Reduce, Reuse

Today’s trash day in my neighborhood. I suspect I’m not alone in having a soft spot for bad movies.  Perhaps it’s because I don’t like to see things wasted.  That, mingled in with my dislike of A-list culture where the people with all the advantages get all the notice.  I appreciate those who struggle.  Maybe that’s why I picked up Guy Barefoot’s Trash Cinema: The Lure of the Low.  That, and because I’ve read other books in the Short Cuts series and found them intelligent and informative.  And yet again, many horror movies are considered “trash”—indeed, Barefoot mentions quite a few of them—which makes me curious.  You see, even back when I was a grad student it was still thought, among some, that film wasn’t sufficiently intellectual to justify academic treatment.  The fact that media now dominates culture gives the lie to that assertion, especially since so many cerebral movies exist now.

In any case, Barefoot takes the subject seriously, using great care to define “trash.”  Given that the series stipulates brief books, this isn’t a comprehensive treatment, but it has a big takeaway for me.  Trash is simply what the majority of people don’t want.  As our landfill crises show, it never really goes away.  (We began composting when we bought our house, and the amount of trash dropped precipitously.  Food scraps can also become something useful.)  There are any number of reasons a producer or director might attempt trash—it’s quick and cheap, it shocks viewers, or it says something about our society.  Yes, even trash can teach us about ourselves.  Really, there’s a value to keeping things and trying to find the beauty where others see only garbage.

From my youngest days experiencing cinema (it was a rare treat then), I realized this was a powerful medium.  I still remember movies I saw as a child, imperfectly no doubt, even today.  And they still speak to me.  Some of them are great and others were almost forgettable.  Some are like gems while others seem like trash.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be watched, however.  A great number of trash films have become cult classics.  They may not reach the esteemed halls of academy award winners, but they are sometimes honest efforts without the money behind big studios.  I tend to root for the underdog.  Having said that, I haven’t seen most of the films discussed here.  Another way of looking at it is that my wishlist has grown.  


Following It

Perhaps while I was sleeping (or busy keeping to myself), several horror movies of the “intelligent” variety appeared.  Those scare quotes aren’t to imply the films aren’t actually intelligent, but rather that many people assume horror can’t be smart.  Yes, there have been some cheap scare phases in the genre when viewers didn’t need too much intellectual capacity to figure out someone else was about to get snuffed, but since the late 1960s many cerebral movies have appeared.  It has only recently become acceptable for academics to address horror, and now that they have begun to do so several more provocative films have become part of the discussion.  I’m now trying to catch up (as I can afford to) with those more intellectual movies.  One of them was It Follows.

Of course, seven years ago, when it was released, it didn’t get much press.  It did, however, impress the critics.  A movie about sexual awaking, it wouldn’t make Puritans very happy, but it is pretty scary.  The premise itself is frightening: “it” (never defined) follows young people after a sexual encounter with someone already “infected”—it is visible only to intended victims and although it follows slowly, it is persistent and unrelenting.  It will eventually catch up.  It can take the shape of anyone—stranger, friend, family.  The only way you can tell “it” is that it’s walking slowly straight toward you and nobody else can see it.  To get it off of your trail, you have to pass it along to someone else.  It starts killing and working back to the previous victims, so once it starts you’re never safe.

Part of the visual appeal of the movie is the urban decay around Detroit, where the film was shot.  Another is the lack of adults.  A few are shown here and there, but this is a young persons’ dilemma and the young people have to sort it out.  Bleak and contemplative, the movie has a literary streak to it.  This isn’t just horror for screams—there’s an existential element as well.  The only place that adults really play a role is when it finally catches up to its victims, it appears as their parent.  Various critics have suggested it is a movie about STDs, but to me it felt more like a movie about struggling to cope with the complications sexuality brings.  Unlike most horror I discuss here there really isn’t an element of religion to It Follows.  It may be some kind of demon, but never defining it makes the viewer stop and think.  And that makes it intelligent.


Scary States

You can usually tell, if you look close, when I’m on the trail of a new project.  This blog ranges fairly widely at times, but when lots of posts concentrate in a single area it’s likely something much larger is going on behind the scenes.  I’ve been writing quite a bit about horror lately.  Quite apart from the Republican Party, scary things are on my mind often.  I recently came across an article on KillTheCableBill that made me feel less weird.  It’s a story covering a survey showing the favorite horror movie per state.  Now, I won’t be able to fit all fifty into my usual daily word limit (wouldn’t want to arouse the word count police), so I’ll just add a few words about some of the interesting connections I noticed.  As in my books, if you see something, say something, right?

