Split Personality

This may be the way to develop a split personality.  For the majority of my waking hours of the week I’m a biblical studies editor.  I do the usual, boring editorial work associated with that job.  Academics contact me supposing I’m just some Joe who majored in English and who has to pay the consequences.  Once in a very great while the person contacting me knows that I once was a professor as well, but that’s rare.  So I have one part of my life.  When I’m not at work I continue to research (in my own way) and write books, as well as this blog.  Being in “the biz,” I have a fair idea about how to get published in the academic realm.  Ever since Weathering the Psalms came out I realized I could use that knowledge to steer my books toward appropriate publishers, but all of this is very separate from my day job.

A third compartment of this personality is as the closet fiction writer.  I’ve had thirty short stories published (under a pseudonym, for work purposes) and anyone curious about that pseudonym’s life can’t really tap into this one because I have to keep them separate.  I’m also involved in a faith community.  Most of the people there are surprised that I watch horror and write about it, and even write it.  Only two have expressed any interest in reading what I write.  So it is that each of these discrete elements—and they’re not all!—prevent me from being an integrated personality.  I know other religion scholars who watch and write about horror.  Because they’re academics they can integrate it into their profiles in a way a mere editor can’t.  To be fair, they’re misunderstood too.

The possibility of living an integrated life is limited in the workaday world of capitalism.  Companies want you to spend as much time as humanly possible making money for them.  You shouldn’t try to shine any light on yourself, and if you do, well, keep the company name out of it!  Who wants to be associated with some horror pariah?  And yet, statistics reveal about half the population of the United States enjoys horror movies.  A significant number of those people attend religious services or belong to religious bodies.  So what’s a graphomaniac to do?  I write because that’s what I do, and have always done.  I started in fiction and moved to academic and now I blog.  Somewhere in there there’s a person and someday I may discover who he is.


Monsters in Common

The thing about monsters is once they’re released they go wild.  Antlers is sometimes criticized for cultural appropriation—it takes the wendigo, an American Indian monster, and uses it in an Anglo story.  There’s perhaps some truth to that, but the wendigo is the perfect monster for the social commentary the film makes about the poor.  Those who’ve never been poor can’t really understand, and I can’t blame them for it.  Pointing fingers at symptoms like drug abuse is pretty typical.  It’s not directing the extinguisher at the base of the fire, but at the dancing flames that keep shifting as the base consumes.  In short, I found it a powerful movie, and one that is beautifully filmed.  Yes, it does lift an American Indian monster, but that monster was released long ago.

The wendigo was addressed by Algernon Blackwood in his 1910 story that goes by that name.  It has appeared in other horror venues as well.  Antlers is the first full-fledged horror movie I’ve seen to use it and it builds the story up nicely.  And it does so by tying religion into the narrative.  In brief, Lucas Weaver, a twelve-year old, is protecting his father and younger brother.  After being attacked by a wendigo, his father has become one.  Lucas’ teacher, Julia Meadows, was abused as a child and recognizes it in Lucas.  She become determined to care for him but his father has given over to the spirit of starvation that inhabits him.  

I could’ve used this in Holy Horror because when Julia is searching Lucas’ desk at school she finds, among other things, a Bible.  At one point Lucas’ brother asks if God is dead.  His father has told him that he is.  And when the police are trying to determine what they’re up against, the former sheriff, an American Indian, tells them about the wendigo.  Native beliefs are treated as superstitions, of course.  The wendigo is brought out because of cannibalism.  The use of a native monster and the role of the landscape in the film make this a fine example of folk horror.  And it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of abandoning the poor.  Those who criticize the film for that have perhaps lost sight of the monster.  Monsters belong to everyone.  The golem, the wendigo, the mummy—these all play a role in someone’s religion and culture.  They also serve to haunt anyone who’s concerned with fairness and justice.  And that’s why we must chase any monster that roams free.


Jason’s Javelin

This past weekend was my third this year spent recovering from vaccinations.  The shingles jabs were worse, but this time it was a double-duty flu shot and bivalent Covid vaccine.  That’s as good an excuse as any for admitting to watching Friday the 13th, Part II.  In general I’m not a fan of sequels, but I’d read quite a bit about this one and I was curious because I hadn’t realized before watching the first installment years ago that Jason wasn’t the original killer.  I’m also not a fan of slashers, and I know that many people who dislike horror think all horror consists of such movies.  (It doesn’t.)  But still, Jason is a household name as a movie monster and I was having trouble concentrating with all those vaccines swirling around inside.

