Layers of Brick

If, like me, you can’t see a neighbor’s brickwork without thinking of “A Cask of Amontillado,” then I need not explain why I watch horror films.  I know that as of late some literary scholars have challenged the idea that Edgar Allan Poe wrote horror.  There is now, and always has been, a bias against the genre.  In fact, many would point out that Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone wasn’t really horror, no matter how creepy some of the episodes were.  Some would cast Ray Bradbury into that lot as well, and others would not.  I spend a lot of time pondering this because those of us who enjoy some of what’s called horror are often cast as misfits.  And misfits have a lot in common with monsters.

The connection with religion is a palpable, yet intangible one.  It does seem that religion has its origins in fear and as it branched out it came to have different emphases.  Jesus, for example, apparently stressed love, at least according to the gospel of John.  That religion of love came, eventually, back around to fear.  Calvinism, especially, is suffused with it.  There’s a reason that it is the religion expressed in particularly effective horror.  Apparently they meet similar needs, but psychology is not an exact science, and our tastes in it differ.  Even our interpretations do so.  As the bricklayer puts down row after row of masonry, the thoughts get walled up in days where work prevents serious consideration of the deeper questions.

It’s been years since I’ve read “A Cask of Amontillado.”  The story has stayed with me, however, whether it’s horror or not.  Stories about imprisonment are like that.  The other day a police car stopped outside our house.  We live in a working-class, but descent neighborhood.  From the bits and pieces glimpses out the window revealed, there was a problem with a car that had been parked on the street for quite a while, and that didn’t belong to any of the local residents.  The natural response to seeing that car just outside was fear.  We fear criminals and we fear the police.  We fear what Covid-19 is doing to us, even to those of us who’ve managed not to contract it.  Traditional religion would tell us punishment comes from the Almighty.  These things are all related.  And across the way the bricklayer keeps up his work, row after row.

See Monster

What happens when someone encounters something anomalous?  In real life this is often described as a religious event.  In fiction that sometimes happens as well, as in Christopher Coleman’s The Sighting.  Set on a beach somewhere along the Atlantic, the story is about a woman who encountered a sea monster and decided it was a god.  Gods, of course, require sacrifice, and thus the tale turns on her effort to placate the beast in its current appearance cycle.  Such sacrifice doesn’t come willingly, and this introduces a murderous main plot.  Unlike the gods of lore, however, this one literally eats, tipping the reader off that its divinity is somewhat of an illusion.  The hungry beast becomes the divine only to its blind follower.

I’ve not read any of Coleman’s fiction before, and this self-published novel appears to be a good introduction to his story-crafting.  His monster, like a god, comes with no explanation.  It simply is.  Since religion isn’t really susceptible to being examined under a microscope, the truth of not being able to locate an origin for gods seems natural enough.  Still, people are curious about monstrous origins.  Mary Shelley tells us the genesis of Frankenstein’s monster, but Bram Stoker leaves Dracula’s ultimate origins somewhat misty.  In the present day, with its ubiquitous cell phones and information, we do wonder if monsters can’t simply be explained.  Even if that simple explanation is complex.  Coleman’s title page tells us this is book one, so further elucidation perhaps comes later in the series.

The sea, in classical thought, gives rise to monsters.  Coleman’s creature comes from the Atlantic.  All the world’s oceans are organically connected, and their surface area is so massive that we really haven’t figured out all of what’s under there.  Stories still appear in newspapers announcing this or that unidentified creature that has washed out of the sea.  Its depth and relative impenetrability make it a natural birthplace for monsters.  By the end of The Sighting the reader is really still only given a glimpse of what this god might be, or why, indeed, it is considered a god at all.  Origin stories make monsters less scary sometimes—Shelley’s genius was to take it in the opposite direction.  Often in horror stories, the humans are more frightening than the monsters.  So it is here.  What makes this story so disturbing is the unquestioning human acceptance of belief, for it is often here that gods can become monsters.

Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

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.

