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Forgive me, Father, for I am Daredevil

20 Apr

I’ve been rushing to consume the first season of Netflix’s release of Marvel’s Daredevil before someone comes along and spoils things for me. In part, this is a conceit. I’ve read quite a bit of the Daredevil plot-lines that seem to drive this production, so I have a pretty good idea what to expect. And I’m not here to discuss the looming plot beyond this first season of episodes, but rather to point out one of the main talking points about the show: Daredevil aka. Matt Murdock and his Catholicism. This post collects some of the writing that has emerged discussing the new series and its main character’s religious identity.

Daredevil-

Plenty has been said about Daredevil’s Catholic history at Adherents.com where the religious affinities of comic book characters are explored in great detail. Their preference for genealogical details–the gritty line where serial plot holes and back stories are filled in by meticulous attention to decades of comic content–are extremely welcome. The new series, however, seems to assume that, on the whole, their viewers know next to nothing of Murdock or Daredevil.

If the character is a veritable blank slate, then what has been written by viewers now about Murdock’s Catholicism?

Daredevil-Born-Again-Madre-e-hijoSome writers have tried to link the TV series with its former incarnation as a feature film. There’s this short piece over at the Christian TV and film review site, DecentFilms, for instance, that worries that the Netflix series, while a superior production to the 2003 Daredevil film starring Ben Affleck, hasn’t clarified “the sacramental theology issue” the Murdock opens when he pre-emptively asks for forgiveness of sins he has yet to commit.

Such concerns become a serious contention over at ComicBookBin, where Hervé St-Louis asks “Is Daredevil Really Catholic?” The author’s reading of 20th century America’s religious history has some significant issues, which make Daredevil’s Catholicism sound, alternately, like a byproduct of WASPish hand-waving to lowly Catholic masses or trite cultural folklore. In the face of complaints that Daredevil simply isn’t Catholic enough as a character, we would do well to remember the story-arc Born Again, one of the centerpieces of the Daredevil canon. Though I am somewhat loathe to have a fight over canonical authority, this central work seems to be not an issue at all for St-Louis, who ignores the rich theology and symbolism that Miller embedded in his narration of Murdock’s discovery of his mother. (A better attempt at this argument is made over at “The Other Murdock Papers,” a blog devoted to Daredevil. The twisting knife of this argument, however, remains the unsustainable line between a lapsed cultural Catholic and “authentic” Catholics. How are we to judge? And whose verdict of Catholic authenticity shall we trust?)

World Religion News seems to buy Miller’s intentions toward the Catholic side of Daredevil’s character. WRN even identifies Patheos’ blogger Kate O’Hare as one viewer who has taken up the challenge of writing about Murdock’s Catholicism (with extensive links to the works of others before the series premiered earlier this month).  As O’Hare quotes her fellow Patheos‘ writer Jonathan Ryan, I find myself sympathetic to viewers who see Catholic theology in the cross-hairs of Daredevil’s actions if not his words. “This comic is devotional reading for me,” writes Ryan in 2013. “Sin. Redemption. The power of being helpless. Sacrificing yourself so others might live. All concepts that go deep to my heart.”

Other acute readings of the new series (rather than the comic book that were its inspiration) include the New Republic’s (predictable) account of the show as a anti-gentrification hero. That this might go hand in hand with the Catholic ethnic communities embodied by the depiction of Hell’s Kitchen is ignored in favor of other socio-economic angles. (For you academic-types, try John T. McGreevy’s excellent Parish Boundaries.) Surely there is still much to be said of the way in which the ethnic community surrounding Daredevil is not represented by the other characters that immediately surround Murdock. Is his lawyer buddy Catholic? What about their secretary? What about the villains?

dardevil-depressed

Salon pulls out the stops when writer Charles Moss declares that “Daredevil’s Greatest Superpower is his Catholicism.” The twist (as the inevitable click-bait and switch must have)? “It’s also his greatest enemy.” As Moss says, the Show “tries to reconcile the lawyer who defends the law with the Daredevil who breaks it. Murdock’s brutal justice is more than his way of taking personal responsibility for the sins of others; it’s his way of atoning for his own.” Which sins are these, we might wonder. How many sins does the blind lawyer really have at this stage of the story?

