Solstice Musings

Should my posts of late be castigated as against the Christmas spirit I would rely on Andy Williams’ song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in my defense.  “There’ll be scary ghost stories,” the crooner sings amid images of cheer and celebration.  What may not be appreciated by my less sober celebrants is that the long nights of winter have as close an association with ghosts as they do with the numerous religious holidays that fervently pray for the return of the light at this time of year.  In merry old England, which along with Germany developed the modern concept of Christmas, the holiday was observed with evening ghost stories as is well represented by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (likely the source behind Williams’ lyric reference).

So I read about ghosts when the light begins to fail.  Or at least that’s my excuse.  When Ghost Hunters took to the air in 2004 the world became aware that electronic devices can pick up anomalies and other ghost-hunting groups began to appear.  Alan Brown, apparently curious about this development, wrote Ghost Hunters of New England as a field guide of sorts to paranormal investigators.  The book divides the region by states and includes the answers to survey questions asked to each of them.  The result isn’t especially inspirational, however, as these groups share in common the obvious absence of scientists.  It may be that professional scientists fear the career impact of such associations, but as is the case in many academic disciplines, their lack of participation simply erodes the credibility of science in the eyes of many.

Human investigation of the world has reached a point where many academic specialists can no longer communicate effectively with the average person.  I work in academic publishing and it is clear that many specialists simply do not recollect the level at which those without advanced training read.  We therefore see the rise of hoi polloi as self-appointed experts.  If scientists won’t investigate ghosts, plumbers will.  And since, no matter what science declares, many people experience ghosts, they will listen to those who at least seek answers.  The problem with books like Brown’s, of course, is that if a fad fades the groups disappear leaving the information outdated.  A couple of the groups were interesting enough to send me to the websites listed only to find the domain name for sale and the ghost hunting shingle removed from the door.  Still, the book had some useful information for those willing to consider the possibilities.  After all, the nights can be awfully long in December.  And there’ll be scary ghost stories…

Science of the Immaterial

One of the truly frustrating things for the honestly curious is a lack of good resources. Specifically here I’m talking about ghosts. More generally, about the supernatural. “Don’t worry,” laugh the reductionists, “there’s no such thing.” But some of us are seriously curious. Those who are willing to admit candidly the events of life will eventually confess to things they can’t explain. People have been seeing ghosts since at least the Stone Age, and yet finding a serious, non-dismissive approach to the topic can be annoyingly difficult. Curious about the background to the film The Conjuring, I wanted some kind of objective treatment to the Perron family haunting. One of the girls involved has written a three-volume treatment, but that will take some time to get through. So I turned to the investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Warrens were (Lorraine is still alive) some of the world’s first ghost hunters. Self-taught and deeply religious, they referred to themselves as demonologists. Lay Catholics, they couldn’t perform exorcisms, but they could assist in them. Apart from the Perrons, they investigated Amityville, the haunted doll Annabelle, and the Snedeker house, and many other famous cases. A guilty pleasure read, Ghost Hunters, written by Robert David Chase, along with the Warrens, thumbs through several of the investigations. When all is read and done, however, people who claim to know better accuse the hauntings of hoaxing and since there is no arbiter, the curious are left with that unsatisfying state of “he said, she said,” but no real answers. Ghost Hunters contains a potpourri of cases, mostly of demonic possession. Nothing about the Perron family, though.

No doubt much of the hoopla around reality television ghost hunting is clever marketing and nothing more. Even the acclaimed Ghost Hunters were caught gaming the system a little on their Halloween specials. That doesn’t stop people from seeing ghosts, however. Some academics have attempted to address the issue and soon find themselves in untenured positions (so much for freedom of speech) or mocked by their more “serious” colleagues. What ever happened to old fashioned curiosity? Materialism isn’t the only show in town, is it? We need treatments of the subject that move beyond the anecdotal. It’s difficult to get a ghost into the machine, apparently. Science hasn’t figured out a way to study the immaterial yet. Until it does, those who want to know the truth will be left relying on those who make a living by addressing questions even empiricists fear to ask.

Spirit of Equality

A few weekends back I watched the new Ghostbusters in the theater. Since tuition bills loom larger than life, it takes a powerful draw to get me to spend the money to see a movie in its natural setting. As my regular readers know, I loved it. Critics have tended to, well, criticize the movie, largely for its main drawing feature—the female leads. A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.

