Haunted States

I’ve been going through a spate of watching “The Haunting” movies.  Just to be clear, I don’t mean The Haunting, by Robert Wise (1963), which is excellent.  Instead I mean movies spun off of the Discovery Channel’s series A Haunting.  Several years ago, between jobs and too near an FYE store, I picked up a cheap two-fer.  This set contained the television movies A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I watched them once and then traded them in to get something else.  The first one really bothered me.  The Connecticut story deals with a childhood cancer victim, and that alone is scary enough.  It had the limitations of a television movie and left me thinking it wasn’t too satisfying.  The Georgia haunting was more of a documentary, but it was also open-ended.

Then someone got the idea to make a movie out of the two.  The Haunting in Connecticut blows the plot over the top.  I kept thinking as I watched it, isn’t it in bad taste to make a horror movie based on the true life horror of tragic disease?  The protagonist of the story, Philip Snedecker, died about three years after the movie came out.  Although the plot generally followed the first movie an entire subplot was added to pad it out.  A nineteenth-century funeral director has enslaved a young man to be his medium.  The undertaker steals and marks dead bodies to enhance the boy’s powers.  These completely fictional characters intermingle with the real life tragic Snedeckers.  As you might expect, chaos ensues.

The oddly named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia also had to add an entire fabricated story to the troubles of the Wyrick family.  In real life the Wyricks moved into a house where their daughter started seeing things, including a kindly ghost named Mr. Gordy.  She also saw some sinister spirits.  So much so that her family invited a parapsychologist to investigate.  The theatrical version adds in a stationmaster on the underground railroad who was also a taxidermist.  Instead of helping all the slaves to freedom, he saved some for stuffing later.  No real motivation is given, beyond his enjoyment of sawdust and thread and death.  

While these two movies really didn’t help much, I generally find watching horror during a pandemic therapeutic.  Horror films sometimes help viewers envision worst-case scenarios and figure out how they might deal with them, learning from the victims’ mistakes.  I suspect that’s why, a few years back, the CDC posted instructions on what to do in case of a zombie apocalypse.  It was all about disaster preparedness.  Of course, in those days we had no idea what was really coming to Connecticut, and Georgia, and to every state of the union.

A-changin’

The other day, while engaged in a mindless task, I had Bob Dylan playing in the background.  When I say Bob Dylan I mean the Bob Dylan of the 1960s.  I was an infant when he was singing songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  As much as I cast the 1960s in a rosy glow, I was in fact a naive child through my portion of them.  I knew about the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t point to the country on a map.  Likewise, I knew about the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I also knew that we had walked on the moon.  My family at this stage didn’t listen to popular music.  I grew up with hymns in my ears and the culture in which I was swimming slowing becoming absorbed through my pores.  Dylan was part of the latter.

One of the reasons I don’t often listen to music is that I really listen to it.  It is so significant to me that I don’t like to relegate it to the background.  While I work from home, for example, I don’t put music on.  I find it difficult to concentrate because, truth be told, I’d rather listen to the music.  As I had Bob Dylan on, I was doing a task where I could listen as the rest of my body went into autopilot.  The angry white men who are running things now, it struck me, were alive in the sixties as well.  As much as they seem like aliens who were beamed down after the expansion of human consciousness, they were lurking in the shadows all along.  If they sing along to Bob Dylan they’re hypocrites.  We need another Dylan.

Photo credit: Rowland Scherman, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s putting quite a burden on an artist, I know.  But Dylan captured the spirit of the times.  Even as scientism was growing the reality of the Zeitgeist was obvious.  I grew up in the chaotic seventies.  The eighties were bland with the Reaganism reaction—angry white men wanted to get rich at others’ expense, and we let them.  Not enough time has passed for history to decide on the spirit of the fin de siècle, I don’t think.  You see, we seem stuck in a feedback loop.  Dylan’s lyrics are as necessary now as they were more than half a century ago.  I’m growing weary of angry white men and their petty concerns.  Maybe I need to listen to music more often. 

Green Dilemma

It’s a dilemma.  I face it every year.  I don’t have green to wear and it’s St. Patrick’s Day.  For your average run-of-the-mill citizen, this might not be an issue—but I do have an Irish heritage (in part), and so it’s a heartfelt concern.  The reason I don’t have green has less to do with fashion (consider the source!) than with my clothing purchasing practices.  First of all, I like to make my clothes last.  Fabrics can be quite durable.  They aren’t mechanical and therefore don’t break down often.  I don’t live a rough-and-tumble life, so tears aren’t really a problem.  The end result is that I keep my clothes as long as they’re functional.  When they begin to wear out I go to the store and examine the clearance racks until I find something in my size.  That means color selection is often a matter of very limited options.

