Divided by Eight

Analogies are useful, but never precise.  When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.”  It’s a good analogy, but not precise.  The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror.  Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what.  I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it.  It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years.  A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual.  In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.

What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror.  The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide.  It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on.  If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror.  Tragedy, yes, but horror, no.  The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on.  The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior.  By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.

Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies.  Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time.  Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares.  Well, maybe once.  This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe.  The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same.  Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders.  And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.

Colorful States


Kevin Smith is one of New Jersey’s own. I’ve always considered it one of life’s great ironies that Loki and Bartleby, the fallen angels in Dogma, move from Wisconsin to New Jersey, the exact same route my career took. (Feel free to read into this.) I was therefore curious when I heard, a few years back now, that Smith had come out with a horror movie. Now I’m not a fan of horror for its own sake as my sensibilities are more towards the ambiguities of gothic, but I finally decided to view Red State. I had no prior idea what the movie was about, but it speaks volumes that the title suggests quite a bit with just a simple adjective and noun. If there’s anyone out there even slower in getting to movies than me, and who is hoping to watch Red State, consider this a spoiler alert. Read further at your own risk.

Red State deals with religious fundamentalists—the Five Points Trinity Church, to be exact. The group is loosely based on the Fred Phelps gang, and the film actually makes reference to Phelps to say that Abin Cooper’s group is even worse. They’re weaponized. You’re probably starting to get the picture already. Cooper’s congregation is his extended family, and they’ve been protesting against homosexuality and other forms of what they consider immorality, but in an extreme way. They lure sinners into one of their sting operations, incapacitate them, and then murder them during church ceremonies. When the Feds discover evidence of a murder, a Waco-like Branch Davidian stand-off occurs with the predictably bloody gun fight that follows. There are moments of humor, but it is a bleak parable—yes, there is a wholesome message here—that speaks loudly about intolerance.

Analysts, well actually just some analysts, have realized that horror movies and religion are very close compatriots indeed. Reading the Bible may be a little easier on the eyes, but even some parts of the Good Book can inspire nightmares. Indeed, as Adin Cooper’s sermon emphasizes, fear of God is very important. As is fear of fear of God. The regression can go back as far as you wish. Religions develop in response to fears. Not only in response to fears, but clearly this is part of the mix. Horror movies show us what we fear the most. Is it any wonder that they cross paths with religion so often? The only unusual aspect for Red State is that it is so explicit about it. It is a traumatizing film in many ways. Maybe because (spoiler alert) the one who concocts the whole religion is alive and well at the end and is the last character that we see. Such are parables.

Burning Times

One of the most disturbing images from my childhood years is the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon. Of course, I didn’t see this image as a child. It was high school before I was deemed mature enough (and the internet didn’t exist) to see such a troubling image. Now we are being told in a kind of gleeful grotesque tongue-in-cheek that those who seemed to claim similar conviction over gay marriage now have a chance to show their faith. Pastor Rick Scarborough, according to The Advocate, made such a statement. As of last Friday, he’s had to find a way to explain his remarks. I’m not sure what he said, but I find the implications distressing. Those who’ve supported gay rights all along haven’t been wishing evil on anyone. Schadenfreude can be quite troubling.

Maybe it’s just that we get so tired of self-righteousness. Those who claim to be the torchbearers of the truth seem to delight in pointing out the weaknesses that we all have. Who has never misspoke? Let he who is without sin cast the first syllable. Rhetoric can be our master at times. Beneath the unfortunate speeches, however, lies a terrible fear. Some who believe the Bible literally true can’t see this any other way. Poking fun at them, however, isn’t likely to make the situation any better. Quiet victory celebrations aren’t in fashion. We live in an “in your face” world where we like to see the stains appear on the immaculate suit. Banana cream pie in the face all made up for the television crowd. I’d rather see a world with no more need for self-immolations. Religions sometimes make this difficult.

Although I have reflected on religion deeply for many years and have come to take a very broad view of things, I still have very conservative friends. If I poke fun at their views from time to time I hope it is good-natured fun. I respect their rights to their views. I grew out of that culture myself and I’d be a hypocrite if I looked at it any other way. I am extremely pleased about the supreme court decision recognizing gay marriage. This, however, is a political issue. Religion has always informed political views, and has not infrequently stood in the way of fair treatment. These walls must come down. Before we begin the demolition work we need to make sure the way is cleared of any potential victims. One thing religions frequently do right is offer consolation to those who are suffering. It is the humane thing to do. Victory without humiliation is far better than the flames of Waco.


Goats and Sheep

Having missed the movie, when I found a cheap copy of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, my curiosity was piqued. With such a title I had assumed it to be fiction, but, proverbially it turned into the truth stranger than. The book explores the weird world of the X-Files chestnut, the super-soldier. There is no doubt that despite science’s discomfort with the paranormal, government agencies have utilized psychics for some years now, hoping to gain some advantage over the other guy. Not everyone agrees on how effective such tactics are, but they exist nevertheless. The Men Who Stare at Goats (TMWSAG) provides a rare glimpse into that world where no one knows who is telling the truth (otherwise called “government”); we live in an era when truth has become negotiable.

