Hiding What?

Who are we?  Do we really show ourselves to others, or do we wear masks?  That question applies to horror films as well as to everyday life.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas addresses this directly in the former context in Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces.  As I write about horror films, peer reviewers suggest these more technical studies as means of adding depth to my analysis.  Most of them are revised dissertations and retain the academic language that makes such documents difficult to read in places.  Still, they contain a lot of insight.  I learned a lot from Heller-Nicholas and I was particularly impressed that she took the “shamanic imagination” as her approach to the films she analyzes.  The ritual aspect makes good use of religion and horror connections.  It’s nice to see this catching on.

Masks are more than disguises.  Yes, there’s something theatrical to them and there’s a great deal of ritual to theater.  Ritual and religion aren’t identical, but they are clearly related.  Often masks are discussed as simply a way of hiding a killer’s face.  There’s quite a lot more to it.  This is where the academic analysis comes in.  We can’t explore it in detail in the brief context of this post, but there’s a whole book out there to read on it.  Heller-Nicholas doesn’t feel constrained to major movie releases.  I did that in Holy Horror because I supposed more people would be interested in reading about movies they’d actually seen (most of them anyway).  There are a lot more examples out there.  I’m learning about more all the time.

There are many different masks in horror.  This book looks at several, some metaphorical, but most literal, and what they convey.  Or conceal.  The fact is we mask ourselves for many reasons.  It’s kind of like when we dream—our subconscious seems to know more about who we are than our waking minds do, and we really don’t share our dreams with others.  The mask in horror isn’t worn just by killers.  When it is, however, it often has a shamanic effect, or, as Heller-Nicholas points out, a trickster aspect.  This is very much like how anthropologists approach shamans in traditional societies.  Religious specialists are often tricksters and they provide an important element in cultures that are otherwise beset by rules.  Rationality is important, but so is letting go of it once in a while.  Shamans get away with things the average person can’t.  And it is just one of many masks we wear all the time.

Which Shaman?

It’s a strange kind of vindication when you see someone argue your ideas independently.  Even if they understand those ideas in a different way.  I suppose it’s necessary to say that in academia those who have university posts are assumed to be more authoritative than those of us who don’t. That’s not sour grapes, it’s simply a fact.  Some years ago, after having first seen Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I wrote a post on this blog suggesting that the Joker functioned as a shaman in that movie.  Being a blog by a non-university academic, the post had a few readers, but it is not peer-reviewed and therefore, officially just a matter of opinion.  I have studied religion professionally for decades now, however, and I would still stand by my assessment.

Recently I came across an article that argued Batman was a shamanic figure in that same movie.  It was affirming that another academic had come to a similar conclusion, however, we differ in our interpretation of who bears shamanistic characteristics.  It doesn’t help, I suspect, that shamanism isn’t well understood, and even the name is a bit of a misnomer.  We don’t really have a word for non-major religious practitioners of indigenous populations who may have little in common, so we call them shamans.  Their religious systems are too specific—“granular” is the favored business word these days—to categorize them easily.  And the reason for this is that we think of religions in the light of the large, organized conglomerations that arose in western Asia a couple millennia ago.  It’s difficult to make room for smaller exemplars.

Something larger religions have done is distorted the idea of religion as a local phenomenon.  Communities used to reflect the religious experience those who lived in them knew.  Catholicism divided the world into parishes and even tolerated some differences between them.  Protestantism gave Europeans (and their New World descendants) a set of choices, and towns in America often sport many steeples not because religion draws a community together but rather because it generally tears it apart.  Hierarchical religions are about as opposite of shamanism as Batman is different from the Joker.  They may have similar ends in mind, but their methods are quite different.  The shaman is a figure that leads to spiritual wholeness for the community.  Their methods seem questionable to larger, highly structured religions.  And the unaffiliated trickster may accomplish more than an establishment figure in a local setting.

Prophetic Shaman

Lewis EcstaticDon’t complain. So I’m told. Work with the system (i.e., the privileged), do your part, and most of all, don’t complain. What would Jeremiah do? Or any of the prophets? It seems to me that prophets had the job of calling out where society had gone wrong and doing so with a healthy dose of complaint. If you don’t call out evil, it only grows. Prophets come to mind because I’ve just finished reading I. M. Lewis’ Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession. Spirit possession is chic, at least in the horror movie industry, but if you get beyond the stereotypes, you soon learn that inspired, or ecstatic, religion is largely based on good possession. The gods can temporarily inhabit the shaman, and, as Lewis points out, there is often an element of the underprivileged being those who are visited by the gods. Interestingly enough, indigenous cultures that feature shamans—or shaman-like practitioners—accept the rebuke of the gods, even when it may be a thinly veiled attempt to right an obvious wrong.

