Given the immense popularity and box office success of science fiction and fantasy films in the West it might be natural to assume that these genres are also very popular in non-Western cultures. But that is not the case. A recent essay by Christine Folch in The Atlantic titled “Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation,” explored this interesting question of science fiction and culture, looking at how American science fiction films fare far less well in India.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t folk tales with magic and mythology in India. There are. That makes their absence in Bollywood and their overabundance in Hollywood all the more remarkable. Whereas Bollywood takes quotidian family dramas and imbues them with spectacular tales of love and wealth found-lost-regained amidst the pageantry of choreographed dance pieces, Hollywood goes to the supernatural and futurism. It’s a sign that longing for mystery is universal, but the taste for science fiction and fantasy is cultural.
One significant aspect of this subject is the disenchantment of the West, and how science fiction and fantasy helps re-enchant our arid secularism by providing a sense of wonder. Folch’s essay closes on this note:
Hollywood continues to make science fiction and fantasy movies because disenchantment creates a demand for these stories, but disenchantment predates Hollywood. We were journeying ten thousand leagues under the sea or scarcely surviving a war of the worlds before the film industry began. If the uptick of Hunger Games-inspired archery lessons and the CDC’s humorous-but-practical Zombie Preparedness Guide are any indication, this is not going away any time soon. Re-enchantment delivers something more important than escapism or entertainment. Through its promise of a world of mystery and wonder, it offers the hope that we haven’t seen all that there is.
For a while now I have been following the work of my friend and colleague, Kelly J. Baker, and she recently shared a copy of her new ebook with me on zombies and apocalyptisism. The book is titled The Zombies Are Coming!: The Realities of the Zombie Apocalypse in American Culture (Bondfire Books, 2013), and I highly recommend a download for anyone interested in probing the zombie in more depth.
Kelly is also the author of Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (University Press of Kansas, 2011), and a forthcoming cultural history of zombies from the University of Washington Press. – See more at: http://www.kellyjbaker.com/about/#sthash.JPSN01gs.dpuf
Kelly made time in her busy schedule to discuss aspects of her recent book.
TheoFantastique: As a scholar studying American religion and apocalypticism, when and how did zombies come across your radar and bring both of these areas together for you?
Kelly Baker: My first brush with the zombie apocalypse occurred while I was teaching a class called the Apocalypse in American Culture, which pretty much covered end-times theologies in Left Behind, The Turner Diaries, UFOlogy, environmental activism, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians, and pop culture more broadly. What I discovered is that my students were far more interested in talking about zombies and the end than any other topic. They loved zombies. They recommended books, films, and graphic novels, and they wanted to strategize for a zombie apocalypse with me. I tried to convince that I am no help when it comes to preparing for doomsday. This passion my students had for a particular type of end made me very curious about zombies. Why zombies? Why did walking corpses have so much appeal? Why were zombies so popular? And why was this monster most often paired with the end of days? My students caused me to steer my research away from doomsday theologies into the cultural representations of zombie apocalypse and their possible consequences. I would have never imagined that I would write about zombies, but these monsters prove to be a fascinating case study that I can’t walk away from.
TheoFantastique: One of the main threads of your book’s thesis is the importance of apocalypticism in American thought. How might elements of the Christian “end-times” mythos continue to inform this, and how might this connect even to something as seemingly secular as the zombie?
Kelly Baker: The apocalypse is always with us. Americans find the end lurking around all kinds of corners, and we consume ends in theology, entertainment, and politics. Impending doom emerges as a familiar narrative that gets recreated, reimagined, and reassessed in both American past and present. So, yes, I do think apocalypticism is crucial component in American thought and life. More importantly, Christian end-times visions dominated American history and influenced the secular forms of apocalypticism, in which the world is torn apart not by divine force but by human hands. Religious and secular doomsdays are enmeshed in one another in ways that we might not expect. Much of the reason for this is that the apocalypse is a religious genre that voices documents the corruptness of a current moment and a hope for a redemptive future. Secular adaptations of doomsday cannot get away from its religious roots, even though they might try, but they are often more fatalistic in tone. Redemption disappears. The religious moorings of apocalypticism almost haunt secular renditions. Lingering traces of Christian end-times theologies pop up again and again.
