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Dr. Strange, the esoteric, and the spiritual

doctor_strange_movie_poster_by_guhndoi-d9qu85hThe latest Marvel film, Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson, has generated some interesting discussion related to the spiritual aspects of the comic as original source material, and how this is portrayed in the film itself.

An essay in The Huffington Post discusses some interesting historical background information on the religious aspects of the comic in "A Brief History of Doctor Strange and His Relationship with Tibet, Occultism, and Buddhism."

While much of the reaction to the Doctor Strange film has been very positive, a few voices have been negative. Various sources have reported about a critical review of the film by a Christian commentator who ha warned that the film promotes "the occult" and the demonic. Conservative Christians have long feared the Western esoteric tradition as spiritually dangerous so this is no surprise. You can read Geek Tyrant for more on this approach to the film.

Finally, Scott Derrickson is giving interviews about the film as a part of his promotional efforts, and several have touched on his thoughts related to the religious or spiritual aspects. Here I recommend a piece in Den of Geek, and another in Relevant Magazine as two good examples. Derrickson's religious convictions (as well as his appreciation for science), and that he incorporates this into his work is well known. But a quote from Den of Geek illustrates that he is also working in postmodern fashion, challenging the humility of the metanarratives of both science and religion:

My understanding of religion and science is that they're both arrogant schools of thought, and whether they acknowledge it or not they continually broadcast the idea that they have the world figured out. And what they don't know they have a theory for which is probably correct. It feels like that shrinks the world, rather than expands it. And the thing that expands it is art. I experience the world that way.

I mean, there are exceptions - scientists who experience the world artfully, people of faith and religion who experience the world artfully - but I think that the mass of popular culture agrees with me. Most people feel the way I do, and share the beliefs in something spiritual and a confidence in science, but are tired of the narrowness of both and want stories that understand reality is a third thing far beyond those categories.

Doctor Strange will continue to inspire and provoke interesting questions at the intersection of religion and popular culture.

Related post:

"Interview with Scott Derrickson: The Day the Earth Stood Still"

James McGrath Interview on "Theology and Science Fiction"

img_0250-218x290James McGrath and I share common interests in theology, religion, and science fiction. When these things merge together it's even better. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, has a new book out, Theology and Science Fiction, and he shares his thoughts about this subject in the interview below.

TheoFantastique: James, thanks for carving out some time to discuss your book. I appreciated the approach. Let's unpack that a bit. As you note in the book, there tends to be certain approaches to the topic from either the religious believer looking for confirmation of their faith through the genre, or from more hard science fiction advocates who tend to use the genre as a way of dismissing religion and religious commitments. You are hoping that theology and science fiction will engage in mutual dialogue and reflection. How did you arrive at this perspective?

James McGrath: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this book, which has been a really exciting project for me. The view I adopt, which you mention, reflects, on the one hand, my experience that I learn a great deal from those who disagree with me and challenge my views and assumptions; but on the other hand, as I mention in the introduction to the book, it reflects my exploration of the different models for the relationship between theology/religion on the one hand, and science on the other. Ian Barbour discusses the options of conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. One can apply these, I think, to science fiction as well. One can fight, or agree to a truce that delineates a border. But just as many of us hope that people can get beyond fighting or awkward separation to conversation and eventually cooperation, it seems to me appropriate to hope that these two traditions might likewise be viewed not as enemies or as distinct others but as at least interesting conversation partners, and at best collaborators in the quest to explore and reflect on our place in the cosmos. For (as I hopefully argue persuasively in the book) they have more in common already than either might initially realize.

TheoFantastique: What would you say to the conservative religious believer scandalized by the prospect that theology can learn from science fiction?

James McGrath: I would be delighted if they are scandalized – being challenged, provoked, and stretched is – or at least, can be – a good thing! I think that conservative religious people who express antipathy towards science fiction need to ask whether they have not embraced it without even realizing it – just as some conservative Christians will use the rhetoric of rejection of contemporary values and norms, and yet not notice how much they in fact reflect the cultural values and assumptions of their country. When conservative Christians turn the Book of Revelation into a story about a global conspiracy involving a single world government, strange disappearances, and mysterious occurrences, they are borrowing more from the spirit of The X-Files than from ancient apocalyptic. And when conservative religious people claim that UFOs are demons, they are simply a mirror image of the “ancient aliens” perspective that says that ancient demons and gods were in fact alien visitors. And so I hope those coming from that perspective will be provoked and moved to reflect and wrestle with questions such as why, if sci-fi is not something that theology can learn from, they appear to have learned and borrowed so much from it.

TheoFantastique: What would you say to the secular science fiction advocate who wants to keep theology at arms length from science fiction?