Utterly predictable, there are still a few jump startles that’ll catch a first viewing off-guard.  All I really knew about the film was Jason and Camp Crystal Lake and that generally teens get killed for having sex.  As many critics report, this kind of horror tends to have a “conservative” outlook—“sin” is brutally punished and the girl who refrains tends to be the last survivor.  That much you know just from doing your homework.  So as Jason hunts down the teens and dispatches them, along with a police officer and a crazy guy, you almost get bored.  There was one scene, however, that had unrecognized biblical roots.  Interestingly, I haven’t found anyone pointing that out.  When Jeff and Sandra go upstairs for sex, Jason takes a spear and thrusts them through, right in the act.

Analysts trace this scene to the movie Bay of Blood (which I’ve not seen), but in fact the inspiration comes from the Good Book.  In a genocidal mood in Numbers 25, Yahweh tells the Israelites to kill the Midianites among them.  Zimri is seen taking Cozbi into his tent, and Phinehas the priest grabs a javelin, rushes into Zimri’s tent and skewers the two of them in the act.  That scene stuck with my young mind as I read through the Bible, which is probably why it immediately came to mind while watching Part II.  Others may well have noticed this connection, but with the vaccine-induced lethargy I didn’t have the energy to go thumbing through my library to find it.  Besides, when I read things about movies I haven’t seen, they don’t often stay with me (which is one reason I give thorough descriptions of movies when I analyze them in my books).  This particular horror over, I know I don’t have to worry about the flu this year.


What Lurks

One question that I get asked by those who don’t understand is “Why horror?”  The asker is generally someone that knows I’ve been “religious” all my life, or affiliated with religion—which people think means sweet and light—and who associates horror with bitter and dark.  I know Brandon R. Grafius has been asked such things too, because I’ve just read his Lurking under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us.  Like me, Grafius has been writing books on the Bible and horror—I’ve reviewed a few on this blog.  As in my former life, he teaches in a seminary.  People find this juxtaposition jarring.  This little book is Grafius’ struggle with various aspects of this question.  He’s not anti-religion, but he’s drawn to horror.

For those of us familiar with Grafius’ other work, this offers a more detailed explanation of what one religion scholar finds compelling about horror.  Specifically, he shows how various films deal with similar issues to his Christian faith.  The book deals with that for about half its running time, and the other half discusses similar themes in horror.  You get the sense that Grafius has been at this for a long time.  Scooby-Doo seems to have been his childhood gateway to horror and it raised some deeper questions as he explored further along the line.  If you read this blog, or search it, you’ll find such things as Dark Shadows and The Twilight Zone in my background, but then, I’m a bit older.  The point is, being a religious kid doesn’t discount finding monsters fascinating.

As usual with books like this, I’ve come away with several films to watch.  And more angles of approach to that tricky question of “Why horror?”.  A recent post on a panel discussion titled “Religion and Horror” led to an online exchange about religion and fear.  Grafius deals with that here as well, but from a more distinctly Christian point of view.  Although he’s an academic, this book is written (and priced) for wider consumption.  I found it quite informative to hear the story of someone else who grew up with monsters and the Bible.  He had the sense, however, to start addressing this early in his academic career.  We each have different paths to walk and for some of us it will take a jarring experience to chase us back to our childhood monsters.  And being religious is no barrier to that, as this brief book demonstrates.


Holy Nightmares

The thing about ratings, as John Green astutely notes in The Anthropocene Reviewed, is that they are in many ways arbitrary.  From the very few reviews of my own Nightmares with the Bible, I get the sense that people misunderstand the book.  Or it could be that they just don’t like it.  To each their own.  To me it is quite a personal book.  It is also a bookend to Holy Horror.  They represent first steps into a new kind of endeavor for me—saying something (hopefully) intelligent about horror films.  And writing books with no institutional support at all.  There are several intentional interlacings between these two books and to understand one it helps to read the other.  For those who want to get a sense of the way this addled brain works, in any case.

