R. Andrew Chesnut is Professor of Religious Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2012), the first academic study of this topic in in English. He is currently working on the sequel. Chesnut discusses Santa Muerte in the interview below.
TheoFantastique: Thank you for coming here to discuss your research in this interesting topic. How did you come to develop a research interest in Santa Muerte?
Andrew Chesnut: I’m a specialist in the religions of Latin America and was working on my third book project, a study of the Virgin of Guadalupe, when in March, 2009 I saw that Mexican president Felipe Calderon sent the the army to demolish some forty Santa Muerte shrines on the border with Texas and California. I already knew of the Bony Lady from previous research and thirty years of living and traveling in Mexico but was intrigued that she had become spiritual enemy number one in the Mexican government’s war against the drug cartels.
TheoFantastique: What are the cultural and religious origins and influences in Santa Muerte?
Andrew Chesnut: She is a syncretic Mexican folk saint who integrates both Spanish Catholic and PreColumbian religious influences. The Spanish Church brought the figure of the Grim Reapress (la Parca) here to the Americas as a representation of death in their evangelzation efforts among the Indigenous. Many of the Indigenous religions had deities of death as part of their pantheon of gods. Thus it’s most likely the case that when Indigenous groups in Mexico, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Argentina were presented with the figure of the Grim Reapress they associated her with their own deities of death, such as the Aztec goddess of the Underworld, Mictecacihuatl. Santa Muerte is first mentioned in Mexico in the 1790s, in the annals of the Spanish Inquisition, when Inquisitors are sent out to investigate reports of “Indian idolatry” and discover different groups venerating a skeletal icon they called Santa Muerte. The Inquisitors, of course, destroyed the “heretical” image and shrine. Since Mexican nationalism exalts the Indigenous past and tends to denigrate Spanish heritage, many Mexican devotees who have reflected on her identity choose to view Saint Death as totally Indigenous, mostly Aztec and Mayan. During the past two years I’ve been seeing more representations of the White Girl (another popular nickname) in Aztec form, though she often looks more like an Apache from a Hollywood Western.
TheoFantastique: Santa Muerte has many different types of devoted followers and is perhaps best known for a connection to drug cartels and violence in Mexico. But she is not limited to this even though this has become something of a stereotypical association perhaps. What types of differing associations and devotees are connected to Santa Muerte?
Andrew Chesnut: She has followers from across the social stratum in both Mexico and the US, but has a special appeal to those who feel death might be imminent, such as narcos, sex workers, and others who work in the streets. Paradoxically, these devotee ask the Bony Lady for a few more grains of sand in her hourglass of life. In addition, she has a strong following of LGBT devotees on both sides of the border. The devotional pioneer in New York City, Arely Vazquez, is a Mexican transgender while Steven Bragg, founder of the first shrine in New Orleans is gay. Saint Death has a reputation for being non-judgmental, so many folks who felt discriminated against or uncomfortable in Christian churches feel the embrace of a motherly-figure who loves you know matter who you are or what you’ve done. But her appeal is far wider than these two groups due to her reputation as a multitasking miracle-worker.
TheoFantastique: What are your thoughts on why Santa Muerte has such wide and increasing appeal?
Andrew Chesnut: Most importantly she has developed a reputation as the fastest and most efficacious miracle-worker on the Mexican religious landscape. I don’t know how many stories I’ve heard about how devotees has been praying to another saint, such as St. Jude, for months with no results, and then a friend recommended they petition the White Girl and within days they received what they asked for, such as a job, removal of a rival from their path or healing of an illness. Moreover, her role of supernatural proctectress is of paramount importance in a Mexico plagued by hyper narco-violence in which at least 80,000 have died since 2006.
TheoFantastique: You have referred to the cult of Santa Muerte as the fastest growing new religious movement in the Americas. How did you come to this conclusion, and how might it compare to other new religions?
Andrew Chesnut: Through surveys of shops that sell religious article and interview with leaders. However, the figure of 10-12 million devotees in Mexico, the U.S., and Central America is a guesstimate in lieu of any hard figures based systematic surveys.
