The Nature of Evidence

Home alone on a Friday night, I turned to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. Not a typical horror film, this art house production is an updating and remaking of F. W. Murnau’s technically illegal 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It has been a few years since I’ve watched it, but the beauty of the cinematography kept coming back to me at unexpected times. Klaus Kinski is an unforgettable Count Dracula, hideous and compelling simultaneously. He draws pity and revulsion. When he’s not on camera you can’t wait for him to appear. There’s not much new in the story, of course, as it follows Murnau pretty closely, with some shots being nearly identical. One exception to this is the plague. Wherever Dracula appears the Black Death accompanies him. This leads to one of the most unusual twists of this retelling—the role of Dr. Van Helsing.

Instead of being the authority on vampires and leader of the attack, Van Helsing is here a reluctant rationalist who doesn’t accept superstition. He encourages the town elders to respond calmly to an outbreak of the plague. When Lucy Harker insists that Jonathan has been the victim of a vampire (which he has) the professor again urges caution. He insists that this must be approached scientifically, empirically. You don’t pull up wheat to see if it’s growing, he notes philosophically. Take time, trust science, and all will be well. Meanwhile the audience knows the reality of the vampire. There is a supernatural threat and it is moving fast. Lucy knows they must strike against Dracula before the vampire destroys the whole town. Despite the mounting number of deaths by plague, Van Helsing still clings to slow and steady evidence, only realizing after Lucy’s death that she had been right all along.

There’s quite a bit to unpack in this retelling after all. A female takes the lead. Lucy is the one determined to stop the vampire. She does so out of belief. Van Helsing rightly points out that this is a dangerous way to approach a problem. One ponders what might’ve happened had science been allowed to run its course. Van Helsing, if science be science, would’ve had to at last come to the same conclusion that Lucy had experientially. She’d read Jonathan’s diary and she had a late night conversation with Dracula where he did not appear in her mirror and did shy away from her crucifix. She too is evaluating evidence, only she has to allow for the reality of the supernatural. Since the story is old and the production artistic, this is no bloodbath horror spectacle. It is a thoughtful, almost quiet reflection on how we perceive reality. Even among the many vampire films it remains a thing of beauty.

Night Terrors

TerrorInTheNightNightmares are the stuff dreams are made of. Or maybe I’ve got that the wrong way around. Having grown up subject to frequent nightmares, I still occasionally have them. I suppose it is easy enough to assume someone who reads about monsters and watches horror films should not find this unexpected, however, I’m not sure they’re related. My nightmares visit issues that horror films avoid, and most of my monster reading is, well, academic. Surely the scientific study of nightmares has advanced since David J. Hufford’s The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, but it remains a very important book. As someone familiar with the phenomenon, I found Hufford’s study somewhat therapeutic, and it certainly does raise some interesting questions.

Apart from the unfortunately, inherently sexist, folk-title “the old hag,” Hufford is addressing a universal experience of people of all ages. Using his original setting in remote Newfoundland where his work began, Hufford collected tales of what might technically be called sleep paralysis with a specific hypnogogic hallucination of being attacked. A designation, he acknowledges, that is quite awkward for repeated use. Back in the early 1980’s, when the book was published, these accounts of nighttime attacks—a person waking up, or not having yet fallen asleep, sensing a presence in the room, finding her- or himself unable to move, and sometimes seeing or hearing an entity and feeling it on his or her chest—were rarely discussed. Especially in scientific literature. They seem a kind of embarrassing medievalism related to the ancient concepts of incubi and succubi, and even vampires. Having “the old hag” (a moniker relating to witches) is what the experience is known as in Newfoundland. Hufford, taking these accounts seriously, investigated what the sufferers had experienced. Unwilling to judge whether the event “actually happened,” Hufford’s scientific objectivity is truly admirable. Since the time of his book, the concept has become widely known and the argument is often made that having heard of sleep paralysis episodes feeds those with hypnogogic hallucinations the idea of a supernatural oppressor. In other words, now that we know about it, we don’t have to take it seriously.

