Following It

Perhaps while I was sleeping (or busy keeping to myself), several horror movies of the “intelligent” variety appeared.  Those scare quotes aren’t to imply the films aren’t actually intelligent, but rather that many people assume horror can’t be smart.  Yes, there have been some cheap scare phases in the genre when viewers didn’t need too much intellectual capacity to figure out someone else was about to get snuffed, but since the late 1960s many cerebral movies have appeared.  It has only recently become acceptable for academics to address horror, and now that they have begun to do so several more provocative films have become part of the discussion.  I’m now trying to catch up (as I can afford to) with those more intellectual movies.  One of them was It Follows.

Of course, seven years ago, when it was released, it didn’t get much press.  It did, however, impress the critics.  A movie about sexual awaking, it wouldn’t make Puritans very happy, but it is pretty scary.  The premise itself is frightening: “it” (never defined) follows young people after a sexual encounter with someone already “infected”—it is visible only to intended victims and although it follows slowly, it is persistent and unrelenting.  It will eventually catch up.  It can take the shape of anyone—stranger, friend, family.  The only way you can tell “it” is that it’s walking slowly straight toward you and nobody else can see it.  To get it off of your trail, you have to pass it along to someone else.  It starts killing and working back to the previous victims, so once it starts you’re never safe.

Part of the visual appeal of the movie is the urban decay around Detroit, where the film was shot.  Another is the lack of adults.  A few are shown here and there, but this is a young persons’ dilemma and the young people have to sort it out.  Bleak and contemplative, the movie has a literary streak to it.  This isn’t just horror for screams—there’s an existential element as well.  The only place that adults really play a role is when it finally catches up to its victims, it appears as their parent.  Various critics have suggested it is a movie about STDs, but to me it felt more like a movie about struggling to cope with the complications sexuality brings.  Unlike most horror I discuss here there really isn’t an element of religion to It Follows.  It may be some kind of demon, but never defining it makes the viewer stop and think.  And that makes it intelligent.


Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


April Really Fools

What’s the best kind of April Fools’ Day prank?  What about one that occurs nowhere near April first?  Actually, I’m no fan of practical jokes.  They usually come at the expense of someone and really aren’t that funny.  And where does that apostrophe really go anyway?  Still, because of a project I’m working on, and because it was available on a streaming service I use, I watched April Fool’s Day in July.  An example of holiday horror from the 1980s.  Although moderately successful at the box office, the movie never took off to become a cultural icon like, say, Halloween did.  In fact, I only recently heard of it.  Part of the reason, I suppose, is the ensemble cast is pretty large (nine friends together for a weekend) and none of them played by big names.  In case you don’t like pranks, there will be spoilers below.

The trope of a number of young people—often college students—isolated in some inaccessible location is common enough in horror.  The optimal number seems to be five, otherwise an hour and a half isn’t really time to get to know everyone’s character well enough.  Of course, one by one they get killed off.  Since it’s set on April Fools’ Day you’re led to think some kind of serial killer is loose on the island, but in the end the entire thing turns out to have been an elaborate prank.  Nobody has really been killed and the audience is on the receiving end of an extended practical joke.

As I try to catch up on horror movies I missed I quite often have to rely on those that come with one of the few streaming services I use.  When I was myself a college student I couldn’t afford to go to the movies often.  Home video hadn’t really become affordable yet to people of my economic bracket, and besides, I spent a lot of time studying.  As the only one in my family that watches horror, finding the time to do so remains a challenge.  And there is quite a backlog.  I’ve been trying to watch horror set on specific holidays as a way of keeping myself honest.  Even that can prove a challenge, however.  I can justify the time, however, and the somewhat modest cost, as research. Hey, somebody has to do it.  And that’s as good an excuse as any for watching April Fool’s Day in July.