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Ghostbusters, in all three cinematic presentations, is for laughs. Sometimes classified as supernatural comedy, the film is meant as humor while, admittedly, leaving the door creaking open for some serious thought about the implications. In a reductionistic world there’s no room for ghosts. It’s not possible to say, scientifically, what they might be. From the perspective of traditional belief, however, ghosts are the lost spirits of the departed. Traditional Christian theology places the dead squarely in Heaven or Hell, and they shouldn’t be wandering around down here. That hasn’t stopped people from reporting ghosts. They’ve been recorded almost as long as there has been writing. Today “Ghosthunters,” arms defiantly crossed, use “science” to try to prove the entities exist. This is lightyears from the traditional seance. A ghost under a microscope isn’t very scary.

One of the reasons I found the new Ghostbusters so compelling is that it managed to tiptoe that line between science and spirit that is so rare in the real world. The women, downgraded though they are in the story, are academics. They know, and experience, the dangers of taking haunting seriously. The movie is seriously funny. Like most truly funny efforts, there is a great deal of truth hidden in the humor. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is one of the scenes that plays on its own loop in my head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” he says before he drives off toward Downtown. Women, in the film, have a healthy respect for the departed. Not exactly afraid, but not exactly unafraid, they handle ghosts as persons. This may be one of the points Dickey is making in his article. To understand a human one must be human. Spiritualist or Ghostbuster, women have always been superior guides to what is truly important. If only men could learn to listen.

Northern Ghosts

It is the time of year when respectable publications can, in a half-serious way, address the unconventional. The New York Times, for example, recently ran a story on ghost hunting in Norway. Andrew Higgins points out that Norway, among the most secular nations in the world, has come under the spell of ghosts. In a country where church attendance and religious belief seem to be endangered, there is a growing belief that people might somehow survive this mortal coil. Since such a story has to come off as bemused, we don’t get any indication that people have good reason for believing in ghosts—as one of the officials in the story says, they represent something that isn’t “generally accepted as existing at all.” But I wonder if that’s true. Scientifically, in our heads, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in this godless world for ghosts. Skeptics ask questions like “why do they wear clothes?” or “how can a soul remain behind if we have no souls?” Who told you that you have no souls?

Even with the constant materialist discourse of only physical reality, some ghosts cases have been very well documented. So have some hoaxes. People have the spirit of being tricksters, and that doesn’t always help when it comes to understanding the unseen. The point that the article is making, however, is that ghosts seem to be filling a need that the church hasn’t. Church has long been understood as being trapped in the past—concerned with issues deemed irrelevant by people who are just trying to get by in the world. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons in my life and remember less than ten. What is it that we’re trying to do?

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I don’t know if ghosts exist. Many days I’m not sure what reality is, because if it is simply crawling out of a warm bed into a cold apartment before 4 a.m. so that I can go to work, I’m not sure this isn’t some kind of afterlife already. And maybe not the best kind. I know that as soon as people began to record their thoughts in writing, ghosts have been assumed to exist. Despite Ghost Hunters and other popularizers, vague traces are caught by enough people that we can legitimately wonder about the narrative we’ve been fed that says if it can’t be measured it can’t exist. There isn’t a nation in the world where people don’t see ghosts of some kind. Why should Norway be any different? And we wouldn’t even be asking this question if Halloween didn’t provide us with a buffer that makes forbidden topics chic.

Holy Ghost

paranormalmediaOn a family trip to Cape May, New Jersey, some years back, a ghost tour caught my eye. My daughter was old enough not to be unduly scared, and appropriately curious. With a group of total strangers we walked the streets after dark, hearing tales of tragedy and woe. Little did I know at the time that I was being trendy. I just finished Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Culture. The first point that really haunted me from her study is that the media has transformed the paranormal from religious to secular. I have always considered that paranormal belief and religious belief share an enormous amount of fuel—they are driven by similar engines. Then some media folk figured out that, like religion, the paranormal could become a revenant “revenue stream.”

Hill has other ghosts to hunt in her study—she is a media scholar after all—but I kept wondering about the cheapening effect of commodification. That which creates the most wonder becomes the most tawdry when it’s put up for sale. Life is terribly ordinary. There’s an ennui to much of human experience, so people turn to religion, drugs, or increasingly, the paranormal, for escape. But as any savvy media expert (or Heisenberg fan) knows, being involved in the experience changes the outcome. This applies to money just as it does to people. One is more evil than the other, however.

