Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.
Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.
It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.
I should be aware of what happens next. I’ve seen it in movies often enough. Man gets bitten by a wolf, and he turns into a werewolf at the full moon. That gives me two days. And it wasn’t a wolf, but a pit bull. I fear what I might become. You have to understand that after a long commute—they’re doing construction along a stretch of a major artery where my route passes—and having been awake since 3:30 (a.m.) when I get off the bus I’m not always thinking clearly. I’ve done some calculating and it turns out that apart from work, commute, and sleep (or at least trying to sleep) I’m left with three and a half hours per day to do my own stuff, like write these blog posts, eat breakfast and supper, and pay bills. So when I get off the bus for my short walk home, my main concern is getting across a busy street where New Jersey drivers routinely ignore the state law that they must stop for pedestrians in a cross walk. But last night the dogs were out.
The sidewalks in my town are narrow. Nine days out of ten I meet no one on my way home. There’s one guy with a tiny dog that’s feisty and it is amusing how the little guy—just a puppy—growls and barks its tiny barks and strains to get at me. Dog owners around here pull their dogs off the sidewalk to let walkers pass. It’s a friendly town that way. Last night the young woman was no match for the two pit bulls she was walking. The street was unusually busy since two guys had just walked past me, one, commenting on the dogs, said “I don’t take my beasts out any more.” The woman pulled the dogs off the walk and they barked and snapped and as I walked past one lunged and bit me. Tore a good pair of pants. The woman they owned was aghast and offered to pay. I didn’t want her to know how cheap my clothes were. Besides, I couldn’t hear her over all the barking.
It’s been years since I’ve been bitten by a dog. This was really just a scratch and the frantic woman assured me the dogs had had their shots. But I’ve seen the movies. I know what happens next. Two nights from now I’ll be roaming the streets after dark, half human, half dog. The Hunter Moon (the official name for October’s full moon) comes on Sunday. I can’t blame the dog—it was only doing what aggressive dogs are bred to do. My commute, however, has a new hazard. Not only do we deal with construction zones, I now have to arouse myself to watch out for werewolves on the way home. It must be October.
Halloween, when you think about it, is an odd holiday. I know many who claim it as their favorite although you get no presents and not even a day off work. I suspect that part of the mystique comes in the form of Halloween representing autumn in miniature. The slow death of summer as the chill of winter settles in. The trees, vibrant in their dramatic death throes, are beautiful and melancholy at the same time. The long hours of darkness leave plenty of opportunities to see ghosts. Rich Duncan and Bob Powers’ book, The Werewolf’s Guide to Life: A Manual for the Newly Bitten, is appropriate for the season. This lighthearted parody of self-help books nicely illustrates how monsters often come into contact with religion. As a secular handbook, the Guide nevertheless addresses itself to the religious questions of life: should a werewolf go to confession? How do you deal with guilt? Do werewolves go to heaven? Monsters often force us to face the questions we just can’t answer.
The werewolf, of course, is the manifestation of a person gone feral. While people don’t actually physically change into animals, evolution has left us with a deep kinship to our fellow creatures. At times when work, or school, or relationships become trying, we are tempted to let the beast loose. One size doesn’t fit all, despite the many attempts of society to keep the vast majority of people in the same plight. Halloween is a cathartic holiday that permits us to be someone else and, perchance, to howl at the moon. Not exactly like Carnival, Halloween thrives on false appearances. We wear costumes. The trees and sunlight that apparently die are really only cycling through an annual death and resurrection.
Halloween can’t touch Christmas for a holiday that commemorates new beginnings, but in many ways Halloween is the more visceral of the two. In Manhattan, although Halloween decorations show up early in October, the holiday is lost in the city. The werewolves pretty much keep to themselves. As Christmas, with its lucre, becomes the next obvious holiday (in stores Halloween decorations already give way to those of Christmas at the start of October now) the city transforms. Despite its multi-ethnic and multi-religious makeup, Christmas trees will begin to appear, some impressively large, and the greens will remind everyone that it is time to spend. You’ll get days off work and the days will be painfully brief. Light will slowly return to the skies and the cycle will begin all over. Some will watch this all with wolf-like eyes, however, awaiting the next season of monsters and myths, knowing they are what make us truly human.
Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”
It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.
The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.
Gregory L. Reece’s Creatures of the Night is a strangely profound book. I picked it up to read on the plane home from Chicago and I wasn’t disappointed. Promising to explore ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demons and devils, Reece suggests that maybe the key to such fascination rests with the late Rudolf Otto. I had over a decade of students read Otto’s famous little book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto, whose palindromatic surname suggests something uncanny, characterized the holy as the fascinating mysterium tremendum, the wholly other. (I will refrain from calling it the wholly holy.) The mystery that makes us tremble. The monsters that haunt our nights and imaginations are aspects of this utterly other.
