Quiet Now

The funny thing about my movie watching is that it’s a reflection of my scattered lifestyle.  While I was teaching my career progression was linear with a goal of moving beyond Nashotah House to a college or university that shared my values better.  Publishing was a fallback, and I’ve learned a lot but I haven’t unlearned my academic leanings.  So, like the rest of my life, my movie watching is piecemeal.  I found a copy of A Quiet Place in a Halloween sale.  My wife bought it for me and on a weekend on my own I watched it.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d read that it was an intelligent horror film, and that was good enough for me!  There may be spoilers here if you live in a cave, like I do (metaphorically), so be warned.

The backstory isn’t fully spelled out, but the monsters in this movie are blind and attracted to their victims by sound.  The focus is on a family in upstate New York that’s trying to survive without making any noise.  Since there are kids involved, you’ll see how tricky this could be.  John Krasinski’s film builds the suspense wonderfully.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan at his best, and Alien and even Stranger Things, the movie has a odd effect.  When it’s over you don’t want to make any noise.  I watched it while my wife had to work over the weekend, and I put the DVD away as quietly as I could, and then went to bed.  Awaking alone the next morning, I continued the vigil.  Critics praised the movie for its silence, perhaps what we’re most afraid of in this noisy world.

I spend a lot of time saying nothing.  Editing is a quiet job.  Telecommuting is a quiet lifestyle.  At Nashotah House we had mandatory quiet days, which, if they weren’t mandatory I would’ve loved.  I’d seriously considered a monastic lifestyle when I was younger—there’s great value in being quiet.  A horror film that teaches that lesson, despite many obviously unanswered questions, is worth paying attention to.  Horror films have continued to grow more intelligent over the years.  This one is rated PG-13 and will have you on the edge of your seat (or under the bed) anyway.  And it’s got an important message.  For those of us who don’t say much (maybe that’s why I write all the time) a movie like this acts, if you will, as a loudspeaker.  Does anybody hear me?

Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Book Signing

Okay, so I’ve got a book signing for Holy Horror coming up at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem.  And they’ve advertised it in the local paper.  I’m humbled and honored by this, especially since I have no local following.  When I go to the website of the newspaper, The Morning Call, ads pop up on the top, bottom, and center of the page, obscuring the event.  I take this as kind of symbolic.  Life is crowded.  We seem to have turned the corner to autumn around here with nights being distinctly chilly.   After the languorous heat of summer when even thinking about winterizing seemed to add another layer of insulation over already too warm body, now we suddenly have to try to fit it in among an already crowded schedule.  At least I don’t have to commute too much any more.

I’m trying to get ready for the book signing, but I don’t really know what to do.  Perhaps I should try to get some business cards printed up.  Maybe I should think of some catch-phrase to use if anyone actually buys a high-priced book.  What should I wear?  Working at home can make you feel like a recluse sometimes.  I don’t have enough money to be considered eccentric, but I don’t get out among hoi polloi much either.  If most people have as much trouble as I do clicking off the ads to get to the event underneath, those who swing by the table are likely to be few.  Still, I’m looking forward to meeting local horror film fans.  They are, in general, a surprisingly cordial bunch.

After Nightmares with the Bible I’m going to focus on trying to find more mainstream publishers.  The reason is simple: academic publishers tend to be overpriced.  I’ve worked in publishing long enough to be able to decode pricing schemes.  There is a logic to them, even if at times it feels like you’re being overshadowed by pop-up windows.  To get a wide readership you need a pretty big platform, and getting a following on any form of social media takes the one thing I don’t have enough of.  Time.  You see, just the other day it was summer and we felt like we were baking.  Now the equinox has plunged us into the days of getting the furnace cleaned and operational and looking at the prices of insulation and shaking our heads.  Somewhere under all of these pop-ups are ideas waiting to be written down.

Power of Parables

Parables come in all sizes and shapes, horror movie-shaped, some of them.  In my perpetual struggle to catch up, I finally got to see Get Out.  One of the raft of well-made, intelligent horror films that have been released recently, it’s been out long enough that I suspect my spoilers will be well known.  The Armitage family, resident in upstate New York, has been kidnapping and using African-Americans to make up for the perceived weaknesses of their family and friends.  One of their main means of obtaining victims is through their daughter Rose, who brings her boyfriends home for the weekend so they can be hypnotized by her psychiatrist mother and operated on by her neurosurgeon father.  The reveal comes slowly, but the discomfort begins early on.

Released early in the Trump White House tenure, the movie is a study in an intense xenophobia that nestles somewhere between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Stepford Wives.  It’s inherently uncomfortable watching Chris Washington, the protagonist, being treated as if his very presence requires constant comment in the world of white privilege.  He, of course, had misgivings before ever climbing into Rose’s car, but her convincing display of liberalism was enough to overcome his hesitation.  For me, watching the film made it clear that privilege is something assumed, even when it isn’t had in any explicit way.  The Armitage family and their friends are well-to-do but even if the setting were more mundane the message would still have worked—our culture imposes and reimposes its message of white superiority in subtle ways that the camera captures here.

