Douglas Cowan and Sacred Terror: Part 2

Following is the second part of the interview with Douglas Cowan on the subject matter surrounding his
forthcoming book Sacred Terror.

TF: In your book you discuss the “metataxis of horror.” Can you briefly define this and how you discuss it in your book?

Doug Cowan: The “metataxis of horror” refers to the process by which films generate their horror by reversing or inverting the accepted taxonomic categories of the dominant religion. They challenge the dominance of Christianity, for example, threatening its inevitability, or reflecting the ambivalence people feel about its power to explain the universe in toto. This process occurs in three principal ways: inversion, invasion, and insignificance. Inversive films, for example, challenge the dominance or legitimacy of Christianity (or whatever the dominant tradition is) from within, seeking to invert the power it enjoys or the popular understanding people have of it.

Take The Prophecy, for example, the basic story of which is a second war in Heaven led by the angel Gabriel, who has grown tired of God favouring “talking monkeys” (i.e., us) over the angelic hosts. That’s one level of inversion. A deeper level in the film, though, has to do with how we conceptualise angels themselves. When many people think of angels, for example, they think of TV series like Touched by an Angel, little gold “Guardian Angel” pins, God’s little helpers who seem to have nothing better to do than help us find our lost keys. But as the main character in the film points out, “You ever read the Bible? You ever notice how, in the Bible, when God needed to punish someone, make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? Your whole existence spent praising your God, always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?”

That’s a stunning way of inverting the popular conception of angels based on a perfectly reasonable reading of the biblical texts themselves. Another example is the Wishmaster series, based on Arabic legends of the djinn. Far from the cutesy lamp-dwellers played by Barbara Eden and Robin Williams, these are terrifying creatures with no love or compassion for humankind. They put the horror in the notion of being careful what you wish for. In one instance, a character wishes for a million dollars. The scene cuts to his own mother signing a million-dollar travel insurance policy before boarding a holiday flight. She names her son as beneficiary, and the plane explodes on take-off. “Make you wishes,” says the Djinn, “but beware of what you wish for.”

Metataxis frightens us because it presents the possibility that the world may not be exactly the way we believe, that the unseen order to which we have, perhaps, dedicated our lives may not be as powerful, as inevitable as we imagine. There was a time, you know, when Christianity was not, when it didn’t exist, when other gods ruled. These films often explore what that time might look like if those times came again. That frightens people, I think, because it challenges the long-term stability—what I call the inevitability—of their worldviews.

TF: You note in your book that horror films often draw explicitly on Christian mythology and iconography, but you also note other cultural and religious myths that are referenced, such as Hong Kong horror cinema and its use of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist narrative, mythology and iconography. What do you see as the power of these underpinnings for American culture?

Doug Cowan: I’m not sure they have so much power for American culture. An example is the way some Japanese horror films have recently been remade for American audiences, and, in my opinion, suffered horribly because of that. What I am pointing out more importantly here is that there are vast cinematic industries that exist beyond Hollywood, and the horror films they produce respond to a different set of sociophobics, different set of cultural conditions that determine what we fear, how we fear, and what we do to confront or resolve our fear. Chinese vampire films, for example, are a wonderful example of this. Vampires rise because they are not buried according to proper feng shui, for example (Mr. Vampire), and it is the ritual symbols and magic of Taoism that put them back in the grave. Different cultures fear different things, and fear them in different ways. We may watch zombie movies and shriek in delighted terror, but I guarantee that they are watched in a very different way in Haiti (if, indeed, they are ever screened there at all). That’s the point of using a sociophobic approach in the book, as opposed to a theological or psychological one.

There are some connections, though, between different versions of the unseen order, and American (and British, in this case) popular culture and popular imagination. Take Mummy movies, which I admit (Pinhead and the Cenobites notwithstanding) are my favourite sub-category of horror. If vampire movies are low-end porn in many cases, then my contention is that Mummy movies are love stories, and they draw on a popular fascination with all things Egyptian that has existed in both the U.S. and Britain since the end of the nineteenth century. They are also good examples of the ways in which we constantly construct (and reconstruct) the religious other, since those who are fascinated by the Mummy often know precious little about Egyptian history or religion. These films become, though, symbols of what they think that religion and history must be like. As a sociologist, this is the point at which I become really interested.

TF: With the increase in Japanese horror films in this country as well as American remakes, and Hong Kong horror (e.g., The Messengers, 2007), might a shift in the religious makeup of America mean that other religious myths and icons might be drawn upon more frequently in horror in the near future?

Doug Cowan: I would hope that would be the case, but I admit that I have my doubts. Even though the same Japanese director made the American version of Ju-on as The Grudge, I think his attempts to tailor it to American tastes resulted in a decidedly inferior product. This is, however, another example of how sociophobics work: what scares one culture doesn’t automatically scare members of another. Things don’t automatically translate, and there’s no good reason why they should.