If the debate is about whether Catholic viewers see Daredevil in Catholic ways, then the answer is a far more sympathetic yes. Though Catholic Vote identifies the inevitable weaknesses in production elements of the show’s portrayal of Catholicism, the takeaway from their review is their appreciation that the series took the Church “seriously as a positive actor in a world, a voice of justice and conscience in a crime-ridden city and a light in a blind man’s darkness.” The CV seems to be taking whatever it can get. I wonder whether it shouldn’t ask for more. Why haven’t we seen the priest do more in the community? Is his only task to be the quiet, gentle conscience of the brutal justice Daredevil is handing out? Is his promise of redemption one Daredevil can take?

What do you say? Are you a Daredevil comic enthusiast who sees new religious layers to Murdock’s character? Are you a Netflix series newbie who is being drawn into this world? What do you think of Marvel’s Catholic superhero?

Viral Religion — Twitch Plays Pokemon, part 2

21 Mar

In Neal Stephenson’s famous science fiction novel Snow Crash, religion is presented as a kind of virus capable of rewriting the basic operating system of the human brain. With recent works such as T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back, the sense that religion re-writes the mind and its perception of reality has received new legs. (It’s an very old argument that can be seen in the works of Freud, Durkheim, and Marx.) What’s notable about Snow Crash and the point that Luhrmann and others have revived is that religion is a product of intentional effort. We may speak of religious experiences as emerging from places beyond reason, but institutions of religion are conscious creations.  Religion rewires us. When we play at religion we get better at understanding the game we participate in and its rules. We are practicing our practice. That effort makes us adepts, experts, and professionals.

The recent Twitch Plays Pokemon (TPP) phenomenon, which I wrote about last week, continues apace. It takes serious effort to follow TPP. It runs 24 hours a day as players around the globe control the game from their home computers. I manage to follow along only by the generous updates offered by community members online. The latest version of the game, Pokemon Crystal, took nearly two full weeks to finish. At every moment fans are creating new interpretations of the game and its awkward, halting game play. Fan art occupies more than half of the popular subreddit for TPP. Participants in TPP exert continuous forward pressure on the TPP mythos. They actively elevate the game play into the religious realm. It is their effort that spurs the complex narratives. And like a virus replicating in a healthy culture–TPP creates its world and in that effort has become more adept at creating that world. Much like the world occupied by the evangelicals Luhrmann describes (or the cult followers of Asherah in Snow Crash), this is an environment that nurtures itself.

It is on this point  of effort and conscious invention that I want to dwell today (as TPP begins its journey on the next game in the series, Pokemon Emerald). First, let me outline a point of pre-existing mythology in Emerald. The world occupied by the protagonist has two major forces vying for control–Aqua and Magma. Team Aqua wants to expand the oceans of the world; Team Magma wants to expand the world’s landmasses. As a creative, productive force, magma is contrasted with the chaos that would emerge with a return to the sea. In the game both sides are ridiculous. They are the kind of bumbling evil that pervades Scooby Doo. As mythical forces, however, they are the division of earth and water. What’s missing is the tempering force of sky. The give and take of water/earth is an endless cycle. It’s a literal eternal battle, too, between two legendary Pokemon. Only a third force can break the stalemate that rocks the world.

As fans of TPP brace themselves for the start of a new adventure, they already know several layers of mythology. Nearly every one of them will have played Emerald themselves. They will be aware of its pre-existing canon. So too are they aware of the canons of the games that precede Emerald’s myths within the Pokemon world (having played both Crystal and Red in TPP already). And yet there are further layers added from the playing of Crystal and Red in the community. The deities and myths that have been elevated in the last month are now givens for the new TPP world.

I think the community is getting much more than they bargained for when they signed on for the first play through. The creative outlet that the game gave to its fans is now a recognized as one of the exercise’s benefits. It is as much an exercise in the formation of mythology as it is a social experiment about the limits of cooperation within a limited digital medium.

Last week my brother asked whether I saw any religious studies potential in the affair. I replied immediately and without hesitation that I did see scholarly promise in TPP. Part of me sees the exercise’s contribution as time compression. Where else can you see the birth and evolution of mythology laid bare before your eyes with such precision? Another part of me recognizes that it is the virality of experiment and its memes that renders it immediately useful for religious studies. So often we lack a good case study to explain the way in which digital religious lives operate today. This is religion online as opposed to digital religion, I know, but I think there is a mix of both here that makes TPP so exciting.

