Fear and Dissembling

The ConjuringLast year, when The Conjuring was released, it quickly became one of the (if not the) top earning horror films of all time at the box office. Based on a “true case” of Ed and Lorraine Warren—real life paranormal investigators—the film is a demonic possession movie that ties in the Warren’s most notorious case of a haunted (or possessed) doll, with a haunting of the Perron family of Rhode Island. (The Warrens were also known as the investigators behind the Lutz family in the case of the “Amityville Horror,” showing their pedigree in the field.) Given that Halloween has been in the air, I decided to give it a viewing. As with most horror movies, the events have to be dramatized in order to fit cinematographic expectations. Apparently the Warrens did believe the Perron house was possessed by a witch. In the film this became somewhat personal as the dialogue tied her in with Mary Eastey, who was hanged as a witch at Salem (and who was a great-great (and a few more greats) aunt of my wife). Bringing this cheap shot into the film immediately made the remainder of it seem like fiction of a baser sort.

Witches may be standard Halloween fare, but when innocent women executed for the religious imagination are brought into it, justice demands separating fact from fiction. Writers of all sorts have toyed with the idea of real witches in Salem—it was a trope H. P. Lovecraft explored freely—but there is no pretense of misappropriation here. Lovecraft did not believe in witchcraft and made no attempt to present those tragically murdered as what the religious imagination made them out to be. The Conjuring could have done better here. It reminds me of Mr. Ullman having to drop the line about the Overlook Hotel being built on an Indian burial ground. Was that really necessary? (Well, Room 237 has those who suggest it is, in all fairness.) The actual past of oppressed peoples is scary enough without putting it behind horror entertainment.

A doctoral student in sociology interviewed me while I was at Boston University. She’d put an ad in the paper (there was no public internet those days) for students who watched horror movies. I was a bit surprised when I realized that I did. I had avoided the demonic ones, but I had been in the theatre the opening week of A Nightmare on Elm Street (on a date, no less) and things had grown from there. I recall my answer to her question of why I thought I did it: it is better to feel scared than to feel nothing at all. Thinking over the oppressed groups that have lived in fear, in reality, I have been reassessing that statement. What do you really know when you’re a student? As I’ve watched horror movies over the years, I have come to realize that the fantasy world they represent is an escape from a reality which, if viewed directly, may be far more scary than conjured ghosts.

Transformations

WerewolfsGuideToLifeHalloween, 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.

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.

Non-Fiction Steampunk

TheVictorianInternetThe histories of Tom Standage approach familiar things from unfamiliar angles. Being interested in Steampunk, and a daily user of the internet who has trouble recalling what life was like before then, I found The Victorian Internet fascinating. Subtitled The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, the story of the wiring of the world did resonate in any almost eerie way to the early days of the world-wide web. Despite my disclaimer, I do recall those days clearly when the only way someone could get in touch with you immediately was the telephone, and you had to be at home for it to work. Prior to the telegraph, news traveled even slower and you could go months without hearing from those closest to you, if they happened to be away. Samuel F. B. Morse knew that first-hand, as Standage tells it. His wife died while he was out of town, and although he rushed back right away upon hearing, she had been buried before he reached her. Such was life when news arrived only by letter. Morse was among those who invented the telegraph, a device that made the world realize that yes, it was possible to send information to distant places almost instantly. It soon become a wired world.

Standage is also more circumspect than some writers who declare, with breathless awe, that some new device will cure the world’s ills. Showing how the telegraph generated much the same hyperbole as the internet (that peace would reign now that people could communicate instantly, that technology had brought a miraculous rapprochement, etc.) he notes that people remained people. Wars continued—intensified, in fact, into World War One where technology was devoted to destruction. People had always been able to kill each other. Now they could do it faster, and in more hideous ways. Still, there’s no denying that once the idea of instant communication caught on that we would continue to develop it rapidly. You never need be away from a network that covers much of the developed world and you can talk on your phone from deep under the Hudson River to the top of the Empire State Building. You can order a pizza from anywhere.

Ironically, Morse dedicated part of his earnings to endow a lectureship concerning how science related to the Bible. It was clear that technology had achieved the impossible (okay, well, the improbable) and yet, Victorian society still relied on the truths contained in Scripture. The telegraph, which began with the words, “What hath God wrought,” ended with the attempt to figure out how the Bible fit into all this. Just because humans had crossed the great barriers of oceans with electric cables didn’t mean the Almighty was out of a job. Even today God can be found on the internet. Along with many other choices of distraction and business. God is not so much dead as commodified. The difference between Morse’s day and ours was that then they knew that the Bible impacted daily life. It continues to do so today, but we’ve become too sophisticated to give it much of a nod. We might be well served, however, to look back once in a while as well as to look forward. We might be surprised at how little things have changed.

Devil’s Food

One figure among the standard repertoire of Halloween characters has never appeared on my list of favorite monsters. I suppose it may be because as a child I fervently believed there was a devil that he never made my A-list. Satan was real, according to my church, in some almost biological, corporeal form. Even as a youngster I knew vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, and the rest, really didn’t exist (even after I hid under my covers all night once, after putting my head down on a bat that had flown into my bedroom). The devil was, however, biblical. And I never felt tempted to dress up with red horns and pointy tail, carrying a plastic pitchfork. Halloween was always among my favorite holidays, but it was for pretend monsters and ghosts (which might perhaps be real, but which were not diabolical, according to my childhood economy of the spiritual world). The consequences of devil imitation seemed eternal, and even today, in the rational light of the twenty-first century, I can still be given pause even though I know the concept is a Zoroastrian one that morphed into early Christianity’s need for a kind of anti-Christ.

