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.

Proof in the Pudding

Writers anticipate and dread proofs.  After several months of delay, I have received the proofs for Holy Horror—it should be out in the next couple of months for both of you who’ve asked about it.  Anticipation is pretty straightforward, but why the dread?  Those of us who write books have to deal with the fact that publishing is, by nature, a slow business.  What I’m proofreading now is material that I wrote a couple of years ago; the final manuscript was submitted back in January.  The internet has accelerated the pace of everything, and now that I have a daily record of my public thoughts on this blog, I can see how my own outlook has changed in that time.  Reading proofs reminds you of whence you came, not where you are.

I suspect that has something to do with the internet and instant access to information.  I also suspect that’s why many of us trust books more than the “open web.”  The oak that has taken centuries to grow is a hardy tree.  The handcrafted piece of furniture lasts longer than the mass produced.  Books, hopefully, stand the test of time.  Writing is an exercise in building eternity.  These thoughts, the author hopes, will be around for some time to come.  As long as libraries endure.   Looking at the proofs, there’s pressure to get things right.  Was I correct in what I wrote down so long ago?  Since then I’ve read dozens of books more.  I’ve even written the draft of another book myself.  I face the proofs and shudder.

Part of my angst, I suppose, is that Holy Horror will likely sell better than my previous two books.  It may actually get read.  No, it won’t be any kind of best-seller, but perhaps a few hundred people will read it.  That’s a lot of pressure for those of us who’ve primarily written for other academics.  Perhaps this fear is the reason I’ve moved to writing about horror films.  Those of us blocked from the academy have to build our own credibility, one book at a time.  Reading the proofs, although already dated, I find myself liking this book.  It was fun to write, and it has a good message, I think.  Even prestige presses know that books about horror films are of popular interest.  As I read through where my mind was in days stretching back before the nightmare of Trump, I see that I had only just started on this path.  Before me are the proofs of that.

Scriptural Slashers

Let me relish this a moment.

Thanks.  You still there?  It’s not too often, you see, that I get to feel like I’m near the front of the crowd.  I began writing Holy Horror when there were a small handful of books on the market concerning horror and the Bible.  I wasn’t aware of Brandon R. Grafius’ work at the time, but it sure is gratifying to see that others have noticed the connection.  Reading Phinehas, Watching Slashers: Horror Theory and Numbers 25 is pretty much what its title says.  I’ll be having more to say on it in a different venue—don’t worry, I’ll let you know—so I’ll keep to the basics here.  My spellcheck, and I’m sure not a few others, might have trouble identifying Phinehas.

In one of those weird, short, violent episodes for which the Good Book is justly famous, the story of Phinehas is clearly part of a larger, untold narrative.  Like the sons of the gods marrying the daughters of men in Genesis 6.  The grandson of Aaron, Phinehas was one of the hereditary priests of early Israel.  The Israelites wandering for their 40 years in the wilderness were nearly as xenophobic as the Trump Administration.  When one of the chosen people chose a foreign wife, Phinehas, full of zeal, grabbed a spear and skewered the couple.  Tradition says in flagrante delicto.  This act of violence stops a raging plague sent by the Almighty, so Phinehas looks like a hero in context.  If you want to read the story the subtitle tells you where to find it.  Or you could read Grafius’ excellent book.

Horror, which should be already obvious, enters the picture in the form of theory.  Yes, there is such a thing as horror theory.  Grafius uses it to analyze this story, along with other methods.  This is what I’m relishing.  I certainly wasn’t the first to notice the connection.  Many years ago Phyllis Trible wrote Texts of Terror, noting how the Bible seems less holy (my expression, not hers) when read from the perspective of a woman.  Indeed, many accounts that seem like standard issue narratives of God laying down the rules and humans disobeying tend to fall pretty heavily on females.  And the punishments used are fit for horror films.  Grafius focuses specifically on slashers, but one gets the sense that this book is just the start of something larger.  This reader, at least, hopes that is the case.

