Gods and Fans

The blog Theofantastique started a couple of years before this one.  I remember that sense of childhood wonder that flooded me when I first saw its posts about books and movies with monsters—the kinds of things l always liked to read and watch.  But it was more than that.  This particular blog presents the very tangible connection between religion and horror.  Not only horror, though.  As the title indicates, this is a place for genre fiction of three closely related kinds: science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  The three are separated by mere degrees of semantics, and all three play very near to the third rail we call religion.  In my way of thinking, horror is probably the closest of the three, but I shift among this secular trinity and often wonder in which genre I am at the moment.

For someone who grew up being taught that religion was all about history—including a history of the future, mapped, plotted, and planned just as carefully as a summer vacation—seeing the connection with genres that are all acknowledged to be fiction was, at first, a little shocking.  I’d been taught in literature classes that genre fiction wasn’t really literature at all.  “Pulps” were printed on cheap paper because, as you might again guess from the name, they weren’t worth much.  Many of those books are now collectors’ items and cost a pulp mill to purchase.  My list of books from my childhood that I’d like to recover has me looking with some worry toward my bank book.  The thing is, these are often insightful statements about religion.

Monsters were always a guilty pleasure for me.  Being small, shy, and insecure, it was easy to understand things from the monster’s point of view.  And very often religion was implicated.  Sitting in my apartment in New Jersey, at times unemployed, I began to explore the connection between religion and horror.  I thought I was the only one.  Eventually I discovered kindred souls, and soon came to understand that monsters are perhaps the purest representations of what religion can do.  Even after writing two books about this subject, Theofantastique is a place unlike any other I know.  It has far more readers than I ever will, but this isn’t Godzilla v. Mothra.  No, we’re all in this together.  And we’re gathered together for one purpose.  In any other circumstances you’d say it was religious.

Dandy Lions

O great—just what I need right now.  I knew lawn care would soon become a necessary avocation after buying a house, but this I did not expect.  Over the weekend I found myself pulling up dandelions that were growing out of cracks in the front steps.  Since we compost, I laid them out on a slab, figuring when they dried out I could make them into more soil.  (From which more dandelions will grow, I know, but still it just feels right.)  I came back a day later to find that the dandelions had returned to the vertical position.  Zombie dandelions!  They apparently couldn’t stay dead.  Now, I’ve been writing about demons for the past several months and I’d forgotten about zombies.  Well, I did post about resurrection on Easter, but my short-lived digression left me unprepared for this.

Really, the persistence of life is a sign of hope.  Perhaps dead zones, such as morality in Washington DC, will someday come back to life.  There’s hope for a tree, Job tells us, even if cut down.  These dandelions were a message for me.  Don’t give up.  Prior to religion being hijacked by theology it was a system intended to make life better for people.  Human beings were more important than heretical thoughts.  You help those who need it, regardless of what they believe.  Or don’t believe.  That was the point behind resurrection, I suspect—we can rise above all this dirt in which we find ourselves.  There’s a nobility to it.  Then again, fear trumps hope just about every time.  The dandelions are rising and we have no hope of outnumbering them.  

The ancients feared the dead coming back.  It’s a primal phobia.  All those things we buried with tears we hoped would stay the way we left them.  Life, as Malcolm says, will find a way.  Politicians, it seems, will find a way around it.  Call it executive privilege or whatever you will, the end result is the same.  The yellow-headed fuzzies will threaten you even when uprooted and left to dry in the sun.  Now, our lawn isn’t pretty.  Grasses of different varieties contend with weeds I’ve never seen before for scarce resources.  I’ve never minded dandelions.  They don’t ask much, only they now seem to be demanding the right to come back from the compost.  And if we let that happen, all hope is lost.

Aging Tech

When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.  I run around with an older crowd.  Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.  I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.  I guess this is a young person’s playing field.  I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.  I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”  Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.  Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.  There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.  It’s also a coping mechanism.

One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.  This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.  I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.  The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.  I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.  No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.  Clinically engineered in a clean room.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.  My laptop’s a few years old.  While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.  The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.  While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.  Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.  Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.  I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.

No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Taking It Seriously

It would be incorrect to say that I choose to watch and read horror.  What would be more correct would be “Horror compels me to read and watch it.”  Those of us mesmerized by the genre tend to be a reflective lot.  We ask ourselves the question others frequently ask us—why watch it?  And yet, horror films tend to do very well at the box office.  Some even become cultural icons.  Of the many books analyzing horror, it would be difficult to suggest one more influential than Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart.  It has been in just about every bibliography I have read in the subject.  It’s easy to see why.  There are lots of gems in this book, and it does indeed address the paradox at the heart of it all.