Update:

This post was set to post Friday, but some technological glitch held it up. Since the TPP Emerald game has already begun, let me say a brief word or two about the latest version. Users were initial struggling with the option of choosing a boy or a girl character. With no democracy mode in this play through–full anarchy mode all the time so every command is executed–the first hurdle appeared when a boy was selected, then a girl, and then a girl again. The failure to sustain the initial choice led the community to speculate on the psychological or even criminal events that might have led to the final selection. The following items, posted on Reddit, highlight these and other developments over the weekend, including the permanent release of the character’s starter Pokemon, the capture of multiple versions of a hyena Pokemon, and the repeated failures to make game progression due to a rock-paper-scissors battle that had the community in perpetual loss.

[All images linked to their original posts on Reddit.]

 

A is for Anarchy

http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/comments/213btf/torchic_was_a_fitting_choice_for_a/

Definition of Insanity?

 

Only Doge?

 

After the community released Torchic, the Pokemon they started the game with, there was quite a lot of mourning. This comic, for instance, summarizes the complex emotions some of the community was feeling.

Farewell Torchic

 

And then folks started arguing that another pokemon, which evolves like a cicada and leaves a ghostly pokemon shell behind, was really hosting the lost Torchic’s spirit or soul. You can read more about that in this post which references the manga Fullmetal Alchemist.

The sense of loss and anxiety is palpable, while the number of posts emphasizing a community in decline suggests the initial period of euphoria of the new adventure is wearing off and moving on to other darker emotions. Needless to say, it’s a wild time over at TPP Emerald.

 

 

All Hail Helix! Religion in Twitch Plays Pokémon, part 1

10 Mar

Recently, a social experiment in the form of a community effort to play a video game became the platform for the swift birth of a viral religious mythology. The details are complex, so let me take a few moments to get you up to speed on the details you need to know.

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Fan Art depicting the religious aspects of Twitch Plays Pokemon

1. Twitch.

  • Twitch is an online streaming site where the content is video games. (The content is called a “stream” and the content creators are known as “streamers” because they are live-streaming their gaming content.)
  • Just as folks recently enjoyed watching full coverage of their favorite Olympic events, Twitch offers full access to gamers who are sharing their experiences playing games. Popular games such as DOTA2, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo 3 have all been featured by major Twitch streamers. Monetization for the site and its content producers occurs through the display of advertisements and monthly optional subscription fees. Just as more YouTube videos are watched every day than all of cable and public access television, at some point in the future, it’s likely that the streaming experience will become another major form of content for media consumers. For serious (and even casual) gamers, Twitch is a normal part of today’s gaming experience.
  • The best way to understand Twitch is to simply head to their site, pick a stream, and watch for a few minutes. I recommend whatever the stream is with the most views at the time when you open the site. Right now that’s 50,000 folks watching a professional competitive League of Legends player practice.
  • Alongside the main window of Twitch’s content stream (where the game play is broadcast) there is a continuously scrolling bar of viewer conversation. These are often moderated (to prevent spam), but any Twitch user can post comments, questions, or whatever occurs to them to share with everyone else watching the stream. This chat window can be hard to follow because it posts continuously. With 10,000 or more viewers, stream chat windows can get nearly impossible to read as you might read any other kind of text. While some instinct in me says “don’t bother,” other instincts in me say to find a smaller stream to see the value of the text chat for devoted fan interaction with streamers.

2. Pokémon

  • In 1996 Nintendo released a game for its handheld Gameboy console titled Pokémon. Players became trainers of animal creatures called pokémon. Over a series of nearly a dozen iterations of the game, players rehashed the game’s simple mechanics– capture pokémon, train them to become more powerful, and defeat all other pokémon trainers to become champion of a competitive battle league. The game stands as one of the most enduring contributions Nintendo made to popular culture. The franchise’s slogan “Gotta Catch ’em All” belied their intelligent marketing to young consumers. The video game birthed action figures, printed manga, multiple animated television series, several generations of collectible card games, and more merchandise than you could really even fathom. No, seriously, take whatever amount of merchandise you think would be utterly ridiculous and absurd and multiply it by 50 or a 100. You still wouldn’t be there yet. (The only game franchise more lucrative and loved by gamers around the world is Mario Brothers.)
  • Within the mythology of the Pokémon world, one of the early games required players to choose between a pair of end-game pokémon creatures. The Dome and Helix fossils were mysterious pokémon believed to be extinct. During game play, players resurrected one of the two fossils, and could, if they so desired, add the pokémon to their collection.