Nun Among Them

Life is sweet when watching a horror movie counts as research.  It’d be sweeter, of course, if a university paid for it, nevertheless, I went to see The Nun on its opening weekend.  My wife gamely went with me (no sponsor was paying for this) on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Now, if you haven’t been following The Conjuring universe, you might not know about The Nun.  The full story will be revealed in Nightmares with the Bible, which is coming along nicely.  Suffice it to say it’s a movie about a haunted convent in Romania.  Those who know the Dracula tradition will perk up at the mention of the location.  The scenery is quite lovely in a horror genre kind of way.  And it also has ties to The Conjuring diegesis that bring the story full circle.

Ghostly nuns, it turns out, can be scary.  Religion, after all, involves coercion and threat as well as love and salvation.  Sister Irene, the protagonist, is a novice nun sent on a mission to investigate said convent.  The film reveals both an awareness of religious motivation and a seeming lack of research regarding monastic life.  Sister Irene, for example, tells the students at her school that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally.  It’s “God love letter to humanity.”  Well, parts of it are.  Still, the struggle with biblical literalism is a present-day issue that the movie addresses head on.  It was difficult to believe, on the other hand, that even a novice would walk into a chapel where someone is praying and call out “Hello?”.  Many years at Nashotah House taught me something.

Cloistered environments, although not part of most people’s experience, are great locations for horror.  For example, the first night she spends in the monastery Irene is told that the great silence is observed until dawn.  Did I mention that in chapel no one can hear you scream?  There’s an element about that in actual cloistered life.  The discipline of secrecy is heavy and full of threat.  We spent a great many silent days at Nashotah House and the sense of violation as sin was heavy indeed.  The part that truly stood out, however, was where the nuns used their only recourse against evil; they had to pray.  In the world of action movies, striking out with whatever is at hand is the expected response.  Spiritual entities, although the film does relent, can’t be touched except with spiritual threats.  The praying nuns looked so helpless in the presence of a demon.

There were less than a dozen people in the theater.  The Nun may not be a runaway hit.  The devoted will see it, however, and some of us will include it in our working life as a kind of spiritual exercise.

A Kind of Happening

The roofers were here.  One of the things you learn only after laying down a ton of money is that those selling a house like to withhold information.  Moving during one of the rainiest summers in history, we naturally discovered leaks.  And so the roofers are here, like noisy angels banging above my head.  Given the orientation of our house, their access is outside the window of my work office.  I figured it was an opportunity to learn.  As the old shingles came raining down, however, I couldn’t help thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening.  One of his more disappointing efforts, this horror film involved a memorable scene of mass suicide where people jumped off of a high building one after another.  Maybe other people would think of other comparisons, but the falling debris brought the film to mind in my case.

It’s a matter of framing, I suppose.  I’ve watched enough horror that it has become a framing device.  This is true although it has literally been months since I’ve seen a horror film.  (Moving proved to be its own kind of nightmare and one day I suspect we’ll be unpacked enough to watch movies again.)  Instead of losing the frame of reference, however, I find it intact.  If you spend long enough with Poe, he gets under your skin.  And changing states to M. Night Shyamalan’s eastern Pennsylvania might have something to do with it.  This is Bucks County territory, after all.  Another frame of reference, mediated by media.

As I watch the old shingles drop, I realize the window through which I’m witnessing this is another frame.  Like a camera lens, it limits my view.  At times it can be like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, seeing neighbors at their daily business.   Indulge me. For nearly the past five years I worked in a cubicle with no view of any windows whatsoever.  I was completely cut off from the outside.  (Which, for those of you who’ll admit to having seen The Happening, might not have been an entirely bad thing.)  Now that I have a window—my own framing device—I realize some of what I’d been missing.  At Routledge I had a window, but at such a level that the Manhattan outside seemed artificial.  You couldn’t see individuals down on the street.  The entire wall was a window—too much of a frame.  Gorgias Press involved working in a windowless room as well.  I’m professional enough not to let the falling material or the pounding distract me much.  There’s work to do because there are bills to pay.  And horror films prepared me for that as well.  It’s the ultimate framing device.