What I am interested in, then, is the assumed secularity of the zombie and how the zombie apocalypse gets presented as somehow not, or even anti-, religious. Most often I get asked how a religious studies scholar can write about zombies or monsters, and I point out that I have plenty to write about depending upon one’s definition of religion. With my flip answer, I am not trying to say that these monsters are inherently religious, but these monsters become a way to communicate what is human and what is not. David Chidester defines religion as being human in a human place, and I think that zombies give us a way to think about the limits of what we want to call humanity. Additionally, I find the zombie’s relationship with apocalypticism utterly fascinating because it suggests that the boundaries we might imagine between religious and secular are neither firm nor unyielding. The merger of zombies and the end provide an excellent case study for thinking about how doomsday changes to meet the needs of our modern world as well as how we define “religion” and “human” as a categories in a supposedly post-secular age.
TheoFantastique: I remember being fascinated by many of the events in pop culture that you reference, such as the CDC’s use of zombies in disaster preparedness, and the panic among some segments of the population about alleged “zombie attacks.” Christopher Partridge has said the West now features “fact-fiction reversals” where aspects of fictional pop culture cross the blurred line into perceptions of reality. What do you see as contributing to this boundary blurring and crossover with this iconic monster of the day?
Kelly Baker: I wonder if those boundaries that separate fiction and reality were ever really boundaries at all. I am not sure that there is something about our particular moment that leads to “blurring,” but rather that the imagination creeps up on us when we least expect it. Sometimes unreality seems more believable than reality, and sometimes we just wish that reality contained more of the fantastic. My daughter is four, and she inhabits a world of enchantment and possibility, in which fairies can be real, Jack Frost guards children, and the Sandman brings good dreams. It is a lovely space that makes clear distinctions between good and evil with required happy endings. Sometimes, I envy the possibility and enchantment that she sees everywhere, but most often I want her to enjoy what the imagination can offer. The ambiguity of real life often lacks the order and ethics of fantasy. Maybe, we want that possibility and clarity even if we need a bleak zombie apocalypse to bring it. Maybe, we still want to believe in monsters in a world that seemingly lacks mystery, where everything seems known or knowable. Maybe, the arrival of zombies will prove that what we envision our lives to be are not what they actually are.
TheoFantastique: One particularly troubling aspect of your book is the discussion of the connection of American gun culture to the zombie. Can you provide a few examples of how this plays out? And from your research, might the living dead and dehumanized zombie through the prevalence of it in film, television and video games contribute to this connection?
Kelly Baker: The association between zombies and guns is one that troubles me too. To kill a zombie, the preferred weapon of choice appears to be a gun, and we see many examples of this in film, television, and video games. My husband tends to point out the uncanny aim of human survivors in The Walking Dead; guns become equated with safety and protection. There’s also a glorification of the murder of the undead without much engagement with the ethical concerns in zombie media. The relationship of fictional violence to real violence is complicated, and studies, particularly of video games, come to contradictory conclusions. What worries me is the glee that destroying zombies produces. What are the consequences? How does the destruction of zombies prime us for other forms of destruction and violence?
Crucially, imaginary monsters can lead to actual violence. Just last week, two Arkansas teenage boys were playing a zombie game, and one shot the other in the shoulder with a .40 caliber pistol. In the book, I discuss another incident where a man shot his girlfriend over an argument about The Walking Dead as well as the marketing of zombie guns, ammunition, and targets. Why are we so eager and excited to eradicate them? Why does zombification make destruction of human bodies okay? This process of dehumanization makes me nervous about the consumption and participation in zombie media. What does killing these monsters do for us? Cultural theorist Edward Ingebretsen notes that we “stake” the monster to define what is human. I just wonder what type of humanity we define in every zombie kill.
TheoFantastique: Can you give us a sneak peak of your forthcoming volume on a cultural history of zombies?
