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.