Skin In

It took me back to my younger years.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film.  Wide ranging and insightful, this book was a delight to read.  Published in 2000, it discusses many movies that I watched in the eighties and which had somehow managed to be overrun by other stimuli since then.  I like to think that, even if recall isn’t instant, that we never truly lose the books we’ve read or movies we’ve watched.  (Some we may wish to forget, but that seems a sure way not to achieve that goal!)  As her subtitle says, Krzywinska’s book analyzes possession, witchcraft, and voodoo.  Since there are so many examples of these the discussion has to be selective, but she’s got a keen eye for choosing evocative films.

As any of my regular readers know (both of you!) I don’t really review the books in my “reviews.”  I limit myself to about 500 words and I don’t like to give spoilers.  A Skin for Dancing In would require quite a few words even to summarize.  Krzywinska covers demonology, possession, sacrifice, paganism, witchcraft, voodoo, and more, in several movies.  What really struck me in reading this was that she comes to a similar conclusion to what I’ve found—people learn about these things through film.  Scholars tend not to write much about such things (although this has improved somewhat since the turn of the millennium).  The average person doesn’t read academic books, and since culture has become “rational” there’s not much talk about such things from discoursing heads.  Still, movies.

These topics make for great movies.  One of the points I’ve made in my own work is that what we know about demons comes from the cinema.  It seems that we should pay close attention to what movies tell us.  They’re the “public intellectuals” that many academics want to be.  A Skin for Dancing In is a good example—it’s compelling, if a little academic, but very hard to find.  It’s difficult to lead public discussion if your book is limited to university libraries and those who have access to them.  Of course, you don’t need a talented scholar to tell you how to watch a movie, but I was reminded here of many films I thought I had forgotten.  And what’s more, I have a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger world of cinematic possession.  This is one of those books I wish I’d found sooner.


Religion and Its Objects

UFO religions—or should they now be called UAP religions?—have long been of interest to scholars of religion.  A recent piece on Religion Dispatches titled “With Release of Pentagon Report, UFO Narrative Belief System Is Suddenly Supported by Military Witness Testimonies,” by Diana Pasulka, explores this.  Anyone following mainstream media is perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash on the topic since, prior to admission of interest by the government, the official stance was to ridicule the entire topic.  That’s the reason what were long known as Unidentified Flying Objects now have to be called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  Since a government can never admit it made mistakes, it simply changes the terminology.  My interest here, however, is in the connection with religion.

I’ve explored the connection between horror and religion from time to time—ahem—and so it is natural enough to wonder about the relationship between religion and UAPs.  (Or should I stick with UFOs?)  The two have some commonalities.  Initially, both deal with the unknown.  Indeed, the word monster comes from a root denoting an omen, or a revelation.  Something isn’t a revelation unless it’s been keep hidden.  So with UFOs.  The government’s long interest, which had been somewhat successfully hidden, allowed for a reveal.  Religions, however, tend to thrive on hidden things.  The monotheistic religions, for example, claim to inform us about what God has chosen to reveal about (generally) himself.  Even today when pushed into a theological corner, believers will appeal to mystery.  Both monsters and UFOs live in mystery.

Science prefers things out in the light.  Is it any wonder that scientists are reluctant to apply themselves and their hard-earned credentials to the UAP problem?  Those of us in religious studies generally have little to lose.  It’s not like we’ve got prestige on our side, or some billion-dollar grant riding on our reputation.  We can afford to take a look and monsters and other unknowns and see how they trigger the religious impulse.  Pasulka’s article has more to do with credibility.  UFO religions have long struggled with being considered outsider belief systems.  UFOs were publicly ridiculed, so any religion that focused on them was, by extension, laughable.  I’ve long believed that ridicule serves little purpose when it comes to belief systems.  Making fun of a mystery is less common than shaming those who believe in what we’ve been told definitely isn’t real.  Until suddenly it becomes real.  Is there any question why religions develop when mysteries remain?