Shamanism is a bit of a misnomer. Not really a religion, but a set of spiritual practices originating among the Tungus of Siberia, shamanism is now conveniently applied to native peoples around the world. In our love of easy classification, we like to say this belief is similar to that belief, so they must be a type of religion. In fact, however, “religion” is much more integrated into the daily lives of indigenous peoples and specific beliefs vary widely. Nevertheless, we understand possession and shamanism, and we apply them as categories to try to make sense of it all. Lewis does so with an anthropologist’s eye, finally in the last chapter addressing the psychological questions. It is often claimed, for instance, that shamanism is a form of mental illness. What seems clear to me is that shamans are responsible for preventing injustice from getting too far established.

And that brings me back to prophets. Prophets, particularly among those who study the Bible, are often seen as religious authorities. It seems to me that prophets, as opposed to priests, grew out of the untamed concern for justice typically exhibited by shamans. Priests are establishment religionists. They support the government and the government supports them. Temples are built. Religion is regularized. Prophets, however, can come from anywhere. They are liminal figures, complaining, in God’s name, when injustice appears. They don’t support the status quo just because it makes people comfortable. In other words, complaint is often the only way to make the divine will known. They are the heirs of the shamans. One thing that’s pretty obvious—whether you live in Siberia, Israel, or America—shamans are still sorely needed.

Human, Nature

Wild EarthSomeone recently told me that a city blocks a certain vibration that people draw from contact with the earth. I know that vibration often sets off “new age” alarms, but this person was rational, scientific, and had grown up in New York City. I grew up in a town on the edge of the woods. We didn’t live on concrete. In fact, the floor of our shack was so thin in some places that you could see the actual soil underneath. Even our driveway was gravel. Although it was a dysfunctional family, I felt more connected to my planet back then. Wild Earth, Wild Soul: A Manual for Ecstatic Culture, by Bill Pfeiffer, is just what it says. It’s a manual for how to get back in touch with nature. Basing his ideas on those of indigenous cultures world-wide, with a healthy dose of shamanism, he explores the vibrations of the earth. I had, at times, to force myself to listen. He’s right about so much that I stayed with the narrative to the end.

Civilization comes with a price tag. A very high price tag. The rates have been set by a small group of “progressives” who operate with the idea—mistaken—that all nature is a machine. Physics, they claim, and chemistry, show that all of life is mathematical. Nothing in the universe doesn’t add up. But biology, as Pfeiffer repeatedly shows, often doesn’t. The mistake is as fundamental as it is reductionistic. Life isn’t quantifiable. Biology messes up the nice, neat system we’ve invented. Indigenous peoples, while not idealized, lived in much better harmony with the land, not over-exploiting. It was a sustainable existence. What “civilized” people wanted was more. More of everything. A surplus, in fact. Without that surplus there is no business, right? Capitalize on that!

We’ve lost touch with nature. Our “leaders” want to exploit it. Mine it, refine it, and make it “useful.” When’s the last time I looked at a tree just to appreciate it as nature? Civilization can’t envision a tree without an axe. If it grew it can be improved. Even our food has to be genetically modified because obviously nature can’t make a profit on its own. No, Wild Earth, Wild Soul hasn’t made the impact on the world it might have. I’d never have found it if it weren’t for a used book sale. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t right. We need to dismantle. We are not electronic devices, as much as the internet tells you otherwise. I knew that as a child. And as my feet ache from walking over acres of concrete on my way to “work” I know it’s true. There are indeed good vibrations out there, but here they’re too deep under my feet to feel.

Heilige Geist

Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.


Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.

Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.

Witching Fiction

WitchesRoadLiterary fiction is a rich trove of religious thinking. Consuming fiction sustains the soul as well as the mind. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight was an impulse buy. The title, the cover, the intricate implications, the price were all right. It turned out to be a rewarding story that involved, possibly, witches and certainly religion. Not that it is a story about religion—definitely not. Yet, the protagonist is a weatherman who dresses as a vampire to present old monster movies on late night television. His relationships define him and, as his daughter learns, he may be the son of a witch. Deeply textured with the earthy reality of the rural poverty-stricken, at several points in the novel a thoroughly naturalized biblical vocabulary effortlessly flows. At crucial moments the story is poised on the crux of heathenism and religiosity. It is a book difficult to forget.

