Good, Evil & Supernatural Horror: Does What You Believe Color Your Fiction?


I once read an essay (now long lost) that suggested Catholic Horror writers wrote better Horror…

I don’t remember the argument or the examples, but the question has stayed with me well past my own conversion to Catholicism. I deny, of course, that I converted for the Horror. But it is fun to say. And it also means this is a question that has dogged my reading and writing career.

Is it true? Do Catholics write better Horror? And more importantly, does what you believe affect not only choices you make in writing Horror, but the quality of the stories you tell?

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The Question of Faith

One of the most interesting facets of Horror fiction is that it perpetually asks: what is the relevance of faith?

Modern characters are often nonreligious, agnostic or atheistic, and are left defenseless to confront the evils of the world – up to and including the demonic – all without the slightest understanding of the immensity of the situation. This is a blessing to Hollywood, which gets to explore all manner of special effects on the way to the protagonist’s discovery that whatever it is, it is directly from Hell, and there is no cure for the evil coming for them…

And it makes things easier for the writer, who doesn’t have to worry about knowing obscure and arcane facts, who can “learn” right along with their characters, and who can feel equally “safe” in making up solutions that eliminate or “postpone” the problem – even if it means passing the evil onto someone else – preferably a minor antagonist who “deserves” it.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have all manner of “reality” ghostbusting television shows to thank for replacing that void which not only religion, but folk and fairy lore used to occupy. We can refer or defer to them as the “authority” on how supernatural things happen, and even lessen the importance of why.

We are innocent, after all – all of us. We never, ever deserve the evil that roams the world as punisher.

But isn’t this delivery of supernatural fiction from a position of ignorance the reason modern Horror is more two dimensional than ever? Do we need a belief system in order to “dress” the details of a real religious crisis?

Is the problem that we no longer believe in a real religious crisis?

I have wondered about this for a long time – especially since I left my own Protestant church with a crisis of faith about the same time that a good deal of mainstream America was doing the same – the 1970’s. And one has only to ask “what are the main Protestant denominations today?” to see what the national restructuring of faith resulted in – a loss of consistency, a loss of definable doctrine greater than sola scriptura – or God’s Word alone.

Yet the Catholic Church was not immune from parishioner defection.

Everyone, it seemed, was having a crisis of faith – not only at the time when science and technology was again on the rise – but at the time when a U.S. President could be assassinated, when a Civil Rights leader could be murdered in the light of day, when our own government was caught in lies that went back centuries, and the first cracks in the American Dream became visible.

Pair that with the teenage years of the Baby Boom generation, and there was a whole lot of questioning going on. And churches of all faiths were caught unaware and reacted with indignant shock.

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But this never meant we stopped craving religion, or some proof of it.

And for that proof, we cast our gaze to the very thing that robbed us of our faith: evil…the kind of evil that seems in its tenacity and freedom from judgment to run rampant in the world, savaging humanity without an apparent comment from God.

Why is God silent, if indeed he is there?

The question has haunted generations of agnostics who want more, of atheists who require tangible proof to believe more, and of the faithful who kneel in churches in the face of tragic events. And where Literature has long explored the theme, Horror has reveled in it.

Clearly humanity needs an answer, if not God Himself. We would not ponder and debate the question of His existence if we did not need Him in the most primal way – ask any psychologist, sociologist, or priest.

Faith is the scab over the old wound that never heals, the one we pick at, and point at, and deride others about for choosing faith, or choosing no faith, or the wrong faith.

Of course in our genre, we get to take matters of religion to the extremes. But we do so because the question of faith is that important to us – whether as witnesses to human arrogance, or as victims of those seeming above any laws. Clearly we need to know there is judgment of some sort… and if we can’t get God to respond, we will turn to the Devil.

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The Devil as Default

We have long sought out evil in an attempt to flush out God.

It is the most basic attempt to tease God out of Heaven, to prove His existence to us, and more importantly, to prove our worthiness, our special place in His universe.

But we have also done so by placing evil in the laboratory and under the microscope in the hope of understanding ourselves – if not excusing ourselves.