TheoFantastique: You recently attended an international conference of scholars in the Netherlands that brought together diverse perspectives on Santa Muerte. You have shared some of your thoughts on this on your blog, but can you mention a few summary observations?
Andrew Chesnut: Many of my colleagues at the Dutch conference haven’t conducted field research, and in lieu of that attempted to link the proliferation of devotion to St. Death to larger macro forces, such as the drug war and failing Mexican state. I object to such analyses because they divorce the skeleton saint from her religious context and present her as mere epiphenomenon of political and economic forces. No doubt that the insecurity prevailing in Mexico provides fertile ground for her devotion to flourish, but by no means is it the cause of her growth. In both my book, Devoted to Death, and ongoing research I have attempted to demonstrate the multifaceted identity of this Mexican folk saint. Yes, one of her roles is that of narco-saint, but she’s also a powerful love sorceress and curandera (healer) among other things.
TheoFantastique: Dr. Chesnut, thank you for your time and thoughts on this interesting phenomenon.
Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death, and the international following she has is an area of interest here at TheoFantastique. R. Andrew Chesnut, author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint (Oxford University Press, 2012), recently posted on his blog regarding his thoughts on an international conference in the Netherlands that brought scholars together to discuss differing perspectives on this phenomenon. Here’s an excerpt:
Despite the fact that over 90% of Santa Muerte devotees live in Mexico and the U.S., the first ever academic conference dedicated exclusively to the skeleton saint was held in Europe, at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, on 11/21/14. Europeans have taken a particular interest in the growth of devotion to Saint Death partly because of the historical link to their own Grim Reaper or Reapress (la Parca) in the case of Spain. Reflecting the increasing globalization of the Americas’ fastest growing new religious movement, the scholars presenting on Santa Muerte hailed from many different countries, including Mexico, the U.S., Germany, Denmark, Spain and the UK.
To read more about the conference and Chesnut’s observations click here. Chesnut will be interviewed here about Santa Muerte in the near future.
Doug Jones is interviewed by John Morehead of TheoFantastique.com. Doug discusses David Lee Fisher’s Nosferatu remix of the classic silent horror film and his long interest in playing Count Orlok. Through the interview you will get a sense of Doug’s passion, and learn how you can get involved in the crowd funding project to help make this film a reality.
Learn more at the Kickstarter campaign page for “Nosferatu” at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/82215933/nosferatu-the-feature-film-remix.
Religion in Science Fiction: The Evolution of an Idea and the Extinction of a Genre by Steven Hrotic (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)
Religion in Science Fiction investigates the history of the representations of religion in science fiction literature. Space travel, futuristic societies, and non-human cultures are traditional themes in science fiction. Speculating on the societal impacts of as-yet-undiscovered technologies is, after all, one of the distinguishing characteristics of science fiction literature. A more surprising theme may be a parallel exploration of religion: its institutional nature, social functions, and the tensions between religious and scientific worldviews.
Steven Hrotic investigates the representations of religion in 19th century proto-science fiction, and genre science fiction from the 1920s through the end of the century. Taken together, he argues that these stories tell an overarching story-a ‘metanarrative’-of an evolving respect for religion, paralleling a decline in the belief that science will lead us to an ideal (and religion-free) future.
Science fiction’s metanarrative represents more than simply a shift in popular perceptions of religion: it also serves as a model for cognitive anthropology, providing new insights into how groups and identities form in a globalized world, and into how crucial a role narratives may play. Ironically, this same perspective suggests that science fiction, as it was in the 20th century, may no longer exist.
Holy Sci-Fi! Where Science Fiction and Religion Intersect by Paul J. Nahin (Springer, 2014)
Can a computer have a soul? Are religion and science mutually exclusive? Is there really such a thing as free will? If you could time travel to visit Jesus, would you (and should you)? For hundreds of years, philosophers, scientists, and science fiction writers have pondered these questions and many more.
In Holy Sci-Fi!, popular writer Paul Nahin explores the fertile and sometimes uneasy relationship between science fiction and religion. With a scope spanning the history of religion, philosophy, and literature, Nahin follows religious themes in science fiction from Feynman to Foucault, and from Asimov to Aristotle.
