Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.

Crafting Magic

There’s a disingenuousness about an extremely wealthy white man claiming he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Such super-slurring devalues the many thousands of lives lost in actual witch hunts, most of them female. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve long been fascinated by witches, and since I have so little time, Very Short Introductions are appealing. Malcolm Gaskill’s such introduction on Witchcraft is a surprisingly sensitive book that manages to touch on many important aspects of those who spend time thinking. The relationship between religion and science, for example. Witches force that question in various ways. The main takeaway, however, is another that the witch-in-chief would do well to take to heart—we must learn from history. History may be the key to human survival.

Gaskill has an unnerving balance when it comes to witch hunts. In places his attempts at objectivity can appear a little cold—history has demonstrated that the numbers of people killed in Europe’s witch madness aren’t as high as often claimed. Still, the loss of over 100,000 lives to propitiate our collective fears is tragic. This little book crams a lot of information in and it carries an appropriately warning tone. We don’t really understand what witches are, and we do still live in a world where hunts for them take place. Our psychies, ever so rational, crave magic. Societies from earliest times feared as well as desired it. Our belief in witches, and witchcraft, betrays quite a lot of what it means to be human.

This quick study isn’t all about witch hunts, though. It also explores the world of witchcraft, both in ancient and modern times. From Mesopotamian diviners to Wiccans, “the craft” has always been with us and is believed in by a surprisingly large number of people in industrialized societies. Magic, of course, generally leads to unexpected results. And the metaphor of its power over our imagination is forgotten at a terrible price. As Gaskill makes clear, the “witch” can be a stand-in for the other—the other religion, the other nationality, the other we fear and, now with government sanction, drive out or destroy. There is no magic to a wealthy man buying the presidency of the nation. There is, however, a culpability, a reckoning, if you will, that must attend abuses of this metaphor. The GOP has become a party of familiars in this compact with the Devil, it seems. That’s just a metaphor. But then again, metaphors can sometimes truly be magic.

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

World of Color

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Albinism occurs across species. In human beings, suspicious and superstitious lot that we are, it’s sometimes an excuse for prejudice. I’ve confessed in the past to reading Weird N.J. (Long story.) When we first moved to the Garden State a series of stories ran about rumors of albinos in a secret town, probably deep in the woods. Don’t scoff—there are deep woods in Jersey! Typical of stories in the zine, people—mostly of the teen variety, I suspect—would write of driving around late at night, discovering these albino enclaves, and being chased out by people lacking pigment and tolerance for strangers. Average juvenile behavior. I had no idea at the time that people with albinism are actually seriously mistreated. This is particularly a concern in Malawi. A story in the Washington Post by Max Bearak describes how albinos are murdered for body parts because of a rumor that, among other fabrications, they have gold in their bones.

As someone who has a love of folklore (and it’s more puerile kin—thus Weird N.J.) this is deeply disturbing. Folklore often focuses on the strange, unusual, or uncanny. Let’s face it, there’s not much of a story to tell when everything’s normal. Humans have the natural predisposition to tell tales when something is out of the ordinary. Our saving grace is that we recognize stories are just stories. When we start taking fiction for fact, we’re all in trouble. Many the night before Snopes I cowered under the covers because of some urban legend spreading by however ideas spread before the internet. There were killers on the road at night, and hiding under your car in the parking lot. At the same time, I could separate truth from the stories my step-dad told of jars of buffalo nickels buried in the woods behind our house. Nobody wants to be thought gullible.

In the sad case of those who are killed for being different, the Post article cites a United Nations specialist stating, “The situation is a potent mix of poverty, witchcraft beliefs and market forces which push people to do things for profit.” Poverty. Market forces. Profit. A new kind of clarity. Violence comes in many guises. One of the most insidious is that which some specialists call “slow violence.” Systems set up to exploit, drain, and yes, enslave others to one’s own benefit. And it’s perfectly legal. The plight of those born with albinism in a nation where their differences plainly show dolefully demonstrates a side of human nature that we would rather hide. Those who have control of resources place others in situations where they contribute to their personal bottom line. We call it business as usual while those who observe closely call it by another name. Witchcraft.

