Saturday, December 22, 2012

Sacred Terror, Mini-Review, #1

First, a side-note: I've had to enable comment moderation. I wanted to avoid that as long as I could, but looks like I've picked up some spammers, so for now, all comments will be moderated. If you've made a constructive comment, and it doesn't appear for awhile, no worries, I probably just haven't been able to get to it. And now, on to our regularly scheduled blogging...

Last Spring, I wrote several blogs reviewing Noel Carroll's The Philosophy of Horror, in preparation for this big paper on modern horror cinema that I wrote for grad school.  I ended up writing a series of blogs about the subject, all kindly reposted in one place by author Kristi Peterson Schoonver, as I was her "guest blogger" for several months. And in reading Carroll's work - which all lovers of the horror genre, both writers and fans, should do - I got bitten with the non-fiction reading bug, for horror.

So, I decided to grab several other nonfiction titles to fill my plate, especially since, over this past summer, I'd decided to enact the "Bradbury Reading Plan", which called for a daily dose of nonfiction in my diet. I nabbed King's seminal Danse Macabre, but paused halfway through that,  because it was going into expansive detail about several books I hadn't yet read, and I wanted to avoid spoilers.

I then read Lovecraft's seminal Supernatural Horror in Literature, which I ALSO highly recommend. Very comprehensive, and I doubt I'll ever be able to read all the books Lovecraft recommended. I'm not going to review that here, though, because I'll be accessing that heavily for my podcast series with Tales to Terrify, "Horror 101".

Currently, I'm reading Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen. It's interesting reading, so far, and it shouldn't be a surprise that - given my own beliefs - this subject matter would interest me. However, one thing that should be noted from the outset: this book isn't a treatise on how all horror is religious, or that religious belief is the basis for good horror, or that any certain or particular religion creates any kind of superior brand of horror. No, what this work seems to be about so far, is two things:

1. religious images and beliefs are the fodder for many horror tales, both directly and indirectly

2. horror movies/stories are just as often about our anxieties and worries about religion's insufficiency as they are about religion's power

"If you really believed in God, Father, why is it so inconceivable to you that His adversary could be just as real?" Maya (played by Winona Ryder Lost Souls)

One of Cowan's main points early on is not a new one, and has been offered by many others: that horror films, (depending on the film), often deal with latent anxieties about our relationship with "unseen orders", about the conflict between "nature" and "supernature." He points out a key factor in his first example, The Fog, as a staple of supernatural horror: that souls of the wronged dead cannot rest until things have been put "right", or they have been avenged. Cowan also states that:

"Horror films regularly juxtapose what we expect as we go about our daily routines and what we suspect lurks just beyond the borders of our perception once those routines have been disrupted." (Cowan, 6)

Essential to understand is this: Sacred Terror isn't about "Christian" horror, isn't trying to evangelize from a certain religion, through horror. It's basic attempt, really, is simply to analyze a series of horror films through the lens that, be we Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Jews, Agnostics, Atheists, horror films in general deal with our worries and fears and anxieties about the "unseen world", and how that unseen world impacts us.

Cowan begins with examining John Carpenter's The Fog, and some of the religious elements presented, asking the following questions:

1. What do we fear?

2. And why religion?

I don't believe Cowan is slamming religion, here. I think, more importantly, he's trying to analyze what it is horror movies express about our culture's anxieties about religion, in general. For example: he highlights the fact that, generally speaking, for the most part, (though, if you bring in post-modernism, this argument changes), when people think of "religion" or "church" or "Providence", they think of "good" things. 

However, one of the cornerstones of horror is inversion: the flipping of our preconceived notions, to create an atmosphere or unease, disquiet, or outright fear (definition, mine). I briefly discussed this in my recent visit to English classes at Montrose High School, in PA - why do so many horror flicks, especially "slasher flicks", take place in houses? Why haunted, cursed, possessed houses?

Because houses - homes - are supposed to be safe. Sanctuaries, places to hide. By flipping that, inverting that premise, we're targeting a very basic, intrinsic fear of mankind: that there's no place to call home, there is no safe harbor.

Cowan uses Carpenter's The Fog as being illustrative of this.  Initially, the town's small church and the priest are held up as being the only safe harbor from the things hiding in the fog, the priest the only one who can truly understand and figure out what's going on.

However, as the movie plays out, we learn that centuries ago, the town's priest was not only complicit in the plot that led pirates to their death - the ghosts of which now haunt the fog - but he also double-crossed his conspirators and stole the pirate's gold to help beautify his church, and the rest of the gold - which the ghosts now hungrily seek - has been melted down into a cross and hid in the very place that these townspeople have sought out as safe harbor.  

So, in this case, the cultural expectations of "church" and "priest" have been inverted. A priest was initially responsible for bringing about this evil, and the one place everyone flees to is where the monsters are drawn, because that's where the cursed thing they are looking for is hidden. 

Ironically enough, Cowan points to another Carpenter film that not only inverts cultural expectations of "religion = good", but also inverts expectations of the horror "tradition" in a very pos-modern way. In Carpenter's movie Vampires, Jack Crow (James Woods) plays a rather amoral, hardened, mildly depraved vampire hunter working for, of all things, the Roman Catholic church.

He and his motley band of coarse, carousing, albeit deadly vampire hunters scour the countryside, slaying vampires, and partying. There's a token priest working with them, but these guys are basically weapons being used by the Church, with little regard for their own "spiritual" or "religious" conditions.

*Spoilers!* The inversion here is when the audience learns that, not only does vampirism come from within the church in the botched exorcism of rebel priest centuries ago, creating the first vampire, but that Jack's highest superior, a priest, has sold him and his team out to this vampire, in exchange for eternal life.  

Now, this movie could also be read about the danger of corruption at the highest level of any offices - in the end, the new, young and inexperienced priest assigned to Jack earns his stripes, retains his faith - though it's become a little more colorful  -and continues on with Jack, slaying vampires. But the inversion is there, not only of the audience's expectation (even if only subconscious), but also of the horror film fan's expectation, also.

So, one of this book's first basic premises is this: that great evil comes from, and often hides in, the institutions of our faith. Again, I don't believe Cowan is indicting organized religion in any way, especially considering that horror is an inversion of what we expect or believe.  In this case, horror movies - in regards to religion - in the words of Stephen King from Danse Macabre:

"...often serve as an extraordinarily accurate barometer of those things that trouble the night thoughts of a whole society."

Well, that's enough for today - need to get writing. Next blog will look at Cowan defining what he means by "religion", in regards to telling a "religiously-themed horror story."