One of the accidental recurring themes in my recent reading has been the horrendous abuse of power at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Far from placid eyes, the land of the free advocates torture to get prisoners to talk. After years of government bungling, it is no surprise that misguided efforts at torture on the part of a democracy would invariably be discovered. It would be easier to doubt that governments kept lethal secrets if they didn’t keep getting caught in flagrante delicto. Who can you trust when governments, ruled by gods of their own making—in their own image—preach the gospel of torture? TMWSAG weaves this sordid story in with 9-11, Uri Geller, Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate and Deuteronomy 18—what’s not to like?

I’ve been alive long enough to know that some supremely odd stuff goes down. TMWSAG provides a service in demonstrating that the government takes some of this mysterious reality seriously. It also shows the twin surfaces of resistance: religion and science. Science has a difficult time admitting what can’t be seen; with few exceptions psychic phenomena are considered not even worth the bother of a lab test. Religion, at least in its biblical, American incarnation, lumps all spooky stuff together with the devil, something Jon Ronson declares that even high-ranking generals in the military believe. So when I put this little book down I was left scratching my head. It may just be me, but where have all the sheep gone?

Mystic Messiahs

It is difficult to know where to begin when discussing Philip Jenkins’ Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History. As a student of religion I early found myself drawn to the question of where religions begin. In the case of many religions we have an identifiable founder. Frequently that founder ends up being a god him (or more rarely) herself. In order for any putatively revealed religion to attain any credibility, the ultimate source must come from on high; God himself. So it is that we look askance at any religion that has appeared in the last couple of centuries, when, as we knew at the time, the earth was no longer the center of the universe and science had taught us to know better than to accept the old-timey stories of a god in the clouds. We can accept the ancient, time-honored stories, venerated as they are by centuries. If someone today tells us that God has spoken to him or her, we refer them to psychiatrists first, and then to the mind-altering drugs.

Jenkins, writing in the shadow of the tragedy of the Branch Davidians at Waco and the ritual suicide among the members of Heaven’s Gate (one of the members’ sons was one time a student of mine in seminary), tries to demonstrate that such groups are part of the fabric of religion. What is new in such movements is not the fact that they suddenly come into existence, or that society reacts violently to them, but that we now have a concept of “cult” to label them. Jenkins convincingly illustrates that fear of new religions stretches back for centuries. Even in the seventeenth century people experimented with new religions. When they survive, they become “churches.” Consider the Mormons, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Pentecostals. They all began as “cults” and are today considered just another variety of Christianity. Most adherents to religions do not inquire too closely as to the origins of their brand. Historically we know that the three denominations mentioned above are well under two hundred years old.

In a fascinating twist, Jenkins describes how the Zeitgeist of the early twentieth century was ripe for such developments. One of the sources, ironically, was the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. His weird stories often invoked cult-like groups devoted to unusual practices that sometimes turned deadly. Also during that same time period, Christian Fundamentalism began as an effort to sort out what was “fundamental” to Christianity that set it apart from the cults (including Pentecostalism, now one of the most dominant Fundamentalist sects). As Jenkins points out, when these new sects become mainstream, they vehemently seek to destroy all new comers. Christianity began as a cult in the eyes of both Jews and Romans.

Religions are inherently conservative. As we will see in the approaching election, the religious background of a candidate plays a major role in public acceptability. We enjoy freedom of religion in the United States, but only to a point. Jenkins should be required reading for every religious believer. Tolerance would be the only proper and reasonable response.

Edoc Elbib Eht

A number of 40-year commemorations of the Manson Family murders have brought these gruesome events of my childhood years back to memory. I was really too young to understand what all the fuss was about then, and now that I am old enough, I’m not sure I want to. Nevertheless, I have committed myself to exploring sects and violence in a religious setting, and the Manson murders have prongs of both phenomena. While recently refreshing my memory on these horrific events on a gray and rainy day, I noticed something I had not seen before.

Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long

Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long

Charles Manson was (probably still is) a believer in hidden codes. He allegedly cracked a code in the Beatles’ White Album that led him to the belief in an apocalyptic battle that he was determined to begin. I wondered why the Manson Family tends not to be listed among other apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate. They all share several traits, and although Manson’s revelations came from the Fab Four rather than the Holy Trinity, a revelation from on high spurred him into actions that had a tragic outcome, just as David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite.

The whole Helter Skelter code also reminded me of another, equally bogus pawning of randomness as divine messages: Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code. When I read this bestselling bit of intellectual dry rot a few years ago, I was amazed that anyone could possibly take it seriously. God writing hidden messages in a holy book like some hormone enraged high schooler? And figuring out that a singular genius would figure it out just before the apocalyptic end without realizing that it is possible to read messages back into any media after they occur? It seemed all too much for a rational mind to take. In one of my courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I gave students the option of reading it for a secondary project. To my chagrin, when I had the papers in one particularly tear-stained paper wailed (seriously) that the writer wished she had been warned sooner! This book changed her life! Everyone must know! Unfortunately I left Oshkosh without finding out what became of her.

God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!

God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!

I felt bad for introducing an undergrad to such “academic” sleight of hand; some college students just haven’t developed the critical facilities to see through the remarks of Balaam’s various sidekicks. Come to think of it, Manson’s followers accepted his revelations uncritically as well. Maybe the real lesson in all of this is that we must examine very closely those who claim special revelation, whether it be from Lenin, McCarthy, Starr, and Harrington, or just from God Almighty.