Philosophy, due to the very fact that there are competing schools, doesn’t attempt to provide the answer.  It offers an answer, one that hopefully makes sense of the overall question.  What question?  The one with which I began: why do people get into horror?  Carroll comes down to a deceptively simple answer, but I would make bold to suggest it does so at the cost of having undercut the religious element.  As in nearly every book on horror, Carroll does address the connection with religion.  He finds it lacking, but the reason seems to be his definition of religion.  He follows, perhaps a little too closely, Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.  No doubt, it’s a classic.  Still, it doesn’t encompass the broad scope of religion and its genetic connection to horror.

At many points of The Philosophy of Horror I felt compelled to stand up and cheer.  I didn’t, of course, since much of the reading was done on the bus.  My ebullience was based on the fact that here was an intellectual who gets it, one who understands that horror is pervasive because it is meaningful.  Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste.  It’s not, however, simply debased imagination, or arrested development gone to seed.  There is something deeply compelling about horror because it helps us to survive in a world that is, all paranoia aside, out to get us.  Yes, it engages our curiosity, as Carroll asserts.  It satisfies more than it disgusts.  It also defies explanation.  Perhaps that’s the deep connection with religion.  It can never be fully explained.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  And this book is a valiant effort indeed.

Trending Horror

It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve.  A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia.  It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows.  As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness.  I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate.  Now it started to feel therapeutic.

My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.”  The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive.  It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil.  In other words, horror can be heuristic.  Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination.  One of the most common responses is the question of “why?”  Why would anyone want to watch such stuff?  My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried.  Horror is not often what it seems.  Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.

The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability.  Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel.  These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before.  Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine.  Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman.  If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here.  As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.”  In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already.  We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly.  I’m seldom ahead of the curve.  I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front.  Call it a survival technique.

Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.

Mature Monsters

When I first began this blog, generally focused on religion, I felt the need to justify posts about monsters. Now, some seven years and several books later, I have come to assume monsters and religion are close kin. Many scholars who explore monsters are those in that amorphous field of “religious studies” who’ve come to realize that terror and the sacred are not far apart. In fact, the Bible contains many stories that could be understood as horror, if taken literally. When my wife sent me a story in The Guardian, “Guillermo del Toro: ‘I love monsters the way people worship holy images’” I once again found the connection reinforced. In the article by Jordan Riefe, del Toro comes more than once to religious themes as he describes his fascination with the macabre. Here’s a guy about my age who’s not afraid to admit that he likes the scary stuff and has, indeed, become famous for it.

Feejee_mermaidI have to admit that Guillermo del Toro has a way of pressing my buttons. I’ve watched a number of his films and they can be scary even with subtitles to read. Perhaps the reason is that del Toro understands implicitly the tie between religious thinking and the monstrous. An invisible man of infinite power whose revealed will comes in contradictions is certainly a source of fear. So is a child who wears a burlap sack painted like a mask over his head. Known for his fear-inducing creatures, del Toro was raised a Mexican Catholic. He ties this upbringing with monsters in this story. Riefe records him as saying, “I felt there was a deep cleansing allowing for imperfection through the figure of a monster. Monsters are the patron saints of imperfection.” In a mythical world where perfection rests only with divinity and people are told to be perfect, monsters are certain to emerge.

Until quite recently horror was considered a lowbrow genre by academics. As such it wasn’t really worthy of exploration. Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that scholars of religion—the new lowbrow—were among the first to take their disfigured friends seriously. Science tells us there are no monsters. We live in a rational world with evolution taking logical steps—if unguided—to more efficient means of survival. That doesn’t stop us from lowering the shades as night draws on. The monsters may be in our heads, but we might also find them in our souls. When we’re informed that such souls are nothing more than imagination we have a very good reason to be afraid indeed.

The Reveal

SmallScreenRevelationsThe end of the world as we know it is far more common than reason might suggest. As I’ve been researching the way the apocalypse is represented in popular culture, I’ve been impressed at just how prevalent it is. James Aston and John Walliss have brought together some intriguing essays on the topic in Small screen Revelations: Apocalypse in Contemporary Television. As one contributor notes, it is far more common to find the apocalypse in science fiction, horror, and fantasy programs, but it clearly visible in other genres as well. It is primarily an American phenomenon, although it may also be found elsewhere. It’s pretty hard to pin down the end of the world. On television it comes in both fiction and non-fiction varieties. The constant here is that we know it’s out there.

