Faithful to Monsters

“Since childhood I’ve been faithful to monsters. I’ve been saved and absolved by them because monsters are the patron saints of our blissful imperfections.” Guillermo del Toro’s quote came to me via my colleague John W. Morehead’s wonderful Theofantastique (actually its Facebook page).  I get the sense that those of us in the field of teratology parallel play a lot.  At least I console myself that way because so few monster sites link to my blog.  Nevertheless, I have great respect for del Toro and his drive to bring monsters into the mainstream.  His quote, however, hits upon a central theme of what I try to do here and elsewhere—reflect on what monsters have to do with religion.

Notice the religious language (obviously intentional): faithful, saved, absolved, patron saints.  Monsters are indeed self-reflections, and they play on the same field as religion does.  Often at the same time.  Religion, even in the best of circumstances, entails fear.  If everything were fine all the time, what need would we have of it?  Instead, aspects of life we don’t cherish or anticipate come at us.  Winter comes far sooner than we expected.  Monsters lurk in that brief season between summer and winter, that autumn of the soul.  They know us quite well.  Our weaknesses are evident to them.  But as del Toro notes, they absolve.  And more readily than any Episcopalian.  The religion of monsters is fierce and forgiving.  When we watch them on the screen, we’re watching the drama of, in del Toro’s nomenclature, salvation.  If we didn’t require saving, again, why would we need religion (or monsters)?

Being faithful to monsters again bears comparison with the divine.  Should you become one of the lost while the 99 don’t require any assistance, your monsters will come find you.  In fact, that’s what they most specialize in.  What are dark nights of the soul without a little company?  It’s not sacrilegious to map the divine world with that of monsters, for any language regarding such high stakes beings must be metaphorical.  Our standard version of God is often a large human.  Generally he’s male, and he doesn’t always display compassion, although capable of doing so.  Monsters may be creatures of our own imaginations.  They are cast large on the screen since they too stand in for those to whom we owe some tribute for this is not a safe world in which to raise your kids.  Guillermo del Toro understands; we should listen.

Wisdom of Trees

Stepping out of the airport the first thing I noticed was the palm trees.  I’ve traveled to this area enough times that I shouldn’t be surprised, but I always am.  And since we are creatures of the culture in which we’re raised, palm trees inevitably make me think of Gilligan’s Island.  We grasp for culture to help us make sense of this odd world of negotiating other people and, like many children born in the sixties, I was raised on television.  Gilligan’s Island (somehow appropriate training ground for attending AAR/SBL—it actually featured a professor) was as close to seeing a palm tree as I ever got, being raised in a very humble household.  To me, palm trees were as much creatures of fantasy as the monsters that populated the movies I watched on Saturday afternoon.

My first experience of a real palm tree was in Israel, 1987.  I’d signed on as a volunteer at Tel Dor, an archaeological dig near Haifa.  Then, as yesterday, I encountered palm trees—so alien and yet so natural—at the airport.  Welcome to Tel Aviv!  And so we think of palm trees as being part of paradise, a place where it’s always pleasantly warm and although well-watered it doesn’t rain too much.  Trees symbolize our culture.  Although back home in the northeast most of the leaves are down from the hardwoods, the region is also defined by its large plants.  Trees do that for us.  Spreading high over our heads, with dense cellular structure that makes them heavy, trees have always been attractive to our species.  And they can help us define, at a glance, where we are.  “Paradise” derives from a Persian word for “garden.”  Even in arid zones they value their trees.

Looking out my hotel window I see the bay.  In the bay stands a marina.  Back home most boats are shrink-wrapped by now and I’ve already seen smaller bodies of water start to freeze over.  Paradise has no ice.  For the castaways, being on the island was always a challenge, but never a terribly serious one.  Thurston Howell III used his money (useless where there’s nothing to buy) to try to assert his influence.  Everyone treated him with respect, always calling him “Mr. Howell.”  In that paradise, however, one of the two characters (who had names) referred to always by title, the professor—the skipper, of course, was the other one—was the person looked to for guidance.  If anyone would figure out a way to be rescued, it would be the academic.  I’ll be spending the next few days on an island with mostly professors.  And when it gets too intense I’ll look at the palm trees and remind myself that this is paradise.

Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.  

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Quiet Now

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

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

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

Book Festival

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

It’s heeerrreee…

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

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

Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.