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.

Ghouls and Dolls

It was my plan—as if plans ever really work out—to see Annabelle Comes Home on opening weekend.  July got away from me but I finally found my way to the theater yesterday.  My current book, Nightmares with the Bible, deals with demons in cinema.  One of the chapters covers The Conjuring universe, and since this is the sixth film in that diegesis (with one tangentially attached spin-off) watching the movie was as much research as it was fun.  While the demon utilizing the doll Annabelle is clearly the main villain, the film, as in most of the franchise, interjects any number of entities.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, in real life, kept a museum of occult objects in their house.  This room contained items that had figured in their cases—they maintained demons didn’t possess objects, but people—including the doll Annabelle.

The new film maneuvers three girls (Judy, the Warrens’ daughter, her babysitter, and a friend) into the house alone.  One of the girls releases Annabelle from her blessed case, and a nighttime of terror ensues.  The demon behind Annabelle animates several of the haunted objects, so the girls have to deal with many ghoulish threats.  The film knows it is following tropes such as a car breaking down by a cemetery at night, and the idea of a babysitter being attacked by monsters, and at times it gives a slow wink to fans of the genre.  Still, there are plenty of genuinely creepy moments and a few jump startles.  It also shows the clearly demon in its “true form” at the climax of the film.  When it does so, it matches traditional renditions.

Set to become the highest grossing horror series of all time, The Conjuring universe mixes films that claim to be “based on a true story” and others, such as Annabelle Comes Home, that use real settings but without claiming to follow actual events.  What I found engaging about this particular movie was the fact that the youngest girl, Judy Warren, was the one who figured out how to re-capture the demon.  There are holes in the plot, of course, but featuring a young woman not requiring a man’s help to trap a demon is somewhat unusual in a Catholic diegesis.  True, she doesn’t perform an exorcism, but Judy does contain the evil without a priest, or even her father’s direct help.  As this diegesis wends its way into American folklore, moments like this are increasingly important.  Even though there are demons here, the women don’t require men to do the heavy lifting. 

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Evil Origins

I remember well the eerie, uncanny feeling I had as a child reading Genesis 6.1-4.  This wasn’t a story we heard in Sunday School, and it wasn’t in any children’s Bible or Arch Books.  It was mysterious and strange, and not understanding what sex was made it even weirder.  The sons of God, or perhaps angels, came down from Heaven to mate with human women.  Although not stated directly, their offspring seem to have been giants.  Abruptly the story ends.  Archie T. Wright was clearly fascinated by this story as well.  His book, The Origin of Evil Spirits: The Reception of Genesis 6:1-4 in Early Jewish Literature, isn’t so much about demons as it is about the influence of this very brief, extremely odd story.

As a young person I knew about the book 1 Enoch.  Living in a rural town with no bookstore and no library (there was one in the town three miles away, but I didn’t drive and out-of-towners had to pay for a card), I had no way to read it.  Wright writes quite a bit about it here.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, in subsequent years I did read it.)  His history of transmission is a little suspect, but he explores the impact of these four brief verses on what can perhaps best be described as a diegesis.  This universe includes Watchers (the first part of 1 Enoch is called The Book of the Watchers), archangels, angels, evil spirits, giants, and demons.  Later Judaism moved away from this world, while early Christianity grew fascinated with it.  The mythology that emerged from it is sprawling and quite bizarre.  All encapsulated in a few verses before the flood.

Wright’s book is academic; it’s a revised dissertation.  Still, it’s a source more credible than a lot of what you find on the internet.  This particular biblical episode is an example of what happens when you don’t explain enough.  Granted, the writer likely had no idea that this brief account—shorter than a blog post—would eventually make it into a book that some people would consider from the anthropomorphic mouth of God himself, but because of this brevity questions, like angels, hung in the air.  As Wright shows, these verses were incorporated into ways of explaining the existence of evil in the world.  It was known by many names, and even took on personification in the form of Satan and his ilk.  This is a world of the unexpected, and it readily took me back to a childhood of wonder concerning the inexplicable passages in the Good Book.

