October’s Monsters

Blood and vampires go together like October and, well, vampires.  Although I don’t understand manga, I do know it’s extremely popular, and a friend has been lending me the volumes of Hellsing by Kouta Hirano.  In the past couple of weeks I’ve read numbers 4 and 5.  Hellsing sets up a world where the Catholic church destroys vampires, as does the English, Protestant organization Hellsing Organization.  The latter, however, has as its secret weapon the vampire Alucard who, in nearly every number, gets dismembered in some bloody way before pulling himself back together to overcome the enemy.  In the latest issues I’ve read the Catholics and Protestants have to cooperate against the threat of neo-Nazis (and this was before Trump was elected), who also employ werewolves.  (It’s October, remember.)

Having been pondering the vampires of Maine, I decided to read the next in my own generation’s vampire hero, Barnabas Collins.  I’ve been reading the Dark Shadows series by Marilyn Ross to try to find a lost piece of my childhood.  There was a scene in one of these poorly written Gothic novels that made a strong impression on me that I finally re-encountered in Barnabas, Quentin and the Nightmare Assassin.  Interestingly, in this installment Barnabas, the gentleman vampire, is cured of his curse while traveling back in time with Carolyn Stoddard.  The story doesn’t explain how some of the characters from the twentieth century appear a hundred years earlier, but it does bring an early encounter of the vampire against the werewolf—an idea monster fans know from its many iterations such as Hellsing or, famously, Underworld.

You might think vampires and werewolves would get along.  In both the Dark Shadows and Hellsing universes the personalities of both come through clearly.  Both monsters have deep origins in folklore and people have believed in them since ancient times.  Just because they’re not human, however, is no reason to suppose they’ll get along with each other.  As soon as Universal discovered that monsters translated well to film the idea began to develop that monster versus monster would be a great spectacle.  We had vampires and werewolves clashing on cheap budgets with fog machines.  A new orthodoxy was created that the undead just don’t get along.  It’s a idea that continued into the relatively bloodless Dark Shadows series, and on into the violent and gleefully bespattered Hellsing.  And since it’s October nobody should be surprised.

Vampires Versus Science

Blade_movie

In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.

Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.

When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.

Deadly Morass

Swamplandia! is a novel ensconced in the reality of death. It is one of those books that I knew I would need to read as soon as I heard about it.  Alligator wrestlers, ghosts, and even a biblical-sounding Leviathan theme park based on hellish imagery create an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the narrative.  At the same time, it is a very human story of loss, assimilation, growing up, and more loss that might be gain.  I’ve read many novels where the characters and events faded relatively rapidly after I closed the back cover.  The cast of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has stayed with me, wraith-like, for several days.  As I’ve tried to work out why the story sticks so close at hand, and I think it may be because so many of the characters—the entire protagonistic family—are outsiders.  The loss of the mother spirals a carefree, largely off-the-grid family in a Floridian swamp into a forced confrontation with the mainland.  In these times of economic hardship, the loss of a dream is something too many people can understand.  I certainly can.
 
Death, in whatever form it may appear, is a religious issue because it deals with ultimates.  Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century, famously declared that God was that on which a person staked their ultimate concern.  For many people today, by this rough definition, death has become a kind of god.  In the ancient world s/he was literally so. Of course, death is entirely natural.  Consciousness is the factor that makes it seem foreboding and dreary.  Swamplandia! deftly ties death and love, hope, and a kind of diminished redemption together in a tale where a young girl travels through an unlikely underworld to rescue a sister who saved her own life by her doubt.  It may not be the most profound novel, but it is certainly a moody one.
 
On my campus visits I’m increasingly hearing that novels are favored by some instructors to get at deep truths that textbooks miss.  Indeed, the analytical urge is strong, but not omnipotent.  Sometimes the truth can best be experienced by letting yourself go and just feeling what is happening rather than thinking it through.  Swamplandia! does a bit of that. Thinking back over my own long, academic tenure, I realize that the teachers I enjoyed most were those who had me read what were, at the time, unexpected things. In a world where education has become nothing but job training to produce satisfied cogs in the corporate machine, death as a character in our own stories can’t be far from the truth. Sometimes even alligators and ghosts aren’t the scariest features of our non-fictional landscape.

