Tag Archives: supernatural

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.


4. Cabin in the Woods (2012)

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


3. The Wicker Man (1973)

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


2. Carrie (1976)

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


1. The Exorcist (1973)

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



The Boy from Hell — From the Archive

30 Oct

[I wrote this post in 2010, but when I moved my blog to a new host, it didn’t get reposted. It seems a natural extension of yesterday’s post on the Witch Doctor comic series. -DWM.]

I get to watch all kinds of interesting things on Netflix: Watch Instantly, but right now I’m intrigued by “Hellboy: Animated: Sword of Storms” and “Hellboy: Animated: Blood & Iron.” These 2007 animated kids features add to the already impressive collection of Hellboy materials, which to date include two feature length films (2004 & 2008), a series of comics, trade paperbacks, novels, video games, and even a D&D style RPG. The success of the franchise is a not surprising in light of the success of many comics when brought to the big screen. Hellboy joins adaptations of Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, and X-Men, and that doesn’t even get into 300, Sin City, Watchmen, or Wanted.

I could go on, but the point I want to make about Hellboy puts it in a different category from most of these other flicks. While I could say that hardly any other series is really concerned with a group of monsters that fight the “supernatural and the occult,” this does sometime seem to be the m.o. of the superpower hero genre. Sure, heroes like Spiderman or Wolverine fight bad-guys with superpowers all the time, but these series often fail to provide a mythology to support their world that relies upon religious manifestations and suppositions.

Thus, it is the combination or grouping of the supernatural (which could be take to mean the powers comic book heroes are often blessed with) and the occult together that makes Hellboy different. Instead we see a world that is more like Indiana Jones than Spider man, more like Tomb Raider than Superman, more like Ghostbusters than X-Men. That is, one of the central components of the Hellboy franchise is its reliance on seeing our world as populated with monsters not of science fiction, but of religion. Demons populate this world, not byproducts of nuclear accidents or cosmic radiation.

In a given comparison you might find some weaknesses to this distinction, but I’m willing to wager that Hellboy (and Constantine based on the Hellblazer comic books) are one of the few features to deal so explicitly with the occult. The occult is not easy to pin down for in its most general sense it means “knowledge of the hidden.” This may mean things beyond our ability to quantify or measure, or it may mean secret knowledge. In this sense we are confronted with a confusing jumble of terms that sometimes includes not only esoteric and arcane but gnostic.

Many conservative Christians encourage general readers to avoid making refined distinctions among such words, choosing instead a path that renders all such things dangerous and forbidden. This is easily seen in many of the criticisms of Harry Potter, where no distinctions are made between real uses of “magic” as a form of religious practice and the magical world seen thanks to special effects studios. I don’t mean to pass judgment on whether or not magic exists. Magic itself is a slippery term that could just as easily refer to turning water into wine as love potions. It’s a dangerous road to walk down as a scholar.

I would more readily accept Christian suspicions and denigrations about Constantine or Hellboy than Harry Potter; I know many children who wish that we lived in Harry Potter’s world and that an acceptance letter to Hogwarts will whisk them away from our muggle world, but I don’t know many children who accept that world as the same world we live in. They can distinguish between the human appearance of its characters and their supernatural abilities. In Hellboy humans are simply human, which means that everything else, those “things that bump in the night and which bump back,” could very well be possible.

When superheroes populate Metropolitan or Gotham City, we know these are just copies of our world whose shadows are populated with impossible things. Hellboy operates using such shadows, but the basis of its approach is not scientific but religious possibilities. If the Bible is followed literally, then we must conclude that angels and demons both exist. Hellboy seems to accept that proposition and then take it several steps further down the road. Along the way the demons become humanized–speaking our language and taking human form–as well as capable of ethical decisions. This is a natural anthropomorphic step, and I see it as similar to making animals talk. It lessens the gap between fantasy and reality.