Now you have all the pieces you need to appreciate the way in which things have all come together in Twitch Plays Pokémon (hereafter TPP). Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, a “social experiment” began on Twitch that allowed the community to play through a game of Pokémon Red together. By entering commands into the live-stream chat window, players would be controlling the actions of the character in the Pokémon game. It was a complicated system featuring options for more or less chaos in the way the community controlled the game. In “anarchy mode,” commands inputted to the chat were executed by the game in the order they were received. As you might expect, this meant a huge volume of wasted commands. The character in the game spun in circles, opened and closed menus, dropped important items on the ground, released pokémon that it had caught, and so on.

In “democracy mode,” commands were executed with slightly more control. Each command went up for a community vote, and after a short time the command with the highest vote was executed. This meant a deliberate effort on the community’s part could result in significant game progress. (Anarchy mode, while chaotic, also made game progress, although this progress may have been due to collections of Twitch accounts controlled by a single user and programmed to rapidly enter a series of commands. This kind of botting appears to have been involved in the game, but I’m not sure how reliable any of the information on this is or what its effects might have been.)

During the first TPP run-through of Pokémon Red, players began to speculate about the motivations of the game character for constantly entering the game menus. Consider this for a second. The way in which the community’s control of the game affected game play became an object of speculation for the community about why the in-game character would do such things. Why, they wondered, was the character always looking in the menus of the game? What did it mean?

The “let’s go along with it” attitude is not especially odd for the group of gamers playing this game. Pokémon is at its core a role-playing game. Community participants in TPP were simply being good role-players by asking what the game was doing when its play seemed not to fit the established roles. (I’m trying so very hard to avoid using theory here, but obviously Geertz, Bordieu, Smith, Bell, Douglas, and others would have extreme relevance on this point.) They filled this gap–consciously, deliberately, and knowingly–with religious and mythological content.

Toward the end of the game, after players had collected a Helix fossil, selecting the fossil in the inventory resulted in an error message that informed players they couldn’t yet use the fossil. In an effort to explain why the in-game character was consulting the fossil so often, players began to claim that Helix was a kind of deity to whom the character was turning. When the community finally turned the Helix fossil into a pokémon, all hell broke loose.

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Evangelicals for Helix?

Community members that supported the choice rejoiced and proclaimed that the character’s most powerful pokémon was in fact the champion or protector of the deity. This spawned the instant meme of “Bird Jesus” because the strongest and first pokémon on the community’s team was a bird. That spawned images like this:

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Lord Helix’s protector, Bird Jesus.

Community members that rejected the choice argued that the un-chosen fossil was the real deity. A religious schism expressed the community’s lack of explanation for their collective game play. It was the backstory that game randomness meaning. And because they saw it this way, the deity Helix became an incarnation of the value of chaos.

(Sidenote: In the second play-through the TPP community appears to be working out a solution to Chaos’ reign that may result in a battle between order and chaos. This is being actively supported by the TPP leaders through their “hacked” version of the game. They seem to be saying they’ll rig the final battle in the second game to be against the team from the first play through. I’ll update this when I know more.)

If you’ve come this far, you might be ready now to appreciate the kind of madness (in a good way) that this has spawned. Pokémon fans are nothing if not utterly devoted to their game. Their nostalgia and sense of play (in terms of role-playing) has created a serious virality of religious innovation that acknowledges pre-existing in-game content and real-life religious influences. Not only are their products syncretic–combining both real world elements and pre-existing franchise approved mythology–but they also have explanatory power over the community’s experience of the chaotic play-through. These are smart readers of culture and religion and they’re using that skill to create mash-ups that are just astonishingly inventive.

Take this Reddit post by user aseanman27 as your gold standard. In it you’ll find an utterly fascinating image that details all of the steps and missteps of the emergence of TPP mythology. The image is enormous or I’d include it here, but stop reading right now and open the image. Really.

