X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.

Live Long and

Neither Edgar Allan Poe nor H. P. Lovecraft lived to see fifty.  I began the task of trying to publish fiction when I was a year beyond Lovecraft’s demise.  I’ve kept up a more or less steady trickle since then, and I wonder, from my perspective of advanced age from either of their perspectives, what their stories would’ve been like had they lived to tell the tale.  Many of us grow up with grim imaginations.  Perhaps because we no longer have to flee predators (apart from the occasional bear in the neighborhood) our minds periodically revisit that unfinished business of natural terror.  As we get older, however, life begins to wear on you.  It wore pretty heavily on both Poe and Lovecraft, of course, without getting to advanced age.  But what if they had?

Lovecraft was born just five years before my grandfather.  Had he lived to my grandfather’s age, with that additional five years, we would’ve overlapped.  I probably still wouldn’t have discovered him then, however, unless one of those weird tricks of life occurred when someone messes with the space-time continuum.  I wonder what kinds of tales an older Poe or Lovecraft would’ve written.  I know this is mere speculation, but considering the impact of their respective oeuvres, it is worth wondering.  Of course, it could have been some kind of personal hidden knowledge that they wouldn’t live long that led to their performance.  I wouldn’t make bold to compare myself to either of them, but I know the pressures of limited time before the daily commute often produced some good work for me.  Knowing time is limited seems to be the key.

The traditional advice for writers is to put your protagonists on the edge of a cliff.  Then throw rocks at them.  Perhaps this is because human experience so often feels like a challenge.  Most of us have been living under extreme stress since 2016.  The coronavirus has added to that stress, and the senseless killing of African-Americans just for being people has raised the tension even more.  I would hope that, apart from a truer sense of justice, that some good writing will have emerged from all of this.  None of it will be from Poe or Lovecraft, of course, but they may have shown us the way regardless.  I am curious how they would have responded to this internet-tied world filled with showy, inept politicians and the heartless treatment of human beings in the midst of a pandemic.  It sounds like a world from which they might’ve produced some strange fiction indeed.

WWW

With a few exceptions I think we’ve lived beyond the time when a single name could spawn an industry.  I used to watch re-runs (itself an arcane concept) of The Twilight Zone when I was a kid.  These weird stories drew me in, and, it seems clear, not only me.  Rod Serling’s brainchild led to an industry and “twilight zone” became a household concept.  Lots of little books were written bearing Serling’s name in some way.  One of those paperbacks was Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves.  I can’t remember where I picked it up, but it was a used book and it had Rod Serling’s name right there on the cover.  Going over my books to find unread gems, I picked up Triple W and sat down to find out what it was like.

None of the stories are by Serling himself.  He’s listed as the editor and he wrote a very nice little introduction.  The tales here reflect, as the subtitle indicates, witches, warlocks, and werewolves.  Some are old stories and some are fairly recent for a book published early in the 1960s.  Descriptive writing does tend to evoke a scene, but I’m often amazed at just how dated it can make a story seem.  What struck writers from the 1940s and ’50s as huge sums of money are likely less than we pay for our monthly internet bill.  Men all try to act tough and the ladies prepare dinner.  Stereotypes.  That’s somehow appropriate for this collection since most of the stories have to do with witches.  Serling was well aware of the tragedies of history, and these tales are told mostly for fun.  The scariest characters are the witch hunters (generally men).

Serling’s famed conscience shows in the choice of the final piece.  Not a story, not even fiction, Charles Mackay’s “Witch Trials and the Law” is an essay about the horrors of witch hunting.  It’s a rather sober piece with which to end a book of speculative fiction, but then Serling was always known for his impatience with injustice.  Also included is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Given his shame at the Salem trials and his own ancestor’s part in them, it was mildly surprising that Hawthorne’s story seems to presuppose the reality of witches.  Of course, it condemns the respectable folk who, in reality, all participate in the ills of the society in which they find themselves.  In all, this collection made me think.  Not bad for an impulse purchase on what was probably a rainy afternoon. 

