A recent trip to Baltimore prompted me to read Benjamin F. Fisher’s The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Well, that and the fact that I had purchased the book from an overstock table on a visit to a local indie bookstore (support your local!). Poe is a difficult writer to get to know. His personal life seems to have been largely an effort to find financial security while he knew his intellect was greater than those who employed him, and yet he was the one left without means. His literary talent, now considered one of the brightest constellations in the American writers’ heavens, was denigrated and demeaned and not fully appreciated until after he died of unknown causes in a city where he no longer lived. There is a profound sadness about Poe, and he seems a tragic figure. I do wonder, however, whether success would have ruined him. The more society woos you, the more you’re willing to lower your standards, I shouldn’t wonder. Not that I would know.
Fisher’s guide is a basic introduction that only toys here and there with Poe’s religious outlook. I’ve not run across much about Poe and religion, but there is a deep spiritual awareness, along with ratiocination, in his tales and poems. I suspect it might go back to the fact that religion and fear are so tightly intertwined. If a religious element is missing, it sometimes leaves a reader hungry. I’d also been reading Ramsey Campbell’s Ghosts Know concurrently with Fisher. This is a novel where a skeptical radio talk-show host takes on a stage psychic to see who really knows who might’ve killed a young girl. As the story unfolds it becomes less and less likely that the psychic is tapping into anything other than individuals’ wish projections.
While I found both of these books interesting, I pondered the fact that Poe referred to the scariest elements in his works as “terror of the soul.” The supernatural in Poe, as Fisher points out, is often really just a projection of an interior state of one of the characters—the eponymous tell-tale heart is guilt breaking through, not an undead heart beating. In an era where belief in the soul is waning, scary books seem less frightening. We’ve been robbed of both the supernatural and the soul, so what is left to fear? If death is only a more profound kind of sleep and morals are only a matter of social convention, then we are truly alone in this vast universe. Of what should we be afraid? Still, when the night stretches on for many long hours this December, I find myself inclined toward Poe and I wonder if ghosts truly do know.
Posted in Books, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts, Travel
Tagged Baltimore, Benjamin F. Fisher, Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe, ghosts, Ghosts Know, Ramsey Campbell, supernatural
When my rural, northwestern Pennsylvania shows up in the news, I pay attention. An Associated Press story recently appeared concerning Rev. Chris Terbush of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the success of Duck Dynasty (which seems poised to overtake even Apple as the most popular purveyor of popular culture), Rev. Terbush has encouraged his congregation to show up on Sunday mornings in camouflage, ready to go forth and claim dominion over nature once the service is over. I’ve been ambushed by enough clergy that the idea makes me a little nervous, I’ll have to admit. But then again, I know where he’s coming from. I grew up in a town that celebrated the first day of deer season as a public holiday, with schools closed and the hills alive with the sound of muskets. Not being a hunter, I just enjoyed the day off school. This upbringing, however, gave me a profound appreciation for the Jeff Daniels’ movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight. But I digress.
Religious services evolve, just like any other social phenomenon. When I was young, just as the sixties were wresting the color of life from the black-and-white fifties, going to church was a formal event that demanded your “Sunday best.” Only the worst of heathens would show up before the Almighty in anything less than a white shirt and tie, a jacket and uncomfortable shoes. You had to show the divine that you were willing to go that extra mile and implicate that you didn’t intend to have any fun when it was over because the sabbath is a solemn occasion. I remember the weird feeling of walking into church during the weekday wearing jeans for the first time. It felt as if I were dissing the rules of the club. It was an exclusive affair.
The “theology of dress” has become an area of scholarly investigation with the growth of embodiment issues. What we wear says something about our beliefs, and the fact that we wear clothes at all is sometimes even traced back to Genesis 3. The origin of “good clothes,” clearly, was a status issue. Those who could afford to keep some surplus clothes unsullied by labor wished to strut their stuff on occasion. And who better to impress than God? All of this has eroded over the years with many churches as casual as any man cave. Now you can camouflage yourself in church. There may be more going on here than meets the eye, both literally and metaphorically.
What happens in the woods stays in the woods
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Genesis, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Associated Press, Bradford, Chris Terbush, Duck Dynasty, embodiment, Escanaba in da Moonlight, Genesis 3, Northwest Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania
Carl Sagan, one of the great proponents of the idea that earthlings have never been visited by aliens, wrote a novel entitled Contact. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but many years ago, on a long plane ride, I caught part of the movie version—most of it without the sound on, as I recall. While the ideas have been brewing for about a decade, I’ve been meaning to get around to watching the film. It is a bit of a slow-starter, but I finally sat down to watch it, with sound. While the movie ultimately remains agnostic—with a Twilight Zonish twist at the end—about whether the contact is truly alien or not, one aspect leaves no room for doubt: the movie is really about the relationship between religion and science. Eleanor Arroway cannot raise faith in anything but science, especially since her father’s premature death. Although she has a brief affair with Palmer Joss, a theological journalist, she just can’t believe what her senses don’t confirm.
Once the alien signal is announced, the response of the populace is overwhelmingly religious. One sect in particular seems to channel its faith into the hatred of science, and even Palmer, now an advisor to the president, questions whether science alone can really help humanity to progress. He is the one who nails shut the coffin of Dr. Arroway’s hopes of going to Vega to see the aliens. The reason: she doesn’t believe in God, and therefore is not qualified to represent the human race. Ah, the cruel irony of it all. When she finally does get a chance to visit space, the results are both Freudian and religious. She finds her father in a place like heaven, but her beloved science makes no record of her journey. At a congressional hearing she is made to admit that she believes in what happened without proof. Science is now standing on faith while the religious look smugly on.
