A Scream or Two

Scream2A few weeks back, for my weekend fix, I watched Scream. I hadn’t seen the movie when it came out in 1996, but having seen so many references to Ghost Face I felt I was missing out on something. I was disappointed, however, at the relative lack of religious imagery or dialogue in the film. Such motifs are so common in horror films that I’ve come to depend on them. In fact, there was nothing supernatural in the movie at all. This weekend I decided to follow it up with the sequel that many claim is better than the original, Scream 2. It is the same self-aware exposé of horror gimmicks and tropes, providing several clever frights along the way. But this time there was more religion. Not that it was overt or central, but it was clearly there. My thesis was bolstered a little bit since the storyline felt the need to come back and pick up what was mostly lacking from the first film.

Sidney draws first blood in the sequel by comparing a sorority to a religion. Not much, but a start. We find out that Sid has taken up drama in college, where she has been cast in the role of Cassandra, the prophet of Troy cursed with never being believed, although always being right. In the truly disturbing scene from the play we’re shown, Zeus himself comes down and points a godly finger at the frightened girl. The real religious imagery, however, comes toward the end of the movie when Derek is tied up, cruciform style, by his frat brothers for giving away his letters. He plays the role of the sacrificial lamb as Sid comes face-to-face with the Ghost Face duo, and when his dead body is lifted up on the stage prop, the camera angle reveals either an angel or an ascending deity, arms spread out as if on a cross. Life has been laid down for life, a distinctly religious theme.

What would horror be without resurrection? The villain always comes back from the dead, having easy access to that which is denied the regular mortal. This factor alone suggests that most horror films are transmuted religious fulfillment wishes. We live in a time when religion seems to have lost its transcendent power, and yet we long for resurrection. Horror movies tell us it is available, but at a very steep price. Perhaps it is an unintentional motif, but it is a pattern that occurs so often that it feels integral to the very conception of the scary movie. That which we long for the most is the most terrifying. Horror films aren’t for everyone, but their popularity shows, on some level, that our society hasn’t given up on religion just yet. Scream 2, the resurrection of a wry, witty, and somewhat gory original, brings fear and religion together once more. Religion, like the horror villain, never really goes away.

Troying Around

While discussing Homer with my relatives, it was decided that we should watch the movie Troy. Although conceived as a blockbuster retelling of the Iliad, the presentation reminded me significantly of The Clash of the Titans (2010). In both instances the directors and writers attempted to portray a realism of sorts, making Achilles and Perseus into just regular guys with issues. There is something of the fallen hero here, and perhaps a misunderstanding of the way the Greeks understood their greats. While it can’t be denied that heroes were intended as figures of unattainable stature, they were in some sense conceived as role models for mere mortals. The Iliad is an exploration of the anger of Achilles and the unpredictable influence of the gods.

As the critics pointed out when the movie was first released, the absence of the gods from the film is a serious departure from the Iliad. Without the gods, Achilles takes on a level of prominence never intended by Homer (whoever he was) and the playing out of his revenge begins to feel like a bad western. Although the Iliad does focus on Achilles, it requires an ensemble cast. None of the characters are evil like the movie portrays Agamemnon. He, along with his brother Menelaus, is the hapless inheritor of the curse of the house of Atreus. No matter what Agamemnon does, he is doomed. This fatalism is cut short in Troy as Menelaus, Ajax, and Agamemnon fall in the foreshortened battle of Troy.

The Trojan War is a myth. There is no history to portray accurately here. Instead there are gods and heroes. In removing the gods—a subtle nod toward many modern sensitivities—the movie loses its soul to beat the bank. And so perhaps it is a modern parable for a society that values money above all else. Whether the gods are real or not is immaterial, for they are but projections of the human spirit. Without them we are mere molecules conglomerated into biological entities with no purpose. Troy is a movie that falls short of truly mythical status, but at the same time holds a mirror to modern culture and asks “are you so sure that you can live without the gods?”

Trojan Gods

Every great once in a while Hollywood produces a major motion picture that demands the attention of scholars. Well, at least those of us who like to stay current about the way our subject is being displayed to the wider public. When Troy was released in 2004, I was still firmly engaged in teaching biblical studies and the Trojan War, although located somewhere at the fringes of the Ancient Near East, was not a particular concern. Now that I’m also teaching a mythology course that covers the Iliad, I figured I’d better watch the movie. For research purposes only, of course. Although I hadn’t seen the film before, I knew of the critics’ complaints that the gods, conspicuous in Homer, had been left out. I was expecting to be disappointed, but I found the movie to be more intelligent and subtle than I supposed it might be. The absence of the gods, distressing as it may be to purists, gave the movie an angst that is generally reserved for more cerebral subjects.

The question of where the gods might be in all the slaughter and destruction of war reminded me of a book that had profound influence on me several years ago. Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Little, Brown, 1995) traces the gradual withdrawal of God from the scene in the course of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The god who appears so active in the early chapters of Genesis distances himself further and further until the latest writings, according to Friedman’s dating, show few traces of the divine at all. God subtly, quietly, goes away.

Portrayed as defying the power of the gods in the film, Achilles desecrates the temple of Apollo and seals his fate. Nevertheless, although he is shot by an archer, the death of the hero seems more like an arbitrary act than the design of divine majesty. The Greeks, after all, did win the war. Atheism, however, did not exist in any real terms in the twelfth century before the Common Era. Then again, Achilles probably did not exist in any real terms either. Although Troy will never be among my list of most profound films, its commentary on the quiet skies of ancient Ilium serves as a useful metaphor, even for today.