James McGrath: I would point out how much theology is present even – perhaps especially – in secular science fiction. When Captain Kirk discusses the attributes a god ought to have in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” or says that “Apollo’s no god – but he may have been mistaken for one once” in “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and when Teal’c on Stargate rejects Apophis as a false god, these characters are not merely giving voice to a secular, anti-religious viewpoint. They are engaging in theology. One cannot hope to define what makes a being a “false god” or “no god” without theology, because the domain that explores such questions is theology. There is no avoiding it. While some would like to simply dismiss the entire enterprise, the only way forward is to engage in it, and to ask whether one can justify a theological stance that can embrace the existence of powerful beings from the skies and yet deny their divinity. But atheism and Christianity might agree too much on that point for the comfort of the modern adherents of either.

TheoFantastique: How has your own understanding and appreciation of theology and science fiction changed and been stretched perhaps by your studies?

James McGrath: I wrote the book because I already had appreciation for both. And so I really appreciate this question, because as you hint and are presumably already aware, even if one recognizes from the outset that a conversation is important and worthwhile, if one engages in it fully, one cannot fail to be changed and transformed in the process. One of the many ways that I was transformed, personally, by this project, was that I pursued getting some of my own short science fiction stories published, and wrote a new one that is included in this volume. Science fiction seems to me to not only be something that one might read in order to reflect – it can also be something that one can write in one’s effort to reflect, explore, and/or give expression to one’s own faith. As a Christian and sci-fi fan myself, exploring the intersection is not just an academic interest. It challenges me to fully engage my imagination, to embrace the power of narrative, and to ask hard questions not only about what we know and can hope to know as human beings, but what we dare to hope. Looking together to the future, the perspectives of theology and science fiction both have the potential to offer visions of faith – not predictions that reflect the problematic view that prophecy is about getting the details of the future right, but hopes for the future whose primary value is in the way that they can challenge us to live differently in the present in light of that vision of the future which, whether right or wrong in many of its details, calls to us to move boldly in its direction.

TheoFantastique: James, thanks again for the opportunity to read this book and reflect on this fascinating topic further.

Lucille Ignites a Firestorm of Controversy and Debate

the-walking-dead-finale-negan-lucilleThe season 7 premiere episode of The Walking Dead last week which saw the deaths of two main characters by bludgeoning with a baseball bat named Lucille at the hands of Negan has created a firestorm of controversy and discussion among fans and in other pop culture circles. With this post I'll summarize and respond to some of it.

The foundation for these reactions was disgust at the graphic violence in the deaths, and the loss of Glenn, a character who was beloved by fans and who had been on the show since the first season. It is natural for fans to mourn the loss of a character they have invested so much in emotionally, and it is also understandable that a depiction of a realistic murder by bludgeoning would be found distasteful. These items are not in question. However, what fans and pop culture commentators did as a result of this was somewhat surprising.

One response was for a number of fans to announce that they are now done with watching the show. An article in USA Today summarized this best with the title "Has 'The Walking Dead' finally gone too far for fans?" The concerns that have been expressed in various sources are that the graphic violence was too much, and that it was violence for violence's sake with no redeeming value to the storyline or culture.  Let's take the first of these concerns, that the violence went too far. Where is the line to be drawn on what is too much (Hershel's beheading is ok but not Glenn's head bashing)? Weren't viewers aware that the television series is based on the graphic novels, and that Negan's character was known for this kind of violence? Where was the surprise? And why the disconnect between fiction and real-world violence? Fictional violence, even as art, is not totally disconnected from the real-world, and it draws upon real-world violence in order to craft its fictional narrative. And yet many were publicly vocal about the season premier of The Walking Dead who likely haven't said a word about the carnage and near-genocide taking place in Syria. At the very least Americans have their priorities out of whack.

Let's address the question of whether The Walking Dead is now just engaging in violence for violence's sake and that it has no redeeming value. (This point when raised by Christians is of particular interest to me given the graphic violence inherent in the Bible's pages, not all of which appears redemptive in its immediate context.)  I have written several posts in the past that interacted with topics issues raised by the series, including suicide, confidence in humanity, religion, and other social and cultural issues. Some may counter by arguing that this is The Walking Dead of the past and now it's just all violence. But wait a minute. The second episode of Season 7 introduced King Ezekiel, and this character raises interesting questions about the social construction of reality and living subjectively with stories in the midst of a violent world. Surely this is yet another example of redeeming value that still surfaces in connection with a violent television program.

Then, finally, there's an interesting thought raised in a piece in Variety. It notes that The Walking Dead is not the only program graphically depicting head bashings, and that there are other programs which have done this too, so much so that Variety characterizes this as a trend. This particular concern is of interest given the broader cultural context in which it takes place. As I've stated on Facebook, "I wonder if some of the revulsion is connected to our broader cultural context of the ongoing 'War on Terror' anxiety, government sponsored torture, and general terrorist violence as well as beheadings. Art does imitate life, and we may find the reflection distasteful."

At the end of the day, The Walking Dead is entertainment, and viewers are free to tune in or stop viewing at their pleasure, and for whatever reasons. But I'd like to see them reflect a little more carefully on them.

VICE: Horror Films as Christian Propaganda?

