Various aspects of the occult, or as it is more commonly referred to today in academic circles, Western esotericism, have long been facets that have informed storytelling and fear in horror films. A recent book by Carrol Fry touches on this topic, titled Cinema of the Occult: New Age, Satanism, Wicca and Spiritualism in Film (Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corporation, 2008). Dr. Fry has taught at Minnesota State University: Mankato and Northwest Missouri State University. In addition to his articles on film, he has published on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, science fiction, and fantasy literature, among other topics. Dr. Fry discusses the thesis of Cinema of the Occult and related issues in the following interview.
TheoFantastique: Thank you for an enjoyable read, and for your willingness to discuss the subject matter. How did you come to develop the personal interest in an exploration of the “occult” in general, and particularly its expression or influence in cinema, and how are you defining the term?
Carrol Fry: The term occult is pretty slippery, but in general it means hidden knowledge and the ability to alter what we think of as reality through esoteric practices.
How I got interested in the occult is a long story. I discovered the joys of public radio production when I first came to Northwest Missouri State, as the local radio station, KXCV, was anxious to get faculty participation. I discovered I had a knack for interviewing and scripting and did a number of pieces on folklore and oral history for local distribution. I had sort of run out of ideas for programs, and about that time an India Airlines plane was blown up by Sikh terrorists—must have been about 1985. I was talking to my sister, who lived in Kansas City, on the telephone and happened to mention the incident. “What’s a Sikh?” I asked. “Well you know, she responded, “they’re the people who operate the Golden Temple [a vegetarian restaurant in K. C.].” We had eaten there on a couple of occasions, and the kids who ran it were young Caucasians who dressed in vaguely looking Indian garb. I thought they were a bunch of zoned out hippies. The boys had long hair and beards (if they could grow one), and the girls were similar in appearance (without the beards). Now that’s interesting, I thought. Right here in the middle of the Bible Belt. I started checking around and found that Sikhism was just one of many religions practiced here that were well outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. So I decided to do a series on new religious movements and did five 30-minute documentaries that we distributed nationally by satellite. Somehow (and I don’t remember now how I stumbled onto it), I discovered Wicca and did one of the programs on New Paganism. I thought it was by far the most interesting of those religions I met, because it connected to some of my readings and to film. I went on to do documentaries on cults and intentional communities, but wrote journal articles on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s and Katherine Kurtz’s adaptation of the Old Religion in fiction. And I kept up my Neo-Pagan contacts. When I started seeing film adaptations of Neo-Paganism, I thought it was time to consider occult religions in general as they are adapted on screen. Hence, Cinema of the Occult.
By the way, for convenience and brevity, I mix the terms Wicca (or the Old Religion to its practitioners) and Neo-Paganism, and I should specify that Wicca is one of a larger group of return to occult Pagan religions.
TheoFantastique: You state in your introduction that as filmmakers draw upon the occult it is usually part of a general plausibility mechanism for storytelling, and that it is “usually an extrapolation of its potential to establish sensational plots rather than a totally correct representation.” Given certain aspects of the culture wars where fundamentalist and evangelical Christians, as well as some Neo-Pagans, have complained about such elements in film as either propaganda tool for the occult, or failing to properly represent esoteric belief, isn’t your observation important for viewers to remember? In other words, the esoteric is drawn upon for frame of reference and storytelling in order to create what might be viewed as new forms of fairytale and perhaps the culture wars are unwarranted on one level and might be telling us something else about the continued clashes between certain religious or spiritual subcultures. What would your thoughts be on this?
Carol Fry: Movies about the occult are, well, movies after all and are made for profit not education. The occult is by its nature sensational and sensationalism sells. Filmmakers have target audiences, but they want to reach a broad spectrum of customers. And you have to remember that a lot of films that adapt occult paths are part of the horror genre, and that audience demands sensationalism. So even those Wiccan films that give a favorable spin to the Old Religion might well offend not only Wiccans but conservative Christians, the former because they don’t accurately reflect their beliefs and practices and the latter because they are made at all. I think the one Neo-Pagan film that most Pagans I’ve met would, and do, enjoy is The Wicker Man. This is ironic because director Robin Hardy and script writer Anthony Shaffer intended it to be a warning against occult practices as leading to cults. As I say in my book, those Wiccan films that reflect negatively on the Old Religion, B movies such as Silent Night Deadly Night IV: the Initiation or Suspiria are unrelentingly sexist and even misogynist and reflect on the challenge to male authority that feminist Wicca presents for some people.
TheoFantastique: You also state in the book that the occult in cinema might be construed as a reflection of “the spiritual searching of those who seek alternatives to traditional religious teachings the quest for the numinous.” Can you illustrate or expand on this?
Carol Fry: TIME recently had a cover issue on the decline of Christianity. The feature article makes a good case that most Christian and Jewish paths, excluding the more, uh, “enthusiastic” denominations, have suffered losses and that political clout of conservative Christianity has declined. The Pentecostals and Southern Baptists have responded to the findings of science and the new Darwinism by simply denying anything that conflicts with biblical teachings, and those who search for the reassurance of certainty respond favorably to that line. But to many others, the sexism and authoritarianism of the Religious Right and the Catholic Church are simply unacceptable. Mainstream Christianity has failed to provide an alternative to those who actually think about spiritual matters. I don’t think there is much of a decrease in spirituality in the U. S., but many simply don’t find it in churches. Many of those who are seekers find that spirituality in new religious movements—African American Islam, the Baha’i Faith, various eastern religions, and yes, New Age and occult paths.
TheoFantastique: One of the recurring features of horror in general, but particularly in horror cinema that draws upon the occult, is a depiction of our fear of the Other. Can you describe this phenomenon and provide a few examples of how this takes place in occult cinema?
