No Smoking

I have never smoked anything in my life.  As a kid with chronic bronchitis few things scared me as much as being unable to breathe.  I have not assassinated anyone or consorted with aliens—at least not that I know of.  Otherwise I think I understand the Smoking Man.  As far as my X-Files rewatching saga goes, I recently reached “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  I remember the first time I saw it I found it improbable that the assassinations of the 1960s were the work of a single man.  What hit me this time around, however, was the Smoking Man’s real frustration in life.  He wants to be a writer.  Having completed several novels myself, none published, I have received pin-head letters very much like those he does in this episode, only in greater quantities.  When he finally finds a publisher, he writes his resignation letter to whomever hires assassins and those who change the course of history.  I know just how he feels.

You’d think that by the logic of any reasonable system that those who work in an industry might have some inside tracks.  Some, no doubt, do.  Others of us in publishing are just like the average, uninformed person on the street.  Publishing is a cliquish place.  A friend with some success getting novels published advised me to look at the names of editors and editorial boards on the literary journals that get noticed.  “You’ll see the same ones coming up over and over,” he said.  It is, as the Smoking Man discovered, a kind of cabal, which is, I suspect, the point of making him out as a frustrated novelist.  He can set the course of history, but he can’t get a legitimate novel published.  Cue the X-Files theme. 

I know many academics who write fiction.  My second novel (depending how you count these things—this one was never finished) was a pet project while I worked at Nashotah House.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to publish it when I worked there.  In fact, my first fiction publication only came three years after being shoved out of the nest of academe.  I’ve completed seven novels now and I’ve managed to get some short stories published.  Then again, I don’t have clandestine knowledge from a lifetime of access to the truth about alien-human interaction.  I don’t shoot people for a living.  I’m not even a professor any more.  Still, I think I can begin to understand why someone might turn toward a more interesting career, given the situation when it comes to getting published.

X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.

The Bible Files

As intimated several posts ago now, my wife and I are rewatching The X-Files.  Neither of us has much free time, so this proceeds slowly over many weekends, and we’re now nearing the end of season three.  This exercise brings me back to an article I wrote on Sleepy Hollow, the Fox series that ran from 2013-2017.  That article, published in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, I later adapted into a chapter in Holy Horror.  At the advice of my editor I dropped that particular chapter and wrote a different one.  In the lost chapter, if I recall, I made the case that Sleepy Hollow was biblically based in a way that other monster-of-the-week series, like the X-Files, were not.  While I still have to hold to this, I must admit the X-Files are far more biblical than I recollected.

Somewhere about halfway through season one I started to jot notes when the Bible was mentioned or quoted.  Soon it became obvious that religion was a major theme in The X-Files pretty much from the beginning.  I’ve mentioned here before that some scholars of religion have begun to address the paranormal seriously.  One of the reasons for this seems to be that the two fields are related.  Some of the x-files derive from folk traditions, and these traditions often hold religious elements.  When those themes derive from American folklore the Bible creeps in.  There are quotes, visual displays, and even biblical themes.  How had I not noticed this the first time around?

I didn’t watch The X-Files during the actual airing of the series.  As a kid I was endlessly teased for having an interest in the strange and unexplained, and it bothered me that it had become mainstream after I’d already paid the price.  When the series became available on DVD, though, I had second thoughts.  My wife and I watched it all the way through some years ago, and, having finished rewatching another series several months back, we began slowly to make our way through again.  When I wrote my article on Sleepy Hollow I had vague recollections of X-Files episodes with some biblical content, but I’d forgotten how extensive it was.  Religion is that way.  It tends to permeate society, and even though we’re proudly secular, the base of it all is religion.  This should be obvious to anyone who takes the time to tally just how often it appears in the most secular of spaces.  Instead, there’s little interest in it.  Like the paranormal, lack of concern about religion is something we just can’t adequately explain.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Apart from being Shakespearen click-bait, the title of this post reflects a present-day fear.  We live on the edge of rural Pennsylvania.  If you’re not familiar with the state, let me assure you, there are tons of woodlands and rural communities.  You can drive for hours in a straight line and seldom leave the forest.  When my wife sent me a warning email—I go to bed early and can’t seem to sleep late—I paid heed.  A bear has been ambling through our town.  My usual morning jog is along a trail at the edge of the woods.  Bears are crepuscular.  I watch horror movies.  Put it all together and a Shakespearean level of anxiety quickly builds.  It wouldn’t be so bad, but the photos show the bear romping through backyards and one of the reasons I jog the way I do is to avoid other people.

I see wildlife on my jogs.  I see deer frequently, along with feral cats, rabbits, and, in season, ducks.  I’ve seen raccoons, foxes, groundhogs, and even snapping turtles and salamanders.  It’s not much of a stretch to think a bear could be lurking there.  So instead I took to jogging the human streets.  The danger out here, of course, is the human-borne kind.  Covid-19 lurks, and even though I jog at 5 a.m. there are other elderly out and about.  I hear a cough and wonder whether my chances might be better with the bear.  The broken sidewalk’s a problem too.  I have tripped before in the half light, but without Superman’s knack for flying.  Or at least landing gracefully.

