Stranger and Stranger

Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit.  While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked.  If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away.  The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion.  Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems.  Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!

Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer.  As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work.  The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are.  Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity.    No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism.  Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life.  Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion.  While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it.  Or can it?

Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct.  Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it.  As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear.  That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver.  People fear being taken over by something else.  Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still.  We know it comes from the upside down.  We know it can possess people.  And we learn that it can be exorcised.  Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here.  It’s simply part of the human psyche.  We can deny it exists.  We can try to describe it only by analogy.  We can try to exorcise it.  It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.

Reflecting on Light

Now that we’re approaching the winter solstice, light is pretty much on the minds of those of us in the northern hemisphere.  Or lights.  The use of Christmas lights and Hanukkah lights may have symbolic value to the religions that promote them, but both also reflect the pagan use of sympathetic magic to bring back the light.  Human beings tend to be visually oriented, and many of us feel the increasing darkness deeply.  Days are brief enough to be awake for the entirety of daylight’s duration, and then you still have to get home after work.  After dark.  All our enlightened hours are spent for the benefit of the company.  It takes its toll.  And so we string holiday lights, bringing cheer into the preternaturally long hours starved for illumination.

Although the snow hasn’t stayed around here, I did notice an interesting reflection of light outdoors the other day.  The windows of a house were casting a light-shadow on a fence that had the look of a cross.   It took some convincing to assure me that this was pareidolia—the assigning of intentionality to random “signal.”  We see faces where they don’t really exist, and when we see crosses in this evangelical haven of America we have to assume they’re intentional.  Sometimes, however, they’re simply a trick of the light.  The sun has a low angle this time of year, and the light that is otherwise scattered back into what is wonderfully termed airglow—the natural illumination caused by sunlight as its luminosity brightens the daytime sky—is focused lower.  Light takes shape and sometimes it seems religious.

 

In New York City, where repeated patterns are pervasive, such reflections often appear on neighboring buildings as “X-Files” symbols of Xs in circles, giving the city a mysterious look.  Out here, however, they appear as crosses.  You see what you want to see.  Or, sometimes you can’t help seeing what appears utterly obvious to credulous eyes.  I’ve had people insist that crosses like this are intentional.  In reality, they’re a natural result of rectangles reflecting the morning light when the sun follows its low profile ecliptic during the waning of the year.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be read for something else, of course,  Religion is all about interpretation.  Light forms patterns and seems strong enough to banish darkness.  And given how many hours it’s dark these days, I’m willing to take what help I can get.  The solstice will soon be here.

Come Sail Oy Vey

Nothing says unorthodox like a headline that reads “Smart Jews? Thank the Extraterrestrials.” Breaking Israel News ran the story recently and, being constitutionally unable to pass up anything so strange, I had to take a look. The article, by Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz, is really just a half-century retrospective of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?. I remember fifty years ago—not well, mind you, I was only three—but even when I was a teenager and the book had its second (of many ordinal) gasp(s), and a movie came out. People, even those not traditionally labeled as “crazy,” flocked to theaters to see it. The book went through multiple printings. The era of “ancient astronauts” was born. Von Däniken, it seems, is alive and if not exactly kicking, still making people uncomfortable.

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In this news story von Däniken suggests that Jews are more intelligent because of their alien DNA. Don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure that was the plot line of the X-Files season 10. Isn’t Fox Mulder Jewish? Maybe I’m getting myself mixed up in some kind of plot here. I have to admit, however, to having a touch of nostalgia for Chariots of the Gods?. There was a kind of innocence to it. Nobody seemed to be inseminating anyone else, or stealing babies. It was good, clean fun.

Something bothers me, however, about the assertion that aliens are, indirectly perhaps, responsible for holy writ. I remember thinking through the implications of this idea (already floated four decades ago) that God might be more Captain Kirk than Jesus Christ. It is inherently disturbing. Especially when von Däniken says in the interview that the Jews are the chosen people, but they just got the chooser wrong. ET instead of I AM. The really interesting part is that ancient astronauts have become a somewhat accepted cultural trope. I don’t know whether they were there or not (I wasn’t around at the time), but they sure do make Saturday afternoons much more interesting. One wish I hold is that people writing about this old idea might find a new opening bit. Ezekiel seeing the wheel has been done to death. Surely a bit of creative thought might suggest a new, undiscovered ancient truth.

