I hope I never become too sensible not to pay attention to coincidences.  With the death of Max von Sydow falling the same week as the time change, the full moon, and Friday the thirteenth, I’m left feeling a little vulnerable.  I mean, what do we do now that the Exorcist is gone?  A couple days ago, when the moon was full—the last full moon before the vernal equinox—I awoke before 3:00 a.m.  Thinking Daylight Saving Time would have me groping for a few extra minutes abed, instead I found myself wide awake at the hour when monsters are thought to be afoot.  As I put my feet to the floor I saw the brilliant lunar light beating through the blinds like midday.  It was remarkable how very light it was.

A bipartisan bill has been introduced in congress to make Daylight Saving Time permanent.  Of course, getting any law passed without numerous riders and bickering is unlikely, but I do wish they’d get on with it.  That having been written, the time shift has been remarkably easy on me so far this year.  Perhaps those of us regularly awake in the dead of night adjust a little more quickly.  Keeping out of New York with the coronavirus lurking, I’d rather deal with my own monsters anyway.  I remember my amazement at seeing Max von Sydow unchanged from Fr. Merrin to Dr. Naehring.  Then I looked up just how much makeup the Exorcist had to have to age himself several decades.  He was a young man when The Exorcist was filmed.  At this time of day anything is believable.

Friday the thirteenth is a bit of lore grown from Christianity.  Friday was inauspicious because of Good Friday and the thirteenth lot fell on Judas, who, along with the others, made thirteen.  It was as if some demon were afoot on such Fridays.  These bits of Christian lore made their way into popular culture and then crept into horror films.  A good deal of Nightmares with the Bible revolves around The Exorcist.  So I sit here before sunrise with a bit of just-past full moon shining in, not too tired from losing an hour on Sunday.  It’s not difficult to think of scary things at this time of night.  Of course, demons traditionally come out around 3:00 a.m.  This week has been like that.  And without Max von Sydow, we want to be very cautious around demons.

Ambling through Amityville

I may be a week too late for Friday the 13th, but I just finished rereading The Amityville Horror.  One of my current projects required my paying close attention to what was and was not claimed, and although it doesn’t count towards my Goodreads goal, I just had to do it.  I noticed, as also occurred to me when rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist earlier, that the second time through raises more questions than the first.  The book has been demoted from nonfiction to novel over the years, but it seems pretty clear that Jay Anson believed it to be based on actual events.  He could’ve been wrong, of course, but with a long list of documentary writing credits to his name one does have to wonder.  Anson died just a year after the film came out.

When the movie was released I was still in high school and what everyone was saying about how scary it was kept me out of theaters.  (That, and lack of funds.)  It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t even VHS options in those days, especially for those of humble circumstances.  As a result, I was well into adulthood before I saw the cinematic version.  Reading the book, however, is an attempt to pry open the question of what might’ve happened at one of the most famous “haunted houses” this side of the Atlantic.  I’d just read a headline that the house had been sold again, and such was the impact of this story that a simple property transaction is now considered news in some circles.

Controversy permeates this tale.  I suspect that’s because it made a lot of money.  The search for the truth is often compromised by lucre—just look at the White House and try to disagree.  The usual rendering is that the Lutz family, in financial trouble, concocted a story that would bring in big bucks.  Such accusations came, of course, once the story did indeed prove valuable.  The second highest grossing film of 1979, The Amityville Horror held records for the highest grossing independent film for a decade.  Add to that the estimated book sales of 10 million copies and you have a nice retirement account laid up.  Those levels of remuneration are enough to corrupt any narrative.  Still, it’s clear that many people wonder what really went on at the house on Ocean Avenue.  I sat down with the book again and I have to admit that I’m no wiser on the question for having read it again.