Holy Horror was literally one of those “if you see something say something” books.  I had noticed something that apparently nobody else had—the way the Bible is presented in horror films tells us something about the Good Book.  I have not seen every horror movie made.  I know of nobody who has, or even can.  I’d noticed a commonality, however, among those films.  The Bible isn’t rare in horror.  In fact, it’s quite common.  I’ve done quite a lot of reading about religion in horror since then, and this is something that has to be taken into account when considering the effects of Christianization.  It brings fear in its trail.  Nightmares with the Bible is a bit more ambitious and a bit of a hybrid.  That may be why its been reviewed so poorly.  It is a continuation of the thesis—if you want to understand how people really believe, look at what popular culture teaches us.

What do we believe about demons?  What The Exorcist taught us to believe.  Anyone who looks at the history of the idea sees that this concept really only took off, after the Middle Ages, when movies reminded us of the threat.  From the early modern period on, belief in demons and their impact on the world had been in decline.  Anyone looking at the headlines today will have to wonder about the wisdom of that loss of interest.  When The Exorcist hit, it struck a nerve.  Since then demons have been back on the big screen time and time again, each showing providing more information on what to believe.  I suspect those who’ve been rating the book really don’t get what I’m trying to do.  At least, I tell myself, somebody’s reading my work.


Grave Robbers

My personal reconstruction of the Dark Shadows universe was made by connecting the books by Marilyn Ross that I could find with the episodes of the television show that I saw.  I’ve always been one to try to make a logical storyline out of such things so that I could connect them when they came at irregular intervals.  (I’m still a fan of linear storytelling.)  So it’s a bit of an eye-opener to read the series of pulps in order.  There are continuities and discontinuities.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers again has Quentin, in 1830, portrayed as a good guy.  When he was first introduced in the series some books back, he was a satanist and very nearly evil.  And this was in a more recent era.  You get the sense that Ross was responding to fan requests.

As I noted regarding the last book in the series, the stories do seem to have grown more complex, and sophisticated over time.  The writing remains labored, but the story aspect improves.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers comes the closest to standard horror so far.  This is a dark story with problematic race issues thrown in.  The first two-thirds or so are set in England and are tied into the story by Barnabas Collins being there.  It is distanced from the usual moody setting of Collinwood where, despite all the haunting and troubles, you tend to think things turn out alright in the end.  Here the antagonist grave robbers kill people close to the heroine and the corpses sent to gruesome ends.  And there are zombies.

To flee the evil ringleader, Barnabas takes Paula Sullivan to Collinwood where Quentin is introduced to the story.  In 1830 he’s an unpredictable trickster, but good at heart.  He and Barnabas team up, as last time, to take on the grave robber when he moves, you guessed it, next door to Collinwood.  Then something unusual happens—Paula discovers zombies are afraid of crosses.  This leads to a strange episode of Barnabas—a vampire, remember—chasing a zombie with a cross.  In general religious imagery is scarce in these novels.  A vicar or two may be mentioned, but vampires aren’t menaced with crosses.  That does happen in one of the movies, but here it seems that because Barnabas is a good vampire he’s not bothered by a cross.  Or it could be a consistency issue.  Either way, this is a moody addition to the series, appropriate, as always, for autumnal reading.


Seasonal Viewing

Any movie that begins with an excommunication ought to be good.  Especially with its list of stars you’d think To the Devil a Daughter might’ve turned out better.  Still, it is a good example of religion and horror mingling together.  I’ve never read any Dennis Wheatley novels, but reputedly he didn’t like this film adaptation of his book.  It certainly has a convoluted plot.  So an excommunicated priest has started a new religion that worships Ashtaroth.  He has to baptize a child, now 18 (three-times-six, don’t you see), with the blood of the demon so that she can become his (Ashtaroth’s) avatar.  This is apparently the eponymous daughter to the Devil.  She was baptized initially by her mother’s blood at her birth.

The girl’s father, who survived her birth—unlike his wife—has decided at the last moment to save his daughter.  He appears to be independently wealthy yet he talks an author of occult books into doing the saving for him.  The girl, it turns out, is a nun in this satanic religious order and is only too willing to do what she can to serve “our Lord.”  The way that all of this plays out is confusing and Byzantine, but it does raise a serious question: what if a child is reared in a bad religion?  (And there are some.)  Who has the right to decide if a religion is good or bad?  Children are easily indoctrinated and not too many question the faith in which they were raised.  Yes, we all think the religion we believe is the right one.  The problem is everyone else thinks the same thing.