MK1_5074.dngA few days ago an essay came across my daily Google news feed on horror that caught my attention. It was “Why Are So Many Horror Films Christian Propaganda?” by Josiah M. Hess at VICE. My initial reaction to the title was one of intrigue and thankfulness for the issue being raised, but this was accompanied by disagreement in that the idea of propaganda seemed a stretch. I posted a link to the piece in my TheoFantastique Facebook group and solicited thoughts from members there. But over the last few days I’ve had a chance to read and reflect on Hess’s essay, and as a result I felt I had some more extensive thoughts on his perspective that I wanted to share with readers.

Let me state at the beginning that Hess and I are coming at this topic from radically different vantage points in terms of our metaphysical commitments. Hess identifies himself as a former evangelical and now an atheist, and I approach the topic as someone with religious commitments, a moderate evangelical. These different vantage points don’t necessarily predetermine our perspectives on the topic so long as we try to account for our biases along the way. Of course, if we don't properly account for our biases they may indeed skew our understanding of the issues.

Starting with the title, Hess’s essay is far reaching in its claims. Horror films have a long history, and the title of his essay gives the impression that it is not just a particular time period or type of horror films that are allegedly examples of Christian propaganda, but instead horror films in general are problematic. To make sure the reader understands what he means by his title question, Hess defines it for us. After mentioning the blatant Christian evangelistic and apologetic films God’s Not Dead and Left Behind, Hess leaves no doubt in how he sees things.

But there’s another genre that seems to have the same proselytizing agenda that champions Christianity and demonizes all other faiths (including the faithless): horror movies.

Let’s be clear that we understand what Hess is arguing here. He is claiming that there are a large number of horror films that should be understood as Christian propaganda because they have a proselytizing agenda, they champion Christianity, and they denigrate other religions and irreligion. He is not merely claiming that there is a strong influence of Christianity in many horror films produced in the West because of the long history of Christianity as the dominant religion. He’s making an altogether different claim. But can he substantiate it? Are these films produced with the intent of being a form of propaganda, or do other explanations serve better to explain this phenomenon?

In the paragraphs that follow Hess develops his argument. He draws from a small pool of examples, the oldest going back only to the 1970s with The Exorcist. I understand the limitations on a writer in terms of the number of examples that can be cited, but the references he makes to argue his case provide another indication that Hess is overreaching in the title of his piece. He seems to be concerned about a smaller number of films, and have a more recent cinematic time frame in view.

Hess devotes a couple of paragraphs to the discussion of the basic formula for many horror films, particularly of late, that involve a Christian framework on spirituality and supernatural evil. Tales of demonic possession, use of “tools of Satan” such as Ouija boards, and exorcism, continue to be popular staples in American horror films. But does the inclusion of a Christian framework of supernaturalism and spiritual evil make a film Christian propaganda? I believe other considerations provide a better explanation.

I’ve been fascinated by the continued presence of Christian demonic and possession films and have wondered why they remain so popular, particularly in light of the decline in the credibility of Christianity as a metanarrative in the West in a post-Christendom culture, and the resulting demographic shifts that accompany this in terms of the loss of membership in American Christianity represented by groups like “The Nones.” I quoted Scott Poole in a past post, where he says that “the devil played a significant, and at moments determinative, role in the shaping of the American religious and popular imagination.” This is still going on. How then do we explain this? First, although Christianity is in decline in America, it has a long history here, and it has contributed significantly to the mythic reservoir of ideas. It is only natural then that filmmakers would tap into that as a way of finding narrative structures and specific ideas in order to tell horror stories that will resonate with audiences. To modify a popular phrase, “You can take the individual out of Christianity, but you can’t take the Christianity out of the individual.” Second, and related to the first idea, we have a continued psychological fascination with exorcism and demonic possession. I’ve discussed this in a previous post. The point to take away from this is that there are other good, and I think better, reasons why Christian supernatural evil continues to surface in contemporary horror films. We don’t have to posit propaganda to account for this.

As Hess continues, he recognizes that “not all horror films serve as mouthpieces for Christianity”, but he takes exception to those that “either condemn the faithless”, “frame non-Jesus religions as spooky”, or set forth biblical prophecy as fulfilled. He mentions The Conjuring, The Rite, The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, Sinister, Legion, and The Omen in connection with these concerns. Several thoughts by way of response came to mind as I read this paragraph by Hess. To begin with, I am sensitive to his concerns about the condemnation of other religions and irreligion, whether in horror or other public forums. As an atheist sharing his disagreements with what he sees as Christian horror, Hess is obviously not averse to taking exception to the perspectives of others in a public forum. I agree with him here, but this needs to be done with understand, respect, and fairness. We can and will disagree with each other over irreconcilable truth claims, but we must do so in ways that fairly represent the other, and with civility. I admit that American Christians, particularly evangelicals, have often framed those in other religions as literally demonic. And in surveys, Muslims and atheists have ranked at the bottom in how the public feels about them, so I am sympathetic to Hess’s concerns here.

