Unwished Inheritance

When I mentioned my book Holy Horror to someone recently, she asked “Have you seen Hereditary?”  I had to allow as I hadn’t.  I have to struggle to find time to watch movies, and I’m generally a couple of years behind.  Surprisingly, Hereditary was available for free on Amazon Prime, and I finally had the chance to terrify myself with it.  Perhaps it didn’t help that I’d been reading a book on schizophrenia at the time (as will be explained in due course).  Hereditary is one of those movies that is impossibly scary, up until the final moments when it suddenly seems unlikely.  In this respect it reminded me of Lovely Molly and Insidious.  All three also feature demons.  Using a child to accommodate the coming of a demon king brought in Rosemary’s Baby and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  (The genre is notoriously intertextual.)

While demons can make movies scary, what really worked in Hereditary was the sense of mental instability and the lack of a reliable character to believe.  The Graham family is deeply dysfunctional.  Mix in elements of the occult and dream sequences and you’re never certain what, or whom, to believe.  As with many of the films I examine in Holy Horror, the realms of religion and fear are interbred.   While the Bible plays no part in Hereditary, the matriarch’s “rituals” pervade the family following her death.  In a family of females, where a male demon seeks expression through possession, an obviously challenging dynamic is set up.  It works out through a series of disturbing images and manipulations.

Watching the family disintegrate becomes the basis of the horror.  Then possession comes into play.  As in most films concerning possession, deception and misdirection are used.  A demon named Paimon is seeking to take over the one male heir.  This ties the movie to The Last Exorcism, where the same demon under a different name seeks to propagate through Nell Sweetzer.  Unlike many possession movies, the suggestion that possession is actually involved comes late in the script.  This revelation underscores the the misdirection of attention that focuses on Annie Graham’s struggle to cope with reality.  Her sleepwalking and threats to her own children as well as the suggestion that they are but miniatures being manipulated by a larger, more powerful entity, keep the viewer off balance throughout the story.  Intelligent and provocative, Hereditary assures me that tying to analyze such films, while perhaps a fool’s errand, is an enterprise unlikely to be soon exhausted.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

Omen, O Man!

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Of the unholy trinity of late-60s to mid-70s horror movies Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the last always seemed the least effective to me. Having recently read about the Devil in American popular culture, and having a rainy Friday evening alone, I decided to give it a try again. Based as heavily on Hal Lindsey as it is, once one outgrows dispensationalism it is hard to be frightened by the idea of biblical end times. Everything from making up verses in “Revelations” to utterly bogus Holy Land geography (Megiddo is north of Jerusalem, not south—did the writers not even own a map?) contributes to a set of untenable tenets, even among the bibliterati. The film relies mostly on shocks and startles to earn its horror stripes, and after you’ve seen the movie once, these lose their power in subsequent viewings. Nevertheless, on this rainy May night, so close to June 6, I noticed new ways in which the movie undermines its own message.

The premise, of course, is that Damien, the son of the Devil (who apparently has a thing for bestiality), is plotting to take over the world through the means of politics. Having been watching the events of the past few months I have to wonder how the Devil could improve on progress through such channels. But I digress. His step-father Robert Thorn, US ambassador to London, discovers his “son”‘s identity and tries to kill him. With a strong anti-Catholic bias (the Antichrist is born in Rome, the seat of the church, and is protected by Roman clergy) the film nevertheless spawns sympathy for the Devil. As a child, Harvey Stephens hardly appears diabolical. Maybe it’s just because my brothers and I also spilled goldfish from their bowl once, but it seems to me he acts just like most little boys do. Who really wants to go to church at that age? As the movie approaches its climax, he’s represented as the biblical good-guy.

Thorn has to confirm Damien’s satanic identity. Like Delilah, he creeps up on the sleeping boy and cuts his hair. Convinced by a man who introduces himself “I am Bugenhagen” that he has to stab the boy, Thorn in a white car outraces police (so there might be a bit of prophecy here after all) to sacrifice the child on the altar. The movie casts Damien as both Samson and Isaac within a few short minutes. Apart from the film’s use of violence against women’s bodies (Thorn won’t allow an abortion, Kathy seems to have a penchant from falling from high places in slow motion, Baylock gets a fork in the neck) it actually seems ambivalent about the evil of the boy. An unfortunate birthmark does not a devil make. We’ve made it through the change of the millennium and many other hazards, yet dispensationalism is still with us, as is its anticlimactic Antichrist, Damien. He’s less scary than the real politics of an entirely secular age.

Or Just Sleeping?

442px-Nietzsche187aYesterday was the anniversary of the death of God. The Time magazine cover, the first to be text only, asking “Is God Dead?” was one of the iconic images of the 1960s. Fifty years ago yesterday, the media ventured out onto a limb that hasn’t snapped but hasn’t exactly bloomed either. Maybe it’s because the idea wasn’t original. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had suggested that God is dead in 1882, nearly a century before Time. A friend in seminary reported seeing graffiti that read “‘God is dead’—Nietzsche; ‘Nietzsche is dead’—God.” Although we laughed over it, this waggish statement contained a profound truth. The concept of God has proven remarkably resilient. Indeed, it may be part of what makes us human.