Mere Monsters

While my colleagues and I wait to hear if our monster session will be approved, my thoughts naturally turn to the taxonomy of monsters. One of the perennial problems in the study of monsters is that definitions vary widely. We might all agree that a werewolf is a monster, but what of Cthulhu? Or of a horribly deformed, but completely natural animal? What about demons? Should we all agree that we know what a monster is, how do we divide them into categories for easy study? One way of doing this might be to rely on binaries. For example: natural monsters versus unnatural monsters, living monsters versus undead monsters, monsters from earth versus monsters not from earth, monsters created by humans versus naturally occurring monsters, fictional monsters versus monsters reported in nature. It soon becomes obvious that monsters are a widely divergent group of creatures.

Monsters have won an enduring place in popular culture. I think of The X-Files. Apart from the “mythology” of the series, many episodes featured a weekly scary monster. The same is true of Sleepy Hollow, now in its third season. Monster movies, although perhaps taking a back seat to super heroes of late, are regulars on the silver screen. We just can’t seem to live without our monsters. I’ve mentioned in my many posts about monsters that the connection with religion is so obvious that it hardly requires apology. But a deeper question has occurred to me. It has to do with the nature of religion (itself not well defined).

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Religions exist to deliver people from the trials they face. Offering Nirvana to break the endless cycles of reincarnation, or Heaven when we die after one go-round, religions claim to give us something of an assurance that things will work out. (Mostly.) In the light of this, why does religion give us monsters as well? Surely they are more than mere metaphors for the misfortunes of daily life. There has to be something more to it. What that more is, I’m not certain. I’m not even sure of how to approach the question. Monsters will, for me and many other Monster Boomers, remain a guilty pleasure that we are pleased to be able to address as adults. I am becoming more and more convinced that the more we learn about them, the more we learn about religion itself. And perhaps also about those who give shape to religious thought.

Out There…

Spring is a time of hope. As crocuses poke their heads through the slowly yielding soil, we’re reminded that the long months of darkness are only temporary after all. It was only appropriate, then, that my wife should point out to me the returning of the X-Files. Only a limited season of six episodes, but after hearing rumors for years that the third movie was in the works, we’ll gladly take six episodes to remind us that the truth is out there. I’ve not always been a fan or the X-Files, but there are reasons for that which have to do with living in the middle of the woods in Wisconsin in a seminary where the paranormal was, at times, just a little bit too readily at hand. And also because the very topics addressed are those of taboo. The anomalous is fodder for ridicule. Nobody could be so naive. Meanwhile the show was winning awards and creating enduring cultural memes.

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As I’ve suggested many times on this blog, the paranormal and religion are closely related categories. While not many X-Files episodes directly dealt with religion, the second movie made the connections explicit, blending Bible and spooky effects at a distance with abandon. The X-Files and religion share a fascination with wonder. It is all right not to know. Sometimes wanting to believe is enough. We can find information on nearly any topic instantaneously by pulling out our phones and tapping into the local wifi network. We access any bit of random information with ease. And we wonder at our lack of wonder. Where has it gone?

Thirteen years ago the haunting music died. We’ve been left with a reality that feels dull and devoid of possibility. We need some sign of hope. Ironically, it is Fox that offered a world of possibilities far beyond a Republican purview. This was a realm where humanity was no longer in control. Forces outside of and more powerful than us swept into our mundane setting to remind us that even government control is only an illusion. Human pride requires timely mementos that we are simply the dinosaurs of our age. The incomprehensible overshadows us as we spin away our time on a planet nowhere near the center of our galaxy, let alone our universe. And yet we tell ourselves we are capable of discovering the laws that lie behind it all without stepping foot on even the nearest of other planets. Welcome back, X-Files. Remind us where the truth may be found.