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There are many who still believe in a real devil. Some branches of Christianity (and Islam) teach that a literal devil lurks about in our world. In western culture he is a figure instantly recognizable, although there are differences of opinion in his anti-iconography. Last weekend I visited a fine little restaurant in a New Jersey town that has a reputation for being haunted (the town, not the restaurant). It was a seat-yourself day and the table my wife and I ended up selecting had shellacked cards on top as part of the decoration. There in front of me was the devil. I pondered this. The cards, all captioned in Spanish, had mundane subjects: an umbrella, a musician, plants, a spider (okay, so that last one’s a little scary too), but only one supernatural figure. Perhaps the entire deck, had I seen it, might have had more. No doubt, for a world that postulates a good God, a devil covers, well, a host of evils.

The word “devil” is somewhat loosely applied these days. New Jersey has its own cryptid called the Jersey Devil, which has led to iconic names for sports teams and perhaps a public official or two. But even in the aftermath of 9/11 there were those who seriously postulated seeing the face of the devil in the tumbling debris of the twin towers. For a character of the religious imagination, the devil has managed to impress deeply on the human psyche. I know in my rational mind that I should simply dismiss all of this and get on with the business of enjoying the monsters that will show up at my door later this week. Nevertheless, when the waiter comes out with our food, I look down at the table and decide to pass on the hot sauce for today, just in case.

How God Became Male

GodsDoodleWhat is gender? Okay, we all know about the mechanics of the thing, but gender is more than just sex. Indeed, it is a psycho-social construct that is difficult to pin down. Sexual reproduction is very common in nature, but we don’t really speak of gender among our fellow animals. Perhaps the decisive factor, in the human realm, is religion. Clearly religion is not the only element, but I often wonder if gender-based commandments didn’t lead many cultures into their current arrangements. The thought occurred to me as I read Tom Hickman’s God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis. As I informed students in my classes, religion has always shown an interest in sexuality, particularly on providing limitations for it. A recent issue of Christian Century has a cover story about marriage, noting that the widespread prohibitions about homosexual matrimony come from a religion that forbids it. When your stakes are eternal, many people won’t argue.

But I wonder if it goes deeper than that. Gender roles have traditionally been regulated by societies, often on the basis of their religious outlook. Meanwhile, biology, as Hickman reminds his readers, is somewhat more ambiguous. The line between the genders is somewhat of a line in the sand, easily erased. Humans come in a continuum of orientations and biological equipage. Those who don’t match the defined parameters have difficult questions to ponder with a male deity who could think of only two genders. What is a male without a female? Can a male deity exist without a goddess? What, otherwise, is the purpose of a deity’s gender? Wouldn’t a inter-sexual creator may more sense?

Male social behavior has often drawn its entitlement from a bad theology. When feminists first began to raise questions, the orthodox were quick to point out that Jesus was clearly male. As Hickman notes, however, representing him naked on the cross (as crucifixions were historically done) is still rare. Sounds like an effort at keeping the status quo tipped in the favor of one gender that doesn’t want to admit that it slowly morphs into another. We all begin life female, as biologists now understand. Some retain their original gender while males evolve into something different. And with that evolution they tend to make many unsubstantiated claims about the right to make decisions for the other half of the human race. Gender is a lot more complex than many religions would have us believe. Until we learn to treat all people as people, we will still have to ask, and will never adequately answer, how God became male.

Keeping Time

Did you remember to set your clock back? Depending on where you are (and this presumes there are any people reading this at all) it might have been a mistake. When I worked with Routledge, we had weekly trans-Atlantic meetings via conference calls. I remember the general confusion of what time it was where, and how that effected meeting times. The UK sets its clocks back at a different time then many states do this side of the ocean. As much as it is nice to have an extra hour of sleep (next weekend for most Americans, this morning for the British Isles) it really never seems worth the disruption on the other end of “standard time.” In the spring it will take several weeks to adjust to disrupted sleep patterns after long winter naps—for those who are able to sleep in, in any case. I’ve long thought it is time to do away with this practice: if daylight savings time is a good idea, why don’t we just keep it that way all year around? Greenwich Mean Time, however, could never admit to being wrong.

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I was always told daylight savings time was because of concerns for children walking to school in the dark. An article in The Guardian, however, gives the real reason. It was war. During the First World War (which impacted so many aspects of life that we’re still sorting them all out), Germany implemented daylight savings time to conserve fuel to support the war effort. Squeezing a few more minutes of daylight from a slumbering public meant more resources for the engines of destruction. Other nations soon followed and when we turn our clocks ahead in the spring and yawn wicked yawns all day at work and stumble about for lack of sleep, we wonder if that extra hour’s snooze in the fall was really worth it. Because of my commute, I rise early. If everyone awoke around 4 a.m., daylight savings time would quickly become moot. It does nothing to help. I already catch the bus in the dark and arrive home after dark, as I will until well into spring. It is a holiday with no meaning.

Religions have been, historically, the clock keepers of humanity. Our hours were regulated for prayer, our weeks divided up for a day of worship or rest, our years punctured by holy days. All of this was done for the sake of religion. In our secular world, there would be no reason beyond the recognition that people are more productive when they can rest to give them one day off in a week. Seven days corresponds to no natural division of time, unless you consider a quarter of the moon’s phases for 28-day months to be significant. Religions have been our time-keepers. Daylight savings time, however, was the child of war. This week our UK colleagues will be well rested and content. Next weekend the US will join them. But the second horseman of the apocalypse has sanctioned this unholy day, and when the spring rolls around, he will exact his toll. We’d better rest up in the meanwhile, and I, for one, say let’s banish the horseman all together.