Lovecraft in the Woods

CabinintheWoodsYou know the basic plot: five college students—always an uneven mix of genders—travel to a remote cabin in the woods during a break. Extreme bloodshed ensues. The Evil Dead? Cabin Fever? Blair Witch Project 2? This time it was The Cabin in the Woods. With the exception of Cabin Fever, all of these films have a religious origin for the horror unleashed on our protagonists, with varying degrees of seriousness. The premise of getting away into the woods is overtly sexual in nature, often with the added vice of drinking or drug use far from the eyes of watchful society. Something inevitably goes terribly wrong. Were they a tad less graphic, most of these movies could pass for morality plays in their adherence to the convention, made obvious in The Cabin in the Woods, that the virgin is the sole survivor. Of course, this is done with tongue deeply embedded in cheek. Joss Whedon, who brought us Thor and The Avengers, knows all about gods, and they are the driving motivation behind the evil lurking in this contrived cabin in an artificial wood.

In this parody of the splatter film, the blood of the archetypal teens is collected to appease a Lovecraftian pantheon of unseen “ancient ones.” These are the gods of old, hidden deep beneath the earth in a slumber, placated by the ritual sacrifice of the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool, and the virgin. The sacrifice is orchestrated by techie priests who wear white shirts and lab coats, in a hermetically sealed laboratory under the cabin where they are set to unleash any variety of monsters on the kids, leading to their gruesome demise. First the protagonists must “sin”—not a difficult prospect, given the arrangements—and be punished. If the ritual fails, the world ends when the “evil, giant gods” are released; echoes of Cthulhu are rife.

Horror movies offer more than scares. If done well, they provide catharsis as well—a kind of celluloid redemption. Writers and directors, however, have moved toward self-parody to distort the horror film into a kind of comedy. Even as early as The Evil Dead, the humor is evident. Joss Whedon, however, effectively wields the evil gods, just as in The Avengers. Deities are revered less for their goodness than for their sheer power. H. P. Lovecraft, an atheist, gave us the old gods. Hollywood has run with them. Instead of catharsis, viewers are left with an undefined unease—something is not quite right with this universe that has been created. Gods, whether holy or horribly profane, demand much of humanity. The response may be abject devotion or laughter. The sins remain the same as human vices of old. It is the gods that have been transformed.

Know Thyself

Perhaps it is a perverted sign of the times, but sometimes I seek myself online. Not surprisingly, most of what I find there is stuff I’ve posted myself. Then my daughter suggested that I search “wiggins” in the Urban Dictionary. For people my age, the Urban Dictionary is often handier than Merriam-Webster for reading online lingo. I’d never tried to find myself there before, however. It turns out that “wiggins” is defined as “The state of being uncomfortable or freaked out… an uneasy feeling; a sense of foreboding badness.” Speaking strictly for me, this is a spot-on definition. Other Wigginses would likely take exception, but this connotation fits me like a thumbscrew. Perhaps our names make us who we are. The Dictionary also cites the source of this slang; Joss Whedon (who also gave us The Avengers) apparently coined this term on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (His name, by the way, is defined as, “To kill off the most lovable b-list characters in your movies.”)

Naming, in ancient times, held a distinctly religious significance. Ever notice how many biblical characters were renamed by God? Even today the Catholic Church recognizes renaming after a saint as part of a person’s identity at certain crucial junctures in life. Indeed, in western culture “Christian name” equates to the more secular “given name.” Names define us.

I’ve done a fair amount of genealogical research. The actual etymological origins of the name Wiggins are obscure, but likely have to do with living in a valley. More exciting prospects trace the name back to early English forms that look like the word for “Viking,” and the name does seem to originate from the vicinity of York, where Vikings were not unknown. Still, the more prosaic, the more likely.

crucibleWhen my mother remarried, I took on my step-father’s surname. It didn’t sit well. When I read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in seminary, John Proctor’s words leapt out at me: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” When I later went to court in Massachusetts to reclaim, legally, my birth-name of Wiggins, I had that quote written on a paper in my pocket. We are our names. Slang has, in my case anyway, provided the most reasonable definition of my surname. And only courts, as I know from experience, have the authority to change this pre-decided declaration of who we are.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project

Umbrella Apocalypse

Broken ribs and twisted, tortured limbs hanging useless under a leaden sky. It was a scene of carnage. I knew the world was supposed to end yesterday, but I didn’t believe I would experience it, but the evidence was indisputable. It was the apocalypse. For umbrellas. Winter storm Draco had melted by the time he reached the East Coast. I awoke to the apartment shuddering in the wind, and I could hear the rain pelting the windows. I had one more day to go to work before two things: the end of the year and the end of the world. And I would be relying on New Jersey Transit. The very thought makes me want to cower in the closet. My bus stop has no shelter—it’s just an exposed street corner, not far enough away to justify a drive. I stood in the rain, faithful umbrella held like a shield in the blast of Draco’s breath. The bus, of course, was nearly half an hour late. I stumbled up the stairs, glasses dripping, and decided that today, only today, I would take the subway across Manhattan. After all, the world was ending.

