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. 


Leap Night

I was quite young when I saw Night of the Lepus for the first time.  Well, I had to have been at least ten, but when I recently sat down to watch it only one or two scenes looked familiar.  Like most poorly done horror films, Night of the Lepus has gained a cult following.  The story is loosely based on Russell Braddon’s comedic novel Year of the Angry Rabbit.  Without the comedy.  Or at least without intentionally being funny.  In an effort to control rabbit overpopulation in Arizona, a new virus is released into the population.  Instead of killing off the bunnies, it makes them grow as large as wolves and become carnivorous.  They go around attacking people with big, nasty, pointy teeth (to be fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail wouldn’t be out for three more years).

Night of the Lepus was criticized for not being scary at all—a cardinal sin for a horror film.  I was kind of embarrassed when my wife walked in and found me watching it.  Nostalgia can do funny things to a person.  It is almost painful to watch the public officials make such obvious missteps each time they start to get an idea of what’s happening.  They’re almost as imbecilic as the Trump administration was.  Meanwhile rabbits are hard to make scary.  Perhaps William Claxton should’ve read Watership Down.  Ah, but Richard Adams’ classic was only published in 1972, the year the movie was released.  What was it about the mid-seventies and rabbits?  

Part of the problem is that Night of the Lepus takes itself seriously without the gravitas required to do so.  Who can believe actual rabbits are vicious when, to make them monstrous, the movie simply shows rabbits against miniature scenery?  Their human handlers occasionally smear their mouths with red, but a rabbit doesn’t appear cunning and vicious.  And to get them to attack people they had to use human actors in rabbit suits.  I’m a fan of nature going rampant as a vehicle for horror.  Hitchcock’s The Birds did it effectively.  So, I’m told, did Willard (which is remarkably difficult to access with HBO never having released it onto DVD).  The seventies were when ecology began to be recognized as perhaps the most important of global issues.  Half a century later we’re still struggling to reconcile ourselves with it.  Meanwhile the rabbits have begun to appear in our back yard.  They may nibble our perennials, but I’m not afraid.  At least as long as they don’t watch Night of the Lepus and start to get some ideas.


Scary Thoughts

The kinds of places I hang out, online, dictate my reading.  It’s not that I like to be scared, it’s just that I’m honest.  Besides, even when hanging out in person was possible I didn’t do much of it.  So I became aware of Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays.  Like me, Counter’s a blogger (among other things), but unlike me his blog is themed horror.  (This blog has an element of horror but is very roughly themed religion.)  Counter’s book is a fascinating collection of thoughts.  Some of the essays are funny, some are sad, and a few are downright profound.  It’s clear that what gave Counter his crisis was watching his father get shot.  Even those of us who grew up not knowing our dads can see how that experience would traumatize a life.  My own traumas were less focused than this, but we learned the same lesson—it pays to be afraid.

When I was young I never met a phobia I didn’t like.  As I grew older and left home, I came to bring them under control.  You can only get so far in life hiding under your blanket, secretly afraid you might suffocate.  I learned that if I wanted to be a minister—something that never happened—I had to overcome my fears.  Being a parent did it even more.  In order to try to teach your child not to be afraid, you find yourself doing things like scooping up bugs in your bare hands to show that they won’t hurt you.  Like putting a brave face on a truly scary situation.  Like carrying on when everything you’ve built crumbles around you.  Counter’s essays don’t shy away from the difficult things in life.  He’s right: there are many.

I was a monster boomer, but I only really came back to horror after losing my long-term teaching post and longed for career.  Horror helps you cope with trauma.  It gets a bad rap, but mostly from people who don’t understand its therapeutic value.  I don’t like being scared.  Horror, however, reminds me of that cozy childhood feeling of watching monster movies and knowing when it was over the threat would be gone.  Only it never was.  Not really.  Sleepless nights and their febrile dreams may’ve been triggered by the movies, but the realities happening behind the scenes were their real source.  I couldn’t know that at the time, and most of the time I’m not conscious of it now.  Still, I read books like Be Scared of Everything and I think maybe I’m on the right track.


