I owe Douglas Cowan a debt of gratitude. Spending evenings at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting curled up with his then new book, Sacred Terror, I was amazed. Vaguely in the back of my mind I knew that film scholars were writing about horror, but I didn’t know that religion scholars even could. Of course, later I discovered that Cowan had predecessors, as do we all, but that still didn’t change the fact that he opened my eyes to possibilities. Being a slow reader with an unrelenting 925, I can’t keep up with any one author’s total output but I knew I’d need to read The Forbidden Body as soon as it was announced. Subtitled Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination, it covers many aspects of what’s being called embodiment studies. And there are, of course, monsters.
Where he finds the time to read so much and watch so much I can only guess. This book covers a lot of territory that I can’t even begin to summarize here, but it goes without saying that Cowan’s many observations are worth paying attention to. If I were to try to find a main theme I think it would be bodies out of place. At least that what it seems to me. Bodies out of place can mean many, many things. Horror isn’t shy, of course, about showing you many of these. As always, the unexpected part is religion. Better, religious imagination. I’ve been trying for years to articulate how religion and horror are related, and this is obviously something I haven’t been the only one pondering. Cowan offers trenchant thoughts on this and even gives you some glimpses of unexpected monsters along the way.
Horror is often considered puerile, I know. You get an image of a bunch of guys in business suits or military uniforms shaking your shoulders and saying “grow up!” But what is it we’re growing up for? To feed the monster. So that those who are the monster can pamper their bodies with the luxuries everyone else works to provide. Religion often serves to motivate those who are on the production end of this scale, but there is a truly Ottoian fear that compels us, lying not so very far beneath the surface. Religion reaches out to those who encounter the monster. And those people have bodies. Cowan touches on many aspects of horror here from Corman to Lovecraft to Sade. My response, perhaps appropriately, is that my head feels like it’s exploding. I have so much yet to learn.