Strange Passions

In Holy Horror I make the suggestion that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ can be considered a horror film. It certainly has more gratuitous blood and gore than many examples of the genre I’ve seen. Really, I had no desire to see it. One of the great aspects of teaching is learning from students. While an adjunct at Rutgers one of my undergrads brought me a copy of the DVD to watch. She said I needed to see it. Obligingly I did so. I knew if I returned the disc to her without watching she’d ask why I hadn’t. Apart from the famously sadistic flogging scene, it was, like any other Bible film, off base quite a bit of the time. This was commentary, not Scripture.

This came back to me reading Bob Cranmer’s account of his haunted house on Brownsville Road in the book about which I blogged a few days ago. Cranmer didn’t exactly follow orthodox methods for driving the demon out of his house. Some of his tactics were improvised. The one I found the most startling was that in the rooms that were most badly affected he played The Passion of the Christ on a continuous loop for weeks at a time. Not only does this suggest demons are capable of watching movies, but that this film can stand in for the actual events that took place in Israel two millennia ago. If the priests involved objected to this method, he didn’t record it. So we have what could be considered a horror movie being used to try to drive out a real life monster (depending on one’s point of view).

Interestingly, this is one of the points behind Holy Horror. Film (and other media) can be a powerful force in our experience of the world. We don’t just go to the cinema because everybody’s talking about a movie. Our experience of watching it is transformative, if only temporary. The same is true of live theater or a concert. Far from being mere entertainment, these cultural events provide a form of transcendence, if they speak to us. In my own case The Passion of the Christ didn’t sell me on Mr. Gibson’s vision. I have no doubts that Roman crucifixion was a horrible spectacle. I also have no doubts that the Good Book indicates that the point of all of this was elsewhere. The Gospels weren’t an effort to traumatize readers. That’s the job of horror movies. Apparently this is something on which even demons agree.

Magic Bibles

With autumn not far down the road, my mind turns to scary things. Actually, it is that way quite a bit of the time. Nevertheless, movies about farms are often the setting for the creepy—the sense of isolation, the sharp implements farmers use, the rustling of the drying crops in the wind. A couple years back I watched The Messengers. As a horror film it had a number of good scares, but the menace always seemed somewhat restrained. Nothing profound happens, and it is a film fairly easily forgotten. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and The Messengers 2: the Scarecrow suggested itself to me. I began watching in an ambivalent mood, but when the first scene began with the protagonist (whose name I’ve forgotten) dropping his Bible on the porch chair as he loosens his tie to work on a derelict water pump, I was curious. When his wife arrives home and asks why he left church before it was over, my interest grew. This direct-to-video prequel turned out to be a cut-budget horror flick based squarely on a religious parable.

In a faustian moment of abandon, and at the advice of a jocular neighbor named Jude (Iscariot, anyone?), our hero erects a scarecrow to try to improve his lot (literally). To give credit where it is due, the scarecrow is distinctly disturbing. The scene of John (okay, I looked it up) nailing the scarecrow to the cross is clearly a crucifixion scene, and the blood that will later appear at the foot of the cross bears this out. Before he realizes that the scarecrow is evil, John hears ghostly children singing in his cornfield. The song is “Jesus Loves Me.” There is a strong fertility goddess theme running through the film and when Jude reveals that his wife has a magic book that explains all the benefits of the scarecrow, John decides to cut it down. The scarecrow, predictably, resurrects.

Meanwhile, John’s Christian family thinks he has gone insane. Or worse, backslidden. As he tries to explain to his wife what has happened, John shows her the magic book and she insists “It’s just your old Bible,” and it is. Heathenish occult instruction transubstantiates into Christian scripture. It is tough to tell one sacred writing from another. For cut-rate horror fodder, this is wonderful commentary on religious sensibilities. Although straight-to-video movies are not high art, and will never receive academy award nominations, they do reflect popular religious beliefs. Scholars are now in search of such beliefs in ancient societies since “official religion” almost never reflects what actual hoi polloi think. Lived religion seldom conforms to the intricacies envisioned by religious founders, and yet it is out there on the Internet for all to see. Maybe the messengers in this film are not the crows after all. The point of the parable? Stay true to your Christian upbringing or else the scarecrow will get you.

Vegetarian Meat Loaf

I’ve never been a hero worshipper. Perhaps the delusion set in when I realized several years ago that nobody really has all the answers. The “experts” (I’m even sometimes shackled with that designation at times) are limited by the same mental capacity as all Homo sapiens. Our elected officials do their best to find solutions, but at the end of the day oil still gushes into the Gulf, priests still violate children, and unemployment continues to wreck lives. No, hero worship is counter-productive and leads only to disappointment. Not that there aren’t people I admire – there are many – but they have their shortcomings too.

One of my admired people that often surprises those who know me is Meat Loaf. I really don’t qualify as a head-banger, but my tastes in music vary widely. With Meat Loaf the attraction is the sincerity evident in his voice. He may not write his own material, but the man feels the songs he belts out. So it was that I made a rare music purchase when Hang Cool Teddy Bear was released earlier this month. On glancing through the liner notes I was pleasantly surprised to find Boris Vallejo’s Crucifixion among the art.

Boris Vallejo's Crucifixion

Anyone familiar with the fantasy-style artwork in most Meat Loaf albums will not be surprised at finding Vallejo’s work, but this particular piece, reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s “religious” paintings, presents a depth of feeling to the crucifixion that most theologians diminish in their desire for profundity. The Jesus in this piece is sealed within the cross, raging for release. Most devotional paintings show a placid Jesus accepting, with existentialist-type calm, his long-foretold fate. I find Vallejo’s work compelling for the same reason I enjoy Meat Loaf’s performances – there is real emotion here.

Religion has little to offer the world in the way of rationality. Theologians have generally accepted the fact that religion runs counter to reason and therefore its value lies elsewhere. What is left when reason is gone is emotion. When reason tells me there are no heroes left, emotion sometimes convinces me otherwise.