Says Susan Neiman in her book Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternative History of Philosophy (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, c2002): “Exploring evil as historical phenomenon becomes part of our efforts to make the world more comprehensible in theory and acceptable in practice” (Neiman 44).

Knowing how to recognize evil might offer us the opportunity to eradicate it, to give us hints on how to avoid its demonic gaze. So we attempt to define it by assigning categories of human behavior to it.

The irony is not lost on Horror writers, who often then weave the demonic right back into humanity. Who’s the Devil here? And why isn’t Satan the perfect vehicle for all of our troubles?

The answer is: because if we believe in the Devil, we are also wont to believe in God. And today, that equates for many to simple superstition.

But then Horror asks (when it is really good Horror)… what if religion is real?

As though such a question represents the purist, the most preachy among us, bad or weak Horror has therefore grabbed onto the Devil by his horns and thrust him into every subgenre and every trope sacred to our genre as though to ward off any further questions.

Today it is never just a witch, but the Devil’s personal favorite. It is never just a ghost but a demon from the Devil’s right hand. It is never just a werewolf but a personal brush with a hound from Hell. It is never just a mass murderer but one possessed. It is never just a vampire, but one bewitched by the witch who is the Devil’s personal favorite… and so it goes… ad nauseum.

Today, evil just IS…

We have no real relation to it, other than to be an innocent victim of it.

Whether we are trying to explain a terrorist act or a weak fiction plot, it is just easier to drag the Devil into it. It gives us permission to become hapless victims and righteous soldiers. Says Neiman, “Belief in Providence presumes that we are innocent long after we’ve begun to look very suspicious.” (199)

We have completely missed the message of evil.

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The Exorcist and the Battle of Good and Evil

Of course, Horror took up the challenge. And the reasons for the success of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is not only why we have some pretty awesomely scary Horror to look back on today, but it is also why modern writers stay away from religious questions almost entirely in contemporary Horror fiction.

Blatty, it appeared, went just a little bit too far… not in his monster –the Devil was great in this on (and was even able to send his right hand demon for one of the first times in modern Horror fiction and as a result it was unique, and a worthy surprise for Horror audiences and lapsed Christians everywhere) – but because Blatty made the mistake of not letting the story speak for itself.

As Horror Critic S.T. Joshi says, “the sole function of his writing is to reconcile us to Catholicism…” (Joshi 61)

Blatty framed his characters in the exact moment of time in which we were living: many Americans in 1971 were no longer members of any church, even when we considered ourselves to be Christian. A growing segment of the population were self-identifying as agnostic, and many others of us were flirting with atheism while embracing our pseudo-enlightenment, rejecting the beliefs of our parents who we were coming to see as parochial and even ignorant. To a Catholic writer like Blatty, something needed to be done to herd us all back to the fold… to revisit the issue and necessity of faith.

While it is not so obvious in the film, the book reveals more of his intent… seeming “preachy” while it attempts to take a skeptical, modern reader and explain how true evil has no scientific explanation, and no solution other than what God can provide through established religion and faith. Says Joshi, “Blatty so insistently pushes his theology in our faces” that it virtually bankrupts any aesthetic value of his work (Joshi 61).

This is a consequence of Blatty’s attempt to demonstrate – much to many readers’ chagrin – that the atheistic mother of the possessed child has no choice but to exhaust all of the “logical” and “scientific” explanations for possession until the character must in abject desperation concede that only God and her reclaimed faith can save her child.

This is exactly where we all were with religion: we did it if we did it once a week, and the rest of the time we were duly enlightened.

In the book, there is the usual parade of psychiatrists, medical doctors, medications and therapies which because of our modern resistance to the metaphysical, must be explored in order to prove their irrelevance to the supernatural problem. We must be made to see ourselves in our faithless world, too busy and too oblivious to consider the truth that humanity is the unwavering target of evil. And indeed, the reader goes on this very tedious journey with her.

Blatty’s purpose, of course, is to show that true religious events are matters of faith – not science.