Friday the Sixth

I tend to run behind on the movie front.  In some cases, decades behind.  I have never been a fan of slashers, although I did take a date to A Nightmare on Elm Street in the staid, dry town of Grove City while in college.  We broke up shortly after.  Still, I have a soft spot for “the classics,” and Friday the 13th has spun enough sequels to qualify.  “Jason” is a household name for the heartless serial killer, and the movie is set in New Jersey.  And it was hot outside and lazing on the couch trying not to stick to myself seemed about as much of a challenge as I could handle. Besides, a week from today is Friday the thirteenth. Now that I’ve finished with the excuses, here is a declarative sentence: I finally got around to watching Friday the 13th.  After many other films I’ve seen, I have to say that it didn’t really qualify as scary.  You know in advance that the counselors, by rote, must by killed in what are supposed to be shocking ways.  Shadowy corners and rainy woods and aluminum canoes are to be avoided, if the movie and its successors have taught us anything.  Nevertheless, the religion and scary film equation still applies.  And a strange kind of throwback to an unexpected classic (the literal kind).

The religious element comes in the form of the stock crazy local named Ralph.  Ralph warns the kids that they will die and says he’s been sent by God to warn them.  Of course they don’t listen.  If they had, there would have been no movie. As a child I was always offended by the caricature of the religious crazy, but I have come to see that this stock character is itself a symbol of fear.  Although ubiquitously laughed off, the person passionately driven by religion is indeed a potential danger to society.  In the days of my innocence we had little hard data upon which to hang such fears.  In the post-9/11 world it seems there are far too many sky-hooks for that purpose. Some of those sky-hooks are a little closer to the ground, but they inspire fear nonetheless. I’ve known all along that one of the reasons I watch scary movies is to give myself some advance warning of what might go wrong.  Not that it would help in any real way, but sometimes avoiding the shock by anticipating the worst seems like the only human thing to do.

What about the literal classic that I mentioned? Beowulf falls outside the Greco-Roman period, but is clearly a classic of English literature.  (Spoiler alert for anyone even more behind the times than me—) The only thing scarier than Grendel was, of course, Grendel’s mom.  So in Friday the 13th, the killing is done by Jason’s mom.  Like Grendel, Jason dwells underwater and surfaces to pull down his victim(s).  Like Grendel’s mother, Jason’s mother is decapitated by a sword (actually, a machete in the modern version), on the shore of the Crystal Lake.  After the mother’s death the child (Jason/Grendel) is resurrected.  Whether it was intentional or not, there is a lot going on here. The sacrificial mother is an inherently religious theme although many formal religions make it a male prerogative. The death of the mother brings the son back to life.  I wonder how Christianity might have differed if instead of three male deities, there had been a divine mother.  In such cases resurrection of the son comes only at a very steep price. Just like watching Friday the 13th on a hot summer night.


Friday the thirteenth. The very concept awakens images of horror movies and inauspicious happenings. An interview with a Psychology professor at Rutgers recently discussed this unusual phobia. Mike Petronko of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology had this to say: “Exactly how this got started is difficult to say, but the belief appears to date back to ancient times. Often, superstitions are rooted in religion. Some folklorists believe the fear may stem from the Last Supper, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus and his 12 disciples gathered for the final meal, which set the stage for his crucifixion, on Good Friday.” There is no doubt that the origin of the superstition is religious and that Fridays earned their notorious reputation because of Good Friday. Even today, as any Roman Catholic can tell you, Friday dietary requirements differ from those of other days.

But wasn't this a Thursday?

Thirteen is a little harder to pin down. It is a prime number after ten, but then, so are eleven and seventeen. It may have its unlucky associations back in the old Mesopotamian base-six numerical system. Once you reach past the first doubling of six you meet thirteen. Even today hotels are designed with no thirteenth floor, although pasting a fourteen over the actual thirteen is merely for psychological relief. Mathematics insists thirteen follows twelve. As Petronko notes, the fear is real. Airliners do not have row 13 and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are lost because so many people refuse to engage in regular practices (such as flying) on Friday the thirteenth.

Religion and fear are not strange bedfellows. In fact, religion, in its earliest origins, seems to have been a coping mechanism for fear. People are afraid of many things – that is the curse of consciousness. We can anticipate eventualities that will never materialize. We imagine them happening to us. Religion seeks to placate those forces that are beyond our control. We may lay claim to a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated society, but millions of people are anxiously awaiting the end of this day. Rutgers, like most universities, hardly sees the need to fund the study of religions. Nevertheless, our very culture belies that indifference. Many people are afraid today and we still don’t even know why.