Rise Again

Resurrection, as I argue elsewhere, is a scary thing.  Since today’s Easter, at least in the western Christian world, people are—or should be—thinking about resurrection.  In the case of Jesus, a young man who died “before his time,” resurrection seems only fair.  Indeed, in the earliest biblical hints of the concept it applied to people in precisely that category.  The story’s different for older folk who are beginning to wear out and are ready to go to a better place.  Christianity made the idea of resurrection more palatable by stating that you get a new and better body next time around.  The creeds say, after all, “the resurrection of the body.”  Heaven, it seems, is an embodied location.  Resurrection is necessary to get there.

Horror writers and film makers have used revenants to great effect.  When they do, pop culture latches on.  Think about the vampire craze of the early 2000s.  Or the ongoing fascination with zombies.  Even your basic garden-variety ghost.  They’re all revenants that attract and repel us.  We’re not quite sure what to make of life after death.  It’s okay if it’s played out beyond human senses, but as much as we want life to go on we don’t want to witness it here.  Horror films like to play on this ambiguity.  They’re closely related to religious ideas.  I’m occasionally asked why I watch horror; it’s essentially the same question as why I study religion.  Sometimes you just need to look closely enough to find the connection.  Resurrection, as I discuss in Holy Horror, is tied to some of humanity’s most basic fears.

Just two days prior to Easter, Good Friday in fact, Lorraine Warren passed away.  A fervent believer in resurrection, she was half of the dynamic paranormal investigating couple of Ed and Lorraine, about whom I’ve posted from time to time.  This coincidental occurrence illustrates once again the connection between resurrection and horror.  The Warrens were fond of declaring that haunting spirits of the human kind were those that had not passed over into the next world.  Revenants were confused spirits (not to be mistaken as demons, which were something completely different).  Resurrection, presumably, awaits just the other side of the veil.  Clearly religion shares this roadmap with horror.  Just as the Warrens will be resurrected as characters in this summer’s forthcoming Annabelle Comes Home, such returns to life may take many forms.  It’s Easter for some of us, and it can integrate horror and hope, if viewed a particular, perhaps peculiar, way.

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Death Challenged

Long before the Walking Dead, and even before Twilight or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, people took the undead seriously. Now, I know ratings are important (they attract advertisers and their money, after all), but when the fear is reality the stakes are upped a bit. Two readers sent me a Guardian story this past week of Yorkshire villagers mutilating the dead. In the Middle Ages, that is—it’s perfectly safe to die in Yorkshire now. The story by Maev Kennedy describes how archaeologists have been studying deliberately defiled corpses, well, actually the bones from those corpses to be precise, to solve a centuries-old mystery. Their conclusion? Medieval folk really did fear the dead coming back from the grave.

Now, Easter’s just around the corner and resurrection’s on a lot of minds. Outside the context of the Bible, however, resurrection of the dead is one of the most ancient and persistent of human fears. Nobody’s quite sure why. Dreams and visions of the recently departed are extremely common. Belief in ghosts is ancient and fairly universal. The destruction of the bodies of people already dead is not. We treat our gathered ones with respect. To me it seems to come down to the puzzle of consciousness. Call it a soul if you like, but I have a feeling things would be getting rather crowded in here if too many distinct entities claimed this body as home. Mind, soul, spirit, psyche, consciousness. We don’t know what it is because it can’t be studied empirically. We know that something like it exists and opinions of what happens to it after death vary. The body, we can all agree, has a more prosaic end.

That’s what makes fear of the undead so fascinating. They are only bodies. Bodies without souls. Rather like leaders of the Republican Party. We fear them because when we look into their unblinking eyes we see no vestige of human warmth or sympathy. Those who walk among us and who don’t care about those of us not yet undead remain a perennial fear. In the case of the Yorkshire corpses these were people already buried. Putting them back in their graves seemed kind of pointless when they would only climb out again. We don’t know what it was like on the ground in the Middle Ages. History, however, has an ironic way of repeating itself. We’re entering a new age when I suspect we’ll want to make sure the remains of some remain well and truly gone once they’ve finally given up the ghost.

Come Forth

the_lazarus_effect_2015_film_posterHorror movies provide a strange consolation at times such as this. When evil has overtaken democracy, it’s almost like strategy, watching how fictional characters deal with things that are wrong, things that are too close to real life. The Lazarus Effect has been on my watch list since the last sane presidential administration, but need finally dictated that I watch it. The premise is clear from the title—Lazarus is universally known as the dead man who came back to life. A group of medical researchers at a university in California find a way, through direct stimulation of the brain, to bring dead animals back to life. The idea is that they will give surgeons more time to resuscitate critical patients if they can get the formula right so that it works on people. An evil corporation steals their discovery and they have just a few hours to replicate the experiment to prove they are the ones who perfected it. Predictably one of them (Zoe) dies and her fiancé brings her back to life. Mayhem ensues.