The media, nothing if not endlessly self-referential, responded. In fact, an article by Lily Rothman on time.com, is a Time story about a Time story. An endless regression of unbelief. Roth mentions theologians in her column— theologians still, and perhaps always have, debate the question of God’s existence. The ultimate untestable hypothesis, God, in that sense, is an easy target. The media reach readerships of which the rest of us only dream. I didn’t see the Time cover as a child (we did not subscribe), but it made its way into Rosemary’s Baby as a statement of the Zeitgeist more effective that a declarative sentence. It is a question that haunts. Miracles, according to the Bible, used to be large and spectacular. Today they don’t happen at all. What went wrong?

Rothman’s story begins with a seminary professor being fired. William Hamilton, at the then Colgate Rochester Divinity School, was dismissed over the question of God’s existence. Seminaries have been particularly sensitive to questions of God’s continuing presence. We sometimes forget, however, that magazines exist to make money. The same is true of some theologians. If you wanted to get noticed when the Vietnam War claimed so many headlines, you needed to say something striking. As the article points out, the question of God’s death seems a lot less radical today. Living through this campaigning season running up to the Republican National Convention it might be less difficult to disbelieve. I wonder what Nietzsche would’ve said.

Dakota Territory

A few weeks back I found myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. This is a fashionable district in which to live, but back when the Dakota was built, as pictures from that era demonstrate, this was an undeveloped area. The building stands alone against the sky, not surrounded, as it is today, by neighbors. I’ve noticed this in other parts of Manhattan as well. New buildings can grow in seemingly impossibly slim spaces between other structures. Sometimes I wonder how construction workers can get their hands back there to lay the bricks. The city is so overbuilt that it is difficult to get into the Halloween mood of October. Yes, stores, restaurants, and bars do decorate windows, but the enormity of the surroundings makes them seem miniscule. Although New York is a gothic city, it seems to swallow up holidays. Perhaps because of its greater commercial potential, Christmas is much more evident around town. Halloween, however, is a holiday best appreciated outdoors.

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While in the neighborhood, we stopped by to look at the Dakota. It was under scaffolding the prevented seeing the entirety of the building, but the famous entryway was unobstructed. I know that it was near here that John Lennon was murdered, and I know other famous people used to live here: Judy Garland, for example, and Leonard Bernstein. To me, however, the visual aspect of that entry always suggests Rosemary’s Baby. Even the doormen still wear the uniforms that they wore in the movie, only today they have to shoo away those who try to wander inside the gates to snap a selfie where the other half live. For me it was once again being in the presence of a place I’d felt I’d been before.

Rosemary’s Baby still stands out among the classic horror films as being particularly effective. The Satanism scare of the late sixties and early seventies has moderated, and we know now that witches are not people to be feared. Nevertheless, the eerie pacing of the film, and the sense of threat forever mark this location as one of caution. Seeing Terry Gionoffrio lying in a pool of blood where John Lennon would, in reality be twelve years later, is prophetic in the worse possible way. Still, the tourists stopped to have their pictures snapped at this infamous location. New York can be like a giant movie set at times. I quite often walk through staging areas for films on my way to work. It is a city where fantasy can be difficult to parse from reality from time to time. Even being in the upper west side, for someone like me, is, I know, pure fantasy.

Rosemary by Any Other Name

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With NBC’s remake of Rosemary’s Baby into a mini-series in the news, I sat down to watch the original again. I’ve blogged about it before, but with most available funds being diverted to college, watching new movies will be a rare treat for some years to come. Besides, the original is a mishmash of religious ideas that despite their lack of coherence still leave the viewer somewhat disturbed. Since the last time I watched the movie, I’ve read several books on witches and have come to recognize the strange brew that Roman Polanski concocted for public consumption. Reaching back to the myth of diabolic witches, the original movie presents such witches initiating a new world by literally spawning Satan on a woman whose name is based on the mother of Jesus and who will ultimately care for the helpless little devil. The viewer, despite the knowledge that Rosemary is carrying evil incarnate, still sides with the vulnerable, pregnant protagonist. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

I’m not sure how you make a miniseries out of this thin plot. I suppose a nine-month pregnancy would lend itself to slow development, but haven’t we grown a little too old for witches and devils? In fact, Wicca is now a recognized religion in much of the industrial world, and the devil’s been on the run for decades. Religious movies, or at least movies based on religious themes and characters, are perennially popular, however, no matter what the secularists tell us. And why not open a series about pregnancy on the weekend of Mother’s Day? Nothing stirs the emotions like putting a young mother at risk. That’s perhaps the insidious side of the original movie—we silently side with the devil.

Rosemary is, of course, manipulated by her husband with the everyman name of Guy. This isn’t in any sense his child and, like any businessman, he stands to gain enormously from someone else’s labor. Exploitation is the cost of the continuation of the human race. It doesn’t take much to figure out that we’re watching a parable here. After all, the Time magazine cover asking if God is dead makes a cameo in Dr. Saperstein’s office. And the setting in Manhattan clues us in from the beginning that this is the place were many millions are asked to make a few very rich. There is a witchery in New York, and for those who know how to look, the devil may be found in the details.