Bridging that gap, however, is never the primary task of these items. Hellboy’s mythology works without ever filling in all the pieces. This is the source of the difference between Hellboy and superheroes–the origin story is crucial to superheroes, who cannot exist in a world that is presented as ours without explanation, while the origin story seems secondary to Hellboy, who would exist anyhow but might be trapped on the other side. I don’t mean to imply that Hellboy is somehow more believable than any other product of the SF/F genre, but I do mean to suggest that it is lent extraordinary credibility by preying on a vague and generalized understanding of the “occult” and supernatural. We give such things credence in our daily lives, as least many of us do.

What is surprising to me is how unremarkable the presentation of the occult is in Hellboy. It just rolls naturally along without ever really considering its own existence or origins. Constantine wrestles endlessly with the conflict between “his” Catholicism and ours. His demons are torn quite literally from the Scripture, and his methods are drawn from religious folklore. That Hellboy works with unidentifiable sources and with relative immunity from the condescension given to such shows as The Dresden Files or Charmed, suggests that it has successfully populated a niche between those works and mainstream comic fantasies. That niche seems generated not only by renewed New Age visibility of channeling and other such phenomenon, but also by the vivid imaginations of fantasy authors looking to classical myths and religious templates. In the end I think it’s all enjoyable entertainment, but I can understand the dis-ease that many folks have with such flights of fancy. My only problem is that from start to finish Hellboy steals plays from their playbook–and I hate throwing babies out with my bathwater.


Witch Doctor — The Biology of the Supernatural

29 Oct

Despite packing all my books up recently, I finally managed to pick up two volumes of Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner’s Witch DoctorThis comic, published by Image, features the adventures of Dr. Vincent Morrow, a licensed doctor of the occult. As the comic’s byline says, he’s “looking for a vaccine — for the apocalypse — and in his quest to understand the biology of the supernatural, he faces vampires, demonic possession, faeries, and more!”

Recent conversations on Twitter and in the blogosphere (with A. David Lewis and Jeff Bracket) have highlighted the dynamic content available in graphic media for religious studies scholars. A core of secondary literature is emerging, focusing especially on Lewis‘ newly released Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books & Graphic Novels.

I’ll compile an Amazon recommendation list eventually, but don’t miss out on Jeffrey Kripal‘s Mystics and Mutants: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the ParanormalChris Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex, or Greg Garrett’s Holy Superheroes!  And be sure to check out Jeff Bracket’s reading list for his “Religion and Popular Culture” course’s 7 week Comic Book unit.

Cover of "Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secr...

Cover of Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex

Judging by the growing body of literature, we’re increasingly recognizing the secular manifestations of religious themes in popular culture. Comics are especially sharp meditations on what it means to be human. Because superheroes act in the human world, they are always resolving the tensions implicit in their paranormal abilities.

In the hero sense, Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor, is remarkably frail. He is not cowardly, but he is human. It is his special knowledge of the occult that drives his victories over his supernatural enemies. I’m only two volumes in, and while there appears to be a messianic subplot that may reveal Morrow as uniquely destined to save the world, it doesn’t hinge on superhuman power. In the end, Morrow is a specialist who relies on hired guns for the heavy lifting.

If there’s one thing that fascinates me about this series, it’s the invocation of a biology of the supernatural. Straight from Wikipedia, (the horror!) “Biology is a natural science concerned with the study of life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, and taxonomy.” In this series, the supernatural is positioned taxonomically as another extension of natural life. This both makes it “natural” and gives readers a way to understand Morrow’s approach. It roots and validates the scientific process as well as the supernatural. It is a both-and approach that denies neither side of the enlightenment divide. How easy it is to make the mistake of drawing the line between reason and superstition? This series plays right on top of that line, erasing it as it tap dances its way merrily along dealing with demonic possessions with magical steampunkish medical devices.