One of the things this movie got right is that the “heretics” are portrayed as sincerely believing that their religion is for the improvement of the world.  Calling themselves Children of the Lord, they believe Ashtaroth is good.  And a good lord wants what is best for the world, right?  This is the dilemma of exclusive religions that teach only their own outlook can possibly be the correct one.  Otherwise you have to give adherents a choice and another religion may be more appealing.  Or worse, they may reason out that if you’re given a choice that means your own religion is also merely one of many.  Historically religions have gotten around this by valorizing true believers who never question anything.  To the Devil a Daughter isn’t a great movie.  It’s not even a very good one.  Nevertheless, it raises some questions that lie, of course, in the details.


The Panel

More than one person pointed it out to me, so I guess I must be getting a (small) reputation.  During one of my campus editorial visits I stopped into the center for Religion and American Culture at that venerable institution known as IUPUI—Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.  I was immediately impressed and, of course, since I’m no longer in academia I’ve realized that the impact of religion on culture is my real interest in it.  What was pointed out to me, however, was an episode of their “Religion and” series.  This one was held via Zoom and has been posted here, so if you, like me, work, or are just finding out about it, can still see it.  I encourage that behavior.  This particular panel was “Religion and Horror.”

As the word “panel” indicates, it was a moderated group discussion.  The panelists were Douglas E. Cowan of the University of Waterloo, Erika Engstrom of the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media, and W. Scott Poole of the College of Charleston.  The moderator was Melissa Borja of the University of Michigan.  What a great way to spend an October afternoon!  It is also good to know that I’m not the only one who’s noticed that religion and horror are similar and even address similar needs.  I’ve read books by Cowan and Poole and have even met the former a couple of times.  No longer a university employee, I largely work in insolation, so it’s great to hear conversation about the kinds of things in my head once in a while.  A number of refrains became obvious during this all-too-brief discussion.

We’ve been conditioned to think of religion as inherently good.  In general, we’ve also been conditioned to think of horror as inherently bad.  As with most black-and-white categories, both of these things get some key points wrong.  Religions, like everything else, have histories.  Those who study those histories learn that much of what’s passed along to believers is intended to make them into repeat, paying customers.  Try teaching in a seminary for a few years and then attempt to dispute that.  And, the panelists pointed out, horror is also a product, intended to sell.  This explains the endless parade of, for example, Halloween movies.  Just when you think you’ve purchased the last one you’ll ever need to buy there’s another.  There was so much squeezed into that one hour that I was glad I was taking notes.  But then, it was a recording—you can see it too, and I urge you to do so.


Monster Gods

“I would go to Catholic Church and the saints made no sense.  But Frankenstein made sense, The Wolfman made sense, The Creature from the Black Lagoon made sense.  So I chose that as my religion.”  Famed writer/director Guillermo del Toro said these words.  They’re not exactly gospel but they do demonstrate the connection between religion and horror that is only now beginning to be explored.  Del Toro and I are of the same generation, and some of us in that time frame found meaning in the monsters we saw as kids.  They were coping techniques for living in an uncertain and difficult world.  A world with hellfire on Sundays and often hell for the rest of the week.  Fears of bullies and alcoholic fathers and lack of money.  Fears of an unknown infraction sending you to eternal torment, even if you didn’t know or mean it.