The fascination with witches has deep explanatory roots. When hopes are not realized as they are carefully planned, people naturally seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Too often in history the blame has fallen on the powerless, the marginalized. Too often on women. In the somewhat enlightened twenty-first century it has become passably safe to declare oneself a witch. Our scientific worldview allows it as a harmless delusion, but the issue is more than it might seem. For some, witchcraft is the only channel available for a power that should belong to all. For others it retains a taint of evil, primarily because of a biblical point-of-view.

Israel in antiquity was a patriarchal culture. It was a man’s world that kept most women from any seat of power. “Witches” in this world are simply those who continue the trajectory of a kind of animistic faith in the vibrant life of nature. Prior to “revelation” it was self-evident that nature itself was full of vitality—spirits—if you will. When God was added to the equation, the life-force of nature fell on the “less than” side of the comparison. Even today children recognize the shaman under the name “witch-doctor,” euphemistically applied to those closer to nature than to the Bible. Reading Witches on the Road Tonight brought all of this back to me. Although largely set in New York City, it spoke to me as a rural urbanite who left something valuable in the woods of my childhood.

Shaman Shifting

Shapeshifting I confess that I haven’t read Confessions of an Economic Hitman. Being incurably drawn to the weird, however, I picked up a copy of John Perkins’ earlier book, Shape Shifting: Shamanic Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation at the recent Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. I also confess that I fear being classed as one of those irrational sorts who’ll believe anything. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been to college or university that a Ph.D. is no protection from the strange ideas that waft through human gray matter. Many years of teaching convinced, I hope, at least a few of my students that I approach the study of religion in a reasonable—dare I suggest?—rational, way. Despite appearances to the contrary on this blog, I weigh evidence carefully. Sometimes the evidence suggests we don’t yet have all the data. So it was with an open mind, but also a dose of skepticism, that I read through Perkins’ book. And yes, he does suggest that cellular-level transformation is possible.

Before breaking out your hooey-meters, however, consider that John Perkins is a successful businessman. Money speaks, n’est-ce pas? So I’m reminded every rational working day. The human mind, however, plumbs realms on which empirical method sheds little light, even to this day. Psychologists still debate whether there is a subconscious mind at all. And then there’s that troubling question of what exactly reality is. Historically, people have answered such questions with religion. And religion quite often permits entry where science declares “no gods allowed.” So did John Perkins really transform into a ball of energy and float across both time and space and see such disturbing sights as he describes? Did Richard Bach really astro-project with his partner, as recounted in The Bridge Across Forever? Are we really rooted to this mundane world where politicians and entrepreneurs make all the rules?

Perkins recounts his experiences with shamans of the Amazon, and like Jeremy Narby, his experiences with ayahuasca, a consciousness-altering plant. He even recounts transforming into an “inanimate object” so that his wife could not see him. Is it real? Can science measure such events? Does anything escape the penetrating stare of the electron microscope? We will have our Richard Dawkinses on one hand declaring an unequivocal “No!” The other hand, however, may be generating the sound of clapping for those who have ears to hear. Or at least for those who have eyes to read. At the end of this book, truth comes down to a matter of belief.

Intelligence, Evolved

intelligenceinnatureAnyone who has looked into the eyes of a cat or dog can have little doubt that they think. What exactly they think is, of course, a matter of conjecture. I had been meaning to read Jeremy Narby’s Intelligence in Nature for a few years now. We are taught at a young age to eschew anthropomorphism—although our eschewers don’t use that word—as the childish way of perceiving the world. Animals don’t think because that’s reserved for people. We sit in the finest spots in the poshest corners of the animal kingdom and the sign says “No Dogs Allowed.” I never really outgrew this child-like belief because the minimal scientific evidence I’ve been able to infer supports the idea that like us, other animals think. Narby, an anthropologist, agrees. At least to a point. I don’t wish to make claims for Dr. Narby that he wouldn’t support, but he provides fascinating empirical evidence, “down” to the level of amebas and plants, that indicates intentionality. Nature is alive with thought.

As an anthropologist, Narby begins his consideration with the insights of shamans. Although scientists rarely countenance shamans, they are among the earliest of human religious specialists and they have long promoted the idea that humans are fully integrated into nature. We are not separate and above. From our brains to our bones, we are one with the natural world. If we think, should not animals think? Interestingly, this idea brings Narby into some of the same territory as Thomas Nagel; intelligence may be a cumulative process. Our brains’ ability to think may be the result of collecting together the thought processes of our fellow creatures to a point where our thinking becomes abstract. We’re told that dolphins and whales don’t think like us—they don’t build cities, do they? Maybe it’s because they didn’t evolve opposable thumbs. Maybe it’s because they’re smarter than we are.