An intriguing journey through popular and well-loved books and stories, Holy Sci-Fi! shows how sci-fi has informed humanity’s attitudes towards our faiths, our future, and ourselves.
By the author of the popular books “Time Machines” and “The Science of Radio”
Discusses the opinions and writings of philosophers and scientists (Pascal, Hume, Nietzsche) and science fiction authors (Arthur C. Clark, C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov)
Draws connections between science fact, science fiction, philosophy, and theological debate over the past five centuries
‘The Company of Wolves’: Sociality, Animality, and Subjectivity in Literary and Cultural Narratives — Werewolves, Shapeshifters, and Feral Humans
Conference, University of Hertfordshire, Sept 3rd-5th 2015: Call for Papers and Panels
Wolves have long been the archetypal enemy of human company, preying on the unguarded boundaries of civilisation, threatening the pastoral of ideal sociality and figuring as sexual predators. Yet, in their way, with their complex pack interactions, they have served as a model for society. Lately, this ancient enemy has been rehabilitated and reappraised, and rewilding projects have attempted to admit them more closely into our lives. Our company with wolves has inspired fiction from Ovid, through Perrault and the Grimms’ narrators, to Bram Stoker and Kipling; and, more recently, to Angela Carter, Neil Jordan, Anne Rice, Marcus Sedgwick and Glen Duncan.
The Open Graves, Open Minds Project was initiated in 2010 with the Vampires and the Undead in Modern Culture conference and reconvened for the Bram Stoker Centenary Symposium in 2012. We turn our attention now to creatures not strictly undead but which haunt the peripheries of the vampire— werewolves and shapeshifters. Such beings have served in narrative fiction to question what humanity is; weres tend to reveal the complex affinities and differences between our existence as linguistic, social subjects and our physiological continuity with other animals. They also draw our attention to questions of hierarchy and sexuality, to the instinctive, and to what extent our conceptions of these are ideological.
Werewolves, along with vampires, have recently become humanised, even romanticised, as identity politics became mainstream and the Other assimilated. The ancient paradigm of Beauty and the Beast lives on in paranormal romance. And just as the vampire figure both conditions the shape of the subgenres it dwells in and draws other genres into its sphere, so fictions about werewolves, wild humans, and human-animal relationships also invoke questions of genre and intertextuality. Thus, we are also interested in other narratives and discourses such as beast fables, taxonomies, human metamorphoses, and stories of feral children and those raised by animals which question the boundaries between animal and human.
Amidst concerns about our relationship with nature, in a culture informed by Romanticism and a post-Enlightenment doubt about the centrality of humanity, contemporary fictions often turn to the animal, and to transitions between animal and human (particularly the werewolf and kindred figures) to interrogate what is special about our species. In her werewolf paranormal romance, Shiver, the YA author Maggie Stiefvater quotes Rilke: ‘even the most clever of animals see that we are not surely at home in our interpreted world’. This perhaps captures our amphibious nature and raises the kind of questions we are interested in.
The conference will explore human social existence and its animal substrate, and the intersection between the human and the wolfishly bestial as expressed in narrative media from a variety of epochs and cultures. It will provide an interdisciplinary forum for the development of innovative and creative research and examine the cultural significance of these themes in all their various manifestations. As with the initial OGOM conference, from which emerged a book and a special issue journal, there will be the opportunity for delegates’ presentations to be published.