However, the films Hess references in this section of his essay are a mixed bag. While some may draw upon a Christian supernatural framework and conception of spiritual evil, they do so in very different ways. In an essay for Cinefantastique Online I discussed “The Changing Face of Biblical Horror & Fantasy Films,” http://cinefantastiqueonline.com/2010/04/the-changing-face-of-biblical-horror-fantasy-films/ where a post-Christendom and postmodern framework is in view. In these contexts even though a Christian metanarrative is drawn upon, it often does so by way of critique and subversion of source material. It is not presenting Christianity as a positive force for propaganda. (The interested reader who wants to pursue my arguments on this in more depth can reference the article above, as well as my review of Legion.)

Hess goes on and says the he sees little difference “between the message I was taught by my church … and that of many scary movies.” But he goes further.

But the real question is: Are the producers of these films intentionally feeding us Christian propaganda (the way Communists in Hollywood were accused of poisoning minds in the 40s and 50s), or are they just using cultural devices that we’re familiar with in order to scare us?

As the title of his essay indicates, Hess argues for the former rather than the latter. In his view, the religious message of a Sunday school class and sermon is little different from many horror movies. And it’s not just a questionable religious message that’s put forward, it’s a form of propaganda that may be understood as a toxic influence designed to manipulate others in favor or a larger agenda of persuasion that he illustrates by with a reference to Communism. Hess follows these questions with quotations from two scholars, Hector Avalos and David Morgan. Hess believes many of these films “are explicitly Christian propaganda with a missionary agenda.” The Conjuring and Conjuring 2 are cited as examples of this. Morgan takes a contrary position. He refers to Morgan’s view as one where “[m]ost horror filmmakers aren’t so overt in their proselytizing, and possible don’t have any conscious religious agenda at all.” And yet later Hess says this scholar “doesn’t believe that they qualify as Christian propaganda.” If they don’t qualify in this regard in Morgan’s view, then it’s not a matter of them being less overt or that they don’t have an implicit religious agenda. Hess unfortunately softens Morgan’s perspective because he doesn’t agree with his alternative point of view. Morgan also claims that these films are drawing upon “a cultural currency,” a point I’ve made above.

While Hess concedes Morgan’s point about cultural currency, he goes on to share his concerns that the demonic elements of this currency comes from “the church or scary movies,” and these are “usually absorbed in childhood,” a time when we are at our most vulnerable, and not able to assess things “either on the basis of science or rationality.” I agree that Christian children are taught about supernaturalism and spiritual evil in church contexts, but this doesn’t necessarily constitute propaganda. Children imbibe any number of worldviews, religious and irreligious, from their parents, authority figures, and institutions. Is Hess arguing that this should stop, or that it is only appropriate when it is accompanied by science and rational argument, thus giving young people the tools that he feels will necessarily result in the rejection of religious “superstition”?

Hess then devotes a couple of paragraphs to the “nefarious implications” and “real-life consequences” of this alleged Christian propaganda in horror. He refers to The Witch (2015) and the victims of 17th century Puritan witch hunts that were accused of being in league with the devil and put to death, and present day examples where this continues to happen in places like Nigeria. I am in agreement with Hess in his disgust with and condemnation of these actions, but I don’t believe that by drawing upon a dark period in America’s religious history filmmakers are acknowledging that the victims of these events were justifiably executed. I think the opposite is true. On many levels the film functions as a critique of Puritan Christianity and its views on supernatural evil, as well as the subjugation of women and nature. In postmodern fashion The Witch draws upon the Christian metanarrative in combination with familiar horror tropes in order to challenge the assumptions upon which it is based.

After reading and reflecting on Hess’s essay I don’t believe he offers readers a good argument that supports his thesis. Yes, some filmmakers are Christians and they incorporate elements of their faith in order to present a moral and theological message. Scott Derrickson, as well as Chad and Carey Hayes are examples of this. Other filmmakers are not Christian, and they produce horror films that involve elements of a Christian worldview, including supernaturalism and spiritual evil. But this is best understood as cases of filmmakers tapping into the mythic reservoir of ideas that includes the religious imagination for the purposes of storytelling, not a purposeful attempt at proselytizing through propaganda.

In the beginning of this post I mentioned the importance of accounting for our biases. In my view Hess has not properly addressed his own negative experiences with Christianity in the past as interpreted in the present through his atheism. This then colors his interpretation of horror with Christian elements. Just as many conservative Christians have a knee-jerk reaction against horror due to their assumptions, I have the same impression about Hess having an equal and opposite reaction due to his atheism. For Christian fundamentalists horror is off limits because it opens individuals to spiritual contamination. For an atheist like Hess horror films are problematic because they are poisoned by religion and open individuals to contamination of their rational faculties. I hope that the assumptions on both sides can be carefully reassessed.

Interview with Scott Poole on "In the Mountains of Madness"

In-the-Mountains-of-Madness-cv-REV-1-683x1024W. Scott Poole is a professor at the College of Charleston with a research interest in American pop and folk culture. He has written a number of books that combine his interests in American history with horror, including Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting, and Satan in America: The Devil We Know. As a long-time friend of TheoFantastique, Scott has been here in the past discussing some of his work. You can check this out here and here. Scott returns in this interview to discuss his latest book, In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft.