The lines from the Port Authority to the bowels of the subway are like those old documentaries of massive lemming migrations off a cliff. My turn. The card reader said “Card Already Expired.” Metrocards don’t expire; you charge them up and recharge them when they’re empty. I still had money on my account, but with other lemmings close behind, and rush-hour grade lines at the recharging machines, I decided to fight the dragon on the streets. It was with a certain Cervantesque tilting at the wind that I made my way across West 41st Street, umbrella forced into a tiny cone by Manhattan’s famous wind tunnels. Twice I was blown off the curb. Then at 5th Avenue the wind defied both the laws of physics and the agreed conventions of meteorology and slammed me from north and south simultaneously, my umbrella bucking in my hands like a terrified stallion. It sustained two broken ribs, metal twisted in opposite directions, flesh flapping uselessly. By the time I reached Grand Central, it couldn’t close, so I dumped my companion into a garbage can with other umbrellas and went on alone.

When I got to the office I discovered my hat was missing. While it would be more dramatic to say that a stocking cap blew right off my head, the truth is that it must’ve fallen out of my coat pocket. I was wet, buffeted, and without two items with which I began the day. The sky was still black as I looked out on the scene of the final battle from The Avengers movie. It had been an apocalypse all right, for the umbrellas. Chicago may be the Windy City, but New York is the Umbrella Killer. When I made it home as early as 6 p.m., I knew the world had ended for certain. I read the Cajun Night Before Christmas and went to bed, thinking of all those poor, dismembered umbrellas. Today is the day after the end of the world, and I am huddled here waiting for the dawn.

Don Quixote rides out of Manhattan yesterday with Sancho Panza wondering at his denuded umbrella.

Don Quixote rides out of Manhattan yesterday with Sancho Panza wondering at his denuded umbrella.

Puny Windstorm

Nothing says wrath of God like a hurricane. Those of us along the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States are hunkered down wondering what’s to become of daily life when the storm is over. Responses to the situation have been, well, religious. Store owners spraypaint prayer-like sentiments to Sandy on their plywood protection, urging the storm to be kind. Interviews are laced with language appropriately placating to a deity. The storm named after a mythical monster has become a god. Such responses are not limited to Hurricane Sandy, of course. In fact, when death is expected pleading with the powers that be is routinely recognized as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of the dying process. We always hope that forces stronger than us might be willing to make a deal, cut us a bargain. The storm, given a human name, is personified as a deity. It is such a very human response to any phenomenon that forces us to realize just how small we are. Our egos may reach to the ends of the universe, but in reality we are fragile, scared children begging for the protection of a supernatural parent.

Last night as we were sitting here waiting to be hit, my family watched The Avengers. The juxtaposition of deities and heroes in the Marvel Universe fascinates me, and, of course, the movie has to explain that Thor and Loki are really only aliens perceived as gods. Compared with their human companions, they are immeasurably strong but they do not decide the outcome of the cosmic battle that devastates New York City. No, it is Tony Stark who flies the atomic bomb through the portal to the invading ice giants, saving humanity. Thor is too busy battling flying metal dino-whales. Humanity is responsible for its own salvation. The gods may help, but they alone cannot deliver. Against his protests of divinity, the Hulk bashes a protesting Loki into the floor of Stark Tower with the grunted huff, “puny god.” His only line in the movie. The portal, swirling hurricane-like over Midtown is forced closed and human technology, in the form of Iron Man’s admittedly cool armor, saves us all.

Hurricanes remind us that our technology can’t save us all. The advance warning may very well have spared many lives by the time this all blows over. As early as Thursday I was wondering if work would be called off or if I’d have to battle the rain and winds and storm surges to get to my office (which would have provided an awesome view of the final battle in The Avengers, facing, as I do, the Chrysler Tower and Grand Central). We have been warned. Our technology, however, can’t stop the force of the storm. Sandy may not be divine, but she is massive—much larger than any person who believes that there is some trace of divinity within him or her. As I sit here listening to the wind and the rain, I wonder what the weather is like in Asgard today.

