Can You Recall?

While recently in touch with a colleague I’ve never met, I agreed to send along a filmography of my two horror movie books, Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  I tend not to read my own books after sending them to the printer.  Defensively it might be that I can say, “I know what I wrote,” but in reality it’s probably more a lack of self-assurance.  Writers often experience self-doubt and although you’ve convinced an editor and an editorial board you may still have your harshest critic to please.  Even though you’ve read the book many times through—at least fifteen each for these two books—you fear you might’ve overlooked something.  So it was strange trying to recall which films I’d actually discussed.  Or how many.

The latter point became clear in a recent review on Reading Religion.  Knowing how I went about piecing together Holy Horror, I’d forgotten just how many movies I watched and rewatched for it.  While it was never intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the Bible in horror (I haven’t seen all horror films), it nevertheless ranges widely.  After having submitted it I continued to watch horror and I continue to find various Bibles in it.  The amazing thing is just how truly widespread the Good Book is as an iconic symbol.  Indeed, I’d been reading about the Bible as an iconic book and that idea took hold in the early days of putting words down for the book.  As an editor I help authors figure out these kinds of issues all the time.  Physician heal thyself.

Even though Nightmares with the Bible just came out over a year ago I couldn’t list all the films off the top of my head.  Sometimes you need reminders.  My books are never discussed at work.  The people I interact with on a daily basis have no interest in them.  In other words, unless I’m having an interview or reading a review, I don’t have much opportunity to think about them.  I’ve moved on to my next projects.  The draft of The Wicker Man has been submitted and I have three promised articles to work on.  Still, I’m trying to settle on the next book.  I seem to have found some acceptance among the horror crowd.  Biblical meteorologists and researchers on Ugaritic goddesses are much less seldom in touch.  Monsters are often mixed forms.  I should know that after watching all these movies.


Abominable and Biblical

In many ways Holy Horror was an initial volume.  The Bible  is fairly prevalent in horror, and had the book done any better I might’ve considered a sequel.  Take The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  I’d literally never heard of it until I saw on a website listing states’ favorite horror films that it was number one in Pennsylvania.  At that point I decided I would have to see it one day.  That day came and I later found out that quite a few critics hold it in high regard.  It is very campy, almost worthy of the live action Batman series with which I grew up.  Phibes is out for revenge and kills his victims (more on this shortly) with vampire bats and acid.  It may have been the first movie I’ve seen with death by brussels sprouts and locusts.  None of this makes it fit Holy Horror’s premise, however.

Phibes is a serial killer using the Bible as his road map.  About halfway through the film we learn Dr. Phibes’ doctorate is in theology.  He is using the ten biblical plagues to kill his victims.  The police consult a rabbi to learn about the plagues but even here the Bible’s misquoted.  Interestingly for this period, the inspector refers to the plagues as a myth.  The first plague shown is of bats.  There is also a plague of rats.  Neither of which occur in the Good Book.  The Bible’s a fairly easy tome to find, but it takes quite a bit of ingenuity, I guess, to murder by gnats or the death of cattle (which doesn’t prevent The Reaping from trying).  Plot holes are large enough to drive a chariot through, but the Bible clearly has a starring role in the narrative.  And Vincent Price is able to pull it off because he’s, well, Vincent Price.

Drawing some inspiration from The Phantom of the Opera, and featuring a scene set in Highgate Cemetery, this movie has its fingers all over the place.  I do have to wonder why so many people in Pennsylvania picked this as their favorite horror film.  I grew up in the state watching horror, much of it camp, and much of it worse, but never heard a thing about this.  It’s not really scary.  Perhaps it appeals to those who think they know the Bible but really don’t.  Of course, having amulets inscribed with Hebrew letters to symbolize the plagues is classy.  I doubt The Abominable Dr. Phibes will give anyone nightmares, but it could stand a bit of analysis in its use of the Good Book.


Numbers Game

I once asked a movie expert—this must’ve been when I was regularly on a campus somewhere, but not Nashotah House—how many movies had been made.  He sighed and said “There’s no way to know that.”  What I was thinking at the time was the Motion Picture Association of America (now the Motion Picture Association) number that comes near the end of the credits.  I wondered how many of those there were.  Of course, the number keeps changing.  It doesn’t account for television movies or straight to video, although, I see it does now include Netflix.  In any case, I was really interested in the statistics.  I still am.  I may not be a math person, but big numbers are intriguing.