Quite apart from its nature as a parable, Get Out is a demonstration of the social consciousness of horror.  Its reputation as a debased, low-brow appeal to all that’s unsavory to watch is misplaced at times.  While Get Out is uncomfortable it’s that way for a reason.  Were it not, it would lose its important message.  All privileged people need to be able to see through the eyes of those who are culturally disenfranchised, and although the “us versus them” mentality is problematic it has to be faced honestly and openly.  The very fact that a human construct like race could be used as the basis for a horror film in America raises questions that ought to make all of us squirm.  Setting the story in New York, where prejudice might be supposed not to remain only underscores how deeply its roots have grown.  Horror with a conscience is perhaps as much a vehicle for social change as it is a genre more honest than often supposed.  That’s how parables tend to be.

Horror Homeroom

With a happy coincidence I discovered a website called Horror Homeroom.  Featuring articles and podcasts and reviews on horror films, I felt its siren call.  Then I learned it is run by a professor at nearby Lehigh University, making it even closer than I initially supposed.  I wanted to be part of the conversation.  You see, after years and years of being a Bible scholar and having to fight to find any kind of interest whatsoever in what I had to say, I’ve found the horror community extremely welcoming.  Perhaps because we all know at some level that horror is considered transgressive—it isn’t unusual to find critics who still claim it’s debased—we find each other.  There’s an aesthetic to horror, and it isn’t about gore and violence.  Horror, when done well, is an excellent marker of what it means to be human.

Life always ends in death.  Many people spend as much time as possible trying to avoid thinking about it.  There is, however, great creativity in facing squarely what you cannot change.  Well, that’s a good sounding excuse anyway.  All of this is by way of announcing my guest blog post on Horror Homeroom.  A few weeks back I was quite taken with The Curse of La Llorona.  Not that it was a great movie, but it had a way of coming back to haunt me.  Part of it has to do with the poorly understood way that local customs blend with imperialistic religions.  Faith is a local phenomenon.  Once you switch off the televangelist, you’ll begin sharing beliefs of your neighbors.  There’s no such thing as a pure religion.  Pure religion is one of the most dangerous myths there is.

Those of us who study religion professionally have been taught to call the blending of religions “syncretism.”  I’ve stopped using that word for it because it assumes that there are pure forms of religion.  Religion always takes on an individual element.  We make it our own when it gets translated into our personal gray matter.  The idea that there is a pure form of any religion requires an arbiter of greater rank than any here on earth.  You can always say “but I think it means…”  Horror, I suspect, latched onto this truth long ago.  Without some hint of doubt about your own individualized belief system, it’s difficult to be afraid.  Horror need not be about blood and gore.  Often it isn’t.  Often it’s a matter of asking yourself what you believe.  And once you answer it, opening yourself to asking questions.

Summertime Boos

There are so many of them that it’s difficult to keep up.  Movies, I mean.  And they can be an expensive habit.  As some readers may know, I’ve followed The Conjuring franchise pretty much from the beginning.  That particular film was long anticipated (at least in certain circles), but still I waited until it was available for home viewing to see it.  I always feel kind of selfish going to the movies on my own since they are a kind of event—a form of social outing.  For me, however, horror movies are research, but that hasn’t taken away the thrill of seeing one on the big screen once in a while.  The Conjuring branched off into the Annabelle movies, and I caught the latest offering in the latter series in a theater.  I hadn’t realized that The Curse of La Llorona had been released a couple months earlier, and that it was being considered part of the diegesis.  It was back to the small screen to catch up.

La Llorona is based on a Mexican folktale and is tied to the other films in its universe by a character who recurs from Annabelle, Fr. Perez.  He’s not the protagonist, but he does introduce one way in which horror responds to the present insanity we call the US government—the character who defeats the fiend is hispanic.  In fact, most of the characters in the film are from hispanic families in Los Angeles.  They take down the ghost without the assistance of border guards or any kind of wall.  They don’t need the simpering help of the GOP.  Like most of the movies in this franchise, however, they do make use of religion.

When Fr. Perez can’t offer immediate help to the family beset by La Llorona (“the weeping woman”), he points them to a local shaman.  In this otherwise Catholic world, the truly amazing outcome is that the faith healer does possess the knowledge and ability to stop the evil.  While the backstory of the ghost is well known, the nature of the entity is a bit unclear.  Most Conjuring films feature a demonic presence, so it’s kind of a relief to have a garden variety ghost for a change.  You see, when Ed and Lorraine Warren challenge entities in these movies they do so with religious accoutrements which tend not to fail.  Ghosts, however, traditionally don’t require a religious banishment.  We’re entering new territory here, of course.  And I hadn’t even known about this film until after I’d seen its predecessor.  How can you hope to keep up with spirits?  It’s a full-time job. 

Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.