Strange Ending

Perhaps it’s from growing up as a biblical literalist, but I’ll probably always have problems with post-modernism.  You see, when you’re taught as a kid that there is one absolute right and you already know it (it’s Genesis to Revelation, no Apocrypha, please), you kind of get the idea that things are just what they seem.  Po-mo teaches, among other things, that there’s no true objectivity—reality is subjective and there is no neutral ground upon which to stand.  I’m down with that, but the old ways of looking at things remain.  This is a long-winded way of saying I finished Kohta Hirano’s ten-volume manga, Hellsing.  Over the past year I’ve been reading for a friend of mine, but manga has never really been my thing.  I read The Watchmen as a graphic novel, but looking at pictures somehow feels like cheating.  It’s that literalist thing again.

I might be dropping some spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me be warned.  There’s quite a bit of shape-shifting here and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.  In a kind of homage to my childhood monsters there’s vampires, werewolves, and even a Frankenstein’s monster in the series.  All of them are engaged in a constant state of combat against which the Protestant Hellsing organization stands for a stable civilization.  The Catholics are associated with Nazis along the way.  It’s a fascinating look at how an eastern culture might view the religious wars of those in the west who all go by the name “Christian.”  I think this is the genius of the series.  The friend who lent me the volumes has no declared faith, but he finds the dynamic fascinating.  Real religious fighting has made it easy for him.

The story, however, falls clearly into the generation of those without absolutes.  For someone my age a plot clearly laid out is a thing of beauty.  In college we used to argue about how absolutes might exist.  Where did they come from, and which is the strongest?  Did God make them or does God have to conform to them?  Even without the answers, the fact that absolutes existed was assumed.  Argument-driven science tells us that a theory is never proven.  Science is the best explanation we have at the moment, based on the evidence amassed.  In its own way, it has become post-modern.  Hellsing is a kind of mind-blowing work.  It will likely be a long time before I attempt another manga series.  Although I accept the po-mo premise, I still find old-fashioned fiction my favorite.

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.

Collinsport

Nothing is ever wasted.  That’s my economy of the soul.  I spent my tween years mooning about Maine.  I’d grown up watching Dark Shadows after school and I’d begun reading the pulp fiction based on the series by Marilyn Ross.  My mother wondered how I could waste my time on vampire nonsense when there was sun shining outside and other kids to play with.  Little did she know that I was learning valuable lessons for the future.  My fascination with Maine—still intact—led me to vacation there whenever possible and over my career I’d applied to more than one or two jobs there based primarily on the potential reward of living in the same state as Collinwood and its spooky mansion  atop the cliffs overlooking the stormy Atlantic.  Once some friends in Norwalk, Connecticut took us to see the  Lockwood–Mathews Mansion, used for Collinwood in the movie House of Dark Shadows.   Such is the draw of childhood imagination.

What were these lessons I’ve mentioned?  Well, Collinwood stands outside the quaint fishing village of Collinsport.  Both are named after the family that houses some very dark secrets, as well as shadows.  Barnabas Collins is a vampire.  He has run-ins with many supernatural creatures, including ghosts, witches, and a few Scooby-Doo kinds of cases where someone’s faking the paranormal.  But Barnabas isn’t the only monstrous Collins.  His cousin Quentin, whom I kind of remembered being his ally, was an unstable werewolf.   Of course, I’m not sure there is such  a thing as a stable werewolf, but still.  Those in the family stay loyal, despite the beasts that lurk within their walls.  Some of the early Collinses were involved in the slave trade.

The Collins family has a long association with the state of Maine.  During the groovy 1970s they seemed somewhat progressive while maintaining the aloofness of the aristocracy they’d become.  Despite Tim Burton’s spin on it, they were the undisputed lords of Collinsport.  You felt you could trust them.  Unelected though they were, they possessed an innate sense of social responsibility.  I also learned as a child that, as appealing and tortured as they might be, you could never really trust a Collins.  Barnabas was not evil, but he was a vampire.  He required blood to survive, and his victims, like those of the current Collins of Maine, Susan, were female.  Any girl who trusted a Collins was in danger, unless she was their willing servant.  I was not squandering my childhood afternoons.  I was learning lessons about trust and its costs.

Zombie Wars

I suppose, rationally considered, most monsters can’t possibly exist. Maybe that’s the psychological relief required to enjoy the movies made about them. We can imagine the thrill, but we know we’re safe once we leave the theater. Culturally, monsters fight for supremacy. The early 2000s belonged to the vampire. They were everywhere. I once heard a literary agent advise wannabe authors to write on vampires since the publishing industry was showing no signs of slowing down on them. Then came the zombies. They’re still with us. World War Z came to my attention as a movie, but as one I never saw. I’ve watched many zombie films and none has lived up to the status of the spectacle that launched the genre, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It remains a classic to this day. Still, I was curious and so I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Let alone the chapter after chapter of tough-talking, cool-sounding reminiscers, I have trouble buying zombies. Yes, I get the scare factor, but maybe I’ve read too much science even to visualize myself into a fantasy world where a creature with no digestive system would be driven to eat. It just makes no sense. Human bodies can function with missing parts, of course, but without the integration of muscles, ligaments, digestion, and brain, it seems difficult to accept that they’d keep coming after you when they’ve been decaying for years. It’s all I can do to get out of bed most mornings, even as a healthy, living body. Analysts, I know, talk about zombies as metaphors, but with over 300 pages of stories in no way believable, I had to wonder about the limits of credulity. Maybe Carl Sagan was right after all.