Alien Deities

What with The Avengers making such a big pre-summer splash this year and all, I decided to refresh my memory and watch Thor again this weekend. In many ways it is a very impressive movie—very loud in the theater last year, and necessarily quieter in our apartment over the weekend. Often when I see a movie on the big screen I can’t keep track of all that is said or implied, especially when there’s so much action going on. Of course, Thor is an unusual hero in the Marvel Universe, being a god. Being supernatural is not limited to deities in that universe, but the other mutants are the results of science: the Hulk and his gamma rays, Captain America’s experimental treatment, and Iron Man’s good, old-fashioned engineering. They are modified humans. Thor comes from a different place. Upon rewatching the movie, the line about the Norse gods as beings from another dimension worshipped as gods came through loud and clear. Jane Foster comes to believe in the ancient alien hypothesis.

As a solution to the lack of omnipotence on the part of the gods, casting Thor and Loki into the role of aliens serves comic-book universes very well. In reality there are well-meaning and serious people who believe that any entity recognized as a god by human religions might have been a space traveler mistaken for divine. This is an idea I first encountered in Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (Hey, I couldn’t help it—I grew up in the seventies!) The world has enough high strangeness without von Däniken’s hypotheses, but in the case of Thor we have a fictional realm that explains how heroes gain their strength. The same could be postulated, I suppose, for Superman, but then, he never commanded a formal cult in antiquity.

Beyond the theological conundrum, Thor also participates in the nearly universal theme of resurrection. Realizing that his arrogance has led to the troubles of the human race, Thor faces the Destroyer (a creature with origins in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite mythology) and willingly lays down his life. This is generally the prerequisite for resurrection in any effective mythology. Of course, Thor returns and, like any good savior, rescues the world. Setting the story in New Mexico only assists in reasserting the mysterious events at Roswell where, like in the movie, something strange fell from the sky. In this subtext the feds rush in and commandeer the data, for people are not capable of making the correct decision. Yet, they leave the god behind. Marvel Studios has been rightly praised for its mastery of the genre. For those willing to look deeply, even Thor has its social commentary.

Hair Cut

“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” So we hear in the first number of the musical Hair. Since my daughter is learning about the 1960’s counter-culture in US History, she asked her middle-aged parents what life was like then. Well, my wife and I were both born in the early sixties and were a little young to get the full scope of things through juvenile eyes. Besides, I was raised in a biblically literalist family—probably not the best place to gain a great deal of insight into popular culture. We decided to watch Hair instead. One of the few aspects of that era I recall is the Vietnam War (something George W. Bush apparently didn’t remember). The optimism of the hippie movement never really came to fruition leaving an entire era of disillusionment to hang over the remaining years of the millennium. Nevertheless, there is a sense of freedom in Hair that conveys the exuberance of young idealism—something I can honestly claim to have never outgrown. Without idealism we, as a species, are lost.

As I watched the movie for the first time in years its biblical subtext occurred to me this time around. The identity of the youthful protestors is in their counter-cultural hair. Indeed, the show takes its very name from that aspect. Apart from the ubiquity of the hirsute righteousness on the screen, it is essential to the plot. As Claude Bukowski stops in New York City on his way to join the army, he falls in with the Philistine element of society—the long-haired (read uncircumcised) misfits who defy the principles of decency. The dinner party at the Franklin residence makes that perfectly clear. When thrown in jail Woof protests over-strenuously to having his hair cut, leading to the title number. When the friends decide to visit Claude on the army base on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, George Berger has his hair shorn (by a woman) and subsequently loses his strength. His vital force of arguing his way out of any predicament is sapped as he marches to the troop transport plane that flies him to his death. Singing about believing in God as he goes.

I have never used drugs—life has a way of being weird enough already without them—but the sixties seem to have had a moral righteousness that the Tea Party just can’t claim. It was a righteousness borne of speaking the uncomfortable truth to a society that honored the status quo above all else. The very status quo ante the Tea Party craves—a society of bigotry and inequality. A society of privilege and strict conformity. A balding society that has lost its voice. Drugs are not necessary to see unbelievable things. One of the Bible’s original Avengers, Samson tears his Hulk-like way through any crowd, felled only by the cutting of his hair. Hair also led to the death of Absalom, the son whose life David valued more than his own. At the end of the show it is quite clear where the righteousness really lies.