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.

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?

Virtually Religious

“Which god would that be? The one who created you? Or the one who created me?” So asks SID 6.7, the virtual villain of Virtuosity.  I missed this movie when it came out 24 years ago (as did many others, at least to judge by its online scores).  Although prescient for its time it was eclipsed four years later by The Matrix, still one of my favs after all these years.  I finally got around to seeing Virtuosity over the holidays—I tend to allow myself to stay up a little later (although I don’t sleep in any later) to watch some movies.  I found SID’s question intriguing.  In case you’re one of those who hasn’t seen the film, briefly it goes like this: in the future (where they still drive 1990’s model cars) virtual reality is advanced to the point of giving computer-generated avatars sentience.  A rogue hacker has figured out how to make virtual creatures physical and SID gets himself “outside the box.”  He’s a combination of serial killers programmed to train police in the virtual world.  Parker Barnes, one of said police, has to track him down.

The reason the opening quote is so interesting is that it’s an issue we wouldn’t expect a programmer to, well, program.  Computer-generated characters are aware that they’ve been created.  The one who creates is God.  Ancient peoples allowed for non-creator deities as well, but monotheism hangs considerable weight on that hook.  When evolution first came to be known, the threat religion felt was to God the creator.  Specifically to the recipe book called Genesis.  Theistic evolutionists allowed for divinely-driven evolution, but the creator still had to be behind it.  Can any conscious being avoid the question of its origins?  When we’re children we begin to ask our parents that awkward question of where we came from.  Who doesn’t want to know?

Virtuosity plays on a number of themes, including white supremacy and the dangers of AI.  We still have no clear idea of what consciousness is, but it’s pretty obvious that it doesn’t fit easily with a materialistic paradigm.  SID is aware that he’s been simulated.  Would AI therefore have to comprehend that it had been created?  Wouldn’t it wonder about its own origins?  If it’s anything like human intelligence it would soon design myths to explain its own evolution.  It would, if it’s anything like us, invent its own religions.  And that, no matter what programmers might intend, would be both somewhat embarrassing and utterly fascinating.

Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.  

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.