There are, it seems, many thinkers on the outside of the hallowed confines of hard science that are chipping away at the strict materialist edifice. There can be no serious question that the empirical method explains much of what we experience in the universe. It has always amazed me, however, that we assume that humans are able to find the outer limits of existence with our limited senses. We know animals can see, hear, smell, taste, and maybe even feel in ways beyond our capabilities. Who’s to say that there isn’t other input well beyond our limited senses that we use to survive in this environment? After all, we didn’t evolve to know everything—we evolved to be able to thrive in our ecosystems. For that you don’t need all the answers—just enough to get by. If you doubt my reasoning here, I suggest you ask your dog or cat.

Old-Tyme Religion

Run, two, three, jump, slap, run, two, three, jump. I can’t believe that I’m Molly dancing on a January afternoon with total strangers and it’s just over freezing out. And my big brother’s on the side watching me mess up every step. It must be wassail season again. In a festival that always reminds me of The Wicker Man (1973, please!), I visited the 16th annual wassailing of the trees at Terhune Orchards on Sunday. Molly dancers and Morris dancers, or Mummers, from Philadelphia help make this occasion festive. The ceremony of wassailing the trees clearly has deep pagan roots and is influenced in some respects by Christianity. We sing a wassailing hymn (one that many would recognize from Christmas time), say a wassailing prayer, make a loud noise to drive the demons from the trees, dunk bread into a pail of cider and hang it from the trees. Another festivity involves writing a wish on a slip of paper and burning it in the fire. My wish from last year came true—I can’t say what it is here—giving it a success rate better than some prayers.


Watching this year’s wish rise up in the smoke, I have high hopes for the apples and dreams.

Christianity owes much to various pagan traditions. Often we don’t see it because Christianity (and many religions, actually) tends to absorb former beliefs and practices, “baptizing” them when it can’t expunge them. Pagan gods have often become saints, whether they want to or not. When the Christianity is peeled back there is a very human charm underneath. We worry whether the fruits will return, whether the days will get longer, or whether the cold will ever break. There are powers that exist outside our grasp, and call them Christ or call them spirits, we want them to be on our side.


Throughout Europe and much of the rest of the Christianized world, the pagan traditions are called “the old religion.” Religions like to claim antiquity as part of authenticity. In fact, the earliest religions were surely shamanistic and very earth based. Revealed religions claimed to supplant much of what people did to ensure the continued regularity of nature. Even though we know the earth is spinning around the sun and that the tilt of its axis makes for seasonal change. I know that whether or not I dip bread into cider and jamb it onto the bare branches, even if I don’t shake the noisemakers to frighten the demons, the apples will grow. But we are all human too, and I’m only too happy to join the Molly dancers if only next summer the apples will come.

Spirituality Sampler

ManSeeksGodSometimes you read a book and wonder if somehow the author got into your head and fished around for material. Although I’m not Jewish, at least not that I know of, I found Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine to be uncannily familiar at points. Not that I’ve ever been a journalist, nor have I had more than a few hundred people read anything I’ve written, but somehow I just couldn’t shake the underlying connectivity. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read it, Man Seeks God is Weiner’s spiritual journey through various religions, seeking his God. Born culturally Jewish, Weiner never really resonated with the religious aspect until the last chapter of the book. In between, however, he shows a true pioneer spirit and tries diverse faiths, some of which are not for the fainthearted. As fits the postmodern period, he’s an authentic, intentional spiritual shopper. And he provides many laughs along the way.

Such a book must be difficult to write. There’s a lot of baring of the soul, and even a little baring of the body, at times. Weiner begins with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Yes, it’s based on love. He then travels to Nepal to pursue Buddhist meditation, followed by a stint with the Franciscans in the Bronx. The only one of the “big five” he doesn’t sample is Hinduism. That might have thrown a speed-bump into his ending, though, to be fair. He makes no claims of comprehensiveness. At this point the story takes a turn toward decidedly exotic selections in the cafe of spirituality. I couldn’t read his account of the Raëlians without snorting aloud once or twice on the bus. Taoism takes Weiner to China and into a distinctly more philosophical frame of mind. He explores Wicca and Shamanism, which may be more closely related than he supposes, before coming home to Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism.