And to some degree, he succeeded. The message was not lost on many Catholics. And the possibility of demonic possession delivered upon an innocent child led many Protestants to rethink their baptism-as-lifetime-guarantee position. But it did not drive us all back into the pews. Instead, it ushered in the New Age and a re-visitation of spiritualism and tinkering with the arcane.

It also led to a certain reluctance among Horror writers to write anything which would label them as “preachy.” And so began the mad dash to found footage and staring for hours at empty rooms in the hopes of seeing a swinging chandelier or a door closing ever so slowly… the Devil became the default explanation for everything that could go wrong in a Horror novel.

But ironically, we seem to prefer that the Devil cannot be defeated…

We just don’t seem to want to believe in a God who makes us discover faith in a room full of demons.

We don’t want to bring in Christianity.

We don’t want anything that reeks of superstition to taint our big boy Rambo image, so we feign ignorance of religion and make the secret rites of the Catholic Church a rental option.

Fix and forget it. That’s our modern motto.

Never mind that our robotic obsession with living in a bubble might be abnormal, and the battle between good and evil, the normal. That would be too scary….and preachy.

It seems sad to me that we have ignored the greater message which does persist behind Blatty’s desire for a mass return to faith: that some things are just beyond our control because maybe-just-maybe we are not the center of the universe after all.

Yet we struggle with the concept of anyone – God or exorcist or deliverance minister – being the final answer to our problems. We are, it seems, too great a set of control freaks to let that be a default in our fiction. We’d rather just have the demon who cannot be completely banished, the mystery we cannot completely uncover. So we hide behind extinct or obscure cultures, and – if all else fails – we make things up.

This is true for Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet… do we write differently because of our own intimate beliefs?

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Catholics, Protestants, and Atheists… Oh My!

Horror has always consisted of a diverse field of writers.

With regard to that essay I referenced at the beginning, I have not found one religious (or nonreligious) persuasion to be better or more prolific than another.

Do I think a belief system or lack of one influences writers of Horror? Definitely yes: whether we write to obscure or promote our own beliefs, or in fear of having those beliefs ridiculed or to spite our parents or Critics, or because we do not believe in one religion or in perhaps even in God, religion cannot help but impose its shadow upon our genre.

Do I think it makes us better or worse as writers?

I think the temptation to overreach is there, whether a writer subconsciously mocks or feels mocked or anticipates mockery. Religion must be entered into “just so” in our genre, lest it spoil the tale. As a result, our very personal position on religion or lack of it can affect our work for better or worse.

But I don’t think it is the determiner of our fates as Horror writers…although perhaps it will contribute something to style.

For example, in Horror, we have the Reformation to thank for separating the ways Protestants and Catholics look at the supernatural, starting with ghosts. Says Gillian Bennett in an introduction to the Seventeenth Century chapter of her book The Best 100 British Ghost Stories:

“Catholics and Protestants agreed that the souls of bad people would not be allowed to escape from Hell and the souls of good people would not wish to leave Heaven. The only place restless spirits could be coming from was therefore Purgatory, which was conceived of as a sort of holding pen where souls could be purged of sin. It followed that if there was no Purgatory, there could be no ghosts; but if ghosts could be proved to exist, the existence Purgatory was confirmed.” (Bennett 15)

Therefore Catholics believed in ghosts, Protestants did not. Toss in the modern reluctance to consider ghosts to be anything other than demons imitating loved ones to gain access to the soul, and we lose Catholics as well…but only publicly.

In private, we all ponder the existence of ghosts, and even play at “busting” them.

Yet our religious training in where we place them and whether they are or ever were human changes the way we write ghosts and demons and influences the belief of whether or not they can or should be driven to Hell…right along with who has the religious authority to do the driving…

So yes, our religious beliefs can and do affect how we tell a tale.

As an observer, I also believe Catholics are wont to write “deeper” in the area of religious problems like death and grief, ghosts and possession. I think the possibilities that await those who stray too far from God hold a certain terror for Catholics that Protestants do not anticipate or seem willing to entertain, and maybe that has to do with our early religious upbringings. But I think Protestants write better modern characters and situational Horror. And I think atheists write better Weird and subversive monsters than any of us.

