Skin In

It took me back to my younger years.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film.  Wide ranging and insightful, this book was a delight to read.  Published in 2000, it discusses many movies that I watched in the eighties and which had somehow managed to be overrun by other stimuli since then.  I like to think that, even if recall isn’t instant, that we never truly lose the books we’ve read or movies we’ve watched.  (Some we may wish to forget, but that seems a sure way not to achieve that goal!)  As her subtitle says, Krzywinska’s book analyzes possession, witchcraft, and voodoo.  Since there are so many examples of these the discussion has to be selective, but she’s got a keen eye for choosing evocative films.

As any of my regular readers know (both of you!) I don’t really review the books in my “reviews.”  I limit myself to about 500 words and I don’t like to give spoilers.  A Skin for Dancing In would require quite a few words even to summarize.  Krzywinska covers demonology, possession, sacrifice, paganism, witchcraft, voodoo, and more, in several movies.  What really struck me in reading this was that she comes to a similar conclusion to what I’ve found—people learn about these things through film.  Scholars tend not to write much about such things (although this has improved somewhat since the turn of the millennium).  The average person doesn’t read academic books, and since culture has become “rational” there’s not much talk about such things from discoursing heads.  Still, movies.

These topics make for great movies.  One of the points I’ve made in my own work is that what we know about demons comes from the cinema.  It seems that we should pay close attention to what movies tell us.  They’re the “public intellectuals” that many academics want to be.  A Skin for Dancing In is a good example—it’s compelling, if a little academic, but very hard to find.  It’s difficult to lead public discussion if your book is limited to university libraries and those who have access to them.  Of course, you don’t need a talented scholar to tell you how to watch a movie, but I was reminded here of many films I thought I had forgotten.  And what’s more, I have a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger world of cinematic possession.  This is one of those books I wish I’d found sooner.


New Monster

The Babadook is a horror film about loneliness.  Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it has an arthouse cinema feel to it.  I missed it when it came out in 2014—it didn’t receive major billing and publicity in the United States—but it gained critical acclaim as intelligent horror.  It follows the small family of Amelia and her son Samuel, who has special needs.  I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers here because I think you should see it if you haven’t already.  Amelia’s husband died in a car crash taking her to the hospital to have their first child.  That haunting tragedy drives the film.  And when you throw a monster called the Babadook into the mix, loneliness and sleeplessness make the dark something to fear again.

With wonderful acting, the story of childhood monsters highlights the continuing plight of single mothers.  How are you supposed to survive when you have a child that requires constant supervision and yet you need to make ends meet?  And if sleeplessness begins to distort your sense of reality all kinds of things seem possible.  

Hollywood hasn’t been a friendly place for female directors.  This film was shot in Australia.  I’m not sure that sexual parity is better there, but this movie is a great example of what can happen when a woman shows what horror means to her.  Not too many horror movies have female directors, yet.  It seems to me that women have many things to fear and have much to show us about what horror can be.  It seems to me that loneliness, although often part of horror, isn’t often the focus.  We would rather look away than to see it because it’s too painful.  Horror compels us to look at what we’d rather not see.

Aside from all of this, the film gives us a new monster.  The Babadook was invented for this film and although we don’t have to worry about whether it’s real or not, the issues it brings to the fore certainly are.  There is darkness inside people.  Even those of us who try to do what is right struggle against it.  Often it takes quite a lot even to admit as much.  This movie lets the dark out and finds a new narrative path through which it might flow.  Although a box office success—earning more than it cost—The Babadook is still little known.  It should be discussed more because intelligent horror has some important lessons to teach us.


Interview Two

October turns the northern hemisphere mind toward Halloween.  It must be strange to receive northern media while living in the global south—Halloween occurs just as spring is getting underway.  I guess that’s what May Day’s for.  In any case, in the United States Halloween thinking is in nearly full swing.  My last two books, while not Halloween themed, look at horror films which, in keeping with October, are on everyone’s mind this season.  And it’s been quite a week for interviews.  The second half of my podcast interview on The Incarcerated Christian was posted yesterday.  If you want to hear more fun Q & A with Robin and Debra, click here.  I’ll post more about this Friday, but tomorrow my interview with Eric Ziolkowski of Lafayette College will air as part of the Easton Book Festival.  The festival’s going on right now, so be sure to check out the offerings online.