WITCH DOCTOR #3 (of 4) Cover

WITCH DOCTOR #3 (of 4) Cover (Photo credit: Brandon Seifert)

Morrow has a particular appreciation of supernatural taxonomy. In this respect, he plays the role of both naturalist and explorer. He dashes boldly along because it is thrilling to be the first to discover the unknown, to stand where no one has stood before, to see with your eyes what you have never seen before. This is unlike the naturalist, who delights in discovery as an extension of pre-existing knowledge. A new plant? Marvelous! Where does its genus fit on the taxonomical tree? (For more on this distinction see Paul Carter’s newly reprinted The Road to Botany Bay.) Morrow appears thrilled by both sides equally. It’s another tap dance.

In other moments, the Witch Doctor finds himself less medically oriented and far more invested in the patchwork elements of the new age. In Volume 2, for instance, Morrow astrally projects. A complex evocation of this religious practice (out of body experience) includes nods to chakras, blood magic, voodoo dolls, and spirit possession. It’s an impressive mashup of religious content. The reviewers from Publishers Weekly called it “a dizzyingly imaginative romp” that combined equal parts Doctor Who and Lovecraft. I couldn’t agree more. It is medical horror done with enough wit and cheek to keep the horror from becoming overwhelming. And Morrow certainly seems like a madman with a box that’s bigger on the inside, only in this instance it is a medical briefcase where he keeps Excalibur. (No, I’m not kidding. In another moment, Morrow casually says he has the Holy Grail in his possession. I’m looking forward to that reveal in future issues.)

In conjunction with Hellboy, which I have written about it before, I think we see an important thematic approach to the supernatural: It is not lightly discarded or freely ridiculed; it is accepted. That embrace can appear gnostic–as in Hellboy, which begins with a secret paranormal ritual on the crumbling ruins of a Christian abbey–but the trend is to present the supernatural as normative. After all, Hellboy’s personal journey is one of his desire to be normal. Witch Doctor does this as a medical horror story, but it is the medical and not the horror that makes the supernatural normative. In Hellboy, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense proclaims its members as those who “bump back” against things that go bump in the night. There the horror must be accepted first. The premise is that all of our secret fears are true. In Witch Doctor, our fears are presented as scientific fact.

Overall, I think I’m quite fortunate to be working at a time when the scholarly community is coming to recognize the true vitality of religion in popular culture. I think we’re still in for a rocky road as we continue to battle over what constitute “popular.” At least this means it really is not a battle for legitimacy any longer. It is a battle for effectiveness and representativeness. That’s a turf war, not a rejection of the merits of method or content.

Witch Doctor probably doesn’t make the category of what’s popular in a meaningful way. (Perhaps because it is only two years old and printed by an independent comic publisher and not DC or Marvel.) Nevertheless, I offer it as an excellent instance of fictional supernaturalism. Its direct evocation of biology only adds to its intelligent manipulation of religious material(ism). Its playfulness is its strongest feature and very suggestive of the broader range of supernatural elements in comics. When we find that Doctor here means something more like mad scientist and witch means cunning folk, I think we get material that lays right at the heart of the American experience.

Inverting these elements–and those of science and the supernatural–is intensely rewarding. It imagines a world that is not divided so arbitrarily as ours has been. (It’s also evidence of the growing rejection of the secularization models that fostered that division, which isn’t to say that the secular world is any more ready to accept the supernatural as fact. It is, however, ready to discuss the ways in which religion continues to permeate the secular world and its cultural products.) Morrow’s world appears to have never had a culture war, never truly separated science and the supernatural. That alone is a premise worth exploring.

If you’ve got the time and $10.35, consider giving it a shot. Here’s a juicy cover image to entice you.

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice, Issue #1

Witch Doctor: Mal Practice, Issue #1

Ghosts & American Religion

16 Oct

This post continues yesterday’s thematic concern for a course proposal on the supernatural. Unlike mystical pregnancies, ghosts have a less discrete origin in religious materials. Whether you call them phantoms, spooks, hauntings, or specters, this genre of apparitions are the spirits of the dead. Let’s take a look at where we could start:

Deuteronomy 18:9-12’s prohibition on spiritism and sorcery:

(9) When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (10) There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (11) or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, (12) for whoever does these things is an abomination to the LORD.