Indeed, most of Weird fiction’s prominent and founding writers have been atheists according to Joshi. And many supernatural/spectral writers are Catholic. And of course many of todays’ giants are Protestants. So while religion or lack of it is most certainly an influence, it is not an indicator of success or failure – only a comfort zone for the kind of monsters we choose to write.

Most of us writing in Horror have lapsed in our faith a time or two, whether we were able to translate our own mystic fears and worldviews into our fiction or not, whether we eventually abandoned it altogether or not. It is the nature of the Horror genre that we question reality and our place in it. So it is also natural that we question surreality and its place in our world, that we poke at boundaries and wonder about it if something dares poke back.

Horror is not and should not be about driving the masses back into the arms of a loving God or into experimenting with the supernatural or declaring ourselves proudly above religion entirely. But it is about allowing ourselves the right to believe… even if it is only long enough to drive a demon out of this world, or to experience the what if of the moment.

It is about questioning, and sometimes…discovery – even discoveries we didn’t want to make and don’t know what to do about.

Not because Catholics or Protestants or atheists might write better Horror fiction, but because if the monstrous unseen really is out there, then the monstrous human is not the worst thing to worry about. And whether religion is superstition or not, some of us would rather not contemplate a world where we are completely, excruciatingly alone.

After all, there would be no one left to read our work…

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References

Bennett, Gillian. The 100 Best British Ghost Stories. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: Amberly Publishing, c2012.

Joshi, S.T. The Modern Weird Tale. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. c2001.

Neiman, Susan. Evil in Modern Thought: an Alternate History of Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, c2002.

 

Return of the Mummy: Re-Wrapping Unsavory Truths for a Globally Aware World


It’s not just about grave-robbing anymore…

Somehow, that is the potential problem that plagues the modern Mummy, still interpreted by Hollywood primarily…Instead we are obsessed with special effects, popular movie stars, and ancient curses we manage to make up ourselves. Always we decorate our interpretations of Mummy stories with elaborate bigotries and racist caricature.

Nowhere in the past have we treated the culture we are robbing to tell the Mummy’s tale with the respect it is due, nor in a way that enhances the story.

What a shame…For with the Mummy we stand among the most powerful subgenres in Horror – in the fertile ground of the Gothic Romance and the Ghost Story, amidst a magnificent example of marginalization of the Other: the grave-robbing of an antiquated culture for fun and profit, and the exotic dead laced with the desperation of revenge.

Somehow, with visions of pulp and action adventure blockbuster receipts dancing in our heads, we have lost interest in what the Mummy really represents. The true heart of the story is not about love and reincarnation: the real purpose of the Mummy has always been revenge for the wanton disregard of the dead of Others… And we have carefully crafted something else again.

As we await the release of a yet another new Mummy film and the recent publication of a new (overdue) Mummy anthology, we are reminded to consider exactly why the Mummy disappeared from view, becoming the least-utilized trope in contemporary Horror.

Why did the Mummy go away? And is his tale done being told?

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Orientalism: Our Nasty Little, Overripe Secret

Most of us today aren’t quite sure what to make of the Egyptian Mummy, of Bog People, of ancient Andean Children found mummified on mountain tops… We are, after all, human. We are curious, simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the exposure of the desiccated bodies of mysterious, long-dead people. But we are also voyeurs. We relish the encouraged and unseemly study of remains, the ghoulish poking and prodding of one who cannot expose our unnatural interests, the very public humiliation of a helpless human being we can dehumanize further by simply pronouncing that being “ancient and dead” in the same sentence.

It is a most intimate and unforgivable form of desecration. Under cover of scientific curiosity we allow it because of the historical distance we can put between us in our modern civility and sophistication, and (ironically) a primitive people who were so technologically advanced we are still trying to decipher how they did so many wondrous things.

We have not only talked ourselves into an entitlement to find and break into tombs in the name of research, but we have made ourselves the official filter of their stories. And we have long taken liberties.

Why, then, was this ever okay?