Screening the Dark

We’re spoiled.  The intensity of our media experiences makes it nearly impossible to imagine the truth of stories that viewers fainted at films such as Frankenstein even less than a century ago.  This change in outlook, this sense of being over-stimulated, occurred to me while reading Kendall R. Phillips’ excellent A Place of Darkness.  In keeping with the subtitle (The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema) Phillips primarily addresses pre-Dracula films, beginning in 1896 and demonstrates how horror themes emerged early and evolved along with society’s norms.  There is so much insight here that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  For me one of the big takeaways was how Americans at this stage were eager to appear non-superstitious and how they used that concern to keep the supernatural out of early ghost films.

Phillips isn’t afraid to address the role of religion in horror.  Other cultural historians note this as well, but many pass over it quickly, as if it’s an embarrassment.  Since my own humble books in the field of horror are based on the religious aspects of such movies, I’m always glad to find specialists who are willing to discuss that angle.  As America grew more and more enamored of the idea of rationalism, less and less energy was put into suggesting that anything supernatural might be at work.  Supernatural was considered foreign and cinema followed society’s lead.  This led to—and I want to add that this isn’t Phillips’ terminology—the Scooby-Doo Effect where every seeming monster had to be revealed as a hoax.  As a kid I watched Scooby-Doo in the vain hope that the mystery might turn out to be real.

Studies of horror films generally acknowledge that the first real member of that genre is Tod Browning’s Dracula of 1931.  Phillips demonstrates the valuable pre-history to that and does an excellent job of explaining why Dracula was such a singular movie.  Horror elements had been around from the beginning, but Browning’s film made no excuses—the vampire is real.  Audiences were shocked and thrilled by this and other studios didn’t quite know whether they should follow Universal’s Depression-Era success or not.  Mostly they decided not to.  The Universal monsters seem innocent enough today, but we go to theaters where the floors shake when heavy footsteps fall and the sound of a door creaking open comes from behind us.  Special effects make the horror seem real.  No excuse is made for religion and its monsters.  We’re spoiled. 


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Reviewing Nightmares

If you’ve wanted a copy of Nightmares with the Bible but the cost is a little dear, I might recommend you look on the Reading Religion website where, as of my last look, a free review copy is available.  The catch is you have to write a review.  This is, of course, first come, first served service.  I tried, more than once, to get Holy Horror listed on their website for review, so I’m glad to see one of my books finally made it.  The idea of the horror hermeneutic seems to be catching on.  Technically speaking, however, what I’m doing is more history of religions than hermeneutics.  History of religions, at least part of it, examines whence ideas arise.  Nightmares asks that question specifically about demons.

The specific focus on horror in religion is a fairly new field of study.  Biblical scholars—indeed, those who specialize in very old fields of study in general—must keep looking for new angles.  Unlike any other piece of literature, the Good Book has been the target of scholarly interest from the very beginning of the western academic tradition.  It’s easy to forget, when looking at many secular powerhouse schools, that the very idea of higher education arose from what is now the discipline of the lowest paid of academic posts.  Being so old, religious studies, known at the time as theology, is hardly a venerated field.  I tend to think it’ll come back.  If you look at what’s happening in politics in this country, it’s bound too.  And yes, there will be horror.

Horror studies in the field operates by recognizing that horror and religion share common ground.  Like religion, horror is considered backward and uninformed.  Neither is really true of either horror or religion, but perception becomes reality for most people.  Finding themselves in remedial class together religion and horror have begun to speak to one another.  Horror has quite a following, even if those who like it keep mostly quiet about it.  The same is true of religion.  Many of the most effective horror films bring religion directly into the mix, often making it the actual basis of the horror.  The first books that I know of that brought the two explicitly together only began appearing at the turn of the millennium.  At first there were very few.  Now an increasing number of tomes have begun to appear.  For better or worse, two of mine are in the mix.  If you’d like to review the most recent one, you might check out Reading Religion, and maybe spare a kind word or two for what are, after all, baby steps.


Helpful Horror

It’s pretty obvious when you meet one.  A horror fan, that is.  For one thing, they’re mostly decent people who often feel like outcasts for their tastes.  They also tend to have a well-developed critical sense for films.  While I’ve never actually met S. A. Bradley, I feel like I know him after reading Screaming with Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy.  This is a must-read for horror fans and it comes with enticing descriptions of movies you’ll want to see afterward.  Bradley’s range is truly exceptional.  Not only that, but his taste in films leads to an inherent trust that he won’t steer you wrong.  The movies he recommends—the ones that I’ve seen—wholly bear him out.  The man’s a connoisseur.