Spiritual seeking is as mandatory as breathing for some people. Eric Weiner is one of those teetering on the edge of active exploration and the ability to shut out the questions, if only temporarily. Reading his confessions, it’s clear that he’s a rational, intelligent man. He made it through decades without really feeling the need for religion. When the ineffable pressed itself onto him, however, he turned to the mystical traditions. I was warned, in conservative Grove City College’s religion department, to be very careful of mysticism. The professor was dry-eyed serious as he said that seeking direct experience of God would generally lead to heresy. So there it was, in plain sight. Doctrine has precedence over the truth. Long ago someone smarter than us figured it all out. Our job? Just follow their path. I have a feeling that Weiner, having had some unexplained experiences of his own, might disagree. Sometimes you have to take out a personal ad in the spiritual scandal-sheets to get an idea what the divine really is.

Shaman on Us

My reading habits are unorthodox. I don’t follow a fixed plan, but hope for something that will keep me engaged for the fifteen or so hours I spend commuting each week. I began October with a book about werewolves and followed it up with a book on the Hmong. Apropos of neither and both, I turned next to Shamanism: An Introduction, by Margaret Stutley. While not the best organized book, it does provide a smorgasbord of shamanistic traditions, principally from Siberia, where Shamanism was first recognized. Before I’d finished, I’d read about both epilepsy and werewolves.

Shamanism is not a “religion” per se. There is little agreement among scholars about what a religion is at all. Shamanism is very much a local set of beliefs and practices that have only very basic elements in common (shamans being one of them). It is a good example, however, of how moral heathens can be. Shamans often accompany egalitarian societies who do not require governments and religious leaders telling them to be nice to each other. No, this is not the noble savage myth, but it is a clear indication that major religions are not required for morality. It evolves on its own. Often shamanism is not constrained by overly left-brain influence, and sees connections science can only deny. The plight of Lia Lee was explained here in a way physicians could access—epilepsy and other diseases are problems of the soul as much as the body—if only they read books about religion. Healing involves calling the soul back. Treatment of the body misses the point. And sometimes the dead become werewolves.

We live in a world where real suffering is caused by lack of understanding about religion. Assuming a cultural hegemony of Christianity, or Islam, and sometimes even other religions, we discount those who believe differently than we do. The New Atheists frequently overlook just how seriously people take the world of the emotions and belief. That realm is a large part of what makes us human and it plays by no logical rules. Nor does it care to. In a country, such as the United States, where money is believed to be the very warp and woof of the good life, shamans sometimes secretly cut the thread. Still, don’t ask universities to expand the study of something as insignificant as religion because all intelligent people know that nobody really believes that stuff any more.

Disease Divine

Diseases, for most people of the modern West, are difficult to diagnose as divine. At my wife’s urging, I’ve been reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. I have a feeling I’ll be commenting on various aspects as I read through it, but something caught me almost immediately. Although the book is not about religion, the culture of the Hmong (about which I knew nothing just hours ago) is truly imbued with religion. Our medical science is, well, science (unless perhaps you’re from Athens, Georgia). Western culture since the Enlightenment has come to understand many of the body’s systems intimately, discerning just which chemicals to proscribe to treat this or that electro-chemical reaction in the body. And we consider it normal. Epilepsy, the condition of Lia Lee, is a disease that, as Fadiman points out, has had a long divine pedigree even in the west. The Judaic tradition at various stages considered it demonic possession, the Romans understood it as a kind of deity-induced madness.

Interestingly, Fadiman uses the case of Tony Coelho, an epileptic and congressmen, to make a point about the Hmong community. Coelho, she notes, had been intending to enter the priesthood but the Church has a canon forbidding ordination to an epileptic. This gave me a considerable pause. Clergy in many cultures must be “perfect” physical specimens. According to the Hebrew Bible, men who had certain deformities “down there” were disqualified, although, one notes, that they would have served fully clothed. Epilepsy, having been putative cured by Jesus many times, might seem a strange disqualifier from priesthood. I wondered why it was singled out from among the many maladies that might have seemed more pressing. Even in our enlightened age, epilepsy still bears the scars of the divine.

Narrating the experience of the Hmong in a Thai refugee camp, Fadiman notes that the subtext was often conversion. As she points out, for the Hmong medicine is religion. Although the missionaries had converted some, their very enthusiasm ensured that the Hmong would not generally go to them for treatment. Here is a stark difference between a people whose religion permeates every aspect of their lives and westerners for whom religion is compartmentalized in a different place than medical science. For the Hmong, wellness is part of a larger picture from which religious belief simply can’t be separated. For some epilepsy is a disease to be cured, if possible. For others it is a sign of a budding shaman. I look forward to reading more, as it is clear that by shifting perspectives, even the enlightened might have something to learn from those they deem uneducated.

