Exiting Amityville

Okay, I confess. I watched Amityville 3-D. One of the standard features of horror, you see, is the sequel. As a rule the members of the franchise degenerate until they don’t earn enough money to keep Hollywood’s attention. In the case of The Amityville Horror, the story only made it three deep. I’m no film critic, but with missteps at almost every turn, Amityville 3-D almost made a farce of itself and horror fans take that as an insult. (Good horror comedy is an exception, of course.) The original story is well known: the Lutz family moved into the DeFeo murder house and moved out again just over a month and a half later. The tale has been considered both a hoax and a legitimate haunting, but subsequent families haven’t reported supernatural happenings on the property.

I had some hopes for this installment, as it was also known as Amityville III: The Demon. The second feature film was part of my viewing late last year, and it was okay. I never thought the original was that good, in any case. As I watched III I realized something was missing. Religion. Any sign of it. No priests were involved—this was the fear vector for the first two films of the series. Although John Baxter moves into the house knowing the history, he’s a skeptic and seems not even to believe as the house blows up in a silly finale before his very eyes. When the flies start buzzing around everywhere he thinks they’re just pests, not making the connection with the original account. The entire series is, of course, an extension of the Beelzebub—“Lord of the flies”—myth. That’s what gives it its demonic thrust.

When it finally comes time to wrap things up, and no priest has been called, and no religious imagery has been shown, there’s nothing here to scare but cheap startles. Eliot West, the leader of the cadre of paranormal investigators, attempts to free Baxter’s drowned daughter from the turquoise, boiling well that was dubbed “the gate to Hell,” a demon pops up and grabs him. There’s no explanation of who or what the demon is. Like everything else here it’s secular to a fault. And though it may startle, it can’t scare.

Not all horror uses religion, of course. Even some movies about demons avoid it and manage to be scary. If the premise, however, rests on religion gone awry—as in the first two films of the franchise—exorcising it completely is asking for trouble. Even if the telephone number for the realtor at the start of the film does begin with a secular 666.

And the Band Played

One of the more curvilinear sequences of numerals has taken on demonic attributes over the centuries. Even the most secular of people, at least in the United States, can identify 666 as some kind of bad juju. The more literate among them will be able to pin the origins more precisely to the book of Revelation, often likely as not misnamed “Revelations”—something sure to drive your New Testament professor as mad as a beast. Fans of true precision will surely want to add that it is Revelation 13.17-18 that makes the number infamous. The latter verse starts out with “Here is wisdom,” which already spells disaster, for who doesn’t want to think him or herself wise? 666 is said to be the number of a man, and is conflated with the “mark of the beast”—one of the quickest ways to bring evolution and economics into the discussion. In popular culture 666 is said to be effective in invoking the devil. This idea is not found in the Bible, but it sure makes for an easy way to identify the Prince of Darkness in movies and popular culture.

The other day I received a mysterious email at work from a “Dr. Strangelove” with the email username of “camus666ster.” Indeed, the topic was appropriately apocalyptic and it managed to make it through a pretty strenuous spam-filter. Here was something apparently supernatural during the work-day. I’m also conscious that a building visible from the window behind my desk is 666 Third Avenue, but I’m pretty certain that these two sexagesimal cousins have nothing to do with one another. It is only a certain religious sensibility that brings them together. Where else in the world do authorities have trouble with people stealing roadsigns for route 666? And why do I get the feeling that someone is watching me?


Revelation may have had more impact on our culture than any other single book. Whether it’s checking your iPhone for the weather, or wondering what is going to happen next in the Middle East, we all want a view into the future. It is a view that some suppose old John saw while exiled on Patmos. Others recognize that Revelation was a thinly veiled contemporary account to give hope to persecuted Christians in an era of imperial violence. Either way, the book, despite some effort to keep it out, ended up having the final say in the Christian canon. In a nation where every person possesses several unique identifiers, we still look over our collective shoulders for an anonymous beast who is about to bring down society. Don’t worry, folks, I’ve got his number.

And I Feel Fine

“Is something supposed to have happened?”—Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. The world was supposed to have ended yesterday, but I haven’t yet looked out my windows to make sure. I suspect that everything is pretty much the way it was on Friday. Nevertheless, I have to admit to a tiny bit of relief. I do not believe in a mythic end of the world, and yet there is always that taunting doubt that maybe somebody knows more than me. To calm my jitters, I watched Chicken Little last night. This particular Disney movie has never been one of my favorites, but yesterday it struck me as a parable for our times. Even better, the original folktale is a parable for our times. No one knows when the story originated; it is an example of a folktale that belittles paranoia and the mass hysteria that tends to accompany it. A common ending has a fox eating all the concerned animals as they make their way to the authorities.

Our culture is rife with end-days beliefs. Since this is an idea clearly traceable to non-biblical origins, one might suppose that Fundamentalists would eschew it, but as we have seen the last few days, quite the opposite is true. Those who like Chicken Licken or Cocky Lockey go around declaring the end of all things clearly believe they will be rewarded for their special efforts. Instead, history will class them along with Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey—those who are easily led. Perhaps the oddest result of this recent scare is that many people will not abandon the belief, but will simply push it off. We have another scheduled apocalypse for the end of 2012. Is it because we are now so closely connected by the umbilical Internet that our natural fears have become international?

The claims seem to be arriving thick and fast. I remember the end of the world scare of 1979 when I was in high school. There seemed to be a hiatus until 1999, and since then the dates have begun to bottleneck. What we are seeing is the role-playing of a Christian mythology, and herein is the real danger. A true believer can try to initiate the end times. We only need recall 9/11 to test that. Like most religions, Christianity has developed its own unique mythology that freely borrows elements from both other religions and popular culture. The apocalypse has a history, you know. Overall the false scare of the end of all things has been good for this blog. It was not without irony that I noticed my post for May 21 was number 666. But like the clock that is still ticking, this post will clear that hurdle, and the world will be around for a long time yet to come. Now I need to go and pull back the curtains, just to make sure, and keep an eye out for Foxy Loxy.

By the Numbers

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the airport, the Bible Code strikes again! This morning’s newspaper carried the story of Jose Flores, a would-be hijacker of Aeromexico Flight 576. Flores boarded the flight with a Bible and fabricated a pretend bomb out of a juice can (the story doesn’t specify exactly what kind of juice —) and instructed the pilot to fly around Mexico City a Jericho-esque seven times. Flores informed the flight attendants that he was part of a set of four hijackers, the other three, he later revealed to police, were the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The flight landed safely and Flores was extricated from the plane. Why all the fuss? Yesterday was 9/9/09. Flores realized (with or without the help of his three co-hijackers) that upside down this would be 666. Safely on the ground he told reporters “Christ is coming soon!”

So once again we meet a believer in coded messages in the Bible. Clearly one of the most misrepresented books in the Bible is Revelation. This book is a textbook example of apocalyptic writing, a genre wide-spread and easily recognized in the ancient world, but which suffers from being taken literally by people living a couple millennia after it was penned. Even before the ink slipped from John’s pen (we don’t know John’s last name), people were looking for a new world to burst in on this old one in need of radical repair. That urgency has continued unabated for two thousand years.

Is life really so bad that we need it to end? Apocalyptic outlooks are perfectly understandable among the disadvantaged and persecuted that they were intended to console. It is a strange phenomenon, worthy of a sociological dissertation, why many affluent, educated people strain for the end of this god-awful world where they are so comfortable. Perhaps it is that we evolved from lemmings rather than primates, but it seems to me rather another example of the wealthy taking from the poor. Even their hopes of sticking it to the rich have been co-opted.

Something to look forward to?

Something to look forward to?