One bit of advice that I give as an editor: if you want to make it as an author you need to promote your own work.  Some of us were reared to believe that it’s in poor taste to do this, but in the internetted world it’s pretty much a requirement.  Something I learned from political activism is that every election is local.  Getting noticed also has to start in your own backyard.  I love doing interviews.  It’s always flattering to know that someone’s read your book and wants to know more about it.  I’ve started to explore the newish area of religion and horror.  From what we see in the news, it seems like it’s an area that’s likely to take off.  But only if those who work in it get their stuff out there where it can be seen.  (Or heard.)

Neither Holy Horror nor Nightmares with the Bible have sold very well.  They’re expensive, and academics, who will spend money on books, are still trying to decide if this area’s worth exploring.  I admit that there’s a puerile kind of naughtiness to taking monsters and “low brow” entertainment as a subject of study.  Horror, however, has lots of fans.  Perhaps not in the academy, but in the real world.  I like to think such marginal areas bring people together.  Horror, like demons, isn’t going away any time soon.  Instead of running away from what you fear, why not try embracing it?  If not even that, please consider the free content available on The Incarcerated Christian and the Easton Book Festival.  After all, Halloween’s just about here…


Documenting Horror

Watching documentaries always seems to raise questions.  I recently found A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss on YouTube.  Produced by the BBC in 2010, the set of three episodes is a selective walk through the horror genre through the eyes of an insider in the film industry.  Divided over three segments, he covers early horror (primarily Frankenstein-related movies), British horror, and the American horror revival beginning in the late 1960s.  It occurred to me while watching this that horror is often—but not always—an intellectual genre.  Many of the plots and ideas are sophisticated and puzzling.  At one point Gatiss says it is nearly the perfect genre for movies.  I would tend to agree.  Many of the payoffs of horror are the reasons I go to see a movie.

Of course, documentaries involve interviews.  While discussing religion and horror—the two are closely related—in the third segment, he considers the impact of what I termed the “unholy trinity” in Holy Horror: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  His primary interview for this set was with David Seltzer, the screenwriter for the last of these.  At this point my memory took me back to an interview on one of the extras for my DVD edition of The Omen.  In that interview Seltzer mentions that the antichrist is at that moment (clearly this was shot shortly after the movie came out) walking the earth.  In my mind I compartmentalized this to interpret his stance as that of a religious conservative.  The idea of the Antichrist, after all, is post-biblical, at least in the sense that end-time scenarios are developed.

The Gatiss interview was filmed many years later and he asked Seltzer if he believed in the Devil.  “No,” Seltzer laughed, stating that if he did he wouldn’t work on movies like The Omen.  People’s opinions change over time, of course.  And the Devil and the Antichrist are two separate characters as they develop after the Bible was completed.  Still, I had to wonder if his earlier interview included that comment about the Antichrist being alive now wasn’t intended as a bit of spooky propaganda for the movie.  It’s difficult to know what someone really believes.  Most people mouth what their ministers say, not really considering where said clergy get their information.  For these many years I’ve been thinking that The Omen was considered as some kind of documentary by the screenwriter.  Documentaries always seem to raise questions.


Quest for Quest

The Quest for the Wicker Man is a rarity.  Not only is it very difficult to locate and very expensive if you do find it, it’s also a collection of essays where each one is worth reading.  I’d read some of it before, but since I’m writing a book on the movie I thought I ought to sit down and go through it cover to virtual cover.  I had to settle for a Kindle version—please bring this back in print!—and was reminded yet again why a paper book is so much more satisfactory as a reading experience.  You see, I’m a flipper (not the dolphin kind).  I like to flip back and forth while I’m reading.  Clicking and swiping (both of which, coincidentally, dolphins do) isn’t satisfying.  And if you underline in a Kindle everybody else can see it.  I prefer the privacy of a print book.