The more I read about movies, and I seem to be moving in that direction, the more I realize how nobody can be an expert on all of them.  Even those of us with decades of experience watching horror can’t keep up with that genre.  Many of the books I’ve read are by authors whose families don’t like horror, so they have to carve out time alone to see the films.  This is on top of their jobs, which for some, admittedly, is film analysis—perhaps they’re the lucky ones.  I selected many films to discuss in Holy Horror.  There’s no index of the Bible in films, as useful as such an index would be.  As I continue to watch, and sometimes rewatch, I keep finding more and more material.  At some point, however, you just have to say “what I have written, I have written.”  But how many movies actually engage the Good Book?  There may be a way to know that, but it will take a lifetime of research.

Speaking of large numbers, the stats for how many Bibles are sold each year is a phenomenon unto itself.  It seems inevitable that it would find several of the cracks in American culture and leak in like rain water.  At times it’s the antidote to horror, while at others it’s the dote itself.  Holy Horror was never intended to be comprehensive.  It limited itself in intentional ways.  As I was writing it my naive question kept coming back to me.  When I research a topic I like to read as much written on the topic that I possibly can.  Of course, I spend over eight hours a day for most of the year doing something else.  The number of days like that, I suspect, is frightfully large.


Interview Two

October turns the northern hemisphere mind toward Halloween.  It must be strange to receive northern media while living in the global south—Halloween occurs just as spring is getting underway.  I guess that’s what May Day’s for.  In any case, in the United States Halloween thinking is in nearly full swing.  My last two books, while not Halloween themed, look at horror films which, in keeping with October, are on everyone’s mind this season.  And it’s been quite a week for interviews.  The second half of my podcast interview on The Incarcerated Christian was posted yesterday.  If you want to hear more fun Q & A with Robin and Debra, click here.  I’ll post more about this Friday, but tomorrow my interview with Eric Ziolkowski of Lafayette College will air as part of the Easton Book Festival.  The festival’s going on right now, so be sure to check out the offerings online.

One bit of advice that I give as an editor: if you want to make it as an author you need to promote your own work.  Some of us were reared to believe that it’s in poor taste to do this, but in the internetted world it’s pretty much a requirement.  Something I learned from political activism is that every election is local.  Getting noticed also has to start in your own backyard.  I love doing interviews.  It’s always flattering to know that someone’s read your book and wants to know more about it.  I’ve started to explore the newish area of religion and horror.  From what we see in the news, it seems like it’s an area that’s likely to take off.  But only if those who work in it get their stuff out there where it can be seen.  (Or heard.)

Neither Holy Horror nor Nightmares with the Bible have sold very well.  They’re expensive, and academics, who will spend money on books, are still trying to decide if this area’s worth exploring.  I admit that there’s a puerile kind of naughtiness to taking monsters and “low brow” entertainment as a subject of study.  Horror, however, has lots of fans.  Perhaps not in the academy, but in the real world.  I like to think such marginal areas bring people together.  Horror, like demons, isn’t going away any time soon.  Instead of running away from what you fear, why not try embracing it?  If not even that, please consider the free content available on The Incarcerated Christian and the Easton Book Festival.  After all, Halloween’s just about here…


Podcast Live

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you forgot what day it was?  (Come on, now, it’s a pandemic—you can admit it!)  I spent yesterday unaware that it was Tuesday.  Tuesday is important because I knew that The Incarcerated Christian was going to be posting my interview on Holy Horror on their podcast.  It’s live now—give a listen!  I’ve been toying with rebooting my own podcasts, but like most other things in life I just can’t find the time to do it.  I still enjoy talking about my ideas and I thank Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli for allowing me to yak their ears off for an hour.  There are many interesting podcasts on their site, so it you decide to listen the interview be sure to hang around a while and explore.

My hosts understand that Holy Horror was written for general readers, if not priced for them.  Being asked questions keeps you sharp, and sometimes it feels like my blade has been dulled from sitting in the drawer too long.  At the risk of sounding too biblical, iron sharpen iron, right?  Conversation is increasingly important in a polarized world where minds are already made up and the preferred solution is to hate others based on differences of opinion.  Why not talk about things?  Interviews also keep me sharp in asking about things I wrote years ago.  It may not seem like it, but the main body of Holy Horror was finished nearly five years ago.  Books take a long time to write and then a long time to publish.  It’s good to be asked about what one has written.