Is it because we believe now as we believed then that we deserve to know the secrets of vanished civilizations? Is it because we also fear becoming vanished and hope to avert whatever dictate of fate caused the demise of those civilizations? Or are we simply hiding behind a convenient behavioral pattern humanity has historically exploited since our sordid beginnings – one that inspires those in power flaunting the most cultural currency to mock and then destroy the cultures they overrun?

Why is it not only okay but fashionable to display the bodies of ancient or conquered cultures? We are obliged to admit we have done this before… and indeed, we continue to do it…

The answer is called Orientalism… which according to Edward Said, dates from the period of European Enlightenment and the colonization of the Arab world. It is also a Critical term, and as such it means that using art and writing, we interpret predominantly Arab cultures not with facts, but with wild imaginings that include the distortion of actual facts, the exaggeration of unfavorable characteristics, the labelling of local practices as primitive, suspect and dangerous, the strong suggestion that choosing to live certain ways or adopt certain religious beliefs other than Judeo-Christian ones are simply proof of superstitious ignorance.

For instance, with the Mummy, we have created malevolent Egyptian spirits and forcefully superimposed the belief of reincarnation on a culture that had no such religious interpretation, the idea of which would have been as abhorrent to the Egyptians as the concept of reanimating a corpse. (Guran 10-11) Indeed, despite our contemporary obligation to tell modern Mummy stories that conform to the historical facts we dug them up for, we have not always been so considerate to our Mummies as fictional characters.

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We have taken liberties that seem to be inspired by what we know about Mummies in general – that there were a lot of ancient Egyptians who lived and died, and a lot of them were mummified as part of religious burial practices, some historians estimating that some “730 million corpses were mummified” during the period, and that there were so many, they ran out of places to put them… (Stephens x) With so many, with no names, with no place to keep them, what harm is there?

Assumptions were then made based on our knowledge of human nature – that if a body is buried with any form of valuable, that burial site might well be pillaged for the wealth by anyone, thereby providing ample need for a curse or two and a ready explanation for inscriptions found on the occasional tomb but which we do not understand. We take “poetic license” and color our fiction with it –letting fear imply truth, despite facts.

The misinterpretation of what we have pronounced “curses” might – according to researchers – “have been directed at would-be tomb-robbers of their own epoch” whose efforts to extract even minor wealth might damage the mummy or the tomb and therefore the identity and spiritual welfare of the person buried within, rendering the spirit homeless and nameless (Weigall 2). And while it is the mark of good fiction to commandeer such details to create a good Horror story, we still have a responsibility to remain truthful.

Indeed, perhaps we came to assume once too often, eventually even believing that within witnessing the local misappropriation of mummies for all manner of uses – including thatching roofs, grinding up as elixirs, as fertilizer, as a food condiment, locomotive fuel, and general disregard (Stephens x) – was an implied permission to further abuse the memories of those dead. But those who descend from a culture have their own ancestors to answer to in the end. And those who are not-so-related have an obligation to decency – even in fiction, which sometimes survives longer.

We may be better educated today, but Orientalism is, alas, not a thing of the past. And this has inhibited the creation of new (and better) Mummy stories. Rather than get our hands dirty by doing research and letting the truth inspire better told tales, we cling to our old, tried and true Orientalist tendencies. Or we remain silent entirely, moving on to other, more easily rendered monsters.

We prove it each time we refuse to educate ourselves on the wars in the Middle East, when we look at a Sikh and call him a Muslim, when we look at a Muslim and see a terrorist… even when we look at Native Americans and name sports teams after them. We are far from out of the woods… some days farther than others.

But the difference is that today if we write something and don’t properly vet the information, there are more people willing to stand up and call us out on our ignorance. That is scary if one thinks of creative writing as a place we can make facts up to carry the plot in a story about a real people, because that simply isn’t true.

It is daunting once one realizes how far out of our own depth we are when we write about other cultures. It should be.

And there are more people who are willing to really look at what our interpretation of Egyptian mythology and religion says about us… proving that turnabout is indeed, fair play…

When the internet happened, suddenly a lot of us discovered just what a minority we are in the scope of the world, and just how ignorant our own ignorance was making us appear to be.

