Which Window?

October slipped in this year, and now I find myself unexpectedly in the season of ghosts, monsters, and witches. Given the number of posts on this blog about horror movies, it stands to reason that these are a few of my favorite things. The nights are longer now and since I work in a cubicle all year round, I miss the daylight from 8 to 4 on most days. Judging by the billboards along highway 22, others have noticed that Halloween’s approaching as well. One of the odd things about being on the internet myself is that I don’t spend much time web browsing. Who has time? But when a friend sent me a story on witch windows, I had to take a look.

I’ve only been to Vermont twice. Of all the New England states, it, along with Rhode Island, are kind of out of the way for the areas I tend to visit. I’ve enjoyed my time in Vermont (and Rhode Island), but there just hasn’t been much of it. The article “Witch Windows Are Still A Thing And Here’s Why They Actually Exist” by R. J. Wilson points out an architectural feature I didn’t notice during my brief Vermont visits. Confined to the Green Mountain State, for the most part, are slanted windows in line with the slope of the roof. When I saw the photos in the article my first thought was that they were for admitting more light. Vermont is a northern state and already in September days are getting a little lean on light. These windows, however, are commonly called “witch windows.” Nobody really knows why they’re called that. As the Urbo article points out, nobody really believed that witches couldn’t enter through crooked windows.

People are quick to posit supernatural explanations for mundane things. It’s one of the more charming things about the witching season. We need not believe the explanations for them to convey some kind of meaning. Ghosts, monsters, and witches survive because they provide such meaning for us. They symbolize the things against which we have to struggle. Looking for light as the nights lengthen is a very human thing to do. We often house our monsters in the dark. There is utility in taking them out in the daytime to give them a closer look. Now that October’s here, of course, there’s less daylight in which we might easily see. If I were in Vermont I think I’d want a witch window too.

Haunting Toyland

Although it hasn’t always been this way, one of the most characteristic aspects of the modern horror film is the sequel. Some franchises spin into countless sequels and remakes, until their iconic anti-heroes become household names. The Conjuring diegesis participates in this somewhat, but instead of having a repeat fiend, it’s a theme that comes up time and again, tied together by the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I’ve written about The Conjuring before, as well as The Conjuring 2. Prior to the sequel there was a prequel of sorts—more properly a spinoff—Annabelle. Not attaining the critical regard as its originator, Annabelle nonetheless did quite well at the box office, as horror movies often do. The idea behind the movie was to give some backstory to the doll that appeared in The Conjuring.

According to the Warrens, there really is such a haunted doll. Technically it’s not haunted. They call it a conduit through which a demon seeks to entrap a human soul. This past summer a prequel to the prequel, Annabelle: Creation, received higher critical marks than its initial installment. All of this is to say that I had to see the original Annabelle in order to try to make sense of this whole series. Despite its failings, the movie once again shows the interlaced nature of horror and religion. It opens in a church and the priest, Fr. Perez, makes several appearances in the story as the Form couple struggles with the demon inside the doll. Pregnant and vulnerable, Mia Form is traumatized when two cult members invade and then die in her home. Annabelle Higgins, one the intruders, dies holding the doll, bleeding into it. She and her accomplice are satanists, trying to raise a demon for nefarious purposes. (I suppose those are the only kinds of purposes to raise a demon, actually.)

The plot takes various twists and turns, never veering far from the main conceit that the demon wants Mia’s soul. I won’t give any spoilers in case any readers are even further behind in their movie viewing than me. Suffice it to say, this is one of the most thoroughly religious horror films I’ve seen. The Conjuring 2 will pick up the story again with the Warrens and a demon disguised as a nun (and a sequel to both The Conjuring universe and the nun are in the works). Critics are certain religion is dying. If popular culture is any measure, that conclusion is far from certain. Sometimes it’s a bit preachy, but it’s there in horror. Even a possessed doll knows that.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

The Falls

I can’t recall if I’ve been to Mexico City before. You see, back in the late 1980s I frequently read the novels of the existentialists, and although a copy of The Fall has been on my shelf since then, I don’t recall if I read this Camus classic. It’s sometimes that way with existentialists. In late 1980’s Back Bay, a used bookstore called the Boston Book Annex charmed my days. The Annex has sadly closed, but I do remember buying my Camus novels there. This one, however, I don’t remember reading.

So, unsure of my past, I decided to read it. Perhaps again. The existentialists make sense to me. I have to say that in today’s rushed and harried lifestyle it’s a little more difficult to find time to spend in Mexico City. Although the book is short, it’s not quick. There’s much to ponder as you wend your way through an evening bending elbows with Albert. Perhaps that’s an unwonted familiarity regarding a man who died before I was born, but existentialists know that kind of thing happens.