The Bible Files

As intimated several posts ago now, my wife and I are rewatching The X-Files.  Neither of us has much free time, so this proceeds slowly over many weekends, and we’re now nearing the end of season three.  This exercise brings me back to an article I wrote on Sleepy Hollow, the Fox series that ran from 2013-2017.  That article, published in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, I later adapted into a chapter in Holy Horror.  At the advice of my editor I dropped that particular chapter and wrote a different one.  In the lost chapter, if I recall, I made the case that Sleepy Hollow was biblically based in a way that other monster-of-the-week series, like the X-Files, were not.  While I still have to hold to this, I must admit the X-Files are far more biblical than I recollected.

Somewhere about halfway through season one I started to jot notes when the Bible was mentioned or quoted.  Soon it became obvious that religion was a major theme in The X-Files pretty much from the beginning.  I’ve mentioned here before that some scholars of religion have begun to address the paranormal seriously.  One of the reasons for this seems to be that the two fields are related.  Some of the x-files derive from folk traditions, and these traditions often hold religious elements.  When those themes derive from American folklore the Bible creeps in.  There are quotes, visual displays, and even biblical themes.  How had I not noticed this the first time around?

I didn’t watch The X-Files during the actual airing of the series.  As a kid I was endlessly teased for having an interest in the strange and unexplained, and it bothered me that it had become mainstream after I’d already paid the price.  When the series became available on DVD, though, I had second thoughts.  My wife and I watched it all the way through some years ago, and, having finished rewatching another series several months back, we began slowly to make our way through again.  When I wrote my article on Sleepy Hollow I had vague recollections of X-Files episodes with some biblical content, but I’d forgotten how extensive it was.  Religion is that way.  It tends to permeate society, and even though we’re proudly secular, the base of it all is religion.  This should be obvious to anyone who takes the time to tally just how often it appears in the most secular of spaces.  Instead, there’s little interest in it.  Like the paranormal, lack of concern about religion is something we just can’t adequately explain.

Just the Beginning

It occurs to me that my post on Sunday may have been a touch cryptic.  (I can be naughty at times.)  Horror Homeroom was good enough to publish a piece I’d written about the movie Midsommar, a film that got its hooks into me earlier this year.  Here’s the link in case you’d like to read it (it’s free): http://www.horrorhomeroom.com/midsommar-and-cross-quarter-day-horror/.  It’s not an article using the Bible and horror as in yesterday’s post, but rather it is an exploration of the broader relationship between horror and religion.  The origin of religion has long been a fascination, and the more I look into the connection with what makes us afraid, the more I find in common.  But why midsummer when summer’s only just beginning?

Ancient peoples in temperate zones, according to the records they left behind, carefully observed the change of seasons.  Without a tilted, spinning globe as a model the science of the time (which was likely their religion) suggested that the heavenly bodies were migratory.  If you use raw observation that’s what seems to be the case.  Now that I sit in the same office every day with a south and a west window, it becomes very clear how the sun shifts over the course of the year.  In the winter it seems to be on a journey far to the south.  Religions of such science would want to know, of course, when it would start coming back.  The years were divided into segments—we still recognize four of them in our seasons although, in truth, they are merely gradual changes that take place in the weather as the earth’s tilt moves our hemisphere toward or away from the sun.

Midsummer was a northern European festival to celebrate the longest day.  Whether this is the start of summer or the middle of summer is merely a matter of interpretation.  The film Midsommar plays on the disorienting long span of daylight in northern Sweden.  Without the dark to guide us, sleep and the regular rhythms of daily life can become difficult.  When the people believe the old religion, well, let your imagination run wild.  Horror films often lurk in these transitional times of the year.  We tend to associate them with Halloween, but there’s enough to be afraid of right now.  Not all horror has religious components, of course.  Nevertheless it has been there from the beginning, from when van Helsing pulled out a crucifix to frighten off Dracula.  And it continues, in perhaps more sophisticated ways, even in the broad daylight.