Helpful Horror

It’s pretty obvious when you meet one.  A horror fan, that is.  For one thing, they’re mostly decent people who often feel like outcasts for their tastes.  They also tend to have a well-developed critical sense for films.  While I’ve never actually met S. A. Bradley, I feel like I know him after reading Screaming with Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy.  This is a must-read for horror fans and it comes with enticing descriptions of movies you’ll want to see afterward.  Bradley’s range is truly exceptional.  Not only that, but his taste in films leads to an inherent trust that he won’t steer you wrong.  The movies he recommends—the ones that I’ve seen—wholly bear him out.  The man’s a connoisseur.

Perhaps it was because I, like Bradley, was raised in a very religious household, but his recognition that horror and religion are closely related really spoke to me.  With a similar radar toward the religious impact of horror, he notes at several points how the two interact. His discussion includes horror in music and literature as well as cinema.  The benefits of the genre are unapologetically discussed, including the relatively high proportion of women who direct horror compared to other genres.  Unlike other movie genres, horror suffers from a perennial bad image.  Bradley confronts why this is so and also why it is misguided.  The bias is deep and undeserved.  Ironically, many of the same kinds of criticisms are now being leveled at religions as well.

Bradley’s book isn’t about religion and horror.  As someone raised in a religious household and who used horror to cope, however, he understands how the two are related.  Horror can heal.  When those of us in similar settings come to realize that horror is offering a means of getting along in a cruel world, it answers questions in a way that theodicy can’t.  Horror can be an intellectual experience.  It can be thoughtful.  But what comes through here is that it is also honest.  Life is complex and difficult.  Horror doesn’t shy away from that, but brings it out into the open.  I’ve read many books that analyze horror, and there are many more yet to read.  Bradley does something a bit different from many of them—he writes from a broad experience both in life and in the genre and comes up with an eloquent statement about a genre often dismissed.  And those willing to read it come away the better for it.


Movie Demons

There’s an old tradition regarding demons that even discussing them is dangerous.  This was certainly in my mind as I wrote Nightmares with the Bible, as the topic is an uncomfortable one, at best.  A recent story by Paul Seaburn on Mysterious Universe references this danger in the title “Exorcist Claims ‘The Exorcist’ and Other Horror Movies are Sources for Actual Demons.”  Others have made similar suggestions that merely mentioning a demon is a form of summoning.  The post focuses on Fr. Ronnie Ablong, a Catholic priest in the Philippines, and an exorcist to boot.  Fr. Ablong claims that a number of recent cases involve fictitious demons from horror movies that possess those who watch them.  This is scary by implication and indeed is similar to what I learned growing up.

One of the things researching  Nightmares revealed was that demons in the ancient world come in many varieties.  There wasn’t one origin story behind them and ideas that make it seem that way had to evolve over time.  Of course, you can’t write a book like that without watching the movies and reading lots of books about demons.  It is a creepy thing until you start to reach the point where the material starts to break down.  In the case of Fr. Ablong, the demons come from movies, but often movie demons are based on ancient grimoires that name various entities.  The real question, and one which Seaburn raises, is whether such demons are real.  Given that we don’t know what demons are, and that some of the movies mentioned use made-up demons, such as Annabelle, it becomes suspect.

After finishing Nightmares with the Bible I was ready to put the subject aside for a while.  I’ve got other projects going and it’s important to have some balance, even in horror watching.  Still, the article caught my attention because it was one I’ve frequently heard—the danger of “opening doors.”  Often this is done unintentionally.  There’s no doubt that in the biblical world demons were frightening.  They still are.  Part of the reason is that they are so poorly defined.  In many more recent treatments they’ve become somewhat secularized, but they are, by their nature, religious monsters.  There is some truth to the Mysterious Universe story, however; our modern conception of demons goes back to the movie The Exorcist.  This is something I discuss at length in Nightmares and I don’t want to give too many spoilers here.  The topic, it seems, remains relevant even in our technological era.