Kelly Baker: Of course, I can! The project is tentatively titled, Between the Living and the Living Dead, and it is an exploration of the place of zombies in American culture from White Zombie (1932) until today’s zombie moment. This is a history that seeks to explain how zombies shifted from religious origins to movie star to internet meme and rhetorical stand-in. This study revolves around two questions: What does this cultural nightmare, the zombie, tell us about American culture in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? Or to put the question more pointedly, what does the study of this monster show us about the character of American life and the nation’s relationship to religion, violence, war, and consumption? Representations of zombie apocalypses become commentaries on American ethics, globalization, and war, but also communicate visions of the human, the inhuman, and the humane. By tracking zombies, I hope to illuminate the fractures of American public life, both cultural and religious. The consumption of these monsters tells us much about what is valued and what is disdained in our culture at pivotal historical moments in the last ninety years of American history.
TheoFantastique: Kelly, thanks so much for discussing your book here.
Researching Identity Group Experiences & Perceptions Of Therapy
UNIVERSITY OF EAST LONDON
School of Psychology
London E15 4LZ
Would you like to take part in research about Otherkin, Vampires, and Therians/Weres and are over 18?
Ish’had Duncan (MA Student at University of East London) is seeking six self-identified Otherkin, Vampires and Therians/Weres to share their experiences for an interpretative phenomenological research project aimed at the education of therapists.
Exploring The Experiences Of Otherkin, Vampires and Weres and Their Perceptions Of Therapy
This research is aimed at using credible research methods to capture your experiences of what it is to be Otherkin and also introduce therapists who might come across Otherkin to what it is to feel non-human in spirit, psychologically or physically. This research is subject to ethical approval.
If you are interested in taking part in an interview please contact me below for more details:
From time to time TheoFantastique explores aspects of fan cultures, and with this interview we talk to Tony Mills who discusses his contribution on the “Buffyverse Fandom as Religion” in Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Jennifer K. Stuller (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Tony Mills received a PhD in theology and culture from Fuller Seminary, where he studied theology and film under Robert Johnston and wrote a dissertation on theological anthropology and Marvel superhero comics and films, which will be released by Routledge later this year under the title American Theology, Superhero Comics, and Cinema.
TheoFantastique: Let’s begin with some discussion of the book you’ve contributed a chapter to. How did you come to develop an interest in pop culture fandom and religion, and how does your contribution fit within the focus of Fan Phenomena?
Tony Mills: Hmmm, I don’t recall all of the details to answer the first part of your question. I’m part of a listserv which sends out various calls for papers and I was particularly intrigued by the one for the Fan Phenomena series which Intellect Books is currently doing. I was most interested in and familiar with Buffy, so I took some time to think of how my background in religion and theology could be used to give insight into fan phenomena. So I believe that call for papers was itself the impetus. As for the second part of your question, my contribution tries to get to the roots of why people become fans, especially dedicated ones. I’m interested in the biological and psychological impulses behind devotion and how this comes to expression in cultural phenomena such as fandom. To this extent, much of what I say in my chapter is true of other media texts in addition to Buffy, although Buffy and Whedon’s work in general have a special place in my heart.
TheoFantastique: Some readers might think it curious or inappropriate to think of something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer being considered in some way as religious. What hurdles do you face in making the case here?
Tony Mills: The biggest hurdle, as I allude to in the chapter, is overcoming a strict definition of religion which many people have. The interesting thing is that people from across the gamut of religious views are resistant to such a reading. There is an assumption among many, including most cognitive science of religion (or CSR) scholars, that “religion” is primarily about belief in supernatural agents. This is, in my opinion, something of a common sense view of religion and it is shared by conservative believers and ardent non-believers alike. Part of my motivation, although this chapter is not really the venue for it, is to get people to think about how their commitments in daily life often reflect the same psychological devotion and energy as the most steadfast churchgoers or even extremist terrorists. Although I consider myself to be an atheist, one of the things which bothers me about many atheists is the idea found among many of them that the only real problems in the world stem from the traditional religions and their violence. Certainly the violence done in the name of a god has been catastrophic, but it does not serve us to be blind to the violence and destruction wrought by the same mindless devotion to, say, a sports team, a nation, or a political ideology. Of course, to my knowledge Buffy and Star Trek fans and the like do not burn alleged witches at the stake, but even so we ought to be aware of how it is that we are wired for worship, community, sacrifice, ritual, and other aspects which are not strictly “religious” in the common sense of the term but are rather broadly human phenomena. So, by opening the definition of religion to get away from the idea that it’s only about god, my hope is to create awareness as well as to build bridges to those whom we judge as being crazy religious fanatics. There but for the grace of God go I, you could say.