Bible Horror

The combination may seem odd, but it is definitely a valid one.  The Bible and horror, I mean.  My colleague in this venture, Brandon R. Grafius, has published the first book in the Horror and Scripture series, Reading the Bible with Horror.  This is a fascinating little volume that explores the productive use of horror films when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  The Bible isn’t all horror, of course, but a good deal of it is.  That’s one of the keys of biblical interpretation—no one method covers it all.  At least when I was teaching I used eclectic methods both because some methods work better than others in some places and because no one method is the correct one.  Using horror to interpret the Good Book is one of the newest methods out there.

The methodology involves looking at horror films (mostly) and finding biblical parallels.  Both the Bible and the movies interpret one another.  This can be a kind of reception history—the idea that to understand Scripture we must look at how it has been “received.”  The way that people read Holy Writ after it was written is as important as the way biblical specialists read it.  We all know what literalism is, and biblical scholars are well aware of its shortcomings as a method.  There are tons of other methods that seek to show the relevance of the Good Book, and one of them is to see how horror makes it so.  To get to this point the reader must get beyond our social bias about horror as a degraded, evil genre.  Some of it is quite bad, of course, but much of it has redeeming value.  Redeeming value so obvious that it can be used to interpret the Bible.

Grafius studies only limited examples here, for instance, the book of Job with its human suffering and superhuman Leviathan.  He also looks at hauntings and biblical ghosts, as well as haunted locations.  His chapter on haunted houses made me stop and think quite a bit.  He concludes with what will be the most challenging concept for many—the idea that God can be monstrous in the Bible.  He clearly can.  Apart from theodicy, one of the major reasons critics attack Christianity is the character of God as portrayed in the Bible.  Grafius isn’t attacking Christianity but rather he’s trying to show how a most unlikely source can shed genuine light onto it.  Reading the Bible with Horror is an insightful step in that direction, even if it’s a step into a rather haunted house.

Sinning

The other day I was searching through the CDs we have and came across the Pet Shop Boys’ album, Actually.  Curious, I googled them and was surprised to learn that they are considered the most successful British pop duo ever, by some metrics.  Who knew?  I lost track of them after 1987.  As I played the album—and synth-pop really isn’t my style—I began to wonder why I’d bought it.  Then “It’s a Sin” played.  The Pet Shop Boys’ second number one hit from ’87, that song was part of my personal history that has led, indirectly, to my last two books.  Let me set the scene:

In 1987 I graduated from seminary.  I was just a small town boy, having grown up in rural northwest Pennsylvania.  My exposure to big cities was limited, and that was one reason I’d chosen Boston for said seminary.  It was there that I began to realize just how much popular culture referenced religion.  “It’s a Sin” is emblematic in that regard.  Everything the boys want to say or do is a sin.  Sounds like Calvinism to me. Still, the song was heard by millions.  I bought the album because of it.

As I recall, there were several pop artists singing about religion at the time.  Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” was still eight years away, but it was becoming obvious to me that people took religious cues from pop media.  I once described the ability to find references to the Good Book as “Bible radar.”  If you’re raised in that culture you learn to spot religion in the most unlikely places.  The concept of sin is a purely religious one.  We all have consciences (I hope) but to make an act Hell-worthy requires religion.  And according to some forms of Christianity just about everything is a sin.

That idea lay dormant for decades.  I read novels and found religion embedded in them, often in biblical form.  I saw it on television.  And in movies.  Even horror movies.  While I sometimes elected to expose myself to intentionally religious media, these references often came from secular sources.  As I began to research this, I came to realize that religion is intricately woven into the fabric of society.  Try to tease it out to isolate it and the cloth starts to come undone.  We like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than that, but the truth is at some level we still believe it’s a  sin.

Too Close?

What with the US Navy admitting that UFOs are real and all, it seemed like a good idea to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the holiday weekend.  Like many of my generation I saw it in a theater—itself kind of a distant memory—back in 1977.  I’m not sure why it’s been on my mind lately, but since it’s a long movie it takes a long weekend to accomodate it.  As we settled down to classic Spielberg scenes—lots of khaki and crowds and desert locations—it was a reminder of how silly we all looked in the seventies.  (What were we thinking?)  Other than that the film has aged pretty well.  The plot, although not action-packed, is probing and has several moments that seem to have inspired Poltergeist.  What made the film blog-worthy at this time, however, was the wearing of masks.

