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.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

Better Late Than

It seems that Holy Horror is now available, although I haven’t seen it yet.  According to the McFarland website it’s in stock just in time for the holidays.  Those of you who know me (few, admittedly) know that I dabble in other social media.  One of my connections on Goodreads (friend requests are welcome) recently noted that he does not like or watch horror.  Indeed, many people fall into that category.  His follow-up comments, however, led me to a reverie.  He mentioned that reading the lives of the saints and martyrs was horrific enough.  One of the claims I make in Holy Horror is that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a horror film.  My friend’s comment about martyrs got me to thinking more about this and my own revisionist history.

Traditionally horror is traced to the gothic novel of the Romantic Period.  Late in the eighteenth century authors began to experiment with tales of weirdly horrific events often set in lonely castles and monasteries.  From there grew the more conventional horror of vampire and revenant tales up into the modern slasher and splatter genres.  I contest, however, that horror goes back much further and that it has its origins in religious writing.  Modern historians doubt that the mass martyrdoms of early Christianity were as widespread as reported.  Yes, horrible things did happen, but it wasn’t as prevalent as many of us were taught.  The stories, nevertheless, were written.  Often with gruesome details.  The purpose of these stories was roughly the same as the modern horror film—to advocate for what might be called conservative social values.  The connection is there, if you can sit through the screening.

Holy Horror focuses on movies from 1960 onward.  It isn’t comprehensive, but rather it is exploratory.  I’ve read a great number of histories of the horror genre—a new one is on my reading stack even as I type—and few have traced this phenomenon back to its religious roots.  Funnily, like horror religion will quickly get you tagged as a weirdo.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both goths and priests wear black.  As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stephen King’s horror novels often involve religious elements.  This isn’t something King made up; the connection has been there from the beginning.  We may have moved into lives largely insulated from the horrors of the world.  Protestants may have taken the corpus from the crucifix for theological reasons, but for those who’ve taken a moment to ponder the implications, what I’m saying should make sense.  Holy and horror go severed hand in bloody glove.

Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.