Image credit: Manuel Bartual, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, via Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t choose horror as my religion.  I didn’t grow up Catholic like del Toro either.  I haven’t seen all of his movies, but he does evince a kind of religious devotion to his monsters.  Pan’s Labyrinth was distinctly disturbing.  Pacific Rim was intense.  Crimson Peak is one it’s about time I watched again.  The Shape of Water offered a lovable monster.  Many of these films don’t follow standard horror tropes.  They’re thoughtful, emotive, and often wrenching.  These are, of course, traits shared in common with religion.  I suspect my own attempts to articulate this would benefit from conversation with someone like del Toro.  There’s no doubt that monsters give me the sense of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Religion and horror share a common ancestor.  Fear is an emotion that we apparently share with all sentient beings.  How we deal with it differs.  While a bunny will run away a rattlesnake will strike.  Horror is a way of dealing with fear.  So is religion.  We can’t avoid fear because, honestly, there’s much to be afraid of.  Many choose to believe their clergy, taught by people like me, and assume religion has all the answers.  Others, like del Toro, seek wisdom elsewhere.  When the credits roll at the end, you know it was all just a show.  When you walk out of the church, synagogue, or mosque, you know daily life awaits with its peaks and valleys.  Some may substitute one for the other, while others require the support of both.  And both, as odd as it may seem, can be addressed with conviction.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Guillermo del Toro.


O Viy

Viy is a most unusual movie.  I’m talking about the 1967 version, of course.  Filmed and produced in the USSR, it was, by many counts, the first Soviet horror film.  There’s been a resurgence of interest in it because of the study of folk horror—and it’s certainly an example of that.  Not really known for its plot, it’s noteworthy in its early special effects.  Since it’s a story that revolves around a monk, however, it participates in religion and horror as well.  Unusual for a Soviet-Era film.  Set in an undefined period in the past—before electricity, in any case, and perhaps the Middle Ages—a class of seminarians is released for vacation.  They’re a rowdy, unruly bunch, hardly the pious priests you see associated with orthodoxy.  When three of them get lost on their way home they end up spending the night at the farm of an old woman.

The woman comes after Khoma (one of the three) that night and bewitches him.  Riding him like a horse—and this is common witch lore—when she finally releases him, he beats the old woman severely.  But she has turned into a beautiful young woman.  Khoma returns to the seminary but is sent to say prayers over a dying young woman—one guess who it is.  Between getting drunk and trying to escape, Khoma seems to guess his fate.  At the compound of a wealthy merchant, the girl’s father, he learns she has died.  The father insists he keep vigil for three nights, praying over her corpse.  In the church scary things happen, not least her return to life.

On the third night all kinds of monsters appear after she calls on the god Viy.  Viy means something like “spirit of evil.”  Each night Khoma has drawn an effective magic circle around himself, which keeps the dead witch at bay.  The last night the monsters make it through, with predictable results.  There’s so much folklore at play here that it’s easy to see why the story by Nikolai Gogol suggested itself for a film.  It was poignant to watch because it’s set in Ukraine (Gogol was a Ukrainian writer).  Gogol had a tremendous influence on other writers, but isn’t as widely cited among western authors in contemporary times.  The film is fairly easily found online, and an updated version was released in 2014.  Even in the USSR, when horror emerged in the late sixties, it was doing so with religion, even before Rosemary’s Baby.


Religious Monsters

It began with monsters.  A religious monster-boomer, I couldn’t get enough of these scary creatures as a child.  For some reason they made me feel happy, secure.  With the real monster of parental alcoholism lurking outside the door this is perhaps understandable.  Growing up I soon learned that these were childish things—religion was adult.  And very serious.  Always trying to be a good boy, I followed the trajectory to seminary and then further study.  Monsters had faded.  I still liked them, but seldom encountered them and acted disinterested if I did.  Fortunately I came out of it.  Probably it was being ousted from academia that awakened what had once been my reality.  That, and I’d learned that some academics—mostly in religion departments—were now studying monsters.  Monster may I?

Maybe a decade ago, I’d read, I thought, just about every academic book on monsters.  Then the slight shift of focus from monsters to horror films started.  You see, movies are often where we learn of monsters.  There weren’t too many academic books on the topic, and the internet sites I found often lacked depth.  (Although a shout-out is due to Horror Lex here, if you’re not visiting, you should be. And of course, Horror Homeroom.)  Editors, you have to understand, are for some reason discouraged from writing books.  I’d been noodling away on the ideas behind Holy Horror for years.  Suddenly it occurred to me—I could write a book on monsters from an angle unused before.  (Later I discovered an academic had written an article on the topic, but seems to have dropped it after that.)  Writing about horror is really my sublimated love of monsters arising.  And they do rise.

