Gothic Tales

Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book.  I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek.  This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.”  Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking.  One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven.  I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.

It’s a little hard to classify, actually.  It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror.  There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders.  There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster.  A human monster.  Or at least partially.  The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek.  There are funny elements and there are many serious moments.  There’s magic and mayhem.  If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror.  Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it.  This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.

Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence.  The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here.  In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character.  He is a monster, after all.  But not a sympathetic one.  As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos.  There’s also an environmental sensitivity here.  The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed.  So maybe there’s a parable here.  A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read.  It is dark, and gritty, and fun.  A nice combination for an October night.  Is it gothic?  That one’s a little harder to answer.  It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Hollow, Sleepy Hollow

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It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”

You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.

That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.

Look Both Ways

Like many kids of the sixties I grew up watching Batman. I mean Batman—the campy, goofy, live-action version of the caped crusader that was must-see TV for young boys and other hero wannabes. This was all hung upside-down, as it were, by Tim Burton’s reboot of the troubled crime-fighter. Then came Christopher Nolan’s canon. The Dark Knight remains one of my favorite movies as it seems unstintingly honest. We are all part Joker and part Batman. Neither is ideal. More than that, this movie was my first introduction to Harvey Two-Face Dent. You see, I didn’t grow up reading Batman comics, and the television adventures never featured him. At least not as far as I can remember. Two-Face is a fearful foe because you can never tell when he’s telling the truth. That can be very scary.

The other day I asked my mother about someone I remembered from church growing up. This was a woman I hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration and I was curious how she was doing, and even if she was still alive. My mother told me she was still around, but she doesn’t talk to her any more because the friend is “two-faced.” Among evangelical Christians this is one of the most feared of epithets. Telling different “truths” to different parties is a certain way to demonstrate want of moral fiber. Hypocrisy. It’s also a non-refundable ticket on the bus heading south, if you get my meaning. Christians want to be thought of as honest, if nothing else. Harvey Dent would’ve had real trouble being an evangelical (with some noteworthy exceptions).

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Businesses, however, are disciples of Janus. I often ponder the sheet number of items that companies classify as “public facing.” What, I wonder, is the antonym? I’ve even heard of corporations that will take legal action against former employees who honestly admit how business is done. No one is permitted to speak of what happens in the entrepreneurial boudoir. Corporations, under the law, are persons. They are afforded the secret inner life of real individuals. There was a “naked business” craze in early in the millennium, but that petered out. We have a public facing face and a reality that no one is allowed to know. Trade secrets. Information that only one corporation may have. Over in Gotham, Two-Face slips into a dark alley and escapes. In little white churches across the country, those who speak different truths are shunned. In the corporate high-rise, businesses are now people. They are, however, two-faced. I miss the Batman of my youth.

North Tarrytown

Ichabod Crane has undergone many incarnations since Washington Irving conjured him. Not very sympathetically described in the original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” he was gangly and somewhat clumsy and full of self-importance. The story of which he is forever a part, however, has become iconic of American myth-making. A deep symbolism runs through the story of the headless horseman, and for those who’ve actually been to Tarrytown, the modern incarnation of Sleepy Hollow, there may be a disconnect between the urbanity of a town so near to New York City and a rustic school teacher in a rural setting. Still, there seems to be quite a bit of buzz about the current television series “Sleepy Hollow” that I decided to see for myself what was happening. The conceit of Ichabod Crane reawakening, in a kind of Rip Van Winkle twist, in the present day is engaging. He is now a professor at Oxford University turned patriot to the American cause, which brings him to the point of actually beheading the horseman in the first place. But this literate, witty, and moody retelling involves more than Irving. The Bible is pretty much central to the series, at least as far as I’ve seen.

The headless horseman is none other than Death, the final of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, according to holy writ. Although the characters all refer to the Apocalypse as “Revelations,” something that causes premature baldness in biblical scholars, the program places the town of Sleepy Hollow at the crux of the oncoming end of the world, with the other three horsemen to be summoned along the way (Pestilence or Conquest, War, and Famine, for those who are keeping score). Also, witches, hearkening back to Salem, have a prominent place in the narrative, and the forces of rational law seem to be at their collective wits’ end to make any sense of religion breaking into a secular world. Without the Bible’s final book, Sleepy Hollow would have no legs (as well as no head).