TheoFantastique:
Lovecraft is obviously a towering figure in horror and literature. For these reasons it's no surprise that you'd want to write about it. But given your body of work, how does Lovecraft fit in with your academic and personal interests and contribute to your scholarship in genre?

Scott Poole:
I’ve seen my own work as an effort to create a history of American horror and to intertwine that with some of the more traditional themes in American history. Exploring not just the times of Lovecraft, but the influence of Lovecraft in popular culture seems a natural next step. There are, of course, plenty of biographical materials out there about him. That’s not what this book is. Instead, its as story about the stories we’ve told about his work embedded in the larger story of America culture in the century since he began writing his tales.

TheoFantastique:
What stands out most for you in your research, reflection and writing about Lovecraft?

Scott Poole: I think the need for many of his most devoted fans - some of whom are devoted Lovecraft scholars as well — to have a certain version of Lovecraft presented to the world. There’s a tremendous amount of investment for many within Lovecraft scholarship to have his work rightly remembered and that’s understandable. However, there’s a perhaps dangerous effort to safeguard his reputation and to close off certain kinds of questions about him, especially in relation to race, gender and sexuality.

TheoFantastique: The author tapped into some dark areas of his own personal life as he wrote his fiction. How do you see this influencing his imagination and storytelling for good or ill? Would he have been the writer so known and appreciated without his personal "demons"?

Scott Poole: I think no writer sits down to work without their demons at hand. What interests me is how Lovecraft’s dark side so much reflects America’s darkest side especially in terms of racial anxieties. Other times, as an artist, Lovecraft could step aside from his own racial animosities and manage to say something about what he understood as his own illusions.

Lovecraft, for example, had a near obsession with a version of the American colonial past that emphasized its alleged elegance and antique beauties. However, many of his tales ("The Tomb" and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) deal with the idea of the past as a place of horror, and obsession with the past as a gateway to that horror. A confirmed white supremacist, Lovecraft could also write a deeply racist tale like The Call of Cthulhu that questioned whether or not any value (including pride in one’s Anglo-Saxonism or “Nordic” roots as he often described his own racial identity) superseded the realities of a cosmos of bleak indifference.

TheoFantastique:
How did his atheistic and nihilistic convictions impact his writing and challenge other expressions of horror where religion at times plays a more positive role?

Scott Poole: One hesitates almost to call Lovecraft a nihilist in the sense that nihilism assumes the destruction of (obviously) false values whereas Lovecraft wanted to suggest the emptiness of every pose, the phantom that hid behind every reality that human beings tried to ground themselves in. I’m not sure he didn’t believe nihilists weren’t secretly comforting themselves with their own alleged authenticity rather than facing the void.

This allows him to create a kind of horror in which the reader cannot hide in the struggle between good and evil. Such notions are pointless in Lovecraft. As Alan Moore recently pointed out, its not the kind of supernatural horror created by Stoker in which certain techniques can help the good guys win the day. Its one in which we are all victims of what he called “the infinite spaces,” the infinite dark of an uncaring cosmos.

TheoFantastique: What predictions would you make about his continuing contributions to horror and related genres?

Scott Poole:
It seems that I read almost every day of new tales of Lovecraft’s being adapted in one form or another. The short film, the graphic novel and the RPG have been the most common so far. A number of new possibilities are on the horizon however, with forthcoming console video games and I suspect future length adaptations (including, I hope Guillermo del Toro’s long awaited adaptation of In the Mountains of Madness, arguably Lovecraft’s greatest tale.

I can’t wait to see what traditional horror fans do with Lovecraft’s bleak vision in which the whole human race, not just a single pile of victims, goes down under a cosmic knife. Given the reception of Whedon and Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (one of the most Lovecraftian wide release, feature length films ever made) I have high hopes. As many hopes as one can have after spending so much time with HPL, at least.

The Atlantic and del Toro's "Highbrow Horror"

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The Atlantic has an article on Guillermo del Toro's work titled "The Master of Highbrow Horror". The art accompanying the piece copied above is worth taking a look by itself. You can read the article here.

Titles of Interest: Undead Apocalypse

9780748694907Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century

by Stacey Abbott

Edinburgh University Press, 2016

Rather than seeing them as separate or oppositional, this book explores the intersection and dialogue between the vampire and zombie across film and television. Much contemporary scholarship on the vampire focuses on Dark Romance, while this book explores the more horror-based end of the genre. Offers a detailed discussion of the development of zombie television. Provides a detailed examination of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, including the novel, the script, the adaptations and the BBFC's response to Matheson's script.

Guillermo del Toro: You Can’t Take the Catholicism Out of the Collector

-2As regular readers of this blog are aware, Guillermo del Toro is a figure of particular interest to me. I edited The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro: Critical Essays (McFarland, 2015), and have written a number of posts about his work over the years. The most recent was “Del Toro, Bleak House, and Sacred Relics.” In that post I referenced an article in Rue Morgue where del Toro was quoted about how he views his vast collection of items in anticipation of the Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters exhibit in Los Angeles and other select cities.