Where? Wolves?

The problem with occasional phenomena is that they are seldom empirically verified. Try as we might, no one has managed to be in the exact place at the exact time on Loch Ness to capture definitive evidence that Nessie exists. Of course, it is very difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. I have a creeping suspicion that not all of reality can be quantified. I’m very glad for the parts that can be, but a little mystery never hurt anyone. I’ve just finished reading Linda Godfrey’s Real Wolfmen: True Encounters in Modern America. There—I’ve already lost some of you! We all grow up to learn that there are no such things as werewolves and I’ve experienced many a peaceful night in that knowledge. Nevertheless, many people do report seeing upright wolf-like creatures, and many of the people interviewed by Godfrey appear to be entirely sincere. What makes this intriguing to me is that many of these episodes are reported in a circumscribed area (near which I used to live). While reports come from across the country, it is easier to dismiss one person who saw something odd once than it is to discount many people who see a similar thing over many years in the same general vicinity. That’s why I keep coming back to Godfrey’s books.

Being an open-minded writer, Godfrey also considers possible spiritual explanations for what people see. Shamanistic traditions, in this case particularly Native American ones, do not dismiss transformations from human to animal. It is difficult for most of us to accept that a person could bend the laws of physics and biology—for which we suffered through so many tests in our education—to mutate or mix human DNA into or with lupine stock. Indeed, it takes the faith of the world of religion to believe that. And yet, people see beasts.

We have been in the process of sealing the borders to our universe since the Enlightenment. The vaster our universe becomes the smaller the realm of possibilities grows. But we haven’t even explored all of our own little planet yet. The deep-sea trenches remain largely out of our reach, and the sheer volume of the oceans boggles the imagination. Even on land, we can’t watch every place all the time. The possibility of getting to somewhere truly remote is frequently an optimistic illusion. At times with my wife’s family I’ve ventured to places so far from civilization that freedom truly feels palpable. And as we hike down some neglected trail, talking to alert the grizzlies to our presence, nearly always we end up encountering others out here to escape from the likes of us. Yet a whole lot of the woods remain off-trail. It’s not a small world after all. And it’s October. Who’s to say there’s not the occasional werewolf out tonight?

Cat Tales

Several years ago a cat named Rusty, aka, Firestar, came into our lives. Since my wife is allergic to cats Firestar is, of course, a fictional character. I’ve written about the Warrior series of tween books by Erin Hunter before, and last night I was reminded of the centrality of religion to the story. My daughter has been a fan of Warriors since fourth grade. One of the few luxuries we allow ourselves is the (now mandatory) purchase of the newest installment on the very day of its release. Waiting even one day cannot be tolerated. Although my daughter is among the more wizened readers of the series, her devotion is undying. She’s the kind of fan publishers (and some deities) covet. Last night I took a break from grading student papers to take her to see Erin Hunter at the kick-off book signing for the latest release in the series.

What a publisher loves to see

I have to admit feeling a bit out of my league waiting in a massive line where the average age is, on the whole, several decades below mine. There was even some question as to whether we would even be admitted since we had the dreaded B tickets rather than the highly prized A stubs. Having read the first twelve books as bedtime stories quite a few years back, I hadn’t expected the founder of the quaternity of Erin Hunters to be quite so witty. As she explained (mostly to the adults present, I believe) her interest in devising the series, she cited “religion” as the second of her interests. In the series, tribes of feral cats each have a shamanistic “medicine cat,” and the spirits of the departed cats play an influential role. Ms. Hunter also explained that the clans could be taken to represent different religions, all struggling to coexist.

Now I could understand that I was clearly in the world of fantasy. Religions, like all human institutions, are prone to corruption. Lofty ideals, inspiringly presented by insightful founders, soon come to be used as weapons and tools to win control over other people. Since religion is understood to be sacred, few suspect the insidious uses to which the various tenets of belief-systems may be put. Those of us who have toiled long among the religiosphere must become more circumspect about our surroundings or be consumed by them. Many of us know firsthand what darkness religions are capable of generating. In fact, it is something that even cats recognize, if Warriors be a reasonably reliable guide through this tangled forest. And like cats, many religious warriors can barely keep their claws sheathed.