Experiences of awe are a dwindling resource. The frisson of many an adolescent night when something unexplained or holy lurked outside your window has now become just another CGI gag pulled on a gullible public. I used to watch Ghost Hunters on DVD. Then someone released debunking b-roll footage on the internet, making me feel like I’d wasted more than a few irredeemable hours on a fraud. Just one prank is all it takes. Why? The show has to make money, and who is going to watch if nothing is found? Don’t be offended, it’s only entertainment after all. Nobody said there really was anything that you couldn’t plumb yourself. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems nothing frightens a ghost away like money.

True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Demonic Beginnings

A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.

The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.

Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.

Parsing an Exorcism

The latest in my spate of scary movie viewings is The Last Exorcism. The press when it was released last year made claims of extreme fright, but my impression was that I’d seen it all before. The “found footage” fantasy is difficult to maintain—although the camera work in the film is good—and the premise of demonic possession is frightening if the viewer is a believer. The hook for this movie, however, is that the exorcist himself doesn’t believe and becomes a victim of his own unbelief. The pattern overall follows The Exorcist, but without the creepy soundtrack and staged lighting effects, The Last Exorcism relies heavily on the viewer’s willingness to believe. The demonic possession is presented as extreme contortionism and self-destructive behavior, as well as the uncharacteristic violence by the victim. When Nell Sweetzer gives birth to a demonic child, a la Rosemary’s Baby, the role of good Christian gone occult feels a little hackneyed.

I’ve tried to analyze what scares so many people with movies of demonic possession. The core fears seem to come down to two: belief in the reality of demonic possession and the fear of being out of control. Historically the concept of possession was originally relegated to the gods with demon possession apparently arising as a pre-scientific attempt to explain epilepsy. The fact that most Christian denominations no longer recognize physical demon possession (a fact exploited by The Last Exorcism) makes it more frightening still. For a generation of media-saturated viewers convinced that cover-ups are common the credibility of the church, struggling with its own metaphorical demons, is suspect. Perhaps demons are out there—a common enough assertion on the reality show Ghost Hunters—and the church has lost control over them. When Jason and Grant explain what demons are, however, they are pretty far afield from Legion being cast into a herd of swine.

If the Internet is any kind of reliable measure of people’s fears, zombies and demons appear to be nearly on a level when it comes to belief. Both are supernatural and neither stretches credulity to the point of humans growing fangs or matted fur. Both participate in the idea that there is more to be feared beyond death. Both fail in the court of science. The Exorcism of Emily Rose raised the ambivalence of demonic possession to the level of the courtroom. One thing I learned on jury duty last week is that the truth is measured on the basis of the judgment of a quorum of rational individuals. The implications of this are frightening indeed: those who accept the reality of non-physical monsters (the jury is still out on ghosts) are fully capable, in a legal setting, of deciding the truth of the matter. The only corrective to witch-hunts and state-sponsored exorcisms would seem to be education. Today education comes via the media where zombies and demons freely roam.

Holy Horror

Back in October, in the spirit of the season, I attended a local lecture by a ghost hunter at a nearby public library. This sincere young man struck me as perfectly normal, but haunted by his ghostly encounters. During the question session someone asked about TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society, of “Ghost Hunters” fame). The lecturer indicated that TAPS is not above fabricating evidence for ratings, a disappointing but not unexpected factor when it comes to television. He even gave some evidence to back his assertions. Nevertheless, my wife’s whimsical six-month subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine has continued on well past its expiration date, and when the November/December issue arrived, I was interested to see a piece entitled “Sacramental Horror: What scary stories can tell us about what is real.” Well, this was too good to pass up.

The article, written by Presbyterian minister Jonathan Weyer, discusses the value of horror films. The juxtaposition of a clergyman and horror films is a little unexpected, but believable. After all, many horror films feature religious ideals clothed in monstrous form. Dividing horror films into Uncanny/Unsettling horror, gross-out horror, and torture porn, Weyer goes on to explain how uncanny or unsettling horror underscores the moral order of the universe and is therefore appropriate for Christian contemplation. He even draws the Nicene Creed into it. Gross-out horror serves the function of making the viewer contemplate death and perhaps even helps to make fun of it. This is a less noble, but still acceptable Christian enterprise. Torture porn, on the other hand, simply has no redeeming value. Sacramental horror really didn’t enter the discussion. Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror takes this issue on more directly.

