Divided by Eight

Analogies are useful, but never precise.  When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.”  It’s a good analogy, but not precise.  The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror.  Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what.  I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it.  It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years.  A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual.  In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.

What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror.  The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide.  It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on.  If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror.  Tragedy, yes, but horror, no.  The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on.  The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior.  By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.

Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies.  Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time.  Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares.  Well, maybe once.  This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe.  The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same.  Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders.  And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.

Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.

Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.

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.

The Wicked Man

I confess, it was a moment of weakness. Or I could say that it was dedication to research. In either case, I subjected myself to watching the remake of the 1973 classic, The Wicker Man. The reviews that I’ve read over the past decade since its release had warned me not to subject myself to it. Not only did I, but I had my wife gamely watch it with me. If you plan to watch the flick but haven’t, I’ll first of all beg you to save your time and secondly warn you of spoiler alerts. So here goes.

By Source, Fair use, Link

By Source, Fair use, Link

In a movie that may be either pro-feminist or misogynistic, depending on which way you look at it, this version of The Wicker Man takes place in the United States. We’ve got all kinds of New Religious Movements in this country, so that much is believable. The film has a group of women who mute, deafen, and enslave their males moving from Salem, Massachusetts, across the country to Puget Sound where they can find an island to be left alone with their rituals. Superfluously adding an “s” to the original’s Summerisle, they come up with the sloppy-sounding Summersisle where they can raise bees. They worship the great mother-goddess, which is cool enough, but their religion appears to be cobbled together in a way that suggests those responsible for the movie didn’t do their homework. Although Sister Summersisle (five “s”es—count ‘em!) claims this to be a Celtic religion there are merely the weakest echoes of such.

To make matters worse, Edward Malus goes around beating up women when they get in his way. Yes, he is the unwitting victim—we’ve seen the original and know how this plays out—but it makes the viewer uncomfortable watching this unsympathetic protagonist punching, kicking, and even bicycle-jacking with a gun, the women of the island. A man comes ashore and the first thing he does is try to take over. Were there evidence of a deeper plot here it might suggest that this was intentionally written into it. As it turns out, however, as we enter a fearful era of the rich white man’s revenge, such scenes only suggest that Mr. Malus had it coming. Perhaps the movie is prophetic after all.

I really don’t recommend spending your time on the remake of what has become a horror classic. If you’ve seen the excellent original, you already know how it ends. And despite his brusque manner Neil Howie didn’t shout invectives at women or punch them in the face. In short, he took his fate in what might be a way that is also prophetic.

Beg to Differ

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“What do you burn apart from witches?” “More witches!” Earning a doctorate is kind of like learning how to get lost. It certainly doesn’t make you either cool or employable, but it allows you a few years to accumulate enough debt to keep you out of trouble for awhile. One of the things I learned along the way is that you should always follow the crowd. I look at the schools that only hire Harvard grads and there can be no doubt. I look at all the Trump supporters and I know there can be no question. Yes, the ayes have it. So, I never learned to tell which bands were truly worth listening to until I learned to follow the critics. I never studied music. Like most people, I know what I like but I can’t say why. I only discovered Radiohead in the last few months. Some of my critics claim my complaint of lack of time is only an excuse, but I don’t listen to music unless I can really listen to music. It can’t be pure filler. Put on Beethoven’s seventh and you’ll see what I mean.

In any case, my wife alerted me to the new Radiohead song “Burn the Witch.” And you can’t listen to a new song without watching it as well. This time it’s worth it. The claymation video accompanying the song (conveniently found here on NPR) is a reprisal of “The Wicker Man,” one of the truly intellectual movies in the horror genre. Of course, that’s something I picked up from the crowd. We’re told by the most powerful and charismatic bigots of our age that life is all about acquiring stuff. Were I to argue with that, well, I guess I’d be the witch to be burnt. Before listening to/watching the Radiohead song, do yourself a favor and watch “The Wicker Man” (the original, please, accept no substitutes). Go on, everybody’s doing it.

The most dangerous thing in the world is an independent thinker. No, I didn’t learn that at Harvard. On my first walking tour through Edinburgh with one of my doctoral advisors he pointed out the part of town where they used to kill witches. He was truly an original thinker (still is) and taught me to be one too. Problem is, I should’ve been following the crowd all along. You want people to pay attention to you? Go to Harvard! Want people to vote for you? Clearly show you’ve got what it takes (money). Give a man a little cash and anything will do for brains, to paraphrase one of the smartest movies of all time. The only way forward is to do what everyone else is doing. And pick up some kindling along the way—you’re going to need it.

Becoming an Icon

A kid among the Monster Boomers can’t let the death of Christopher Lee go by without comment. How many hours of my childhood were spent watching movies on Saturday afternoon TV with his many personae arresting my attention? And, of course, his prolific output just kept on coming. The Wicker Man, for instance, would never have been among my childhood fare, but his performance as Lord Summerisle is still captivating and sends shivers down my spine. Of course, he wasn’t always a horror movie star. His voice nevertheless conditioned us to be on our guard, for we knew something untoward was about to happen.

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Avda, Wikimedia Commons

I often ponder the lure of monster movies. As a young boy, I couldn’t get enough of them. I tried to grow out of this stage, and managed pretty well through my doctoral work, but then when I found myself in a Gothic seminary where my life would be shredded and discarded, I suddenly found myself sitting up late to watch movies my family would not care to see. There was a catharsis happening here. Some would claim that it is puerile and immature—they would be the same people who’ve not been forced from careers and faced with unemployment and been dealt a failing hand by an institution that received full commitment during the formative years of an aborted career. No, those who’ve faced monsters cannot easily leave them alone.

Of course, Christopher Lee was only playing monsters. Now many people around the world can instantly recognize his name, face, or voice. We all face monsters. Our society teaches us to deny that they exist, much to our own peril. Little children, bewildered by this insanely complex world that adults have constructed, may be the ones to see most clearly. We watch the monsters on the screen so that we might figure out how to deal with them on the playground or in the boardroom. Christopher Lee was more than an actor. He was a teacher. And his best students learned something of human nature from him.