The Wars of the Worlds

Just as it is appropriate for news sources to carry religious stories without ridicule in weekend editions, October is the month when strange things might be reported with a degree of seriousness. I have often noted in the past that “paranormal” (think X-Files) phenomena are closely related to religion. Since our ruling paradigm is one of belittling the intellects of those willing to consider evidence beyond the accepted, news stories featuring the unexplained do so with a generous helping of scorn. I was amazed, then, when my wife sent me a story on the BBC News Magazine from the World Service Sport section. (Which is near enough to paranormal, as sports fail to interest me in the least bit.) A story by Richard Padula is entitled “The day UFOs stopped play.” Near this date in 1954 in Florence, Italy, a soccer game stopped as UFOs appeared above the stadium. Former World Cup players stared upward instead of at the ball. The event was documented and never explained. I kept waiting for the jowl-waggling punchline. It never came. Here was a news story from a reputable source taking something strange at face value.

Paranormal activities and religious experiences are in the same category when it comes to a materialistic universe. They can’t exist and so the superior mind must laugh them off, stating they are an illusion, hallucination, or hoax. They still happen, nonetheless. Some world governments are beginning to announce to their citizens that they recognize unexplained arial phenomena exist and—truly astounding for government rulers—they have no explanation. Something weird is going on. It was on Halloween Eve in 1938 that Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, was invaded, according to an Orson Welles radio play. Since the inexplicable panic that came following that broadcast, extraterrestrial visitors have been laughed off the serious news page into the comic section. News stories have never taken it seriously since.

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A sports writer, casting about for an interesting story, might well focus on an event of such Fortean dimensions. Some highly respected people present at that game were interviewed with utter seriousness and traces of physical evidence were even gathered. A substance whimsically called “angel hair” was found all over the city, and despite the chemical signature, was declared to be the webs of a massive spider invasion (who needs aliens to be scared?) by many scientists who didn’t witness it. Laugh and the world laughs with you. The BBC doesn’t seem to be laughing in this story. Tomorrow is Halloween, when many improbable things seem possible, if only for a short time. Weather balloons, swamp gas, and Venus notwithstanding, sometimes people of normal intellect turn their eyes to the sky and wonder.

Cowboys and Demons

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Cowboys & Aliens finally came down into my price range. For movies I’d have to view alone, I generally wait until they appear for free on some online movie service or for less then ten dollars at Target. I’ve been waiting for this one since 2011, but my patience paid off. Inspired, so the rumor goes, by the Roswell incident, the film follows the adventures of some old western stereotypes as they encounter the superior power of aliens. The aliens, it seems, are just as materialistic as humans, coming to the old west in an extraterrestrial gold rush. They abduct humans to learn their weaknesses (which really seems superfluous given the technological imbalance between the species) and anger a number of ornery hombres in the process. Then we have an old-fashioned shootout with ray guns versus bows, arrows, and bullets. Human devotion, however, defeats the evolved armor and flying machines of the—well, what are they exactly?

The cowboys scratch their heads, not quite having the consarned concept to categorize these flying machines and their occupants. The local preacher, who is a pretty handy shot, tries to help the confused cowboys, who settle on the term “demons” to describe the extraterrestrials. We forget that in the early part of the last century other galaxies had not yet been discovered, and although we knew of other planets, there was assuredly no way to get there from here. Ugly things that come from the sky are demons. This doesn’t lead to a whole load of speculation—nobody suggests praying to take care of the menace, although the Native Americans resort to a religious ritual to unlock the mystery of where the demonic hoard is hiding. Through her resurrection we discover that Alice is a good alien, planted in the town to stop the invaders from doing to the earth what they did to her planet. And winning the heart of Jake Lonergan (whose very name suggests lone gunman to insiders) along the way.

Since the movie is three years old, I won’t worry about spoilers—if you’re inspired to watch for the first time, however, you might want to do so before finishing this. When Alice figures out how to stop the alien mining operation for good, Jake is left, for the second time, with his woman being killed by demons. Woodrow Dolarhyde, realizing that the outlaw Jake isn’t such a bad guy after all, seeks to console him at his loss. At the end of the movie, in a camera angle that goes from Woodrow to Jake, the focus falls on the cross atop the local mission as Woody says, “She’s in a better place.” All aliens go to heaven. Literally. With echoes of the X-Files, Cowboys & Aliens is sufficient for a dark night where demons and angels are a little too close to tell apart.