I really don’t expect much insight from a fanzine that treats the reality of fairies and the prognostications of tarot cards next to the genuinely mysterious, such as ghosts. Finding morality in horror films is often a matter of eisegesis. The fear in such films often emerges from the sacred, either in pure or distorted form. Even if “the pure of heart or, often the virgin” survives while “Wrongdoers get put to the axe,” as Weyer states, seldom is that the intended point of the movie. John Carpenter denies that there was a moralizing message in his Halloween, often cited as the movie that established the “good girl survives” motif. The fact is that horror relates to the sacred in the element of fear. If people were not afraid, there would be little for religion or horror movies to accomplish.

The Problem with Demons

One of the perks to life among a university community is the special programs that come to campus. As an adjunct instructor with a schedule so confusing that even Escher would get lost, however, I do not often have the opportunity to take advantage of such programs. More’s the pity since next week Montclair State University is hosting an event called “The Real Exorcist.” One of the very few authorized exorcists of the Catholic Church will be speaking on campus. The event overlaps with a previously scheduled class at Rutgers.

A little disappointed, last night I sat down to watch Paranormal Activity, the indie movie that made such a splash last year. Assuming it was a ghost story, I wasn’t too concerned about watching it alone on an October night. When I discovered it was a demon story, however, I wasn’t sure watching it alone was such a good idea. You see, in the hands of paranormal investigators the demon has undergone a transformation. Ancient Mesopotamians believed in a set of lesser gods who caused misfortune, although they don’t seem to have been pure evil and they didn’t call them demons. By the time we reach nascent Christianity, demons are cohorts of the Devil and are utterly malign and capable of possessing a person making them do the bidding of their dark lord. That’s where they remained on the divinity scale until modern day investigators using scientific equipment found them. I confess to having watched Ghost Hunters a time or two. Here the demon has morphed into a non-human disembodied entity – the very antagonist of Paranormal Activity.

Being aware of the origin of concepts is often a comforting place to be. When I realize that no special revelation has suddenly validated the existence of a baleful creature set to do me serious harm, a relief encompasses me. The problem with demons is that they don’t evaporate so easily. “Invented” by the Mesopotamians to explain misfortune, by the change of the era they had evolved into (largely) an explanation for epilepsy and mental illness. Now today they are back as haunting entities that have no human sympathy since they were never human. Paranormal investigators take them very seriously, despite their checkered theological pedigree. I guess I side with Shakespeare on this one: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…” After all, it is October and the nights are growing noticeably long.

Religion in the Underworld

One of the unspoken truths of the study of religion is that it has an unacknowledged, problematic sibling in paranormal studies. There are many obvious differences: for one thing, religious study is respectable, if not really considered essential, whereas paranormal study is suspect and not generally acknowledged by established scientific or mainstream research institutes. Nevertheless, both religion and paranormal phenomena deal with unquantifiable experiences, aspects of human perception that cannot yet be measured. So it was with a large grain of salt that my wife signed me up for a year’s subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine. I’ve posted on this particular magazine before, but a new issue arrived just yesterday that contained so many references to the Bible and mainstream religion that I thought it worthy of reiteration.

In general I am skeptical about supernatural claims. At the same time, I am aware that we understand only a fraction of the universe and some aspects of theoretical physics are more bizarre than your average ghost story. When the magazine arrives I read through it with my salt-shaker within easy reach. Nevertheless, a feeling haunts me that at some deep level my specialization is connected with paranormal activity. The first article in the current issue concerns the Underworld. The author suggests that biblical and Mesopotamian references to the Underworld may be supported by the findings of ghost hunting investigators.

I’m all for a couple of working guys (plumbers Jason and Grant) daring to tread where scientists fear to go, but the problems of using ancient materials to bolster ghost-hunting claims are legion. Just a glance at the popularity of Zecharia Sitchin books warns against a simplistic reading of complex, ancient civilizations. We don’t need ghosts in the machine to explain the Sumerians or Babylonians. At the same time, we don’t have many academic options for uncovering the many, many ghost claims that have made throughout history. Mass neurosis is less believable than occasional hauntings. So although I have to disagree about the viability of a literal Underworld – a good understanding of ancient mythology helps to clarify that one – I do reserve some space for wondering if religious studies might not end up in the same final resting place as paranormal studies once science is able to penetrate the veil.

My all-time favorite ghost photo

Zoroastrian Odyssey

Clinton's Red Mill

Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.

The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.

A Zoroastrian fravashi

The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.