Holy Grand Central

Staring out over 42nd Street is the massive triumvirate of Mercury, Minerva, and Hercules. Once the largest group sculpture in the world, the famous facade of Grand Central Terminal is photographed daily, and the number of tourists thronging the concourse make it perhaps the sixth most visited tourist destination in the world. While visitors’ shutters clatter away, photographing the statuary and starred ceiling, I wonder how many stop to consider the religious nature of much of this New York City icon. Mercury, of legendary speed, seems an appropriate mascot for a transportation hub. Along with the remainder of the Greco-Roman gods, however, he has been pigeon-holed as “mythology” and is considered a quaint, if picturesque, archaism. How easily we forget that the religions of the classical world were serious attempts to make sense of their universe. Mercury was borrowed from Hermes, a god who had the task of being a psychopomp—a guide to the underworld. (Somehow very appropriate for the immense subterranean world of Grand Central.) In our monotheistic supersessionism, we recast other faiths as myths, forgetting their gravity.

Over on the east side the terminal passageway leads through the Graybar Building onto Lexington Avenue. The external friezes are of art deco vintage and show what appear to be angels flanking two of the entrances. My limited architectural knowledge prevents me from finding an actual description of what the figures represent, but it is safe to say the wings upon the back generally qualify a character as somewhat more than human. Graybar eventually became Western Electric and the original company is on the Fortune 500 list (again, I tread in unfamiliar and somewhat scary territory here). Angels watching over the common person? If so, perhaps we need to seek an upgrade. William Henry Vanderbilt, president of Central Railroad, once famously declared, “the public be damned,” in a moment of unexpected candor, showing where the common person stands in the Weltanschauung of the wealthy.

Back inside Grand Central, the famous celestial ceiling always draws considerable attention. Those who know the stars have noted that there is a backwards nature to the array—it does not match any actual outdoor sky. Explanations vary, but it is said to be a “God’s eye-view” of the stars. As we stand below, staring up, we gain a divine view on the celestial sphere. Many thousands of people pass through Grand Central every day. Few, I suspect, stop to consider its role as a monument to the influence religion has in the secular world. Certainly there was no religious motivation behind getting the working public to the city on time. We are the chattels of the wealthy, showing up to our jobs on time. As usual, we are unaware of the power of that which tends to carry on, unobserved. The mythologies of different peoples blend here, but perhaps the greatest myth of all is that the wealth from the gods will trickle down to the average human passing through this sacred edifice.

Egyptian Afterlife

The day after Maurice Sendak died, Google’s doodle celebrated Howard Carter’s 138th birthday. Although Howard Carter’s name may not immediately ring a bell, his work still affects all of us in the western world in profound ways. An inspiration for both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Carter is best remembering for discovering the intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings. This discovery generated a neo-Egyptian revival in western culture, notable in the Art Deco movement and the Egyptianizing architecture it inspired. As Google’s doodle shows, we are still reaching back to ancient Egypt to find some kind of meaning for ourselves today. In a world of gadgets and hi-tech baubles, we still cast an envious eye towards the dwellers along the Nile.

It is difficult to assess why the Egyptians are so enduring. They were, after all, polytheists and occupied a country that is now part of the “Middle East.” It is, however, a mystique that they held even in antiquity. Raiders and invaders who came to Egypt ended up trying to walk like the Egyptians rather than attempting to force them to follow foreign ways. The ideal in ancient Egypt was a stable cosmos. In a perfect world Egypt would be an island of calm and tranquility. For this they had their strong kings to thank, and they spared little expense to build him tombs that would remain the largest buildings on earth until Eiffel began to tinker with steel.

Perhaps the characteristic we most admire about the Egyptians is their unshaken confidence. Assured that they were in the favor of the gods, they took that assurance to the grave. Even as the neighboring Israelites still confined the dead to a gloomy underworld, the Egyptians were constructing an afterlife that would keep the good times rolling as long as time itself survived. A great deal of effort was expended on the pampering of the dead. Funnily enough, in our Christianized nation the confidence of divine pleasure only seems to be enacted in the limiting of the rights of others. And when it is all over, the righteous still fear death. Google has an almost unlimited choice of inspirations for its doodles, but Howard Carter seems especially appropriate on a day when we remember those who are willing to go to dangerous places where the wild things might lurk yet.

