Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Wolves Again

Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.

Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.

It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.

Mythologies

Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!

Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.

I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.

Credulity

So I went to see The Incredibles 2. Like the first movie, it deals with the complexities of family life amid the feelings of inadequacy when people are kept from their full potential. The idea of humans being enslaved by their screens seemed real enough. If you’ve ever tried to walk through Manhattan in a hurry you know that one of the clearest dangers is the pedestrian staring at his or her phone. People used to come to New York to see the scenery. Now you can get the full experience all online. There’s little doubt that we do need to be saved from our screens. Meet virtual reality. After only one encounter you can drop the “virtual.” Ironically, we were all sitting in a theater looking at a great big screen.

What was even more interesting was the fact that the film began with an apology for taking so long to make a sequel. An actual apology. As if no movie ever could, or should stand on its own. It’s common knowledge that sequels seldom live up to the originals. Interestingly, the villain in the movie states that people will always choose convenience over quality. That much is certain, and in an ironic way it applies to the film in which it’s uttered. I don’t believe in the crisis for creativity. It’s still out there. Original ideas are endemic to human nature. Ideas that bring in lots of money are more rare, and so we rely on the sequel. Sure things.

Publishers play this same game. Books that are completely new ideas frequently find their way from editors’ slush piles to their rejection piles. Publishers want something similar to what they’ve done before. Even better, something similar to something that sold well last time. The odds, in a capitalistic society, are stacked against creativity. It’s money that’s important, not originality. Yes, there have been books written extolling the wonders—virtues even—of originality. Such books are more easily published if they’re written by somebody already famous. So here was the dilemma in the theater: enjoy the movie or accept the message of the movie? The rare days I’m away from the screen, I’m old enough to admit, I don’t really crave it. When I come back in the door, however, the first thing I do is login to see if I’ve missed anything. Screens can lead to a strange uniformity. As long as we’re willing to pay for it, nobody will complain.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

Cult of Paris

The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The results of both biological and psychological sciences inform us that mammals, especially primates, hold “alpha” individuals in awe. We don’t know what quality makes them irresistible to some, but in the case of humans before you know it everyone is talking about this Kardashian or that Trump. Valorizing the power of media as we do, those who appear ubiquitously on screen gain in magnitude merely by the attention paid to them. Others have vetted the details, and those who are deemed important enough for constant, widespread television exposure are worthy of our worship. Most of the time it seems banal, harmless. But when those without scruples are willing to exploit it, it is dangerous.

Paris rejecting the cult of celebrity

For example, the other day my wife and I rewatched An American in Paris. I know my wife likes the movie, but when it was over I couldn’t help noting that Jerry Mulligan chauvinistically claims his right to a woman he’s just met, and who is, moreover, engaged to a friend of his who had just lent him money. The fact that he doesn’t know about the engagement is no excuse. Lise tells him “No,” and when she gives him a false telephone number he doesn’t take the hint that she doesn’t want him to call her. He stalks her in a selfish and predatory way. Only because she laughs at his antics with some perfume bottles does she agree to meet with him later. He takes advantage of another woman who clearly has feelings for him and who sponsors him, using her money but not reciprocating her feelings. He’s aggressive and eavesdrops to get Lise’s name. He lies to her and about her (saying he knows her so her friends don’t object) and refuses to take no for an answer. Laying out my grievances, my wife politely listened and then said, “But it’s Gene Kelly.”

Like many people, I was jilted a time or two when I was younger. Losing out to a rival lover leaves a lasting scar. How can we hope that on New Year’s Eve Lise will leave Henri for the interloper Jerry? But it’s Gene Kelly. The cult of celebrity allows those on various pedestals to get away with many things. Trump was likely correct in saying he could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shoot someone and his base would not object. The cult of celebrity ’sn’twonderful, ‘sdangerous.