"As the show's title suggests, to understand At Home with Monsters one has to understand the function of Bleak House and its contents. Del Toro regards it as sacred space.

'It's where I literally recharge my batteries. I feel a change in my energy, and it's incredible and inspiring for me, so objects are not there as a collection, they are almost like talismans, they are relics. [They are] holy relics the way that Catholics have an image of Saint Joseph or Saint Peter whoever they worship - that's the value of these things for me. I have a Saint Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon or Saint Dick Smith or Saint Dr. Pretorius - images of characters that are a part of my inventory of saints. When people say I am a collector, I feel as if collectors are obsessed with the object, of its value, specifically in the market of collecting. I don't give a shit about any of that! If I buy a toy, I take it out, I play with it, I put it on the shelf to look at, it's not hidden. No piece of my collection is hidden from view. Everything is on display...[because] it's an expression of myself.'"

Del Toro has made similar claims in many other sources. Comments like this intrigue me for several reasons. First, as a scholar of religion and popular culture I am intrigued by the way in which religious ideas influence conceptions of cultural artifacts from various fantastic genres. Second, del Toro grew up in a stern Roman Catholic household, and now describes himself as an agnostic, but one in whom Roman Catholicism is still a strong influence. This is evident in his body of work in film, television, and literature, and this is the case with his collection as well. Finally, I am a person with religious convictions, and a genre collector myself, and I too find certain objects inspiring and fuel for the imagination. I wonder how del Toro’s religious framework for understanding his collection might relate to my own perspective.

In the quote above del Toro refers to the items in his collection as talismans and relics, and he connects this to his Catholicism. In order to understand this better I had a conversation with a colleague, Kevin Cummings, a Catholic who writes for Geekdom House. The thoughts expressed below come largely by way of my conversation with Cummings.

To begin, let’s consider the talisman. Dictionary.com includes three definitions, the third of which applies to del Toro’s experience. It is defined as “anything whose presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions.” Although we might normally think of the talisman in the sense of an object said to “possess occult powers”, one of the definitions at Dictionary.com, del Toro does not understand talismans in this way. Instead, they function for him as talismans in the sense of how they make him feel, which in turn influences his creative processes. There’s nothing especially Catholic or religious about that label.

But del Toro goes further and refers to relics and saints which he connects to Catholic conceptions. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a relic involves “some object, notably part of the body or clothes, remaining as a memorial of a departed saint.” In another entry in the Encyclopedia it refers to saints who have been canonized and beatified by the Church as “only those whose lives have been marked by the exercise of heroic virtue, and only after this has been proved by common repute for sanctity and by conclusive arguments.”

How does the Catholic definition and understanding of relics and saints relate to del Toro’s conceptions of his collection? First, let’s consider the idea of the saint. In Catholicism saints are a select few that are recognized by the Church as having demonstrated great and heroic virtue. They thus serve as objects for appreciation and veneration. This concept finds a connection to del Toro’s horrific saints. In the quote above he says, “I have a Saint Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon or Saint Dick Smith or Saint Dr. Pretorius.” Those real and fictional characters that del Toro has deemed heroic and virtuous, sentiments that are echoed by many in the fan community and thus perhaps loosely paralleling the Catholic Church’s beatification and canonization process, are viewed as saints.

Connected to saints is the second idea, that of relics. With the Catholic definition in mind, technically, unless del Tor has items in his collection that came from genre saints, parts of the body or clothes of Boris Karloff for example (and perhaps he does), then the items in his collection are not properly construed as relics, at least not in the strong sense of trying to make a connection to his Catholic background. However, in the Rue Morgue quote del Toro brings together his idea of relics with sacred imagery of saints. This takes us to a consideration of Catholic iconography.

Returning again to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it defines Christian iconography in part as follows:

“The science of the description, history, and interpretation of the traditional representations of God, the saints and other sacred subjects in art. Almost from the beginning the Church has employed the arts as potent means of instruction and edification. In the first centuries the walls of the catacombs were decorated with paintings and mosaics (see CATACOMBS), and in all later times churches have lent their walls, ceilings, and windows as well as their altars, furniture, and liturgical vessels and books, to be adorned with scenes from the Old and the New Testament, from the lives and legends of the saints, and even from old mythologies, modified, of course, and harmonized with Christian teaching.”

The concept of the Catholic icon seems to be closer to what del Toro has in mind when he views objects in his collection in sacred ways. For Catholics, icons are “representations of God, the saints and other sacred objects in art,” it can also include legends and mythologies, and churches are often decorated with such things. This parallels del Toro’s situation quite well. His collection includes representation of various sacred objects in artistic ways, they reflect fantastic mythologies that the director finds inspiring and even sacred, and they fill his Bleak House much in the way that sacred iconography adorns church buildings. So rather than relics, it would seem that del Toro’s collection is probably better understood as drawing upon his Catholic background to function as icons.

