Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future. 

Book Signing

Okay, so I’ve got a book signing for Holy Horror coming up at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem.  And they’ve advertised it in the local paper.  I’m humbled and honored by this, especially since I have no local following.  When I go to the website of the newspaper, The Morning Call, ads pop up on the top, bottom, and center of the page, obscuring the event.  I take this as kind of symbolic.  Life is crowded.  We seem to have turned the corner to autumn around here with nights being distinctly chilly.   After the languorous heat of summer when even thinking about winterizing seemed to add another layer of insulation over already too warm body, now we suddenly have to try to fit it in among an already crowded schedule.  At least I don’t have to commute too much any more.

I’m trying to get ready for the book signing, but I don’t really know what to do.  Perhaps I should try to get some business cards printed up.  Maybe I should think of some catch-phrase to use if anyone actually buys a high-priced book.  What should I wear?  Working at home can make you feel like a recluse sometimes.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric, but I don’t get out among hoi polloi much either.  If most people have as much trouble as I do clicking off the ads to get to the event underneath, those who swing by the table are likely to be few.  Still, I’m looking forward to meeting local horror film fans.  They are, in general, a surprisingly cordial bunch.

After Nightmares with the Bible I’m going to focus on trying to find more mainstream publishers.  The reason is simple: academic publishers tend to be overpriced.  I’ve worked in publishing long enough to be able to decode pricing schemes.  There is a logic to them, even if at times it feels like you’re being overshadowed by pop-up windows.  To get a wide readership you need a pretty big platform, and getting a following on any form of social media takes the one thing I don’t have enough of.  Time.  You see, just the other day it was summer and we felt like we were baking.  Now the equinox has plunged us into the days of getting the furnace cleaned and operational and looking at the prices of insulation and shaking our heads.  Somewhere under all of these pop-ups are ideas waiting to be written down.

Moral Compass

Recently I was introduced to The Poor People’s Campaign, in its most recent iteration.  I was drawn in because I was raised in a poor family and have struggled to make up the shortfall my entire adult life.  Those raised in middle class (and above) households often don’t realize that when you start below zero, in a humanities-based career it may take literally decades to catch up, if you ever do.  There’s no safety net and there’s no inheritance.  You begin with years of higher education debt and sub-standard pay in your profession.  But I digress.  The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival is non-partisan and it is about more than just the poor.  It’s about restoring true morality to our political system.  Organized by the Rev. William J. Barber II, it has had some success in presenting the plight of the poor to a congress that has largely failed to care.

Politics is full of dirty money and lobbying to the point that many people are cynical and convinced that morality has no chance of survival in this city set on a hill.  The pony and puppet show in a White House run by an entrenched narcissist shows just how far concerns for justice are from the aims of our government.  Barber and his colleagues actually read from the Bible (which, it turns out, advocates justice) rather than just saying that they do.  Compared with Martin Luther King’s 1968 campaign by the same name, The Poor People’s Campaign today is smaller, but growing.  More and more citizens with a conscience realize that our government requires rescue if any semblance of fairness is to throw its hat into the political arena.  We’ve become the victims of to government’s bread and circuses, but without the bread.

The most disturbing aspect of our current political spectrum is the complete lack of a moral compass on the side of politicians who cynically use issues to win elections only for personal enrichment.  We have an Oval Office occupant who refuses to divest himself from his own business interests while using his position to increase his own wealth.  Others in his party follow suit.  The Poor People’s Campaign is non-partisan because corruption easily crosses the political aisle.  At least one party seems to be aware that the poor really do suffer even as the White House tells them tax breaks for the wealthy will make everything better.  When a government proposes “camps” for the homeless to get them off the streets, we should see that we’re clearly in trouble.  And unless someone sounds the alarm the wealthy will never bother to take notice. 

Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

The New Purple

Those of us who grew up Evangelical hold an unusual place among our liberal peers.  We’re often able to peer around, over, and under that wall that has been built between those who want a faith-based nation and those who want a free one.  Angela Denker is a fellow traveler on this road, and her book Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a useful roadmap.  Some of us fall further from the tree than others, but one of Evangelicalism’s more endearing traits, when taken seriously, is the love of those who are different from you.  That love is often forgotten in the political rhetoric daily whipped into a froth by an unstable president being used by his party to install agendas that hardly fit the moniker “Christian.”  That’s why books like this are so important.

I confess that reading studies such as this make me uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because my Evangelical past haunts me worse than any ghost, but also because Denker is clearly right that basic humanity is being left in the garbage as battle lines are drawn up in what could be a great, diverse nation if a leader were determined to work for unity.  I recently wrote about lunar landings.  Kennedy was a Catholic who had to work to bring a nation together around a common goal.  Instead of tearing the country apart for his personal aggrandizement, he pointed to the moon.  Sure, there was a xenophobia concerning the Soviet Union, but at least in this pocket of the world there was a sense that we should work together.  When religion entered politics with Richard Nixon and his followers, a deep rift opened up.  The two topics you were never to discuss—religion and politics—were now in the same bed.

Red State Christians is an extended road trip on which Denker interviews people who largely fall under the Evangelical umbrella.  Some of them are Catholic.  Some of them are Hispanic.  Some of them are less concerned with social issues, but are hard-working laborers often overlooked by the Democratic Party.  The resulting pastiche is one in which Americans are cast not in sharp relief, but rather with the hazy edges that are a far more accurate way of understanding human beings.  Many, it becomes clear, elected Trump out of fear, or out of fear of his opponent.  These aren’t bad people, but they are people afraid.  This wasn’t an easy book to read, but it is an important one.  And those who want to work for a future that might include realms beyond the moon might find this work a small step in the right direction.