While listening to Christmas music today I caught a part in one of the lyrics for "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" that mentioned telling scary ghost stories. I posted an inquiry on Facebook about the origins of this in the evolution of Christmas, and in addition to its incorporation in Victorian practices, Justin Mullis, who will be making a presentation on the American appropriation of Austria's Krampus traditions at the 2017 meeting of the American Academy of Religions, posted the following:
if you look into the history of Christmas you'll see that our modern conception of the holiday as a time of peace and goodwill is a very recent innovation. Historically Christmas was, to steal a phrase from researcher Al Ridenour, "a time of supreme supernatural mayhem." For example in his excellent book Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead, Bruce A. McClelland notes that in certain Eastern European countries…
“...the ‘twelve days of Christmas,” from Christmas Eve through Epiphany, or Jordan’s Day (January 6), are known as the ‘Unclean Days.’ Other names for this period are quite revealing: they include ‘Pagan Days,’ ‘Ember Days,’ ‘Unbaptized Days,’ and even ‘Vampire Days.’ This brief midwinter period represents a time when, it is believed, evil spirits are able to roam the earth…In South Slavic belief, people who die during this period invariably become vampires. Also, children who are born or conceived during this period have special powers and may themselves become vampires.” (pages 56-57)
Likewise, Ridenour in his new book, The Krampus and the Old Dark Christmas, writes...
"Though it's hardly a feature of the modern horror film, up until at least 1860, according to German Folk Superstitions of the Present, Christmas and werewolves went hand in hand. The seasonal fear of these beasts was so great that simply to utter the word 'wolf' between Christmas and Epiphany (or even during the entire month of December) was to put oneself at risk... to be born on Christmas Day could be considered an affront to Christ and thereby result in one being cursed to life as a werewolf." (page 155)
In addition to vampire, werewolves and demons like the Krampus, witches and ghosts were also once a regular part of Christmas time festivities. For a fairly exhaustive overview of Christmas witch traditions I would again recommend Ridenour's book, but also John Grossman's Christmas Curiosities: Odd, Dark and Forgotten Christmas. Also Phyllis Siefker's Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men for more on the Krampus and related traditions and Siefker's argument that Santa evolved not from St. Nicholas but rather from the medieval wildman.
As for ghosts, it was indeed once a time honored part of British and American Christmas to tell ghost stories. Dicken's A Christmas Carol is, of course, the most famous example but the tradition is far older. In 1589 Christopher Marlowe writes in the Jew of Malta that: “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.” A hundred years later no less then Shakespeare himself notes in A Winter’s Tale, that: “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one. Of sprites and goblins.”
In America, Washington Irving writes of the tradition of telling Christmas Ghost Stories in 1819 in From The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, and a few years later in 1845 Poe sets his Raven "in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." After Poe, H.P. Lovecraft added The Festival to the canon of Christmas chillers in 1923 in which he astutely observed that: “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.”
Back in Britain, writer M.R. James transformed the practice of the Christian Ghost story into an institution that endures to this day via the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas; a strand of annual British short television films originally broadcast on BBC One between 1971 and 1978, and revived in 2005 on BBC Four. James was a key influence on Henry James, who in The Turn of the Screw, published in 1898 wrote: “The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”
A Christmas Carol was not Dickens' only contribution to the genre of scary Christmas stories either. In The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton in 1837 about a mean old gravedigger who is dragged down to the underworld by a band of goblins on Christmas Eve - perhaps a reference to certain Scandinavian traditions that associate Christmas, once again, with the darker side of the supernatural: in this case trolls, goblins, fairies and elves - that later of which have managed to stick around albeit in a highly sanitized form.
As for why these traditions haven't stayed as prominence as others - I would say they have gone away - in the United States that is probably an even more complicated question to answer then the history I've just laid out. The increasing commercialism or Christmas? Conservative Christians attempting to expunge any latent pagan elements from the holiday? I sometimes wonder - as author Jeanette Winterson recently suggested in an interview with The New Yorker regarding her new book of supernatural tinged Christmas stories - if the official formation of Halloween as a holiday didn't have something to do with it. Today Halloween is our 'scary' holiday and Christmas is our 'joyful' one. To have two holidays both centered around the sinister side of the spirit world so close together would seem redundant and so all the ghosts, goblins, vampires, witches, monsters, and werewolves got relegated to Halloween, forced out of the Christmas holiday they previously owned.
The 1970s science fiction film Westworld remains one of my favorites from the decade, having seen it as a child while growing up. HBO has taken the basic premise of the film, a futuristic robotic theme park based on the Old West where guests can indulge their fantasies, and has just finished its first season. I've only been able to watch the season premiere, and bits of two other episodes, but I am intrigued by the various issues it raises.
Today I read a piece at Religion News Service titled "HBO's 'Westworld': Robot sex and the nature of the soul," and some of what was said in that essay got me to thinking even more about not only the issues the series raises, but some of the theological assumptions Christians make that are then brought into interaction with the series by those who aren't put off by the violence and graphic sexual elements it includes. What follows in the rest of this post are some of my observations and my own questions that come with my theological reflection, as well as my research in various disciplines that relate to this subject matter.