TheoFantastique: Many people define religion in regards to belief, and belief in the supernatural and a personal God. Of course there are religions which don’t fit this mold, such as certain forms of Buddhism, so that type of definition is problematic. You are drawing upon the cognitive science of religion or the biocultural science of religion for your definition. Can you describe this a little, and how does this functional definition of religion dovetail with other approaches, such as the work of Clifford Geertz and a “thick description” of religion, and the idea of religion as a binding force from the Latin word religare?
Tony Mills: I’m definitely drawing on recent insights from scholars in the cognitive science of religion, but it’s interesting that, as I mentioned above, most of them still hold to the idea that religion is really about the origins and perpetuation of belief in supernatural agents. There is a minority strand of researchers, like Loyal Rue, who want to get away from that strict association because it is ultimately limiting and doesn’t help us to make sense of the broader human phenomena which come to expression in traditional religion, such as the impulses to ritual, devotion, worship, community formation, etc. You mentioned Buddhism. From my understanding original Buddhism is atheistic. Now, if you are committed to the idea that religion must include the worship of a supernatural agent, you will have a hard time understanding how Buddhism is actually a religion. From a broader approach, however, you can see Buddhism as a religion because it very much focuses on all those other human phenomena which are also part of traditional, supernaturalistic faith traditions.
Also, you mention that what I’m doing is a “functional” definition of religion, which is considered to be distinct from a “substantive” definition of religion, a distinction which I believe goes back to a particular twentieth-century religion scholar. I’m not sure who because classical religious studies was never my expertise. It’s a distinction, more simply, between what a religion does (its function) and what it is (its substance). I’ve always found such distinctions problematic because that kind of language goes back to Aristotle’s distinction between essence and accidents; but if, as David Hume asked, we can’t say anything about what a substance actually is, then are we actually talking about anything? I prefer a more organic or relational approach to such things, so for me, how religious devotion, worship, commitment, etc. function actually is its substance, to use that terminology.
As for Clifford Geertz, who represents traditional religious studies, I personally think that there is a lot to be shared between his approach of thick description and CSR approaches. It should be noted that not everyone in those two camps agree. Several CSR scholars ignore the insights of traditional religious studies because they feel that the older approach is limited, so they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Many in religious studies, as well as in the humanities more broadly, are leery of cognitive approaches to cultural phenomena such as religion because they sense biological determinism in the cognitive approach, not to mention the philosophical amateurism which pervades the usually simplistic theological assertions of many CSR writers.
But folks like Geertz are indispensible because they actually tell us what contemporary religion is like. CSR people often get so hung up on our evolutionary past that they forget that we really know more, and exponentially more, about how religion as it is lived today than how it was experienced in prehistoric times. Working with the details that Geertz and others offer allows us to analyze those details through the lenses of not only evolutionary psychology, but also of current cognitive neuroscience and many other fields. At the same time, I don’t think it has been observed often that Geertz, and Durkheim before him (whose magnum opus was written over a century ago), displayed intuitions of the importance of evolution and cognition for understanding religion and other cultural phenomena.
As for your final point on the etymological definition of religion as about binding, from the Latin religare, CSR has offered fresh insights on this. For major instance, it seems that early homo sapiens both formed more tightly knit communities and had more psychological incentive to see their communities succeed when they had a shared religion, specifically a shared view of supernatural agents, what these agents wanted, and how to make them happy and unhappy. CSR has only supported the view that religion is quite likely the most powerfully binding force in human history, which would also help explain the tenacity of fundamentalism in its various manifestations today.
TheoFantastique: You mention the emotional aspect of Buffyverse fan communities as the cohesive element. Can you talk to this a bit?