English: Henry Fuseli - Hamlet and his father'...

English: Henry Fuseli – Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (1780-1785, ink and pencil on cardboard, 38 × 49,5 cm) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It stands to reason that Spirits should have been taboo in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And yet by the Renaissance, the infusion of hermetic and other metaphysical practices revived the interest in necromancy and spiritism. Sure, I’m skipping a vast swathe of history here, but I’m not a medievalist and this course is designed to highlight contemporary American popular cultural expressions of the supernatural. Anyway, after the Renaissance, the willingness to re-consider spirits may have indirectly helped produce what is perhaps the most famous ghost in all of fiction: Hamlet’s Father.

Here’s what Hamlet says when he encounters the Ghost in Act 1, Scene 4:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee “Hamlet,”
“King,” “Father,” “royal Dane.” O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulcher,
Wherein we saw thee quietly interred,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous and we fools of nature,
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

It’s great stuff. Hamlet’s speech raises more than a few issues, too. Are apparitions from heaven or hell? How do ghosts circumvent death? Are all things that run contrary to nature hideous? Is our unfinished business in life our duty to resolve in death? [Ghost (1990) famously takes this final question as its raison d’être.] Of course, Hamlet is not centrally about the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It does create an interesting trope–the living as surrogates for the dead. This trope is replayed almost yearly through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Why does Marley’s ghost haunt Scrooge? Because Scrooge can avoid the regrets Marley’s miserliness created. Scrooge is both literally and figuratively haunted by Marley’s Ghost.

A Christmas Carol remains a profoundly British work, even if contemporary re-tellings like A Christmas Carol (2009) starring Jim Carrey were produced for American audiences. Dickens’ original 1843 capitalized on the growing interest in Spiritualism before the famous Fox sisters appeared in 1848. Before that moment, mesmerism was the rage. This is the era not only of Joseph Smith and the birth of Mormonism, but also Andrew Jackson Davis who relied on the work of Anton Mesmer and Emmanuel Swedenborg to popularize his ideas on animal magnetism and a host of other metaphysical principles. [Catherine Albanese is currently working on editing AJD’s journals–get excited!]

So here’s the rub. If I’ve got a course on supernatural themes in modern America, so far I’ve got an ancient Jewish prohibition on spiritism and two very famous English fictional ghost stories. I haven’t even mentioned high literature’s favorite ghost story, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw! It’s not even clear James gets to count as American since he spent over half his life in England and became a British subject shortly before his death in 1915. Better choices? Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe’s The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar puts his finger right on the button of the perceived dangers of spiritism and mesmerism (possession). Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of best known American supernatural fictions. (And the current remake on FOX isn’t awful). Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables was inspired and infused with the literal ghosts of the Salem Witchcraft trials.

So these are the type of primary source materials we can begin with. They are fiction, sure, but they are also projections of American attitudes about Ghosts in the 19th century. That all of these authors worked during the rise of Spiritualism is no coincidence.

The real question, the one I’d hope to get students to explore in this course unit, is what is the context for contemporary ghost stories? Think of it like this: Poe wouldn’t have written about mesmerism if it hadn’t been consuming American culture in the 1840s. If we pick a selection of modern ghost films, say Poltergeist (1982), Ghostbusters (1984), Ghost (1990), and The Sixth Sense (1999), what do they say about America today? Do we think of ghosts in the same way? Why not? How do we explain the difference? [With a slightly different selection of films it would be easy to go the “ghost in the machine” route to ask how technology has become a conduit for supernatural entities.]

One thing I want to solve is the problem letting the genre of demonic spirits spill over too much into the discussion of ghosts. The Exorcist, The Conjuring, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose also deal with spirits. Yet these films rely on expressly Christian theological frameworks to explain the operation of demonic spirits. It is the lack of clear religious boundaries that makes so many Ghost films feel simultaneously spiritual but not religious. Ghosts operating independently appear culturally and religiously diffuse. They are empty signifiers waiting for interpretation. This is a clue on the context for many modern Ghost stories–the broad influence of New Age and Metaphysical beliefs–but it also suggests something about Ghosts as a trope. They function as lenses for particular kinds of questions about the relationship between life and death. This is not the same as the struggle between God and Satan (in which demons are employed to show the fragility and power of humanity). It’s a fine line, but one that I hope to find better ways to articulate in the future.

