The Call of Madness

mountainsofmadnessPicture this: the wind is howling outside your tent, violently snapping the fabric. The temperature outside is well below freezing, and you are camping at the base of a mountain nobody has ever explored. You are hundreds of miles from any possible help, in the midst of Antarctica. What do you do? Read H. P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness.” At least that was the decision John Long made on his journey to collect fossil fish in the most inhospitable continent on the planet. Mountains of Madness: A Scientist’s Odyssey in Antarctica is one of those rare books where a rational, educated man of empirical approaches allows the creative, emotional aspect of life speak. I picked the book up at a library sale, based solely on the title. I recognized the Lovecraft in it, and wondered whether it was accidental or not. Besides, reading about polar regions has always fascinated me. Indeed, according to the records of those who’ve trespassed into those regions, madness is not a rare consequence.

Long’s book is not religious, but it is filled with wonder. The mechanistic science that’s often fed to the public is frequently technical and lacks those mysteries we’ve evolved to love. Nowhere in this book is the compelling aspect more relevant than in Long’s accounts of Christmas. The population of Antarctica—a select group by anyone’s standards—is mostly scientists and technicians. Deep field expeditions, it stands to reason, take place in December, which is the summer of Antarctica. In the case of those in the field, they are far removed from their home base, and even the earliest explorers noted in their diaries that Christmas was celebrated, in however minuscule a manner rations and perilous conditions allow. Nobody bulking here that it’s all just a myth.

Lovecraft’s story places explorers far from help in the mountains of Antarctica where they discover they’re not alone. The story inspired such movies as The Thing from Another World, and therefore John Carpenter’s The Thing. Lovecraft, like Long, was a disciple of science and yet, even in his atheistic world deities break in. It’s like Lewis’s Narnia where endless winter with no Christmas is unbearable. Long makes it clear in his account that Antarctica changes a person. Transcendence, those of us who linger over religions know, can express itself in many different ways. For some it is the grandeur of barrenness and inhospitable weather of an unfeeling environment where both macro and micro-predators have trouble surviving and penguins gather to struggle through weather humans can barely tolerate. For others it is camping below the very mountains of madness. Without some wonder, we just don’t survive.

Longer Nights

Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.

Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.

The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.