The final insight that Cummings had after reflecting on del Toro’s Bleak House was that it involves similarities to Catholic chapels. There is a long history and various types of chapels in Catholicism, and after reading the extended entry in the Encyclopedia, it appears that votive chapels have some connection to the way in which del Toro has his collection structured and the way in which it functions for him. These types of chapels are “erected by the devotion of private persons, often to commemorate some special event or to enshrine some valued relic.” Del Toro has created Bleak House as a private person, and it enshrines relics or icons. So this part of the definition is met. But what about commemoration? Various media treatments of Bleak House have described the various rooms of the structure, many of which have certain themes such as the Dickens room and the Nosferatu corridor. Some of the major themes reflected in the house were incorporated in the At Home With Monsters exhibition. This included childhood innocence; Victoriana; Rain Room; Magic, Alchemy, and the Occult; Movies, Comics and Pop Culture; Frankenstein and Horror; Freaks and Monsters; and Death and the Afterlife. In the themed rooms of Bleak House del Toro is commemorating various saints and icons (if not relics), and even in the rooms that are not designed with specific themes, objects are included that commemorate and enshrine sacred ideals and topics, such as those that characterized the thematic sections of the exhibit. Beyond the structure there is the function. Del Toro has also said in interviews that he moves about the house and works in various rooms depending upon his mood and need. Thus, just as a Catholic might visit a chapel devoted to a special event or valued relic, del Toro moves from room to room that function similar to mini-chapels to interact with enshrined icons or relics.

I find this phenomenon fascinating, and have only scratched the surface. I hope this subject is treated in greater length in the future by others with greater expertise than I in the area.

Related posts:

"Del Toro, Bleak House, and Sacred Relics"

"Religious Tensions Expressed Again in 'The Strain'"

"Regina Hansen: Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film"

 

Inter-Disciplinary.net Conference Call for Participation on the Supernatural

The Moon Man

The Supernatural

2nd Global Conference
Call for Participation 2017

Saturday 1st April – Monday 3rd April 2017
Lisbon, Portugal

Contemporary novels, films, and religious practice all embrace the supernatural with open arms. From vengeful gods and goddesses and witches to poltergeists and hauntings, to demonic possession and the accompanying exorcism rituals, the human imagination has been captivated for millennia by the power of forces that operate outside the laws of nature and the relationship between humans and the spirit world. Over time, the supernatural has served as a basis for titillating audiences and generating fear. Whether that fear is used to entertain an audience or control a population, the threat of supernatural retaliation is among the most potent motivators we know.

The 2017 project meeting hopes to build on the insights of last year’s conference. The unexpected preponderance of Disney-related discussions surprised all the participants. The Disney footprint seems to be inescapable when discussing depictions of many of these characters and the tales in which they appear. The yearning for ever more terrifying special effects or horrifying plot twists demand that authors and filmmakers search out new folklore and legends to inspire their work as well as discover new ways to tell old tales. New threats to serve as motivators are required as the old threats became mundane, “ho-hum,” and discredited. The supernatural offers a source of personal comfort in the face of grief by providing assurance that a departed loved one is watching over us. However, as the long line of supernatural hoaxes reveal, however, this longing to believe in the afterlife can enable schemes designed to manipulate and swindle vulnerable people and con artists are also always looking for new ways to cheat their victims.

The supernatural has served as a useful means of explaining complicated natural processes in terms humans understand. As history’s famous witch-hunts have demonstrated, the supernatural is also a potent weapon for exerting control over individuals whose behaviour or appearance fail to conform to the ‘norms’ of the community. Conversely, the supernatural can also provide a means of expressing minority beliefs in a way that challenges the power of mainstream organized religions.

What purpose does the supernatural serve in 21st century societies? Is it a throwback to the irrational, superstitious and archaic beliefs of a so-called primitive era, or is it a reminder that there is more to existence than the ‘truths’ revealed by the sciences? The Supernatural interdisciplinary research and publishing event aims to interrogate and investigate the supernatural from a variety of perspectives in order to understand the uses and meanings of the supernatural across time and cultures.

Subjects for presentation include, but are not limited to, the following:

The Supernatural in Theory and Practice

* Shifting perspectives of what is supernatural over time and across cultures
* Non-Western perspectives on the supernatural
* What attitudes toward the supernatural suggest about human perceptions of the boundaries between worlds
* Ancestor worship and the cultures in which this tradition is practiced
* Witchcraft, voodoo and the cultures where these traditions are practiced
* Satanism and cultural perceptions of this belief system
* Reasons behind the enduring fascination with supernatural evil, including philosophical, theological and anthropological perspectives on this question
* Relationship between the supernatural and magic
* Religious traditions and the supernatural (supernatural aspects of faith and belief, attitudes of faith traditions toward the supernatural, how clergy respond to individuals who report supernatural experiences, etc.)

