Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

The Name of the Game

I have a confession to make. I’m not a gamer. Just like everyone old enough to be aware in the 1970s, I was amazed at Pong. Television, which had always only been a passive producer of entertainment, could now be interactive. Slower than real table tennis, the game nevertheless easily consumed hours of life otherwise productively spent. I went off to college and left the burgeoning video game market behind. Then in the late 1990s Myst appeared. The new Macs of those days came loaded with action games about dinosaurs stealing eggs. My daughter was fascinated and so I played. Then I lost interest again. That had been family bonding time, so it wasn’t completely wasted. Now we live in a world where, writers tell me, the real money lies not in movie rights to your novel, but game rights.

Kids, developmental psychologists assure us, need to play. It’s how they explore their world. As the human world becomes more and more electronic, games become more a part of virtual life. Some even have plots and genuine character development. A friend sent me a link to a story on Mashable, “Jesus battles the Buddha in fighting game hellbent on offending.” Victoria Ho describes Fight of Gods where deities of all denominations duke it out for dominion. After posting about god novels recently, it seems to me that we’ve begun to enter a time when the divine world hasn’t disappeared, but has transmuted. In this new world while all gods are not exactly created equal, they all have a shot at supremacy. It’s a matter of who can hit hardest.

No matter whether one finds this offensive or not, there is an element of profundity here. Historically religions have made gods of the things we fear. Storms, diseases, wars, and death—all of these have been, and continue to be, represented as deities. Human insecurity is deeply rooted in our psychology. We’re afraid of things we can’t control. In periods of governmental chaos, phobias naturally rise to the level of personal panic. What can we do in the face of such forces? Especially when prominent figures tell us all religious belief is for the weak-minded and feeble? Don’t we have to strap on our virtual armor and hope some powerful divinities are on our side? In such times as this we need our gods, no matter their tradition of origin. For me, I fear I won’t be able to spin this dial fast enough and that strangely square ping-pong ball is going to get past my virtual paddle.

Clown King

Like many people, I enjoy a Stephen King novel from time to time. King has a talent for drawing you into his tales, and whether or not they’re scary you feel a kind of relief when they’re over. A few years back I read IT. I was prepared to be scared because many people talked about fears of bathrooms after reading it, and, of course, of the terrifying clown. Not being a fan of serialized television movies, I never saw the 1990 movie adaptation. Besides, reading a novel that long is a serious investment of time, and since I like to hear lots of different voices in my reading, I spread out the wealth. In any case, the novel didn’t scare me beyond the neighborhood bullies (who’ve since moved to Washington DC) and I moved on to other things. The new film adaptation has people talking about IT again, and clowns, and clowns always remind me of college.

During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, it was fashionable for Christians to clown around. Taking cues from Paul’s one-liner about being fools for Christ, evangelicals began to experiment with clowns as a means of witnessing. I got involved my freshman year at Grove City College. I researched clowns. Where had they come from? What was the proper way to do it? Was there a deeper meaning? A friend recently sent me a video from Origin of Everything on the subject. I see a lot has been added to the history that I once studied. The idea of the circus clown is one of the more recent innovations of a character that was, in origin, a bit frightening. In classic horror movie style, heavy makeup functions like a mask and we rely on faces to know if someone is friend or foe.

We were taught, in our rudimentary training, that clowns do not talk. To express yourself you had to exaggerate gestures. I learned that makeup did indeed free you from social constraints. The Christian clown, however, had to be good. We weren’t meant to scare anyone into heaven. As nights are growing longer and people’s thoughts are coming to grips with the end of summer, clowns make good companions in the dark. IT may not be King’s scariest novel, but he did understand that bullies and clowns are fears that never go away. And when you combine the two, and move them into the White House, vaunting white faces and corrosive social values, well, maybe it’s time to go to the movies and try to have artificial fears for a while.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

First Look

Youth might be described in a number of ways. One, of course, is in biological years. Another may be in exposure to experiences which change your life. There was a time, for example, when you can’t believe you were ever so naive. No matter how youth might be defined, a patina of fond memories tends to cling to images from that time with the passage of years. For me, unsurprisingly, those images are frequently books. I still recall the cover images of books from my tweenage years, and often think that if I found such books in a second-hand store, I would buy them for their ability to conjure past times. One such book comes not from my physical youth, but from my days teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. It was at that time, when the internet was also still young, that I began to try online research into H. P. Lovecraft. I found an edition of his stories titled The Shadow over Innsmouth for sale on a used book website. I was under-employed, but it was cheap and my curiosity inflamed.