In any case, if you’re interested in probing a bit into The Wicker Man you’ll find quite a lot of information here.  (Available on Kindle for a reasonable price, if not a comfy reading experience.)  Many aspects of the film are covered here.  One thing I won’t be discussing in my book is the music.  Firstly, I’m not qualified to do so, and secondly, it is done well here.  Essays also discuss religion (which I will discuss in my book), paganism (ditto), and many other aspects.  This is a book of conference proceedings—a boon for fans, but bust for most publishers.  It’s also a boon for those who like marking up used books to the tune of 64 cents per page (the lowest price on Amazon).  

Some of us believe a page is an ontological entity.  Once narrative writing began those responsible for clay tablets soon settled on a size that is, well, handy.  You can hold it easily.  That concept translated to the codex, or “book” as we know it.  Scrolls were cumbersome, but books offered many advantages.  For hundreds of years they were the standard-bearers of accessible knowledge.  I miss page numbers when reading an ebook.  I don’t want to know the percentage of screens I’ve swiped.  I want to know how many pages I’ve read, what page I’m on, and how many pages there are to go.  (The best of electronic books preserve that information.)  The book was not a form that required improvement.  Well, at least that digression kept me from giving up too much information about my book.  If you want to read it, when it comes out, I recommend the print form.


Book or Movie?

The funny thing about people, or at least one of the funny things, is that when individuals get together we notice different things.  It can happen at in-person meetings or “virtually” through books.  I’m working on a book on The Wicker Man, as I recently noted.  Others have written on the movie, of course, and I’ve read some of their analyses already, but I’m continuing to read more.  Recently I finished Studying The Wicker Man by Andy Murray and Lorraine Rolston.  This particular book—more along the lines of a booklet, actually—has quite a few observations about the movie that I had missed.  Connections, or interpretations, that I’d failed to make despite having watched the movie many times.  It takes the meeting of the minds to bring many things to light.

One of the questions they raised (and there will be spoilers here) is why the movie bears the title it does.  Obviously the climatic moment of the film features a wicker man.  Murray and Rolston noted, however, that more could be going on in this title than is obvious.  Sgt. Neil Howie, the protagonist, is a lot like a wicker man himself.  I won’t repeat their wonderful work here but I will say it’s convincing.  The literary trope of “the hollow man” (it could be woman, or hollow person, but I’m writing from personal experience) can be a poignant one.  We know that life may carry on biologically, but what makes us who we are is what goes on inside.  The hollowness may be intellectual or emotional.  Either way it’s a trial.  It’s something that I wouldn’t have thought of without help.

Studying The Wicker Man may be slim, but it has some powerful ideas.  As a society we’re often impressed with size.  When a promotional photo wants to show an author with gravitas, they generally ask him or her to hold a thick book.  There is certainly a place for large books, but insight can come in any size.  This particular book is obviously designed for film studies courses focusing on this particular movie.  It does point out that “cult classics” become such by not being widely seen, so I realize many of my readers (presuming there are many) won’t be terribly interested in a book that analyzes a movie they haven’t seen.  If you’re one of them, and if you don’t mind a movie with an ending that will stay with you, I would recommend watching the film before reading the book.


Podcast Live

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you forgot what day it was?  (Come on, now, it’s a pandemic—you can admit it!)  I spent yesterday unaware that it was Tuesday.  Tuesday is important because I knew that The Incarcerated Christian was going to be posting my interview on Holy Horror on their podcast.  It’s live now—give a listen!  I’ve been toying with rebooting my own podcasts, but like most other things in life I just can’t find the time to do it.  I still enjoy talking about my ideas and I thank Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli for allowing me to yak their ears off for an hour.  There are many interesting podcasts on their site, so it you decide to listen the interview be sure to hang around a while and explore.

My hosts understand that Holy Horror was written for general readers, if not priced for them.  Being asked questions keeps you sharp, and sometimes it feels like my blade has been dulled from sitting in the drawer too long.  At the risk of sounding too biblical, iron sharpen iron, right?  Conversation is increasingly important in a polarized world where minds are already made up and the preferred solution is to hate others based on differences of opinion.  Why not talk about things?  Interviews also keep me sharp in asking about things I wrote years ago.  It may not seem like it, but the main body of Holy Horror was finished nearly five years ago.  Books take a long time to write and then a long time to publish.  It’s good to be asked about what one has written.

