Annotating Irving

Really concentrating on a short story is sometimes difficult to do.  I don’t have a degree in literature (I took a few courses, but my specialization was religion).  I’ve been on a bit of a Sleepy Hollow kick lately and I wanted to move beyond just the short story by Washington Irving.  Although I’m sure working through the entire Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the book in which “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published, would probably be rewarding, it would also be time consuming.  Irving was trying to find his way as a writer and this particular story has been his lasting contribution.  So I turned to local historian Henry John Steiner’s annotated edition.  It has a useful introduction, but still wouldn’t be “book length” without several pages of photos and a large font size.

Sleepy Hollow may lay claim to several signs of historical importance.  It featured in the Revolutionary War.  Washington Irving did eventually settle there.  As a getaway it attracted the wealthy and powerful from New York City because it’s not that far from Manhattan.  Several movie and television renditions have been made of Irving’s story.  This book generally provides local place connections in the annotations.  A visitor to Sleepy Hollow might wonder where this or that event in the story was set.  This book will help with that.  Still, it left me looking for a bit more substantial treatment.  Not necessarily a literary-theory kind.  Let’s face it, academic writers tend to write for other academics. No, a bit more of the folklore, I suppose.

It did allow me to slow down and really concentrate on the story.  Books have an endpoint that really helps in that regard.  This little book (as was the one I recently read on the Old Dutch Church) was published when the Fox series Sleepy Hollow was taking off.  That all-important media tie-in helps to sell books.  Interestingly, the details of a closer reading are revealing.  This isn’t, in origin, a Halloween story.  It’s a tall tale told American style.  Steiner indicates it was based on an older legend—this is something I’d be interested in hearing more about.  Writers are great recyclers.  I suppose a book on the folklore of the lower Hudson Valley might have more of what I’m seeking.  Nevertheless I came away from this edition feeling as if I’d gotten to know the story better.  Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” also appears in his Sketch Book, but perhaps it’s asking too much to have both analyzed together.


Old Churches

I doubled its authenticity, but it was revered in a way similar to the Shroud of Turin.  The old guide, a priest if I recall, showed us an actual lantern hung for Paul Revere’s ride.  This was the Old North Church in Boston, of course.  Its history is so storied that children across the country learned about it in school.  A similar feeling comes from reading The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.  Subtitled Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York, it is clearly a celebratory work, printed in full color and with pictures on every page.  This church’s claim to fame isn’t as much historical as it’s the result of the imagination of Washington Irving.  It features in his short story “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.”

Built in 1685, it was already an old building by the time Irving had settled in North Tarrytown.  Being early enough, Irving had immense influence on the culture of a young country.  Although born in New York City, and although he lived for many years overseas, he came to represent the voice of the emerging American literary tradition.  America has been home to many writers since then, some successful, many not.  But this book is about the church, not Irving.  Irving does play a big part in its story, although he was never a member.  I kept thinking as I read how influential a single story can become.  And even a small Dutch Reformed Church can benefit from it.  This book gives a high-level overview of the history of the area and some of its colorful characters.  It turns a few times to the Headless Horseman, but it also explains the trials and triumphs of a small church.

Although most towns can’t claim such a storied structure, American churches have had an outsized influence on who we are as a people.  I’ve sat through meetings lamenting the lack of funds for the operating budget as money grows tighter even as the worldview of ancient Palestine effaces.  As an historian of religion I tend to look back.  I don’t believe our future will be entirely electronic or virtual.  If it is, I think I’d rather find myself on a chill, uncomfortable pew in the Old Dutch Church lit by candles on a Christmas Eve, shivering but still alive.  No matter what a person believes—and with the varieties of churches we can’t all be right—we know that it’s part of what makes us human.


