The Tell-Tale Telegraph

Steampunk CityThere’s a guy next to me with a robotic arm. Women with lace umbrellas and aviator googles walk by on the arms of Victorian gentlemen with walking sticks. A couple have an effervescing water-cooled device on their backpacks. I must be in Steampunk City. The forecast had predicted rain, but it is a beautiful October day in Speedwell, New Jersey. Steampunk City, an event dreamed up by Jeff Mach to make money for local museums, draws in a good crowd of the garishly bedecked, causing my wife and me to feel desperately underdressed. I’ve read my share of steampunk fiction, and I am really thrilled to see so many people taking an interest in such a literary event. I did wonder, however, what demonology had to do with it. Kevin Meares of Delaware Valley Demonology Research is giving a talk on demons, and it’s interesting to notice how the light laughter of customers from the booths outside wafts through the door where stories of possession are being told.

It is difficult to listen to Mr. Meares and believe that he hasn’t seen some pretty strange things. A practicing demonologist rather than the armchair variety, he has accompanied priests on exorcisms and is utterly convinced of the reality of the entities. When asked where demons come from, he relies on the Bible and Bible lore. Either they are fallen angels, remnants of a prior creation (thus the discrepancy between Genesis 1 and 2), or the offspring of the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Whatever they are, he has seen them in the dark, and people have died because of their activity. Being somewhat of a skeptic, I still find myself a little creeped out, kind of wishing I was outside with the laughing, costumed fiction readers.

Steampunk is often about alternate realities. A world where technology developed in the fog of steam rather than the neat circuitry of electricity. Speedwell, ironically, (and probably intentionally) is where the telegraph was invented and first demonstrated. It is a key site in the Industrial Revolution, the development that made the modern world what it is with smart phones, air-light laptops, and iCloud. I’m in the basement of an historic building having my rational worldview threatened by stories of demons. Although I’m wearing my nonplused face, I know that things will be different in the middle of the night. I’ve got brass gears in my pockets and supernatural entities in my head. I’ve met a watch maker outside who translates Aramaic manuscripts. What hath God wrought indeed, Mr. Morse? Yes, I’m in an alternate universe, and I may decide not to come back to the work-a-day one after all.

Hansel and Regretel

HanselGretelHansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was on offer on the trans-Atlantic flight. Since I missed it in theaters, I decided to watch it on my mini-screen inches from my face. Witches, among the classical monsters, have a strange longevity into the world of science—like van Helsing (of movie fame) the protagonists have steam-punkish gadgets to destroy the naturally invincible foes. What’s not to like? I could not help but be disturbed, however, at what seemed to be the inherent misogyny of the film. Perhaps it was the lighting on the plane, but I saw only one male witch among the monstrous hordes of females who were battered, shot, and burned with apparent sangfroid. Women were guilty, it seemed, until proven innocent. And Mina, the white witch, again underscores that women who are “clean” are still potential witches underneath. Naturally, she dies before it’s over, but in a noble way.

The witches in the movie are strangely removed from a traditional, satanic context. They derive their power, like modern wiccans, from nature and strange mixes. The source of their magic is never explored very deeply, but when they catch trespassers in their forest, their queen states that even God himself fears to go there. Bewitching bravado, to be sure, but where does this image of God originate? A god afraid of the very nature that (in a film such as this, certainly) “he” created? The sacrifice of children is a good biblical trope, but seems to do little more here than to build the tension.

Monster movies, I realize, are “guy flicks.” Something about all that testosterone seems to be energized by images of ordinary people fighting monsters, against incredible odds. The monsters here, however, are barely distinguishable from regular women. Folklore has a deep well of traditions about witches from which the savvy might draw to write an intelligent, entertaining tale of witch-hunters. After all, the real antagonist, traditionally, is the male devil. He is, in medieval tradition, the source of witching magic. By removing Satan from the picture, we are left with strong women who must be repressed, and the world is really no safer when Hansel and Gretel are done. In fact, the end of the movie implies that they will never be finished. An opportunity for a subtle shift of paradigm was missed in this film, and, as usual, it is women who end up paying the price.