What I found most revelatory about the subject was a persistent question: why? Why are we so fascinated by the end of the world? I’m no sociologist, so I can’t give any kind of statistical answer. As the owner of a gut, however, I can offer a feeling. It seems to me that a culture of privilege ought to have a measure of guilt. While apocalyptic belief is most common among the poor (sorry, no statistics to back me up here) it also commonly occurs among the affluent as well. At the same time, we know that, as a society, we have far more than our share of the world’s goods. We have a massive military to make sure nobody else shares those goods. We must know, at some level, this is wrong.

At the same time, how can we give up what we’re so used to? An apocalypse wipes the slate clean. The essays in Small Screen Revelations offer more sophisticated theory than my simple observation, but academics have an obligation to muddy the waters. Considering the sheer number of shows cited: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Simpsons, Supernatural, Angel, The Walking Dead, Jericho, Doctor Who, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, in addition to television news anchors and televangelists, the apocalypse is very easily found. So easily found, in fact, that one can become inured to what is supposed to be the ultimate end of everything. It’s related to what I’ve called elsewhere the crisis of superlatives. The fact that it’s television, however, provides a ready answer for what happens next. After the apocalypse we simply wait until the next season. After all, there’s a market for post-apocalyptic entertainment as well.

Gothic American

AmericanGothAmerican Gothic, the painting by Grant Wood, caused me trouble at Routledge. An author wanted to use the image on the cover of his book (we eventually managed it) but the choice was contested at every step. Along the way editors, editorial assistants, and marketers all told me what the painting represented and how it was inappropriate. I’ve learned, however, a few things from the post-modernist movement: nobody can say what an artwork means definitively. So when I read American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative by Robert K. Martin and Eric Savoy, I was ready for a combination of po-mo and the macabre. Like post-modernism, Gothic is a difficult term to define. Indeed, the first set of essays in this collection struggle with definitions. Being literary criticism, the book points out that the novel and Gothic more or less developed together. When people read to be entertained, as early as the eighteenth century, they wanted to read Gothic tales.

Being a life-long fan of Poe, I was pleased to see that he made a good showing in the pieces contained in the book. What makes it appropriate to this blog—other than it being October, a comment that requires no explanation in the northern hemisphere—is a notion I found early in the book. People read horror literature for healing. Anthropologically, the wounded healer is a well-recognized figure. In a world where we expect opposites to go together health comes from disease and healing from being wounded. The gothic is a wounding of the mind to lend it healing. To be sure, many of us who read gothic literature do not relish scenes of violence or hurt. We do, however, find a kind of therapy within such darkness. In the darkness light is best appreciated. Who uses a flashlight outdoors on a sunny day?

As with most books from multiple authors, there’s some unevenness to the contributions here, yet more often than not, I found deep insight throughout its pages. Religion makes occasional appearances. Indeed, the figures of the monk and the debased church are stock images for early gothic literature. The sacred, if we’re honest, is a bit creepy. Having spent many nights in churches on retreats or for hospitality when youth groups couldn’t afford a hotel, I know that fewer places are scarier at night than an unlit, empty sanctuary. The gothic, following culture, has tended to move away from monasteries and churches into the more scientific spaces of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, ravens and haunted houses still evoke the age-old fears of a coming period of darkness, the Halloween of the soul. And for those who want to know how a post-modern crowd scans the darkness, this book will not disappoint.

Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

Map and Territory

MapsHeavenMapsHellAt first glance the Puritan divines of early New England should seem to be as far from horror films, on the cultural divide, as phenomena can be. After all, academics long ago declared “genre fiction,” and particularly Gothic and horror fiction, to be lowbrow at best, and generally of no cultural worth. The amazing success of scary movies only underscores this point. Edward J. Ingebretsen (S.J.), however, begs to differ. His wonderfully insightful book, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, is a surprising study of how religion and terror share much that is essentially human. On this blog I have, from time to time, claimed that religion and horror are close cousins. In fact, they may be siblings. Since studies of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are often produced by Reformed, or at least Protestant, theologians, it may be that a Catholic thinker will catch aspects often overlooked. The Puritans, with their Calvinistic underpinning, had a worldview that holds much in common with standard horror fare. Ingebretsen suggests that to map Heaven, you must also map Hell.

The map conceit works well as the reader navigates through unconventional ways of thinking. The fears of the Puritans included the fear of God, and those who read or watch horror have noticed that nothing scares like the divine. It may not be on the surface, however. Even those not accustomed to deep digging can, upon a few moments’ reflection, see that the Gothic writers of the American canon have drawn repeated from this well. Many literary experts (well, some) celebrate H. P. Lovecraft’s atheistic rationalism, but enjoy his tales of the old gods nevertheless. His modern heir, Stephen King, is quite open about the potential fear of religion. He even blurbed the back cover of the book.