Collecting the Past

Some readers, probably, react with embarrassment when I go on about Dark Shadows.  The fact is, however, that our childhoods somehow define us and mine included frequent doses of Dark Shadows after school.  This was complemented by the series of potboiler novels by William Edward Daniel Ross, writing as Marilyn Ross.  We didn’t have much money when I was a child (some things never change) and the only means I had of procuring the books in our small town was Goodwill.  The novel series ran from 1966 to 1972, roughly concurrent with the television show.  Since I was buying them second-hand I could never tell which, if any, I would find in the book bins.  If I did find any, I’d buy them.  I got rid of them when I “grew up.”

Dark Shadows, however, has come back to me at various points in my life and about a decade-and-a-half ago I began, somewhat shamefacedly, trying to rebuild that earlier collection.  The individual volumes are considerably more than the nickels and dimes I’d originally paid for them.  In fact, the rate of change has been somewhat astronomical.  Some of the volumes are rare.  Given the prices, I suspect I’m not the only nostalgia-poisoned child of the sixties and seventies who’s buying them.  There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with having finally completed a task years in the making.  When the box containing the last volume arrived, it was a moment of private ecstasy.

All of this has me thinking about other influences Dark Shadows has had on me personally.  It is probably responsible for my lifelong love of Maine.  The television show was filmed mostly in Terrytown, New York, better known by the name given in Washington Irving’s tale, Sleepy Hollow.  I wasn’t aware of this on my visit to Terrytown—which was before the more recent television series based on, but not filmed in that location, aired.  My first publication regarding religion and horror was based on Sleepy Hollow.  There’s a sense of connectedness here.  To get the final volume, which is rare, I had to buy a collection of several of the books.  Like a man who found a pearl of great price went and sold all that he had so that he could buy the field in which the pearl was.  We’re never told what he did with the rest of the field.  If I had to venture a guess I’d say he used it to house his Dark Shadows collection.


Out There

Do you see them?

While recently re-watching an X-Files episode, I noticed something odd.  A quick online search revealed that I wasn’t the only one to notice this particular quirk, and, in fact, there had been considerable previous discussion on it.  What really struck me wasn’t the resolution of my question, but the fact that so much had already been written on a single episode of a single television program.  It’s one of the problems with trying to keep up with pop culture—there’s so much out there (besides just the truth!).  I’ve been exploring pop culture with the Bible for a number of years.  There’s plenty enough in the X-Files to warrant a larger project, but even without that, there’s just no way to keep up.  You could spend your life trying to unpack what several people wove into a single program.  Each episode took considerable thought, planning, and resources.  Once it was out there, reception history began.

So much of scholarship is analyzing what someone else has done.  Some monographs are more footnote than actual text.  What I’ve been suggesting regarding pop culture is that it is the way people understand religion.  The information people receive often comes from what modern authors and screenwriters compose.  A few X-Files later, during a religiously themed episode, something was implied to be in the Bible that’s not.  Again, I address this directly in Holy Horror, but every time I see an example, it catches me by surprise.  The average viewer doesn’t know to research what they’re being told and if it’s played straight, as it was in this episode, it becomes part of the truth that’s out there.

Those interested in how beliefs develop and change over time have recently begun to ask about the average person instead of “official religion.”  In antiquity this is difficult to gage since the average person was illiterate and poor.  Even in modern times with relatively high amounts of literacy and everyone writing on the internet, trying to understand religion is difficult.  Now it’s a matter of too much information.  Fan sites exist for popular media.  The canons of Harry Potter fandom alone would require a lifetime of study.  Limiting oneself to the X-Files might be a start.  My own publication history with pop culture and religion began with Sleepy Hollow.  It could have just as easily begun with the X-Files.  No matter where you choose to begin understanding religion, you’ve got your work cut out for you. And this post has just added to it.


Back to Tarrytown

The very name “Hollow” takes me there.  It’s a resonant geonym.  Near Franklin, Pennsylvania, my early hometown, runs a route called Deep Hollow Road.  For me, with its lush, thick trees and shadowed valley, it always exemplified what the term “Hollow” intended.  And of course, there was Sleepy Hollow.  Now that my article on various movies based on the Irving story has appeared in Horror Homeroom (it’s free), I’m again thinking about my dance with that particular story.  In fact, after I submitted the article I watched yet another version of the tale, Pierre Gang’s 1999 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  This film on Sci Fi (before it became SyFy) purports to follow the original closely.  It nevertheless has to pad out the story and does so with religion.