Should it all make sense to you? Absolutely not. If it does, I can guarantee you were about 10 or 12 when pokémon came out and that you had access to a Game Boy Advanced or Game Boy Color. I’m actually working myself to get far enough into the game itself that I understand all the elements that make up this chart. I’ve got about 6 hours of gameplay on a iOS Game Boy Advanced emulator version of Pokémon Emerald that I understand far better the kinds of things happening on the stream than I did previously. Should you do that? Probably not. But I will be posting a series of explorations of the TPP mythology that delve a bit further into the convoluted fray. After all, upon completing Pokémon Red, the folks behind TPP jumped right back in again began another play-through of Pokémon Crystal. The mythology continues apace right this second.

It’s not often we get to see even a pseudo-religious mythology arise. To see it happen over the course of the last few weeks has been astounding. If it has been too far out of your comfort zone to register, I hope I can help. Feel free to comment below on whether you’ve been watching, what you’ve seen, or to ask any questions that have occurred to you about this phenomenon.

Just to stimulate that appetite a bit more, here are a few more viral image compilations:

For more on TPP, I suggest

But above all visit,

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In RGST? Get a Comic Now.

26 Nov

Proof that Comics Have a Place at the RGST Table

Saturday morning’s AAR session on comic books, “Heroes, or superheros?,” was a spirited example of the vibrant dimensions of the study of religion in popular culture in religious studies today. In a room filled with both men and women, I heard four fascinating papers that used “religious transcendence” to bridge the gap between “comic books and comedic performances.” In conjunction with the Religion and Science Fiction group’s session on “Seen and Unseen,” however, the true merits of comic books emerged.

In the earlier panel, the overlap between film studies became a moment to reflect on the generous body of theoretical literature that exists for religious studies scholars to drawn upon to analyze visual material. Christine Atchinson’s paper was somewhat over-laden with theory, but it impressed upon me the truly interdisciplinary qualities of popular culture research. We are not an interpretive island but rather one archipelago of a vast continent of materials. The regionalism (or specialization) inherent in a topic as broad as popular culture fosters a vibrant pluralism. We can be syncretic in the best possible ways. Or, more meta-theoretically, pastiche is impressive when we’re all bricoleurs.

Then Brenda Beck gave a fascinating presentation on her work adapting an Indian folk epic into an animated TV series. I was way out of my area, but this didn’t stop me from seeing the merits of her work. Visual presentation of folk material allowed her to highlight and embed the animation with scholarly interpretations. Class was a big issue in her folktales, and she was able to help the artists emphasize this element. It’s an important lesson. When we translate items visually we must choose what to encode. All of those choices made interpretation matter. If you have a sensitive and careful analyst, then those choices can really inform your audience about issues they might have overlooked. Perhaps we should, hint hint, make more effort finding objects and ideas that deserve visual translation. I’ve long thought that I wanted to make YouTube shorts on religious topics. Getting students to make short Vines is another option. You don’t need your object to be long—just long enough to say one thing in an interesting way.

Finally, A. David Lewis’ paper (read by Isaac Weiner because Lewis’ had travel problems) was a provocative analysis of Islamic heroism as the solution to the denigrated Western superhero comic model. Lewis’ complex analysis merits its own post, and I think I may have agreed on Twitter to do that for him, but I took away a key meta-point. Provocative arguments are worth making. They help us rise to the challenges of using theory effectively. They focus our use of sources. They compel response. And they make excellent conference papers. A. David Lewis has created a Storify for many of these items. It’s well worth your time.

The value of provocation continued in the Science Fiction panel’s outstanding papers on comics.  The first, by Southern Methodist University’s Christopher Dowdy, used Captain America, both in print and film, to explain the many ways in which Captain America’s body became a place of inscription for racial and religious elements. The way Captain America (in a subversive retelling of Captain America’s origins as a eugenic collaboration between American and Germany) rejects and embraces bodies suggests the character can be located at the center of discussions of scarred black bodies. This is a messianic suggestion and Dowdy played freely with liberationist theological implications. His slides are online for you to get some sense of the material he highlighted. The final comic oriented paper in the session was Peter Herman’s “Rotting Corpses in Pulp Horror,” a Buddhist reading of the Walking Dead and its implication for the way one deals with decaying bodies in the world post zombie apocalypse. As I did for all the papers I heard, I tweeted extensively throughout.  Rather than risk mangling these authors’ arguments, you might look at the notes I took and contact them directly for the real deal. (Storify forthcoming to compile the comic tweets.)