TF: I know you take a book to try to answer this in more depth, but could you share a few reasons as to why you think that horror cinema continues to be so popular, whether through motion pictures in the theaters or straight-to-DVD releases?

Doug Cowan: That is a hard question, but central in many ways, because horror is, arguably, among the most robust genres precisely because it does produce so many films only for fans. Even before the advent of DVD technology, and mainstream studios’ realization that they can make as much if not more money in that market than with theatrical release, the vast majority of horror films never made it to theatres, yet they were eagerly awaited by fans. Put simply, though, in addition to homo sapiens, we are also homo narrans, we are story-telling creatures, and among the most oft-told stories throughout our history have been scary stories about the variety of unseen orders we have envisioned. We tell stori
es both to locate ourselves in relation to that unseen order, and to express our anxieties about the shape that order takes, what it demands of us, how it might confront us if we turn our backs for a moment. As I suggest at the end of Chapter 2:

Technology has not banished the fear of the dark—candles burn down, batteries go flat (that is, they “die,” and so often the characters in horror cinema die with them), and flashlights all but inevitably refuse to work just when we need them most (witness the terrifying end of Capt. Dallas [Tom Skerritt] as he hunts for the creature in Alien). No matter how powerful our halogen headlights, the darkness and all the fears that live within it still exist on the ragged edge of the light we use to keep them at bay. Moreover, even while we keep it at bay, even as we use all our technological resources to pierce the darkness (that is, to “kill” it), we can still see it out there. We have, in fact, done nothing more than prick it, because in the context of the pitifully small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to which we have visual access, darkness is our natural condition. Light is the intruder, a temporary island of relative security in a larger, largely uncharted ocean of dark.

TF: You discuss cinema horror in relation to the process of secularization and what this means for religious belief in late modernity or postmodernity. Can you summarize some of your thinking here?

Doug Cowan: A number of commentators, like the missiologist you mentioned before, seem to think that cinema horror represents the denigration of religion and the relentless advance of secularization. This is far too limited a reading, in my view. It seems to ignore the fact that fear lies at or near the heart of much of human religious experience and expression.

Secularization, of course, is the belief—some would say the ideology—that technologized societies are becoming less religious, less dependent on faith-based models of interpretation and action. Numerous sociologists and historians of religion, however, have challenged that notion, and I take a similar position. We may tell ourselves that we are becoming more sophisticated in our worldview, that we have left behind the superstitions of the past, that our explanations for unexpected phenomena now account for their origin and power without reference to supernatural beings or powers, and that religion is no longer a necessary component of social life—but in North America, at least, most of the data available to us quite simply indicate otherwise. Indeed, the issue is not one of secularization—that cinema horror discloses to us the abandonment or minimization of religious belief in late modern society—but an overwhelming ambivalence toward the religious traditions, beliefs, practices, and mythistories by which we are confronted, in which we are often still deeply invested, which we are distinctly unwilling to relinquish, and which we just as often only minimally understand. It is this ambivalence, and the various fears it both evokes and embeds, that I’m concerned with in the book.

My basic argument in Sacred Terror is that religiously oriented cinema horror remains a significant material disclosure of deeply embedded cultural fears of the supernatural and an equally entrenched ambivalence about the place and power of religion in society as the principal means of negotiating those fears. As a pop culture exercise in sociophobics, cinema horror provides a window into both the cultural stock of knowledge on which those fears depend and the various cultural discourses they support. As Stephen King writes in Danse Macabre, which remains one of the most insightful analyses of the horror genre, “When the horror movies wear their various sociopolitical hats—the B-picture as tabloid editorial—they often serve as an extraordinarily accurate barometer of those things that trouble the night-thoughts of a whole society.” Put differently, what scares us reveals important aspects of who we are, both as individuals and as a society. And religion, whether some people like it or not, scares us.

TF: Related to this you mention a yearning for belief in the supernatural as expressed in the persistence of belief in the paranormal, and mention the growth of this in connection with The X-Files television program, without making an explicit connection. Do you see human religiosity and a yearning for the supernatural as also playing a part in the continued popularity of horror films?

Doug Cowan: Sure, that only makes sense, and it is in many ways at the heart of what I’m trying to do. But what needs to be clarified here is that human religiosity *is* a yearning for the supernatural, in the sense of an unseen order which we can try to understand, and to which we can harmoniously adjust ourselves. Talk of the supernatural and the paranormal as though they are somehow different from religion only reinforces the problem I’m trying to address. What one group calls “paranormal,” for example, the other calls ecstatic vision or prophecy. What one derides as “supernatural,” the other uses to define their faith as charismatic Christians. I recognise that there are colloquially understood categories of the “paranormal”—ESP, telekinesis, clairvoyance and clairaudience, etc.—but I would like to suggest that those are political divisions as much as they are experiential. They privilege certain understandings of our relationship with the unseen order, and marginalize others. The X-Files is simply one of the latest in a long line of pop cultural products that has drawn attention to these issues.