Those who’ve seen Pet Sematary will find many similar ideas covered here. Those who come back from the dead are somehow distorted versions of their former selves. Those who do the resurrecting end up dead at the hands of the modern-day Lazaruses. There’s not much unexpected here except that Zoe, a Catholic, ends up in Hell. There’s quite a bit of talk about religion versus science—what really happens when you die. Zoe, despite being a practicing Catholic, has never been forgiven for her childhood sin of setting a fire that killed some neighbors in the apartment building. Religion and horror sharing the screen is something fairly common, but it is seldom as forthright as it is here.

Resurrection—necessarily a religious concept—is a frightening prospect. Horror films have shown many times that this is a miracle that just shouldn’t happen. At least not on this plane. (Those who’ve watched Re-animator know how bad the consequences could be.) Scientists, generally unbelievers in the cinematic world, just can’t accept either an afterlife or death. Using technology to challenge a godless fate, they inevitably end up losing. So it is in The Lazarus Effect. Some biblical scholars have suggested John’s rendition of the story is a kind of biblical horror tale. I mean, Lazarus had been dead four days in the warm climes of the Holy Land. His resurrection seems to have ended up well, however. Then again, there is an inherent difference between science and religion. Neither one, however, is now really in charge.

The Found World

LostWorldChallenges will make you do funny things. One enjoyable dare has been Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. With a modest twelve books in twelve months goal, the specific target is to read the types of books laid out. Into one of those categories, for me, fell Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. It’s sad that I feel I need so many disclaimers—I never really outgrew my love of dinosaurs—such escapist literature is indeed a guilty pleasure. Crichton could write a quick read, not bothering to pause for literary hindrances, and this novel fits the bill. It always surprises me when at the end of a traumatic story where friends die (this time ripped apart by reptilian carnivores) that the protagonists escape and never mention the dead. They joke, explain holes in the story, and generally look forward to a better, raptor-free future. There is, however, some food for thought here, among the lucre-grubbing sequel to Jurassic Park.

The first religious element that caught my attention was resurrection. Ian Malcolm rather convincingly died in Jurassic Park (and even an unconvincing death works for most people). In The Lost World he’s suddenly back again, with a barely disguised deus ex machina, and is as diffident as ever. The other former protagonists know better than to return to an island full of dinosaurs. Resurrection is a time-honored literary trope. So much so that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that death is in any way permanent. Well, come to think about it, the dinosaurs too are resurrected. Do reptiles have souls? Crichton’s dinosaurs seem to.

Then, just over halfway through the story, I was stunned. The chapter, or section, called “Gambler’s Ruin” explains how science and religion (or the humanities in general) are really the same. I couldn’t believe that a bestselling novel actually took the point of view that scientific objectivity is just as fraught as post-modern literary theory. There is no way to observe without influencing. When a conscious presence enters the equation, the facts have to counterbalance in return. Many, of course, would disagree in principle. Still, this unexpected bit of profundity stopped me in mid-chomp. Materialism, beguiling as it may be, doesn’t explain Heisenberg or Schrödinger. It takes a resurrected mathematician to do it. No wonder chaos abounds in this world where dinosaurs still rule the earth.

Resurrecting Color

ColorOfDistanceIf you’re one of those people who’s attached to books, you know the frustration of someone who borrows a book and never gives it back. Many years ago I stopped lending out books for that very reason. I do, however, sometimes give them away. A friend recently reciprocated the gift of a book, giving me Amy Thomson’s novel, The Color of Distance. It is a profound story involving, as is common on this blog, themes of resurrection and transformation. A science fiction tale, it is set on another planet where something has gone wrong with an Earth survey team. The humans are dying on this alien world when one of them, Juna, is transformed by the alien into something like one of them. She comes back to life transformed. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I read the cover blurb that reads “Reborn in her savior’s image, trapped in her savior’s world.” Not a bad summary, capturing as it does the deep religious elements in the story.

The religious aspect, however, comes through most clearly in the environmental elements of the novel. Humans, somewhat optimistically, had set in place protocols not to interfere with alien life. So much we know from Star Trek’s prime directive. What makes this so interesting in the case of The Color of Distance is that Thomson knows that any contact is contamination. Two worlds cannot meet. They must collide. There is a gentleness, however, in her narrative. Juna, marooned (long before The Martian) on a foreign planet, has to learn to see things through alien eyes. And every little thing that humans have done has left a footprint on the planet. Protecting our own planet is a profoundly religious undertaking.

It is clear that Thomson has influenced later writers and stories. Not only does The Martian pick up on the stranded aspect, but Avatar clearly presents a world similar in many respects to the planet of the Tendu. The Color of Distance is a book not easily forgotten. The world into which the reader is drawn is indeed one of transformation and resurrection. I suppose spoilers aren’t an issue with a book two decades old, but I will satisfy myself merely with noting that another resurrection takes place as the story winds to its close. Deeply hopeful, and almost prophetic, this novel should be more widely read, for the sake of the world on which it arose.

Underground Easter

SleepyHollow

Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.

The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?

Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.