The conference organising committee invites proposals for panels and individual papers. Possible topics and approaches may include (but are not limited to) the following:
* Werewolves, lycanthropy, and shapeshifters
* Feral and wild children
* Language, culture, and nature
* Instinct and agency
* Animal studies and humanist perspectives
* Phenomenology and the philosophy of language, mind, and body
* Animality and sociality from Hobbes through Rousseau to Darwin
* Narratives of the Grimms, Perrault, Kipling, Angela Carter, Neil Jordan, Anne Rice, Maggie Stiefvater, Glen Duncan, Marcus Sedgwick
* Genre, intertextuality, and narratology
* Young Adult and children’s fiction
* Urban fantasy and paranormal romance
* TV, film, and other media
* Folklore and anthropology
* Fables, fabliaux, and fantasy
* The Gothic, fairy tale, and myth
* Sexuality and romance
* Species, ‘race’, identity, and taxonomy
Abstracts (200-300 words) for twenty-minute papers or proposals for two-hour panels should be submitted by 31st March 2015 as an email attachment in MS Word document format to all of the following: Dr Sam George, email@example.com; Dr Bill Hughes, firstname.lastname@example.org; Kaja Franck, email@example.com
Please use your surname as the document title. The abstract should be sent in the fol-lowing format: (1) Title (2) Presenter(s) (3) Institutional affiliation (4) Email (5) Abstract. Panel proposals should include (1) Title of the panel (2) Name and contact information of the chair (3) Abstracts of the presenters. Presenters will be notified of acceptance by April 2015
The programme features Neil Jordan and plenary talks from Sir Christopher Frayling on ‘Angela Carter’, Dr Catherine Spooner on ‘Wearing the Wolf’, Dr Stacey Abbott on ‘The Sound of the Cinematic Werewolf’, Dr Sam George on ‘Wolf Children’ and Dr Bill Hughes on ‘Werewolves and Paranormal Romance’. There will be contributions from novelists Marcus Sedgwick and Glen Duncan (tbc) together with special guests. OGOM PhD students, Kaja Franck and Matt Beresford, will present papers on their current research involving werewolves. Delegates will have the opportunity to visit unique places associated with our theme, and to actually ‘walk with wolves’.
For more information, contact Dr Sam George at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The conference is organised by the University of Hertfordshire, UK http://www.herts.ac.uk.
Click here to see details of the Open Graves, Open Minds book
Our website is at: http://www.opengravesopenminds.com and our blog, with updates on the conference and project, is at:openmindsopengraves.wordpress.com
For more information, contact Dr Sam George at email@example.com.
The conference is organised by the University of Hertfordshire, UK http://www.herts.ac.uk.
Fear and Learning: Essays on the Pedagogy of Horror (McFarland, 2013), edited by Aalya Ahmad and Sean Moreland
This groundbreaking collection of new essays presents critical reflections on teaching horror film and fiction in many different ways and in a variety of academic settings–from cultural theory to film studies; from women’s and gender studies to postcolonialism; from critical thinking seminars on the paranormal to the timeless classics of English horror literature. Together, the essays show readers how the pedagogy of horror can galvanize, unsettle and transform classrooms, giving us powerful tools with which to consider interwoven issues of identity, culture, monstrosity, the relationship between the real and the fictional, normativity and adaptation. Includes a foreword by celebrated horror writer Glen Hirshberg.
It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon (McFarland, 2014), edited by Ben Bolling and Matthew J. Smith
This collection of 13 new essays employs ethnographic methods to investigate San Diego’s Comic-Con International, the largest annual celebration of the popular arts in North America. Working from a common grounding in fan studies, these individual explorations examine a range of cultural practices at an event drawing crowds of nearly 125,000 each summer.
Investigations range from the practices of fans costuming themselves to the talk of corporate marketers. The collection seeks to expand fan studies, exploring Comic-Con International more deeply than any publication before it.
Open until Tuesday, 20 Jan 2015
Two hundred rare objects trace 250 years of the Gothic tradition, exploring our enduring fascination with the mysterious, the terrifying and the macabre
From Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen, via posters, books, films – and even a vampire-slaying kit – experience the dark shadow the Gothic imagination has cast across film, art, music, fashion, architecture and our daily lives.
Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.
Iconic works, such as handwritten drafts of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the modern horrors of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and the popular Twilight series, highlight how contemporary fears have been addressed by generation after generation.
Terror and Wonder presents an intriguing glimpse of a fascinating and mysterious world. Experience 250 years of Gothic’s dark shadow.
See more here.
Have you heard about the forthcoming independent horror film Nosferatu that will star Doug Jones? TheoFantastique will be interviewing the director David Lee Fisher soon. Take a look at the trailer and consider getting involved in their Kickstarter campaign to finance this film.