Tony Mills: This actually relates to my preceding comments about the binding force of religion, for therein it is not that there is a literal god or goddess who mystically binds people together for a common purpose, at least not from a scientific vantage. It is rather the psychological and emotional power which belief in said deities holds; e.g. that my tribe, my family, my nation, etc., is the best and most important and must be protected at all costs because my god demands it (and, you know, I will be punished if I don’t comply).
What I think happens often in fandom is that this same emotional significance and attachment is simply refashioned. Sure, Buffyverse fans have all sorts of different views on the divine and how one ought to live one’s life outside of conventions and other interactions (a shared if unconscious assumption which at least contributes to why, say, Angel-lovers and Spike-lovers don’t resolve their dispute through armed skirmishes), but the meaning and belonging they find in the shared communal love of Buffyverse media is, I argue, the same as that which has been provided by traditional religions. Perhaps the intensity is different. Perhaps there is not the same impulse to violent protection of values as there is in many religious contexts. But the emotions, the feelings of belonging, of being caught up into something bigger than oneself, are, I suspect, psychologically and neurologically the same.
TheoFantastique: You also describe group-specific vocabulary, esoteric knowledge, and ritual as important. Other scholars have noted similar things in regards to other forms of fandom, such as Star Trek and Star Wars. Have you given any consideration to attendance at fan conventions as a possible form of ritual paralleling pilgrimage in religious traditions?
Tony Mills: I’ve definitely considered attendance at fan conventions religiously significant, but I didn’t think of the parallel to religious pilgrimage per se independently, probably because in my own former faith tradition pilgrimage was not a priority. I’ve considered them more in terms of ritual and regular communal gathering. I have, however, come across one or two essays recently which address explicitly the parallel to pilgrimage. I would be happy to share them if I could recall where I found them! But my own knowledge of religious pilgrimage is too thin to comment further.
TheoFantastique: How do you see the breakdown of Berger’s “sacred canopy” of traditional religious plausibility structures, the democratization of knowledge and authority through the Internet, and the sacralization of popular culture playing a part in the religious function of Buffy fandom?
Tony Mills: Wow, this is a complex question, ostensibly composed of three parts. First, with regard to the sacred canopy and the related idea of the secularization thesis, I think that Buffy and pop culture fandom more broadly can be seen as evidence that Berger was wrong about the latter, a mistake he now readily admits. The evolved human needs for meaning, purpose, community, identity, nomos, and so on were never limited to the traditional religions—even if they found their most intense and systemic meeting therein—as Berger and others seem to have assumed, but have always been anthropological data, something which the cognitive and social sciences have helped us realize. This is precisely why even the monolith of industrial capitalism cannot permanently suppress those needs but must rather co-opt them in order to survive, which it is doing splendidly (hence the possibility and proliferation of fandom itself on a commercial level). The sacred canopy, in short, may look very different, but it is still there, one expression of which is demonstrated in Buffyverse fandom.
Second, with regard to the democratization of knowledge and authority through the Internet, I see this more as an expression of what was already in the air; an outcome of the late modern (or postmodern, if you prefer that term) breakdown of traditional authority structures, without which the Internet would either have not come into being at all, or would at least look very different than how we know it (perhaps still exclusive to military usage). Buffyverse fandom has flourished because of fans’ ability to communicate instantly with each other across the globe, a communication which, moreover, has included the sharing of fan-made videos, art, literature, and other media which are precisely not sanctioned by the established authorities, in this case the corporate conglomerates who own the legal rights to Whedon’s creations. In this sense there is something of a religious rebellion going on: people will find a way to worship despite the strictures of the clerical elite. This communication enabled by the Internet also means that, whatever fans decide about canonicity, they will continue to value texts created by each other and not only those by Whedon and those who own the rights.
