Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Hidden Origins

This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.  Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.  Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.  Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.  I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.  That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.  Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.  While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.

Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.  Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.  Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.  Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.  Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.  Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?  It’s easy to believe in our myths here.  Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.  Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.

Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?  (Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)  It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.  Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.  In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.  No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.  Listening is much easier with no distractions.  These woods are vast.  Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.  Beyond these borders, who knows?  Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.  Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.  The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.

Mythologies

Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!

Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.

I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.

Watching Research

Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.

In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.

No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.

The Canine Mystique

BlackDogAnyone who spends long enough in the United Kingdom will hear about them. Not everyone believes in them, but reports of their presence are pervasive. Some call them ghosts while others call them protective spirits. They are the black dogs. As Mark Norman points out in his new book Black Dog Folklore, the tales of these spectral canines go back centuries and they also appear in other parts of the world. The majority of the lore comes from the British Isles and even there they are concentrated into certain parts of the country. Norman isn’t setting out to prove that they exist, though. This book is an exploration of folklore and the question of the reality of the phenomenon isn’t the point. The fact is people have reported encountering similar kinds of black dogs that vanish in similar ways frequently enough that secondary characteristics can be described and the accounts can be treated as lore.

Dogs were the earliest domesticated animals. Long before cattle and sheep could be tamed, humans and dogs had learned the mutual benefits of each other’s company. This very long association between species has, however, not always been smooth. Dogs retain something of the ancestral wolf in their nature, even as we harbor our inner ape. Some people fear dogs, and indeed, dogs are still used for security and can be trained to attack, or even kill, people. Their millennia-long association with humans, however, has assured them a place in our mythologies. Ancient cultures frequently mythologize dogs, making them prime candidates for an afterlife in folklore.

Traditionally, dogs are chthonian creatures. That word tripped me up the first time I encountered it. “Chthonian” is literally something like “of the earth,” but in mythology it is used to designate that they are associated with the underworld. As in life, dogs may act as guides in mythology, and one of their regular associations is with the realm of the dead. It’s no wonder, then, that dogs came to be associated with ghosts. As Norman demonstrates, the lore was pervasive enough to engage Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and perhaps even Bram Stoker used the image in Dracula. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as a black dog. Norman’s book won’t convince the reader that such things actually exist, but what it does do is draw the tales together to determine what there is to analyze. Since dogs have been our companions for so long, they have become part of our narrative tradition, participating in what it means to be human. As with all good folklore, there are those today who still swear these spectral dogs still haunt those who are willing to believe.

Up, Up and Away

OurSuperheroesIntellectuals often have difficulty, it seems, taking popular culture seriously.  I remember feeling slightly guilty taking a class on Science Fiction in college and actually getting credit for it.  At the time—I remember the Dark Ages—a course on comic books, or even superheroes, would’ve been laughed out of the academy.  And not in a good way.  Monsters, likewise, were considered the opiate of the small-minded.  I’m not sure what happened to turn all of this around, but I think my generation growing up may have had something to do with it.  Scholars began to pay attention to more than the cheap paper and eye-catching, if impractical, costumes.  There were, unnoticed by standard readers, messages embedded in comics.  Superheroes may have been telling us something about ourselves.  Now tenured professors can write about various caped crusaders without fear of ridicule.  Some of the books are quite good.

Robin S. Rosenberg’s Our Superheroes, Ourselves, is a rare example of a uniformly fascinating edited volume.  Contributions from a variety of psychologists and psychologists explore several of the deeper aspects of  the superhero phenomenon.  Insightful and thought-provoking, this little book gives the lie to the frequent admonition of my youth that reading such things was a waste of time.  Anything but.  Now, I didn’t have the level of commitment to comics that Big Bang Theorists do, but I recall being entranced by much of what I read.  Some comic panels are still vivid in my head, although I haven’t seen the original in more decades than I’d like to admit.  They are, as one of the essays suggests, a form of modern mythology.  Another form of modern mythology is the movie.  Superhero movies are discussed as well as the print versions.  These cheap, easily read books were more, it seems, than meets the eye.  I’ve fallen a little behind in my superhero movies, but perhaps it is time to start trying to catch up with Superman.

What is really striking, to me, is the discussion of super-villains.  As more than one contributor points out, you can’t have a superhero without the nemesis of an arch-criminal.  This quite naturally leads to the discussion of abstracts: good and evil.  Early comics tended to be Manichaean in this regard.  In our world evil may be much more subtle than it appears on the outside. The book appropriately ends with a reflection on morality. More than one ethical system may be found in superhero tales. Super-villains, apart from becoming role models for some political candidates, allow us to explore our own dark sides. In the end, however, we know that Batman must overcome the Joker, no matter how appealing he may be.