Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Long Nights

Before I really knew who Ed and Lorraine Warren were, I watched a made-for-television movie called, I think, A Haunting in Connecticut.  Unlike many television movies, it was actually quite scary.  Fast forward several years and I find myself writing a book that involves the Warrens.  I felt obligated to read all the books they “wrote”—all of them ghostwritten—and I’d been holding off on the one titled In a Dark Place, which is the story behind this television movie which was subsequently made into a theatrical movie.  The book is by Ray Garton and the parents of the family involved (Carmen Reed and Al Snedeker) are also credited.  The story is indeed a dreary one, not something I expected would bring any holiday cheer.  About that I was correct.

Why do I do it, then?  A concern with veracity drives me.  Throughout history enough people have told stories like this that either we have to lump our species together as a bunch of lying attention-grubbers, or there might be something to what they say.  The academic and official responses have long been to state that such things can’t happen, so they don’t.  When compared with how we come to know other things about life, we quickly realize that it involves experience.  In cases where experience is anomalous we tend to dismiss it.  We are great conformers.  What if there really was a demon in the Snedeker house?  Others have told similar tales.  If there’s any reality to it, shouldn’t we know?

As a former academic, I always thought that if we really wish to learn the truth, no subject should be off-limits.  That’s not the same thing as credulousness.  We don’t have to believe everything overwrought people say, but the subject should be worth consideration.  Of course, those who ghostwrote for the Warrens claim that they were given liberty to stretch the truth to make a better story.  They also tend to claim that the basic elements of the story are true.  When someone’s writing a book, there’s likely some hope of remuneration involved.  And sometimes the truth isn’t quite flashy enough for major presses with the bottom line in sight.  Still, the question of what really happened is left open.  The internet is a place where credulity reigns.  We can seek truth there only with great caution.  Maybe that is the lesson to apply to books like this as well.  Although In a Dark Place is scary, there was money at stake, and as the wise say, money changes everything.

Taking It Seriously

It would be incorrect to say that I choose to watch and read horror.  What would be more correct would be “Horror compels me to read and watch it.”  Those of us mesmerized by the genre tend to be a reflective lot.  We ask ourselves the question others frequently ask us—why watch it?  And yet, horror films tend to do very well at the box office.  Some even become cultural icons.  Of the many books analyzing horror, it would be difficult to suggest one more influential than Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart.  It has been in just about every bibliography I have read in the subject.  It’s easy to see why.  There are lots of gems in this book, and it does indeed address the paradox at the heart of it all.

Philosophy, due to the very fact that there are competing schools, doesn’t attempt to provide the answer.  It offers an answer, one that hopefully makes sense of the overall question.  What question?  The one with which I began: why do people get into horror?  Carroll comes down to a deceptively simple answer, but I would make bold to suggest it does so at the cost of having undercut the religious element.  As in nearly every book on horror, Carroll does address the connection with religion.  He finds it lacking, but the reason seems to be his definition of religion.  He follows, perhaps a little too closely, Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.  No doubt, it’s a classic.  Still, it doesn’t encompass the broad scope of religion and its genetic connection to horror.

At many points of The Philosophy of Horror I felt compelled to stand up and cheer.  I didn’t, of course, since much of the reading was done on the bus.  My ebullience was based on the fact that here was an intellectual who gets it, one who understands that horror is pervasive because it is meaningful.  Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste.  It’s not, however, simply debased imagination, or arrested development gone to seed.  There is something deeply compelling about horror because it helps us to survive in a world that is, all paranoia aside, out to get us.  Yes, it engages our curiosity, as Carroll asserts.  It satisfies more than it disgusts.  It also defies explanation.  Perhaps that’s the deep connection with religion.  It can never be fully explained.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  And this book is a valiant effort indeed.

Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.