Of course, those who know the religious Steve, still trying to be the good boy, are confused.  Our culture has poisoned the well for horror, I fear.  Not everyone likes slashers.  I personally don’t care for them.  A quiet haunting is more my style.  Still, what’s available on Hulu or Amazon Prime often dictates what I see.  If you’re going to write about horror movies you have to read about them.  Lately that’s driven me more toward film department studies.  That’s the thing about curiosity—it never rests.  There are always doors to open and rocks to turn over.  And books to read.  There’s no end to it, kind of like a good scary movie.  Like a monster you have to cross boundaries to learn anything.  Religion has its monsters, and denying that will only lead to complications.


Like Sheep

Since horror grew up in the late 1960s, religion has become a favorite theme in the genre.  Although religion had been in horror from the beginning, Rosemary’s Baby marked a definite sea change.  More and more religion has been moving from a subsidiary theme to the main vehicle of horror.  Małgorzata Szumowska’s The Other Lamb is a case in point.  “Shepherd” is the leader of a separatist religion that consists only of women.  The premise itself is creepy enough, but it becomes clear that Shepherd—the group literally has a flock of sheep—physically abuses the women.  They are divided into two groups: sisters and wives.  When unexplained things happen, Shepherd gives prophetic pronouncements.  His followers are expected to accept everything he says on blind faith.  Many religions do this by proclaiming faith against evidence a virtue.

One thing that I’ve emphasized in various presentations I’ve done is that Christianity, and perhaps all religions, work because believers are great followers.  While Shepherd uses biblical-sounding language, there are no Bibles in the film.  There are recognizably Christian themes, but the doctrine isn’t familiar.  Part of the reason, obviously, is that Christianity has a negative view of sex and Shepherd treats his flock as his harem.  The women follow because he “rescued” them from worse situations and their communal life is better.  Only it’s not.  When a woman director stands behind such a film, there’s clearly a message being sent about male privilege.  Any system set up with male superiority will lead to abuse.  When Shepherd’s enclave in the woods is discovered, they must move.  He instructs the women that they are going to find Eden.

Throughout, the movie is more creepy than scary in the traditional sense.  There are no jump-startles, but the situation makes you sense that something’s not right.  The women, acclimated to this lifestyle, many of them for years, know no other way of being or even where to go.  They have no vehicles.  Forced to move, they walk—Shepherd carries nothing while the women backpack out supplies.  Once Eden, on the shore of a lake, is reached, Shepherd baptizes the sisters and drowns the wives so the younger women can take their place.  You get the sense throughout that this movie is a parable.  Men like to take the privilege of determining women’s fates without understanding women’s needs.  This new kind of horror is insightful and symbolic.  There is no final girl when women band together.  The Other Lamb deserves wider exposure than it’s had.  It’s a good example of what religion can do to those who simply follow.


Having X

The final girl is such a classic horror trope that even horror novels can be titled after it.  You know the drill—teens hanging out, doing things that teens do, end up being killed off one-by-one by a monster or a disturbed person(s).  The one to survive is the virginal girl who doesn’t drink, use drugs, or whatever.  As a long-term horror watcher, I think the trope has been exaggerated, but it does occur enough times that there was clearly something to be noticed.  Enter X.  Released earlier this year, a slasher that rather obviously juxtaposes religion and horror, X features a “final girl” who is anything but virginal and sober.  The religion aspect is blatant from the beginning when the opening sequence involves a televangelist preaching to a viewership of the dead.

The title derives from the premise (which is a throw-back to the classic slasher era) that a would-be independent movie producer wants to shoot a pornographic movie.  Since this is strictly low-budget, he contacts an elderly gentleman on a remote Texas ranch who has a guest house.  With his one male and two female stars, a cameraman/director, and an assistant he drives to the isolated location.  They are all divided into couples, with each of the women having sex with the male star.  What makes this creepy from the beginning is that the old man, and his elderly wife, create a sinister presence.  She sneaks up on the young people, watching them through the window.  She misses her younger days when she was young and attractive.  As night falls the young people are killed off by the older couple one at a time.  What’s more, they’ve done this before.

