Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Silence Fright


One of my first publications was a letter to the editor. The newspaper was The Scotsman, Edinburgh’s daily. We’d been hearing on the BBC that a new movie, The Silence of the Lambs, had inspired Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer in his gruesome habit of cannibalism. For whatever reason, the Dahmer case had a real fascination for the British. My letter, a rather young attempt to promote an important cause, suggested that such movies could be very dangerous. In the many years since then I’ve read quite a bit about horror films and their effects on people and have come to the conclusion that they don’t cause the crimes. The reasons are much more complex than simply watching a movie since most people who see them don’t “go and do likewise.” When I told friends in Edinburgh that I’d found a teaching job in Wisconsin they said “hopefully not near where that cannibal lived.” Of course Nashotah House is not far from Milwaukee.

My personal embargo of The Silence of the Lambs ran up against my current research project, which involves horror movies. Thinking it over in what I hope is a rational way, I decided that I needed to see my bête noire. Besides, while living in Wisconsin I had learned about Ed Gein, the local serial killer who’d inspired Psycho, a movie I had seen with no ill effects while in college. Movies are as much a part of life as cars and taxes and all kinds of things that impact our ways of thinking. I was surprised at how well done Silence is and the number of references it had spawned that I had missed for the past couple of decades. It won’t be my favorite film, but I’m not afraid of it any more.

The concept of relying on a criminal to catch a criminal is a classic theme, of course. And since the release of this movie some which are much worse have come across the silver screen. We play our anxieties out for all to see. Hannibal Lecter, the cultured killer, is an ambivalent character—a savior criminal. There’s a strange comfort in knowing he has the knowledge to save lives as much as he has the desire to take them. In fact, there’s an element of the divine in that. The capricious nature of a power that has the ability to give and to take is one with which religions constantly deal. Yes, The Silence of the Lambs is a scary movie. The reasons, however, lie more with implications than with imitations.

The Grammar of Evil

I stepped into a devil of a situation. Elevators are strange spaces. Given the choice, I’ll take the stairs any time. At work, however, as one of the many quirks of Manhattan, our elevators only stop on certain floors and we’re not able to use the stairs unless it’s an emergency. After a meeting on a floor where the only option was to elevate out, I stepped into a crowded elevator where a conversation was going. “You always capitalize Satan,” someone was saying. The usual questions among non-religion editorial staff ensued. Why is that? What about “devil”? “It’s never capitalized,” came the reply. My profile at work is about the same as it is on the streets of New York. Not many people know who I am or what I do. Although I’ve struggled with this very issue before, on a professional level, I kept silence and waited for my floor.

So, was the elevator authority right? “Satan” has become a name, rather along the lines of “Christ.” Both started out as titles. In the Hebrew Bible “satan” is “the satan.” The accuser, or the prosecuting attorney—something like that. As one of the council of gods, the satan’s job was to make sure the guilty were charged of their crimes. Diabolical work, but not evil. By the time of early Christianity, however, Satan had evolved into a name. It is therefore capitalized. It was specifically the name of another title, “the Devil.” Or is it “the devil?” Do we capitalize titles?

The Devil wears underpants.

The Devil wears underpants.

In seminary and college the received wisdom among those of my specialization was that there is only one Devil and the title should be capitalized. My elevator colleagues were discussing the number of devils when I stepped out. Traditional theology says there’s only one. Not that the Bible has much to say about the Devil—he’s surprisingly spare in sacred writ. Demons, however, are plentiful. Some people call demons devils, just as many believe that when good people die they become angels. The mythology behind demons seems to be pretty well developed in the biblical world, but again the Bible says little. Demons can be fallen angels or they can be malign spirits who cause illness. Either way they’re on the Devil’s side. But should we capitalize his title? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t help, giving examples of both minuscule and uncial. I suppose that’s the thing about the Devil; you never really know where you stand.

Scary Thoughts

rockoffThose who know me personally—and not just through the internet—sometimes are surprised to learn that I watch horror movies. After all, I’m a pacifist, vegetarian, and a very caring person. Plus I’m squeamish and I eschew violence. Why, then, do I watch such things? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I might be a bit closer now that I’ve read Adam Rockoff’s The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs, Frightened Virgins, and the Living Dead. Now, I’ve never met Mr. Rockoff, but from reading his book I get the impression that he’s a descent human being and fun to hang out with. He’s also a family man and a sympathetic individual. The Horror of It All is an extended discussion of that troublesome question: why do some of us watch movies of this kind?

It’s pretty clear from this book that Rockoff is way ahead of me in the number of horror movies seen. I’m sure he doesn’t mention all of those he’s watched, but there are some I’ve seen that didn’t make this book and, in my own way, I hope, show that I’m no slouch when it comes to the genre. I’m not in the media like he is and those of us trying to be respectable ex-academics have to read weighty tomes to keep any street cred at all on campus. That having been said, it was fascinating to read how many of the same triggers are at work in not just Rockoff and myself, but in other horror watchers he’s known and interviewed. These films are, for the most part, not just degenerate trash. Many of them have redeeming value and an unexpected profundity. Academics and other society people don’t like to get caught watching what hoi polloi do, but just take a look at the box office take and you’ll see that horror sells. We are not alone.

Ultimately every horror viewer has to struggle with this monster him or herself. Why do we watch? While in grad school I had a sociology doctoral candidate interview me to explore just that question. Why? At the time, admittedly, I had seen only a fraction of the films that I’ve moved on to see since then. One thing I can definitively say—I’m looking for something. Life is plenty scary as it is. A world where a good job can be yanked away from you at will and the specter of a life on the streets leers, can be an intimidating place. In the horror movie you see how it could be even worse. So as my waking hours are increasingly spent in the dark, as if the sun itself is afraid, I see books like Rockoff’s as a kind of flashlight through this forest. If I run into monsters, I want to have prepared myself.