As society grows continually more secular, the religious impulse will not disappear. Sublimation, the process of changing states, may hide what is happening from the casual eye. A close look shows, however, that the same fears Mather and Edwards unleashed on witch-addled, spider-fearing New Englanders, have come back to us in pulp and celluloid. Religion has its earliest roots in a kind of holy fear, it seems. The innovative human mind, however, with its drive to rationalize, devised mythologies that make fears seem plausible. Those mythologies are relatively easy to believe. Everybody likes a good story. Stories, with all their twists and turns, can leave you lost in the woods. It’s good to have a map. I would suggest Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell. You may still be scared, but you may feel more sophisticated for it.

Atheist Deities

HPL in Pop CultureAn atheist who created gods. That’s the basic skinny on H. P. Lovecraft. Perhaps all gods are thus created. I can’t know; I wasn’t there at the beginning. Among writers who failed to make much of an impression in their lifetimes, Lovecraft staged a remarkable comeback in his afterlife. Don G. Smith’s H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture attests to the fact that some academics are beginning to pay attention to one of Providence’s most famous children as his works continue to spin off new forms. With an almost Puritan devotion to rationalism, Lovecraft saw no need nor room for deities in the world. His most ardent fans claim the gods he created are mere aliens, voyagers from beyond.

I wonder why one has to be a theist to create gods. Part of the problem is definitional; what is a god? According to the three fifty-cent words in the explanatory section of my young-person’s Bible, the traits are being omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Problem is, in the Bible God doesn’t really seem to fit any of these particularly well. The closest match seems to be omnipotent, but omnipotence leads to logical conundrums in reasoning, creating rocks so large you can’t lift them, and all that. Gods are, by just about any ancient standard, defined in relational terms—they are more powerful than us. That’s true of Lovecraft’s gods as well. They are so powerful that merely viewing them could drive you insane, eh, Ezekiel? (Perhaps Ezekiel is a good choice to compare, since his God comes down from the sky as well. Some would claim in a spaceship.)

Lovecraft survived because he understood what scares a person. Power, without feeling, is frightening. I’ve seen it in the eyes of both Christian and Pagan and it always sends me away shuddering. Smith’s book is more concerned with the survival of H. P.’s ideas in the media. It is a pleasant stroll, or an unpleasant stroll, depending on your perspective, through the descendants of Lovecraft’s monsters and gods. There’s no shame in calling them deities. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that some kinds of entities are inherently frightening.

Cabin Fervor

It’s a sure sign that work is growing overwhelming when I’m too tired to watch my weekend horror movies. Well, I decided to fight back the yawns and pull out Cabin Fever this past Saturday night. I’d seen the movie before, and I’m not really a fan of excessive gore. The acting isn’t great and the characters aren’t sympathetic, yet something about the story keeps me coming back. In short, a group of five teenagers (it always seems to be five) are renting a cabin for a week when they get exposed to a flesh-eating virus. They end up infecting just about everyone in the unnamed southern town before they all end up dead. It doesn’t leave much room for a sequel, but that hasn’t stopped one from being made. One of the unfortunate victims of the virus is torn apart by a mad dog. The locals, fearing their safety, decide to hunt down the surviving youths.

On the way to the now gore-smattered cabin, one of the locals mutters that they’ve been sacrificing someone—a natural enough conclusion when body-parts are scattered around, I suppose. He says, “it ain’t Christian.” Well, yes and no. Sacrifice is at the putative heart of Christianity, although human sacrifice (beyond infidels and women) was never part of the picture. As is often the case with horror film tropes, the victim who has been dismembered is a woman. The guys whose deaths are shown are all shot. Now, I have no wish to attribute profundity where it clearly is not intended, but there does seem to be a metaphor here. Our society and its staid religion tolerate the victimization of some over others.

One of the hidden treasures of the best of horror movies is the social commentary. George Romero made an art form of it in Night of the Living Dead and its follow up Dawn of the Dead. Many other writer/directors have managed to do it quite effectively. We can critique our world when hidden behind the mask of the improbable. While the commentary for Cabin Fever may be entirely accidental, I still find a little redemptive value in it. That, I suppose, is the ultimate benefit of social commentary—it is true whether intentional or not. Is there a larger message here? I wonder if the fact that when women are victimized no one survives is pushing the metaphor a little too far. It’s hard to say; I’ve been working a little too much lately.