Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.

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. 

If It Itches

The problem, or rather a problem, of growing up Fundamentalist is taking things literally.  I suppose we’re all born naive realists, learning only later that things aren’t what they seem.  One of the dynamics of finding something new to say about demons involves an unconventional method of research.  Richard Beck’s Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted is a case in point.  Being part of a series called “Theology for the People,” this book is not an exploration of literal demons or the Devil.  Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t.  It is an engaging and often insightful treatment of the question of evil and what to do about it.  Evil is a question, but most of us, at least pre-Trump, could recognize it when we saw it.

Beck is a professor of psychology.  This meant that at several points I found myself pausing to consider some of the points he was making.  Some parts didn’t work for me—welcome to the world of reading—but others were eye-opening.  One thing that all books about the Devil seem to have in common is the observation that evil is clearly present in our world.  Governments, and Beck uses Rome as an example, easily become oppressive and harmful to the weak and powerless.  As a volunteer in a prison ministry, Beck knows whereof he speaks.  When governments are run by the unstable (think of the one with a toothbrush mustache or any other who declare themselves geniuses) oppression follows.  Evil not only bobs in the wake of oppression, it is oppression.  Beck has a Christian anchoring—call it theology—behind this, but it clearly works even without that.

Getting over my literalism, I know that academic books about demons or the Devil come with more serious titles and more hefty price-tags.  The value of a book, however, has to do with more than the cash you shell out for it.  Beck does a service by offering a theology that isn’t too theological.  I’ve known many candidates for the ministry who lost their compassion by getting tangled in the weeds of theology.  Even to the point of making sarcastic remarks to someone who wanted to help them when they fell on the ice.  I know myself, and I have to learn to trust those who practice theology in ways that I do not.  This may not be conventional research, but it is important reading.  Old Scratch, after all, is not just in the details.

Headline News

Some headlines just can’t be resisted.  George Knapp: Christian Fundamentalists in the Pentagon Shut Down Government Paranormal and UFO Probes Due to Demon Fears” is one such headline.  It appears on the blog of Jason Colavito, a name I recognized from the book The Cult of Alien Gods: H. P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture that I read several years back.  Skeptical of many strange claims made, Colavito criticizes journalist George Knapp for some sloppy reporting.  If you go all the way down the rabbit hole, you will end up in some very weird places indeed!  What caught my attention here, however, is the connection between demons and UFOs.  More than that, the claim that government funding was deep-sixed for fear of the Devil.  (Has anyone else noticed that it’s October?)

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about this.  Having grown up Fundamentalist, I often heard talk of the Devil’s wiles.  One of the things he had his demons do, I was told, was fly around in UFOs to deceive people into thinking demons were aliens.  If this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that God made dinosaur bones to plant in the ground to test people’s faith in Genesis 1.  That’s just the kind of universe we live in.  Better get used to it.  The real problem, and one with which Colavito concurs, is that high ranking military officers (and other government officials) believe the Fundamentalist screed.  This is a matter of documented truth—much of our government policy is dictated by the evangelical agenda.  Stranger than fiction.

In 1952 there was a UFO flap in Washington DC.  No matter how you choose to explain it, this is an incident on the public record, and the Air Force responded with its famous temperature inversion explanation.  At the same time, some Fundamentalists were thinking that demons had improved on the bat-wings they’d been using for millennia.  They now zipped around in silvery discs with the same object as they’ve always had—to dis the Almighty.  As entertaining as such a story may be, it becomes scary when it might indeed be the motivation for government action.  I don’t know about you, but when I look at just how much of my meager paycheck goes to the powers that be, I want to know that rational people are spending it wisely.  Wait.  Well, I thought some of them were rational until a couple of years ago, about this time.  In any case, we do get some entertainment value for our cash, which is some comfort I suppose.  Keep watching the swamp!

Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.