Once in a great while I have landed something green.  I still remember a green shirt I had in college.  It served me well for more than four St. Patrick’s Days.  It long ago succumbed to overuse, however, because I wore it on other days as well.  And let’s face it, when I make one of those infrequent trips to the clothiers’ shops, this particular holiday’s not on my mind.  Unless, of course, I go shopping in March.  Back when I lived in Boston it was easy to get your Irish on.  I bought a bright green silky (I don’t know if it was real silk) tie with white shamrocks on it.  It was probably down at Faneuil Hall.  It had been a bit outlandish to wear to work in New York City, though.  Indeed, at work staid dress was by far the most common code.  Consequently it hung unused in my closet for years.

When we moved a couple summers back, I noticed my green tie had faded to bronze.  I thought it went the other way around.  In any case, my last truly green clothing article was no longer green.  Yes, it still has shamrocks, but I’d feel even more ridiculous trying to rock a bronze tie and pass myself off as Irish.  It won’t even pass for gold.  Of course, I work from home.  I’ve practiced social distancing long before it was a trend or a government mandate, whichever it is.  The only people to see my lack of green would be my wife and daughter, and perhaps a Jehovah’s Witnesses that might stop by.  But still, even minor celebrations are anticipated at times such as this.  Although I won’t be going out today I’ll probably be spending some time in my closet and reflecting on the true heritage of my Irish forebears.

Perhaps St. Pat shops like I do?

Coincidentally

I hope I never become too sensible not to pay attention to coincidences.  With the death of Max von Sydow falling the same week as the time change, the full moon, and Friday the thirteenth, I’m left feeling a little vulnerable.  I mean, what do we do now that the Exorcist is gone?  A couple days ago, when the moon was full—the last full moon before the vernal equinox—I awoke before 3:00 a.m.  Thinking Daylight Saving Time would have me groping for a few extra minutes abed, instead I found myself wide awake at the hour when monsters are thought to be afoot.  As I put my feet to the floor I saw the brilliant lunar light beating through the blinds like midday.  It was remarkable how very light it was.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  Of course, getting any law passed without numerous riders and bickering is unlikely, but I do wish they’d get on with it.  That having been written, the time shift has been remarkably easy on me so far this year.  Perhaps those of us regularly awake in the dead of night adjust a little more quickly.  Keeping out of New York with the coronavirus lurking, I’d rather deal with my own monsters anyway.  I remember my amazement at seeing Max von Sydow unchanged from Fr. Merrin to Dr. Naehring.  Then I looked up just how much makeup the Exorcist had to have to age himself several decades.  He was a young man when The Exorcist was filmed.  At this time of day anything is believable.

Friday the thirteenth is a bit of lore grown from Christianity.  Friday was inauspicious because of Good Friday and the thirteenth lot fell on Judas, who, along with the others, made thirteen.  It was as if some demon were afoot on such Fridays.  These bits of Christian lore made their way into popular culture and then crept into horror films.  A good deal of Nightmares with the Bible revolves around The Exorcist.  So I sit here before sunrise with a bit of just-past full moon shining in, not too tired from losing an hour on Sunday.  It’s not difficult to think of scary things at this time of night.  Of course, demons traditionally come out around 3:00 a.m.  This week has been like that.  And without Max von Sydow, we want to be very cautious around demons.

Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.

Speaking of X

The project that ultimately led to Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was an article.  Intrigued that the quasi-horror Fox series Sleepy Hollow was so solidly based on the “iconic Bible” in its first season, I wrote an article on how the Bible functioned in it.  After that was published I realized that there was plenty of material for a book on how the Good Book appears in horror films.  That book, of course, appeared late in 2018.  Nightmares with the Bible was a kind of sequel, but moving in a different direction.  It looks specifically at how ideas about biblical monsters (demons) are mediated through horror films.  This post isn’t all an introspective about past projects; in fact, it’s about present watching.

At one point in my research I noted that the X-Files wasn’t as biblically based as Sleepy Hollow.  I stand by that assertion, but my wife and I’ve been rewatching the X-Files on weekends for several months now.  Nearing the end of season two I’ve noticed just how often the Bible appears in it.  Unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the entire story was premised on (largely) the book of Revelation, the X-Files has multiple episodes that focus on religion.  What we might call New Religious Movements feature in some of the vignettes while others posit older, hidden religions.  The Good Book appears visually many times, or, and it’s often quoted, even if not shown.  Although some of the episodes are lighthearted, many of them are played as straight horror and address the question of the reality of evil.  I hadn’t been alerted by Sleepy Hollow the first time we made our way through the X-Files, but if I had more time, and if anyone were still interested, there’s a book in this.

Ironically, even in the light of a political party that takes its energy from a religious base, universities are no longer interested in the study of the subject.  I have no reason to believe that these two television series are isolated instances that I’ve just stumbled across.  American culture is biblically based, no matter how secular it may be.  To my way of thinking, when something like the Good Book has such a strong influence, the response of the rational should be to try to understand it.  I know what biblical scholars do all day; I used to be one.  Only in recent years have some of them begun to turn toward the concept of the iconic Bible and to consider how it influences American thinking.  I can only do this on a small scale, in my free time.  What I see, however, like a good X-File, defies explanation.