Life is sweet when watching a horror movie counts as research. It’d be sweeter, of course, if a university paid for it, nevertheless, I went to see The Nun on its opening weekend. My wife gamely went with me (no sponsor was paying for this) on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Now, if you haven’t been following The Conjuring universe, you might not know about The Nun. The full story will be revealed in Nightmares with the Bible, which is coming along nicely. Suffice it to say it’s a movie about a haunted convent in Romania. Those who know the Dracula tradition will perk up at the mention of the location. The scenery is quite lovely in a horror genre kind of way. And it also has ties to The Conjuring diegesis that bring the story full circle.
Ghostly nuns, it turns out, can be scary. Religion, after all, involves coercion and threat as well as love and salvation. Sister Irene, the protagonist, is a novice nun sent on a mission to investigate said convent. The film reveals both an awareness of religious motivation and a seeming lack of research regarding monastic life. Sister Irene, for example, tells the students at her school that the Bible isn’t to be taken literally. It’s “God love letter to humanity.” Well, parts of it are. Still, the struggle with biblical literalism is a present-day issue that the movie addresses head on. It was difficult to believe, on the other hand, that even a novice would walk into a chapel where someone is praying and call out “Hello?”. Many years at Nashotah House taught me something.
Cloistered environments, although not part of most people’s experience, are great locations for horror. For example, the first night she spends in the monastery Irene is told that the great silence is observed until dawn. Did I mention that in chapel no one can hear you scream? There’s an element about that in actual cloistered life. The discipline of secrecy is heavy and full of threat. We spent a great many silent days at Nashotah House and the sense of violation as sin was heavy indeed. The part that truly stood out, however, was where the nuns used their only recourse against evil; they had to pray. In the world of action movies, striking out with whatever is at hand is the expected response. Spiritual entities, although the film does relent, can’t be touched except with spiritual threats. The praying nuns looked so helpless in the presence of a demon.
There were less than a dozen people in the theater. The Nun may not be a runaway hit. The devoted will see it, however, and some of us will include it in our working life as a kind of spiritual exercise.
Research can be addictive. Those who know me are generally aware of how I can’t let ideas go. I suppose this is necessary for those who write books—concentrating on one subject for a long time is mentally taxing and can lead to early loss of interest. Those of us inclined to embrace this activity live for the thrill of uncovering new ideas and making connections that we’d overlooked. My work on Nightmares with the Bible is a case in point. Before submitting this book proposal I’d done a lot of reading on the subject of demons. This is a dark topic, but those of us who live in temperate zones spend quite a bit of time without daylight, so I might think of this as a kind of therapy. Or an excuse to do research.
Here’s often what happens: I’ll be writing along when suddenly a new question pops into my head. Why was this or that the case? The internet makes amateur research quite easy, but as someone raised on solid scholarly food, I need to check my sources. When a professor I would’ve headed to the library with interlibrary loan slips in my hand. These days I tend to turn to my own books and lament that I don’t have just the right one (there’s a reason, you see, that there are so many tomes in this house). I try to find workarounds and used copies. Perhaps I’ll pick up an adjunct class or two to be given library access again. Meanwhile, the idea, like an ear worm, is burrowing into my conscious mind. Until it’s time to go to work.
That great eight-hour stretch of day drains my energy. Indeed, many employers count on taking the best you have to offer and making it their own. What you do with “the rest of your time” is up to you. Thing is, research is a full-time job. Fortunately some of what I learn while on the clock will help me with my own research agenda. The overlap isn’t especially strong, but now and again something I read in a manuscript will sync with what I do in the pre-dawn hours before I commit myself to the time-clock. It’s a strange way to do research. Back at Nashotah House I’d use the summers to follow the clues laid before my mind and, as long as I went to chapel, it was considered part of my employment. Now it’s considered an avocation. I can’t help myself, though. Personal research is not part of the job description, but I’m an addict when it comes to learning new things.
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.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Higher Education, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 1818, academic publishing, autumn, Frankenstein, Holy Horror, Monsters, Nightmares with the Bible, publishing industry, Victor Frankenstein
Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.
Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.
It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.
Posted in Books, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcism, Nightmares with the Bible, Robert David Chase, The Conjuring 3, werewolf, William Ramsey
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.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Classical Mythology, Memoirs, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Holy Horror, horror films, Movies, mythology, Nightmares with the Bible