For It Is Written

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” William Shakespeare wrote in his controversial Merchant of Venice. He was, in fact, using the Bible as the basis for this line. The story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness famously has Satan quoting the Good Book at him. It comes as no surprise, then, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders, following Jeff Sessions, uses the Bible to justify cruel and unusual practices of the Trump administration, according to a story in multiple media outlets. Trump himself doesn’t know the Bible well enough to quote it, but his minions feel that it can be summarized in one principle—obey the government. Oh, hi, Mr. Orwell, please take a seat over there; I’ll be with you in a minute.

Back in the days before leopards could change their spots, evangelical Christians tended to say that Jesus came to free them from the law. It seems that what they really meant was that Jesus came to allow them to cherry-pick the parts of the law that make the best cudgels against those they don’t like. Those who actually read the Bible know that it can generally be used to support either side of most arguments. Ironically, matters such as adultery *ahem, ah, Ms. Daniels, we weren’t expecting you here; please wait next to Mr. Orwell* are non-negotiable. Even Jesus said so. But let’s not talk about that—we’re too busy trying to pry children from their mother’s arms. Doesn’t the Bible say Rachel can’t be consoled because she’s lost her children?

That which is most holy is most horrible when it’s profaned. The Bible can hardly be called “holy” when found in the mouth of habitual liars. If Jesus were a gentile I’m sure he’d agree that whites have the right to do whatever they want in his name, right? Separating families because it’s the law is robbing Peter to pay Paul, then blaming Thomas. Sanders, Sessions, and their ilk pander to the biblically illiterate who like the sound of the phrase, “the Bible says.” Prooftexting, as anyone who takes the Bible seriously learns the first day of class, is cheating. Ah, Rev. Luther—I didn’t see you come in. What’s that you say? “Sin boldly”? Now there’s a message our government can live with. Especially if you let the Devil into the room. Yes, he’s welcome at the White House these days. And yes, he knows the Bible very well.

Evil Masters

Whoever Modern Mrs. Darcy is, she keeps me honest. This is my third year of doing her reading challenge, and in an effort not to go out and buy all the books I want, I try to select from among my own pre-existing collection tomes I’ve never read. One of the categories this year was a classic you’ve been meaning to read. I spied on my shelf a copy of Jules Verne’s Master of the World that I bought before my high school years but had never actually consumed. I think I was a bit put off by 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Don’t get me wrong—that’s a great book, but it’s dense and long and very detailed. And I was probably too young when I read it. Master of the World, like 20,000 Leagues, was part of Verne’s magnum opus Voyages extraordinaires, a set of fifty-some novels recounting, well, extraordinary voyages.

What makes Master of the World topical to this blog is the Devil. I’d better explain that. The story surrounds a somewhat naive detective trying to solve the mystery of a great, inaccessible, hollow mountain in North Carolina. While investigating this mountain (prior to the age of heavier-than-air flight) he learns of an automobile that is terrorizing the United States by driving 200 miles per hour. The credulous colonials seriously think that perhaps the Devil is driving this car. While that may be but passing fancy, it’s an image that replays itself throughout the book. Anyone who recklessly drives so fast—and the car can transform into a boat, submarine, and airplane as well—must be diabolical. The Devil’s amusements seem pretty tame, and the driver isn’t supernatural after all, once he’s discovered.

Robur the Conquerer is Master of the World, in his own opinion. At the climax he flies his marvelous machine into a hurricane, proclaiming his mastery like a good mad scientist. The machine, called The Terror, is destroyed and Robur is presumably killed in the storm. When our narrator returns home after several weeks missing (he was kidnapped by Robur and thus learned a bit more about the driver’s madness), his housekeeper has the last word. She declares that although Robur was not the Devil he was worthy of being so. The Devil has become a lot more nasty since Verne’s day, apparently. Why, our own government makes Robur the Conquerer look like an amateur demagogue. Either we’ve become terribly more accepting of everyday evil, or the dark lord has grown even worse over the century. I, for one know which one to believe.