Finally, the importance of the sacralization of pop culture for understanding Buffyverse fandom as religion should be evident, but I hesitate to make much use of this term because the sacred–secular dichotomy, like essence–accident, is another that I have tended to eschew in my analyses of cultural phenomena. Pop culture has always been sacred to the extent that it provides meaning, escape, hope, etc. to people. The breakdown of traditional religious observance has, I believe, intensified its importance (or sacredness, as it were) in contemporary Western life, but not in a way that would suggest that there has ever been a clear divide between “sacred” and “secular.” That being said, Buffyverse fandom would very likely not be possible in a world where the traditional religions had the influence they had, say, during the nineteenth century. Perhaps we can apply the term “sacralization,” then, to the phenomenon of the intensification of existential relevance of popular culture texts.
TheoFantastique: What other work have you done or do you have coming out in the near future?
Tony Mills: My dissertation is being published by Routledge, I’ve been told in July, under the title American Theology, Superhero Comics, and Cinema: The Marvel of Stan Lee and the Revolution of a Genre. In the fall, Joss Whedon and Religion will be published by McFarland, a collection of essays which I co-edited along with you and J. Ryan Parker. It will be interesting to see the feedback we get from that within the Whedon fan community for sure.
TheoFantastique: Tony, thank you for research and willingness to discuss it here.
Tony Mills: My pleasure! Thanks for inviting me to do so.
After Earth, the new science fiction film starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, has largely received negative reviews by critics, and it has not done well at the box office. But recent news items provide another dimension for consideration, and that is its possible incorporation of a religious dimension, and a controversial one at that, in the form of Scientology. Scientology is a Western esoteric religion was founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and has been the focus of much controversy over the years. It has also been successful in attracting a number of celebrities, including Tom Cruise, a close friend of the Smiths. According to a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, there may be other connections between Scientology and the Smith family:
..the New Village Leadership Academy, a school he co-founded in 2008 with wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, is staffed by a number of Scientologists and employs “Study Technology,” a teaching methodology developed by Hubbard.
This article also notes the similarities in the film’s iconography to Hubbard’s religion including the concept of an “abandoned Earth,” the dialogue, a prominent volcano, the shape of the spacecraft, and the costumes. There are also quotations from various reviewers who see elements of Scientology and Dianetics in the film.
Writing for Vulture, Matt Patches breaks down After Earth as nothing more than an elaborate homage to Scientology. The movie’s villain is “emotion,” for example, while the father character “audits” his son throughout the film. “The bulk of After Earth is essentially that [auditing] scene from The Master on a blockbuster scale,” Patches argues.
The dots are also connected over at Religion News Service, where David Gibson provides his thoughts on the film in “Is Scientology unwatchable?”
If these reviewers are correct and elements of Hubbard’s esoteric technology have influenced or been incorporated into the film, and if the it continues to generate little box office profit, then it may send two messages to Hollywood. First, no matter how Scientology is bound up in a film, whether more overtly as in John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth, or in more subtle fashion as in After Earth, Scientology is best left to celebrity centers rather than celluloid. And second, the once bright shining star that was M. Night Shyamalan has now burnt out and left us with a black hole in directorial space.
I am privileged to be a part of the Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon spearheaded by Pierre Fournier at his wonderful blog Frankensteinia. Be sure to visit the blog to see the other posts in this blogathon. Peter Cushing has been one of my favorite horror actors for many years, and out of the many iconic characters he portrayed, Dr. Van Helsing has always been the most interesting for me. In this contribution to his centennial blogathon, I will consider Cushing’s portrayals of Van Helsing, and by drawing upon the analytical perspective of Heather Duda on the monster hunter in popular culture, I will consider how Cushing’s Van Helsing makes for a stark contrast with the 2004 cinematic incarnation of the same character portrayed by Hugh Jackman.
Peter Cushing played various expressions of the Van Helsing vampire hunter in a number of films. This includes Horror of Dracula (1958), The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula: A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Of course, these incarnations of Van Helsing have a connection to Bram Stoker’s character, and in what follows we will sketch the significance of this iconic figure and how he changes over time.