Bleak Visions

The day was leaden and rainy. Hopes for seeing the sun over the next several days dim. I had been warned about this, but once my mind has settled on vampires, they’re hard to resist. The reviews said Priest, as a movie, was full of cliched dialogue and predictable outcomes. This is true. But still, it is perhaps the most religious vampire movie ever made. While some have doubted my analyses of Underworld and other vampire films, Priest is set in a Pullmanesque world dominated by a church that has lost its belief in vampires. In fact, the civilized world, in scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, owes ultimate allegiance to the church. Based on the graphic novels by Hyung Min-woo, the post-apocalyptic world of Priest presents an over-industrialized society where humans live in walled cities (ironically, Jericho has no walls). Vampires, more fierce than any Count, even by fifteenth-century standards, rip humans to shreds, but have been forced into reservations by the warrior priests. Their weapons are cross-shaped, but there is otherwise no reference to Jesus in the movie—only an amorphous “God.”

Despite the endless tropes, “a vampire killed my brother,” “the Priest is her father,” and endless chatter about the nobility of sacrifice, the movie is strangely compelling. Visually it maintains the appeal of a place somewhere between Planet of the Apes and the Book of Eli. And something appeals about priests who are willing to fight evil rather than sit around arguing about whether women should be allowed to join the movement or not. Keeping with modern proportions, we see only one female priest and none among the Monseigneurs, but she is the one who actually stops the vampires. And these are vampires that have evolved into the blind, naked denizens of the night who kill, apparently, for the sheer joy of it. The only article of faith the church can muster is, “if you go against the church, you go against God.”

I wonder if anyone in the world of religions is tracking how society perceives them. Religions once stood for our noblest aspirations, and our humblest weaknesses. Like bad caricatures from the movies, religious organizations don’t shy away from the desire for ultimate power. In His Dark Materials and in Priest, the church is content with nothing less than total domination. This is not missionary zeal, but good, honest power-lust. Not all religions are like that, of course. Still, there are those who perceive them that way. Maybe it is my own insecurity, or maybe it is the fact that I’m seldom convinced I have the answers, but I can’t help but feel the thrill of justification at the rebel who maintains conviction to the ideals s/he holds deeply. It takes no backbone to enforce obedience when might is on your side. But only those who have faced the vampires personally know who the real enemy is.

Christian Underworld

For constructing a mythology teeming with monsters, I must doff my metaphorical hat to the Underworld series of movies. Unrelentingly Gothic and stylish, I’ve watched the first two installments a number of times, but I have yet to see the last two (the latter of which is still currently in theaters). I have to admit that seeing Kate Beckinsale in her werewolf hunting gear two stories tall on midtown electronic billboards is some enticement to catch up with the story. Over the weekend I rewatched Underworld Evolution, number two in the set, to refresh my mind of the story. Quite apart from the implicit religiosity of vampires, the Underworld movies, while eschewing crucifixes and religious origins for vampires (which Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola narrates to an explicit extent), nevertheless partake of the power of religion amid all the shootouts and weird transformations.

In Underworld Evolution, Marcus, the son of the original vampire, in a scene straight from Christian mythology, has the devil rebelling against his creator. As he is killing his powerful yet ineffectual father, Marcus predicts the beginning of a “new race created in the image of their maker—their new god. Me.” As he says this he has his own creator impaled on a demonic bat wing. Running him through with a sword he states, “And the true god has no father.” I admit I’ve been trying to read some post modern treatments of monsters, and this kind of reversal fits well with the conflicted outlook of the twenty-first century. Who is god? The good or the evil? The old certainties have grown gray and blurry. No wonder some people are uncomfortable.

Perhaps the most religious element in the film, however, is blood-memory. Blood is a cheap commodity in horror films, but it represents, in the Abrahamic traditions, life. In the Christian sense drinking communion wine is to consume the blood of Jesus, or at least to remember his death (the fancy word is anamnesis). Vampires, in Underworld Evolution, remember the lives of those whose blood they drink. The taking of life has a sacramental quality to it here. To a world less immersed in a Christian worldview, this concept might seem more macabre than it already is. Monsters often take their cues from the gods. So on a February weekend some of this feels terribly familiar. It may be a small underworld after all.