So what else must be said to convince you (or your skeptical colleagues) that comics and graphic novel analysis has a true purpose and place in religious studies? We’re not only influencing the creation of animated items (Beck); we’re not simply skillful readers of race and embodiment (Dowdy); we’re not just using comics to demonstrate the power of classic Buddhist texts and their philosophical theses (Herman); we’re all of these things because every moment we spend with these items is a step closer to understanding how, why, and in what ways religion is drawn into, developed inside, and lived through popular materials. This is not mere finger pointing. We’re not simply saying “there it is.” We’re capable of saying what it means that religion is there. Often times that meaning is not only useful for our understanding of racism or a religious tradition, but the very construction of religion itself.

So if you haven’t picked up a comic lately, head down to the local comic book store and ask them for a recommendation. You won’t regret it.

Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

Is Horror Religious?

1 Nov

Every Halloween is an intense reminder to me that religion and horror go hand-in-glove. All Hallow’s Eve has become a secular candy-infused target for conservative religious figures, and yet these critics are not wrong to lament the religious inversions that are on display. We become the monsters we should fear. We masquerade in identities it would be better not to claim. I find the thought of living in Superman’s world as equally disturbing as I believe it would be to live in Freddy Kreuger’s. If conservative religious voices express their concern that these actions make us less able to distinguish between reality and fantasy, I think they’re on to something. (However, they are decisively less persuasive when they claim that weakening this boundary means we are crossing the line separating good and evil.) Let me explain.

A basic interpretation of ritual, Emile Durkheim’s, for instance, suggests that ritual operates using cyclic rhythms to interrupt the banality of everyday life. Rituals express significant chronological and spatial differences. Eliade’s formulation of these ideas, especially in The Myth of the Eternal Return, suggested that this was a religious predisposition of all humans. In the modern world, Eliade feared, we have lost our religious bearings. Ritual has lost its ability to express sacred time and space.

English: Emile Durkheim's grave. Italiano: La ...

English: Emile Durkheim’s grave. Italiano: La tomba di Emile Durkheim (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Jonathan Z. Smith came along to tear down the ritual model as built by Eliade and Durkheim, one of his significant contributions was to distinguish between the religious actor’s imagination and their expectation. Ritual became an act of imagining–not a true expectation of change. In this respect, Smith embodies every fear Eliade had about the demystified or disenchanted modern world. Smith’s ritual world is one where ritual agents imagine their magic works. However, at some level, even if unspoken, ritual agents know their actions are not magic. In a perfect world, Smith argued, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to speak symbolically. Our rituals would always have the exact effects that we ascribed to them. Rain when we asked for rain. Healing when we desired healing. And so on.

If this seems difficult to follow, consider this. One of the major theological elements in the divide between Protestants and Catholics is over transubstantiation. When the host (the bread as the body of Jesus) is consecrated, is that material truly changed into the body of Jesus? Even hardened Catholics have difficulty explaining why the wafer still appears to be a wafer. The theology of change in essence without change in form is a delicate bit of spiritual prestidigitation. Protestants, by contrast, more openly say that the wine had not changed from alcohol to blood. For them the change is symbolic.

Back to horror now. As a genre, horror begins in the Gothic era. Yet, as I noted in a previous post about ghosts, there is a much older tradition of paranormal experience–folklore. Folklore is a cultural expression where normative beliefs and practices are passed from generation to generation. In this sense, folklore is very much the mechanism for passing ritual expectations. It preserves the sense of imagination while sustaining expectations. What is the key to good storytelling? Getting the listener to ask “Then what?” What happened next is the folktale’s engine.

We have two overlapping but distinct genres. Folklore is not always horrific. Horror is definitely not always folklore. Horror is often fictional, which certainly makes a difference since folklore like myth always strives for truth. But that’s not the rub. Horror is the genre whose object is the production of terror. I say terror here for two reasons. First, I don’t want to confuse the genre with its product. Second, I want to emphasize the kind of terror the Rudolf Otto evoked in his famous use of mysterium tremendum et fascinas. This is the numinous–that which is wholly other, that tells us simultaneously to look away but also compels us to look. This is the beating heart of horror–actions which are beyond reckoning that both invite and discourage attention.

Let’s return now to horror and its Halloween critics. When we play as devils, they say, we risk becoming demoniacs. Smith’s ritual corrective suggests that religious agents can more readily separate the imagination they employ while wearing masks from the reality that they do not become what the masks represent. We are a society at play, not a society playing at becoming. That religious folks think becoming the monsters is possible is notable.