Scary Folk

Genre is a useful category.  It can be misused, however.  Straightjacketing a piece of literature, music, or film can lead not only to confusion, but to constraining creativity itself.  Nevertheless, the category of Folk Horror is certainly expansive enough for a book-length treatment, such as Adam Scovell has given it.  Unless you’ve read quite a bit about the subject you might wonder what folk horror is.  A good part of Scovell’s work is definitional—providing the reader to an answer to that very question.   Although it has earlier roots, folk horror was initially a British genre that became particularly noticeable in the late sixties and early seventies.  It comprised movies and television programs that dwell on specific aspects of the landscape—particularly the rural—and isolation within it.

What I find particularly compelling about folk horror is that it is often based on religion.  In the countryside you encounter people who think differently about things.  Believe differently.  Their convictions are enforced upon the stranger who may be there by design or by accident.  Ironically the genre largely emerged in a nation that prides itself for its role in civilized behavior.  It speaks volumes about belief.  Civilization has produced more refined strains of religion, but on its own religion will tend to grow wild, even as the weeds in your yard are distantly related to the cereal grains we cultivate.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Fans of horror can name them off, but even those who don’t care for the genre know the kinds of belief this indicates.

Not all folk horror is about religion, of course.  It can be rural ways in general.  No matter how you classify it, most people can identify Deliverance and the danger it implies about being far from civilization where those who live in the woods can do as they please.  Scovell delves into the urban settings of folk horror as well—most of his examples are British—because it is possible to hide in the city also.  Although the genre reached a high point in the 1970s, it didn’t die out.  The book ends with consideration of some more modern examples, such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch.  The problem, as those of us who write about film know, is that just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean future examples won’t change the picture.  The Lighthouse and Midsommar were both released in 2019, after the book was published.  And they demonstrate that the scary folk haven’t gone away.


Scary States

You can usually tell, if you look close, when I’m on the trail of a new project.  This blog ranges fairly widely at times, but when lots of posts concentrate in a single area it’s likely something much larger is going on behind the scenes.  I’ve been writing quite a bit about horror lately.  Quite apart from the Republican Party, scary things are on my mind often.  I recently came across an article on KillTheCableBill that made me feel less weird.  It’s a story covering a survey showing the favorite horror movie per state.  Now, I won’t be able to fit all fifty into my usual daily word limit (wouldn’t want to arouse the word count police), so I’ll just add a few words about some of the interesting connections I noticed.  As in my books, if you see something, say something, right?

It’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t seen the movie most often mentioned: The Devil’s Backbone.  I have to admit falling behind on my Guillermo del Toro movies.  I was surprised at the number of states’ favorites that I hadn’t seen.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately: if you have a full-time job which doesn’t include movie watching, it can be pretty difficult to make the time.  A number of classics don’t show up on the list, while some states have somewhat obvious favorites: Massachusetts’ Jaws, Colorado’s The Shining (it was filmed there), New Mexico’s Alien (think about it), and Maine’s The Lighthouse all fit into state self image in some way.  Horror preferences, in other words, may reflect who we are.  

A number of states, more conservative ones mostly, favor older films.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Pennsylvania’s favorite, I haven’t seen.  Like most aspects of my home state it’s a mix of things.  It comes from the early seventies, just as modern horror was getting started, but not too far into it.  Studies like this end up giving me homework.  When I can find the time I have a lot of viewing to do to catch up with my fellow Americans. I was surprised that The Exorcist isn’t on anybody’s list of favorites, not even Washington, DC’s.  It may be that films that are too real are too scary for many people.  Another finding, as noted in the article, is that the southeast states like horror the least.  I can’t help but wonder if things would be better, politically, if more people there watched horror and pondered the implications.  


Screening the Dark

We’re spoiled.  The intensity of our media experiences makes it nearly impossible to imagine the truth of stories that viewers fainted at films such as Frankenstein even less than a century ago.  This change in outlook, this sense of being over-stimulated, occurred to me while reading Kendall R. Phillips’ excellent A Place of Darkness.  In keeping with the subtitle (The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema) Phillips primarily addresses pre-Dracula films, beginning in 1896 and demonstrates how horror themes emerged early and evolved along with society’s norms.  There is so much insight here that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  For me one of the big takeaways was how Americans at this stage were eager to appear non-superstitious and how they used that concern to keep the supernatural out of early ghost films.