My first observation has to do with neuroscience. The essay at RNS includes the following quote in this area:
“The disturbing message … is that machines could one day be so close to human as to be indistinguishable – not just in intellect and appearance, but also in moral terms,” Tony Prescott, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of a robotics center at the University of Sheffield, said of “Westworld” in the online magazine The Conversation.
I'm certainly no neuroscientist, but I've read enough in the discipline to disagree with the statement of Dr. Prescott above. I recently saw a piece online which stated that robots that could be taken for human are very unlikely given that the human brain is wired to recognize faces in mere milliseconds, and that we can also quickly recognize an artificial approximation. When this happens our brains are put off with a negative reaction where the artificial is both recognized but also seen as foreign at the same time. The result is an uncanny response where we are wary of the artificial. The irony here is that the more lifelike a robot looks, the more likely it will be seen as upsetting. See the research on the "uncanny valley" in robotics on this. So in terms of the possibilities for the future in lifelike robots that could be taken for real human beings, although I suppose anything is possible, given what we know now from neuroscience, this seems highly unlikely. It is far more likely that such scenarios will remain in the realm of science fiction.
The next major area I was struck by is the essay's discussion of how Westworld raises questions about religion. I was pleased to see the essay mention "affect theory," one of my areas of research, and in the next paragraph the piece goes on to say the following:
“Are humans all that special?” Chitwood said. “Are they unique in the world, or are we more like the animals around us than we think? We immediately recoil from that because we believe we are created in the image of God. … What ‘Westworld’ does is get us to think about, ‘Can nonhumans have souls, and how is that soul connected to our biology?'”
Several theological issues and questions came to my mind after reading this. Christians are usually loathe to consider themselves in close relationship to animals, but evolutionary theory would seem to pose a serious challenge to this assumption. How then are we unique? The quote above mentions creation imago Dei, in the image of God. This is usually interpreted ontologically, that is, there is something different and special about the essence of human beings that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, whether their intelligence, self-awareness, or an immaterial spirit or soul. But several issues are challenging here. First, a good case can and has been made that the Genesis idea of creation in the image of God refers not to human ontology, but instead to an ancient near eastern understanding of calling to represent the divine king to the rest of creation. See Richard Middleton's fine discussion of this in The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis One. Second, is it theological necessary to posit a soul for human beings to be thought of as special? Although it is a minority view, there are evangelical theologians who reject body-soul dualism and who hold to a non-dualistic alternative called non-reductive physicalism. Nancey Murphy is an example of this. My third thought after reading this paragraph was the dangers that sometimes take place when we assume a special essence that makes us valuable that makes others less valuable who don't have this special something. In my research in genocide this is an issue. We assume a special essence for human beings, and that we then sit atop the metaphysical Great Chain of Being with lesser things below us. All well and good I suppose for us, but what about other animals, or other human beings who can become dehumanize when we assume that they lack our essence and instead are beastly and monstrous?
My final reflections after reading this RNS essay touched on the problem of violence. The premise of the Westworld park is that people know the "hosts" are robots and not humans, and this gives them the "freedom" to engage in acts of violence and brutality as dark fantasies are lived out. But this is highly problematic on a number of levels. First, that the robots are virtually indistinguishable from humans makes the possibility of violence toward them more unlikely not less so. Our brains are wired to make violence toward others challenging, unless this facet of our makeup is overcome by various processes. Second, assuming this neurological problem is overcome, serious psychological damage takes place in the wake of violence and murder toward others. Think of the post-traumatic stress disorder that now afflicts our military people returning from our various little wars around the globe. Even with the best military training making people into killers, we have a difficult time engaging in these acts, and they produce serious psychological damage. Would a theme park like this be able to overcome such neurological and psychological challenges? And what of the relationship between technology and violence? Consider our use of drone strikes in the War on Terror, for example. This program began with the Bush administration and was escalated under President Obama. It provides a way to use high technology to monitor and kill terrorists at a vast distance with less cost in terms of dollars and American lives than conventional warfare, but it has resulted in a high civilian death toll, and a negative psychological impact on those who pilot the drones.
Once the Blu-ray of season 1 of Westworld is released I plan on watching it and adding it to my collection. The thoughts above come to mind after just seeing snippets of the series, and reading an essay that raises theological and philosophical questions. I'm pleased to see Crichton's novel providing continuing inspiration for entertainment that provides thought provoking material on some of the most challenging ideas and issues of our time.
I work as a scholar in two major areas, and the monstrous is at the center of both. These two areas came together in some of my recent research in genocide. Not long ago I finished the great book Less Than Human by David Livingstone Smith, that explores the process of dehumanization and how viewing others as subhuman plays a part in the process of genocide. In a YouTube lecture he gave earlier this year on this topic he critiqued his own theory and noted that it is missing elements that he has now included in a paper, and in a forthcoming book. These missing elements include the concepts of the uncanny, as well as the monstrous, and they play a part in the human process of dehumanizing others, which then overrides our inhibitions toward killing others. When the circumstances are right, this can lead to genocide. See the links in this essay to see how Smith incorporates this into his work. It is fascinating to me to see how aspects of horror and the monstrous have application in this important area of research.
"Philip Tallon: The Philosophy of Horror"
The 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.
"Interview with Scott Derrickson: The Day the Earth Stood Still"
James 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.
The 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.
A 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,” 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.
W. 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 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.