X is a reflection on aging.  More than that, it’s a reflection on how religion leads to horror.  To say precisely how would involve giving away a spoiler, so I’ll leave the reader to watch the film to find out.  Suffice it to say, the televangelist is preaching about how sex leads to evil and the older couple kills because they’ve been listening to him preach.  X is not for the faint of heart.  I generally don’t like jump-startles and there were a couple of those that caught me off-guard.  (I try to anticipate them when watching slashers, or any horror, for that matter.)  But what of the final girl?  There is one, but it’s one who flies in the face of horror convention, if there is such a thing.  


Devils and Days

The kind of devil envisioned by Andrew Michael Hurley in Devil’s Day may not be the traditional one, but it’s scary nevertheless.  In his follow-up novel to The Loney, Hurley demonstrates that he knows the devil can still be frightening.  The Endlands, in northern England are hemmed in by the moors.  The landscape plays such a commanding role here that this can only be folk horror.  And it fits folk horror to a tee.  Tradition, an unchanging life in a land untouched by technology, and forbidding moors where survival is difficult, all amid an English sensibility brings this tale into the folk category neatly.  As should be clear already, Hurley is well aware that religion and horror belong together.  This novel makes their companionship clear.

John Pentecost (note the name) has decided that he and his young, expectant wife—both of whom hold professional jobs—are going to move back to the family sheep farm.  The death of John’s grandfather means that his own father is left to run the farm alone.  Knowing that he belongs there and that his unborn child will need to tend the farm when he dies, a visit to help with the gathering of the sheep, and the celebration of Devil’s Day, turns into a lifelong commitment.  At the same time, the devil has been body-hopping as sheep are killed and family members die and a family of bullies cause more harm than their due.  There’s an inevitability to all of this and at the end you’re not really sure who the devil really is.

The story builds slowly.  By the day of the gathering you really have trouble putting it down.  Putting the Devil into a story can be a dicey proposition.  It’s been done successfully a handful of times, but that doesn’t make it an easy sell.  Our worldview has moved beyond a literal netherworld and the theology that accompanies it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t spot legitimate evil in the world.  Or that evil isn’t often vested in the garments of righteousness.  Ways of thinking that jeopardize others for theological purposes that simply don’t match what we know to be just and fair.  Powerful exploiting the weak.  Wealthy taking advantage of the poor.  Bullies getting their way through brute force.  In this novel the devil is active in a number of characters for a short time.  And you never know where that devil might turn up next.


Updating Irving

Movie quality is measured by many standards.  It’s pretty clear that budgets can make a difference—Hollywood movies generally outshine television movies.  Streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, have been gaining ground here, but they still lack some of the qualia that come from long-term players in the industry.  Often this was measured, pre-pandemic, by box office success.  I’m not sure how it’s all quantified now, but I’m sure it still comes down to money.  To me, the deciding factor about the quality of a movie is often the writing.  Even with a modest budget excellent writing can make up a lot of ground.  Headless Horseman originally aired on the SciFi channel (now Syfy) in 2007, and I wrote a tiny bit about it in a former post.  I recently rewatched it with an eye toward how religion is integrated in it.

Headless Horseman is not a great movie.  Its writing doesn’t inspire and it leaves too many gaps in the narrative to carry the viewer along easily.  Still, religion plays an important role in the story.  This one resets Washington Irving’s tale in the south—from the license plates, Missouri.  The horseman is a serial killer who offered his victim’s heads to the hydra, the serpent that guards the entrance to Hell.  When the killer is stopped and his body sent through the gateway, he comes back every seven years to chop heads.  The town where all this takes place has the biblical name of Wormwood, and everyone in it is literally family.  So every seven years they have to trap seven outsiders to make their offering.  The person who originally stopped the killer was the local priest.

Even this brief synopsis reveals how deeply religion is engrained in this retelling.  Irving’s classic story is set in an overtly religious period (particularly Protestant, of the Reformed variety), and wears this lightly.  Everyone can be assumed to go to church and the Headless Horseman is a Hessian mercenary decapitated by a cannonball during the Revolutionary War.  Over time, with many retellings, the horror becomes more and more involved with religion.  To the point that the religion itself is the real engine of fear.  A town protecting a Hell-guarding hellion doesn’t exactly make them Satanists, but it does mean they’re not far from it.  The in-breeding is, however, a bit insensitive.  My recent rewatching wasn’t with an eye toward the Bible, as my last viewing was.  When retelling the story, however, it seems religion will surface where once it was only in the background.