The Lagoon

My current book project has me watching The Creature of the Black Lagoon again.  One of the Universal monsters—indeed, arguably the last of them—the Gill-man fascinated me as a child.  There was a strange contradiction here.  The creature had evolved in the Devonian Era and remained unchanged into the 1950s.  But the movie opens with a voiceover of Genesis 1.1.  There’s a mixed message here, appropriate for scriptural monsters.  Watching the film again brought back many of the innocent perceptions of youth, as well as the trajectory of my own life.  I don’t often get to the theater to see horror movies anymore, but at the same time the Universal monsters aren’t quite the same thing as modern horror.  As a genre it had to evolve.

Strangely, as a fundamentalist child, the evolution aspect didn’t bother me.  I was after the monster, you see.  The backstory was less important.  Growing up, at least in my experience, means that the backstory becomes more essential.  It has to hold together.  There are, of course, inaccuracies in the story—many of them, in fact.  Still, within the first three minutes Genesis and evolution are thrown together in a happy harmony that belied what I was being taught at church.  The Gill-man is a monster mainly for being a creature out of time.  When modern humans invade his lair, he defends his territory.  The story might’ve ended there, had he not spied Kay.  He doesn’t so much want to kill her as get to know her better.  For a movie posthumously rated G, it has a body count.  Five men die but the Gill-man apparently just wants to evolve.

There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Creature from the Black Lagoon with both the publication of The Lady from the Black Lagoon and the death of Julie Adams this year.  The Gill-man seldom shows up in the same billing with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, or the Wolf-man.  He’s a bit more inaccessible in his watery abode.  Both cold and hot-blooded, he represents how science and Scripture might get along, at least on the silver screen.  The film holds up remarkably well, if a modern viewer can handle the pacing.  Underwater filming was pretty new back in the day, and watching humans swim in many ways suggests the truth of evolution in its own right.  These aren’t the childhood observations of the movie, but rather the reflections of a guy wondering if there might not be some hidden wisdom in the monsters of yesteryear.

Dolls and Puzzles

Maybe you’re anticipating it too.  Annabelle Comes Home, I mean.  My latest book, Nightmares with the Bible, has a chapter on The Conjuring universe, and with the recent death of Lorraine Warren I’ve been working on another piece trying to fit this whole puzzle together.  “What puzzle?” did I hear you ask?  The puzzle, I answer, between what really happened in the Ed and Lorraine Warren investigations.  You see, the paranormal is one of those things we’ve been taught to laugh at, and we’re told that people who “see things” are dweebish kinds of gnomes that don’t see the light of the sun enough.  Reality television has brought some of these ideas into vogue, what with ordinary people gathering “scientific” evidence of ghosts and the rest of us scratch our heads while hoaxes are revealed on the B reel.  But still, Annabelle lives.

It has also been announced that The Conjuring 3 is in development.  For some of us—and I’m well aware that movie-making is an industry and that profit is its goal—the question of what’s real can be as haunting as any ghost.  You see, I buy into the scientific method, as far as it goes.  That caveat is necessary, however, since science is neither able to nor interested in assessing all the strange things people see.  Our senses can be fooled, and a great many people haven’t developed the critical ability to scrutinize their own observations skeptically.  Skepticism itself, however, need not become orthodoxy.  It’s like any other tool in our mental box—each has its own purpose.  A car engine is dismantled in order to rebuild it in working order.  And there may be a ghost in the machine.

That’s what gets me about this whole Conjuring thing, and beyond that the contested livelihood of the Warrens.  There may be such a thing as mass hysteria (the current state of the US government can hardly be explained any other way), but the Perron haunting that was the subject of the first film provides, I think, a good test case.  A family of seven living in a house where they experienced things not only collectively and individually but also in different combinations would seem to be a place where multiple angles could be used.  According to Andrea Perron’s written account, the Warrens’ investigation never really took off there.  That didn’t prevent a very successful movie franchise from being launched, loosely based on their story.  And getting at the truth is never as simple as buying your ticket online and waiting for the show to begin.

