Witch Way from Here?

Häxan is often considered a horror film.  Produced by Benjamin Christensen, it was released in 1922, the same year as Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.  Both are silent films and the term “horror movie” didn’t exist that early.  Framed as a documentary of sorts, Häxan deals with witches, or more precisely, with ideas about witches.  Taking a remarkably modern view, it presents how the church led to the persecution of women during the witch hunts.  It had been on my “to see” list for many years before I realized it is now in the public domain and is rather easily found on YouTube for free.  It presents reenactments that are still difficult to watch, although silent films have a difficult time scaring viewers used to CGI verging on virtual reality.

Banned in the United States upon its initial release, the movie dares address that sacred ruminant, the foibles of the church.  Christensen was largely correct in placing the blame for harm inflicted on thousands of innocent people—mostly women—on the zeal of a masculine church.  The prolonged dramatization of the destruction of an entire family based on forced confession and trickery, often by well-fed monks, makes the point clearly.  While modern explanations have recourse to the psychological motivations, often unknown to those whose worldview was ecclesiastical, we still haven’t relinquished the misogyny of the Middle Ages.  Considering that Häxan is nearly a century old itself, there’s cause for embarrassment in a world largely run by technology.  We still tend to ban that which causes us ridicule.  

When tragedies occur, it’s only too natural to blame someone or something for it.  Why the burden of that blame was laid on women by a male hierarchy is sadly only too easy to guess.  Häxan is one of those examples of the way horror can cross over between fact and fiction.  Today it can’t be taken as a documentary with any kind of seriousness, but it maintains an atmosphere of dread that finds it classified as horror before the genre itself began.  Movies about witches continue in the genre up to the present, and most are quite aware of the male culpability behind this particular variety of “monster.”  To test if witch trials continue all we need to do is watch how men in power continue to behave toward women.  It’s almost enough to make us believe hexes are real.

Alien Ideas

One of the iconic moments in all of cinema, known well beyond the confines of sci-fi and horror fans, is the alien bursting out of Executive Officer Kane’s chest.  The movie, of course, is Alien.  The screenwriter, Dan O’Bannon, was also known for contributing to Star Wars, Total Recall, and Return of the Living Dead.  Alien is one of those horror films I was too afraid to watch when it came out in 1979.  I was sixteen at the time, and had been primed by commercials that still haunt me.  I would eventually, in seminary, see Aliens and prompted by curiosity, eventually went back to watch the original.  It has since become one of my favorites, and analysts of genre fiction and religion quite often point to the iconic role of Ridley as worthy of theological mention.  Her self-sacrifice in the third installment has been heralded as one of the many cinematic messianic moments.

Science fiction and horror are closely related genres.  They can be teased apart in Alien only with extreme finesse.  Consider the most famous scene again.  Kane, while on the derelict alien vessel on LV-426, has the unfortunate experience of an alien larva sealing itself to his face.  The crew of the Nostromo can’t get the creature off—whenever they provoke it, it wraps its tail more tightly around Kane’s throat or leaks acid.  Then it falls off and dies.  Everyone, not least Kane, is relieved.  He joins the rest of the crew for a meal, but then shows signs of distress.  Something is eating him from inside.  The alien rips out and the line from sci-fi to horror is irrevocably crossed.  That unforgettable scene immediately became a classic of the genre.

Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter, suffered from Crohn’s Disease.  He attributed the alien-bursting scene to his own experience with the condition, which eventually took his life.  Someone in my family was recently diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a disease similar to Crohn’s.  In response I did something I’d never done before; I started a fundraiser on Facebook.  The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation is a non-profit organization funding research into these debilitating illnesses.  It offers support to those who suffer with the diseases, the incidence of which is on the rise.  I once told my family member about O’Bannon’s use of his own suffering as the inspiration for that cinematic moment.  It brought a rare smile in the midst of a flare, a smile with a little too much understanding for a young person.  If only Ripley were here to take control of a menace far too human.

Bookmark This

I haven’t forgotten about horror.  In fact, this past late winter my list of must see movies has continued to grow.  I don’t subject you, my kind readers, to endless barrages about Holy Horror since I believe the idea behind the book is novel in its own right and can stand on its own.  The other day I even ordered bookmarks to be made, for free distribution.  Thing is, days are getting longer, and warmer, and people are thinking the opposite of horror just as spring is the equinoctial opposite of fall.  Like a good monster I’m biding my time.  And doing so on an editor’s budget.  (The pay scale’s not the same as that of a professor; believe me, I know.)  Horror’s funny that way—it is seasonal, at least in most people’s minds.

I make the point in the book that fear serves a useful function.  It occurs in other genres quite frequently, although they bear the outcast label less overtly than horror.  Perhaps this gets to the root of my fascination.  Having grown up as part of the pariah social class of the poor, my sympathies are with the genre that often fails to find respectability.  Many of those who criticize horror do not watch it.  Some of these films are quite sophisticated, and the genre blends into other “speculative” categories such as science-fiction and some action, as well as into the more naturalistic thriller.  And thrillers are merely dramas with an elevated pulse rate.  This difficulty of distinguishing genres sharply is one reason Holy Horror addresses some films that aren’t strictly horror.

Work continues apace on Nightmares with the Bible.  Again, the ex-professorate never receives sabbaticals during which concentrated work might be done on books.  In the pre-dawn hours, however, I steadily make progress.  Very shortly an article I wrote for Horizons in Biblical Theology on the topic will appear.  Safely during the spring.  As the days grow longer more of my weekend time is demanded by the outdoors aspect of home ownership, cleaning up after the freezing and thawing of a long winter when infelicities were safely covered under snow.  Sometimes I fear for the progress made on my next book—it is the first advance contract I have ever had—but then I remind myself that fear does serve useful functions.  It’s not called a deadline for nothing.  So even as the darkness fades I prepare for the next round to begin.

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.