Religion—specifically the Bible—and the tale as represented in Fox’s four-season series Sleepy Hollow is what started me on the current leg of my journey.  I sent an article to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on the topic and when it was accepted I expanded the idea into the book Holy Horror.  So it is that I’ve tried to watch as many versions of the story as I can.  There have been many made-for-television renditions.  Some are available for free on the various services that draw from my pocket monthly.  Others cause me to debate whether I want to pay for seeing a sub-par effort for the sake of completeness.  The scholar’s heart still beats within me, I guess.  The Gang version expands the story with a church scene, not in the original tale.  To inculcate the Bible, however, Tim Burton’s film of the same year was necessary.

For me no story better encapsulates October.  Perhaps it’s the crucial role of the pumpkin.  Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of the headless horseman himself—is he a hoax or something more?  These kinds of questions are answered by various filmmakers but since the viewer ultimately decides the question is left up to us.  If I were still an academic my next book project would be clear.  Instead I’m trying to bask in the wonder that is October—the season of transition from bright blue skies and colorful leaves to long, chill nights and bare trees.  Our time outdoors becomes more focused so that we might get back to the warmth inside.  And if we’re looking for a tale to read that’s not really that scary, but which captures the ghosts of the American imagination, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” beckons.


Not Sleepy Yet

Over a recent weekend I watched four versions of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (I have two excuses.  One is that it’s October, and the second is that I have an article on Sleepy Hollow coming out on Horror Homeroom.  For the second, read on.)  The story is one that made an impact on me as a child, probably because of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The cartoon version, which was one of the four I watched, is silly and scary both.  It leaves it to the imagination whether the headless horseman is real or not.  Before that I watched the silent 1922 Headless Horseman staring Will Rogers.  Clearly in that film the headless horseman is what we’d now call a liberal hoax.  It was Brom Bones scaring Ichabod Crane away from Katrina Van Tassel.

The canon of characters grows with Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.  Although Burton is hit or miss for me, this strikes me as one of the best October movies I’ve seen.  The headless horseman is quite real and the spiritual world intersects with the rational, crime and punishment world in the haunted western wood.  I didn’t have time for the 1980 television movie this time around, but I decided to watch the 2007 television movie Headless Horseman.  A rather puerile splatter film set in Missouri, it posits that this is the real headless horseman behind Washington Irving’s story.  It has a lot of religious imagery, which is often what I’m looking for in horror.  The writing is poor and the characters shallow, but it isn’t a total waste of time.

What all of these films demonstrate is that Washington Irving’s story, as simple as it is, really resonated with Americans.  How can you reason or plead mercy from a headless man?  Look closely, for there is a parable here.  The headless are merciless and they have the ability to frighten.  The story is generally set in the harvest season.  The 2007 movie makes the horseman’s appearance as a crucified scarecrow.  Although the original story had no such religious elements, they’ve become a standard part of its accrued cultural heritage.  The headless horseman has gone from secular to religious, for it is an American story.  Originally set in the period after the Revolutionary War, it was part of an unsettled nation’s frustrated attempt at normalcy.  This, I believe, remains.  When we can’t make sense of our surroundings, we look back to those stories that seem to have some insight into who we are.  Headless horsemen are quite useful in that regard.


X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.


The Bible Files

As intimated several posts ago now, my wife and I are rewatching The X-Files.  Neither of us has much free time, so this proceeds slowly over many weekends, and we’re now nearing the end of season three.  This exercise brings me back to an article I wrote on Sleepy Hollow, the Fox series that ran from 2013-2017.  That article, published in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, I later adapted into a chapter in Holy Horror.  At the advice of my editor I dropped that particular chapter and wrote a different one.  In the lost chapter, if I recall, I made the case that Sleepy Hollow was biblically based in a way that other monster-of-the-week series, like the X-Files, were not.  While I still have to hold to this, I must admit the X-Files are far more biblical than I recollected.

