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.

Classic Education

A few months ago now, just after moving, our garage flooded.  Our books, unpacked, were stored there at the time, resulting in many casualties.  As I sorted through what was destroyed—a process still ongoing—I decided that if I replaced books I would re-read them as I did so.  Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights was the first replaced, and therefore re-read, volume.  For those who never had the opportunity to attend seminary, I would note that it is the ideal time for reading.  One of my professors, Harrell Beck, although he taught Old Testament, encouraged wide reading.  The Bible, he suggested, didn’t stop at the last verse of Revelation.  It was in seminary that I discovered the Brontë sisters and their remarkable literary achievements.

Wuthering Heights is fine autumnal literature and Heathcliff one of the greatest protagonist villains of literature.  An interloper among the privileged classes, Heathcliff finds delight in making others share in his suffering.  One of the more memorable characters is Joseph, the Bible-toting, Bible-quoting caretaker who sees nothing good in the younger generation.  Even Emily Brontë, the daughter of a clergyman herself, spies the hypocrisy so clear in the lives of literalists.  Joseph enjoys scolding as much as reading Scripture, and even the other servants find him tiresome.  Born in the year Frankenstein was published, Emily had Gothic sensibilities.  With the protracted death scenes and atmosphere  of loss and mourning, this classic can be a restorative in an era such as ours.  In more than one way.

Since Wuthering Heights is a classic, there’s no need to recount the story of lost love and damaged human beings.  What is important is to realize that we continue to support a social structure that repeats the sins of nineteenth-century England.  And like that setting, we do it firmly believing we are a “Christian” nation.  Joseph would surely nod in agreement.  Stripping the safety nets from the vulnerable so that the privileged classes might enjoy more of their ill-gotten gain, we live the hypocrisy of the self-righteous.  It the era of the Brontë sisters, women were not encouraged to write.  They, like the servants of the wealthy, were believed to exist for the comfort and pleasure of the master.  Not paying attention to the classics, we’ve come back to that era, claiming that wealthy white men are the true victims in all of this.  The denizens of the swamp will find their place in history next to Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Benito Mussolini.  Wuthering Heights, like 1984, will, however, remain a classic that sees through hypocrisy.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

Frankenfear

While re-reading Frankenstein the uncomfortable thought kept recurring that our tendency to save lives leads to undiscovered fears. I’m not suggesting that we should just let people die, but even from my own experience of doctors, the sense of personal agency has become somewhat eroded. You go to the doctor and s/he tells you, “You should have this done.” I’m still too busy trying to figure out what this box that’s attached to my TV should be called, so how am I qualified to assess a professional opinion about my health? We mend bodies with plastic and metals and chemicals. Some modifications, like fillings and glasses, seem no brainers. But what about plastic tubes and computers to regulate body functions? They’re all good, but have we thought this through, I can hear Mary Shelley asking.

Religion, which is now also eroding, was a traditional way of coping with the fact of our own mortality. Everyone dies. From the beginning of the world, with the possible exception of Elijah—and even he had to come back—everyone has died. Religion traditionally said that it wasn’t the last word. The body wears out, and in a materialist world there’s nothing that can be left. Technology can prolong life, but some may not want it to be prolonged beyond a certain point. I’m not being morbid; I just don’t like arguing with what can’t be changed. Religion, it’s easy to forget, is about finding peace. Some people misunderstand that, for sure, but that doesn’t change the facts.

Did Prometheus overstep his bounds? Mary Shelley seemed to think so. In her recollections the story was intended to scare, not to predict. Victor Frankenstein creates the monster simply because he can. He does it alone, without thinking through the consequences even with a convenient Igor. Religion has often been cast as that annoying, moralizing sibling to science. (Philosophy could well join the ranks too, as some prefer it to religious thinking.) Without that sibling, however, how can we make informed decisions? Science, by its very definition, can’t tell us what should be done. The only values it knows are quantifiers. We live in a piecemeal world where some parts have been removed while others have been added. We don’t know if this is right or wrong since religion is one of the pieces excised without being replaced. Prometheus, ironically, translates to “forethought.” The problem with Frankenstein is precisely that Prometheus is missing.