The questions asked on this interview were well thought out and reflective.  I can only hope that my responses were the same.  If you decide to listen and like what you hear, please share it with others.  The interview actually spilled over into a part two that will be posted in a couple weeks.  There’s a lot to say about religion and horror.  I’ve continued to watch movies since the interview and I notice further affirmations.  The Wicker Tree, for example, is a very biblical movie.  Or at least it quotes from the Bible quite a bit.  Holy Horror was very much an experiment on my part to find out if there was any room for a book like this.  After I wrote it I found others shared some interest in these topics, and two people cared enough to schedule an interview about it.  Please give it a listen.


B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


Strange Happenings

It all began with a lazy Saturday, back in those days of trying to make a living as an adjunct professor.  People often ask why such folks don’t do more publishing, but the fact is that as an adjunct most of your time outside class prep and teaching is spent looking for a full-time job.  On a weekend, after all the job postings had been examined, I’d sometimes head to the local FYE and look through the bargain bins.  I’d taken to watching horror as an inexpensive kind of therapy years before.  I came home with a two-fer A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I hadn’t heard of either one, but hey, this was bargain bin entertainment.  It turned out they were television movie documentaries and they were scary, but not what I was looking for.  I resisted watching the theatrical movies when they came out.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me, and I watched The Haunting in Connecticut and its sequel long after their release.  The strangely named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia dramatized the story of Heidi Wyrick almost beyond recognition.  Since the documentary had been based on a true story I wondered what had happened.  This wasn’t an Ed and Lorraine Warren case, so I turned to The Veil: Heidi Wyrick’s Story, written by two of Wyrick’s aunts.  Much of the book follows the documentary, only, strangely, with less detail about some of the hauntings.  It’s a quick read, and it’s fairly well paced.  It is, however, self-published.

A real dilemma, I imagine, for anyone wanting to publish their paranormal activities (unless they’re already influentially famous), is how to find a publisher.  From my own experience (and I work in the biz), finding a publisher isn’t getting any easier.  Self, or vanity publishing offers a physical book, but the usual gateways to believability (editors, editorial boards, etc.) are missing.  Established presses have reputation to worry about, and why take a chance when you can afford the luxury of buying projects that come to the top of an agent’s pile?  I enjoyed The Veil—I appreciate the effort of those who have a heartfelt story to tell.  But I couldn’t help thinking how much better it could’ve been with an editor’s guidance.  Those of us who write are often too close to our own work to see the problems—this is the real danger in self-publishing.  Hiring an editor is expensive and you need to have the income to do so, often creating a cycle of unaffordability.  I’m curious as to what really happened in Georgia, and I’m still curious after both the book and movie.


Discount Nightmares

Now that we’re past the equinox it’s officially okay to obsess with monsters, right?  (Any excuse will do.)  Nightmares with the Bible was officially a pandemic book.  Academic publishers (especially) found out that books released in 2020 tended to flop.  People weren’t thinking about much other than the pandemic (or crying about losing an election fair and square).  Books, of course, take a long time to write and a long time to produce—it’s not as simple as it looks.  And if your production schedule falls during a pandemic, well, be prepared.  In the case of Nightmares there was the added burden of price point.  When all you’re thinking about is survival, cashing out a Franklin to read about demons seems hardly wise.

Just yesterday I received a flyer, that I’m passing along to you, for the book.  It has a discount code on it (look at part 2 below) so that the book is merely expensive rather than very expensive. Nightmares is part of a series titled Horror and Scripture.  The series, published by Fortress Academic and Lexington Books, is now coming out with its third volume.  The publisher, starting to recover from the pandemic, is promoting all the books in the series.  You see, Nightmares was not only a pandemic book, it also missed that highly sought-after pre-Halloween release.  Books that deal with horror get a boost during the holiday season.  Ironically the same thing happened with Holy Horror.  Both books came out in December when nobody but Charles Dickens is thinking about scary things.

Academic book pricing is based on a model that’s beginning to crumble.  It’s that capitalistic trope of what the market will bear.  The market is academic libraries, and it has been demonstrating lately that even they aren’t made of money.  I don’t know if libraries get to use discount codes or not—it can’t hurt to ask your librarian.  Fully employed academics, however, will sometimes pay a hefty price for a book they really want or need.  My shelves upstairs are filled with books that were overpriced but were required for the books and articles I wrote when it was an expectation of my job.  My next book, which is now in the negotiation stage with the publisher, will be more reasonably priced.  It will likely have a smaller appeal, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  I sincerely hope I’m through writing hundred-dollar books.  Please pass the flyer along to all your rich friends—it’s just in time for the haunting month of October.