Don’t Answer Me

Non-directed reading sometimes follows its own track and a reader might become kind of an accidental expert. I wouldn’t claim that for myself, but I have noticed that scholars, until very recently, tended to give the cold shoulder to anything with a whiff of magic about it. Ancient magic is fair game, of course, but anything like post-Enlightenment magic is anathema, a veritable shibboleth of philistine sensibilities. No scholar worth their diploma would study such a lowbrow topic, let alone give it any credence. Popular culture, and increasingly political culture, tend to ignore academics, however. I have, in my exile from academia, become interested in those who consider themselves witches. I have, I realized recently, read quite a bit about the phenomenon and have been casting about for academic treatments that might fill in some of the gaps. It is a fascinating subject.

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Ironically, many religion scholars who swear by a mythological worldview of the first century, devalue magic, or Wicca. Many who study it handle it like a peculiar bug, something that might profitably be placed under the microscope as a living curiosity. The thing is, and I realize that academic institutions often shelter their inmates from the real world, many people still do believe in a kind of magic. It may not involve Harry Potter spells and wands, but everyday life outside the academy sometimes defies explanation. Scientists say it’s impossible, and scholars of religion are quick to lock step. Yet the number of those either openly or clandestinely joining occult groups appears to be increasing. Maybe they know something that the experts don’t?

While working on my academic paper for the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, I have run into the amazing void of interest in contemporary magic. The television series Sleepy Hollow has revived some popular fascination with the topic. The curious, however, have few scholarly resources to consult. Here is perhaps the paradigm that shows most clearly why higher education runs into trouble. Could it be that in the academy the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God? Have they forgotten how the common folk live? Those of us who grew up common are often not welcome in the academy. Our downmarket ways and simian brows mark us as the sort so gullible as to believe in some kind of magic. But the numbers are on our side. And the only option sometimes is to become your own expert.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

Carrie the Cross

Carrie1976With all the buzz about the new Carrie movie just released, I decided to go back and watch the Brian De Palma version again. I’ve written here before about the religious symbolism of the movie, but I have to confess to never having read the novel. This time a particular symbol stood out, and I’m not sure whether it derives from De Palma or King. Crosses abound in the 1976 Carrie. This is a bit odd because of the indeterminate religion of Carrie’s mother. Clearly she has a belief in Jesus, but an odd Jesus it is. In Carrie’s prayer closet the statue—presumably of Jesus, since it is never clearly identified otherwise—is of a man whose abdomen in pierced with arrows. Those familiar with saints immediately recognize Saint Sebastian, but the arms are outstretched, as if this poor victim were both crucified and superfluously shot with arrows. The traditional cross, however, seems to be missing in that dark room. It reappears on prom night.

While Carrie is getting ready for the prom, her crazed mother peers out the window at passing cars, telling Carrie that Tommy isn’t coming. In one shot, as two cars pass in the street, there appears an inverted white cross on the road. I supposed at first that this was a painted parking space marker, but then, this is a residential street, and no such markers appear in other shots. Carrie’s mother had accused her of being a witch, and the upside-down cross is an oft-claimed symbol of Satanism (not the same, however, as Wicca). At the prom, Tommy insists that Carrie vote for them as the prom queen and king. When Carrie makes her x, the camera angle rotates slightly to reveal the sign as a Latin, as opposed to Saint Andrew’s cross. After Carrie kills everyone and goes home, her mother stabs her and, chasing her through the kitchen, makes the sign of the cross with her knife. Finally, Sue—in a dream?—wanders to Carrie’s burnt down house to lay flowers at the foot of a “for sale” sign that is a white cross, with the clashing words “Carrie White Burns in Hell” scrawled on it.

I may have missed more since the use of the symbol only dawned when the passing cars pointed me toward it. There is a strange kind of misuse of the cross here—not visible on the Sebastian-Jesus, and ultimately also Carrie’s mother figures, but inverted on the street, a sign of pride at the voting, made with a knife by the mother, and scrawled with an arrow pointing to Hell in the final scene. Carrie’s fiery end appears to confirm her mother’s interpretation of telekinesis as witchcraft. There is no forgiveness in this film. Well, I suppose I’ll have to go see the remake now. And maybe even read the book. I need to know if I’m just seeing things or if I’m still sleep-deprived from worrying about jobs and a surfeit of imagination as October’s chill settles in.