Dark Houses

A book can be whatever an author wants it to be.  When it goes through the publication process, however, it becomes a group effort.  Granted, the other parties are motivated by money rather than by the message of the book, but they are professionals.  Editors can point out what’s irrelevant, or beside the point.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  They change things, often, authors admit upon reflection, for the better.  The self-published book shows itself as just what an author wants it to be.  House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story, by Andrea Perron is a case in point.  In three volumes of about 500 pages each, it is (they are) the insider story of the family portrayed in The Conjuring.  After having finished volume one, it’s clear the book needed an editor.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here.  The first couple hundred pages are fascinating, although there’s a slow build-up into moving into the Harrisville house.  One thing academics have always been too quick to do is dismiss the experience of non-trained observers.  We have to be skeptical, of course, to spot those who are intentionally deceitful, but a person doesn’t write 1,500 pages without cause.  People do experience strange things, and this book is a family’s recollection of events that inspired a horror movie.  There were a few points in the course of reading through that I found myself pondering new perspectives on the realm of ghosts—shifts of point of view.  There were many points, though, that I found myself muttering that an editor would’ve helped.

As a fully trained academic in the field of studies that handles issues of the soul, I am hungry for primary sources.  Sociologists and psychologists get their information from observers—ordinary people.  It’s only when the claims become extraordinary that such observations are called into doubt.  We have all heard of haunted houses.  We all know that sometimes strange things happen in them.  We can explain such happenings in different ways.  The skeptical explain them away as misperceptions, normal occurrences masquerading as paranormal.  The credulous accept everything at face value.  Truth, it seems to me, is a middle of the road phenomenon.  I’ve always sat on the fence regarding ghosts.  Too many people over too many centuries have reported them with great detail—witnesses include some very reputable and rational individuals—to dismiss them in toto.  After volume one, it seems that something worth exploring took place in the eponymous house.  For full impact, however, who you gonna call?  This time you’d better make it an editor.

Saturdays Past

Feeling somewhat between a state of self-pity and that of a salmon who couldn’t find his way upstream, I turned to horror.  The weekend before Thanksgiving has traditionally been AAR/SBL weekend for me.  I missed the Annual Meeting a few times due to unemployment, but for the most part I have been there every year since 1991.  As the representative of a publisher it is an endurance-testing event.  I had half-hour meetings scheduled all day on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and even a couple for the much neglected Tuesday morning.  Then I found myself home, awaiting a suitcase delivery.  United Airlines couldn’t say where the bag would be, and it only arrived Saturday night.  My wife had to work all that day, and so I turned to my boyhood.  Saturday afternoon was monster movie time.

For my current book project I’m discussing the components of The Conjuring diegesis.  I’m also trying to do some traditional research on the films.  Airport-lagged (I hadn’t been on a jet, but at my age being awake so late and sleeping so poorly has its own consequences), I pulled out Annabelle and Annabelle: Creation.  I wondered what it would be like to see them in the order of their plots rather than their actual chronological order.  Would the story hold together?  Would I find anything new?  The films discussed in my books are those I’ve watched many times—what I like to call “guilty pleasure research.”  Or just a boyhood Saturday afternoon revisited.  I couldn’t leave the house since I was told my bag couldn’t just be dropped on the porch.

From the beginning the story of Annabelle, the “possessed doll,” takes many twists and turns.  The demon is invited into the spooky toy by distraught parents after the tragic death of their child.  It then takes over an orphan who is adopted by a couple that she murders, as their natural daughter, in the earlier installment.  The doll is possessed in that telling because the girl Annabelle had joined a Satanic cult, like Charles Manson’s, and her blood dripped into the doll as she lay dying.  After claiming another female victim, the doll is sent to a couple of nurses as a present, where she appears at the opening of The Conjuring.  The story shifts with each sequential telling, leaving the binge viewer dissatisfied.  I haven’t had time for a double-feature since moving this summer.  Thick snow still covered the ground and the sky held that solemn haze of late November.  My colleagues were discussing erudite topics in Denver, and I was home using horror as therapy.  If you’re curious for further results, the book will be out in a couple of years.  Be sure to look for it at AAR/SBL.

