Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Turnabout

Fair play, so the adage dictates, includes turnabout.  Well, that may be overstating it a bit, but after reading Joe Nickell I decided to give the other side a shot.  Guy Lyon Playfair’s account, This House Is Haunted: The Amazing Inside Story of the Enfield Poltergeist, was originally written in the aftermath of the truly bizarre happenings at that location in the late 1970s.  My reason for reading the book, as maybe you’ve guessed, is that Ed and Lorraine Warren had a hand in the story.  Or at least a finger.  The movie The Conjuring 2 was based on the Enfield case and it placed the Warrens front and center in its resolution.  This is Hollywood, however, and since I’m working on a book on demons I need to try to dig beneath the surface a bit, into regions where tenure-seeking academics often fear to tread.

Interestingly, the Warrens are not even mentioned in Playfair’s book.  The edition I read was updated in 2011.  Playfair himself was one of the two primary investigators from the Society for Psychical Research.  The other was Maurice Grosse (who features in the movie).  Before eyeballs start rolling, it’s worth noting that the Society for Psychical Research is actually a respectable academic association.  As Playfair makes clear in his book, many of the members are skeptical and few believed that the evidence gathered by Grosse and Playfair indicated anything paranormal at all.  The book isn’t shy about dropping the names of the many investigators who dropped in—some uninvited—to either study or debunk the infamous poltergeist.  The incident, however, went on to inspire the movie Poltergeist by giving it free license to change almost all of the details.  Of the many investigators the Warrens remain unmentioned.

On this blog I’ve been chronicling the on-going struggle of trying to figure out what Ed and Lorraine Warren were up to.  Those who met and interviewed them invariably state that they were/are sincere.  They didn’t accept payment for their investigations, and often seem to have been genuinely interested in helping the people plagued by what mainstream science claims simply can’t exist.  Nevertheless, they had and have detractors even amid the parapsychology crowd.  Playfair’s account is quite interesting.  Called in early after the onset of strangeness on Wood Lane, Playfair recorded and recounted what he saw.  He caught some trickery and wasn’t shy about pointing it out.  At the end of the episode, however, he remained convinced that something unexplained had happened there.  Nickell dismisses it all with a sentence or two.  In the interest of fair play it would seem only right to hear the other side of the story.

OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.