The questions asked on this interview were well thought out and reflective.  I can only hope that my responses were the same.  If you decide to listen and like what you hear, please share it with others.  The interview actually spilled over into a part two that will be posted in a couple weeks.  There’s a lot to say about religion and horror.  I’ve continued to watch movies since the interview and I notice further affirmations.  The Wicker Tree, for example, is a very biblical movie.  Or at least it quotes from the Bible quite a bit.  Holy Horror was very much an experiment on my part to find out if there was any room for a book like this.  After I wrote it I found others shared some interest in these topics, and two people cared enough to schedule an interview about it.  Please give it a listen.


Festive Books

The Book and Puppet Company, a small independent bookstore in Easton, Pennsylvania is unique.  Other bookstores may have puppet shows and other forms of theater.  Others may have the obviously tasteful and intelligent selection of books.  Others offer items other than books.  Book and Puppet is unique in at least three ways.  First, and most (I promise) self-serving, it is the only bookstore in the world with Holy Horror on its shelves.  I know how it got there, which ties into the second unique feature—the Easton Book Festival.  The Easton Book Festival is the brainchild of the third unique element, the store’s owners—Andrew Laties and Rebecca Migdal.  

So let’s piece this all together.  The Easton Book Festival launched in 2019.  Being local to the event, I volunteered to present because Holy Horror had missed Halloween in 2018 when it came out, and it was still technically a front list book.  As with any event that wishes to grow, the Festival was extremely inclusive.  Despite its price point Andy had ordered copies to have on hand to sell.  He assigned me to a panel discussion and even gave me a time slot to talk about the book.  The event was one of the highlights of my true calling—being a writer of books.  Weathering the Psalms was less expensive but more technical.  Holy Horror is for a general readership, although the publisher sees it differently and prices it accordingly.  You have to start somewhere.  In any case,  it was part of a book festival that contains memories that still make me glow.

his year, like many events, the Easton Book Festival (October 16-24) is going hybrid.  As we start to regather, is there any better place to coalesce than around books?  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if that were true?  A recent visit to the shop led to a conversation that seems likely to result in a chance to plug Nightmares with the Bible, the more expensive sequel to Holy Horror.  Well into the writing of my next book, my attention has momentarily turned from demons to more human horrors.  Nevertheless, books are what my lifelong goal has always been.  I thought that I would be writing as a professor, but even editors can make some modest contributions, I hope.  Regardless, since much of the Festival will be online, it’s accessible from the comfort of your chair.  Why not tune in?   In any case, supporting your local bookstore will do nothing but improve society.


A Life of Writing

One problem with being a graphomaniac is forgetting what you’ve written.  I’m glad to know I’m not alone in this.  Once we had the eminent historian Owen Chadwick to our house for dinner.  We of course had invited some students as well.  At one point one of the students asked him about something in one of his books.  The famed historian shook his head, not recalling it.  “One writes so much,” he replied.  Now, I’m not comparing myself with a knighted academic of international fame, but his remark in our living room has stayed with me all these years.  There are over 4,400 published posts on this blog, over a million and a half words, by my calculation.  Not even I remember everything I wrote.  “One writes so much…”

Just the other day I was looking for something I wrote.  You see, when I get an idea for a book (which happens frequently) I start writing it.  Inevitably, since I have very little time for writing on a daily basis, given my job, it joins many other partially written books.  Unless something like a book contract happens, my interests shift from one project to another, slowly building each up to near book length.  Once a project reaches that point I try to finish it off.  This involves writing and countless edits.  Holy Horror, for example, went through fifteen rewrites, some of them extensive.  Before it was sent to the publisher other books had already been started.  A conversation the other day reminded me of a book I’d started and I couldn’t find it.

My backup discs are a jumble of projects that take up too much memory on my laptop.  I try to organize them, but when a computer warning comes on while in the middle of a project one tends to cram things aside until one has room to finish up what one’s currently working on.  All of this authorial drama takes place before the sun rises, and when enough time passes I don’t always remember which file I put that old project into.  What did I even call it?  Writing, you see, requires constant practice.  Working nine-to-five creates a sense that you owe a great deal of time to your employer.  (Ironically, in my case, helping other people get published.)  The people I talked to the other day thought that that unfound idea sounded like a viable book.  Perhaps it is, if only I could remember where I put it.  Meanwhile I remember Sir Chadwick’s words from a quarter-a-century ago.