Fun and Fear

It’s curious the way people find books.  I sometimes see them advertised (the way publishers suppose people see them), but far more often I find them more serendipitously.  I’m active on Goodreads, and many times a book someone else has reviewed will catch my eye.  I like to read things that I notice in independent bookstores.  I’m always on the hunt for a bargain.  At work we have a used book rack where any volume is half-a-buck.  During lunch one day I spied Victor Gischler’s Vampire a Go-Go.  Now the title told me this wasn’t exactly a serious novel, but it had vampire in the title and when I write horror it often ends up on the funny side.  All in all it seemed like it would be worth the tiny investment, even if I don’t have a clear idea of what go-go really means.

While not laugh-out-loud funny, this is an enjoyable romp through monster land.  Kind of like Harry Potter with some adult themes thrown in.  The characters—which include ghosts, witches, wizards, a werewolf (sorry lycanthrope), a golem, and a vampire—are likable and strangely believable.  An unexpected twist came with the Battle Jesuits, a nice touch that shows yet again how close religion and horror can be.  I won’t try to summarize the action here, but I’ll simply note that there are twists and turns aplenty and smiles and splatter along the way.  It’s clear that Gischler researched the novel well, bringing interesting texture to the tale.

Like the last novel I read, also acquired in an inexpensive browsing situation, much of the story is set in Prague.  My wife and I visited Prague back when it was still in Czechoslovakia, and before it had become a tourist haven.  From reading these recent novels, apparently quite a lot has changed there.  Of course, in those days I hadn’t tapped into my love of monsters for many years.  Working on a doctorate has a way of doing that to you.  Now that I’m back, I’m enjoying the variety available in the genre these days.  I still have a soft spot for Stephen King novels, and Poe will always remain among my sacred texts, but I’m inclined to read these newer treatments as well.  There’s nothing really to scare you in Vampire a Go-Go, but there are remarkably moving moments.  And some of the monsters are quite a lot of fun.  It would restore my faith in the power of the accidental find, if it ever required resurrection.

Hidden Monsters

I don’t think much about having been born male.  I’m starting to realize that that’s because I don’t have to.  The same is true of being caucasian, although I’ve always objected to the labels of “white” and “black” as being polarizing and wildly inaccurate.  Although I grew up in poverty, my “social markers” put me in a place of privilege, even if others sharing my demographic have locked me out of the club.  These thoughts were raised by Mallory O’Meara’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.  As soon as I saw the book announced, I knew I had to read it.  As O’Meara would doubtlessly not find surprising, I had never heard of Milicent Patrick before.  I’m not surprised that a woman designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, because woman create memorable monsters (can I get a “Frankenstein”?!).

The reason I don’t think about being male is because the crumbling society built by males assumes that it’s the default.  Men have always been shortsighted, I guess.  Having been raised by a “single mother” (she was technically not divorced because a male-made religion said it was sinful), I always believed women to be protectors, capable heads of families, and far more empathetic than the men I met.  I didn’t realize at the time that we lived so close to the brink because men devalue women.  Milicent Patrick grew up in a family where this was much more obvious.  A talented artist, she incurred her family’s lasting wrath by going to Hollywood and doing what was then movie makeup work.  That she designed the beloved Gill Man makes sense to me.

O’Meara’s book is sure to make thoughtful readers angry.  Not at the author, but at the behavior of men.  Perhaps due to my unbalanced upbringing, it has taken many years to see what others probably notice much more readily: women have to struggle for that which someone like myself can simply claim.  Bud Westmore, Patrick’s boss at Universal, claimed her creation as his own work.  There are monsters in this book, and I’ll give you one guess as to their gender.  Still, I’m glad to have read it for I know I’ve found another monster fan.  O’Meara’s clearly aware of how those of us who admit this odd passion are marginalized in a world that prefers super heroes and those good with finance over those who see monsters everywhere.  This is an important book; read it and you’ll see them too.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

New Horror

Now that Holy Horror is out I’ve been noticing an increasing number of scholars who are writing on the topic of monsters.  Book writing takes several years, as a rule, and when I began work on my contribution to the discussion the bibliography was a touch slim.  There weren’t many books out there and academics who addressed the topic did so warily.  Now scarcely a day or two will pass when I won’t find another book I should read on the topic.  Publishing may be an industry in crisis, but there’s no dearth of new books being produced.  Monsters—which define horror—are a means of coping with the realities of a world out of control.  Since 2016 many of us have felt a vague, if at times pointed, sense that something is seriously threatening out there.  Horror seems a logical response.