Holy or un?

It’s either brave or stupid.  Maybe both.  Writing about a movie you haven’t watched, I mean.  Multiple people (do I have a reputation, or what?) have pointed out to me that Good Friday (for some) is the release date for The Unholy.  Since Good Friday’s a week away I guess we’re getting an early start this year.  The Unholy is a new horror movie and although I try not to watch trailers before seeing a movie—too many of them show too much in advance—I already have a sense of what it’s about.  This post isn’t really about the movie, however.  It’s about the bigger issue.  The concern many have is that it’s being released on Good Friday.  One thing I’ve learned is that to get attention you have to shock people, no, Donald?  Getting noticed is difficult and outrage generally works.

Friday, for many, is movie night.  Good Friday is, for some Christians, a day for church.  I’ve yet to have an employer (other than Nashotah House) that recognized it as a special day at all.  Easter always falls on Sunday so there’s no need to give time off work, at least in this capitalist, Christian culture.  But if you try to release a horror movie that day, people notice.  Mel Gibson knew that crucifixion could make the basis of a horror film, and people noticed.  Sitting over here in the backwaters just outside academe, I took to horror as a means of keeping my book writing active.  One reason was that horror gets people’s attention.  (It also helps if your books are reasonably priced.)

As a young man I used to spend a good deal of Good Friday in church.  Since I was serious about school I’m thinking we probably had the day off in my district.  Attending a Christian college, followed by seminary, I suspect these also paid attention to the liturgical year.  Then in the real world I learned the truth—it’s just another day.  A day for going to work and increasing the profits for whatever company may have hired you.  When the day’s over you’ll be inclined to relax, and perhaps watch a movie.  Right now going to a theater opens the possibility for horror itself so I won’t be there on opening night for The Unholy, but I think there was some savvy thinking going on, in any case.  And it may just be that the movie was titled specifically to fit the occasion.


Horror Story

Last week, according to an article a friend sent, Ronald DeFeo died in prison.  DeFeo was made infamous by the Amityville murders in 1974 that led to the Amityville Horror franchise, a series that I covered in Nightmares with the Bible.  Many of the other individuals in that famous haunting/possession have also passed away, including both George and Kathy Lutz, the owners who bought the house and brought it to the public notice.  Controversy still surrounds the story with some claiming it was all a hoax and others suggesting that the hoax doesn’t add up to the sum of what happened there.  DeFeo and the Lutzes were all considered unreliable narrators—DeFeo because he was mentally unstable and the Lutzes because they made money out of their misfortune.  If anything can complicate truth, it’s money.

Academics, of course, won’t touch the story.  Claims and counterclaims, all swirling around lucre, fog one’s vision.  The story illustrates just how difficult it can be to get at the truth.  Even allowing for exaggeration, it seems something happened there.  A worldview that dismisses any possibility of spiritual entities—however defined—will necessarily come up negative.  No doubt, considerable money changed hands.  The franchise is still going with no less than four movies being released last year with Amityville in their titles.  Getting at the truth involves decided which human beings you trust.  The one Lutz child that has been willing to talk, Daniel, has continued the claims.  How can we ever know?

I object to those who claim that such inquiry is a waste of time.  If such things as claimed in Jay Anson’s book do happen (even if exaggerated), it may be that they’re exceptionally rare.  Rarity of objects in the physical world is seldom in doubt.  Ask any auctioneer.  Getting into the accounts around the events, however, betrays a list of money-seeking individuals.  Just about anyone making a counter-claim had a book deal in mind, and given the phenomenal success of Anson’s original the possibility of getting to the truth after that would always involve wading through greed.  No wonder politicians so easily become crooked!  Money makes people do strange things.  Not surprisingly, those left with questions regarding the truth of the matter are left hungry.  It’s clear that Ronald DeFeo killed his family.  It’s a matter of record that the Lutz family moved into the house just over a year later and moved out without their belongings less than a month after that.  Beyond this what happened is less and less likely ever to be known.