The challenge of the genre of horror is continually producing experiences that are wholly other. It shares with religious ritual the goal of playing convincingly while acknowledging that becoming is not ruled out. Despite Smith’s objections, we live in a world where a vast majority of people believe, beyond all factual evidence and reason, that becoming just might be possible. This explains the urgency in critics’ voices as well as the attraction of Horror. There is a remote possibility, the genre seems to say, that this could happen. That slim chance is what makes us share a protagonist’s doubt about whether they locked the back door. That possibility is not folklore’s “what happened then” but rather horror’s “what if this really happened?”

The speculative core of horror is one of the reasons I think it is inevitably, and fundamentally, religious. It is the spectrum of religious behavior and thought that preserves the terror of radical possibilities. A serial killer is some absurd form of hideous, blasphemous miracle. The return of ancient world-destroying gods? Another grotesque possibility.

Cthulu Jack O' Lantern

Cthulu Jack O’ Lantern (Photo credit: joebeone)

Finally, however, I think that beyond possibility, it is terror that pushes all horror into the religious. That of which we are terrified–physical, psychical, or mental harm–cut deeply into the core of religious bodies, souls, and minds. It causes us to question whether bodies are sacred. It make us wonder whether our souls are secure. It make us wonder whether our minds are whole.

The damage horror inflicts–and one of the reasons I don’t flatly reject horror’s religious critics–can be quite real. Terror opens interrogative room. This isn’t the same space as the miraculous. This is a space where reality is inverted, subverted, and rejected. It can be profoundly emotional.

Horror, when it is at its most horrific, is our own lives tipped just slightly out of balance. It makes the whole world unheimlich (unfamiliar in the sense of uncanny). We lose our sense of being at home. Thus while folklore preserves our world; horror breaks it down until it is no longer familiar to us.

Otto claimed that this disorientation was fundamentally religious. This Halloween week I find myself agreeing with him. So, is horror religious? Yes. Absolutely.

Thought Experiment Addendum

On Twitter Daniel Silliman suggested that one way to test my inquiry would be ask “could horror be irreligious?” He said he didn’t think so. I agreed. Can you think of a way for horror to be irreligious? I’ll note that to the best of my knowledge, Wikipedia’s suggestion that irreligion can be indifference, rejection, and hostility to religion seems unhelpfully broad. It notes right away that religious rejection (atheism, for instance) is different from hostility to religion (antitheism). This suggests we might be better off limiting the discussion to indifference to religion. After all, if one is hostile to religion then one is still dealing with religion. So, to be more precise, can horror be indifferent to religion?

Top 5 Scary Movies for Religious Studies

31 Oct

While I like candy and scary movies, I’m not one to dress up in costume. So here’s a list of my top 5 scary movies for religious studies.

I attempted to balance cinematic excellence with thematic diversity. I limited myself to one ghost, one possession, one cult, one psychological, and one monster film.

That’s a diverse five, but it means cutting out overlapping classics including A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, Frankenstein, 13 Ghosts, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Frailty, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Omen, Hellraiser, Ringu, The Others, The Devils, Martyrs Videodrome, The Haunting, The Innocents, Night of the Living Dead, and Suspira. These all have their place in the annals of horror greatness.

I’m shocked to find myself leaving out Rosemary’s Baby, for instance. The joys of arbitrary limits! If you want an excellent top 100 list, the absolute best available is this one from London’s Time Out magazine. For the record, Rosemary’s Baby, Ringu, Martyrs, The Shining, and Elm Street were the next 5 up.

(I’m going to say very little about the films. That way if you haven’t yet seen one of them, I’m not ruining any great horror moments.)

Have a scary halloween.

5. Poltergeist (1982)

A classic haunted house story. It set a new bar for paranormal terror.

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4. Cabin in the Woods (2012)

A self-aware monster movie that collects horror tropes like, well, kids collecting candy on Halloween.

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3. The Wicker Man (1973)

Forget the Nicholas Cage remake. This is the cult classic you want to watch.

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2. Carrie (1976)

Don’t mess with telekinetically-gifted teenage girls at their prom. Seriously.

Carrie

1. The Exorcist (1973)

The classic possession film tops nearly every best-of horror list. Well deserved.

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