Academia tends to run behind trends rather than setting them.  Academic books in general don’t sell too well, and monsters often have crossover appeal.  The longer I’m at this, the more I think of how knowledge as a whole is gathered.  Having that shiny Ph.D. doesn’t do so much anymore when it comes to credibility.  It may get you in the publisher’s door, but to attract readers it helps to pick topics that scholars have typically avoided.  Monsters are a calculated risk in this regard.  Those who publish in the field become somewhat suspect among their colleagues, as if the subject is one that can only play itself out in naivety, an under-developed sense of sophistication.  Anything popular tends to be devalued in the academic mindset.  It is, therefore, encouraging to see others addressing my beloved monsters.

A new year is starting and, like many people I have high hopes that it will show some improvement over the past.  I can actually dream of a world without monsters and although pleasant it isn’t realistic.  We have evil with which we must deal.  Horror allows for a fair amount of practice in that regard.  I’m very well aware that many people find the topic repugnant, or at least distasteful.  Academics, it seems, are following their restless curiosities to the darker corners of the mind.  It’s getting difficult to keep up with the monster books appearing, even from reputable presses.  Holy Horror is my first contribution to the discussion and Nightmares with the Bible, which I hope to finish this year, will continue the conversation.  It looks like it’s becoming trickier to find a voice in this crowd already.  I wonder if that implies a better 2019, as we run behind the times.

October Devotee

Here it is October and I have hardly written about monsters.  Apart from the US government, that is.  I suspect that I could use a little escapism right about now, and most of the boxes are unpacked from the move.  Perhaps it’s time to watch a little horror and feel better about the world.  Monsters, you see, crop up in the most unexpected places.  Yes, in October we expect them to be crouching in dark corners and in dismal swamps as the light begins to fail.  Yet the trees are still mostly green around here and I think I might be in need of some new material.  As with most people my age, I get lost on the internet—someone needs to offer a roadmap to it.  Preferably on paper. 

I admit being stuck in the past.  As any music therapist will tell you, a person’s musical tastes often reflect the sounds of their youth, and some of us believe that rock hit its high point in the 1980s.  My work doesn’t lend itself to background music, so I seldom listen to the radio, and I wouldn’t even know what station to try to hear contemporary offerings.  Fortunately I know some people half my age who find their tunes on the internet, and I was recently introduced to Panic! At the Disco via YouTube.  I’m old enough to remember when music videos first appeared, although I never saw them.  We lived in a small town and, besides, we couldn’t afford cable.  Kids at school, however, talked about MTV and other places—there was no world-wide web then, kids!—that they had seen the latest, coolest video that I could only imagine.  When my contemporary young friends showed me “LA Devotee” by Panic! I was stunned.

If you haven’t seen it, just look up the official video on YouTube.  You’ve got the whole internet at your fingertips!  While the lyrics seem innocent enough—young person wants to make it big and so imitates the Los Angeles lifestyle—the video is horror show.  Literally.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan the opening sequence is a cross between The Village and Signs.  Then it becomes a torture chamber for a young boy (from Stranger Things, no less, a show I binge-watched when it came out on DVD).  And Satanism.  Yes, taking on the LA lifestyle is compared to selling your soul to the Devil.  The stunning visuals kept me clicking the replay button.  Even as I felt my age, I also felt October growing.  And I was glad to see the monsters are still there.  Too bad we can’t banish them from DC, however.