Perhaps it was because I, like Bradley, was raised in a very religious household, but his recognition that horror and religion are closely related really spoke to me.  With a similar radar toward the religious impact of horror, he notes at several points how the two interact. His discussion includes horror in music and literature as well as cinema.  The benefits of the genre are unapologetically discussed, including the relatively high proportion of women who direct horror compared to other genres.  Unlike other movie genres, horror suffers from a perennial bad image.  Bradley confronts why this is so and also why it is misguided.  The bias is deep and undeserved.  Ironically, many of the same kinds of criticisms are now being leveled at religions as well.

Bradley’s book isn’t about religion and horror.  As someone raised in a religious household and who used horror to cope, however, he understands how the two are related.  Horror can heal.  When those of us in similar settings come to realize that horror is offering a means of getting along in a cruel world, it answers questions in a way that theodicy can’t.  Horror can be an intellectual experience.  It can be thoughtful.  But what comes through here is that it is also honest.  Life is complex and difficult.  Horror doesn’t shy away from that, but brings it out into the open.  I’ve read many books that analyze horror, and there are many more yet to read.  Bradley does something a bit different from many of them—he writes from a broad experience both in life and in the genre and comes up with an eloquent statement about a genre often dismissed.  And those willing to read it come away the better for it.


Horror and Theology

The idea may be catching on. The idea I mean is that horror and religion have something to do with one another. I have to confess that I’ve been one of the (non-academic) explorers of this approach and I was flattered to have been asked to contribute an essay to the just released volume Theology and Horror: Exploration of the Dark Religious Imagination, edited by Brandon R. Grafius and John W. Morehead. My article looks at the origins of horror in biblical (and perhaps pre-biblical) storytelling. In fact it is one of the oldest forms of exploring what it means to be human. Perhaps it began its life as an evolutionary fight or flight response, but it eventually came to represent a way of dealing with the human condition. Horror is generally traced to the gothic novel tradition, but I suggest it goes back much further.

This volume contains twelve essays on a variety of topics, along with an introduction by the volume editors. Since my copy only just arrived in Friday’s mail I haven’t had the opportunity to explore it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Ironically, it’s an area that I began probing only after the academy no longer required my services. As I reflect on that ubiquitous “why” question I often come back to that fact. Nothing like having your career yanked out from under you makes you consider horror as a kind of therapy. Things could be worse. Besides, horror frequently demonstrates coping skills. And change is constant. Learning to adjust when the monsters of capitalism loom can make you think of religion—trust me.

Individual scholars have examined the connection between religion and monsters before—there’s a pretty obvious connection in that case—but sustained discussion of how horror informs religion is new. The developments are sometimes edgy, but I get the sense that they’re honest. It goes back to that flight or fight response. What happens if you hang around to look? Might not something become clear that was only viewed through a blurred lens before? And the goal isn’t to cause fright. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. Frights will come, and if you’ve anticipated them you might have coping skills at hand. Besides, the frisson can be enticing in its own way. Receiving a new publication can be its own source of thrills. I guess I knew this volume was coming but I’d been busy enough to have shoved the thought aside. I’m delighted it decided to interrupt the mundane, just like monsters often do.


Feelings of Horror

One thing that’s become clear to horror fans (or those of us who try to analyze it, anyway) is that more and more pundits are asking serious questions about its appeal and its utility.  A particularly interesting piece on Bloody Disgusting (and that title isn’t representative of the site) explores how horror is often about probing grief, loss, and mourning.  People who immediately associate horror with slashers and blood and gore probably became aware of the genre in the 1980s.  In the post-slasher era (and even during it) many thoughtful films have dealt with the primary areas associated with pastoral care: mourning, grief, and loss are the bread and vegan butter of ministerial work.  These are elements all people have to face, and some horror is remarkably adept at helping viewers do so.