Come back soon for more thematic elements. Angels and Demons should be next!

Mystical Pregnancies

15 Oct

Io9 strikes again with Katharine Trendacosta’s list of “The Most Ridiculous Mystical Pregnancies in Fiction.” It’s a solid compilation that ranges from Twilight to Xena: Warrior Princess and Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the end of the post, Trendacosta directs readers to Anita Sarkeesian’s take on Tropes Vs. Women.  It’s definitely worth 7 minutes of your time:

As Sarkeesian explains, pregnancy in speculative fiction is commonly a vehicle for reducing women from vibrant characters to incubators. Moreover, pregnancy is frequently made into a traumatic, monstrous experience. Just remember Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn, which featured the fetal vampire’s attempt to kill her human mother. Critics emerged en masse to complain not just about the representation of the female body during pregnancy, but also its deceitful portrait of the emotional lives of mothers. (See Think Progress, Adios Barbie, or Io9).

As I develop a course on the supernatural to add to my teaching portfolio, I’m on the lookout for thematic content that highlights a broad range of religious issues. Mystical pregnancies is excellent in this respect.

    1. There are  so many clear examples of mystical pregnancies in film that every student is likely to be familiar with at least one or two fictional examples. The abundance of examples also means that every student could research their own example. This fosters a climate of comparison that will help focus attention on the common dimensions of the trope.
    2. It focuses on issues of gender in a different way than horror’s more general application of the trope of the virgin. This is a chance to explore motherhood as a juxtaposition to sexual purity.
    3. This opens avenues to discuss Mariology–the prototypical mystical birth that I would expect all my students to become experts on.  What does it mean to be both immaculate and the mother of God? What do women think about Mary as a religious ideal? How do they reconcile Mary’s life with their own experiences with motherhood?
    4. Supernatural fiction is a vehicle for the discussion of reproductive and sexual rights. All too often demonic possession is an opportunity to highlight the boundaries of sexual norms. The Exorcist, for instance, sexualizes a young possessed girl through her intense, vulgar language. When monstrous pregnancies introduce demonic fetuses, is this a punishment for sexual acts? A test of faith or obedience? Under what circumstances does pregnancy become evil? How are infants imagined as violations of nature? (As when Bella’s child grows at an accelerated rate.) [Depending on time, this may also be a time to introduce the history of the culture wars that is the broader historical context for so many of these fictional works.]
    5. Supernatural fiction often demonstrates basic biological and human imperatives through inversion. Why is The Omen so shocking? It tells the story of parents who ultimately conclude they must sacrifice their demonic offspring. It’s a perverse adaptation of the story of Abraham and Isaac–only in this case Abraham tries to go through with the sacrifice and is narrowly stopped by the police. What are we to make of the triumph of evil here? Is obedience to the law a sufficient replacement for obedience to God? What are the limits of our parental instincts? Is infanticide ever natural?
    6. Finally, it discretely thematizes the vast supernatural canon. We can effectively group content with pregnancies or pseudo-pregnancies without worrying about the many other issues they raise. This frees me to deal effectively with movies that run a broad supernatural gauntlet (like The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby). I can easily find another movie to deal with prophecy, the anti-Christ, demonic possession, etc.

Feel free to suggest more issues that you would raise! I’m also on the lookout for excellent secondary sources if you know of any! (I have this fascinating thesis by Natasha Lopusina with its many excellent sources. Thank goodness for the digital age!)

Why Hellboy (2004)?

