughed at and mocked by your own government.

Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.

Hopeful Horror

joneshorrorI don’t make New Year’s resolutions. To my way of thinking, if I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I try to change it at that point, rather than waiting. Needless to say, then, I’m up to my old habits of reading about horror movies. Actually, Darryl Jones’ Horror: A Thematic History in Fiction and Film goes a bit broader than just the cinema. As the subtitle indicates, this charming book also addresses narrative fiction as well and the result is quite engaging. Divided thematically, Jones considers the various types of horror without delving into pretentious theorists to give him academic credibility. Here is a true fan who’s capable to sharing the excitement of the genre. Along the way, accompanying the usual observation that horror and religion share considerable conceptual space, he makes the point that in movies horror is one genre that makes use of academics as characters of authority. Sure, there are others, but in this realm to be educated is a benefit, whether the plan is to take over the world or to stop some evil force from doing the same.

I’ve been watching movies that can be broadly classified as horror since I was young. And I had admired—emulated to some extent—the professors and scientists I saw in those presentations. When a monster was on the loose, you went to find an expert to learn what to do. At the risk of contradicting myself, theorists have been suggesting that one of the problems with post-truth is the death of expertise. Anyone can be an expert these days. The question, “Why should I listen to you?” is on every self-appointed smarty’s lips. Earning a doctorate, the horror world tells us, gives you access to some kinds of knowledge that others don’t have. Problem is, zombies don’t respect such learning. They only want brains to consume.

It never seemed to me that watching horror was a means of learning. As a kid escapism is part of everyday life—taking things seriously is for adults. Growing up, however, I kept my love of scary movies in reserve. Little did I realize that it was a form of training. Now university-affiliated academics are finally able to begin admitting that they find monsters compelling. More than that, they actually learn something from them. Although not a resolution, I see myself reading further books about horror movies this year. It may be a naive hope, but it would be wonderful if they were all as insightful as this one has been.

Wild Things

islanddrmoreauLast year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.

For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.

What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.