Phillips isn’t afraid to address the role of religion in horror.  Other cultural historians note this as well, but many pass over it quickly, as if it’s an embarrassment.  Since my own humble books in the field of horror are based on the religious aspects of such movies, I’m always glad to find specialists who are willing to discuss that angle.  As America grew more and more enamored of the idea of rationalism, less and less energy was put into suggesting that anything supernatural might be at work.  Supernatural was considered foreign and cinema followed society’s lead.  This led to—and I want to add that this isn’t Phillips’ terminology—the Scooby-Doo Effect where every seeming monster had to be revealed as a hoax.  As a kid I watched Scooby-Doo in the vain hope that the mystery might turn out to be real.

Studies of horror films generally acknowledge that the first real member of that genre is Tod Browning’s Dracula of 1931.  Phillips demonstrates the valuable pre-history to that and does an excellent job of explaining why Dracula was such a singular movie.  Horror elements had been around from the beginning, but Browning’s film made no excuses—the vampire is real.  Audiences were shocked and thrilled by this and other studios didn’t quite know whether they should follow Universal’s Depression-Era success or not.  Mostly they decided not to.  The Universal monsters seem innocent enough today, but we go to theaters where the floors shake when heavy footsteps fall and the sound of a door creaking open comes from behind us.  Special effects make the horror seem real.  No excuse is made for religion and its monsters.  We’re spoiled. 


More Conjuring

It was an almost surreal experience.  First of all, it’s been well over a year since I’ve been in a movie theater.  Secondly, I’ve never been to this particular theater before.  And in the third place, I’m absolutely alone in here.  I didn’t rent the theater out or anything, but I’ve been wanting to see The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It since June 4.  Actually, since September when it’s initial release was delayed due to the pandemic.  Everyone else around here must’ve seen it already.   I knew the story of Arne Johnson and the Warrens, having found and read Gerald Brittle’s book, The Devil in Connecticut.  Loosely based on that event, this story focuses on the actual fact that this was the first time not guilty by reason of demonic possession was proffered in a US courtroom.  The story is a strange one and the movie, as movies do, makes it even stranger.

I’ve been anticipating The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, despite the title, for a few years now.  If you’re familiar with Nightmares with the Bible you’ll know that an entire chapter is devoted to The Conjuring franchise.  You may also know that it is the most lucrative horror series of all time, apart from Godzilla in its many, many iterations.  One of the points in Nightmares was to try to make sense of the demonic world presented in the Conjuring universe.  The franchise, for the most part, deals with actual case files from Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Some of the episodes are pure fiction, however, and the explanations given in the films are all, well, conjured for the big screen.  The movies call attention to the Warrens’ work, but in a way that requires an entire chapter to untangle.

My initial impression is that this isn’t the best movie in the series.  I can’t replicate my previous work here, and I’ve only seen the movie once, so there are details I certainly missed.  The demon isn’t named this time.  Indeed, the backstory proposed is drawn from the spin-off film Annabelle.  A fictional satanic group called Disciples of the Ram is posited as causing the trouble.  Like the demon behind Annabelle, they’ve placed a curse on the Glatzel family for some unknown reason.  During the opening exorcism Arne, in an Exorcist move, asks the demon to take him instead of the young David, the brother of his girlfriend.  The movie leaves the Warrens to find out who put the curse on the Glatzels in the first place, and break it.  With some time for pondering I’ll likely come back to this movie again.  I do have to say that the book was probably scarier, although sitting in a theater alone to watch a horror movie is not something I hope to make a habit of doing.