In her book The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture (McFarland, 2008), Heather Duda addresses the monster hunter as a largely neglected aspect of monster studies. She argues that Stoker’s novel Dracula “is the epitome of the monster-hunting narrative,” and that Van Helsing stands out as the “ultimate monster hunter” functioning as binary opposite of Dracula as “the ultimate monster.” What kind of man was Van Helsing? Stoker provided a description by way of the character John Seward in the novel:
He is a philosopher and a metaphysician, and one of the most advanced scientists of his day; and he has, I believe, an absolutely open mind. This, with an iron nerve, a temper of the ice-brook, an indomitable resolution, self-command toleration exalted from virtues to blessings, and the kindliest and truest heart that beats [...] work both in theory and practice, for his views are as wide as his all-embracing sympathy.
Stoker’s Van Helsing was based upon the Victorian ideal of the male here, and Cushing brought the essence of this to life much like Seward’s description. This is best illustrated in his first portrayal of Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula. First, He is presented as a learned man, a philosopher and metaphysician, the latter understood in terms of the secular scientist drawing upon the symbols of Catholicism for its magical properties in dispatching the vampire. In one scene n another scene Van Helsing records the results of his ongoing research into a phonograph, and this provides us with a glimpse of his academic expertise. In another scene we discover how significant this is as he touts his vampire research to Arthur Holmwood as having been done for “some of the greatest authorities in Europe.” This is no amateur, but instead an educated scholar who brings together an interesting synthesis of folklore studies, philosophy, metaphysics, and science. Second, Cushing’s Van Helsing is much like Stoker’s in that he has a kind heart. He goes to the grave of the undead Lucy in order to release her from her curse, and while there he rescues the a little girl, the would-be victim of the new vampire. With Lucy resting in her coffin at the approach of the morning sun, Van Helsing exercises compassion toward the girl by wrapping his coat around her and giving her his cross to hold. Third, Cushing’s Van Helsing demonstrates the iron nerve of Stoker’s character at the climax of the film when he chases Dracula into his castle. After almost being bitten and narrowly escaping, he doesn’t run from the castle to fight another day, but instead stares back at the Count before pulling down the curtains and using the sun and two candlesticks formed into a cross as the improvised weapons of monster hunting.
Cushing would go on through various films and not only play this particular Dr. Van Helsing again, but also his descendants. Regardless of the expression of Van Helsing, his character always worked to defeat the monster, and in so doing re-establish the status quo, both in the Victorian-influenced world of the Gothic horror of these Hammer films, but also that reflected in the times in which these films were made. But in our cultural journey out of the Victorian era, into the 1930s with Edward Van Sloan’s depiction of Van Helsing, and moving into Hammer’s depictions of the character in the 1950s and into the 1970s, our understanding of the monster and the monster hunter changed. So did Van Helsing. He would eventually go to his grave and a new generation of monster hunters would arise.
Duda argues that films like The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974) are worthy of consideration because they were significant in the development of the monster hunter. The involve various shifts and additions. In these films the emphasis is on the monster hunter himself rather than on the creatures he stalks. And in Kronos the monster hunter no longer works alone, but gains an assistant or sidekick. There is also a change in the monster hunter in that the emphasis is no longer on him being the learned man who can outsmart his monstrous adversary. Now audiences expect a young and physically attractive hero. These developments continue in films like Blade, and go on to influence conceptions of the monster hunter in the 21st century.
In 2004 Hugh Jackman provided his take on Van Helsing in the film of the same name, and it is here that the transformation from the character is most striking, particularly how different from both Stoker’s conception, and Cushing’s depiction. Duda points out that between Cushing’s depictions of Van Helsing that started in the late 1950s and Jackman’s decades later, the United States had wrestled with the events that shook the national psyche, like Vietnam and Watergate. The impact of these events on the national consciousness changed the way in which both the monster hunter and his prey were viewed. The previous developments in depictions of the monster hunter with films like Kronos discussed above, coupled with the impact of the culture’s political angst, would come together to shape a very different portrayal of Van Helsing. Jackman’s “hero” is a man wanted by the law, a hired henchman rather than a learned and highly prized man. This element combines aspects of both a blurring of the monster and monster hunter, and distrust inherent in all authority figures In terms of appearance, he embodies contemporary standards of male masculinity and beauty, with long hair and an unshaven face. He no longer works alone, but has an assistant, Carl, and he must also draw upon the best high-tech weaponry and fighting techniques of the time.