Along the way Reece proves an able tour guide. He recognizes, as I have repeatedly stated in this blog, that religion and fear are conjoined twins. He also knows how to get your skin crawling. For Reece there is no question that such things are real. Real doesn’t mean that they are physically lurking outside your window at night—for who is to say that only the physical is real?—but they are as real as religion. No doubt strange things have transpired in history and continue to occur. And the reason we go into church may ultimately be the same reason that we watch a horror film.
As Reece comes upon the topic of demons the air in the room (or plane, or bus) thickens. Here we have documented accounts of impossible events. No amount of rational training can remove the shudder from these stories. Explanations of epilepsy only go so far before terror takes over. By herding them together with vampires, werewolves, and ghosts, Reece stakes his claim that they all are real. Rational reductionists may shrink our world down so tightly that no room appears in the inn for our creatures of the night. But those who are honest, even among the reductionists, will admit to a mysterious tremor, even if unintentional, on a dark and stormy night.
My reading habits are unorthodox. I don’t follow a fixed plan, but hope for something that will keep me engaged for the fifteen or so hours I spend commuting each week. I began October with a book about werewolves and followed it up with a book on the Hmong. Apropos of neither and both, I turned next to Shamanism: An Introduction, by Margaret Stutley. While not the best organized book, it does provide a smorgasbord of shamanistic traditions, principally from Siberia, where Shamanism was first recognized. Before I’d finished, I’d read about both epilepsy and werewolves.
Shamanism is not a “religion” per se. There is little agreement among scholars about what a religion is at all. Shamanism is very much a local set of beliefs and practices that have only very basic elements in common (shamans being one of them). It is a good example, however, of how moral heathens can be. Shamans often accompany egalitarian societies who do not require governments and religious leaders telling them to be nice to each other. No, this is not the noble savage myth, but it is a clear indication that major religions are not required for morality. It evolves on its own. Often shamanism is not constrained by overly left-brain influence, and sees connections science can only deny. The plight of Lia Lee was explained here in a way physicians could access—epilepsy and other diseases are problems of the soul as much as the body—if only they read books about religion. Healing involves calling the soul back. Treatment of the body misses the point. And sometimes the dead become werewolves.
We live in a world where real suffering is caused by lack of understanding about religion. Assuming a cultural hegemony of Christianity, or Islam, and sometimes even other religions, we discount those who believe differently than we do. The New Atheists frequently overlook just how seriously people take the world of the emotions and belief. That realm is a large part of what makes us human and it plays by no logical rules. Nor does it care to. In a country, such as the United States, where money is believed to be the very warp and woof of the good life, shamans sometimes secretly cut the thread. Still, don’t ask universities to expand the study of something as insignificant as religion because all intelligent people know that nobody really believes that stuff any more.
Nothing creates the mood for a werewolf movie like reading a book about real werewolves. The Howling was released the year I was finishing high school. At that time my humble circumstances allowed for very few visits to the movie theater, and certainly never to see horror films. I grew up watching B-films in black-and-white on television, but paying extra to see what was slightly unseemly in a theater stretched the limits for a good Christian just a bit. College was on my mind, and it was while in college that my horror film interest blossomed. All of which is to say, I’ve never seen The Howling before. I remember the movie posters, but the film had to wait until werewolves clawed their way back into my mind. Most of the classic movie monsters have their basis in religion, but The Howling doesn’t really delve into the origin of werewolves as much as it wonders what to do about when their numbers start to become a problem. Those who know about such things note that the special effects were cutting edge for the time, but CGI has spoiled us all.
Although the film doesn’t inquire into werewolf origins, it still gives a nod to the religious. The film’s werewolf population lives in a colony that has a “ritual center,” and since the cover for the colony is a retreat center for a psychologist’s patients, we find seekers amid the crowd. One of the inmates, Donna, explains that before joining the colony she had tried all the new religious movements, without success. And the one character who knows how to dispatch werewolves runs an occult bookstore in Los Angeles that is visited, in a shock-comic moment, but a pair of nuns. The message, so typical of the early 1980’s, is that all religions are just about the same. People are seekers, and any religion will do in a pinch.
In a way, this downplaying of the religious element in werewolves is not unexpected. As society was becoming more obviously secularized in the sixties and seventies, religion was becoming just one of many options available on the path toward self-fulfillment. In The Howling, becoming a werewolf was another. Ironically one of the old-timer werewolves laments the loss of “the old ways.” The werewolf colony lives on cattle that are farmed as politically correct sheep for the wolves, and it just doesn’t satisfy. The same might be said for religions. Accommodations, so necessary to survival in an evolving society, inevitably change the old ways of religion. Religions themselves transform over time. The Howling may not be scary, or believable, but it does serve as a kind of paradigm for worldviews that are undergoing transformation. Shifting shape, after all, is a sure symbol that one is still alive.