Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.

Scared Space

Ghosts appear whether they exist or not. People have seen them, we know, since as early as written records permit us to know. I first ran into Colin Dickey’s name in a review of the new Ghostbusters movie. The bio made mention of his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Then it was a matter of waiting until autumn to read it. It’s a book that will long stay with me. Dickey’s not out to prove or disprove ghosts—they are simply there (and sometimes not). Ghosts, however, teach us quite a lot about the living. What we value. What we fear. What we disdain. Some of the ghost stories in this book are famous and familiar, others obscure and pedestrian. What they all have in common is a sense of place.

This book is primarily about place. Ghosts seem to be generated by the fact that people have lived here before us. Focusing on the United States, Dickey points out that land stolen from others has inhabitants already. On top of Native American sites, we now have a few hundred years of European and African and Asian building. Lives lived on top of other lives. And although we can’t say for sure what ghosts are, they do seem to be associated with buildings, or at least places. Organized in a kind of concentric structure, the book describes ghosts of haunted houses, then haunted businesses and public buildings, including haunted outdoor spaces. And finally haunted cities. These hauntings are residue of our own making. We build, we inhabit, we die. Whether ghosts are just memories or uncanny feelings, they are ghosts nevertheless.

Combining a couple of my favorite ideas—ghosts and the sense of space—Ghostland is a rare blend of history and folklore. The architecture of our constructions functions like tombs for our imagination. We are spiritual beings, whether religious or not. Even if we’re in denial of that spirituality, we sense that somehow life doesn’t simply end. We’ve left a mark, a scratch, a dent. As long as those who’ve known us live, we continue on in their minds and lives. And some, it seems, remain beyond even that to be seen by strangers centuries later, maintaining the sacredness of space once familiar while living. Ghost stories are human stories, and Dickey is a sure guide along the way. He doesn’t tell you what to believe, but he tells you something you already may know but not realize. No matter whether they’re ever proven, or whether they even really exist, as long as there are human beings there will also be ghosts.

Contrary Living

“Where, o where, are you tonight?” If your mind has supplied the tune and pitchfork, you know just what I’m talking about. Or perhaps you too remember this old chestnut: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me…” Those who know me often think I’m just another middle-class professor-wannabe like all the others. The truth of the matter is that I grew up culturally backward, living in a place that looked up to hillbillies as our sophisticated superiors. I’m no classist. When I say blue collar I may be exaggerating the shade of gray working-class outerwear actually represents. The myth when I was young was that getting an education meant you’d improve your lot in life. Yet here I am with a car in the garage that won’t start and a president who courts my kind for reelection when he should be thinking about trying to govern.

Now that we’ve got a Beverley Hillbilly White House, I think we ought to bring Hee Haw back. For those who might secretly doubt my redneck pedigree, I was raised on a steady diet of the country-western music and comedy variety show and WWF Wrestling. And there was, at least in the former, some wisdom to be had. Reading the headlines I see that what the Democrats need is somebody that people like. Celebrities are the political future. We’ve seen enough Ronald Reagans, Sonny Bonos, Jesse Venturas, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers to tell us that. Ironically, many entertainers are Democrats. The problem is our party likes intellectuals to run the country. It’s not a bad idea, really it isn’t. The electoral college has become the Nielsen ratings board.

No matter how many times I watched the “Where, o where, are you tonight” sketch, I always turned my attention to the TV when it came on. You never knew who the second singer would be, or how the verse might change for the week. And the down and outs on the dilapidated front porch with their moonshine always sang of “deep dark depression, excessive misery.” What I didn’t know then is that Hee Haw was ahead of its time. Of course, back then the rural south tended to vote Democrat. Why, even the opening title card had a donkey on it. Perhaps I’m stretching for a little too much sophistication here. I wouldn’t know, because I grew up with back-woods sensibilities. I just wish that since Jed is in the White House we might have a little comedy once in a while to lighten things up on the way to World War III.

Haunting Toyland

Although it hasn’t always been this way, one of the most characteristic aspects of the modern horror film is the sequel. Some franchises spin into countless sequels and remakes, until their iconic anti-heroes become household names. The Conjuring diegesis participates in this somewhat, but instead of having a repeat fiend, it’s a theme that comes up time and again, tied together by the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I’ve written about The Conjuring before, as well as The Conjuring 2. Prior to the sequel there was a prequel of sorts—more properly a spinoff—Annabelle. Not attaining the critical regard as its originator, Annabelle nonetheless did quite well at the box office, as horror movies often do. The idea behind the movie was to give some backstory to the doll that appeared in The Conjuring.

According to the Warrens, there really is such a haunted doll. Technically it’s not haunted. They call it a conduit through which a demon seeks to entrap a human soul. This past summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, received higher critical marks than its initial installment. All of this is to say that I had to see the original Annabelle in order to try to make sense of this whole series. Despite its failings, the movie once again shows the interlaced nature of horror and religion. It opens in a church and the priest, Fr. Perez, makes several appearances in the story as the Form couple struggles with the demon inside the doll. Pregnant and vulnerable, Mia Form is traumatized when two cult members invade and then die in her home. Annabelle Higgins, one the intruders, dies holding the doll, bleeding into it. She and her accomplice are satanists, trying to raise a demon for nefarious purposes. (I suppose those are the only kinds of purposes to raise a demon, actually.)

The plot takes various twists and turns, never veering far from the main conceit that the demon wants Mia’s soul. I won’t give any spoilers in case any readers are even further behind in their movie viewing than me. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most thoroughly religious horror films I’ve seen. The Conjuring 2 will pick up the story again with the Warrens and a demon disguised as a nun (and a sequel to both The Conjuring universe and the nun are in the works). Critics are certain religion is dying. If popular culture is any measure, that conclusion is far from certain. Sometimes it’s a bit preachy, but it’s there in horror. Even a possessed doll knows that.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.