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In Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane came through as a detective plotting science against superstition. At the end, however, even the most rational had to admit there was more going on than the science of the day could explain. That is part of the appeal of the Sleepy Hollow legend. No matter how strong the light we shed on them may be, our psyches reach out for the immaterial, the ghostly, the supernatural. We like to believe in sacred books and spells to protect from evil. Even the Twilight Zone episode “The Jungle” plays on how in even the most advanced cultures we still build skyscrapers with no thirteenth floor, as if our towers represent an unknown hubris for which we may be held accountable. Irrational? Perhaps. But Sleepy Hollow is not so somnolent these days when the Bible once again takes center stage and hoofbeats are heard once again in the night.

Forbidden Zones

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I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

Before Twilight

Despite the summer with its long, languid days, The Telegraph reported on vampires last week. In an article entitled “Polish archaeologists unearth ‘vampire grave,’” Matthew Day narrates how archaeologists have uncovered skeletons buried with their heads—decapitated, obviously—on their legs. This was apparently a not uncommon medieval practice for ensuring that suspected vampires stayed safely in their graves. Interestingly enough, Day comments that the practice mainly began after the Christianization of the pagan cultures that had preceded them. Even pagans, he suggests, ran the risk of being accused of vampirism, a broadly defined threat in the Middle Ages. Of course, the Twilight series had not been written then so that the safe, Mormon cast of vampire was unknown.

Vampires represented a couple of concepts terrifying to people before the scientific revolution: they were a source of draining an individual of some life essence, and they were the problematic undead. The decapitation, in Tim Burton-Sleepy Hollow style, was intended to prevent the vampire from being able to locate its head after death. Unable to find the business end of its vampiristic corpus, the undead might remain just plain dead. Of course, staking works, if the tales of the Highgate vampire, near whose grave I recently stayed while in London, are to be believed.

The belief in vampires, or at least fascination with them, has been very hard to shake. One of the earliest horror films made was Nosferatu, a rip-off of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that was nearly obliterated because of copyright violations. Nosferatu continues to be ranked among the scariest of horror movies, and the Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake is a classic in its own right. The Shadow of the Vampire was an even more recent movie about the filming of the F. W. Murnau original. Among the earliest of the Universal monster movies was Tod Browning’s Dracula, which forever identified the face of Bela Lugosi with the infamous Count. No matter how deeply we bury them, the vampires keep coming back to stalk our nights and nightmares. When future archaeologists uncover the detritus of our civilization, no doubt they will conclude that we too, in a secularized world, feared the undead.

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Sweet Morality

CharlieandtheChocolateFactory When I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child, I had never heard of Roald Dahl. Although I enjoyed the movie, it was never a favorite. Like any kid I liked candy, but I’ve seldom been motivated by sweets. I discovered Roald Dahl when my daughter was young, and read for the first time his somewhat more disturbing original version of the story. Tim Burton has a reputation for going back to the roots of beloved childhood characters and revealing their darker sides. When his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out in 2005, the appeal went beyond sweets, for this was a modern, if sinister, morality play. While rewatching the movie recently a number of what should’ve been obvious religious motifs suggested themselves. The first came when Charlie Bucket is shown in the main chocolate processing room reaching for a candy apple. Violet Beauregarde steps in and snatches the apple from the tree in a defiantly Evesque move. She later receives her punishment by being transformed into a fruit.

Augustus Gloop receives a strange, chocolatey baptism is what might otherwise be the waters of life. After all, the Oompa-Loompas are shown bowing down in worship to a cocoa bean in a flashback. When Veruca Salt attempts to catch one of Willy Wonka’s nut-sorting squirrels, in a rather disturbing scene reminiscent of Ben, the squirrels pin her down and carry her to the garbage chute. She is carried in classic cruciform style, emphasizing the martyrdom she receives at the hands of her indulgent father. Even Mike Teavee undergoes a kind of resurrection after being atomized and projected into a television.

A friend once told me that the characters in the film represent various deadly sins. Augustus Gloop easily falls into gluttony, and Violet Beauregarde is an emblem of pride. Veruca Salt clearly represents greed, and Mike Teavee is full of wrath. Willy Wonka is part devil and part god in the film, doling out just punishment in a seemingly unfeeling way, while rewarding the few instances of virtue. Deprivation forges virtue in Charlie Bucket demonstrating how clearly the movie is in the realm of a morality play. With its horror film tropes and forays into the truly strange, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an example of how morality persists even in the vision of those often considered completely secular. Without it the movie becomes just another excuse to overindulge in sweets.

