Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

Firestorms

Banned Book Week technically doesn’t start until the week after next, but I have a pathological fear of being late.  I don’t know why.  It could be that I’m aware time is of limited quantity and much of it is owed to the beneficent corporation that keeps you alive, so you have to trade it for food.  And books.  Not much of it is left to do what you want to do.  In any case, my last book for the 2018 Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge was in the banned book category.  Long ago I had decided it would be Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  I’ve read it before, of course, but it had been long enough that the details had been sanded away and I could only remember parts.  One thing I’d forgotten is how much Vonnegut brings religion into the story.

Writers who avoid religion miss the motivating factor of the majority of human beings’ lives.  This has always seemed a strange denial to me.  I’m not suggesting that every novel should mention religion, but since it is concerned with ultimate interests, it is somewhat surprising that it’s so often overlooked.  Not that it plays a major role in Slaughterhouse Five, but any novel concerned with death is inherently in the realm of ultimate concerns, I should think.  Right, Dr. Tillich?  In any case, I’d forgotten that Slaughterhouse Five was such a poignant, funny, and sad novel.  Vonnegut’s experience of World War Two clearly haunted him—most writers are haunted by something—and his musings were, and often are, banned.

If there were banned books in my high school (and I grew up in a conservative area, so surely there were) I didn’t know about them.  Let’s face it, teens seldom sit around talking about significant novels.  Many, at least among my classmates, didn’t read those that were assigned in English class.  Slaughterhouse Five wasn’t one of them.  I learned about Kurt Vonnegut from a friend while in college.  This is the third of his novels that I’ve read in 2018.  The first two I’d never read before.  So it goes.  I’m keenly aware of time.  I’m also aware that those who would ban books are often those who obtain elected office.  And when you find that your own nation has turned on you, remembering the fire-bombing of Dresden is an appropriate response.  For such reasons Banned Book Week remains important.  It should be a national holiday, at least among those of us underground during the firestorm.

Scriptural Slashers

Let me relish this a moment.

Thanks.  You still there?  It’s not too often, you see, that I get to feel like I’m near the front of the crowd.  I began writing Holy Horror when there were a small handful of books on the market concerning horror and the Bible.  I wasn’t aware of Brandon R. Grafius’ work at the time, but it sure is gratifying to see that others have noticed the connection.  Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25 is pretty much what its title says.  I’ll be having more to say on it in a different venue—don’t worry, I’ll let you know—so I’ll keep to the basics here.  My spellcheck, and I’m sure not a few others, might have trouble identifying Phinehas.

In one of those weird, short, violent episodes for which the Good Book is justly famous, the story of Phinehas is clearly part of a larger, untold narrative.  Like the sons of the gods marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6.  The grandson of Aaron, Phinehas was one of the hereditary priests of early Israel.  The Israelites wandering for their 40 years in the wilderness were nearly as xenophobic as the Trump Administration.  When one of the chosen people chose a foreign wife, Phinehas, full of zeal, grabbed a spear and skewered the couple.  Tradition says in flagrante delicto.  This act of violence stops a raging plague sent by the Almighty, so Phinehas looks like a hero in context.  If you want to read the story the subtitle tells you where to find it.  Or you could read Grafius’ excellent book.

Horror, which should be already obvious, enters the picture in the form of theory.  Yes, there is such a thing as horror theory.  Grafius uses it to analyze this story, along with other methods.  This is what I’m relishing.  I certainly wasn’t the first to notice the connection.  Many years ago Phyllis Trible wrote Texts of Terror, noting how the Bible seems less holy (my expression, not hers) when read from the perspective of a woman.  Indeed, many accounts that seem like standard issue narratives of God laying down the rules and humans disobeying tend to fall pretty heavily on females.  And the punishments used are fit for horror films.  Grafius focuses specifically on slashers, but one gets the sense that this book is just the start of something larger.  This reader, at least, hopes that is the case.