Thinking back, I wonder what has happened.  As I child I lived in truly rural Pennsylvania.  My brothers and I used to sleep on our open porch in the summers, even though we could occasionally hear bears going through the trashcans around the side of the house.  Our place was hard up on the woods, right at the edge of town.  I didn’t worry about the bears back then, though.  We’ve perhaps become more afraid of nature because we know we’ve not been good to it.  The episode of the X-Files we watched before bed last night had Scully saying that nature’s always out to get us.  Perhaps we’ve drawn too solid a line between ourselves and brother or sister bear.  We’re not above nature; we are nature.  But still, I’d rather not be pursued, or eaten by a bear, no matter how much I like Shakespeare.  So I’ll jog in town for awhile, taking my chances with the dangers of my own kind.

Photo credit: Manitoba Provincial Archives, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of X

The project that ultimately led to Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was an article.  Intrigued that the quasi-horror Fox series Sleepy Hollow was so solidly based on the “iconic Bible” in its first season, I wrote an article on how the Bible functioned in it.  After that was published I realized that there was plenty of material for a book on how the Good Book appears in horror films.  That book, of course, appeared late in 2018.  Nightmares with the Bible was a kind of sequel, but moving in a different direction.  It looks specifically at how ideas about biblical monsters (demons) are mediated through horror films.  This post isn’t all an introspective about past projects; in fact, it’s about present watching.

At one point in my research I noted that the X-Files wasn’t as biblically based as Sleepy Hollow.  I stand by that assertion, but my wife and I’ve been rewatching the X-Files on weekends for several months now.  Nearing the end of season two I’ve noticed just how often the Bible appears in it.  Unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the entire story was premised on (largely) the book of Revelation, the X-Files has multiple episodes that focus on religion.  What we might call New Religious Movements feature in some of the vignettes while others posit older, hidden religions.  The Good Book appears visually many times, or, and it’s often quoted, even if not shown.  Although some of the episodes are lighthearted, many of them are played as straight horror and address the question of the reality of evil.  I hadn’t been alerted by Sleepy Hollow the first time we made our way through the X-Files, but if I had more time, and if anyone were still interested, there’s a book in this.

Ironically, even in the light of a political party that takes its energy from a religious base, universities are no longer interested in the study of the subject.  I have no reason to believe that these two television series are isolated instances that I’ve just stumbled across.  American culture is biblically based, no matter how secular it may be.  To my way of thinking, when something like the Good Book has such a strong influence, the response of the rational should be to try to understand it.  I know what biblical scholars do all day; I used to be one.  Only in recent years have some of them begun to turn toward the concept of the iconic Bible and to consider how it influences American thinking.  I can only do this on a small scale, in my free time.  What I see, however, like a good X-File, defies explanation.

Droning On

According to the New York Times (I don’t have a link, but Google will bring it up), nighttime drone formations have been reported by law enforcement in the Midwest.  These obviously precision formations fly over small towns and prairies in Nebraska and Colorado.  Now, I write what I consider to be horror fiction, but this is downright scary.  We know our government is keeping tabs on us using all kinds of technology, and this could be a government program.  It could also, as the article points out, be the mapping project of some corporation (which can be scarier even than the government), seeking natural resources to exploit.  Twice this past year I’ve spotted mapping cars with their camera-stalks protruding from their roofs, multiple spider-eyes recording roads and their surroundings.  Smile—you’re on candid camera!

At least you could see this kind.

Please don’t think that I suppose myself important enough to be spied upon.  Heck, I can’t even get job interviews and my books don’t sell.  Still, I am concerned about surveillance.  I’ve seen articles suggesting that facial recognition software is now being used by some governments (notably China’s) for keeping track of “people of interest.”  I’m more a person of disinterest, but I thought nothing of pausing long enough for the camera at Heathrow customs to record my face and scan my passport as I entered the UK in June.  Coming back the same thing happened in Newark.  And people wonder why I won’t go into the full body scanners at the airport.  Some bits of personal information, particularly those down south, I’d like to keep out of government hands.

Watching the X-Files again has reawakened my suspicion that there are too many secrets.  Yes, I know the X-Files are fiction.  Still, we know black budgets are as real as the electronic money our banks tell us we have.  And some places aren’t even accepting cash any more.  I have no idea why fleets of drones may be flying over the Midwest, but the fact that it’s happening at night raises all kinds of worries.  The X-Files had us looking for UFOs, but drones come from a far more threatening species.  Technology has no controls built in.  Kids these days can run virtual circles (and very precise ones at that) around my generation.  Listening to them talk tech makes me think English might be a foreign language after all.  Nobody requires a permit to fly over your head and take a look.  While they’re up there, I wonder if I could convince them to take some pictures of my roof.  Those on Google maps don’t give enough resolution to tell the roofers where they should focus next.

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.