Horrible Delays

It’s not that the delay is actually horrible.  Horror movies, after all, come into their own with the darkening days of fall.  Nevertheless it occurred to me that now August is about to exit stage left, some may be wondering where Holy Horror is.  After all, the website originally said “August.”  The truth is nobody really understands the mysteries of the publishing industry.  Like so many human enterprises, it is larger than any single person can control or even comprehend.  I work in publishing, but if I were to subdivide that I’d have to say I work in academic publishing.  Further subdivided, non-textbook academic publishing.  Even further, humanities non-textbook academic publishing.  Even even further, religion—you get the picture.  I only know the presses I know.

It suits me fine if Holy Horror gets an autumn release.  I don’t know, however, when that might be.  I haven’t seen the proofs yet, so it’s hard to guess.  Appropriate in its own way for horror.  The genre deals with the unexpected.  Things happen that the protagonists didn’t see coming.  In that respect, it’s quite a bit like life.  My work on Nightmares with the Bible is well underway.  When you don’t have an academic post your research style necessarily changes, but I’m pleased to find that books can still be written even with the prison walls of nine-to-five surrounding one.  It may be a bit like Frankenstein’s monster (happy birthday, by the way!), but it will get there eventually.

Of my published books so far, Holy Horror was the most fun to write.  It wasn’t intended as an academic book, but without an internet platform you won’t get an agent, so academic it is.  It’s quite readable, believe me.  I sometimes felt like Victor Frankenstein in the process.  Pulling bits and pieces from here and there, sewing them together with personal experience and many hours watching movies in the dark, it was horrorshow, if you’ll pardon my Nadsat.  We’re all droogs, here, right?  I do hope Holy Horror gets published this year.  Frankenstein hit the shelves two centuries ago in 1818.  Horror has been maturing ever since.  So, there’s been a delay.  Frankenstein wasn’t stitched up in a day, as they say.  And like that creature, once the creator is done with it, she or he loses control.  It takes on a life of its own.  We’ll have to wait to see what’s lurking in the darkening days ahead.

August Mornings

It’s August and I’m already starting to feel haunted.  While science may declare it nonsense, there’s a feeling in the air—particularly in the early morning—that tells us the seasons are changing.  While it may be different for everyone, for me it begins in the tip of my nose.  I can smell the change coming.  That doesn’t mean that we won’t have more hot days—a long string of them yet awaits—but the shift has begun.  Autumn is perhaps the season closest to the soul.  While I like all seasons for what they represent, fall has always put me in mind of melancholy rapture.  It’s a difficult concept to explain,  a kind of blissful evisceration.  A hitching of the breath in my lungs.  A sudden rush of joy followed by sadness.  The ease of summer living is ending.

Summer is the growth season when we look out and see the promise of provisions that will see us through long months of cold and chill.  The times we huddle down only to be blinded by the arctic beauty of the sun on a snow-covered day.  The indoors time.  Summer is when we can dash outside without a coat, giving no thought to whether we will be warm enough.  The scent of autumn is a slight chill.  It reminds me that while the crops have been growing, the monsters have too.  There’s a reason horror films are released in the fall.  I’m not the only one who knows they are coming.

Late summer is a liminal time.  While the calendar may tell us summer lasts until the autumnal equinox, traditional cultures marked time in a different way.  Equinoxes and solstices were closer to the middle of a season than its start.  Most years we begin to feel summer in May, or even April.  Winter cuts through November, and the thaw may begin as early as February.  When I step outside just after sunrise and breathe deeply, I can feel the monsters coming.  In a way I can’t explain, their lurking fills me with a frisson of anticipation.  Already the days are noticeably shorter.  Daylight itself seems to be fleeing before the ethereal chill that is still available in our rapidly warming world.  The seasons are all about feelings.  Emotions suffuse the changes of weather and human habits that accommodate to it.  There are shivers and then there are shivers that the creatures of autumn bring.  They’ve already begun to gather.