Only October

trickortreatComfort may be a strange word to describe Halloween, but it is accurate. I’m no specialist on the holiday, although I’ve read a few books on it—most recently Lisa Morton’s Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. Growing up in what felt to me like an uncertain environment, holidays—and especially Halloween—have left me with positive impressions. Morton’s book explores this strange combination of fear and fun and suggests that many people of my generation do find comfort in its celebration. I grew up without a father in a conservatively religious home. Yet I loved the escape of putting on a mask and being someone else. Coming home with a bag of candy was a bit like that dream I still have of finding a penny on the ground and then realizing there are thousands of them just beneath the surface. There’s a security in that dream and I always find a tear in my eye when I awake from it.

Halloween is, appropriately, a chimera of holidays. It is solidly pagan. It is equally solidly Christian (specifically Catholic). Perhaps to placate those troublesome Celts, the Roman Church moved its commemoration of All Saints and All Souls to November 1 and 2, allowing for the Eve of what used to be called “All Hallows” as a holdover of Hibernian lore. Morton goes beyond the northern European fascination with the darkening of the year to explore other regions and how they mark the season. The southern hemisphere, obviously, doesn’t have the same pattern of autumn and spring, and the holiday has had less success there. The threat of the light never returning has to be real to make the fear stick. The warmest memories of my childhood seem to come from the days artificially lengthened by electric lights and the holidays they spawned: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Comfort.

The air has begun to turn chilly around here. I’ve found myself shivering a morning or two while waiting for the bus. As I pull on my coat and step out into the pre-dawn dark, a stop sign creaks eerily on the deserted street. I’m headed to a long day in a city of stone and glass and warmth will be difficult to find. Halloween decorations get lost in the enormity of New York City and its constant quest for money. So I recall Halloweens of my small-town childhood. I tend not to go out at night, but I haven’t always been this way. When there was an unspoken comfort awaiting at home, no matter how frightening it could be at times, I would brave the dark and ask strangers for candy. Is it any wonder that Halloween still glows in a world somehow grown too cold?

October Weekend


Bright orange pumpkins under a cloudy gray sky. October is surely here. But this is an urban area of the kind in which northeast New Jersey specializes. As I approach I see that it’s a church. A church that has made a truce with Halloween. Judging from the number of people here, it’s a cordial detente. So much of American society lies mired in contradiction that I have to ponder this. Halloween in an age of nones may be simply fun. An opportunity to spend money on pumpkins that won’t be eaten and gourds that can’t be. Decorations for a mildly scary night that somehow makes us feel comfortable and snug at home. October is like that.

Churches have been struggling to maintain active memberships. And although the antagonism has been overblown, Halloween has been an uneasy part of the church calendar. It has, however, become a major commercial opportunity. Depending on the commodity, only Christmas or Easter will draw more lucre from people. The devils and demons and ghosts of Halloween sit awkwardly in the pew next to the victory over death that is the main draw to traditional Christianity. But people will predictably spend their cash for the privilege of carving a pumpkin. Just the memory of the scent, the feel, the contentment of creating a jack-o-lantern makes me want to stop and support whatever denomination this might be.

It is a weekend, however, and I have many errands yet to do. I content myself knowing there are happy people in this temporary pumpkin-patch. The faith of Linus is a powerful thing. To get ready for the week ahead in which I’ll have time only for working, commuting, and sleeping, I keep moving. The orange fades from sight. The cheerful memories of childhood pass. I go on to my next stop. My first errand began at 6 a.m.this morning. Noon is fast approaching. I need a tiny piece of hardware that can only be found in a big box store. I prefer to support the local economy but that shop is all the way across town. Inside the Depot plastic Christmas trees of every description fill the front of the store with winter dreams of even more spending. I forget what I came in here for.



It’s been decades since I’ve seen the original King Kong. A none-too-subtle racist and sexist flick it may be, but it stands as one of the original “horror” films of the early thirties and it has had a profound influence on movies ever since. King Kong wasn’t very nice to Fay Wray, and had to be euthanized by biplane, if I recall correctly. I work one block from the Empire State Building, and sometimes I subtly glance up, looking for the giant ape. There are more fearful sorts in New York these days. I can see Trump Tower, for instance, from the pantry at work where I keep my lunch. But I digress. For its day, King Kong was a violent movie. Like many films, however, it is also a parable.

Recent studies have shown that some 98 percent of mass murderers are male. Men deal out, by far, more than their share of death to others. Some have suggested that when women experience failure they look internally, blaming themselves. Men, on the other hand, go postal. They seek someone else to blame. In our culture—maybe in all “western” cultures—man are acculturated to think of themselves in terms of success. Quite often this means business success—affluence and its discontents. Do you have more money than your neighbors? Good for you! You have succeeded, and, for some warped perspectives, God has blessed you. In reality, the system we’ve constructed has set many people up for failure. This is no excuse, but men who have no other way of measuring self-worth may find comfort in firearms. After all, it’s society that should take the blame. Right?

Gun lobbies claim that collecting firearms is a harmless hobby. Like collecting stamps, only a little louder. A bit of psychology might go a long way here. Might we not stop and think what happens when you give arsonists matches to play with? I suppose if we took away these toys, boys would use baseball bats, or rocks, to take out their aggression. I can’t help but wonder, however, if the problem might not be the system that measures a man by his money. Could there be a better way? There have been those throughout history who’ve made such a claim. They often die violent deaths. Once King Kong has begun his ascent with lust and violence in his eyes, we should all cast a wary eye on the Empire State Building and wonder what it all means.

Colorful States


Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.