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.

Fearsome Fish

It must be October. As I was looking up a word on Dictionary.com, I noted one of their “the hot word” features entitled, “Scientists discover a fish they name ‘dracula.’” The fish, which is native to the eastern part of Asia, was discovered in 2009 but is just now starting to draw attention. The name apparently derives from its fangs. Vampires, however, have their ancient origins in creatures that draw the life force from humans. In the ancient world the “life force” could take different forms: blood, breath, and even semen. Soon a whole array of life snatchers populated the ancient mind – incubi, succubae, Lilith, demons, and any of a number of other contenders for the human essence. The fear of being drained is a very ancient one indeed.

While in my adjunct office at Montclair yesterday I met a colleague. We discussed the visit of the exorcist to campus that I missed but he attended, and while discussing the mythology class we both teach he mentioned how vampire movies make use of mythic themes. I have been using this information from the beginning for my class, but I was fascinated that another part-time instructor would latch onto the same film motif as I did to illustrate modern myth. The vampire is such a part of our culture that people often forget its religious origins.

I attended a public performance of a two-man play at a local library this week. The play was a conversation between Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker. Naturally, vampirism played a strong element in the single-act show. While Poe and Stoker were not contemporaries, they did both share an awareness of how religion tied in with the macabre. The Frank Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes this connection explicit as an enraged Vlad Tepes stabs a cross in his chapel with his sword, starting a flow of blood that he greedily drinks.

Vlad Tepes on a good day

We’ve just crossed into mid-October and I already find myself surrounded with vampires. It is characteristic of religion to deal with our deepest anxieties, and the more we reflect on vampires the deeper we find they reside in the religious sensibilities of both fish and phantom.

Sinful Moonsters

Wednesday night a student asked me about the moon god Sin. The name “Sin” has nothing etymologically in common with the usual English word for wrongdoing; they are simply homonyms. Nevertheless, when students first encounter this odd juxtaposition they often think that there must be something to it. This particular student pointed out that many activities classified as sinful take place at night, under the moon. Could they be connected? Linguistically, no; but it did get me thinking about the idea of the moon’s baleful influence on various creatures of the night.

Serious academic works seldom take vampires, werewolves and witches, some of the moon’s most infamously unholy acolytes, to be worthy of valuable research time. Meanwhile Stephanie Meyer and company are laughing all the way to the blood bank. Popular culture gives credence to the children of the night that the academic world ignores. I tried to do a little research on the moon and its mythology only to find that most moon books deal either with serious attempts at astronomy or serious attempts at astrology, neither of which I was seeking. I wanted to know when the moon had slipped from being the gentle god/goddess of the night into its role as the overseer of evil.

Evidence was scant, but it seems that in the Middle Ages, maybe influenced by late Roman ideas, scholars began to recognize the moon’s potential as a dismal influence. The moon has long been popular in folklore as a source of lunacy and luck. Lovers crave the moonlight, but so do teenage vampires and raging werewolves. This is, apparently, a concept of no great ancient pedigree. In any case, the moon here has nothing to do with sin.

Toy Story 2.1

Summer is a season for movies. When the weather gets hot, sitting in an artificially cooled dark room for a couple hours, even if it is with strangers, seems like a good idea. Generally the movies I see in theaters are family movies – I’ve never been one to go to a theater alone and my personal taste in movies is unique in my family. The more interesting flicks usually have to wait until DVD release before I see them. Nevertheless, the movies are an experience that many of us remember fondly from childhood and children deserve good movie memories. Since the movie theater was invented it has become one of the signatures of culture in many parts of the world.

Last weekend, during the East Coast Heat Wave – a weather event so much talked about that it should have had its own theme music – we went to see Toy Story 3. In an unusual departure from my focus on religion, my comments here will focus on creativity. (Good religion is creative, after all.) Toy Story 3 opened to much critical acclaim, so my expectations ran a little high. A little too high. While I found the story to be interesting, it was a bit familiar. For those acquainted with the franchise, it felt like a remake of Toy Story 2. Both films open with the toys worried about their future because Andy is going away. In both 2 and 3 Woody is separated from his friends and has an epiphany that leads him back. Buzz gets returned to factory settings to reprise his humor in the first film. An evil toy in both movies holds the others captive against their wills. Meanwhile Woody makes new friends and with their assistance rescues the threatened toys. The evil toy ends up getting his just deserts and Andy’s toys successfully integrate.

The story line values friendship and commitment, and there is nothing to complain about there. Yet, after stepping out into the harsh sunlight, I felt like I’d just paid to see a movie I’d already seen before. Creativity – the factor that leads to truly new concepts – is not always valued in movies. This is particularly so in children’s movies. Our kids are being programmed to accept recycled stories as something new. It is not only Toy Story that has fallen into such rehashing: how many fresh ideas are shortly followed up by a 2, 3 or 4? Even if 1 wasn’t so good? I’ve even been told by publishers that publishing houses prefer to take few risks – they would rather have a product that is “like” one that has already proven a blockbuster. How many wizards and vampires have populated tween books over the last decade or so? It seems that the safe money is in the recycled story. In a society hooked on convenience, new ideas might seem just a little too dangerous. Once there was a cowboy blog…

Best friends forever and ever and ever

Hallowed Be Thy Wolfbane

Anti-pesto to the rescue!

Anti-pesto to the rescue!

With autumn in the air and the harvest season looming near, my family recently watched Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Quite apart from the inspired improbability of Aardman Studios productions, the central role of the village vicar in this film aroused my interest. Confirming an oft-cited proposition of this blog that mythical creatures burst from the same mental regions as religion, at Lord Quartermaine’s inquiry as to what might kill a were-rabbit, the vicar promptly pulls down a monster book from his shelves to reveal the secret. It is the church that knows about monsters.

In my continuing research into religious reactions to death and the afterlife, I constantly run into the name of Montague Summers. Summers was the author of the definitive books, in his period, on vampires, werewolves, and witches. He is best known for his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer of witches,” the main witch-hunting tome of the Middle Ages. A deacon of the Church of England before converting to Catholicism, Summers was a believer in the phenomena that he researched. Styling himself a witch-hunter (he lived from 1880 to 1948), he tried to live the fantasy world he helped to create.

The more that neurologists study the brain, the more we discover how deeply embedded religion can be. Any number of researchers have suggested various “God-shaped nodules” in the gray matter that provide for continuing religious belief in the face of advancing scientific knowledge. I would suggest, as a “religionist,” that perhaps nestled next to our mental menorahs, crucifixes, and statues of the virgin, there are also ghosts, witches, werewolves, and vampires lurking in the dark corners of the God node.