Space and Time

Keeping up with movies could be a regular vocation.  Until it is, however, I will always be running behind.  Seven years ago I planned to see Interstellar in the theater.   Seven years ago we had not dreamed of Covid-19 or a planetary pandemic.  I can’t see now how I would’ve possibly been too busy to have missed it.  If any movie, however, forgives the time-challenged, it’d be this one.  Apart from perhaps being the ultimate father-daughter movie, it plays with time like Inception plays with space.  Or space like it plays with time.  Einstein gave us the laws of relativity, and if they hold up when we finally get to interstellar travel (which has already happened on the space-time continuum somewhere), this is perhaps not at all unlikely.

Back in my teaching days I used to tell students that if they didn’t read at least one book during the summer or winter break that didn’t challenge their worldview then they’d wasted that break.  It was something I did my best to live up to.  Informing yourself—challenging your views—is a feature of education at which we seem to have failed.  Movies like Interstellar are examples of such challenges, albeit in the guise of fiction.  I’ve come to trust Christopher Nolan over the years.  His movies are cerebral yet moving, making us look at things from angles we didn’t know had existed.  I grew up watching not just horror, but also science fiction.  While I gravitated toward the former, I never lost my appreciation for the latter.  Especially when the latter made me think.

Much of Interstellar is, like the best of movies, is informed by previous films.  The influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is pretty clear, as is that of Contact.  The idea at the center of Interstellar is that love drives the five dimensions in which Cooper finally ends up.  The love of a father for the daughter he had to leave behind and her love for the father that had to abandon her to save the world drives the entire plot.  To me this seems the right balance between science and spirituality.  Love is humanity at its best while science is some of our most advanced thinking at its best.  To recognize the strength of the former is important in a world increasingly driven by technology.  It took me, it seems, a full hour on the water planet to find the time to watch Interstellar.  It is time I won’t get back and I could have used some of it wisely by watching this movie sooner.


Your Viewing Pleasure

I watch a lot of movies.  Well, I used to before the pandemic stole much of my free time.  We have a closet full of DVDs.  At least they’re not VHS tapes.  The problem with VHS tapes was that they wore out with continued playing.  I’ve read that magnetic tape is still the most stable storage medium, but the DVD, with no moving parts, seemed like an improvement.  Lately we’ve had several DVDs go bad.  I’m not sure that I wanted to know there were such things as disc rot and laser rot, but there are.  And some of these were discs that weren’t cheap.  The alternative these days is streaming.  The problem is streaming services go out of business and you’re left without money and without the movie.  There’s a reason vinyl’s coming back, I guess.

Remember when you had to wait to see a movie?  When you had to either see it in a theater or wait years until it was broadcast on television on a certain channel at a specific time?  You lived your life normally, and the movie was a rare treat for those who had specific fare in mind.  Now we get movies “on demand.”  It’s death by a thousand cuts, though, since if you’re really in the mood for a film that’s not on Netflix you’ll pay to see it on Amazon Prime.  Used to be you can buy a disc—a one time expense—or was it?  Chances are in the early days you were replacing a VHS tape you’d already bought.  You may’ve sighed in relief when UltraViolet came along.  But you’d have sighed too soon.

These things bring eastern and southern Asian religions to mind.  (Consider the source.)  While I’m not an expert on the religions of east and south Asia, I’m familiar enough to know that their basic concept is that the only thing permanent is change.  Western societies are built on the demonstrably false concept that a steady state is permanent and that change comes once in a while.  In fact, our entire worldview is based on things remaining the same.  Perhaps that’s why conservatism is such a strong force in western thinking.  It is, however, an illusion.  The pandemic has given the lie to our steady-state thinking.  And if you cope, as many do, by watching movies you’ve probably signed up for a subscription service or two.  It will serve you well, for the moment.  You certainly can’t run to Blockbuster to pick up your favorite flick any more.  If only I had more time, a movie might have the answer.


J-Horror

J-Horror better move over.  There’s a new kid on the block.