The Supernatural and Real Life

* Socially accepted forms of supernatural belief and the factors that make some beliefs more acceptable than others
* Harms and benefits of believing in the supernatural
* Relationship between the supernatural and cruelty
* Apocalyptic supernatural evil events or characters and the significance of millenarianism
* Characteristics of supernatural entities and the significance of their difference from/similarity to human traits
* Relationship between the supernatural and social power/ideologies (e.g. witchcraft as pretext for dealing with non-conforming women, using the supernatural to engage with physical enemies, etc.)
* Legal/legislative approaches to restricting or enabling supernatural belief (limits of religious freedom principles, state-sanctioned punishment of witches, etc.)
* Medical/clinical perspectives on belief in the supernatural: the neuroscience behind (dis)belief, clinical responses to individuals who report supernatural experiences
* Science and the supernatural: using science to (dis)prove supernatural occurrences
* Technologies that facilitate/measure/prove engagement with the paranormal/occult
* Future of the supernatural in a world increasingly driven by science and reason

Supernatural Encounters

* Analyses of reports of supernatural encounters: common conventions of reports, style and mode of recounting experience, impact of titillation versus simple reporting of events in the reports of these encounters
* How the function and/or interpretation of a report of supernatural evil changes over time or across cultures
* Impact of oral traditions, artistic renderings and generic conventions on the telling and reception of accounts involving supernatural encounters
* How the reception of reports of the supernatural is influenced by the experience of listening versus reading or viewing
* Emotional and intellectual pleasures associated with the supernatural: pleasures of fear and titillation, etc.
* Comedic interpretations of supernatural evil: haunted houses in amusement parks, horror movie spoofs, etc
* Supernatural in film, television (including reality series like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters), theatre, music, art and literature—and how they differ from more ‘traditional’ accounts
* Supernatural spaces: spaces associated with evil and the economic benefits/tourism implications of such connections
* Hoaxes, frauds and swindles

Supernatural and Live Performance

* Curated film screenings
* Performances (dramatic staging, dance, music)
* Readings
* Art installations

What to Send

300 word abstracts, proposals and other forms of contribution should be submitted by Friday 28th October 2016. All submissions be minimally double reviewed, under anonymous (blind) conditions, by a global panel drawn from members of the Project Team and the Advisory Board. In practice our procedures usually entail that by the time a proposal is accepted, it will have been triple and quadruple reviewed.

You will be notified of the panel’s decision by Friday 11th November 2016. If your submission is accepted for the conference, a full draft of your contribution should be submitted by Friday 3rd March 2017.

Abstracts may be in Word, RTF or Notepad formats with the following information and in this order:

a) author(s), b) affiliation as you would like it to appear in programme, c) email address, d) title of proposal, e) body of proposal, f) up to 10 keywords. E-mails should be entitled: The Supernatural Abstract Submission

Where to Send

Abstracts should be submitted simultaneously to both Organising Chairs:

Organising Chairs:
Stephen Morris: smmorris58@yahoo.com
Rob Fisher: supernatural2@inter-disciplinary.net

This event is an inclusive interdisciplinary research and publishing project. It aims to bring together people from different areas and interests to share ideas and explore various discussions which are innovative and exciting.

All papers accepted for and presented at the conference must be in English. Selected papers will be developed for publication in a themed hard copy volume(s). All publications from the conference will require editors, to be chosen from interested delegates from the conference.

Conference Outcomes and Outputs

The conferences we organise form a continual stream of conversations, activities and projects which grow and evolve in different directions. The outcomes and ‘outputs’ which can productively flow from these is a dynamic response to the gatherings themselves. And as our meetings are attended by people from different backgrounds, professions and vocations, the range of desirable outcomes are potentially diverse, fluid and appropriate to what took place.

For detailed information on possible outcomes and outputs, please click here. (This will open a new window).

All accepted papers presented at the conference are eligible to be selected for publication in a hard copy paperback volume (the structure of which is to be determined post conference and subject to certain criteria). The selection and review process is outlined in the conference materials. Other publishing options may also become available. Potential editors will be chosen from interested conference delegates.

Additional possible outputs include: paperback volumes; journals; open volume on-line annuals; social media outputs (Facebook pages, blogs, wikis, Twitter and so on); collaboration platforms; reviews; reports; policy statements; position papers; declarations of principles; proposals for future meetings, workshops, courses and schools; proposals for personal and professional development opportunities (cultural cruises, summer schools, personal enrichment programmes, faculty development, mentoring programmes, consultancies); and other options you would like us to consider.

Ethos

Inter-Disciplinary.Net believes it is a mark of personal courtesy and professional respect to your colleagues that all delegates should attend for the full duration of the meeting. If you are unable to make this commitment, please do not submit an abstract for presentation.

Please note: Inter-Disciplinary.Net is a not-for-profit network and we are not in a position to be able to assist with conference travel or subsistence.

Paranormal and Popular Culture accepted by Routledge

routledge_bk1

Today my co-editor and I were notified that our proposed volume, The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, was accepted for publication by Routledge. We have been shopping for a publisher home for a bit, and after positive assessments from external reviewers who examined the proposal including the Introduction, table of contents, and list of contributors, the volume will be published as a part of the Routledge Studies in Religion series. I am pleased and privileged to work with my co-editor, Darryl Caterine, author of Haunted Ground: Journeys Through a Paranormal America (Praeger, 2011), on a volume that promises to make an important scholarly contribution to the exploration of the paranormal.

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