Somewhere about halfway through season one I started to jot notes when the Bible was mentioned or quoted.  Soon it became obvious that religion was a major theme in The X-Files pretty much from the beginning.  I’ve mentioned here before that some scholars of religion have begun to address the paranormal seriously.  One of the reasons for this seems to be that the two fields are related.  Some of the x-files derive from folk traditions, and these traditions often hold religious elements.  When those themes derive from American folklore the Bible creeps in.  There are quotes, visual displays, and even biblical themes.  How had I not noticed this the first time around?

I didn’t watch The X-Files during the actual airing of the series.  As a kid I was endlessly teased for having an interest in the strange and unexplained, and it bothered me that it had become mainstream after I’d already paid the price.  When the series became available on DVD, though, I had second thoughts.  My wife and I watched it all the way through some years ago, and, having finished rewatching another series several months back, we began slowly to make our way through again.  When I wrote my article on Sleepy Hollow I had vague recollections of X-Files episodes with some biblical content, but I’d forgotten how extensive it was.  Religion is that way.  It tends to permeate society, and even though we’re proudly secular, the base of it all is religion.  This should be obvious to anyone who takes the time to tally just how often it appears in the most secular of spaces.  Instead, there’s little interest in it.  Like the paranormal, lack of concern about religion is something we just can’t adequately explain.


Speaking of X

The project that ultimately led to Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was an article.  Intrigued that the quasi-horror Fox series Sleepy Hollow was so solidly based on the “iconic Bible” in its first season, I wrote an article on how the Bible functioned in it.  After that was published I realized that there was plenty of material for a book on how the Good Book appears in horror films.  That book, of course, appeared late in 2018.  Nightmares with the Bible was a kind of sequel, but moving in a different direction.  It looks specifically at how ideas about biblical monsters (demons) are mediated through horror films.  This post isn’t all an introspective about past projects; in fact, it’s about present watching.

At one point in my research I noted that the X-Files wasn’t as biblically based as Sleepy Hollow.  I stand by that assertion, but my wife and I’ve been rewatching the X-Files on weekends for several months now.  Nearing the end of season two I’ve noticed just how often the Bible appears in it.  Unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the entire story was premised on (largely) the book of Revelation, the X-Files has multiple episodes that focus on religion.  What we might call New Religious Movements feature in some of the vignettes while others posit older, hidden religions.  The Good Book appears visually many times, or, and it’s often quoted, even if not shown.  Although some of the episodes are lighthearted, many of them are played as straight horror and address the question of the reality of evil.  I hadn’t been alerted by Sleepy Hollow the first time we made our way through the X-Files, but if I had more time, and if anyone were still interested, there’s a book in this.

Ironically, even in the light of a political party that takes its energy from a religious base, universities are no longer interested in the study of the subject.  I have no reason to believe that these two television series are isolated instances that I’ve just stumbled across.  American culture is biblically based, no matter how secular it may be.  To my way of thinking, when something like the Good Book has such a strong influence, the response of the rational should be to try to understand it.  I know what biblical scholars do all day; I used to be one.  Only in recent years have some of them begun to turn toward the concept of the iconic Bible and to consider how it influences American thinking.  I can only do this on a small scale, in my free time.  What I see, however, like a good X-File, defies explanation.


Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 


Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.


Stranger and Stranger

Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit.  While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked.  If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away.  The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion.  Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems.  Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!

Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer.  As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work.  The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are.  Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity.    No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism.  Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life.  Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion.  While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it.  Or can it?

Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct.  Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it.  As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear.  That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver.  People fear being taken over by something else.  Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still.  We know it comes from the upside down.  We know it can possess people.  And we learn that it can be exorcised.  Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here.  It’s simply part of the human psyche.  We can deny it exists.  We can try to describe it only by analogy.  We can try to exorcise it.  It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.


Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.


More Conjuring

Among the most revered traditions of the horror film is the sequel. Originally a financially driven feature, sequels have now become an expectation among fans. And although in general we prefer to appeal to our higher cultural aspirations, many horror movies do remarkably well at the box office. I’m not much of a sequel-watcher, but sometimes in my effort to understand the close connection between religion and horror, I succumb. So it was I watched The Conjuring 2. As with the formula for the initial movie, cases actually investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren are brought together with exaggerated special effects and demonic entities. Starting out in Amityville, the demon Valak is introduced. It later appears as the source of the Enfield poltergeist.

In real life controversy never strayed far from the Warrens and their investigations. Amityville and Enfield have both been implicated as hoaxes. The Hodgson girls, just like the Fox sisters in upstate New York, confessed to some faking, and, of course once that dam has been breeched, there’s no stopping the flood to follow. Nevertheless, such incidents make for good horror film fare. In the case of The Conjuring 2, bringing a named demon into the mix keeps the religious pot roiling. Ironically, the demon takes the form of a nun. This character is a complete departure from both the Amityville and Enfield of record, although demonic influences were posited for both cases. Valak appears to go back to The Lesser Key of Solomon, a grimoire familiar to watchers of the now departed Sleepy Hollow.

Even with the hoax light cast on the “based on a true story” tagline, The Conjuring is well on its way to spawning a cinematic universe. Annabelle was a spinoff, and Annabelle: Creation scored high marks this summer. The success of The Conjuring 2 has led to work on The Nun, scheduled out next year. There’s talk of a third Conjuring film as well. As religion becomes less obvious in the traditional forms of weekly worship gatherings, it crops up more in other areas of culture. Don’t get me wrong—there’s plenty of secular horror as well. What does stand out is that when religion knocks at that creaking door of horror, nobody’s especially surprised. The Conjuring 2’s climax is quickly resolved once the demon’s name is remembered. The fallen angel is banished, not so much back to Hell as to another sequel. Eternal life is, after all, a religious idea as well.


Flat Devils

Fiction is a framework to approach reality. People are drawn to stories because they help us to make sense of a bewildering world which wasn’t, in reality, custom made for us. Marta Figlerowicz’s Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character explores the types of characters that modern novelists are taught to avoid. She points out, however, that they occur in great novels beginning from the early stages of the category up through fairly contemporary classics. The flat protagonist, in short, isn’t believable. I’m not enough of a literary critic to judge her examples, but I have been thinking of one such character that occurs in popular culture all the time—the personification of evil. In my reading on writing I’ve learned this is to be avoided. Nobody is pure evil. Popular media begs to differ.

Being of working class sensibilities I can’t separate myself from the lowbrow crowd, I’m afraid. My fascination with Sleepy Hollow is pretty obvious on this blog. One of the recurring themes in the series is the antagonist that is indeed pure evil. Whether it’s Moloch, Death, Pandora, or the Hidden One, those who are evil represent the dark side of humanity, or the universe. They glory in destruction. Of course, in late Judaism and early Christianity this was a role taken by the Devil. As a child I was taught that it was wrong to feel sorry for Satan. This clashed in my head with the idea of forgiveness and with the love of all. Could God not love his (and he was masculine) own enemy? How could we hope to do the same, then?

In the most ancient of religions, as far as we know, evil wasn’t personified. Yes, evil happened, but it was simply part of the matrix of being. Some gods tended toward good while others tended the other direction, but a being of pure evil doesn’t seem to have existed. Even Tiamat loved her children, at least until they killed her consort. The stark black-and-white world of monotheism can’t explain evil without an divine enemy. A flat protagonist, to be sure, but one you can always count on to do the wrong thing. The closest we come to that in real life is the Republican Party. Insidious, sneaky, using every possible loophole to shove their agenda through, they are the perfect flat protagonists. No, I’m not inclined to believe in the Devil. Or at least I wasn’t until November of 2016.