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Middle Age Demons

One of the consequences of watching horror movies is the interest in the origins of various monsters. Since many such films feature demons, their backgrounds and origin stories have always been a point of curiosity. Time is always an issue and Juanita Feros Ruys obliges that hurried sense by packing a lot of information into her short book Demons in the Middle Ages. Covering the basics in the introduction, she moves on to discuss demons in the desert—the bane of the early monastic, and demons in the monasteries of populous Europe. A chapter on the Scholastics describes how early science was applied to incorporeal beings, and a final chapter on learned magic, i.e., raising demons via magic books, finishes off this brief study.

What is particularly striking here is that the Bible says surprisingly little on the topic. It says, however, just enough to kickstart the Late Antique and Medieval interest in the subject. Vast amounts of speculation were raised in the Middle Ages concerning what exactly demons were and what they were made of and what they could or couldn’t do. Ruys points out the trajectory of the male necromancer giving way to the female witch just as early modernity was getting started. The results, we all know, were horrific. Throughout it is remarkably clear that belief in demons was strong. People took them very seriously—the Bible says they’re there, so there. Belief, as always, has consequences. Beginning with the Scholastics, however, a reasoned understanding of the spiritual world was deeply desired.

Reason and faith aren’t really the strangers they’re often portrayed to be. Medieval monks could be quite clever and scientific in their outlook. Human mental faculties, created, as they believed, by God, were necessarily good. Something I’d never considered, but which Ruys explores, is the belief that God cannot experience emotions. Being an “unmoved mover” meant not experiencing emotion (which, she points out, includes a noun of movement). This also meant that demons, according to some, had no feelings. This is a very cold spiritual world, particularly when it’s put into conflict with the human one. Spiritual, rational beings subjected to emotions, we’re the ones at the mercy of supernatural beings more powerful than us, yet incapable of the warmth we crave. About a millennium and a half of shifting beliefs in demons crowd this tiny book. Although not intended to be especially profound, it gives the reader plenty to ponder. Including why some of us watch horror movies at all when religion can do the trick all by itself.

Someone to Blame

There’s many ways to look at monsters. A friend recently sent me an Atlas Obscura article “The Modern Lives of Medieval Monster Scholars” by Cara Giaimo. It seems that some professors of medieval studies have taken to monsters to help explain societal problems. The Middle Ages in the western world, of course, were the days before the Enlightenment began. Belief in monsters was nearly universal. Much of the world was unexplored and inaccessible. In those unknown places, there were monsters. The article goes on to explain that monsters thus provide a natural way to deal with uncomfortable issues such as racism and religious discrimination. Monsters are those who don’t look like we do, or behave (therefore believe) like we do. It’s okay to kill monsters.

This is a mentality that we see reemerging in the twenty-first century. Despite the fact that you can easily reach nearly any part of the globe and enroll in university classes to learn what other religions actually believe, instead we prefer to see others as monsters. People see monsters because they’re afraid. They’re afraid because they’re not educated. And the political system in which many of us live is designed to keep the average person down while the wealthy reap the benefits. It serves the interests of such an unbalanced society to send people on monster hunts. The enemy is anyone who is different—not the one who owns the company that owns the company that you work for. The owner’s just like you, only he has so much money he doesn’t know what to do with it.

I once asked one of my students why he was interested in a certain topic. His answer has stayed with me all this years: “who can say why they’re interested in anything?” While I was in seminary—before the days of the J. R. R. Tolkien movies—I was very interested in medieval studies. My thought process, however, goes back to origins. The origins of medieval thought were the Bible, the ideas of the Bible (for Christians) come from the New Testament. The New Testament comes from the Hebrew Bible. Where did the Hebrew Bible come from? And that journey led me back to monsters. Like my student, I can’t say why I’m interested. It may be that I’m afraid. And in such times as these fears seem to be entirely justified. In the eyes of some future, truly enlightened society, ours will be the New Middle Ages with all its monsters.