Pleasant Dreams

The last time I watched Pleasantville I didn’t have this blog running to discuss it.  It was also during the Obama administration where it felt more like nostalgia rather than a documentary.  In case you’re not familiar, Pleasantville is a movie about how a nerdy teen, David, and his cool sister Jennifer get sucked into a 1950’s sitcom, “Pleasantville.”  They find themselves in black-and-white and in a world as regimented as Stepford, but somewhat more humorously so.  As Jennifer is eager to get back home, she introduces this colorless world to sex, and as the two-dimensional characters begin to experience strong emotions colors start to appear.  The “picture perfect” Pleasantville begins to let the plastic facade of the 1950s slip to reveal a complex and messy world of true humanity beneath.

Watching the film in the age of Trump, as with most things, interjected a current of fear.  The townspeople feel threatened by those who are different, colorful.  They want everything just as it was—women serving their husbands, everyone the same hue, and pretending that sexuality doesn’t exist.  It may have been originally intended as an homage to the the 1960s, but what became clear in an age of MAGA is that crowds easily respond to suggestions of hatred.  Many of those in the group, individually, are “coloreds” themselves, but fear to let it show.  Conformity is much safer even if it means hating those who are different.  I wasn’t alive in the 1950s, but the superiority of the white man apparently was.  One of the characters is, tellingly, named Whitey.

Initially drawn to the film seeking biblical references (occupational hazard) I knew there was an Eden scene before I first watched it.  Margaret, on whom David has a crush, has discovered actual fruit at Lover’s Lane.  She brings him an apple which, the TV Repairman (if you’re lost, please watch the movie—it’s quite enjoyable) points out, is a form of sin in this world of simple answers and unspoken repression.  A mash-up of Jasper Fforde and American Graffiti, the film exposes the lie behind the idea that all were put on earth to serve the white man.  Jennifer discovers books and stays behind in colorized Pleasantville to go to college, something of a rarity in those days.  Although the movie bombed at the box office, it has a serious message to convey.  There was no perfect 1950s iconic America.  The process of becoming great is one of evolution, rather than that of a fabled Eden, available only in black-and-white.

And Found

For a kid who grew up on a steady diet of television, I have to admit being out of practice.  A combination of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows informed much of my young outlook.  Starting all the way back to our days in Edinburgh, my wife and I had stopped watching TV.  We were in our twenties then, and it was a matter of not being able to afford the luxury.  Back in the States, cathode-ray tubes were ubiquitous, but cable was expensive and my employers not generous.  We had a television but only watched very occasionally, and then only what fuzzy programs we could pick up on the aerial.  So it continued.  We’re now at the point of not having had television service for over half of our lives, and we understand from the younger generation that a good internet provider makes cable superfluous anyway.

This prologue is simply a way to introduce the fact that we have finally, after two or three years of watching (we still have little time for it), finished Lost.  Now, I don’t get out much, but I had heard people talking about it when it originally broadcast.  More importantly, I’d read about it in books published by university presses.   I knew going into it—spoiler alert for those even more behind the times than me!—that the castaways were in Purgatory.  That seems to have been the point all along, but when money keeps rolling in because the story is compelling, you don’t want to reveal your hand too quickly.  Last night we watched the final episode where what was suggested back at the beginning was made clear: the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 had died in the crash and were making up for past sins.

The role of Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) as leading the passengers to the light may have been a bit heavy-handed, but the church where they finally meet has the symbols of many world religions, conveying the message that there is more than a single path.  The truly surprising aspect of all this is how popular the series was.  There were religious overtones from the beginning, but since the series wasn’t preachy, viewers apparently didn’t mind.  Yes, as the star character’s surname indicates, people don’t mind being led.  In fact, the names of many of the characters are indicative of some of the paths up that mountain.  I have to wonder if those who vociferate loudly and longly about their religion being the only way might not learn a lesson from television.  Even if the suggestion only comes from someone who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island.