Frankenstein and Co.

Authors, I expect, don’t anticipate that their work will be annotated. Since I deal with annotated Bibles on a daily basis, I often ponder that the anonymous writers—we know of few biblical writers with any degree of certainty—had no idea that they were writing the Bible. Nor did they realize that some day many people would make their livelihood from interpreting that book. Among the interpreters are annotators. When my wife gave me Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Christmas I was at first puzzled. I have a copy of Frankenstein already. In fact, I read it again just last year. Then I realized it was an annotated edition: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, the book contains the original text and an introduction, as well as the said annotations. Like a typical study Bible, it also contains essays. The editors joke that it’s kind of like a Frankenstein monster itself.

The “value added” material isn’t all about science. In fact, quite a lot of it has to do with human relationships, and particularly women’s rights. Mary Shelley was an early feminist and her novel shows what goes wrong when men try to reproduce without women. Another recurring theme that, amazingly, had never dawned on me while reading Frankenstein was the Adam and Eve story. Victor Frankenstein, like God, creates a man. Then he creates a woman. Well, almost. Afraid what might happen should his creature find a companion too companionable, he destroys the second creature before she’s finished. The biblical parallels are nevertheless there.

Originally subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the novel was based on pre-Christian myth as much as on Holy Writ. Nevertheless, the Bible suffused British culture in the nineteenth century just as it has continued to overwhelm American culture to the present day. We ignore it at our peril. Morality in science is a major focus of the essays in this volume, but I wondered how many scientists might be enticed to read a piece of feminist fiction in order to learn some ethics. The largest ethical conundrum we face in the United States is that so few people read for personal growth. Spending time with a book is a sacred activity for those committed to the principles of literacy. Frankenstein isn’t a prefect novel; the pacing is pretty slow even for a gothic masterpiece. There are loose ends left hanging. The protagonist is often insufferable. Still, as the editors and annotators have demonstrated, there’s much to learn from this old story. All it takes is the willingness to read and deeply reflect. And perhaps read the annotations.

No Place to Hyde

“I was driven to reflect deeply and inveterately on that hard law of life, which lies at the root of religion and is one of the most plentiful springs of distress.” These words occur near the beginning of Dr. Henry Jekyll’s confession, the very manuscript that closes Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Upon reading the book, along with the preface and afterword clearly meant to pad out the thin volume, I realized that I was not alone in having known the story all my life but never having read it. Western culture is steeped in the idea like so much strong English tea. The story of the divided self. The eternal question of who I really am. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Jekyll and Hyde found immediate resonance in the pantheon of monsters. Here was something with which we could all identify, but which we all would deny. Or would we?

Jekyll notes that the root of religion—proper behavior, moral living—is a source of distress. And this before the era of Nones and non-believers. Religion has that reputation. “Be good or else!” Or fire insurance, as some call it. Religion, in the popular imagination, isn’t so much about sublimity any more. Or transcendence. Somewhere along the way it got fixated at about the level of our genitals and what we should never, ever do with them. Hyde’s sins, as commentators frequently note, are anything but explicit. He tramples a young girl and kills an old man. Beyond that we know nothing of his monstrosity. Is it so hard to believe the restraint concerns his sexuality? After all, his friend Utterson—well, Jekyll’s friend Utterson—enjoys his wine. Both respectable men seem to have hearty appetites. Apart from violence, what other dissipation is there?

Like many first-time readers I can’t recall how I first learned of the mad scientist and even madder thug that make up the namesake of this story. For some reason I never made—even remotely—a religious connection with it. It was a monster story, after all. Innocent fun for a Saturday afternoon. The experience of reading the book was a bit more jarring than that. Jekyll’s confession isn’t exactly easy to read. It is like going to the confessional with the curtain drawn and all the lights on. And yes, the implications are religious after all. It is a little book with a big point to make.