23 Aug

I’ve been writing quite a bit about religion and film this summer, but I think it is time for a practical post. As folks begin teaching their fall courses with media items, the inevitable challenge is turning the viewing experience into a powerful learning moment. What are the tools necessary for that when we’re dealing with media?

We’d all like to assume that students are gifted consumers capable of dissecting and deconstructing critical scenes we examine with them. This is a dangerous assumption because it too easily lulls everyone into avoiding the detail-oriented work of scene analysis. It can be a slog to go through the many elements of a scene. Lighting, camera perspectives, color palette, dialogue, and a half-dozen other cinematic items are all fair game.

Cover by Mignola

Cover by Mignola (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a basic walkthrough, you might look at the e-how wiki, which is surprisingly helpful as a starting point. Before you begin, there are a few pedagogical concerns.

  1. Where does this film fit into your course’s learning goals?
  2. Where does this scene fit into your lesson’s learning goals?
  3. How experienced are your students with scene analysis?

Early in the term you may spend an entire class discussing a single scene point by point. Later on, however, you could have small-groups each searching the scene for a different element. If the learning goal is learning scene analysis, then it may be helpful to pick a scene entirely removed from the course material. Careful scene selection will not only speed up discussion of key themes, but it will also give unprepared students a chance to participate. (I know from experience that this can be a real problem in courses when media items are required viewing outside of class.)

I’m outlining a religion and film course on the Supernatural, and I’m looking for ways to use the opening scene of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004). I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t show the whole film to a class. I worry that there’s too much action and too little explanation of the supernatural elements of the plot to foster significant discussion. This is a common problem in supernatural action films (even in the cinema classic Raiders of the Lost Ark). By treating the opening sequence as an opportunity to lay significant themes on the table, we can see that Hellboy still has a lot to offer.

Des Vermis Mysteriis

  • Terminology Explosion
    • One of the most significant issues when dealing with the supernatural is the abundance of terms that have competing, overlapping, and contradictory definitions. Des Vermis Mysteriis is a fictional grimorie or spellbook. Invented by Robert Bloch and popularized by H.P. Lovecraft, Des Vermis Mysteriis contains spells that summon horrific, ancient gods from other dimensions. This text, and others like it such as the Necronomicon, are fictional devices designed to give authority to esoteric or occult beliefs.
    • Discuss with students the gradations and differences among occult, esoteric, supernatural, paranormal, and arcane. Brainstorm phenomena and then attempt to categorize and place these items taxonomically. Are ghosts both supernatural and paranormal? Was the ritual that summoned Hellboy paranormal? Occult? Esoteric? Arcane? All of the above?
    • To what are these terms contrasted? What are their antonyms? What does this say about the way we construct natural or human? Why are we debating about these definitions? What about perception, experience, and the consequence of belief?
    • Additional reading:
      • Paul Stoller, “Rationality” in Mark C. Taylor, ed., Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 239-255.
Hellboy (2004)

Hellboy (2004)

  • Hellboy is chocked full of interesting items for discussion. A scene analysis could go on a long while, so I recommend reserving quite a bit of time for this.
    • Go through the Shots on your own ahead of time. What is shown in each successive moment in this scene? 1) Quotation of Der Vermis Mysteriis; 2) Voice-over while flying through storm clouds to zoom on island; 3) American soldiers getting onto island; 3) “Are you a Catholic? Yes. Among other things.” at foot of Crucifix; 4) Nazis here for the sheep?; 5) “I grant you immortality”; 6)”What I do here tonight can never be undone.” 7) What’s on the other side of the portal? 8) Americans blow things up; 9) The discovery of Hellboy. How do we know when one scene ends and the next begins? Are there clues for continuity?
    • At 13 minutes or so, I’d be the first to admit this is really several consecutive scenes. There’s a consistency, however, to these pre-credit moments. The color palette–cold blues and muted greens–lies in definite contrast to the post-credit colors. The preferred camera shot for major characters is fairly close-up, giving a persistent sense of intimacy for spoken dialogue. Material religion is rampant with crucifixes, rosaries, hellish bas-relief, sacred tomes, and so on. If you want a full list to work through, I recommend this one.
    • Rather than spend significant time plotting the shots, I’d prepare a detailed list ahead of time. I’d stop after each one to allow students to write down their thoughts. Use the list of scene elements to begin picking apart the scenes. Which characters are being developed? What plot is being advanced? How is the mise-en-scene setting the tone and mood for the action? What is the audience expected to know by the end of this sequence? The key question is always two-fold: what do we know and how do we know it.