Existential Horror

It’s a strange and disturbing novel.  I leaned about Kathe Koja’s The Cipher from a book about women horror writers that I read some time ago.  I figured I’d get around to reading it eventually and now that I have I’m wondering what I just read.  In that regard it reminds me of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which I really didn’t find that scary.  The thing about Koja’s novel is that it leaves you feeling empty.  It is perhaps the most nihilistic fiction I’ve ever read.  A slow build to nowhere and really no explanation either.  If you like your coffee dark, this is a story for you.  It’s a story of slow decline and loss of self.  In that respect it’s pretty scary.

One of the points I made in Holy Horror—although it’s about movies instead of books the same principle applies—is that different things scare different people.  The Cipher is existential horror.  There really aren’t any moments of sudden gasps of surprise—this is a train you can see coming—but that doesn’t mean the inevitable is pleasant.  My edition comes with an afterword by Maryse Meijer that really helped name the horror.  There are no heroes here, as she points out.  These are characters who get themselves into bad situations and sometimes don’t even know why they do what they do.  As I said, this is existential horror.  It all swirls around an unexplained “Funhole” that takes over the characters’ lives.

Everyone in this book is working class and creative.  They don’t find any recognition, of course, because that’s the way of working class life.  They do, however, find meaning in the art they make, after work.  Indeed, as everyone gets more and more drawn toward the Funhole one of the worries that constantly hangs over their heads in the face of sometime truly supernatural, is work.  When to quit your job because something not natural is taking over your life?  Who’s going to pay the rent?  In my own existential crises, I often think that capitalism with it’s unvarying nine-to-five certainly doesn’t help.  When something extraordinary happens, you’d better hope it’s not during a weekday, or if it is you’d better have some vacation days you can cash in.  So it is that the young characters here, drinking and dreaming, have to come up with some way of dealing with an unexpected existential threat.  I’m trying not to give too much away.  This is unlike any other horror story I’ve ever read.


Finding Freedom

I recently discovered The Incarcerated Christian website.  To be more factual about it, the women who run the site (Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli) reached out to me about an interview concerning Holy Horror.  I hustled on over to the website to see what it was about and I was impressed.  In my own fumbling way, I would describe their use of “incarcerated” as people damaged by Christianity.  Imprisoned by various groups that require later healing.  Far more than a religion, Christianity has, of course,  become a cultural system removed from the teachings of its founder—the Trump administration made this abundantly clear—and bent on power over the lives of others.  In its efforts at control it leaves a lot of damaged people in its wake.  I must say that my interview with them convinced me that they really get what I was trying to do with Holy Horror.

Not that I have a great deal of confidence in my ability—life leads you to question such things—but a lot of my writing is on more than one level.  Here on this blog, several of my metaphorical pieces have raised objections from readers who took what I was saying literally.  Isn’t literalism often a problem?  In philosophy class we learned to call it “naive realism.”  Things may not be what they appear to be.  Getting underneath the surface requires some digging.  Maybe that’s why I enjoyed being on an archaeological dig so much.  To anticipate the posting of the interview a little bit, what some people automatically associate with horror is lack of depth.  In fact, much of horror runs into the profound, for those willing to watch.

Part of it, I must say, is that horror attracts outcasts.  The “Christianity” that dominates western culture actively seeks to create outcasts.  Creating, even if imaginatively, “the other” is a way of asserting one’s own superiority.  Reading the New Testament somehow I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.  The cultural Christianity we see today has very little to do with Jesus.  “Believing in” has replaced listening to his words, or doing as he did.  Throughout the Gospels, if I recall correctly, joining the movement was voluntary.  They wanted to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place.  Look around at those who wear the badge loudly these days and tell me if that’s what you see.  What does all of this have to do with horror?  Listen to the interview when it’s posted on the podcast in October.  Don’t worry, I’ll let you know.  In the meantime, your hours spent on The Incarcerated Christian will be rewarded.


Conjuring an Exorcist

In both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I discuss The Conjuring.  In the latter I actually go through the universe that the films spin around the investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Like most series where the writers and directors shift, the story line isn’t always consistent.  I suppose that one of the features of the series that appeals to those of us who love monsters is the fact that many of the movies have more than one.  The main threat, however, always seems to be demonic.  I enjoyed exploring this in both my book and in my recent piece on Horror Homeroom—check it out here.  