A comparison of the character of Van Helsing in different eras reveals significant differences that reflect their times. Jackman’s Van Helsing represented the late modern conception of the hero and the monster hunter. The clear line between good and evil is blurred at best, as is that between monster and the monster hunter. Cushing’s Van Helsing was crafted with the assumptions of an earlier age. He represented both a depiction of the Victorian ideal for the hero, and the conception of the monster hunter prevalent in the late 1950s. This resulted in a confident, educated man with an inner beauty of character and virtue. As a fine British actor and gentleman, Cushing was the perfect choice to bring this conception of Van Helsing as the ultimate monster hunter to life.
Previously I discussed Sabine Baring-Gould, a Christian minister who also maintained a research interest in the paranormal and the horrific. I recently came across another individual like this when reading a paper from the 2010 conference of the Center for Studies of New Religions. In “Vampires and Alternative Religions,” co-authored by J. Gordon Melton and Angela Aleiss, they mention the work of a monk named Dom Augustin Calmet. In describing the controversy that followed the desecration of graves in an Austrian vampire panic and the report of Dr. Johannes Fluckinger on the subject, Melton and Aleiss write the following:
The Fluckinger report prompted a lengthy debate over the reality of vampires among Western intellectuals, a debate that peaked in the 1740s at Leipzig, when several faculty members wrote book-length contributions. It would culminate in the 1746 multi-volume work on a spectrum of supernatural entities including the vampire by the outstanding French-speaking biblical scholar and Benedictine monk Dom Augustin Calmet. In the first edition of his work, he proposed five options for understanding the various reports of vampires, the last of which left, however slightly, an open door for the existence of vampires. Calmet agreed with his German colleagues that in fact vampires did not exist; however, only in the later editions did he state that conclusion in no uncertain terms.
Calmet’s work on the subject was titled Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie, et de Silésie, or Dissertations upon the Apparitions of Angels, Demons, and Ghosts, and Concerning the Vampires of Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia (London: M. Cooper, 1759). In their footnote on this, Melton and Aleiss note that this was “reprinted as The Phantom World. 2 vols. (London: Richard Bently, 1850). Most recently volume two of Calmet’s treatise, which included the discussion of the vampire, was reprinted as Treatise on Vampires and Revenants: The Phantom World (Brighton, East Sussex, UK: Desert Island Books, 1993).” Interestingly, this volume is still available via outlets like Amazon.com.
Calmet is a fascinating figure for me in that he is described by Melton and Aleiss as an outstanding biblical scholar, and he is one who applies this expertise in the analysis of the vampire phenomenon. This provides another example of past religious scholars and clergyman with interests in such phenomena, who also connect to similar individuals in the present.
The New Yorker featured an interesting essay today titled “Is ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ a Drone Allegory?” The essay dovetails with some of my criticism of the film shared in a previous post. In particular, this essay by Amy Davidson notes that in addressing counter-terrorism issues the setup in the movie has promise, but in the end it collapses on itself. After discussing various issues in the movie that it seemingly raises in order to present some kind of critical commentary, Davidson writes: “It is telling and useful that all of these themes are showing up in movies; they don’t come up enough in public debate. But they are thoroughly jumbled here.” The author then connects the dots between this installment in the Star Trek franchise and the Obama Administration and our national struggle with the “War on Terror”:
The dialogue contains several reminders that, confronted by danger, we must not forget “who we are”—one comes in a speech that Kirk gives at the very end. One fears that what he means is not that he should remember that he is an officer in a society governed by laws—and for good reason—but that he is James Tiberius Kirk. The only real conclusion in the movie is that Kirk should trust his instincts, and carry on meaning well and standing up for his friends. President Obama is due to give a big speech on Thursday about counterterrorism, drones, detainees, and everything he’s trying to do in that space. For a President who has been accused of being Spock-like, his approach to national security and the law has been far too Kirk-like: driven by a belief that his good will alone, his character, compensates for legal limbos like Guantánamo and discredits the anger, here and abroad, about drones. He remembers who he is, and thinks that that should be enough. He’s wrong; what we need to remember is what America is, and ought to be.