There are plenty of reasons I think Hellboy works as a starting point for this kind of analysis. It’s long enough to be substantive but short enough to be shown in class. It mixes conventional religious ideas and objects with unconventional fantastical items (rosaries and steampunk gauntlets that open portals to other works). It blends real esoteric religious knowledge (ley lines) with fictional concepts (Des Vermis Mysterii). It acknowledges history (there was Nazi interest in the occult) but mythologizes that history (it was working but the Americans stopped them)!

Above all, this is a strong cinematic opening. It requires no pre-knowledge or preparation. Most of the audience wouldn’t know the first thing about the Cthulhu mythos. Nor would they have read Mike Mignola‘s excellent comic series (upon which the film was based). While they may have heard of Nazi occultism, Rasputin, the paranormal, demons, ley lines, and hell, each of these concepts is framed internally to the sequences here. Part of getting comfortable talking about the supernatural is finding where the seams of knowledge are most frayed.

Look here in the future for more items as I continue to sketch the components of this course. I expect that Constantine (2005), Cabin in the Woods (2012), Drag Me to Hell (2009), and The Exorcist (1973) are all excellent candidates for inclusion. I’ll eventually turn to the softer side of things, too. That may be the moment to include Ghost (1990) or Spirited Away (2001). If you’ve got suggestions, I’m all ears.

The Conjuring — Lessons in Magical Memories

19 Aug

–If you care about SPOILERS for The Conjuring (2013), don’t read this post–

It’s probably overdue for me to say a bit about this summer’s supernatural smash The Conjuring. After all, the film’s central characters are Ed and Lorraine Warrren, real-life demonologists. If you’ve seen the film already and want to learn more about them, there are a few web resources spawned from the film’s success. (Like this article at the Daily Beast or this “fact-checking” blog post at History vs. Hollywood.) If you’re really keen, you can even go ahead and get House of Darkness House of Light, which is a first-person account of the events of the film.

Film poster for The Exorcist - Copyright 1973,...

My hesitation to write about the film was simple–I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was a helpful movie to introduce audience to spiritual warfare or demonologists like the Warrens. If anything I believed the movie was a shallow reflection of the rather serious consideration of evil spirits by actual exorcists. Most viewers would be better off seeing The Exorcist or, and I can’t believe I’m even writing this, the gory A Haunting in Connecticut.

Here’s a quick summary of the film: The Perron family moves into their new house in rural Rhode Island in 1970 only to discover that a malevolent spirit of a murdered 19th century witch posses mothers and makes them kill their children. With the help of supernatural specialists Ed and Lorrain Warren, the family is able to exorcise the demon and survive to tell the tale.

Done. That’s the whole film. Plot-wise, you can see, it’s pretty thin. There’s lots of creepy slow-pans over ominous shadows and objects that have spooky relevance to the story, but in a nut-shell it’s a haunted house story with a happy ending.

One of the many challenges of telling such a story in today’s spiritual/religious world is the complexity of beliefs surrounding the supernatural. Is a spirit the same as a ghost? Are demons fallen angels controlled by Satan? Are they exclusive to Christianity or are evil spirits independent of religious hierarchies.

The Conjuring deals with some of these issues immediately and directly. There are no ghosts, and all spirits in the film will be presented as variations within the range of Christianity’s demonology. The murdered witch, moments before she commits suicide, declared her loyalty to Satan, which explains her continued haunting of the home. She isn’t an apparition trapped in limbo or some kind of spirit that emerged beyond humanity or the range of spiritual beings described in the Bible. She’s Satan’s minion, doing his work because she has fallen so far from grace in her embrace of all things evil.