This series, in financial terms, has been highly successful.  There is little that attracts attention in any media more than money.  The Conjuring universe also shows that people are very interested in the topic.  A materialistic worldview doesn’t work for everyone.  We sense that there’s more going on that what the laboratory reveals.  I’ve often wondered why we can’t consider the world “both and” rather than “either or.”  We seem to think knowledge is some kind of zero-sum game.  I suppose that’s because the spiritual interferes with the material.  If there are outside forces working against the “laws” of physics then all that hard work is open to question.  It’s far easier to suggest that human beings (and other animals) who experience something “supernatural” are deluded.  Or superstitious.  Demons are a good case in point.  If they exist it would complicate the world of science.  And yet people pay good money to see movies based on them.

The Conjuring franchise pays off most of the time.  Some of the stories—those of the main series especially—are based on cases that the Warrens actually investigated.  There’s sometimes an element of the sideshow (the amazing Warrens!) to some of their work, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the experience of real people.  Experience is an important way to navigate this strange world in which we find ourselves.  I’m not the only one who finds horror films to be a reasonable guide through this territory.  The Warrens’ case files leave lots of opportunities to explore this strange world of demons, and there are further movies in the franchise currently under development.  The most recent film, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, changed basic concepts from its early days.  It was delayed by the pandemic.  And yet, it made money.  There must be a lesson to be learned here.


Review Copy

You reach an age, or maybe a stage, where it’s difficult to recall details.  Too many emails about too many things and you just have trouble recalling where you read this or that.  Someone a few months ago, perhaps on this blog, lamented not being able to afford Holy Horror.  I wanted to let that person (or any other interested party) know it is now available free—for review—on Reading Religion.  Feel free to drop me a comment if you don’t know how to get this thing started.  When I was a grad student I learned about reviewing.  It was the way to get ahold of expensive books for free.  I’m no longer able to do them (conflict of interest), but I still think they’re one of the greatest perks for the literate.

Reading Religion does not require a Ph.D. to permit an interested party to volunteer.  Since it’s a religion site, many clergy do reviews.  If you’ve been talking to anyone about Holy Horror (and I’m just sure you have!) and they want to read it, let them know.  There’s nothing more embarrassing to have nobody wanting to read your book when it’s available for free.  Besides, reviews are how people find out about books.  Over half-a-million new websites are created each and every day, my friends.  We’ve got to help each other out!  I’ve been providing free content here daily for twelve years now—I need someone to review my book.  I know people are busy.  There are an estimated 1.7 billion websites, many with multiple pages.  Who has time?

I try to post about lots of books here on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I know it’s not a frequently visited website (I’m a realist) but I know at least two publishers have taken blurbs from my words here to promote their books.  Those of us who read have to stick together.  Writing, to me, is how you pay back for all the reading you get to do in life.  It helps, of course, if people know about your books.  By the way, if you have an interest in religion at all you should check out Reading Religion.  It’s a great site to figure out what’s going on in books.  And you might even find something there you’d like to read.  I’d do reviews myself, but that’s no longer permitted.  I’ll put my thoughts here on this blog, though.  It’s only doing to others what I would appreciate being done back.


Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


Irony

It’s a funny old world, as the saying goes.  I don’t deal, as an editor, with many agents.  In fact, having been in publishing for nearly a dozen years it’s only happened three times.  The most recent agent is one to whom I sent a pitch for Holy Horror and from whom I never heard back.  The book he sent me isn’t too different from what I was doing in said volume.  That’s the way it goes, you say.  Indeed, I don’t disagree.  But who doesn’t like a dose of irony in an otherwise stainless steel world?  As I’m reading through the proposal I see that it cites the interest in the subject because of the great popularity of the Religion and Monsters sessions at the American Academy of Religion.  I was responsible for getting those sessions started.

Since irony loves company, none of the people I recruited to get that session rolling read my blog.  I’d been meeting with various scholars over the years and started to notice a common interest in religion and monsters, which I personally share.  I suggested to one of these gainfully employed scholars that we should apply for such a session.  She agreed and we invited another gainfully employed academic to join us.  I wrote the initial proposal.  The session was approved (the proposal being helpfully revised by my colleagues) for three years running.  Now it was being cited as objective proof of an idea that this very agent had dismissed when I presented Holy Horror to him.  Our society very much thinks having a university post means you have something to contribute.  No post?  No interest.