Taking and Giving

Dystopias are among my favorite kinds of literature.  Things tend to go wrong in human society, and although we’ve made great progress over the past couple of centuries, in many ways we’ve set ourselves back.  Dystopias are searching, thoughtful ways of addressing that slippage and they warn us of what me might become.  (Especially if Republicans remain in power.)  Lois Lowry’s The Giver is young adult literature, but I’ve been curious about it for some time.  Set in an undefined time and place, a highly structured society exists where things seldom go wrong.  There are no animals and people take pills to eliminate “stirrings” so that sex won’t complicate relationships.  Families are constructed by algorithm and children are assigned from a pool so they will match expectations.  In order to continue this bland lifestyle, memories have to be repressed in the person of the Receiver—the keeper of communal memories.

At first things seem pleasant enough.  Life, however, lacks color and music.  It lacks emotional engagement.  Those who, in real life, idealize the 1950s as before the madness of the sixties began, have trouble conceiving of how societies go wrong.  The dilemma is that no society is perfect and as time goes on we look for improvements.  For a very long time in American history, for example, nobody had bosses.  The majority of people were independent farmers.  They prospered by luck and hard work, but they worked for no one but themselves.  Now we mostly work for bosses who have bosses who have bosses in some kind of endless regression of power.  Our ability to change things is quite limited, even in professional positions.  Is this better than the uncertainty of farming?  With all the rain this year it might seem so.  Of such things dystopias are made.

The Giver follows a protagonist, Jonas, who when he becomes twelve is assigned to become the new Receiver.  As he gains memories of how things used to be, he’s fascinated.  Learning his society’s darkest secret, however, spurs him to try to make a change.  A lot of questions remain at the end.  (The novel is part of a series, as most young adult fiction tends to be, but it can be read as a stand-alone story.)  Those of us who’ve been around the block a time or two might be able to guess where this is going, but for younger readers to be introduced into the way of human problem solving this is a gloves-off approach.  Those accustomed to dystopias will find themselves in familiar territory.  As will those who live under Republican regimes.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

Leggo My Lego

Given my proclivity to seek the profound in what is often considered the banal, I have been mulling over The Lego Movie.  Before you cast the first brick, yes, I know this movie is five years old and I know that it has sophisticated intertextuality with other movies and sly humor.  I use banal in the sense that Legos are, quite literally, plastic and they don’t work well in conveying the human form.  Our overactive psyches help here, and we give the characters their necessary humanity, but this is a movie for kids, even with its Trump-like President Business forecast some two years before the last election.  With all of that being said, and the word “forecast” already being used, my “Bible radar” zeroed in on the prophet in the movie, Vitruvius.

Vitruvius is based on a combination of Tiresias, the blind prophet, and any number of biblical characters who forecast the future.  Dressed like Moses, but named after a Roman author and architect, Vitruvius utters the prophecy at the beginning of the film and returns as a character that combines Obi-Wan Kenobi and the prophet Samuel.  (I said there was sophisticated intertextuality.)  Whether any of this is intentional is difficult to say—well the Obi-Wan part is pretty obvious—but it plays into the common view of prophets.  One of the points I make in Holy Horror (which deals with a different genre of movie) is that people understand biblical ideas through the lens of pop culture.  Prophets, through that lens, tell the future.  In the Bible itself they don’t do that very much, but since the New Testament reads itself into the Hebrew Bible (more intertextuality) the idea became pretty fixed that prophets told the future all day long.

Ironically, Vitruvius—a name that sounds like “virtue”—was famous for describing perfect proportions.  Indeed, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” sketch is based on this idea.  As ideas go, this is a false one against which many of us struggle our entire lives.  There is no perfect, Platonic human body.  Yes, certain people are attractive, but genetics and circumstances make us who we are.  And some of us grew up without Legos, but despite that deficiency we came to know the product.  The Lego characters aren’t in any sense of Vitruvian proportions.  Witty and intertextual, they’re made of plastic and they encourage us to buy for our children.  And one wonders whether Vitruvius is a prophet or a hidden symbol of that word’s homonym.  Let the building begin.