Religious Raven

Having seldom achieved any sort of public recognition in my youth, I have been gratified to observe the approbation my daughter frequently earns. One such instance occurred yesterday as she won an Outstanding Presenter award at the state level of 4-H. For her presentation she introduced and recited Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” from memory. As much as I like to take credit for some of her taste in literature, her remarkable memorizing ability that has impressed several judges and parents along the way is the result of her own determination. “The Raven” has always been among my favorite poems. As I listened to my daughter’s recitation yesterday, once again the wealth of religious and biblical images stood out.

Starting subtly with the perching of the raven on a bust of Pallas, Athena, the protective goddess of Athens itself, Poe adds the supernatural to his lamentation on the death of his wife. The bird’s origins on “the night’s Plutonian shore” also point the reader to the classical underworld toward which the poem inevitably points. The last five stanzas, where Poe’s verse turns directly toward his black thoughts at the decline of his wife, introduce the presence of seraphim—the turning point in the poem—angelic beings mentioned as attendants to God’s throne in Isaiah. The divine presence, however, offers Poe no comfort as the raven refuses to relinquish his memories of his love. Asking with Jeremiah (and citing the bird as prophet) if there is balm in Gilead, the poet is informed no such comfort exists. Calling God in Heaven as witness the bereaved asks if in Eden (Aidenn) he will be reunited with his bride, only to be informed such will not be the case. The raven, compared to devil, thing of evil, and a demon, represents for Poe the ultimate reality.

“The Raven” is a dark poem, tinged with religious imagery that was freely drawn upon in the nineteenth century. Having heard it recited many times over the past few months, I have come to believe that Poe would have been in accord with my belief that religion and fear are close siblings. When the climax of the author’s pain and sorrow is reached, the religious imagery predominates. This is a paradigm of many human lives. How many non-religious folk seek to make their peace with the supernatural when death is imminent? “Eleventh hour conversion” may be a trite trope, but it does point to something that Edgar Allan Poe recognized long before me—when we find ourselves most afraid religious impulses are frequently at hand.

Religion in the Underworld

One of the unspoken truths of the study of religion is that it has an unacknowledged, problematic sibling in paranormal studies. There are many obvious differences: for one thing, religious study is respectable, if not really considered essential, whereas paranormal study is suspect and not generally acknowledged by established scientific or mainstream research institutes. Nevertheless, both religion and paranormal phenomena deal with unquantifiable experiences, aspects of human perception that cannot yet be measured. So it was with a large grain of salt that my wife signed me up for a year’s subscription to the TAPS Paramagazine. I’ve posted on this particular magazine before, but a new issue arrived just yesterday that contained so many references to the Bible and mainstream religion that I thought it worthy of reiteration.

In general I am skeptical about supernatural claims. At the same time, I am aware that we understand only a fraction of the universe and some aspects of theoretical physics are more bizarre than your average ghost story. When the magazine arrives I read through it with my salt-shaker within easy reach. Nevertheless, a feeling haunts me that at some deep level my specialization is connected with paranormal activity. The first article in the current issue concerns the Underworld. The author suggests that biblical and Mesopotamian references to the Underworld may be supported by the findings of ghost hunting investigators.

I’m all for a couple of working guys (plumbers Jason and Grant) daring to tread where scientists fear to go, but the problems of using ancient materials to bolster ghost-hunting claims are legion. Just a glance at the popularity of Zecharia Sitchin books warns against a simplistic reading of complex, ancient civilizations. We don’t need ghosts in the machine to explain the Sumerians or Babylonians. At the same time, we don’t have many academic options for uncovering the many, many ghost claims that have made throughout history. Mass neurosis is less believable than occasional hauntings. So although I have to disagree about the viability of a literal Underworld – a good understanding of ancient mythology helps to clarify that one – I do reserve some space for wondering if religious studies might not end up in the same final resting place as paranormal studies once science is able to penetrate the veil.

My all-time favorite ghost photo

Probation in Hades

Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”

As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.

Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.

Hades, slightly influenced by ideas of Hell

Death’s Door

Podcast 18 considers the perceptions of the world of the dead, according to Ancient Near Eastern sources. Specifically the question addressed is can the dead return from the underworld, based initially on the story of Samuel’s return from the dead in the Bible — this leads to a description of the underworld based on ancient sources. The Zoroastrian connection is encountered in the development of the realms of heaven and hell.