Despite the pacing, Contact is an enjoyable movie. In many ways it hasn’t aged much since its 1997 release. Science and religion are still at loggerheads in some camps, and we are no closer to the stars than we were a decade and three-quarters ago. Reading books on the nexus of religion and science, one often gets the impression that the two are inevitably foes. Much of it goes back to a principle that recurs throughout Contact—Occam’s razor. The idea that the simplest explanation is the best does not seem to serve science (or religion) well. Although it works most of the time, it is because, as a friend recently said, we are willing to sweep the stuff that doesn’t fit off the table. Contact showed Occam’s razor with its indiscriminate cutting. Both the religious and the scientific end up bloody when it’s all over (metaphorically speaking, of course). It seems what religion and science really need is indeed contact.
One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.
The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.
Cthulhu takes Manhattan
Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods
abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods
is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.
Posted in Deities, Just for Fun, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Albert Einstein, Amazon Prime, Cthulhu, Drew Goddard, H P Lovecraft, Joss Whedon, old gods, ritual, The Cabin in the Woods
After reading a post I’d written about Dracula last year, a friend recommended that I look at Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. This novel is very easy for a vampire fan to lose oneself in, taking a sweeping scope of the Balkans and western Turkey, and adding enticing bits of northern Europe as well. Although it is a novel, it is also a history lesson in international relations and in the costs that accompany clashing religious empires. Christendom and Ottoman powers frequently exchanged hostilities long before the Bush presidency, and it was in this milieu that Vlad Tepes, the Dracula of history, emerged. Interestingly, although vampires had been part of religious folklore since the earliest civilizations, it took Bram Stoker to make Dracula into one. It is difficult to believe that, with the household name-recognition of Vlad III’s epithet, Dracula would’ve likely remained one of history’s more gruesome footnotes without Stoker’s undead imagination. Vampires would’ve survived, I’m sure, but Dracula might not have come back to life.
Kostova does an excellent job of blending fact and fiction in an epic vampire hunt. She also takes the somewhat unusual step of making the historical Vlad her actual vampire. A defender of the Christian faith against the Turks and their Muslim ways, Dracula did earn a reputation for cruelty (and unusual punishments) during his lifetime. Kostova keeps him alive through a kind of scavenger-hunt through history as his decapitated body must be brought back together with his head, and then through the wilds of Transylvania, Wallachia, Bulgaria, and even into the cosmopolitan streets of Constantinople. This is an intellectual’s vampire story if ever there was one.
Although Dracula’s association with the vampire mythos began with Bram Stoker, his role as a symbol of religious conflict boasts much older roots. Indeed, conflict over what is the “one true faith” has been a bloody avocation of humanity since universal claims of salvation began to be made. The conflict continues, in a somewhat more civil guise, as science flexes its considerable muscles over the less empirical realm of religious belief. No matter which strand of religion one believes, if any, faith has a strange ability to set people seeking one another’s blood. The symbol of the vampire does not seem to be departing any time soon, for vampirism is part of human nature. We may never shed the physical blood of another, but we continue to participate in cultures where the strong impose their wills on the weak. And that is a scene darker than even the scariest tomb painted in The Historian.
Posted in Books, Literature, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Bram Stoker, Dracula, Elizabeth Kostova, Monsters, religious conflict, The Historian, vampires, Vlad Tepes
In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.
Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.
When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.
Posted in Bible, Classical Mythology, Deities, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Blade, comic books, Erebus, science and religion, Underworld, vampires
Poltergeist is one of those movies that evokes mixed emotions. Sure, it was one of the really scary ones when it just came out, and the rumors of a curse after the tragic early death of Heather O’Rourke probably added to the mystique. I actually didn’t see the movie until over a decade had passed since its release. It came out when I was in college, and I didn’t often splurge to see a movie in those days. VCRs were still expensive and your only real option was to rent a movie. In any case, a few years back I bought a cheap DVD and, after having seen many horror movies, it felt a little tame. And the ending was over-the-top. I have a theory that being unemployed makes you vulnerable to suggestion. Over the weekend I was looking for a movie I could watch for free on Amazon Prime, when Poltergeist II showed up. I hadn’t even realized that there had been a sequel, and after watching it, I think I understand why the movie was buried.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side picks up where the original left off. An added character, Taylor, a Native American shaman, brings good spirits to the Freeling family as the original poltergeists start to haunt Diane’s mother’s house, where they are staying. Interestingly, the ghosts are revealed to be those of a traveling, apocalyptic preacher and his followers. The preacher, Henry Kane, led his group to the desert where they awaited the end of the world and then died after it did not come. They were apparently the ghosts haunting the original Freeling house, and not those of the “Indian burial ground” that the first movie touted. Taylor brings the healing, Native American spirits into the conflict and they win out over the Christian sect ghosts. All of this was becoming more unbelievably campy until Carol Anne was rescued by her now deceased grandmother, in the form of an angel. This mythological cocktail left me feeling a bit dizzy.
Some interesting subtexts floated through this film. Native Americans were now good, rather than the haunting spirits of the first movie. Kane’s sect, which had to be a veiled reference to the Latter Day Saints, showed Christian millennialists as the truly dangerous otherworldly residents. Kane is a preacher (and Mezcal worm) that doesn’t really want to pass over into the light. Why he travels all the way to Phoenix to try to pick up a nine-year-old girl isn’t really clearly explained. Horror movies, of course, frequently make use of religion as a vehicle for what truly frightens. Often it is religion misunderstood. Kane was not a believable character, in this case, without the abject cynicism of an unholy ghost who traveled to the desert southwest to set up a new religion. Once Mormonism breaks into the mainstream, perhaps I’ll have the stomach to watch Poltergeist III and see where the evil shifts the next time.
Posted in Just for Fun, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, ghosts, Heather O'Rourke, Native American religion, poltergeist, Poltergeist II, shamanism