It’s kind of embarrassing that I haven’t seen the movie most often mentioned: The Devil’s Backbone.  I have to admit falling behind on my Guillermo del Toro movies.  I was surprised at the number of states’ favorites that I hadn’t seen.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately: if you have a full-time job which doesn’t include movie watching, it can be pretty difficult to make the time.  A number of classics don’t show up on the list, while some states have somewhat obvious favorites: Massachusetts’ Jaws, Colorado’s The Shining (it was filmed there), New Mexico’s Alien (think about it), and Maine’s The Lighthouse all fit into state self image in some way.  Horror preferences, in other words, may reflect who we are.  

A number of states, more conservative ones mostly, favor older films.  The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Pennsylvania’s favorite, I haven’t seen.  Like most aspects of my home state it’s a mix of things.  It comes from the early seventies, just as modern horror was getting started, but not too far into it.  Studies like this end up giving me homework.  When I can find the time I have a lot of viewing to do to catch up with my fellow Americans. I was surprised that The Exorcist isn’t on anybody’s list of favorites, not even Washington, DC’s.  It may be that films that are too real are too scary for many people.  Another finding, as noted in the article, is that the southeast states like horror the least.  I can’t help but wonder if things would be better, politically, if more people there watched horror and pondered the implications.  


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. 


More Conjuring

It was an almost surreal experience.  First of all, it’s been well over a year since I’ve been in a movie theater.  Secondly, I’ve never been to this particular theater before.  And in the third place, I’m absolutely alone in here.  I didn’t rent the theater out or anything, but I’ve been wanting to see The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It since June 4.  Actually, since September when it’s initial release was delayed due to the pandemic.  Everyone else around here must’ve seen it already.   I knew the story of Arne Johnson and the Warrens, having found and read Gerald Brittle’s book, The Devil in Connecticut.  Loosely based on that event, this story focuses on the actual fact that this was the first time not guilty by reason of demonic possession was proffered in a US courtroom.  The story is a strange one and the movie, as movies do, makes it even stranger.

I’ve been anticipating The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, despite the title, for a few years now.  If you’re familiar with Nightmares with the Bible you’ll know that an entire chapter is devoted to The Conjuring franchise.  You may also know that it is the most lucrative horror series of all time, apart from Godzilla in its many, many iterations.  One of the points in Nightmares was to try to make sense of the demonic world presented in the Conjuring universe.  The franchise, for the most part, deals with actual case files from Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Some of the episodes are pure fiction, however, and the explanations given in the films are all, well, conjured for the big screen.  The movies call attention to the Warrens’ work, but in a way that requires an entire chapter to untangle.

My initial impression is that this isn’t the best movie in the series.  I can’t replicate my previous work here, and I’ve only seen the movie once, so there are details I certainly missed.  The demon isn’t named this time.  Indeed, the backstory proposed is drawn from the spin-off film Annabelle.  A fictional satanic group called Disciples of the Ram is posited as causing the trouble.  Like the demon behind Annabelle, they’ve placed a curse on the Glatzel family for some unknown reason.  During the opening exorcism Arne, in an Exorcist move, asks the demon to take him instead of the young David, the brother of his girlfriend.  The movie leaves the Warrens to find out who put the curse on the Glatzels in the first place, and break it.  With some time for pondering I’ll likely come back to this movie again.  I do have to say that the book was probably scarier, although sitting in a theater alone to watch a horror movie is not something I hope to make a habit of doing.


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.


Scary Thoughts

The kinds of places I hang out, online, dictate my reading.  It’s not that I like to be scared, it’s just that I’m honest.  Besides, even when hanging out in person was possible I didn’t do much of it.  So I became aware of Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays.  Like me, Counter’s a blogger (among other things), but unlike me his blog is themed horror.  (This blog has an element of horror but is very roughly themed religion.)  Counter’s book is a fascinating collection of thoughts.  Some of the essays are funny, some are sad, and a few are downright profound.  It’s clear that what gave Counter his crisis was watching his father get shot.  Even those of us who grew up not knowing our dads can see how that experience would traumatize a life.  My own traumas were less focused than this, but we learned the same lesson—it pays to be afraid.