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

Appily Ever After

While in the theater to see The Nun (which ended up being the biggest take) this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice that the pre-movie adds were all about apps.  I couldn’t help it because, much to my own chagrin, I’d left the house too quickly and I hadn’t brought a book to read while waiting.  This may not be news to some people, but different cinema chains have different “channels” of what passes for entertainment and ads to try to draw viewers in early.  The movie house we used to frequent in New Jersey had a variety of goods on show, most of the time.  The one we visited here in Pennsylvania presumed that everyone had their phones in hand, waiting for the show to begin.  On screen was the idolization of the app.

My phone is old enough that most modern apps don’t work on it.  Most of the time that doesn’t matter to me since I’m not addicted to the device.  Of course, when you’re trying to park your car in a town that offers only online options for such a convenience, I sometimes wish I could download the relevant necessary software.  Otherwise, I often wonder what we’ve lost in our lust for connectivity.  Coming out of New York on the longer distance bus recently, the driver called out, as leaving the Port Authority, “Lights on or off?”  The unanimous chorus, for I didn’t speak, answered “Off!”  I glanced around.  I was surrounded by devices.  I carry a book-light with me on the bus, for this has happened before.

“Drink the Kool-Aid” has become post-Jonestown slang for simply following the suggestion of someone without considering the consequences.  I sometimes wonder if our smartphones come in more than one flavor.  I’m not talking about features or physical colors.  As apps chip away at our money, a little bit at a time, they also take larger pieces of our time.  I’ve experienced it too, but mostly on my laptop (I don’t text—my thumbs aren’t that limber, and besides, the apocopated messages often lead to misunderstanding, emojis or not), the wonder of one link leading to another then realizing an hour has disappeared and I still feel hungry.  Perhaps that’s the draw to the modern commuter.  Or movie goer.  I’m sitting in the theater, taking a break from unpacking.  In my version of multitasking, I’m also doing research by watching a horror movie.  Around me eyes glow eerily in the dark.  I’m lost in the forest of unsleeping apps.

Nun Among Them

Life is sweet when watching a horror movie counts as research.  It’d be sweeter, of course, if a university paid for it, nevertheless, I went to see The Nun on its opening weekend.  My wife gamely went with me (no sponsor was paying for this) on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Now, if you haven’t been following The Conjuring universe, you might not know about The Nun.  The full story will be revealed in Nightmares with the Bible, which is coming along nicely.  Suffice it to say it’s a movie about a haunted convent in Romania.  Those who know the Dracula tradition will perk up at the mention of the location.  The scenery is quite lovely in a horror genre kind of way.  And it also has ties to The Conjuring diegesis that bring the story full circle.

Ghostly nuns, it turns out, can be scary.  Religion, after all, involves coercion and threat as well as love and salvation.  Sister Irene, the protagonist, is a novice nun sent on a mission to investigate said convent.  The film reveals both an awareness of religious motivation and a seeming lack of research regarding monastic life.  Sister Irene, for example, tells the students at her school that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally.  It’s “God love letter to humanity.”  Well, parts of it are.  Still, the struggle with biblical literalism is a present-day issue that the movie addresses head on.  It was difficult to believe, on the other hand, that even a novice would walk into a chapel where someone is praying and call out “Hello?”.  Many years at Nashotah House taught me something.

Cloistered environments, although not part of most people’s experience, are great locations for horror.  For example, the first night she spends in the monastery Irene is told that the great silence is observed until dawn.  Did I mention that in chapel no one can hear you scream?  There’s an element about that in actual cloistered life.  The discipline of secrecy is heavy and full of threat.  We spent a great many silent days at Nashotah House and the sense of violation as sin was heavy indeed.  The part that truly stood out, however, was where the nuns used their only recourse against evil; they had to pray.  In the world of action movies, striking out with whatever is at hand is the expected response.  Spiritual entities, although the film does relent, can’t be touched except with spiritual threats.  The praying nuns looked so helpless in the presence of a demon.

There were less than a dozen people in the theater.  The Nun may not be a runaway hit.  The devoted will see it, however, and some of us will include it in our working life as a kind of spiritual exercise.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.