Hard to Digest

Sweeny Todd has never been one of my favorite shows, but the dark humor and gratuitous bloodshed made it seem somehow appropriate as a November movie after a hurricane. I’m referring to the Tim Burton movie, of course, and as I watched it this time I noticed a few religious themes that I had overlooked in previous viewings. The story is not complex: a barber is robbed of his young wife by a powerful establishment cad and determines that the time has come to exact his revenge. Along the way he rents a room from the hapless pie-maker Mrs. Lovett on Fleet Street and puts his murderous revenge to work supplying her with meat for her pies. The song where they hatch their nefarious plot, “A Little Priest,” is filled with innuendo and even a little social commentary. As the schemers look out at the crowds of London, several of their potential victims are mentioned as clergy.

When Todd asks Lovett if the priest is good she replies, “too good at least,” noting that its only fat where it sat. “Not as hearty as bishop,” nor “as bland as curate,” Todd observes. Mistaking a grocer for a vicar because it’s “thicker,” the duet eventually warble that the friar’s drier, but overall the clergy are “too coarse and too mealy.” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler are not theologians, naturally, but it is noteworthy that the only role the clergy play in this film/musical, which is ultimately about social justice, is as fatty meat. When Benjamin Barker is wronged, the clergy are never mentioned as recourse or balance to a corrupt official. The church is simply establishment, a comfortable and expected part of the environment.

Johnny Depp portrays a mostly believable sociopath, interestingly reversing his first big screen role in Nightmare on Elm Street where he is the victim of a psychopath with razors for fingers. Edward Scissorhands, another step on the evolution from victim to perpetrator, found Depp with blades for fingers. In Sweeny Todd he declares with a straight razor held aloft, “at last my arm’s complete again!” The pattern here is a sad but familiar one. The victim who finds no redress in society adopts the role of the vigilante or the perpetuator of victimization. Who might step in to interrupt this cycle if not the clergy? But to return to “A Little Priest”: Todd observes that what the world terms business as usual is really one man eating another (this is, after all, patriarchal Victorian London). This may be the piece that at last makes sense of the puzzle. What is truly diabolical is not one man’s revenge, but the system that insists all play by the rules of genteel cannibalism while persistently calling it civilization.

Dark Light

It took a few weeks and five states, but I finally got to see Dark Shadows. Although I’d seen the trailers, there was quite a bit over which I remained in the dark. After all, the television series ran daily for several years and the story of Barnabas Collins was never really resolved, to the best of my knowledge. Trying to fit all of that into a couple hours of cost-intensive Hollywood showmanship would be a tall order. I have come to trust the Burton-Depp collaboration, however, and I had read some time ago that Johnny Depp had wanted to be Barnabas Collins when he was growing up. It is difficult nevertheless to resurrect a vampire after some three-and-a-half decades of slumber. Speaking with some friends after the movie I discovered that I was not the only child discouraged from watching Dark Shadows after school as a child. But watch I did.

Barnabas Collins became a monster as the result of a curse. The series—which I remember principally as a series of impressions and images—and the movie make that clear. The man who has lost control of his own fate is a reluctant monster. An aristocrat who lives by draining the blood of the common folk. Despite the humor and carnality of the movie, social commentary is there. Sometimes buried in an iron coffin, and sometimes in a vintage VW bus from the early ‘70’s. It may not appear full blown on the big screen but it pulses through the veins nevertheless. Barnabas Collins is a reluctant and conflicted vampire, but he does kill others to survive.

Why would a kid raised in a religious setting be so drawn to a creature of evil? Perhaps it was because Barnabas was the ultimate penitent. He had to victimize others, but he always regretted doing so. Like any living (or undead) creature, his nature compels him to survive. He is sad about his lot in the world, but is helpless to change it. Like many children of the monster generation I was nourished by a long series of movies featuring impossible creatures, including vampires. The earliest vampire I knew, however, was Barnabas Collins. Although Bram Stoker had set the type nearly a century earlier, my measure of the vampire was the reluctant denizen of Collinwood. Although I read my Bible dutifully, and never missed church, I still found the plight of this lonely monster compelling. The movie may not live up to the standard of all Dark Shadows aficionados, but if it brings a subtlety of moral ambiguity to a generation of absurdly self-assured modern-day fundamentalist children, the curse of Barnabas Collins may really be a blessing in disguise.

Dark Shadows Indeed

Part of my childhood died today. Like millions of others, I have been eagerly anticipating Tim Burton’s new Dark Shadows movie to wash the treacle of Twilight from the vampire’s mouth. Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the conflicted gentleman vampire, fully aware of and repulsed by his curse. After school I would religiously sit in front of the black-and-white television and watch the waves crashing into the cliffs of Maine as the moody story began to unfold in daily episodes. So when I read this morning that Jonathan Frid had died, I knew the vampire had found peace at last. And I was sad.

