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.

Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.

Quiet Now

The funny thing about my movie watching is that it’s a reflection of my scattered lifestyle.  While I was teaching my career progression was linear with a goal of moving beyond Nashotah House to a college or university that shared my values better.  Publishing was a fallback, and I’ve learned a lot but I haven’t unlearned my academic leanings.  So, like the rest of my life, my movie watching is piecemeal.  I found a copy of A Quiet Place in a Halloween sale.  My wife bought it for me and on a weekend on my own I watched it.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d read that it was an intelligent horror film, and that was good enough for me!  There may be spoilers here if you live in a cave, like I do (metaphorically), so be warned.

The backstory isn’t fully spelled out, but the monsters in this movie are blind and attracted to their victims by sound.  The focus is on a family in upstate New York that’s trying to survive without making any noise.  Since there are kids involved, you’ll see how tricky this could be.  John Krasinski’s film builds the suspense wonderfully.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan at his best, and Alien and even Stranger Things, the movie has a odd effect.  When it’s over you don’t want to make any noise.  I watched it while my wife had to work over the weekend, and I put the DVD away as quietly as I could, and then went to bed.  Awaking alone the next morning, I continued the vigil.  Critics praised the movie for its silence, perhaps what we’re most afraid of in this noisy world.

I spend a lot of time saying nothing.  Editing is a quiet job.  Telecommuting is a quiet lifestyle.  At Nashotah House we had mandatory quiet days, which, if they weren’t mandatory I would’ve loved.  I’d seriously considered a monastic lifestyle when I was younger—there’s great value in being quiet.  A horror film that teaches that lesson, despite many obviously unanswered questions, is worth paying attention to.  Horror films have continued to grow more intelligent over the years.  This one is rated PG-13 and will have you on the edge of your seat (or under the bed) anyway.  And it’s got an important message.  For those of us who don’t say much (maybe that’s why I write all the time) a movie like this acts, if you will, as a loudspeaker.  Does anybody hear me?

Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.

Book Festival

So it’s here.  The Easton Book Festival begins today.  The weather?  Partly sunny, temps in the mid-60s.  There’s no excuse not to go!  (Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons, but if you’re in the area please consider it!)  I have to admit that my involvement with it was opportunistic.  I contacted the organizer because I was looking to promote my autumnally themed book, Holy Horror, in the season for which it was written.  I understand delayed gratification.  What author isn’t delighted when her or his book arrives?  Thing is, mine came around Christmas time, and, while a wonderful gift, nobody was thinking about scary movies during the joyful winter season.  My observation is this: books are lenses to focus thoughts.  I enjoy Halloween, but I also enjoy Christmas.  One follows the other.  The Easton Book Festival just happens to be during the former rather than the latter.

It’s heeerrreee…

My own involvement with the festival doesn’t start until tomorrow.  Today’s a work day, after all.  Employers don’t give days off for self-promotion (or even for writing books) so festivals are extra-curricular activities.  I’ll be on a panel discussion tomorrow at the Sigal Museum and on Sunday afternoon I’ll be doing a presentation on my book, same venue.  Maybe I’ve got this backwards (nobody tells you these things), but I’m not doing this primarily to sell books.  I’m doing it to promote dialogue.  During my less-than-stellar book signing last week at the Morvarian Book Shop I had only one brief conversation of substance.  It was with a scientist who pointed out that science and religion had nothing to do with one another.  I guess my hopes for the events of the next two days are that folks might want to discuss the ideas in the book.  Or at least think about them.

Sunday morning I’ll be giving a church presentation on the book as well.  Being in the publishing biz I’ve learned the importance of authors getting out there to talk about their books.  Hands up, who’s read a McFarland catalogue lately?  Case in point.  The only problem with all of this is that I still have to get my weekend errands done.  My daily schedule doesn’t allow for trips to the grocery store or even putting gas in the car.  And no matter how much time I put into work, there’s always more to do.  Festivals, of course, are intended to be time set apart from regular pursuits.  So I’m going to put on respectable clothes and I’m going to speak about what’s on my mind this time of year.  If the Lehigh Valley’s in your orbit, I’d be glad to see you there.

Amityville Rehaunted

One of the problems with scarce resources is the desire not to squander any of them.  Time is so rare these days that I keep multiple writing projects going (and growing) and when they’re ripe I pluck them and take them to market.  One of my writing projects had me read Hans Holzer’s Murder in Amityville.  Why?  Fair question.  It was the “inspiration” behind Amityville II: The Possession.  I discuss this film in Nightmares with the Bible, and I’ve been going back and reading those period pieces from the 1970s that formed so much of our culture through the end of the last century.

In case you didn’t grow up with an interest in parapsychology, Hans Holzer was a pretty big name then.  I can assert that with some confidence because I grew up in a small town without access to big city resources (where fame is made) and I knew about him.  Holzer wrote well over 100 books, which might give you a hint regarding their quality.  He was an interesting person.  Like Ed and Lorraine Warren he made a living by investigating, writing, and lecturing.  (I can’t seem to break into that cycle—times have changed!)  A firm believer in ghosts and demons, Holzer was naturally drawn, like other moths around the candle, to Amityville.  Murder in Amityville is his summation of his investigation and all I can say is it’s a good thing he wasn’t a lawyer.  Apart from containing lengthy transcripts of Ronald DeFeo’s trial, the book also contains interviews conducted by Holzer.  Full of leading questions and lacking evidence, it fails to convince even a sympathetic reader.

Still, you’ve got to give Holzer credit for including interviews where his loaded questions get him nowhere.  In interviewing a town historian for Amityville, Holzer kept bringing up allegations about the house at 112 Ocean Avenue only to have the nonplussed historian tell him point blank that his (Holzer’s) allegations are incorrect.  His assertions of an “Indian burial ground” are taken for granted, although no historical records substantiate it.  His interview with DeFeo demonstrates Holzer’s irrepressible faith.  After being told by DeFeo that he’d heard no voices—something he made up for a failed insanity plea—Holzer keeps coming back to what the voices told him to do.  Not only that, when Holzer does stumble upon a good question he fails to follow up, chasing some other notion down another rabbit hole.  There was clearly enough material here to work into a horror movie, but for sorting out the troubled home life of the DeFeo family the critical reader finds her or himself being asked to take a lot on faith.