When Roy Neary and Jillian Guiler arrive at Devil’s Tower the governmental cover-up is in full play.  A nerve-gas leak—and who can check out whether such a thing really happened?—has a mask-wearing restriction in place.  I wondered where one could get a gas mask today when the crowd scenes of the pandemic won’t even leave a roll of toilet paper behind.  Checking for rubbing alcohol to make homemade hand sanitizer I found it selling for $300 per gallon on Amazon.  Where are we going to get a gas mask in circumstances such as these?  That particular scenario never really stood out to me before although I’ve seen the movie many times over the years.  Back when I was a student at Boston University the school tee-shirt worn by Barry Guiler was the interesting cultural context.

Films that survive the years take on different aspects over time.  Some suggest that a branch of the military admitting to the reality of UFOs during a pandemic was intended to underplay the event.  Others have argued that a similar release of information many months ago received similar lackluster interest.  If there are aliens out there, I have trouble imagining that they’d travel all this way for a synthesizer concert at a national monument that received a major uptick in visitors due to the movie’s release.  Maybe we love our fictional aliens more than the possibility of meeting those that seem to be vexing our navy?  The movie was the right choice for the circumstances, it seems to me.  Some things about the seventies are worth revisiting from time to time.  Strangely, in retrospect, life seemed simpler then.

Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.

Straining Andromeda

As corona-life settles into just the way things are, I pulled out my copy of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.  I read this in high school, and, judging from the state of my copy I originally found it in the book bin at Goodwill.  I actually didn’t remember how the book ended, but some of the scenes—particularly the bizarre suicides that the virus first initiates—stayed with me.  I really felt no compunction to read it again until our daily reality was one of infection, protection, and fear.  In other words, the time was right.  I can say that I found Crichton’s confident prose a bit overblown at times, especially given the resolution of the crisis, which I will not give away here.  Some of the rest of you may want pandemic-themed reading, after all.

Something I had forgotten, and since this is near the beginning I don’t mind giving it away, is that the Andromeda Strain was brought to earth by military intentions to develop new biological weapons.  Although the death toll is nowhere near what that of COVID-19 has been, the potential lethality of the strain is what keeps the compressed five-day story tense.  That tension makes for quick reading, and it seems pretty clear that some of the ideas here have been used for other pandemic story-lines.  I’ll write about one of them later this week.  The extraterrestrial life form of Andromeda is cause for discussion in the novel, but the explanation is never clarified.  Crichton’s later novels improve on this score.

A clear point in the novel is that the government, although aware of and complicit in the experiment, lacked the foresight to successfully see it through.  Governments are only human, after all, and can function effectively only when those with superior abilities are in charge.  Looking out for oneself and exploiting others are not superior abilities.  We can see the result of this with our own, nonfictional pandemic.  Still, the novel does raise the specter of dabbling in things we don’t fully understand and can’t, in any real sense, control.  The thread of the plan being military in origin isn’t fully seen through, but it does raise the larger question of morals.  Some of us go through ethical training for our jobs.  Some of us have it often.  It’s obvious, however, that the real deficiency of governments tends to be their lack of ethics.  In this current day and age that qualifies you for the sobriquet of evangelical Christian.  And now we have our own strain to deal with.

More than Sand

My sci-fi roots may be showing, but when John W. Morehouse posted a story on TheoFantastique’s Facebook page about Dune, I had to follow up.  The story was from Wired magazine, and the title asks “Should There Be a Religion Based on ‘Dune’?  Although I grew up on Poe, science fiction was my favorite genre as a kid.  Frank Herbert’s classic was published when I was only three, but it was experiencing a resurgence before the movie came out.  Dune was  complex world building.  It was immersive, and compelling.  The movie, I felt, didn’t do it justice.  I’m not surprised that people are now wondering if it shouldn’t become a religion.  Other sci-fi-based religions do exist.  Star Wars and Avatar have both developed fan bases that consider the films their religion.