Although I’ve read scholarly analyses of monster fascination, nothing sets me back to childhood so directly as my beloved monsters. I don’t know why I feel a thrill in my chest and my pulse quickens when monsters appear before me. Perhaps it is a child’s way of coming to grips with a world beyond his or her control, or perhaps it was my way of dealing with a broken family. Lacking a father figure in life, I was fascinated by the gentle care and predatory nature of Barnabas Collins. He really did care, but he still had to bite you in the neck to survive. To my pre-adolescent mind, Jonathan Frid was Barnabas Collins. When I grew old enough for gothic novellettes, I consumed the serialized Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, no matter how predictable or trite. I was reading about my heritage.

I have no doubts that Johnny Depp will portray a believable Barnabas Collins next month. Jonathan Frid, it is said, was consulted and was often present on the set of the new movie as it was being filmed. His turn to portray the tortured ancestor of the Collins family had lapsed, but he was the original. What is the draw of the vampire if not life after death? And although Jonathan Frid is gone, next month I will stand in line to see the resurrection of the vampire on the large screen.

Movie by Faith

Yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger carried an article by film critic Stephen Whitty entitled, “Where script meets scripture: Recent films take a leap of faith.” The phenomenon he observes is that mainstream, big studio-backed film-makers are more and more turning to plots and scripts that emphasize faith. It is not always standard, revealed religion-type faith, but a belief that there is something else. Something beyond that with which our daily lives presents us. People are seeking, but traditional religions are having a hard time convincing them that they have the answers.

In a striking contrast, films that present a spiritual danger frequently revert to the stock image of a Catholic priest as the means of deliverance. When is the last time a Protestant exorcist took on a demon on the big screen? Torn though it is with its long and checkered history of imperialism, exploitation, and scandal, the Catholic Church with its obscure rituals is effective where the machinations of the Protestants are not. This too is a leap of faith, one that believes in the efficacy of ritual despite its origin or lack of scientific theory. Science provides a way of understanding the world that many people experience as cold and comfortless. Even many scientists choose simply to trust in what their spiritual guides teach them.

Over the weekend my wife and I watched Sleepy Hollow. It is an annual tradition; it is our October movie. In this film Tim Burton plays off the superstition of Sleepy Hollow – in fact real, in the movie – against the science of Ichabod Crane. In the end, Ichabod has to face the supernatural on its own terms in order to bring the world back to science. Having sent the headless horseman back to perdition, Crane once again returns to a New York City at the start of a new millennium, full of the optimism of science. It is the dilemma of the modern western world. People are tugged, torn even, in two diametrically opposed directions. Our experience leads us to believe in a “demon haunted world” while science placidly informs us that all can be explained. Movies do reflect the human outlook in many respects, and the end sequence has yet to be shot.

Athtar in Wonderland

Last night I finally got around to seeing Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton version. As a child I don’t recall having seen the overly optimistic Disney original, and I only read Lewis Carroll’s two-part, disturbing original after I had finished my undergraduate degree. When I first discovered Wonderland I was in one of my periodic phases of questioning reality and Carroll’s provocative prose and ingenious lyric ability only made the inquiry more complex. Strangely, it felt as if I had rediscovered a missing piece of my own childhood.

Burton’s versions of childhood stories would likely have been my preferred fare had they been available when I was young. Eerie without the overt horror of an R rating, the vision is one of a world where uncertainty reigns supreme. Then came the hookah-smoking caterpillar. It has been a few years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t recall the larval character as having a name. Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter, presumably gave him the name Absalom. Supposing this to be nothing more than the reassignment of a fated biblical name associated with failed attempts at kingship, I simply let the reference pass. Until the chrysalis scene. There he was, Absalom hanging from a plant, just like David’s son swayed from a tree according to 2 Samuel. This mysterious scene in the battle of Ephraim Forest had captured my attention before when I wrote an article on Absalom, eventually published in the Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages.

Noticing the strange phrase that Absalom was suspended between heaven and earth, I suspected that this might be a reflex of the ancient morning star (Venus) myth. The story of Athtar, the god who would be king but who must decline the throne, is a brief tale preserved in the Ugaritic Baal Cycle. As I watched the sage caterpillar giving wise advice to a confused Alice, the name Absalom took on new significance for me. I have no way of knowing if the reference was intentional or not, but in a culture deeply suffused by the Bible it would appear to be a logical guess. And if I was correct in my article, I was seeing a cinematographic reference to Athtar as a blue caterpillar last night. Wonderland indeed.

Curiouser and curiouser