Hufford is one of a small number of academics that is willing to engage with the supernatural on its own terms. Religion scholars do, of course, but we are generally dismissed from the starting block anyway. Most scientists disregard the possibility of anything beyond deluded brains and say nightmares are normal. Just deal with it. Those who’ve experienced the nighttime attack know that it feels very different than a garden variety nightmare. You can tell when you’re awake. Of course, we’re of the generation who’ve seen The Matrix and Inception, and we know that, at least in popular thought, reality has become negotiable. Nobody is much surprised any more by the idea of such an attack in the night. Waking nightmares have become as common as the headlines. If only more scholars would take human experience as more than just “old wives tales” we might all be surprised at how just rolling over can change everything for the better.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

Witching Fiction

WitchesRoadLiterary fiction is a rich trove of religious thinking. Consuming fiction sustains the soul as well as the mind. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight was an impulse buy. The title, the cover, the intricate implications, the price were all right. It turned out to be a rewarding story that involved, possibly, witches and certainly religion. Not that it is a story about religion—definitely not. Yet, the protagonist is a weatherman who dresses as a vampire to present old monster movies on late night television. His relationships define him and, as his daughter learns, he may be the son of a witch. Deeply textured with the earthy reality of the rural poverty-stricken, at several points in the novel a thoroughly naturalized biblical vocabulary effortlessly flows. At crucial moments the story is poised on the crux of heathenism and religiosity. It is a book difficult to forget.

The fascination with witches has deep explanatory roots. When hopes are not realized as they are carefully planned, people naturally seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Too often in history the blame has fallen on the powerless, the marginalized. Too often on women. In the somewhat enlightened twenty-first century it has become passably safe to declare oneself a witch. Our scientific worldview allows it as a harmless delusion, but the issue is more than it might seem. For some, witchcraft is the only channel available for a power that should belong to all. For others it retains a taint of evil, primarily because of a biblical point-of-view.

Israel in antiquity was a patriarchal culture. It was a man’s world that kept most women from any seat of power. “Witches” in this world are simply those who continue the trajectory of a kind of animistic faith in the vibrant life of nature. Prior to “revelation” it was self-evident that nature itself was full of vitality—spirits—if you will. When God was added to the equation, the life-force of nature fell on the “less than” side of the comparison. Even today children recognize the shaman under the name “witch-doctor,” euphemistically applied to those closer to nature than to the Bible. Reading Witches on the Road Tonight brought all of this back to me. Although largely set in New York City, it spoke to me as a rural urbanite who left something valuable in the woods of my childhood.

Gods and Goliath

EyreAffairNot only gods are proficient at creating worlds. Writers, as readers know, are the creators of worlds too. I first discovered Jasper Fforde via a friend’s recommendation. With the depressing demise of bookstores, however, I end up picking up whichever one happens to be on the shelf. Not that this is a bad thing, but I find myself in a melancholy cast when I think of all the joy that is not being had by avoiding reading. It’s all rather hollow, wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Eliot? All of which is to say Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair was great fun. As usual when I read fiction, I kept an eye out for how religion appeared in this alternate world—most fiction that ignores religion completely somehow seems to be less realistic than Fforde’s fantastic tale. In the world of Thursday Next, the churches are dedicated to GSD, the Global Standard Deity. As one of the characters explains, the GSD is a combination of all religions intended to stop religious wars. It’s a great idea on paper, but religions are prone to wars as sparks fly upward.

Somewhat later in the novel Thursday encounters a crucifix-wearing vampire. Fooled by the sigil, she almost becomes a victim to the blood-sucker. When Thursday points out the supposed impossibility of a vampire wearing a crucifix, he replies, “Do you really suppose Christianity has a monopoly on people like me?” Although Fforde can be a great comic writer, some of his quips are quite profound. Indeed—does Christianity have the only vampires? All religions have their monsters, whether that’s what the author meant (score one for reader-response theory). The truth is the truth, no matter whether intentional or not.

The idealized world of The Eyre Affair is one in which religion has become universal. The great military conglomerate in the book is called Goliath not because of the Bible but because of its size and apparent strength. It is brought to its knees, however, by Thursday—a female David, if you will. In practical terms, throughout the book the military is much more powerful that the church of GSD. Perhaps that’s because people are afraid. Religion, which once upon a time allayed fears, has now become one of their main generators. “Nothing frightens me more than religion at my door,” John Cale once sang. In this rich complexity the reader is invited to bask as Jasper Fforde works his magic. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of his books. Before it is too late. You might find yourself learning a thing or two about religion. I did.

Artifacts or Theodicy?