Night of the Living

The New Yorker view of the world, so the joke goes, sees the five boroughs in great details, then a very thin New Jersey across the Hudson with a vague California somewhere out west.  Having worked in New York City for nearly a decade now, I know that such a view is exaggerated, but has a small glimmer of the truth.  We can only pay attention to so much and things are constantly coming at you in Gotham.  I sometimes forget, now that I’m in Pennsylvania again, just how diverse my home state is.  I’m not from old Pennsylvania stock—neither of my parents were born here and neither of my mother’s parents were born in the same state she was.  Still, when you’re born in a place it’s natural to feel that’s where you belong.  You inherit the outlook.  I inherited Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a bit unusual in being a commonwealth divided in two by a mountain range.  Laid out with an horizontal orientation, it’s about 280 miles across, and once you’re over the Appalachians, you’re into a different subculture.  On our way into Pittsburgh, signs for Evans City reminded me that among its many contributions to American culture, the Steel City also gave us zombies.  Now from a history of religions point of view, zombies came from Caribbean religions that fused indigenous African beliefs with Catholicism.  A religion that arose among people commodified as slaves.  A zombie was a body with no will.  It took George Romero, living in Pittsburgh, to give us the movie zombie with The Night of the Living Dead.  Pittsburgh, among some, is glad to claim the title of zombie capital of the world.  Its zombie walk is a thing of legend.

Ironically, the western end of the state, beyond the mountains, tends to be more conservative than the side closer to the seaboard.  (Pennsylvania is the only of the original thirteen colonies not to have direct Atlantic Ocean water frontage.)  Yet it has adopted the most egalitarian of monsters—the living dead.  Romero tapped into the universal fear of unsettled death to make what were later to appear as “zombies” the unnamed monsters of his most famous film.  Everyone has to die, and no matter our religious outlook (or lack thereof) the question of what comes after is asked on both sides of the Appalachians.  And even by those across the Hudson in New York City.  There may be even something between the two.

Linking In

Like many in the internet age, I have most of my “connections” online.  It’s somewhat of a rarity to be invited, for example, to connect on LinkedIn by someone I actually know.  I remember the early dissemination of information from that network—it was strictly for people you really did know in real life, because they could help or hurt your career.  I took that seriously for a year or two, but it became clear that this was another Facebook with a more professional cast.  I’ve been told of authors who try to build their online platform by adding thousands of connections on LinkedIn.  The website, however, is not intended as an advertising venue.  It has, however, become one.

I’m not denigrating LinkedIn.  I’ve found two jobs through it and I’ve had recruiters reach out to me because they found my profile there.  For a religionist that can be quite flattering.  Academia and society tend to tell you that such a skillset is okay but basically useless.  Having others who know the wide diversity of human employment these days can be a sign of hope.  Nevertheless, advertising has crept into LinkedIn.  I’m not talking about the frequent invitations to go professional on the site, which will only cost a small fee that will suddenly show up on your credit card bill when you least expect it and thought you were in the clear.  No, I’m talking about connections contacting you to do gratis work for them.  Advertising their book, or their services.  Letting others know, they ask, that they can provide this or that service.  (Just to be clear, I’m not referring to people who contact me personally because we have an actual connection!)

For those of us working stiffs not in a position to hire anyone—professionally or personally—this is another symbol of how any form of communication becomes commodified.  Fully over half of my email is soliciting money in one form or another.  Hearing from an actual person with an actual message for me is so rare that I’m stunned to find one in my inbox.  Capitalism just doesn’t know when to let go.  And it doesn’t have a good read on what little I actually do buy.  Underwear (and just using that word will color the tailored ads I receive for weeks) vendors seem to think I’m concerned about the fashion of garments others don’t see.  The books Amazon suggests, based on a solid track record, are generally far off from my interests.  What hope do those who don’t know me have of selling me their wares through LinkedIn?  The dream of connection without cash changing hands nevertheless remains alive.

Old school connectivity