Tag Archives: horror movies

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Mythologies

Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!

Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.

I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

The Hardest Part

The waiting, Tom Petty suggested, is a most difficult portion (no copyright violations!). The late, great departed rocker had a point. When I was younger I thought waiting was a theological problem, but the fact is it’s an unavoidable part of life. Right now I’m in that holding pattern between having submitted my files for Holy Horror and awaiting anxiously the proofs. Anxiously because there’s so much going on right now that I’m not sure how I can carve out the time to read them. Time and tides, they say, wait for no one.

I suspect a big part of this is that I have high hopes for this book. Not that I’m being unrealistic. I’m hoping to break that 500 copies barrier that holds most academic books hostage. Holy Horror isn’t really academic—it’s not technical at all like my last two books were—it’s just that the premise is academic. What do horror movies tell us about the Bible? I take that question seriously. You see, I read about the Bible a lot. Whether we want to admit it or not, western culture is based on it both implicitly and explicitly. People who castigate it don’t seem to realize that our very way of thinking is based on it. If you doubt that, talk to someone raised in eastern Asia. Someone thoroughly Buddhist or Confucian in outlook. The way we frame our thinking is based on a biblical worldview over here. It’s smart to pay attention to things like that.

At the same time, we are believers in media. Looking out the bus window on the way home I’m always amazed at how many people on the Parkway are texting while they’re driving (yes, you can be seen from above!). We can’t live without our media. When it comes to the Good Book, most people rely on media to tell them what it says. Horror, although not popular with many people, always does well at the box office. And one of the things I explore in Holy Horror is just how often the Bible appears in such movies. It’s not ubiquitous, but it certainly isn’t rare either. We should take to heart what other people say about us. Not that they know the truth of the matter—they seldom do—but we are social animals and we make our reality based on interactions with others. Those who make horror movies know things about the Bible that scholars don’t. And they know that suspense—waiting, as it were—is the hardest part.

Strange Passions

In Holy Horror I make the suggestion that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ can be considered a horror film. It certainly has more gratuitous blood and gore than many examples of the genre I’ve seen. Really, I had no desire to see it. One of the great aspects of teaching is learning from students. While an adjunct at Rutgers one of my undergrads brought me a copy of the DVD to watch. She said I needed to see it. Obligingly I did so. I knew if I returned the disc to her without watching she’d ask why I hadn’t. Apart from the famously sadistic flogging scene, it was, like any other Bible film, off base quite a bit of the time. This was commentary, not Scripture.

This came back to me reading Bob Cranmer’s account of his haunted house on Brownsville Road in the book about which I blogged a few days ago. Cranmer didn’t exactly follow orthodox methods for driving the demon out of his house. Some of his tactics were improvised. The one I found the most startling was that in the rooms that were most badly affected he played The Passion of the Christ on a continuous loop for weeks at a time. Not only does this suggest demons are capable of watching movies, but that this film can stand in for the actual events that took place in Israel two millennia ago. If the priests involved objected to this method, he didn’t record it. So we have what could be considered a horror movie being used to try to drive out a real life monster (depending on one’s point of view).

Interestingly, this is one of the points behind Holy Horror. Film (and other media) can be a powerful force in our experience of the world. We don’t just go to the cinema because everybody’s talking about a movie. Our experience of watching it is transformative, if only temporary. The same is true of live theater or a concert. Far from being mere entertainment, these cultural events provide a form of transcendence, if they speak to us. In my own case The Passion of the Christ didn’t sell me on Mr. Gibson’s vision. I have no doubts that Roman crucifixion was a horrible spectacle. I also have no doubts that the Good Book indicates that the point of all of this was elsewhere. The Gospels weren’t an effort to traumatize readers. That’s the job of horror movies. Apparently this is something on which even demons agree.

Down the Road

First of all, thank you to my regular readers. I’ve been making daily posts on this blog since July 2009—nearly nine years of illustrated commentary. It seems, however, that I’ve reached my limit. My storage limit, that is, on Word Press. As a result I’m going to be upgrading my account. Now, I’m enough of a Luddite to be uncertain of how this might impact any auto-updates (I flatter myself to think there are some) or links to this blog. I’m planning on continuing Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, but it will be but one page on a website that will offer the opportunity for me to go into more detail about my books. I don’t know how it will look yet, but it shouldn’t be disappearing from cyberspace.

Timing, as they say, is everything. It’s never been my strong suit, however. My current book still has no final title, so it’s a little difficult to promote it properly. Oh, it’s finished, and in the hands of the publishers, and although I can give it its own page, I can’t really title it yet. Perhaps in the height of hubris, the new layout will have pages for my previous two books, A Reassessment of Asherah and Weathering the Psalms. These were both academic titles with very limited sales, but they represent a significant portion of my life and I’d rather not have them completely forgotten. My latest book is for a more popular readership, but I don’t have the platform to interest agents (not for lack of trying), so I’m incorporating it into a website that will allow for its self-serving promotion. So embarrassing. You can imagine how red my face must be.

By the way, there’s another book about half-written. (Actually, there are several, but this one looks like it might actually appear.) A new series has been announced—I’ll write about it once I learn if my proposal has been accepted—that follows my own aesthetic closely. In conversation with the series editors, I’ve put together a proposed book based on my current work. If it happens, a new page will pop up on this future website I’m envisioning. Since I’m no Luddite, I can see possibilities for these pages. The blog will continue with its daily babbling. I’ve been doing this so long I wouldn’t know any other way to start my day. Combined with the hubris of those who spend too much time in supernatural headspace, this could be interesting. If you’re search brings you to what looks like the wrong page, please persist. Sects and Violence will be only a click away.

On the Nature of Publishers

An occupational hazard of the editor is paying obsessive attention to publishers. That stands to reason. Many academics are less concerned than some publishers think they are about such matters as who publishes their book. I suspect that many have, for whatever reason, found no welcome home among elite publishers. This happens often enough to make many scholars less worried about reputation than the practical matter of getting a publisher interested at all. There are a lot of original thoughts out there, and some of them occur to a person and just won’t let her or him go. An example: what terms are used for weather in the Psalms and why? Before you know it you’ve awaken before the sun for five years and written 75,000 words on the topic and you want to get it published without having to pay someone to do it. That kind of thing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of scholars who understand this kind of reasoning.

Also, it’s a matter of scale. I work for a premier publisher in the academic world. It may surprise many people to find out just how often when someone asks what I do (not very often, for the record) and then follows it up who I do it for, the interrogator has never heard of my employer. Academic presses, even important ones, are really only known among academics. Keep scale in mind. If you’ve ever walked passed Norton’s offices in Manhattan, and then those in which I spend my days, you know what I mean. Academia is small scale. For the average person reading a book is something they generally choose not to do. Of those who do read, very few read academic books. Those who read academic books tend to stick to their own discipline, or related ones. You get the picture—smaller returns at each step.

So, having written a book about horror movies, where do I take it? This isn’t one of those footnoted, look-how-erudite-I-am kind of books. It’s more of a I-noticed-something type. The question then becomes, who publishes such kinds of thing? I do worry about academic reputation—who doesn’t?—but this is a book I want the correct readers to find. That’s why McFarland suggested itself. People reading on pop culture, know to keep an eye on their offerings. Hopefully enough people will find it to have justified the effort. It won’t impress those enamored of collecting (academic) names. It isn’t the kind of book my employer would publish. Nor would I want them to. Call it an occupational hazard. Like any subject, knowing too much about publishing can take away from the fun.