Imagine Thanksgiving

Although mildly jetlagged and slightly incoherent, a promise is a promise, so I took my family to Manhattan to see (the upper half of) the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Commercial and flashy, it is difficult to conceive of a more American expression of holiday wonder. It kicks off the secular Christmas season and the parade forms the background noise to many a feast preparation in the United States. Not living in the city proper, there are limits to how early public transportation can get one into town, so by the time we reached the Upper West Side, the crowds were pretty intense. We met our friends at West 72nd Street and tried to see the floats and balloons over the heads of a sea of humanity; if you could glimpse the flashing tip of a tuba, we counted that as seeing a marching band. The weather was cool but nice and in the dense crowd I kept my hands shoved in pockets, not always sure they were my own pockets, and waited for the next tall or hovering parade feature. In-between times I stared at the building to our left until a friend informed me that it was the Dakota. The site of John Lennon’s slaying and the exterior used in Rosemary’s Baby, where, presciently, a murder victim was laid out on the sidewalk not far from where Lennon fell. Suddenly the parade took on a profundity that betrayed the levity of the gas-filled characters floating by.

Mark David Chapman, a delusional, born again Christian, had spent many hours waiting about where we were suspended in the crowd. Thinking himself Holden Caulfield of the Catcher in the Rye, he murdered Lennon creating a saint and a demon simultaneously. Perhaps John Lennon’s ashes are still floating about Central Park, and as we walked through, the exterior of the Teutonic Dakota took on a haunting quality. Lennon was a lover and a protestor and an experimenter, and scenes from Rosemary’s Baby of Satanists smoking cigars also hung in the air. The shop window displays on Fifth Avenue drew great crowds, but as we drifted toward 51st Street, we decided to stop into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, along with the surging mass of the faithful.

Cathedrals are best enjoyed in quiet solitude. Nevertheless, we followed the pilgrims through the long nave, stopping to glance at the numerous chapels with statues along the way, each with a collection box, securely locked, asking for donations. And people say Christmas is commercial! Want to pray through your favorite saint? Please deposit a quarter. Preferably two. Or more. Their budget in candles alone would support many a smaller church throughout the nation. Advent begins this weekend, so the crèche was set up at the front with life-sized figures of the usual players: holy family, shepherds, wise men. And collection box. There was no baby Jesus and when my daughter asked why I said, pointing to the collection box, apparently they were saving up to purchase one. Keeping Christ in Christmas? Indeed. All those bronze, life-size Pope head statues can’t be cheap. John Lennon was cremated and his ashes scattered, leaving no trace. Popes are cast in bronze. Yes, John Lennon was wealthy, and once quipped that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. What is the truth of the matter? Looking at the façade of the Dakota, I know where I would rather light a candle.

Parsing an Exorcism

The latest in my spate of scary movie viewings is The Last Exorcism. The press when it was released last year made claims of extreme fright, but my impression was that I’d seen it all before. The “found footage” fantasy is difficult to maintain—although the camera work in the film is good—and the premise of demonic possession is frightening if the viewer is a believer. The hook for this movie, however, is that the exorcist himself doesn’t believe and becomes a victim of his own unbelief. The pattern overall follows The Exorcist, but without the creepy soundtrack and staged lighting effects, The Last Exorcism relies heavily on the viewer’s willingness to believe. The demonic possession is presented as extreme contortionism and self-destructive behavior, as well as the uncharacteristic violence by the victim. When Nell Sweetzer gives birth to a demonic child, a la Rosemary’s Baby, the role of good Christian gone occult feels a little hackneyed.

I’ve tried to analyze what scares so many people with movies of demonic possession. The core fears seem to come down to two: belief in the reality of demonic possession and the fear of being out of control. Historically the concept of possession was originally relegated to the gods with demon possession apparently arising as a pre-scientific attempt to explain epilepsy. The fact that most Christian denominations no longer recognize physical demon possession (a fact exploited by The Last Exorcism) makes it more frightening still. For a generation of media-saturated viewers convinced that cover-ups are common the credibility of the church, struggling with its own metaphorical demons, is suspect. Perhaps demons are out there—a common enough assertion on the reality show Ghost Hunters—and the church has lost control over them. When Jason and Grant explain what demons are, however, they are pretty far afield from Legion being cast into a herd of swine.

If the Internet is any kind of reliable measure of people’s fears, zombies and demons appear to be nearly on a level when it comes to belief. Both are supernatural and neither stretches credulity to the point of humans growing fangs or matted fur. Both participate in the idea that there is more to be feared beyond death. Both fail in the court of science. The Exorcism of Emily Rose raised the ambivalence of demonic possession to the level of the courtroom. One thing I learned on jury duty last week is that the truth is measured on the basis of the judgment of a quorum of rational individuals. The implications of this are frightening indeed: those who accept the reality of non-physical monsters (the jury is still out on ghosts) are fully capable, in a legal setting, of deciding the truth of the matter. The only corrective to witch-hunts and state-sponsored exorcisms would seem to be education. Today education comes via the media where zombies and demons freely roam.