Last week the Huffington Post ran a story that ties archaeology, religion, and monsters together in a package too neat for some researchers. Digging in a sixteenth-century grave for plague victims (something that strikes me as being so foolhardy as to be religious) archaeologists found a corpse with a brick in its mouth. The preliminary conclusion? Sixteenth-century Italian plague-weary society was attempting to stop a vampire. The find has, of course, been disputed. Other archaeologists, the story notes, claim that a loose brick could have fallen into the cadaver’s agape mouth just making it resemble the little-known technique of stopping a vampire by bricking its mouth open. This story, written with Huffington Post’s usual pluck, raised an issue I quite often encountered as a doctoral student in ancient Near Eastern religions: anomalies are generally categorized as religious.

When my wife first pointed this story out to me I thought I might learn something of vampire lore—itself inherently religious—from the sixteenth century. The fact is, however, that artifacts (including people) under the ground accumulate a lot more than dirt. Mystery attends the lives of yesteryear, and the further back we go in time the less we understand. It was a standing joke among those of us in the textually-based field of religious studies that any artifact for which no function could be discerned would most certainly be labeled “religious” by archaeologists. When no logic attends an action, call it religious. This might be a motto for academics and their approach to the study of religion. There are some who claim religious studies is not a proper field of inquiry at all. Excuse me, but where are you intending to fly that plane?

Vampire scares (whether or not that’s what was found in Italy) do, however, follow their own logic. Although early scientists may have made connections implicating rodents (and their fleas) as carriers of plague, the average citizen would have only seen the supernatural dimension. Morbidity on the scale of the Black Death is almost inconceivable and as Europe suffered through periodic outbreaks of plague it seemed that a good God couldn’t be behind it all. Evil creatures, such as vampires, get God off the hook. They are a device of theodicy. “Theodicy” is the jargon for the theological justification of God in a world full of suffering. When God’s goodness effaces to such a point that people grow frightened, well, isn’t it just easier to say a vampire is behind it all? The conclusion that logic draws is quite different. Nevertheless, I think I’ll be replacing the garlic on my nightstand with a brick. What will the archaeologists of the future say?

Monsters Are Due on Elm Street

November 1984. George Orwell’s dark vision had not fully emerged, but the veneer had worn off of the fairy-tale world promoted by the evangelical, free-market professors at Grove City College. As a blue-collar kid in a blue-blood institution, I was out of place. The campus was buzzing, however, about a new movie—A Nightmare on Elm Street—for which I finally plucked up the courage to ask a cute coed for a date. I’d never seen a slasher movie before, having sampled mostly traditional monster-flick fare as a child. I felt a sense of accomplishment since some of my college friends had to leave the theater for fear. On the big screen, with no previous knowledge of the plot, the film worked for me on many levels. Last night I decided to watch it again.

My first reaction was a sense of surprise at how much of the movie I still recalled with pristine clarity. For having been nearly thirty years ago, such clarity is a rare phenomenon for many details of life, often reserved for memories of early girlfriends. A second reaction was noticing how religion featured in the film. The girls skipping rope chant, “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you / Three, four, better lock your door / Five, six, grab your crucifix.” Indeed, the crucifix features in several scenes as an ineffectual weapon against Freddie Krueger. The days of defying vampires are over when your own subconscious turns on you. In one of the early chase sequences, Freddie, raising his infamous glove, says, “This is God!” Religion and its overarching concerns with death and suffering come together with horror in that one moment. The traditional power structures of religion have lost their power to defend the troubled teenagers. The only one well adjusted is, ironically, Johnny Depp’s Glen. Even he falls victim to the revenge sought by Krueger.

Surprisingly, the scene I had most trouble recalling was the end. I recollected the bright, hazy sunshine, but couldn’t remember how Wes Craven released his audience from the drama. Of course, there is no end. Freddie came back in countless sequels, none of which I ever watched. Although I wouldn’t know it at the time, Robert Englund based the screen presence of Freddie on Klaus Kinski’s Nosferatu in Werner Herzog’s classic remake of that silent gem. Freddie is the vampire that defies religious cures. Movie villains are among the most adept practitioners of resurrection on the silver screen. The occasional E.T., Neo, or Spock will come back from the dead, but those who repeatedly return are the denizens of our nightmares. As Orwell’s vision continues to unfold in subtle ways, 1984 looks like an age of innocence before the ineffectual god worshipped by the establishment became self-image, writ large, on Elm Street.