Category Archives: Movies

Posts that feature a movie

Signed, Sealed, Forgotten


I’m a little ashamed to admit it. With such a long list of moody horror movies out there, I gave in to watching The Seventh Sign again. 1988 was a momentous year. I had graduated from Boston University School of Theology the year before and had been functionally unemployed, as befits a future adjunct professor. I had joined the Episcopal Church, cutting off my chances of ordination in my previous United Methodist sect. I’d been accepted into doctoral programs at Oxford, St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh but couldn’t afford any of them. I proposed to my future wife and by the end of the year had married her. In the midst of it all a friend convinced me to go see The Seventh Sign, then in theaters. A typical end of the world movie, The Seventh Sign was a “see once” movie to me, but I guess I’m weaker than I thought.

The movie got me to thinking about the end of the world. Not literally, but rather how we came to have such a strange idea. As creatures conscious of our own deaths, I suppose it’s natural that we think everything comes to an end. The mythical scenario of “the end of days,” however, is cobbled together from various pieces of the Bible, like some distorted, religious picture puzzle. The Book of Revelation doesn’t give a coherent story of the future. In seminary I learned that it was because Revelation is actually about what was happening in the Roman Empire in the first century, not about what would happen in the days when I happened to find myself conscious and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, mixed with water instead of milk and working for Ritz Camera. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. That was my own kind of personal apocalypse, I guess.

The Seventh Sign is unusual in that a Jewish boy, Avi, and a lapsed Christian woman, Abby (who rents a room to the new incarnation of Jesus who lives, apparently, quite a lot like I did at the time) have to figure this out together. Tying in several other mythological motifs, the number of seals broken is, if I count correctly, only five. The world is saved by self-sacrifice, as is generally expected, and everyone ends up feeling let down. It is a downer of a movie, and not very scary for a horror film. What struck me was how many scenes I remembered so precisely. So I guess it did manage to impress me on some level, back in 1988. I selected Edinburgh University and now once again, find myself outside the institution I covet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with those two last seals.

Silence Fright


One of my first publications was a letter to the editor. The newspaper was The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s daily. We’d been hearing on the BBC that a new movie, The Silence of the Lambs, had inspired Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his gruesome habit of cannibalism. For whatever reason, the Dahmer case had a real fascination for the British. My letter, a rather young attempt to promote an important cause, suggested that such movies could be very dangerous. In the many years since then I’ve read quite a bit about horror films and their effects on people and have come to the conclusion that they don’t cause the crimes. The reasons are much more complex than simply watching a movie since most people who see them don’t “go and do likewise.” When I told friends in Edinburgh that I’d found a teaching job in Wisconsin they said “hopefully not near where that cannibal lived.” Of course Nashotah House is not far from Milwaukee.

My personal embargo of The Silence of the Lambs ran up against my current research project, which involves horror movies. Thinking it over in what I hope is a rational way, I decided that I needed to see my bête noire. Besides, while living in Wisconsin I had learned about Ed Gein, the local serial killer who’d inspired Psycho, a movie I had seen with no ill effects while in college. Movies are as much a part of life as cars and taxes and all kinds of things that impact our ways of thinking. I was surprised at how well done Silence is and the number of references it had spawned that I had missed for the past couple of decades. It won’t be my favorite film, but I’m not afraid of it any more.

The concept of relying on a criminal to catch a criminal is a classic theme, of course. And since the release of this movie some which are much worse have come across the silver screen. We play our anxieties out for all to see. Hannibal Lecter, the cultured killer, is an ambivalent character—a savior criminal. There’s a strange comfort in knowing he has the knowledge to save lives as much as he has the desire to take them. In fact, there’s an element of the divine in that. The capricious nature of a power that has the ability to give and to take is one with which religions constantly deal. Yes, The Silence of the Lambs is a scary movie. The reasons, however, lie more with implications than with imitations.

Scary Thoughts

rockoffThose who know me personally—and not just through the internet—sometimes are surprised to learn that I watch horror movies. After all, I’m a pacifist, vegetarian, and a very caring person. Plus I’m squeamish and I eschew violence. Why, then, do I watch such things? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I might be a bit closer now that I’ve read Adam Rockoff’s The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead. Now, I’ve never met Mr. Rockoff, but from reading his book I get the impression that he’s a descent human being and fun to hang out with. He’s also a family man and a sympathetic individual. The Horror of It All is an extended discussion of that troublesome question: why do some of us watch movies of this kind?

It’s pretty clear from this book that Rockoff is way ahead of me in the number of horror movies seen. I’m sure he doesn’t mention all of those he’s watched, but there are some I’ve seen that didn’t make this book and, in my own way, I hope, show that I’m no slouch when it comes to the genre. I’m not in the media like he is and those of us trying to be respectable ex-academics have to read weighty tomes to keep any street cred at all on campus. That having been said, it was fascinating to read how many of the same triggers are at work in not just Rockoff and myself, but in other horror watchers he’s known and interviewed. These films are, for the most part, not just degenerate trash. Many of them have redeeming value and an unexpected profundity. Academics and other society people don’t like to get caught watching what hoi polloi do, but just take a look at the box office take and you’ll see that horror sells. We are not alone.

Ultimately every horror viewer has to struggle with this monster him or herself. Why do we watch? While in grad school I had a sociology doctoral candidate interview me to explore just that question. Why? At the time, admittedly, I had seen only a fraction of the films that I’ve moved on to see since then. One thing I can definitively say—I’m looking for something. Life is plenty scary as it is. A world where a good job can be yanked away from you at will and the specter of a life on the streets leers, can be an intimidating place. In the horror movie you see how it could be even worse. So as my waking hours are increasingly spent in the dark, as if the sun itself is afraid, I see books like Rockoff’s as a kind of flashlight through this forest. If I run into monsters, I want to have prepared myself.



It’s been decades since I’ve seen the original King Kong. A none-too-subtle racist and sexist flick it may be, but it stands as one of the original “horror” films of the early thirties and it has had a profound influence on movies ever since. King Kong wasn’t very nice to Fay Wray, and had to be euthanized by biplane, if I recall correctly. I work one block from the Empire State Building, and sometimes I subtly glance up, looking for the giant ape. There are more fearful sorts in New York these days. I can see Trump Tower, for instance, from the pantry at work where I keep my lunch. But I digress. For its day, King Kong was a violent movie. Like many films, however, it is also a parable.

Recent studies have shown that some 98 percent of mass murderers are male. Men deal out, by far, more than their share of death to others. Some have suggested that when women experience failure they look internally, blaming themselves. Men, on the other hand, go postal. They seek someone else to blame. In our culture—maybe in all “western” cultures—man are acculturated to think of themselves in terms of success. Quite often this means business success—affluence and its discontents. Do you have more money than your neighbors? Good for you! You have succeeded, and, for some warped perspectives, God has blessed you. In reality, the system we’ve constructed has set many people up for failure. This is no excuse, but men who have no other way of measuring self-worth may find comfort in firearms. After all, it’s society that should take the blame. Right?

Gun lobbies claim that collecting firearms is a harmless hobby. Like collecting stamps, only a little louder. A bit of psychology might go a long way here. Might we not stop and think what happens when you give arsonists matches to play with? I suppose if we took away these toys, boys would use baseball bats, or rocks, to take out their aggression. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the problem might not be the system that measures a man by his money. Could there be a better way? There have been those throughout history who’ve made such a claim. They often die violent deaths. Once King Kong has begun his ascent with lust and violence in his eyes, we should all cast a wary eye on the Empire State Building and wonder what it all means.

Colorful States


Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?