When I was young I never met a phobia I didn’t like.  As I grew older and left home, I came to bring them under control.  You can only get so far in life hiding under your blanket, secretly afraid you might suffocate.  I learned that if I wanted to be a minister—something that never happened—I had to overcome my fears.  Being a parent did it even more.  In order to try to teach your child not to be afraid, you find yourself doing things like scooping up bugs in your bare hands to show that they won’t hurt you.  Like putting a brave face on a truly scary situation.  Like carrying on when everything you’ve built crumbles around you.  Counter’s essays don’t shy away from the difficult things in life.  He’s right: there are many.

I was a monster boomer, but I only really came back to horror after losing my long-term teaching post and longed for career.  Horror helps you cope with trauma.  It gets a bad rap, but mostly from people who don’t understand its therapeutic value.  I don’t like being scared.  Horror, however, reminds me of that cozy childhood feeling of watching monster movies and knowing when it was over the threat would be gone.  Only it never was.  Not really.  Sleepless nights and their febrile dreams may’ve been triggered by the movies, but the realities happening behind the scenes were their real source.  I couldn’t know that at the time, and most of the time I’m not conscious of it now.  Still, I read books like Be Scared of Everything and I think maybe I’m on the right track.


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.


Holy or un?

It’s either brave or stupid.  Maybe both.  Writing about a movie you haven’t watched, I mean.  Multiple people (do I have a reputation, or what?) have pointed out to me that Good Friday (for some) is the release date for The Unholy.  Since Good Friday’s a week away I guess we’re getting an early start this year.  The Unholy is a new horror movie and although I try not to watch trailers before seeing a movie—too many of them show too much in advance—I already have a sense of what it’s about.  This post isn’t really about the movie, however.  It’s about the bigger issue.  The concern many have is that it’s being released on Good Friday.  One thing I’ve learned is that to get attention you have to shock people, no, Donald?  Getting noticed is difficult and outrage generally works.

Friday, for many, is movie night.  Good Friday is, for some Christians, a day for church.  I’ve yet to have an employer (other than Nashotah House) that recognized it as a special day at all.  Easter always falls on Sunday so there’s no need to give time off work, at least in this capitalist, Christian culture.  But if you try to release a horror movie that day, people notice.  Mel Gibson knew that crucifixion could make the basis of a horror film, and people noticed.  Sitting over here in the backwaters just outside academe, I took to horror as a means of keeping my book writing active.  One reason was that horror gets people’s attention.  (It also helps if your books are reasonably priced.)

As a young man I used to spend a good deal of Good Friday in church.  Since I was serious about school I’m thinking we probably had the day off in my district.  Attending a Christian college, followed by seminary, I suspect these also paid attention to the liturgical year.  Then in the real world I learned the truth—it’s just another day.  A day for going to work and increasing the profits for whatever company may have hired you.  When the day’s over you’ll be inclined to relax, and perhaps watch a movie.  Right now going to a theater opens the possibility for horror itself so I won’t be there on opening night for The Unholy, but I think there was some savvy thinking going on, in any case.  And it may just be that the movie was titled specifically to fit the occasion.


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.


Monster Guides

Reluctantly, almost begrudgingly, society seems to be accepting horror as a genre of more than cheap thrills, blood, and gore.  From childhood I was drawn to the gateway figure of vampires, but I’ve never been a fan of blood and gore, and not even cheap thrills.  You see, I saw something profound in horror.  A longing.  Experts might call it abjection, but to me there was a spiritual component to it, and I watch these kinds of movies to capture those moments of transcendence.  Adam Charles Hart seems to be aware of the draw horror has.  Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror across Media still shows its origins as a dissertation, but it has an appreciation for horror that doesn’t feel the need to make excuses for it.  Exploring the body-focus of horror, it delves into television, gaming, and other applications of the genre.

I have to admit that I don’t understand the cultural fascination with what we used to call video games.  I know they’re tremendously popular and the rights for gaming bring in even more royalties than sold movie rights do.  I just don’t get it.  Still, Hart explores how horror has become a very popular element in the gaming community.  Not only that but on the internet many young people like watching videos of other people playing games.  I’m sorry, but I’m just not that meta.  If I want to get lost in other worlds I read a book.  Or watch a movie.  And this is where Hart’s book shines.  His read on horror films is fresh and compelling.