All You Sea

Speaking of large ships, in honor of World Ocean Day, which was June 8, I had planned to watch Seaspiracy.  A Netflix original documentary, this really is a must-see film.  Not to pass the buck, but I’ve long believed it will be the younger generation that will take the initiative to improve conditions on our planet.   I’ve seen my own insanely selfish and aging generation (with even more aged and selfish senators) continue to exploit this planet like there’s no tomorrow.  If you watch Seaspiracy you may see that it’s closer to true than you might think.  There may be no tomorrow if we don’t change our ways right now.  Borrowing its title from Cowspiracy, another important documentary, Seaspiracy looks at the fishing industry and its devastating effects on our oceans.

There’s a lot of sobering stuff here.  It begins with plastics.  Single use plastics, and even recyclable plastics, are everywhere.  They kill sea animals, they break down into micro-particles and infiltrate everything.  Chances are you have lots of plastic in your body just from living in an environment where it’s everywhere.  Ali and Lucy Tabrizi take you on a very disturbing journey where governments keep secrets about their roles in depleting the oceans and where large corporations kill observers at sea where there’s no chance of the truth being discovered.  They take you to the claims behind “dolphin safe” tuna and other fish.  They take you to where the market price on illegally caught blue fins can bring in three million dollars per fish.  And they’re caught in great numbers.

The oceans, according to current projections, could be empty in 27 years.  If current practices don’t change, there could be basically nothing left by 2048.  Why?  Because humans are hooked on consuming.  Some critics complain the date should be 2072, as if that isn’t just kicking the can down the road.  I became a vegetarian many years ago, after leaning that way many years before that.  It took Cowspiracy to make me go vegan. We eat without thinking about where our food comes from.  Our industrial food practices are literally destroying our planet.  Having given up fish along with other meat, I didn’t think much about fishing.  Seaspiracy shows why fishing is everyone’s concern.  It’s largely unregulated, unenforceable laws apply, and companies try to make consumers feel better in their acceptance that some fish is safe for endangered species.  This documentary shows once again how the price of eating animals, and doing so on an industrial scale, is simply not sustainable.  My generation is perhaps too lazy to change its ways.  Our only hope is that the younger generation takes the state of this mess far more seriously than we do. And perhaps thinks before putting things in their mouths.


Story Power

A story can change everything.  You see, we are story-telling creatures and if you want to sway someone a story is a far better means than a lecture.  I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this because a story, in the form of a movie (it doesn’t matter which one), has been on my mind quite a lot lately.  This got me to thinking about the ways stories we tell ourselves come to define our lives.  It happens on a national as well as an individual level.  We’re engaged by a continuous narrative.  Until some kind of resolution comes we wonder what happens next.  Since my research has lately shifted to popular culture and religion, I’ve had the excuse to watch lots of stories.  Some of them just won’t let you go.

To me there’s no comparison between a well-written movie and one thrown together only for box-office potential.  They do overlap sometimes, but a film where the story is central often has power to stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.  We make sense of life through story.  Our biographies are the stories we tell about ourselves from our own perspectives.  I love to listen to other people’s stories.  I suspect—no, I know there would be a lot less conflict in the world if belligerents would listen to one another’s stories.  The tragedy of politics is those driven to rise to leadership roles often have vacuous stories—the blind ambition to be on top is hardly a tale worth the telling.  We like stories of presidents born in log cabins who had to struggle to get to a position of influence.  They have compelling stories.

Quite often, it seems to me, world leaders today are cut from the somewhat sociopathic model favored by businesses.  No story need be told.  Success is measured by the numbers.  Metrics tell you all you need to know, never mind how your workers feel.  The workers, you see, are telling their stories.  Building their narratives.  It isn’t too difficult to tell story tellers apart from those who climb out of corporate ambition.  The story tellers are much more interesting to listen to.  Even politicians—at least those who’ve not yet lost their souls—can be affected by a story.  It seems strange to me that, given the obvious power of story, we don’t emphasize it more in education.  There’s more to life than getting a job and climbing to the top.  Those on the bottom often have the best stories.