I’ve been working on religion and monsters for (conservatively) a dozen years.  I’ve written two high-priced books on the subject and I’ve received almost no traction in the field because I can’t put a university, or college, or seminary, behind my name.  I was formerly an associate professor, but who you are speaks louder than who you were.  Institutions speak even louder—much louder—than individuals.  The thing about privilege is that it works.  So in this funny old world I’m bemused to be watching my own idea helping propel a colleague’s case for an agent.  I’m working on my fifth book, and I sincerely hope this one will retail for less than thirty dollars.  That’s difficult to do without an agent’s intervention.  I know agents are swamped with proposals.  I know they’re very selective.  And I also know that the irony of being a biblical scholar interested in monsters will catch their attention.  Only, however, if you have an institution behind your name.  Funny, isn’t it?

Even the monster smiles

Witchfinder, Generally

In Holy Horror I describe the “unholy trinity” of movies that figure strongly Christian themes: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  These movies span 1968 through 1976 and all were extremely successful.  Another writer earlier dubbed another three horror films from the same era the “unholy trinity” (I didn’t realize I was being trite) of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.  These three were low budget and not particularly successful at the box office.  They’ve all become cult classics, however.  I suppose that together these six films help mark the late sixties and early seventies as the beginning of a new realm of horror films.  Folk horror continued to exist but wasn’t terribly common.  It has recently been given a high profile by The Witch and Midsommar.

Of all of these films Witchfinder General stands out as the least obviously marked by horror tropes.  It’s set as a fictionalized account of the historical Matthew Hopkins, a man actually responsible for about a fifth of all British witch executions in the seventeenth century.  There’s nothing really supernatural in the film and its horror reputation is attributed to the cruel tortures depicted—these really pushed the envelope in 1968.  Not only was Rosemary’s Baby released that same year but so was Night of the Living Dead, another defining horror film.  The sixties were a chaotic time—the birth pangs of a new outlook that is still being resisted by many politicians.  We all know about the music of the era, but the cinematic impact was also immense, as these six films show.

As different as they are, these two trinities all feature horror that is fueled by religion.  Although this had been pointed out earlier in the century, people were now being made aware that, apart from the good religion does, it also brings potential evil into the world.  There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.  The more cynical might note that the Christianity being “protected” is actually key to an economic system that benefits the rich—that supports the interests of the wealthy.  The historical Matthew Hopkins was the son of a clergyman.  Apart from his reprehensible role in rekindling the witch trials in England, not much is known of his life apart from his preoccupation will executing “witches.”  As time has gone on, we’ve unfortunately circled back toward the religious conflicts in the folk horror trinity.  Watching horror may yield some valuable lessons.  


Unconventional Demon

In my book Holy Horror I limited my discussion to fairly widely available and well-known films.  Part of the reason for this is that nobody can watch all horror movies and for those of us who work, there’s just limited time.  All of the films are at least American co-produced, most of them American productions.  The one exception to that is The Wicker Man.  I couldn’t bear to leave that particular movie out.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was classified as the newly coined “folk horror.”  Another film, released two years earlier was the strangely titled The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  It’s a strange but competent British horror film that has an eighteenth-century village falling prey to a demon that is accidentally plowed up in a field.

It is a film that could’ve been included in Holy Horror.  Indeed, the Bible appears in it and one of the adult characters is the local curate.  As the children are succumbing to a Satanism that’s raising a demon, he tries to teach them their Bible lessons.  Like Village of the Damned, the horror here centers on the children.  Flaunting the reverend’s rules, they play in the woods, raising the Devil.  Almost literally.  The demon they summon is called Behemoth.  Perhaps surprisingly, the judge actually saves the day in this one.  At first he’s convinced that the age of superstition is over and insists that it not be brought back.  He learns, however, that the demon is real and deals with it by rather physical means.  Who is Behemoth?

The word translates rather literally to “beasts.”  In the book of Job Behemoth is the land-bound companion to Leviathan, the two monsters that God cites to demonstrate his superiority over mere mortals.  As time wore on into the middle ages Behemoth and Leviathan were recast as demons, although it’s pretty clear that the book of Job doesn’t present them that way.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that demons aren’t fully formed beings in the ancient imagination.  Since the Bible says so little about them, ideas were drawn from folklore and other sources to flesh out these somewhat amorphous entities.  Descriptions of The Blood on Satan’s Claw quite often state that the children of the village are possessed.  If so, it is quite a different form of possession than will become standard two years later with the release of The Exorcist.  It is fitting, I suppose, for folk horror to have a folk demon for its antagonist.