Universals

It was on television that I met them.  The Universal monsters.  The entire run of films from Dracula to The Creature Walks among Us had been shot, printed, and screened before I was born.  In other words, I’m a late monster boomer.  By the time I was old enough to handle monster movies, they were on television and my early memories of them are tinged with the nostalgia that accompanies what seemed like better times, although each era is about equally difficult.  When I saw James L. Neibaur’s The Monster Movies of Universal Studios I knew I had to read it.  Neibaur goes through all the films in the series, chronologically, encapsulating the Draculas, Frankenstein’s monsters, mummies, invisible men and women, wolf-men, and the gill-man.  As I child I never watched them systematically, being subject to television schedules, among other things.

Not understanding studios or business, and certainly not copyright, I never understood why other favorites such as Jekyll and Hyde, the phantom of the opera, and various assorted ghosts and ghouls weren’t part of the collection.  Nevertheless, this study in discrete, brief chapters, treats the official canon reasonably well.  The line between religion and monsters is sometimes crossed in these movies, which gets at an underlying theme of my own interest—how horror and religion interact—but that’s not Neibaur’s purpose.  That dynamic is, however, the driving force behind my two most recent books.  A tie-in to the paranormal may also be found there.

As I dropped off some promotional material for Holy Horror at an area bookstore recently, the events manager revealed her interest in the paranormal.  In my mental schematic, it’s wedged in there between monsters—which are fictional—and religion, the antithesis of fiction for most people.  What do we do with ghosts and others that don’t fit into the neat lines of a theology that draw a stark line between the supernatural and human?  Universal’s monsters sometimes ran into problems with the Production Code for stepping over that line.  Of course, the Universal monsters are pretty tame in comparison with today’s fare.  Still, they were the monsters who showed, in many ways, what it was to be human.  Neibaur isn’t going for an in-depth analysis here, and his treatment is readily readable by anyone interested in revisiting the monsters of yesteryear.  Some of the descriptions reminded me of movies from my childhood that I’d forgotten.  It is pleasant to relive them for a few moments while the real monsters in the real world lurk not far from my door.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.

The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Theoretical Monsters

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.

A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.

Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

Once Bitten

TheologyOfDraculaOnce vampires sink their fangs into you, it’s hard to shake them. I’m referring to an intellectual connection here, instead of a physical one. M. Jess Peacock’s book on theological vampires spurred me to read Noël Montague-Étienne Rarignac’s The Theology of Dracula: Reading the Book of Stoker as Sacred Text. It has been on my “to read” list for some time, and since I finished re-reading Dracula recently, I felt the canonical text was still fresh enough in my mind to take on an analysis. I have to confess that even though I grew up as a religious kid, and I loved monsters, I had no idea that the two were connected. Strangely, religion tended to elicit a fearful response while monsters gave me a kind of comfort. Of course, I always supposed that was normal. Then I learned that mature adults didn’t talk about, or even think about, monsters. I had to try to find solace in religion instead. Rarignac clearly figured out, however, that Dracula was a sacred text long before I came along.

What exactly does it mean to treat a book as a sacred text? Before anyone gets any funny notions, I need to say that Rarignac is not suggesting vampirism is, or should be a religion. That hasn’t prevented other people from seeing it that way, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Devoting the kind of attention to detail that is often reserved for biblical texts, The Theology of Dracula examines the many religious traditions (not all of them Christian) that lie behind the novel. Stoker drew on many “pagan” traditions, including those of ancient Egypt and of Nordic mythology. Clearly Dracula responds to Christian symbols pretty violently, but he isn’t a classic Catholic. In fact, he seems to shy from Catholicism while admitting that its symbols work.

Rarignac, however, suggests more than this. He suggests that Dracula was written intended to be a sacred text. Not a Bible—we already have one of those, thank you—but a text that has its own mythology and symbols. Dracula‘s characters are not always what they seem. Careful scrutiny reveals that they often have celestial connections that tie them to ancient mythologies long forgotten by most modern people. We read the book expecting it to be about a vampire. Well, clearly it is. But not only a vampire. There is a much larger story at work in Dracula, and Rarignac has done an admirable job tracing its Vorlage (if I may step into jargon for a moment) and its wider context in the world of literary creations that specialize in our nightmares. There is much at which to marvel in this little book. I’m not convinced that Stoker intended his book to be read this way, but it is nonetheless a richer experience for it. Rarignac gives a simple monster tale real teeth.