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.
Posted in Consciousness, Environment, Memoirs, Monsters, Posts, Weather
Tagged August, autumn, autumnal equinox, fall, Monsters, seasons
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.
Posted in American Religion, Holidays, Just for Fun, Memoirs, Monsters, Posts, Science, Travel
Tagged Joseph Laycock, Monsters, NY, paranormal, pilgrimage, Pine Bush, Sam’s Point Preserve, Smithsonian, UFOs
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.
Posted in Bible, Books, Deities, Monsters, Posts, Science
Tagged demons, Demons in the Middle Ages, Juanita Feros Ruys, Middle Ages, Monsters, Scholastics, science and religion
I’m on a train heading to Boston. If you notice a dearth of religion scholars in your neighborhood this weekend, it’s because it’s time for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. If a religious emergency comes up, take two of your favorite scripture and call the office next week. Viewed from the outside, this must be one of the stranger scholarly gatherings. A few thousand people get together in posh hotels and convention centers to exchange ideas about which the larger world cares very little. Ironically, the vast majority of people in the world are religious, but as a society if we know enough about the Bible to get us through the most recent indiscretion, so we’re good. Let the scholars have their fun.
This year there’ll be a session on monsters and monster theory that I helped to organize. That doesn’t mean I’ll get to attend it—the conference is a very different beast for those on the exhibit hall floor—but I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s happening. Years ago I discovered that many of my colleagues who are teaching shared an interest in monsters. Many of us weren’t aware of the others because this isn’t the kind of thing you talk about in polite company. One thing an editor may be is a vector. We hear what widely separated people are working on. Every great once in a while we’re able to put the pieces together. So it was with monsters. There seemed to be a critical mass, and two or three colleagues took the idea and ran with it. Or ran from it, whichever you do with monsters.
For me Boston will be a series of meetings that will blend into one another until I’ll have to consult my notes to remember anything at all. If I could feel this wanted outside the conference I’d never have to dream of being a rock star. You see, editors are the gatekeepers of academic publication. For those lucky enough to have teaching jobs, it’s publish or perish, so the editor is a vital link. The rest of the year we fall into the background. Emails go ignored. Reminders are forgotten. Requests unanswered. But here, out on that carpeted concrete, we’re the ones they’ve come to see. What we do in the conference matters very little to the world at large. But we do it anyway. We gather together just before Thanksgiving, thankful to be reminded that there are others like us.
Posted in American Religion, Bible, Current Events, Higher Education, Monsters, Posts, Publishing, Travel
Tagged American Academy of Religion, Boston, Massachusetts, Monsters, publication, Society of Biblical Literature