I hope I’m not unsophisticated enough not to realize that the real point in Brooks’ novel is how the surviving humans treat each other. There is a moral to the story. We develop new and “better” weapons to kill one another. We’re smart enough to have world peace and prosperity, but wars are constantly erupting. We have a nation with many brilliant people and yet we elect a Trump. Self-destruction, it seems, is written into our genes. We consume one another. Even when the enemy is completely imaginary we find ways of believing. So I read World War Z, appreciating the irony. I still can’t get over, however, the trope that all you need is a human brain to want to destroy others.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

Theoretical Monsters

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. One rainy night over this past weekend I talked my wife into watching Dracula with me. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this classic myself. Difficult to believe that it was ever scary. This is the film that launched the horror genre that has become such a major part of the entertainment industry. It has the right mood for a rainy night. Movies were paced much more slowly in the 1930s, and viewers are given ample time to drink in what’s happening. In some current day films the cross-cutting in action scenes is so rapid that I really have no idea what took place. Dracula is slow, stately even. Thinking back, I believe this was the first monster movie I ever saw, so it has a resonance with me. When Renfield balks at the huge spider web in Dracula’s castle, the vampire quotes from Leviticus—“the life is in the blood.” Monsters are religious creatures.

A year ago in January, with the help of two colleagues, I proposed a new unit for the American Academy of Religion annual meeting—Monsters and Monster Theory. After working on this proposal a couple of months (strictly off work time for me), the new unit was declined by the academy. We decided to try again. This year our exploratory session was approved. The idea had come to me when I noticed that papers on monsters and religion had been on the rise, but there was no central forum to discuss them. They were like zombies without a shepherd. Not being an academic, I couldn’t start the session by myself. Now the society agrees that we’re worth at least one meeting room and a couple of hours to see whether the topic might become a recurring one.

Some people, I’m well aware, find this combination odd. Religion, after all, is about sweetness and ethereal light. Being nice to one another. Things like that. Monsters, on the other hand, inhabit the dark. They’re creepy and unsettling. They’re also wonderful metaphors for so much of life. What some of my colleagues have come to realize, and the academy seems to be backing us up on this, is that if anyone can understand monsters, religion can. Psychology will continue to try. Literature will continue to create them. Scholars of religion, however, are those who would like to bring some order to a chaotic world. We study monsters to learn about what it means to be human. It has been raining quite a lot lately.

Scary Pictures

monstershowThroughout its history, until quite recently, one of the most serious natural enemies to the horror movie was the religious establishment. At times this antagonism seems well placed as horror films often take theological concepts and stand them on their heads. Within the last few years, however, thinkers of religious thoughts have come to an uneasy accord with some horror movies as vehicles for the kind of thinking promoted by traditional religions. The first half of this dynamic appears clearly in David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Written before any kind of detente had been reached, his book chronicles skirmishes between the Production Code, religious groups, and even women’s collectives, against what was considered indecent and degrading. We have come to realize, however, that we are the monsters. We are the degraded. And seeing these films can lead to a strange sort of solidarity.

Most classic monsters, after all, have their origins in religions. Even the most recent of the lasting undead—Frankenstein’s monster and zombies—have origins in religious thought. Mary Shelley’s novel was subtitled The New Prometheus, a reference that anyone in the early nineteenth century would have understood. Zombies, on the other hand, are a product of vodou. Religion can’t get along very well without its monsters, and despite their less-than-stellar looks, their screen appeal is undeniable. Maybe it’s just we don’t like our dirty liturgical laundry being hung out where anyone might see it.

Skal’s treatment doesn’t stop at the cinema. He has a chapter on modern vampires, and Stephen King has earned his own chapter (or at least most of one) as the poet laureate of the novelistic form of the genre. More often than religion, Skal traces what’s happening in the monster world to the larger social issues of the day. Quite rightly so, as scary movies go nowhere without a receptive viewership. Looking around these days it’s easy to be scared. Even what was once a grand occasion of debate over higher principles as we ponder our next leader has become a farce in one of the parties that could make its own horror movie. Hitler, it is said, was a huge fan of King Kong. Large apes manhandling women never seem to go out of style. Some call it horror. Others try to get away with saying it’s politics. While the daily commute grows more and more dangerous, and the rhetoric grows even worse, is it any wonder we like to dim down the lights and watch monsters that we know really can’t get us at all?