Recently I had a conversation (virtual, of course) with some colleagues about the horror genre.  The topic of horror games came up.  I had to sit that part out.  I commended Hart’s book though.  For me time is too valuable to immerse myself into worlds where options are limited by some programmer’s imagination.  Movies will take a couple hours of your time.  If well done they’ll remain in your head for hours or days, interacting with other thoughts and experiences, and perhaps even inspiring the viewer.  If horror isn’t your thing, I get that.  I do have to say that the genre as grown up, and as Hart points out toward the end of his study, academy recognition of a couple of horror films in 2017 bodes well for the future of a genre that seems more and more applicable every day.  And when horror comes to town we’re going to need some able guides.


October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.


Fear Writing

Unless your publisher is good at marketing, that book you spend years on will remain unknown.  That “share” button in the right hands can make all the difference.  The other day while searching for reviews on Holy Horror I came across Scriptophobic.  The website had started a column titled “Holy Horror,” and so I contacted them asking if they’d like to review my book that shared the title.  They graciously accepted.  I want to drive traffic (in as far as I can drive anything) to their website, so I’ll simply say the review may be found by following this link.  It’s too early to tell if it will raise much awareness, but I’m glad to see a review at last.  I suppose I should let the publisher know.

Reviews are one way to get notice about a book out there.  It may not help that the idea behind the volume is a strange one: what can we learn about the Bible by watching horror?  (Or, as the reviewer points out, some not-quite horror.)  I’ve always had a bit of an issue, I suppose with strict genres.  Movies I consider horror may not be so for someone else.  I’ve read enough theory to know that even the experts have a difficult time pinning it down.  The real unifying factor behind the book is actually the Bible.  If I’d waited a little longer to write it I would’ve had more material to use, but I’m not getting much younger, and I needed to get the ball rolling or continue to wish I had.  Holy Horror really falls into the category of reception history, and more specifically as the study of iconic books.  Many biblical scholars, I’m discovering, have no interest in horror, or pop culture.

Books that bring unusual ideas together have always appealed to me.  Were I in a university department I would’ve asked colleagues to comment and critique, but this was a book done solo.  Appropriate to horror, perhaps, I was pretty much isolated when I wrote it.  Still, all things considered, I’m pleased at how it turned out.  No reviews have appeared on biblical sites, and I’ve always found the horror community to be so much more welcoming anyway.  That should be saying something right there.  Think about it.  In any case, if you’re interested in what intelligent horror fans think of a book like my humble effort to start a discussion, I encourage you to take a look.  Don’t wait for the biblical studies reviews unless you care to wait a very long time.


Something Burning?

It’s all Amazon’s fault, really.  Several years ago—I can’t recall how many—they were running a horror movie DVD sale (that’s how long ago!).  I hadn’t yet watched enough movies to write a book on the subject, and most of the movies on offer I hadn’t heard of.  One of them was called Burnt Offerings.  Well, burnt offerings, by definition, come from religious settings.  The DVD was very inexpensive, and so, well.  The movie wasn’t that scary, but it was moody, which is often what I’m really after.  I did wonder, however, at the title.  In one sense it fit the plot, but in other ways it was almost as if something were missing.  A vital clue.  For one thing, the movie was completely secular, nothing I could include in Holy Horror.  

I’ve watched the movie a few times over the years.  There’s something compelling about the story, even though missing something.  A little research revealed that the movie was based on a novel by the same title by Robert Marasco.  Now, when I learn a novel was written in the 1970s, my thoughts turn to used bookstores.  Although the days of getting books there for less than a dollar seems long gone, the fun of browsing makes up for it. I don’t know how many years I looked for it in shops throughout the tri-state area.  Now with the virus, I finally broke down and ordered it from Bookfinder.

My main reason for wanting to read the novel was to find what I’d been missing.  The movie, it turns out, follows the original story very closely, for the most part.  The ending is different, however, and that makes all the difference.  (If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, there will be spoilers here.)  The Rolfe family decides to move to an estate for the summer to get away from the noise of New York City.  There’s something odd in the house they’re renting, which they sensed even before moving in.  Marian Rolfe, the mother of the family, clearly becomes possessed by the house.  In a diabolical sense.  As her family dies off the house renews itself.  In a scene not in the movie, the regular caretaker stops in for a visit and tells Marian that she has to give her all to keep the house.  Finally, resigned to the death of her loved ones, she asks to have any remaining doubt burned out of her.  Her family will be the burnt offering.  So at last, it makes sense.  And yes, there’s a more religious theme in the book than there is in the movie.


Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.