The Conjuring

You can see how flimsy things get when one travels down these roads. It is pretty difficult when the filmmakers try to establish a hard line–there are no ghosts–and then proceed on *multiple* occasions to violate that very premise by giving characters flashbacks of murdered characters that appear entirely ghost-like.

The production studio and money behind the film appears to have been motivated rather directly by spiritual warfare in a contemporary Christian sense. Daniel Silliman has a great post about that on his blog. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll have a bit of deja vu when I quote from a manual about cleansing one’s home from spiritual darkness:

Today, I firmly believe in haunted houses; not only that, but haunted church buildings. I don’t mean ghosts, in the sense of spirits of the departed, I mean demonic spirits. Some spirits aimlessly wander through buildings; others are specifically assigned to them. Some portray themselves as ghosts or spirits of the dead. Why do they do this? Because the enemy desperately seeks to interact with humanity. Satan is still “seeking whom he may devour.” Demonic spirits crave a material presence. Therefore, they continually search for a physical object, be it a human body, or an object made of wood or stone, to manipulate for their purposes.

–Eddie Smith, Spiritual House Cleaning (Houston, TX: SpiriTruth, 1997), 3.)

In one sense, this is letter-perfect for the events in The Conjuring. The Warrens explain as much to their clients in the opening scene of the film. And yet when the film comes to its climax, this premise is thrown out the window. Mother Perron is possessed by the murderous witch and pursuing her own child through the crawlspaces of the house. Seconds away from killing her daughter, the mother is grabbed by her husband as Lorraine Warren pleads with her to remember a perfect day the Perron family spent at the beach. This memory restores the mother to semi-sanity, giving her something to resist her possession. The memory is so powerful it defeats the demon and the family is safe.

On Twitter I called this moment, “Happy beach memories magically exorcise demons.” For me everything up to this climax might have been part of a significant religious triumph. The “power of Christ compels you” and all that. But no. Instead, Jesus and the holy spirit–the centerpieces of spiritual warfare success–are omitted. Crucifixes, which featured prominently in the documentation/proof stage of the exorcism, were reduced to dowsing rods. They were only provocative, not salvific. What saved the family? Happy heathen beach parties. 

When the film concludes, the audience is told “The fairy tale is true. Evil exists. God exists.” Of course, God seemed to play an exceedingly small role in evil’s defeat. The Warrens insist in the film that they are together because it is “God’s will” and it is natural to assume that because their presence was destined, the outcome was to be expected. Yet there is something profoundly selfish about the mother’s reliance on a family memory to overcome her possession. Where is the humility in the face of the reality of evil? Where is the pleading for intercession? Where is the power of God in smiting the devil?

One of the central features of older exorcism films is the utter reliance of possessed person on the spiritual authority and power of the exorcists. It is a test of wills, a battle between the agents of God and the minions of Satan. The host for Satan’s minion is the ground where this battle is waged. Re-personalizing the possessed person with significant agency suggests not only that the exorcists are secondary, but that it is somehow not the religious weakness of the host that has permitted their oppression. In the spiritual warfare literature, possession is inevitably linked to a spiritual defect. While the Perron family says they are not baptized nor religious, any pretense for a religious remedy is abandoned. The spiritual defects of the family turn out to be far less essential than the “reality” of evil. They were saved without needing to come to Jesus or even an affirmation of belief.

This is obviously part of the message, right? It doesn’t matter if you believe. Evil is real. Frustratingly, this seems to be an abandonment of the narrative of the spiritual warfare movement. They have consistently argued, as I suggested recently, that all problems are spiritually rooted and this is why they call for spiritual solutions. For the film to lose sight of this logic in its defeat of the murderous demon spirit suggests it doesn’t quite buy into its own logic. Perhaps Insidious 2, which comes out in a few weeks, will better live up to my high spiritual warfare standards.

Insidious (film)

Insidious (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)