For many years those of us strange fans of horror have used “J-Horror” as shorthand for Japanese Horror.  With two highly successful films (eventually series) of the mid-nineties (Ju-On and Ringu) the Japanese contribution stormed back into American consciousness.  Those of us who grew up on Godzilla knew that J-Horror had been around for decades already, but these new movies were distinctly creepy.  So much so that English-language versions were remade for both original films (The Grudge and The Ring, respectively—rather like Let the Right One In and Let Me In).  So far, so good.  So why does J-Horror need to move over?

At least three separate friends have pointed me to another emerging J-Horror trend: Jewish horror movies.  These used to be rare.  With cases of early antisemitic themes in horror, and the real life horror of the Holocaust, this is certainly understandable.  “Christian” producers or directors delving into Jewish themes would seem to be in bad taste.  Still, some notable Jewish-themed horror has begun to emerge.  (I addressed one such film in my recent Horror Homeroom piece.)  The Possession (discussed in both of my most recent books) centers around the need for a Jewish exorcist in the case of a dybbuk problem.  For more information, you know where to look!  It seemed to me that the dybbuk box contents were reminiscent of the Holocaust, but that may not have been intentional.

I recently wrote a post about The Golem.  This is a recent Israeli movie that builds on the traditional Jewish monster.  Although set before the Holocaust, the fact that there’s a pogrom in the film shows that the concept is not far off.  The movie that people have recently been pointing me toward is The Vigil.  I’ve not had an opportunity to see it yet, but the press it’s received suggests it too will be another classic based on lived experience in Judaism.  I’m not sure if Jewish horror will eventually rival the numbers of Japanese horror films, but the offerings thus far have been noteworthy.  Horror often addresses the problem of human suffering.  With all the oppressions in “white” society, it’s no wonder that, along with Black horror, Jewish horror is beginning to garner attention.  Although it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste, horror is often a genre with a conscience.  It becomes a screen on which we can see our worst behaviors projected.  And if we’re wise, we’ll take steps to make such suffering become merely an unfortunate memory.


Tomorrow’s Brainchild

The voice of one person is very small.  Even a guy like Donald Trump wouldn’t be the terrible threat to this nation that he is if nobody would pass on the nonsense he says.  I often think of this because internet personalities are always have to remind their fans to share their posts.  It’s a simple thing—click “share” and more people find out about something.  What if that something were free?  Isn’t something free worth sharing?  So tomorrow I’ll be participating in Virtual Voices Author Fair: A Day of Nonfiction Books, a small Zoom conference from one to five, to talk about Holy Horror.  Various readers over the years have asked if they can get a discounted copy—like most conferences this one will have a discount associated with it.  Stop by if you have the chance!

The variety of the books being discussed is pretty wide.  Topics will cover many of the areas for which the publisher McFarland is known: television, film, music, politics, the outdoors, and more.  A schedule may be found here.  For those of us who have been (or the lucky who still are) academics, the conference is a sacred cow that has largely been sacrificed to the pandemic.  Getting together with others to discuss ideas is important—the funny thing about ideas is that they often arise from talking with others.  For three years, for instance, the American Academy of Religion offered a session on monsters and monster theory.  That would never have happened if I hadn’t had a discussion with a friend and colleague who shared that interest.  If it’d been only me, it never would’ve transpired.  Sharing is important.

One of the things about generations is that mine (no longer the younger one), is still trying to wrap its collective head around this internet thing.  Now we feel like a bunch of avatars with no onboarding.  We don’t think in terms of clicking a share button.  We still feel like browsing is an individual thing.  They young people I know tend to think of the internet as a place for community.  It’s easier to find like-minded people there.  Unlike school (and often work) where you’re thrown together with people who may or may not share your interests, the web offers places where you can find others who share your interest.  If you’re interested in the kinds of things that you’ll find in the media, and if you have a few minutes tomorrow afternoon, feel free to stop by the Virtual Voices Author Fair.  If you land on their Facebook page, it’d be great if you’d click the share button.


Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my Academia.edu page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


Religions and Horrors

My latest piece on The Golem has just appeared on Horror Homeroom.  It’s free—check it out.  In it I briefly discuss Jewish horror.  I mainly write about Christian horror because that’s my immediate context.  That’s not to say other religions don’t participate in the genre too.  While I worked for Routledge I acquired the book Buddhism Goes to the Movies, by Ronald Green.  Like the title suggests, it’s about movies focused on, or made by, Buddhists.  What sold me on the project was the chapter on horror films.  Much of what’s being called “J-Horror,” or Japanese Horror these days, occurs in a Buddhist or Shinto contexts.  I’m not expert enough in these traditions, however, to spot them with the detail that I do in my own native religion. 

All religious traditions have certain commonalities.  As I’ve frequently discussed on this blog, sex and death are two of them.  Given the powerful ideas that religion trades in, it seems natural that it would appear frequently in the horror genre.  It’s just that modern viewers tend to be somewhat divorced from religion and can’t see it.  Religion is that way—it fills the cracks.  How often do we pay attention to the caulking or grout?  We tend to focus on the tile or woodwork instead.  Religion holds thought systems together, including those of the horror genre.  I just discussed no-go subjects yesterday, but even science shows religion in some of the cracks.  Learning to see it involves learning to shift your focus.

I blogged about The Golem just after I watched it, back in December.  The golem is an original Jewish monster, and Judaism is both a culture and a religion.  It’s difficult to tease them apart sometimes.  The same can be said of many traditions outside Christianity.  In fact, many cultures had no word for religion—the idea of a separate realm of life where you try to please the gods because what you do otherwise is inherently sinful.  (There’s probably a reason that capitalism grew in a Christian context.)  That means that horror particularly welcomes Christianity.  Many of the bases of fear are premised on a religion that, as culturally bound as it is, has always claimed that joining it is a choice.  If you can choose you can choose wrongly.  This is fertile ground for horror, especially when the consequences are eternal.   My Horror Homeroom piece takes a different approach than this, but religion and horror nevertheless find themselves together, often in the same room.


February Festivities

One of the more commonly overlooked holiday complexes comes around Groundhog Day.  It may seem strange to be thinking about spring right now, but it’s on everyone’s mind.  (In this hemisphere anyway.)  When seasons actually begin is a matter of perspective, and that’s not just a north-south hemisphere divide.  With our scientific outlook, we take the path of equinoxes and solstices.  If you look closely, however, there is a set of seasonal holidays that falls midway between them, dividing the year into eight spokes.  These cross-quarter days were recognized in some cultures as the early inklings of a new season beginning.  If Halloween (Samhain) marks the start of winter, this holiday, Imbolc, is the beginning of spring.  The day had many associations, one of which was watching a groundhog (or other animal) to see if the weather would begin changing sooner or later.  Spring itself is inevitable.

The popularity of Groundhog Day owes quite a bit to the movie of that name.  The film is more complex than its classification as a comedy might suggest.  Although the day itself does deal with the cyclical nature of, well, nature, repetition isn’t an inherent theme in the holiday.  Neither is it part of the related Christian celebration of Candlemas.  Indeed, I tend to think Groundhog Day has the makings of a horror story.  Being stuck in time could represent a terrible fate for many.  Interestingly, Phil Conners (Bill Murray), after having been stuck in this same day for a considerable amount of time, suggests to Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) that he might be a god.  He is immortal and he knows everything that is to be known in Punxsutawney.  He can predict things before they happen (of course, he has become Punxsutawney Phil, in a manner of speaking).

A philosophically rich movie, the story has appealed to adherents of several religions.  That, in itself, is amazing.  The endless repetition could represent samsara to those of south and east Asian religious inclination.  The learning to be kind, and even forgiveness aspects, appeal to those who want to find a Christian message in it.  Not bad for a holiday nobody gets off of work, and which frequently falls in the middle of the week.  The holiday complex of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day represents what had once been a more prominent season than we currently recognize.  Revivals of the more ancient celebrations have begun to appear, but the endless repetition so valued by capitalistic systems has nearly captured us all.