Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Let Us Prey

ProjectedFearsI grew up with horror films. Not that my mother encouraged or approved this behavior, but I was a kid with a lot of phobias. With no father around to protect us from what dangers might lurk out there, I tried to learn how to cope by watching others face monsters. That innocent childhood pass-time, like most simple pleasures, disappeared into the adult world of analyzing and being serious and making money. Then it came back. After a series of unsuccessful relationships the old rejection phobias led me back to my beloved monsters. I suspect that’s why I like reading about horror films so much—it’s an exercise in self-understanding. Kendall R. Phillips’ Projected Fears: Horror Films and American Culture is a pleasant Saturday afternoon’s viewing, but for adult monster boomers like myself. Phillips admits up front that academic respectability is hard to come by for horror movies, but that is starting to change. We are beginning to read the script.

Phillips walks the reader not only through the ten movies he’s selected, but also through what was happening in American culture at the time. The horror movie proper is not yet a century old, having begun with Universal’s 1931 monster pair of Dracula and Frankenstein. Phillips shows that what scares a culture changes over time. Indeed, one gets the sense that it is horror movies that lead us in our fears. Highlighting ten culturally significant films, this book guides us through the highs and lows of the last century. The last entry in the book dates from 1999, nicely encapsulating what made us afraid during a most remarkable and, if we’re honest, a most messed up century. Clearly those who purvey horror will have their own choices for significant entries. Phillips does an admirable job of justifying his choices: Dracula, The Thing from Another World, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Silence of the Lambs, Scream, and The Sixth Sense. Each reflects its age, and each impacted its culture.

It should come as no surprise that religious elements—both in culture and in the movies—are up for discussion here. Consciously or not, religion deals with our fears and frequently moves us into the realm of horror. Now that we’ve entered a new era—much has happened already this millennium—the nature of our fears has been changing. To assess cultural impact we need some distance. Books like this help us to understand ourselves, but only after sufficient time has passed. I am confident, however, that when future analysts look back on this insane time that they will find unexpected answers to questions we can only begin to utter. We stare at the monster in the room with us, paralyzed and unable to scream. Or even text. And they will note that religion played a role in our nightmares even as we expected technology to save us.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

Mature Monsters

When I first began this blog, generally focused on religion, I felt the need to justify posts about monsters. Now, some seven years and several books later, I have come to assume monsters and religion are close kin. Many scholars who explore monsters are those in that amorphous field of “religious studies” who’ve come to realize that terror and the sacred are not far apart. In fact, the Bible contains many stories that could be understood as horror, if taken literally. When my wife sent me a story in The Guardian, “Guillermo del Toro: ‘I love monsters the way people worship holy images’” I once again found the connection reinforced. In the article by Jordan Riefe, del Toro comes more than once to religious themes as he describes his fascination with the macabre. Here’s a guy about my age who’s not afraid to admit that he likes the scary stuff and has, indeed, become famous for it.

Feejee_mermaidI have to admit that Guillermo del Toro has a way of pressing my buttons. I’ve watched a number of his films and they can be scary even with subtitles to read. Perhaps the reason is that del Toro understands implicitly the tie between religious thinking and the monstrous. An invisible man of infinite power whose revealed will comes in contradictions is certainly a source of fear. So is a child who wears a burlap sack painted like a mask over his head. Known for his fear-inducing creatures, del Toro was raised a Mexican Catholic. He ties this upbringing with monsters in this story. Riefe records him as saying, “I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.” In a mythical world where perfection rests only with divinity and people are told to be perfect, monsters are certain to emerge.

Until quite recently horror was considered a lowbrow genre by academics. As such it wasn’t really worthy of exploration. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that scholars of religion—the new lowbrow—were among the first to take their disfigured friends seriously. Science tells us there are no monsters. We live in a rational world with evolution taking logical steps—if unguided—to more efficient means of survival. That doesn’t stop us from lowering the shades as night draws on. The monsters may be in our heads, but we might also find them in our souls. When we’re informed that such souls are nothing more than imagination we have a very good reason to be afraid indeed.