Sleepy Hallow

Sleepy_hollow_ver2Upon occasion I found movie clips to be of great help in explaining ideas in religion classes. A movie whose clips I used sparingly, due to concerns for squeamishness, was Sleepy Hollow (the Tim Burton movie, not the modern television series). Upon viewing it again recently, I was impressed by just how much religion is intertwined in the narrative. This is especially interesting since Washington Irving’s story does not contain much in the way of religious symbolism or motifs. From the beginning of the film, Rev. Steenwyck is one of the conspirators, making the church complicit in the attempt to subvert the van Garrett will. When Ichabod Crane arrives in Sleepy Hollow the cleric drops a Bible—a recurring motif in the movie—on the table beside him, telling Ichabod it is the only book he will need. Christianity and Paganism clash throughout the film as a number of the women are revealed to be witches, either “innocents” or practitioners of a darker kind of magic.

In flashbacks Ichabod Crane recalls his mother’s white magic that draws the ire of his ordained father. Indeed, Ichabod’s father is a stylized amalgamation of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism blended into one. His harsh white chapel houses an inquisitorial torture chamber in which he murders his wife. Seeing her pagan symbols in the fireplace ash, he too drops a heavy Bible to point out his wife’s sins. When he stalks off from his medieval chamber of horrors, the camera angle shows him to be headless—he is the true terror, rather than the Horseman who was raised by magic and appeased by the simple return of stolen property—his head. Even in the present Rev. Steenwyck is both an adulterer and a murderer. The melee in the church leaves the final three conspirators dead.

The white witches, however, are marked by their purity. Mother Crane is so light that she can float up into the air. Katrina van Tassel draws chalk icons to protect Ichabod, indeed, the whole town, from evil. While Ichabod refers to his father with the evocative phrase “Bible-black tyrant,” his mother was an innocent child of nature. In the film Ichabod moves from the rational view of life to one that allows for the supernatural, in the form of magic. True, the Horseman cannot cross onto the consecrated ground of the church (another Catholic concept mixed in with the Protestant milieu), but the faith that saves Ichabod’s life is the book of spells given to him by Katrina. Yes, the physical book stopped a material bullet, but it was faith the put the book in the pocket in the first place. All very appropriate to bring students’ minds to religion in the autumn of the year.

Contextual Criticism

As I was reading Brian Pavlac’s Witch Hunts in the Western World, I learned about klikushi, or “shriekers.” These were Russian “witches” who appear as early as the seventeenth century and who are characterized by screaming, “wailing, barking, and writhing during worship services” (184). In that day this was taken to be a sign of witchcraft and women were arrested and tried for it. Fast forward a century or two. In the wilds of Kentucky what is generally called the Second Great Awakening was taking place. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit were, well, wailing, barking, and writhing, significantly, during worship services. These “signs” triggered the beginning of the Pentecostal movement, today one of the largest sects of Christianity. If the exact same behavior had taken place in a different context, the coverts would’ve been convicts.

It is safe to say that psychological explanations may be found for the bizarre activities of people living under a great deal of stress. No supernatural agency is required for glossolalia, spontaneous dancing, or canine vocalizations. If you look closely you’ll probably find any combination of the three in secular contexts during an average stroll through Manhattan. In a haunted country full of tales of the devil, they will be attributed to witchcraft. In a tent-meeting revival under the influence of an emphatic preacher, they will be called signs of the spirit.

Religions like to teach that they are universal, but in fact they are highly contextualized. What I used to tell my students about words applies also to acts—the meaning depends on the context. Whether somebody getting up off their ass is vulgar or merely a statement of fact depends on where the person is sitting. Religions are often rose-colored glasses, casting events in the shades we prefer to see. They are ways of interpreting the world around us and speculating on what, if anything, is outside our apparently closed system. There’s a lesson here to be learned by all. One person’s Monday may be another’s Thursday, but there’s no need for anyone to be crucified if they do it differently. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we only believed that?