Mainly I was interested in what I would now call the reception history of Dagon. Dagon is an ancient Mesopotamian deity mentioned briefly by name in the Hebrew Bible. He is also part of the pantheon of gods borrowed and invented by Lovecraft to populate his eldrich, watery world. I purchased this book for the titular story, where Dagon doesn’t actually appear, but his worshippers do. It is often claimed to be Lovecraft’s best story. As I sat down to read the whole book, however, I was struck by the strangeness of the collection. This edition, from 1971, included such unusual choices as “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “In the Walls of Eryx,” and “The Festival.” Also bundled here was the Houdini ghostwritten “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs.” When I first purchased the book I’d only read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Colour out of Space.”

As my interest in Lovecraft grew, I acquired other, more representative editions of his work and have consequently read most of his oeuvre. It was that sense of yesteryear, however, that led me back to this browning, aged collection. It was, in truth, the cover. Looking at it brings back that very office in Oshkosh where I sat as I found the edition online for less than five dollars. No doubt, I was younger then. The call of Cthulhu has echoed across the web since then. For me, however, the first exposure will always be a beat-up paperback that I ordered secondhand.

Night of the Museum

I admit to being a relative stranger to contemporary commercial television. We don’t have “triple play” at home, and since the internet provides more information and entertainment than one person can possibly handle in a lifetime, why pay extra? On a visit home, however, where internet does not yet exist, I fell to the default of watching TV. Scrolling through the cable channels available in this small town, I start to understand why we don’t pay extra for this at home. Much on offer appeals to the lowest common denominator, and although some educational programs exist, they have to put somebody in danger in some remote location in order to draw the viewers in. Then I stumbled on Mysteries at the Museum.

For those of us hopelessly enamored of the past, museums are an irresistible draw. I joined the program already in progress. It was talking about Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, through which we’d driven to get here. A resort town in the Poconos, I always think of Stroudsburg as a traffic bottleneck, particularly on a holiday weekend. Instead the story was telling of a haunted jail in which a prisoner had to be exorcised after it was found that he could make it rain inside his cell. Then the name of the Warrens was mentioned. The Bible used in the exorcism is from their occult museum (thus the tie to the title of the program). Ed and Lorraine Warren, as my regular readers know, get mentioned here every once in a while. Real life ghost hunters, they kept a museum of the occult in their Connecticut home. I’d missed the part of the program where they revealed the provenance of the artifact. Now things started to make sense. After the commercial break, however, the story shifted to a historic pair of hiking boots.

Image credit: Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Photo by Doug Kerr, Wikimedia Commons.

What was so striking about this brief segment of the show was not the implied credulousness of the investigation, but rather the certainty with which those interviewed declared this was a water demon case. Okay, so I’d just finished a seven-hour drive and I may not have been at my sharpest, but where did such certainty come from? Who were these experts telling us what had happened? I’ve read enough of the Warrens’ accounts to get a sense of how they worked, but not even the name of the priest was presented, let alone that of the demon. What we had, then, in this 15-minute segment, was a Bible and an anecdote of rain falling in a Stroudsburg jail. As I switched off the program to go to bed, I knew that I’d find the missing information on the internet. Even without triple play.

Birth of a Notion

Childhood is an impressionable time. Our phobias begin then. Children are vulnerable. (Of course our current government is intent on making us all afraid of bullies again.) This theme of childhood keeps coming up in interviews with directors of horror movies. A friend recently sent me a New York Times article by Erik Piepenburg about Annabelle: Creation. The piece includes some horror auteurs discussing what frightened them as children. We all experienced fear at a young age. For some of us it hung around awhile longer. Horror movies have, despite their low brow reputation, been reliable revenue streams from the beginning. People will pay to be scared, for a little while.

I have to confess to having fallen behind on The Conjuring diegesis. Since I’m the only one in the family who really likes to watch horror, I don’t see these movies in theaters and, well, there’s a lot to do besides watching movies these days. And finding DVDs is getting harder as well. Streaming scares me. Anyway, I missed The Conjuring 2 and the original Annabelle. I’ve read accounts of what supposedly happened in real life—Annabelle is one of the cases investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren—and it has been written about a number of times. The Warren’s take on it was that a doll can’t actually be possessed. (Sorry Chuckie.) They suggested that it could act as a conduit that would’ve eventually allowed a demon to possess the two young women who kept the original Annabelle in their apartment. The doll showed up in The Conjuring, although it wasn’t part of the main story. The haunted doll trope is scary enough that the second knock-off in this universe focused on it.

Interviews with older horror directors reveal that they often grew up without fathers. Despite the gender profiling, for kids fathers are generally thought to represent protection. A child without a father often feels insecure. Even today when people talk of their fathers I have to remind myself that they can be a good thing. I often wonder if those of us who like horror films had childhood parental issues as a regular part of our pasts. I’m generalizing, of course. Growing up into Trump’s America has given us all plenty of things to fear in the present. Since January a number of high profile horror films have gotten notice in the press. Sometimes a real bully can cause as much fear as a possessed doll. That’s especially the case when our government wants us to submit like a bunch of frightened children. Childhood fears may, in some cases, serve us well.