Spirit of Equality

A few weekends back I watched the new Ghostbusters in the theater. Since tuition bills loom larger than life, it takes a powerful draw to get me to spend the money to see a movie in its natural setting. As my regular readers know, I loved it. Critics have tended to, well, criticize the movie, largely for its main drawing feature—the female leads. A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.

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Ghostbusters, in all three cinematic presentations, is for laughs. Sometimes classified as supernatural comedy, the film is meant as humor while, admittedly, leaving the door creaking open for some serious thought about the implications. In a reductionistic world there’s no room for ghosts. It’s not possible to say, scientifically, what they might be. From the perspective of traditional belief, however, ghosts are the lost spirits of the departed. Traditional Christian theology places the dead squarely in Heaven or Hell, and they shouldn’t be wandering around down here. That hasn’t stopped people from reporting ghosts. They’ve been recorded almost as long as there has been writing. Today “Ghosthunters,” arms defiantly crossed, use “science” to try to prove the entities exist. This is lightyears from the traditional seance. A ghost under a microscope isn’t very scary.

One of the reasons I found the new Ghostbusters so compelling is that it managed to tiptoe that line between science and spirit that is so rare in the real world. The women, downgraded though they are in the story, are academics. They know, and experience, the dangers of taking haunting seriously. The movie is seriously funny. Like most truly funny efforts, there is a great deal of truth hidden in the humor. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is one of the scenes that plays on its own loop in my head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” he says before he drives off toward Downtown. Women, in the film, have a healthy respect for the departed. Not exactly afraid, but not exactly unafraid, they handle ghosts as persons. This may be one of the points Dickey is making in his article. To understand a human one must be human. Spiritualist or Ghostbuster, women have always been superior guides to what is truly important. If only men could learn to listen.

Hollow, Sleepy Hollow

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It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”

You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.

That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.

The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.

Equal Frights

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Working in Midtown Manhattan, it’s rare for a week to go by without passing through a street that’s set up for a film or television shoot. New York isn’t the largest city in the world, nor does it have the tallest buildings, but it is a city instantly recognizable at a glance. It is also a haunted city. The original Ghostbusters was a New York movie, but the reboot may be even more so (although largely shot in Boston). I’m having difficulty remembering the last time I enjoyed a movie so much. I laughed until the tears came, and the theme of spirits loose in the city appealed to that part of me that loves the strange and unusual. With several nods to the original, and cameos from the surviving cast, this is a child of love that outshines its parent. It’s almost as if it makes the original even better than it was to begin with. This is a movie with a mission.

Clearly one of the factors in making the film so good was the fact that women were the leads. They show at once the empathetic, and funny, intelligent, and challenging—roles that women routinely both possess and face. The characters have trouble being taken seriously by the males around them, yet they are fully as qualified as and indeed, know more than the establishment. Discouraged and downtrodden, they press on, saving New York City. This may be the first time women have been envisioned is such a salvific role. They are scientists, scorned for their brains and for their gender, and yet they overcome.

Sure, there’s fantasy involved here, but fantasy with a message. I applaud this movie that not only entertains, but also makes profound statements at the same time. It gives a rare glimpse of what the world would be like if men were treated with the demeaning outlooks that they already frequently give to women. It is a feminist movie, but not an angry one. I left the theater genuinely elated. Of course, I loved the first Ghostbusters, despite all the cigarettes and sausages. Still, those who made the movie had the grace to bless this new venture that takes viewers into a world where we rely on women to solve the problem. Once it’s solved, however, they are shoved into the background so that the powers that be can take the credit. It is a movie for our times. I would’ve gone to see it for the ghosts alone. I came out, however, knowing that I had seen something not only enjoyable, but which might, if taken seriously, begin to change attitudes and prejudices which haunt us to this day.