It's all a matter of perspective.

Parry Hotter

With the final Harry Potter movie opening this weekend, it is clear that the brainchild of J. K. Rowling will live forever. When the books first started to gain popularity numerous Christian groups protested that children would be tempted into witchcraft by the appeal of the young protagonists. Ironically, standard Christian teaching denounces the power of witchcraft, although some groups do still acknowledge a very active devil. Now that the series has run its course–all the movie spin-offs of the novels are complete–many are coming to the realization that the message is profoundly ethical if not downright religious. As usual with knee-jerk protests, the message is missed for the medium, and those with fragile faith clamor for a spell of their own to put an end to opposition.

Joining the bandwagon late, I first started reading the Harry Potter books when the third or fourth volume had been published and public interest was riding high. I haven’t kept up with the movies, however, last watching Goblet of Fire at a theatre in Wisconsin while contemplating my own position at a school like Hogwarts, minus the magic. The books, however, convey the message more clearly–the power of evil is real, good is not always what it seems, and institutions can’t save you. The importance of love (the main thrust, many would contend, of the preaching of Jesus) is the driving force behind the story from the moment Lord Voldemort (the Darth Vader of the twenty-first century) failed to kill young Harry Potter. Perhaps the true concern that many religions have with Rowling’s work is that it has trumped the traditional mythology with a bit more style and panache.

As a regular Protestant Christian, Rowling expresses traditional beliefs in her writing. The fantasy of witchcraft, however, has always maintained a lure for those cut out of society’s pathway to wealth, recognition and ease. In the days before Christianity, the early Israelites believed the power to be real to the point of making witchcraft a capital offence. Of course, omnipotence had not yet been invented. Once a deity becomes all-powerful, why should fear remain concerning magic? More likely protests against Harry Potter had less to do with the witchcraft than with the insecurity that many believers feel about God. The plan doesn’t seem to be unfolding as the Pat Robertsons and Timothy LaHayes are saying it should. Doubt is a much more powerful force, it appears, than magic.

Harry Potter and the Evangelical Emperor

There’s a chill in the air this morning that warns of impending winter and the visceral melancholy of autumn’s graceful death. As I try to warm up like a lizard awaiting the ascending sun, I think that maybe I’d better write this post before everyone forgets Harry Potter completely. It is the beginning of the witching season as sometime late tonight fall officially begins and people in temperate climes are permitted to show their fears as the barrier between seasons becomes effaced and the darkness slinks in. A few Harry Potter novels ago, a local town in Wisconsin sponsored a downtown release party for the book with a street-fair sporting a feel of general bonhomme. While sauntering down the incongruously sun-lit streets, enjoying the sense of people just having fun, I spotted this man with a placard across the street.

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The truly scary part of this scenario is that I knew exactly where this fellow was coming from: the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Black and white. Right and wrong. Good and evil. Strangely enough, there was no such dividing line for fact and fiction. Yes, I knew that the Bible condemns witchcraft, but I also knew that J. K. Rowling was a fiction writer. I had read the Bible enough times to know that it contains no commandments about what genre of fiction is permissible and to know that some biblical heroes were deeply flawed characters. Jonah and his big fish. David and the giant monkey on his back. Hezekiah and his doubts. I can’t pretend not to know the searing sting of needing a clear answer, and yet I had already discovered the infinite shades of gray that reside between pure white and absolute black. Bible covers should all be gray.

That very year a conservative evangelical administration had axed a highly praised job of over a decade’s duration, believing it to be in the name of righteousness. A conservative evangelical president was unleashing hellish terror on a country that had the misfortune of being the victim of a bloodthirsty dictator. And this man with a placard felt he had to underscore that even a flight of fantasy on a broomstick over a quidditch field of imagination was evil incarnate. Once again my mind turned to Molech, the perhaps fictional Canaanite deity who is never satisfied. In the Bible it was enough simply to believe that people were sacrificing their children to the fiery Molech. “White and black,” I could almost hear the tremulous author whispering as he penned his horrid fiction. History tends to paint a different picture, but then, historians make liberal use of the myriad shades of gray.