Unconventional Demon

In my book Holy Horror I limited my discussion to fairly widely available and well-known films.  Part of the reason for this is that nobody can watch all horror movies and for those of us who work, there’s just limited time.  All of the films are at least American co-produced, most of them American productions.  The one exception to that is The Wicker Man.  I couldn’t bear to leave that particular movie out.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was classified as the newly coined “folk horror.”  Another film, released two years earlier was the strangely titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  It’s a strange but competent British horror film that has an eighteenth-century village falling prey to a demon that is accidentally plowed up in a field.

It is a film that could’ve been included in Holy Horror.  Indeed, the Bible appears in it and one of the adult characters is the local curate.  As the children are succumbing to a Satanism that’s raising a demon, he tries to teach them their Bible lessons.  Like Village of the Damned, the horror here centers on the children.  Flaunting the reverend’s rules, they play in the woods, raising the Devil.  Almost literally.  The demon they summon is called Behemoth.  Perhaps surprisingly, the judge actually saves the day in this one.  At first he’s convinced that the age of superstition is over and insists that it not be brought back.  He learns, however, that the demon is real and deals with it by rather physical means.  Who is Behemoth?

The word translates rather literally to “beasts.”  In the book of Job Behemoth is the land-bound companion to Leviathan, the two monsters that God cites to demonstrate his superiority over mere mortals.  As time wore on into the middle ages Behemoth and Leviathan were recast as demons, although it’s pretty clear that the book of Job doesn’t present them that way.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that demons aren’t fully formed beings in the ancient imagination.  Since the Bible says so little about them, ideas were drawn from folklore and other sources to flesh out these somewhat amorphous entities.  Descriptions of The Blood on Satan’s Claw quite often state that the children of the village are possessed.  If so, it is quite a different form of possession than will become standard two years later with the release of The Exorcist.  It is fitting, I suppose, for folk horror to have a folk demon for its antagonist.


Conflicting Kingdoms

There is reason to be afraid.  Yes, I watch horror but the reason I suggest being afraid is because of a documentary titled ’Til Kingdom Come.  Directed by Maya Zinshtein, the film examines Christian evangelical support for Israel.  Primarily set in Binghamton, Kentucky, the interviews indicate a number of frightening implications.  One, that support for Jews is based on a “convert or die” model.  These evangelicals have the end times mapped out and believe the Bible is a fortune-telling book par excellence.  This doesn’t surprise me since I grew up with some of those very same charts and timelines.  It doesn’t surprise, but it scares.  These true believers never reflect or question their beliefs and this leads them to an emotional coldness that is antithetical to the sympathy Jesus preached.

A second fear factor here is just how organized and just how good at raising money the various Israeli lobbies are.  When evangelicals are elected to congress, these groups have open doors in Washington.  Those shown in the documentary are unfailing in their flattery of Trump.  The Jewish groups are clearly using the Christians to push and anti-Palestinian agenda while the evangelicals, for their part, are using the Jews to force God’s hand in sending Jesus back to end the world.  Under the Trump administration we were nearly pushed to the brink by elected officials who fervently pray for the end of the world.  This should keep any sane person up at night.

The beliefs of these evangelical groups have evolved to the point of not being recognizable as anything Jesus taught.  The conservative social agenda has been mistaken for the Gospel and these groups despise anyone who approaches the Bible to learn what it actually says.  Again, having grown up with this viewpoint none of it comes as a surprise.  I know it’s possible for people to grow out of it.  Watching overweight televangelists stirring up massive crowds to donate to a gospel of hate is nevertheless troubling.  Early on one of the pastors admits that they indoctrinate their children.  He sees no problem with that, although he seems embarrassed to have been caught saying it on film.  One lone mainline pastor, a Palestinian resident of Bethlehem, speaks out against this distortion of the Christian message.  One of the evangelicals walks away from a conversation with him and his heartfelt sympathy for his fellow Palestinians only to say the pastor’s theology is anti-Semitic.  ’Til Kingdom Come is a disturbing documentary.  I think I’ll watch a horror film to calm down.