We all die.  Horror has never been shy about that fact.  When the dead do come back it’s seldom good.  Given the permanence of the situation, it seems reasonable to think about it in advance.  Shallower topics are good too—life without fun is hardly worth the effort.  Horror, however, reminds us that the bill remains due at the end.  One of the main points of Holy Horror is that people tend to find their meaning through pop culture.  (It can also be through more classical means as well, but the point remains the same.)  We watch movies for more than entertainment.  Movies other than horror deal with loss, mourning, and grief, of course.  But as Stephen King once noted, this genre forces the reluctant to look.  What seems to be under-appreciated is how sympathetic it is to the human condition.

Apart from a few colleagues who work in this same nexus of religion and horror, I know few fans of the genre.  Most people I know shy away from it.  For me, it seems to be a brutally honest genre.  There are speculative elements in much of horror—those are the elements that make the films fun to watch, in my opinion.  Speculative is often synonymous with supernatural, or spiritual.  Spirituality is often coded as a positive.  Life throws a lot of loss and grieving our way.  A genre that brings these things together can’t be all bad.  Some of the more recent transcendent horror can be downright profound in its probing.  The editorial by Marcus Shorter doesn’t take the step of addressing the pastoral aspects of the genre, but they are plainly there.  And they can offer solace that all people can use.


Religion’s Trickster

I’m not sure I’ve read any fiction by Native American writers before.  Owl Goingback has established a reputation among horror writers for his blending of Indian concepts and the horror genre.  Coyote Rage is a novel that blends worlds.  Coyote is, of course, a trickster figure.  Upset with human abuse of the world and our indiscriminate killing of animals, he decides to wipe out the human race.  Since all animals, including humans, plead their causes in the council in Galun’lati, the original world, he decides to take humans out by killing their last representative on the council, an elderly Native American in a nursing home.  The fact that his victim has a daughter unaware of her heritage, means that Coyote has two people to hunt.  As a shapeshifter able to travel between worlds, Coyote is a formidable enemy.

I don’t want to put any spoilers here, but it is worth considering the spiritual aspects of the story and how they blend so well into horror.  I’ve commented before on how religion plays into the genre.  Here is yet another example.  Galun’lati is presented as reality.  Not only do the animals talk there, it is a place that has its own dangers.  It’s a forest world, appropriate to Native American experience and context.  It’s very much a natural, supernatural world.  The novel splits its time between Galun’lati and the New World—this world—as humans try to prevent their own extinction while most people have no idea there’s even any threat.  Oblivious, we carry on.   Religion can play into horror that way.  While there are plenty of examples of purely secular horror, in my experience tales that have supernatural sources of threat are the scariest.

It may come back to the issue of ultimate concern.  When our spiritual wellbeing is taken into account, we often approach it with some trepidation.  The physical world feels so real and occupies much of our time.  If, however, we need to add spiritual concerns on top of everything else, it can become overwhelming.  What if physical threats, such as the coronavirus, and any other of a myriad of dangers, are only part of the picture?  What if there is another entire world in which we also have a stake?  If that world is beyond normal perception, we must rely on those who understand it.  Much effective horror knows to tap into this area of natural uncertainty.  Owl Goingback uses it remarkably well in crafting a horror tale that makes you think.


The New Light

Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently.  It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct.  Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend.  The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year.  As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book.  I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners?  I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters.  What’s wrong with me anyway?

One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow.  Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil.  There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them.  Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable.  Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment.  She spends time in caves.  She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing.  These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics.  There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.

My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy.  My religion simply can’t be shallow.  I need enough water to swim.  And yes, I’m afraid of deep water.  Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise.  If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills.  And I seem to have assimilated to it.  As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context.  Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes.  Without the dark we could never tell that it was light.  Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.


Horizontal Thinking

“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts.  I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic.  (And a better paying job.)  In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline.  In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system.  I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible.  The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared.  Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic.  Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation.  Especially in theology.

Horizon

I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror.  Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs.  People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others.  I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly.  Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase.  Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.

Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however.  Both address primal human fears.  Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is.  If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion?  We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it.  Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear.  Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace.  Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too.  I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.