Digging Bad?

Academics, as a rule, focus on books by other academics.  Theirs is a specialized vocabulary with specific goals (tenure, then an Ivy League position).  It’s easy to see, sometimes, why they distrust books by those of us outside the academy.  We aren’t as constrained, and can say some speculative stuff.  I just finished Evil Archaeology: Demons, Possessions, and Sinister Relics, by Heather Lynn.  Now, most academics I know won’t take seriously a book where the author is cited by “Ph.D.” on the cover.  That’s a sure sign of trying to impress a lay readership.  This book is clearly heartfelt, and personal, but it does raise a host of questions regarding sources and details. I found myself wondering where the author found out so much about Pazuzu when I, who hold a doctorate in ancient West Asian studies, had such trouble locating sources.  Then I checked the bibliography.

Even academics have been known to cut a corner or two, now and then.  For my last book I didn’t have access to a university library so I had to make do with what I could get my hands on.  (JSTOR is not cheap for individuals, in case you’re wondering.  If you teach and you get free access from your library, you don’t know how lucky you are!)  So it is with my present research.  I muddle along, often buying used copies of the books I need, sometimes from eBay.  Researchers can be driven that way.  Lynn’s book covers a lot of territory, and not all of it seems related to demons.  Little of it covers archaeology in any detail.  But then, it’s not intended for academic readers.  I learned a thing or two.  I also distrust a thing or two she claim (having once been in the academy), but there’s no doubt she’s trying to do a service in this book.

Demons cut a wide swath.  Lynn discusses bits and pieces from here and there, and at times her treatment is rather a gallimaufry of anecdotes.  There are interviews, personal experiences, and urban legends.  It does seem hard to believe that scientists worldwide are studying demons in order to explain illnesses, though.  For me, finding a new book on demons just when I was finishing my draft on the same topic, it was imperative to read what she had to say.  It’s clear she’s seen some of the same movies I have.  I like to think that, as an inbetweener I can still read academese as well as regular writing.  You always find interesting things there in the middle.

Look Out Below

Demons are seldom what you think they are.  Bernard J. Bamberger’s Fallen Angels: Soldiers of Satan’s Realm isn’t so much about demons as it is about, well, fallen angels.  A classic in the field, it was published in 1952 and has been periodically reissued when interest revives.  There are many aspects of this book that deserve development in a place like this blog, but I need to suffice with a few.  I won’t take much of your time, I promise.

First and foremost, Bamberger, who was a prominent rabbi, presents the seldom heard Jewish perspective on the topic.  The Devil really had more explanatory value for Christians than for Jews, and it is no surprise that he appears rather abruptly in the New Testament.  There are, of course, plenty of antecedents for him both in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, but the idea, and character, grabbed his main hoof-hold in Christianity.  This dualism has periodically been a source of embarrassment, but in general it has served the Christian narrative well.  We seldom see the Jewish outlook on it.

A second noteworthy feature of this book is its wide survey of these ideas in both what is now termed Second Temple Judaism and that of Late Antiquity.  The fallen angels seem to be there in the Good Book, but close reading of the texts suggests other meanings.  Judaism has never felt the compulsion that many Christians feel toward having the one, correct outlook.  Spend a little time with the Talmud and see how dialogical the search for the truth can be.  With no Pope or supreme human authority to declare the rightness of one outlook, the search must remain a process of discussion rather than an ex cathedra pronouncement.

A third, and for now final, observation is the sheer number of characters that pick up the baton of evil in both early Judaism and Christianity.  Even Islam.  A bewildering number of names for lead fallen angels and other demonically sourced characters populate these pages.  Since Judaism tended not to buy the fallen angel narrative, other sources for demons were considered.  Few doubted that they existed in the early days, but whence exactly they came was an open question.  Bamberger explores the options here and, beyond his book many others also exist.  That evil exists in the world seems patently obvious.  Religions of all stripes ask what’s to be done about it.  Some delve into its origin myths.  In the end, however, it is how we choose to respond that matters most.