Movies have a way of becoming part of our reality.  The other day I was reflecting on how much my frame of reference for life is based on movies.  I quote from them frequently.  I draw wisdom, and sometimes just plain inanity from them.  But I remember them.  I spend a lot more time reading than I do watching movies.  If a book is engaging I’ll remember it well, but it isn’t unusual to forget—although I hope it’s still there somewhere in deep storage—a book that failed to make much of an impact.  I suppose that’s true of movies too, but I recall my first viewing of The Jungle Book in theaters.  How those hypnotic snake eyes scared me!  And there was a film whose title I can’t recall, but I remember it was vignettes of Hans Christian Andersen stories, I believe.  One was called “The Tinderbox.”  I still remember it well although I was probably about five when I saw it and I never watched it again.

This staying power of movies suggests their religious potential.  People today, I suspect, are less concerned with the antiquity or bona fides of a religion than they are with the practical issue of whether or not it works for them.  Does it bring them near some sense of transcendence?  While the Wired article doesn’t seriously suggest a religion based on Dune, I sometimes ponder how the wisdom of ancient religions is often entombed in forms and structures that “true believers” mistake for the actual essence of the religion itself.  Sci-fi based religions reach for the newly created realms of transcendence.  They are filled with wonder.  But it will only be a matter of time before that awe fades into arguments about which canonical version is literally true.  It’s happened before.

Divided by Eight

Analogies are useful, but never precise.  When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.”  It’s a good analogy, but not precise.  The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror.  Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what.  I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it.  It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years.  A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual.  In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.

What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror.  The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide.  It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on.  If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror.  Tragedy, yes, but horror, no.  The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on.  The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior.  By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.

Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies.  Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time.  Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares.  Well, maybe once.  This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe.  The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same.  Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders.  And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

Connecting Connecticut

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic has been that my appreciation of horror is not misplaced.  Horror Homeroom has just published my piece “Demons or Ghosts?  Hauntings in Connecticut,” available here.  I’ve noticed that Horror Homeroom has had a surge of pieces since all of this began, which seems tacit evidence that horror is a coping mechanism.  It’s no wonder, really.  Horror often deals with “worst case scenarios” and specializes in isolating victims.  Now that we’re all practicing social distancing we’ve entered into one of the main framing plots of the horror movie.  Contagion isn’t an unusual trope either.  My article is about neither of these, but I still maintain that watching horror is therapeutic.  As with most therapy there’s good and bad varieties.

The films I write about in this instance aren’t good movies.  The Haunting in Connecticut franchise misses on so many levels that it doesn’t seem bound for classic status.  Yes, there are classics in the genre.  When the outbreak started many people referred to The Shining as how they felt being cooped up all the time.  There are those who vehemently deny that The Shining is horror, but given the association with Stephen King it seems difficult to deny.  Horror doesn’t have to involve slashers or bug-eyed monsters.  It isolates.  It imagines worst case scenarios.  All Jack Torrence needed was an inept national administration to put us all in the Overlook, one at a time.  

The pandemic has slowed down the release of new movies, of course.  The much anticipated A Quiet Place Part II has been pushed out to September.   Sitting here in isolation I wonder if that’s long enough.  Politicians with money in mind over their human constituents are chomping at the bit to get us mingling again.  Exposing one another.  Horror, however, knows all about aftershocks.  I don’t like jump startles.  I prefer my movies to built thoughtful, moody situations.  Despite their many sins, the Connecticut haunting movies do that correctly.  While they have other problems, they do throw us into a world where things aren’t quite right and we know it.  Elaborate plots really aren’t necessary, though.  The mind is pretty adept at filling in the story.  Like children asking to have the same book read over and over, we know how it goes.  We just like someone else to show us exactly how.  Isolation should continue for some time.  And horror provides a reasonable narrative to help.