Witches of September

I’ve never read any John Updike before.  I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize.  I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two.  In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books.  This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back.  Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches.  There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first.  Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen.  In this case up that will mislead you.

The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie.  They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert.  The movie tells, in other words, a very different story.  Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause.  Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie.  A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself.  No fear of sacred places here.

The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either.  A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead.  In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way.  I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh.  This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version.  Both novels and movies are stories.  When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted.  My personal preference is for the film to present the same story.  It can’t always be done, of course.  In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer.  Since the stories are so different, the questions remain.  I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.


A Symphony of Horror

Horror season is upon us.  One could argue that it never left since summer has its fair share of horror when air conditioning is required.  The one horror director my wife seems to like, apart from the departed Alfred Hitchcock (and some would say he’s thriller, not horror), is Robert Eggers.  Eggers’ breakout The Witch worked on so many levels, even for non-horror fans.  The attention to historical detail and the solemnity of his approach and the slow build all helped.  The Lighthouse was moody and profound, with superb acting throughout.  The Northman, his viking epic shot in Iceland, is due out next year.  Rumor has it that his fourth film will be Nosferatu.  Anya Taylor-Joy, it is said, will be returning for it.

Nosferatu has, as of next year, a century of credibility.  F. W. Murnau’s classic, released in 1922, was technically a violation of copyright and was very nearly lost as copies were ordered destroyed.  This now iconic film, despite its subtitle A Symphony of Horror (eine Symphonie des Grauens), appeared before the category of “horror film” was assigned, and so it’s normally not considered as part of the genre.  The original was given a shot in the arm by Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre in 1979.  My long-suffering wife once agreed to watch it with me.  There are parts of the movie that are distinctly disturbing, but it remains one of the best vampire films ever made.  Many would classify it as an art film more than a horror film, just as Murnau’s was considered Expressionism rather than horror.

It remains to see how Eggers will handle this script.  The original plot was based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the formative novels of the western canon.  The story of an unassuming individual unexpectedly encountering, through a small conspiracy (in the films), the supernatural.  That which we’re all told is not really there.  Many are beginning to wake, after the election of Trump revealed that evil does really exist, to the understanding that not all is as it seems.  It’s hard not to sympathize with the vampire in the movies, particularly when he’s the victim of a curse.  A vampire’s got to eat, right?  The original, of course, made him out as a devil.  That was in the days when selfish bloodsucking was considered evil, not business as usual.  We have a lot to learn from vampires, and I, for one, am eager to see how Eggers will handle Nosferatu.

Image credit F. W. MurnauHenrik Galeen, and Fritz Arno Wagner; Public Domain in the United States, via Wikipedia

Reduce, Reuse

Today’s trash day in my neighborhood. I suspect I’m not alone in having a soft spot for bad movies.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like to see things wasted.  That, mingled in with my dislike of A-list culture where the people with all the advantages get all the notice.  I appreciate those who struggle.  Maybe that’s why I picked up Guy Barefoot’s Trash Cinema: The Lure of the Low.  That, and because I’ve read other books in the Short Cuts series and found them intelligent and informative.  And yet again, many horror movies are considered “trash”—indeed, Barefoot mentions quite a few of them—which makes me curious.  You see, even back when I was a grad student it was still thought, among some, that film wasn’t sufficiently intellectual to justify academic treatment.  The fact that media now dominates culture gives the lie to that assertion, especially since so many cerebral movies exist now.

In any case, Barefoot takes the subject seriously, using great care to define “trash.”  Given that the series stipulates brief books, this isn’t a comprehensive treatment, but it has a big takeaway for me.  Trash is simply what the majority of people don’t want.  As our landfill crises show, it never really goes away.  (We began composting when we bought our house, and the amount of trash dropped precipitously.  Food scraps can also become something useful.)  There are any number of reasons a producer or director might attempt trash—it’s quick and cheap, it shocks viewers, or it says something about our society.  Yes, even trash can teach us about ourselves.  Really, there’s a value to keeping things and trying to find the beauty where others see only garbage.