TF: At the conclusion of your first chapter you ask whether “it is possible that cinema horror is one cultural means by which we confront the classical theological problem of evil.” Might horror films be a neglected cultural artifact that theologians should consider in regards to the problem of evil and contemporary answers to this perennial issue?

Doug Cowan: I hope that would be one of the things people get from the book. Cinema horror is far too often simply dismissed, as though who both produce and consume it have no voices worth hearing in the discussions and debates about the unseen order. This is ridiculous, quite frankly. I think, though, that Christian theologians (at least) will learn most only when they learn to bracket any claim to normativity in their assessment of other religious traditions. That is, they need to stop arrogating to themselves the right to decide who is “properly religious” and who isn’t. Of course, there are theologians who do this admirably (Hans Kung comes to mind in this regard, and Matthew Fox), and I don’t mean to generalise across the spectrum of Christianity. But, in the evangelical/ fundamentalist streams, one is hard-pressed to find more than a handful who take the religious experiences of others seriously and on their own terms, that is, without some hidden proselytic agenda. In that, they could learn a lot from Pinhead: what are angels to some are demons to others.

TF: Finally, Doug, you also state that “our culture teaches us in a variety of ways what to fear, and through a variety of cultural products reflects and reinforces the fears we have been taught.” As you explore horror films and their connection to religion, just as theologians might be missing the significance of horror films for their discipline, might other disciplines and academics learn important things by reflecting on this?

Doug Cowan: I think you’re right. Many academic and professional disciplines suffer at various points in their evolution from tunnel vision and single-mindedness. Accord
ing to Lee Smolin, for example, theoretical physics has for some time been locked in a very narrow and unproductive battle over string theory, and won’t really move as a discipline until both sides retire from the field for a while. There are a number of things different disciplines can learn from this work—at least I hope that there are. Seems a waste of time, otherwise. As I pointed out in the first part of the interview, for example, this is the first step in a much more detailed consideration of the relationship between religion and fear. In a nutshell, my hypothesis in this is that religion begins with fear, and is fear remains an intimate part of the human religious phenomenon. This is not something which has been explored in any real depth, that I can see, but an exciting direction to move.

TF: Doug, thanks again for participating in this interview. Please let me know when the book is available so we can promote it here.

Doug Cowan: Thanks for asking me. The book is being published by Baylor University Press, and should be available for you to give to all your friends for Hallowe’en next year. Boo!

Comment Pages

There are 4 Comments to "Douglas Cowan and Sacred Terror: Part 2"

  • Rev Sam says:

    Very interesting interview, with much to take away and ponder. But one initial reaction – I hear what he says about angels being terrifying, I think that’s right, but I’m not sure I would go along with religion being rooted in fear – for at least in its self-assessment, Christianity is rooted in love, and ‘perfect love drives out fear’. The most repeated command in the bible – often, for understandable reasons, coming from the mouth of angels – is ‘do not be afraid’. I think that says something.

  • Matt Stone says:

    Wow. There is so much in that.

    Two digressions that occur to me.

    Firstly, I noted that comment about scifi and horror often being situated next to one another in the video store. I suspect our ‘aliens’ say as much about us as our ‘monsters’. But it seems to me that a key difference is that scifi tends to have a more eschatological in flavour while horror tends to be more retro romanticist in orientation. I mean, of course you get your exceptions like the zombie holocaust movies, but by and large horror strikes me as being more localised in focus and past fearing. What I mean is, it focusses more on the fear of your past catching up with you than fear of the future arriving early. Does that sound like a valid assessment?

    Secondly, another angle of great interest to me is the correlation between horror and heavy metal music and religion (yes, I am a die hard alt metal fan). In many respects metal is the musical equivalent to horror cinema and I remember striking fear into Christians in my youthful days with great glee. Yet hear I am now, a Christian, and I see those youthful excesses as expression of a passion for answers. I wonder where to take these musings further too.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    I think his assessment that religion, in general, being rooted in fear has some merit. I wouldn’t say this is the only root, but it is a major one. When it comes to Christianity perhaps we could note the love aspect as Rev. Sam points out, but also the aspect of fear, for example when Isaiah is overcome by his temple vision. Note that Cowan looks to Otto’s definition of religion as a starting point. How might Christians interact with this concept?

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Sorry, guys, I didn’t even know anyone was posting ocmments here. Glad to see it.

    Matt, I think your observations about horror and sci fi distinctives might have some general validity. Perhaps something to explore here in more depth.

    As to horror and heavy metal, see Christopher Partridge’s interesting discussion of popular “occulture” with music and film being influenced by horror, sci fi and fantasy in his two volume Work The Re-Enchantment of the West. Areas I’d love to explore in postgraduate work.

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