One of the more compelling aspects of this literature is that the existentialists often address religion. The Fall is a first person narrative throughout, and about four-fifths of the way through Jean-Baptiste Clamence begins to address Christianity explicitly. Since this is a retelling, in secular terms, of the biblical “fall,” this is not unexpected. Jean-Baptiste is a lawyer who is making his confession. He states that his clients “probably feared that heaven could not represent their interests as well as a lawyer invincible when it came to the code of law.” Genesis, of course, is attributed to Moses, himself a law-giver. From this point until the end of the chapter he reflects on the fact that although no one is innocent, all are glad to find the crime in others. He describes torture devices of the Middle Ages, exonerating God from their invention. He respects Jesus, but not what people have made of religion.

Reading, perhaps re-reading, this reminded me of why I found the existentialists so compelling as a seminarian. They force you to think. I read Kafka, Camus, and Duerrenmatt, pondering how much wisdom could be crammed into such brief books. Ironically, it takes time to read them. Our world is crowded with concerns about money over meaning. Matter over mind. Once in a while we need to step back, spend an evening or two in Mexico City, and consider how we’ve become a fallen race.

Gendered Lupines

No doubt an excuse isn’t required for reading about werewolves this time of year. Something about October encourages that sort of thing. Hannah Priest edited a collection of essays from various scholars titled She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. As is to be expected among academics, there are several interpretations wrapped together here and the book covers female werewolves from the Middle Ages—where they are sometimes associated with witches—up through modern cinema. A number of literary sources and a few television representations, and even an RPG, are also part of the mix. The problem with multi-contributor books is that it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions, but some observations do come up repeatedly here, and they are worth pondering.

The connection of the female with the animal nature of human beings is stressed for the female werewolf. As might be expected in a patriarchal culture that is becoming more so daily, this is considered an aspect of inferiority. The connection between lunar cycles and werewolves as an inherent feminization of the monster is also brought up more than once. The bodily transformations of puberty also play a role. What we can clearly see amid all of this is that although male werewolves outnumber females in literature and film, and, with a few exceptions, in folklore, the very nature of the werewolf is coded as feminine. This is something that isn’t obvious until a book like this points it out.

Given my own idiosyncratic interests, I was surprised how much religion came into the discussion. Among classic monsters, werewolves tend toward the secular end of the spectrum. There was, however, from the Medieval Period up through early modernity, an ecclesiastical fascination with werewolves. This fascination often came in the form of recriminations against women—attempts to subject them to the wills of men. The church often blamed werewolves on women out of the control of menfolk. And of course, you may kill a monster with no need to feel guilt. More modern views of female werewolves—particularly in movies—are more, well, humanizing. Recognizing that wildness is part of being an evolved animal means that we’re more sympathetic (or had been until November of last year) to the woman who is able to let go of convention and become truly liberated. Now that we experience the poignant lengthening of nights that stir our primal fears, werewolves come naturally to mind. If only we could learn what they have to teach, we might all howl at the harvest moon.

Nicholas of Myra

It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but archaeologists don’t often worry about timing. A piece in the Washington Post announced something of potential interests to hagiographers everywhere—Saint Nicholas may still actually be in his tomb. According to the article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., bandits broke in and stole the relics of the saint centuries ago. In fact, they took them to Bari where a thriving cult grew up around the giving bishop. It seems, however, that they got the wrong tomb. If the analysis is correct, Nicholas of Myra is right where they put him sixteen centuries ago.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt, via Wikimedia Commons

None of this, however, impacts Christmas as we know it. The relationship between the historical Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is a wide-ranging and fascinating one. Stories of generosity surrounded Nicholas during and after his earthly life. It took centuries of evolution to get from that to what we now accept as standard Christmas mythology. In the early—pre-rampant capitalist—United States Christmas wasn’t much observed. It was even illegal in some places. Too Popish to appeal to the dissenter sensibilities that made up the colonial majority, the holiday season simply did not exist. It was, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “winter without Christmas.” For those of us who grew up with warm memories of presents, special foods, and days off the obligations of school, such an existence is difficult to imagine.

The feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6. Because of its proximity to the revisionist birthday of Jesus on December 25, the gifts of the Magi and the storied presents of Nicholas to families in need eventually merged. The holy days eventually became spending days and the whole jumble of Yule and other solstice celebrations got mixed into a wonderfully tolerant holiday. And all this time we thought Saint Nicholas was missing. He was missing in his own grave.

Miracles are attributed to the relics of saints. I suspect they work even if the wrong bones are plundered. Belief is like that. Historically, little is actually known of Nicholas of Myra. Little is known of Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter. The holiday that grew up in the wake of those willing to give, and to give to those who were undeserving, is a lesson that seems to have been interred with their bones. “So let it be with Santa,” you can almost hear Mark Antony say, standing before Congress, itching to slash any safety nets so one-percenters can have the happiest holiday season ever. Yes, Saint Nicholas is well and truly dead.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.