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.
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.
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Deities, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins, Sects
Tagged demons, Devil, Hebrew Bible, Oxford English Dictionary, Satan, The Bible
Those 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.
Posted in Books, Higher Education, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Adam Rockoff, and the Living Dead, Frightened Virgins, horror movies, sociology, The Horror of It All: One Moviegoer’s Love Affair with Masked Maniacs
Comfort 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?
Posted in Books, Civil Religion, Holidays, Memoirs, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged A History of Halloween, cultural holiday, Halloween, Holidays, Lisa Morton, Trick or Treat