From my youngest days experiencing cinema (it was a rare treat then), I realized this was a powerful medium.  I still remember movies I saw as a child, imperfectly no doubt, even today.  And they still speak to me.  Some of them are great and others were almost forgettable.  Some are like gems while others seem like trash.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be watched, however.  A great number of trash films have become cult classics.  They may not reach the esteemed halls of academy award winners, but they are sometimes honest efforts without the money behind big studios.  I tend to root for the underdog.  Having said that, I haven’t seen most of the films discussed here.  Another way of looking at it is that my wishlist has grown.  


Just Like Us

Jordan Peele has been noted for his intellectual, black horror films.  His work is good at making clear that African-American experience is different than white experience in America.  That was especially on view in Get Out, a haunting treatment of being “the other.”  His more recent Us, two years old already, takes a somewhat different angle but still comes to a similar point.  Since the movie has a notorious twist ending that I’d rather not spoil for anyone slower than I am, I’ll try to focus on the film’s use of Jeremiah 11:11—“Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”  This message of the prophet was a warning that Jerusalem would fall to the Babylonians, but clearly it has wider applications.

It’s safe to say, I suppose, that the movie is about substitute people.  Each person has a doppelgänger that shares her or his soul, but is a puppet—it’s not too far to stretch to say “slave”—that must do whatever it is we have it do.  When those doubles, or shadows, arise and organize, things start to get real scary real fast.  Although the metaphors run deep, the biblical citation comes near the start of the movie, setting the tone of what follows.  This is divine judgment for the mistreatment of others.  While it isn’t ostensibly about race, at least not obviously so, the story follows the black Wilson family as the uprising begins.

Jeremiah’s message, although delivered to a specific situation at a particular time in history, could well apply whenever one people threatens another.  Like most prophecy, it’s less about prediction than it is about changing behavior.  Jeremiah presents a good warning tone because he was a prophet who loved his people but also saw that they had to fall in order to be redeemed.  His is a strong message for a country at a crossroads.  Peele has a lot going on in this movie and I suspect more than one viewing will be necessary to pick up on some of the points.  Not all parables have a single message.  Not all prophets are heeded in their time.  Jeremiah 11:11 provides context, and it rewards the biblically literate who know the context it which it originally applied.  Fitting it into the world of black horror is an example of how prophecy continues to be relevant.


Conjuring an Exorcist

In both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I discuss The Conjuring.  In the latter I actually go through the universe that the films spin around the investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Like most series where the writers and directors shift, the story line isn’t always consistent.  I suppose that one of the features of the series that appeals to those of us who love monsters is the fact that many of the movies have more than one.  The main threat, however, always seems to be demonic.  I enjoyed exploring this in both my book and in my recent piece on Horror Homeroom—check it out here.  

This series, in financial terms, has been highly successful.  There is little that attracts attention in any media more than money.  The Conjuring universe also shows that people are very interested in the topic.  A materialistic worldview doesn’t work for everyone.  We sense that there’s more going on that what the laboratory reveals.  I’ve often wondered why we can’t consider the world “both and” rather than “either or.”  We seem to think knowledge is some kind of zero-sum game.  I suppose that’s because the spiritual interferes with the material.  If there are outside forces working against the “laws” of physics then all that hard work is open to question.  It’s far easier to suggest that human beings (and other animals) who experience something “supernatural” are deluded.  Or superstitious.  Demons are a good case in point.  If they exist it would complicate the world of science.  And yet people pay good money to see movies based on them.

The Conjuring franchise pays off most of the time.  Some of the stories—those of the main series especially—are based on cases that the Warrens actually investigated.  There’s sometimes an element of the sideshow (the amazing Warrens!) to some of their work, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience of real people.  Experience is an important way to navigate this strange world in which we find ourselves.  I’m not the only one who finds horror films to be a reasonable guide through this territory.  The Warrens’ case files leave lots of opportunities to explore this strange world of demons, and there are further movies in the franchise currently under development.  The most recent film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, changed basic concepts from its early days.  It was delayed by the pandemic.  And yet, it made money.  There must be a lesson to be learned here.