Carol Fry: Actually, I’m working on a book to be called Primal Screams, Primal Dreams that addresses this issue in depth. The term Other has become one of those undigested buzz words in post-modern criticism since the rediscovery of Hegel and the adaptation of the term by neo-Freudians like Lacan. The other as critical concept gets many different adaptations. To Marxists, for instance, it generally refers to minorities, Third World countries, gays, women, all those marginalized by Western society.
I mean something quite different based on the writings of sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson, Desmond Morris, and recently Richard Dawkins and many others, who speculate that adaptation through survival of the fittest and natural selection did more that create our physical form. These forces of adaptation also created the “whisper within” from thousands of years of evolutionary adaptive behavior. Successful adaptation, for instance, meant being suspicious of the other from the next valley who might kill you and take your women and children. Until recently, psychology and sociology had pretty much adapted the Lockean concept of the mind being a blank tablet at birth, on which experience (and association) writes, the tabula rasa. Sociobiologists would suggest that the tabula isn’t so rasa after all: that we are genetically prompted for many kinds of behavior, including fear of the other, who looks and behaves differently and who poses a perceived threat to our genetic kin group and territory. We see everywhere evidence of this fear of the other: at the mildest and probably most harmless level acted out in sports rivalries (the Yankees and Red Sox) but ranging to tragic violence between Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda, Shi’ite and Suni in Iraq, Nazi Germany’s holocaust against Jews, Poles, and homosexuals in the death camps, and the killing fields in Viet Nam. Killing in these instances is perceived as o.k. because those killed are other. There is a nature/nurture issue here, of course, as education leads us to civilized behavior despite the whisper within. Anyway, that’s a long answer to the question. I believe the horror genre, as in the Satanic film especially, plays on our fear of the other and the invasions of territory for its evoking vicarious fear. This fear of the other seems an obvious effect in the early vampire novels and films, werewolf, zombie, and slasher films which establish our fear and hatred of this invading other and prompts our satisfaction with the vampire’s stake in the heart (although that formula seems to be changing as we get romantic vampires), the werewolf’s silver bullet, and head shot for the zombie.
TheoFantastique: In my view, a neglected cinematic gem that incorporates “New Age” ideas in connection with near-death experiences (NDEs) is Flatliners. You discusses this in your chapter on New Age in film. Can you touch on this as an example of a thriller incorporating New Age ideas?
Carol Fry: Yes, I thought Flatliners was one of the better New Age films, not only in its adaptation of the near death experience phenomenon but in the creation of screen ambiance and visual symbolism. I don’t think those who believe in NDEs would have much objection to the film’s treatment of the concept. I thought the poster child for New Age movies was an even more neglected classic, Jacob’s Ladder. Few people saw it in theatres when it came out, but it has become a cult classic of sorts in DVD. The darned film is so deep and so demanding that few people are prepared to deal with and understand its message, which is, of course, detachment, as described in the works of Meister Eckhart, whose name comes up at a critical moment in the film. Meister Eckhart is a major inspiration in the New Age movement, even though he wrote 600 years ago.
TheoFantastique: How has the portrayal of Satan and the satanic changed over the course of horror films?
Carol Fry: I think the fear of the New World Order among conservatives and especial conservative Christians has given a different spin to the Satanic film. The cult mania starting in the sixties and all the folklore about Satanic groups has created a great potential other. The Omen was a dandy horror film, but as the franchise developed it because more and more an experience in vicarious paranoia about the enemy within. So the Satanic film has gone from being a religious allegory in Faust movies like The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Sorrows of Satan to the political subtext from all the Omen sequels and other films of that type.
TheoFantastique: Cinema has also changed in its depiction of the witch. Are fairytale depictions as in Harry Potter, as well as those which depict the empowerment of the feminine perhaps the most common modes of expression in contemporary film?
Carrol Fry: Yes, the empowerment of the feminine is the most popular adaptation, whether the film is supportive of critical. I’m sure this has to do with attracting an audience for the film. But Pagans might well feel that Hollywood slights their spiritual paths by concentrating nearly exclusively on feminist Wicca, and then just on the most sensational elements. By the way, there’s a strong subtext of feminist Wicca in The Da Vinci Code that no one much notices, most obviously in Sophie’s (named for Sophia from the Gnostic tradition) blunder’s into a Wiccan ceremony in which her grandfather is “drawing down the moon” as a coven ceremony. There are a few other witch films that are not part of the culture wars, romantic films such as I Married a Witch and Bell, Book and Candle that are neither the silly version of witches (that have nothing to do with Neo-Paganism) such as the Harry Potter novels and films nor adaptations of Wicca.
TheoFantastique: Spiritualism is another aspect you touch on in your book. In your thinking, what films best illustrate this significant expression of the occult in cinema?
Carrol Fry: Spiritualism makes a wonderful frame for ghost movies. Not all ghost movies adapt Spiritualism, of course. A true Spiritualist film uses Spiritualist beliefs on communication with spirits, why spirits remain behind as part of the frame and/or descriptions of the afterlife. A Rumor of Angels comes to mind as an obvious Spiritualist film because it’s based directly on Ruth Boyland’s 1918 book Thy Son Liveth, a classic of Spiritualist literature and an early version of electronic voice phenomenon. Ghost and Sixth Sense are interesting adaptations on why spirits remain behind as ghosts. White Noise is pretty much high concept based on actual Spiritualist electronic voice phenomenon practices, and What Dreams May Come seems based on Spiritualist beliefs about the afterlife. Ghost stories have been with us forever, and Spiritualism give a distinct and interesting spin to these old stories.
TheoFantastique: Thank you again for your book and the exploration of an interesting cinematic expression of the fantastic.
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