Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Biblically Literate Ichabod Crane

I’m trying to pace my viewing of Sleepy Hollow, but autumn is never long enough for me. In many ways the FOX series exemplifies the current love-hate relationship popular culture has with the Bible. While its dictates and commandments seem tedious and petty, its prophetic view is so very full of possibilities. The millennium has passed but we’re not weary of the apocalypse yet. Even from the pilot episode with its cringing reference to “Revelations” three or four episodes into season one tidied that book title down to the proper singular and have begun to introduce other biblical characters along the way. Since the conceit of the series involves the four horsemen, the Bible is never far from view. Forensics can’t figure out what’s climbing out of the woods of the Hudson valley, but we already know that the demon is Moloch. Many fingers, I trust, have been scampering across keyboards to investigate this biblical figure.

Moloch_the_godMoloch is a “Canaanite” deity. He is also one of the least understood of biblical archenemies. Scant references to making children “pass through the fire” for Moloch have led to widespread assertions of human sacrifice. Others have argued that the passing was just that—kind of like racing your finger through the flame of a candle—to appease the angry god. We don’t know that Moloch was angry. No extended myths about him have survived from antiquity. His name means “king,” an epithet fit for most gods. The vacuum left by the historical records allows imagination to fill in the gaps. Sleepy Hollow does that nicely, and although I haven’t reached the end of season one yet, I have my suspicions that he’ll be showing up for some time to come.

The Bible, viewed so disparagingly because of the ministrations of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and their intolerant ilk, remains a mystery to many. Let’s face it—it’s a daunting book. Even with onionskin paper, it is a massive undertaking to read it all. Many a spiritual soldier lays slain on the beach-head of Leviticus, and that’s only three books in of the Protestant 66. What Leviticus doesn’t finish, Chronicles will polish off. And yet we have such colorful characters as Asherah, Resheph, Leviathan, and Moloch scattered throughout. Sleepy Hollow has brought back the dead. I regret that I no longer have classes of students to ask about such things, because I too, through the magic of television, am beginning to believe in resurrection again.

Earthbound

Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.

hs-2003-10-i-large_web

In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.

Horrorshow

Halloween may be over, and more’s the pity. Still, Halloween is simply the entry point to longer nights and opportunities to revisit what scares us in the dark. I have to admit to feeling a twinge of justification at reading Richard Corliss’s article “Never Watch Alone: Hollywood’s newest horror films remind us why fear loves company,” in this week’s Time magazine. One sentence in his piece on culture made me smile: “Horror movies are a rite of passage audiences never outgrow.” Okay, sure, the demographics may catapult me into the more geriatric of viewers, but I generally take my medicine neat. I do watch horror movies alone at night. And I never hit “pause.” To be honest, I have no idea why I do it. I do not like being scared, and I certainly don’t enjoy slashers. I am, however, seeking something profound.

the-shiningOver the weekend my wife volunteered to watch The Shining all the way through with me. I’ve seen the movie five or six times, and I can’t seem to tire of it. The use of blood is sparing, and the pacing is positively Kubrickian, but it never fails to leave me contemplative. Don’t we all fear the madman that lurks inside? There may be ghosts in The Shining, but it is one of the least supernatural of thrillers. The monster is the protector, and nothing quite equals that disconnect for night chills. Corliss highlights the prequel to The Conjuring in his article, a movie called Annabelle. It is now on my must-see list, although dolls need not be haunted or possessed to be scary. Like Jack Torrence, they inhabit the uncanny valley of that which is close enough to human to be frightening. According to the pundits on the web, there is a real Annabelle doll collected by Ed and Lorraine Warren as a possessed toy. Debriefing with my wife after The Shining demonstrated the point Corliss was making, however. It helps to talk it out.

We spend much of our lives, I contend, trying to avoid those things that frighten us. Horror films do us a psychological service by bringing them to the surface, like desensitizing a child to spiders or snakes (at least the harmless kind). As we watch we learn what it is to be human. Religion, like horror films, is often a response to fear. Despite all our science, the world does not operate according to logic. The inexplicable happens. The horror movie allows us to explore the “what if” that science disallows. Once upon a time we went to church and held onto a crucifix. Today’s vampire is unfazed by our religious baubles. Exorcisms don’t always work—at least not completely. And the longer nights may be because the northern hemisphere is tilting away from the sun. Or maybe, just maybe, it is something more.

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.

DSCN4237

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.