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Watching The Witch

Good things often come in small packages.  I’ve read a couple of Brandon Grafius’ books before, and I’ve had The Witch on my reading list since I found out about it.  This is one of those books that benefits from knowing the raison d’être of the series of which it’s a part.  Devil’s Advocates is published by Auteur Publishing as a set of brief books on specific horror films.  If I didn’t have other financial obligations I could see myself purchasing the entire series.  Fortunately this volume was on a film I’ve seen (horror films have become so prolific that I can’t afford to see all of those I’d like either).  The Witch is a provocative movie, having gained critical acclaim as well as box office success.  It’s also a complex film.

Grafius ably takes us through the Puritan background that’s necessary to understand the social, and familial tensions that make this movie work.  Robert Eggers is a director known for his meticulous attention to period detail.  Even while weaving the fantastic into his stories, the plots are entirely believable.  Grafius has a solid grasp on how religion and horror interact.  That’s on full display here.  Looking at The Witch as an exploration of folk horror, he illustrates the importance of the landscape to the tale as well as how isolation sets a family off against one another.  The Puritan religion creates a monster, as it were.  Grafius doesn’t shy away from the misogyny behind the developing idea of the witch, either.  His explanations of—not excuses for—it are insightful.

Granted, horror films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Or coffee.  As I sensed when writing Holy Horror, fans of the genre enjoy reading about it.  I often wonder why those of us who watch it do so.  In my case, in any way, it feels like a compulsion.  It’s a coping technique and perhaps an antidote to the headlines.  Horror can be an intensely creative and socially aware genre.  The best of it critiques the flaws of society.  As Grafius points out, Thomasin only wants to be a good girl.  The Puritan society into which she was born projects the image of the witch upon her.  Eggers gives us a real witch in the woods, of course.  Grafius explains how this becomes the aspiration of a young woman who’s only trying to do what’s right.  I have a feeling I’ll be going back to the Devil’s Advocates series again.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


More about Nightmares

I became aware of TheoFantastique many years ago.  Being new to social media myself, I was impressed at how professional and intelligent the site was.  Eventually I decided to introduce myself to John Morehead, the creator behind it.  (It is possible to be shy on the internet, so this took a few years.)  When Holy Horror came out I asked if TheoFantastique would post a review of it and got an even better response with an interview.  Now that Nightmares with the Bible is out the tradition has been kept going.  If you’d like to see an interview on the book take a look here.  One of the topics that comes up in discussion is how popular culture—TheoFantastique is cleverly named in that regard—influences the way we think about religion.

Religious studies was, not so long ago, a growing field.  Many of us have been trying to understand why interest began to sag, somewhat abruptly, and came to the point that it now feels like an endangered species.  Two of the consequences of this are important: one is that we don’t invest in studying what motivates just about everything in American politics and society, and the second is that the average person gets her or his information about religion from popular culture.  Movies, for example, are impactful, brief, and entertaining.  Humans are visual learners and although books punch above their weight in the learning division, having someone show you something is faster and requires less commitment than reading.  Academics, most of whom love reading, have been very slow to cotton onto this fact.  Society learns by looking.

That observation stands behind both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  Both of these explorations look at how people come to understand two aspects of religion: the Bible and demons.  Instead of attempting to tackle all of religious studies (nobody can) or all of cinema (ditto), these books look at the horror genre to see how fans come to understand the Good Book.  As the interview explores, other scholars—mostly younger ones—are beginning to realize this is where people live.  It’s rare to find someone who commits to reading an academic monograph unless they’re in the academy.  Even academics, however, watch movies.  When the locus of information shifts to popular culture we need to start taking seriously what popular culture says.  More people will watch The Exorcist than will ever read an academic monograph about demons.  If we want to understand how people understand religion—what religion is—we need to pay attention.  And TheoFantastique is a great place to start.