So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.
The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.
It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.
There’s a validation about finding something you figured out written in a book. For me that happened just about this season, some years back. At the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I found Sacred Terror by Douglas Cowan—the first book I’d discovered that discussed religion and horror films. Not only discussed them, but made the case that they have considerable common ground. Divine Horror: Essays on the Cinematic Battle Between the Sacred and the Diabolical, edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, addresses the same theme but in more detail. Some of the essays in this volume get to the heart of the relationship between the sacred and the scary. As I mentioned, there’s a validation here for those of us who find horror movies fascinating. Others have noticed.
Genre fiction, as many fans know, comes with a subtle sense of shame. Low brow. Unsophisticated. Garish. Those with more refined tastes prefer subtlety and muted colors. Horror appeals to more basic instincts—but it’s also a form of expression that allows for the safe exploration of fear. There’s good horror and there’s bad horror. The eighteen essays in this book explore a bit of both. One conclusion that is unavoidable, however, is that religion—particularly Judeo-Christian religion—thrives in the context of horror cinema. The surprising part is that they often affirm the same message, but you need to look for it. Those who seek the origins of religion itself peer into the realms of awe and fear.
My own forthcoming book looks at similar territory. I don’t mind being classified as low brow. Raised in a blue collar world, that’s a fair assessment. What’s more, life confirms the reality of the connection between fear and religion. Consider the political moment in which we find ourselves. Much of the horror coming out of DC originates in religious “think tanks” trying to make evangelical Christianity the default faith stance of all our legislation. It means death and suffering to many, but the view of heaven for some becomes the tax haven for all. I know low brow when I see it. Horror comes in many forms—some lurid and some insidiously sneaky. Miller and Van Riper have pulled together a collection for our times here. The movies their authors discuss are part of a culture that is prominently religious and very afraid. If we want to understand what’s happening around us, we have to be willing to be scared.
Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”
Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.
Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.
Among the most explicitly religious of horror movies, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser series exploits biblical themes and tropes to blur distinctions between sacred and sacrilege. Not a fan of gratuitous gore, I began watching the series after reading Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror. Cowan utilizes this particular series to illustrate how deeply the religious mythology may reach, awaiting the fourth installment before finally having an explanation. Curious, I have been making my way through slowly. October seems a good time to consider the unsettling aspects of human nature, so I watched the third installment, Hell on Earth, this weekend.
Funnily, I do not find Pinhead particularly evil. Perhaps that is the intent. His eyes seem too kind to be a true villain. As the leader of the demonic Cenobites, he leads the curious down the path of exploration to ultimate destruction and, appropriately enough, Hell. The Hell presented throughout the films, however, is the true desire of the victims. They stumble upon a puzzle box, but when it is opened the curious find themselves trapped. The very use of monastic ideals as emblematic of Hell is surely a commentary on the futility of self-inflicted means of grace. Does not the flagellant at some level enjoy the pain? Where is the religious value in that? In Hellraiser III, Joanne runs to a Catholic church for help with Pinhead in pursuit. As any horror fan knows, the church is never a haven against evil. Pinhead makes himself a parody of the crucifixion while a helpless priest tries to defend God.
Horror films are a remarkably successful genre. At least one aspect of the appeal is the unabashed use of religion. Conditioned by the old films such as Dracula, the early twentieth century taught us that the church kept us safe—crucifixes always used to work against vampires! By the end of the century that vision had shifted. The church of the early twentieth century was a preserve of male power, a place where men made the rules and abused the rules and no one questioned them. As the century progressed, we became wiser. And more vulnerable. By the dawn of the new millennium, when such movies as Hellraiser III were being filmed, the security of the cloister had itself become a source of fear. October is the season of reflection on the transience of summer and ease. Perhaps it is also the season to reflect on how our perceptions of religion are ever shifting as winter wends its way toward us once again. And Mr. Barker will be standing there to remind us that we each create our own Hell.
With the teaching schedule I have, vacations are not viable. One semester blends into another like some demonic tapestry with blurred edges between the somewhat discrete components. Breaks just aren’t part of the picture. While my family is on a well-deserved vacation, I’ve been home doing class prep and lecturing. On those nights when I have no classes, I sometimes watch a movie to hear the sound of human voices. This week one of my picks was The Mist.
My fascination with horror films stretches back to my college days, concurrent with my first degree in religious studies. Never a slasher fan, I’ve preferred the more thoughtful movie that has a (hopefully) profound message. I’d never read Stephen King’s novella on which this movie was based, so I didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was “there’s something in the mist.” The build-up was great until the creatures were shown – after that it became a standard monster flick. A human menace arises in the form of Mrs. Carmody, a religious zealot who is convinced the mist is the apocalypse. As the survivors try to form some plan of action, Carmody’s preaching becomes more and more strident and self-convinced as the “wicked” die and the “righteous” are spared. Not having read the book, I’m not sure if her over-the-top rhetoric originated with King or with Frank Darabont, the screenwriter/director.
I have often posted on the relationship of monsters and religion, but The Mist is almost too easy to cite. Perhaps released too late to make it into Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror, the connection between religion and fear is patent and bald. Mrs. Carmody’s religion, apart from being very generally Christian, is hard to identify. She insists on human sacrifice while constantly referencing the Bible. Although there are examples of human sacrifice in the Bible, that particular cultic activity is never advocated for monster invasions or the apocalypse. Carmody is a parody of religious over-reaction to the unfamiliar and dangerous. In her insistence that others take her point of view, the caricatured Carmody becomes a danger that threatens the community. It is left indeterminate whether her followers survive or not.
The religious agitator is a trite and tired character, but one that has instant recognition value. In The Mist, however, I came for the mystery and stayed for the monsters. Mrs. Carmody could have said much more by saying much less.