It was the Mummy’s fault, of course. He’s been after us all for a long, long time. Perhaps it was all that glossed-over, rationalized grave robbing…

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So we disappeared the Mummy partly in embarrassment.

Times changed.

Suddenly, there was no good way to tell a Mummy story without being politically incorrect. But instead of embracing that and re-working the Mummy stories into what they always were at heart – a really great ghost story – we just re-entombed him.

We recycled the old infused with new special effects, but we contributed nothing to the dialog…at least until Anne Rice tried her very adept hand in 1989. Yet still the Mummy did not seize our imaginations anymore.

We buried him with the truths science was bringing forth, allowing ourselves to be intrigued and amazed – but never to be outraged that we are circulating the bodies of the un-exhumed dead. Could it have been a wee bit of guilt?

Make no mistake. These are dead people. People consigned to the earth under the implicit promise we all expect to be honored that our eternal rest will not be disturbed…

What are we doing putting them on display?

And why do we assume that those so long dead are simply not aware, in whatever afterlife they may reside?

I cringe each time I see these exhibitions glorified…each time a tomb is discovered and opened. Granted, maybe it is watching too may Horror movies, maybe it is reading and writing far too much Horror…

But there are stories. True stories. And they should rattle your inner Mummy…Because if you are looking to write a new Mummy story, you don’t have to go farther than some real Ghost Stories..

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The Black Hope Horror: a Modern Mummy Tale Without a Mummy

In 1982, they made a little summer blockbuster called Poltergeist. But what most people don’t know (or perhaps remember), is that the movie was loosely based on fact: that an entire modern housing area was built upon an old cemetery – a cemetery of a certain age and containing the remains of African Americans, some of whom were freed slaves. The movie had absolutely nothing to do with poltergeists. It had to do with what happened in real life: the disturbance of graves.

So old was the cemetery in question with the last burial in 1939, that developers decided it would be too expensive to relocate the graves and relatives too deceased themselves or too scattered to be the wiser. A wealthy subdivision was built in the 1980’s on what had once been the Black Hope Cemetery in Houston, Texas.

 

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And the odd occurrences began almost immediately, accelerating for one family when they attempted to build a swimming pool. Some families were more troubled than others, some claim were never troubled. But the bottom line is that the incredible amount of alleged occurrences resulted in some of the most documented hauntings in modern American history.

 

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The remains of Betty and Charlie Thomas were found in the Haney’s backyard

 

And unbeknownst to many, this is not an unusual circumstance – this desecration of old cemetery grounds in the U.S. by developers and energy companies. Older cemeteries in rural areas are often overtaken by modern greed when they are found to be neglected, or so old descendants are not to be found to defend them. A number of coal companies are watched quite suspiciously in the Midwest, with aging descendants worried about what happens when they themselves are no longer around to protect the family plot.

Imagine that.

But would you believe that even within Black Hope, we hear this little parcel of Orientalism:

“Respect Houston is willing to move these graves to give them a proper burial,” she said, “provided we identify the people who are buried.”… http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/article/Black-Hope-horror-doesn-t-haunt-this-hood-9565799.php

Pardon me, but…they had a “proper burial.” The proper thing is to buy back the homes and raze the neighborhood. I don’t care how expensive it is. That is the “proper” thing to do because it doesn’t matter who these people were…they were people their community and loved ones buried. Period.

Yet these types of things are ongoing… Somewhere in the midst of our individual Orientalism we lost the respect for our own collective dead. Many of us just rationalize that “certain things must be done for the greater good” or that “the dead are dead and the living have needs that surpass promises made.”

One sees it all of the time in Horror fiction: the person who refuses to acknowledge a haunting because to do so means attrition must be made and compromise means loss; it is far easier to hope denial will make the facts go away.

Yet isn’t this fine fodder for any new Mummy? Because isn’t the message the same?

 

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Building a Better Mummy

Why did the Mummy go away in Horror fiction? The answer is because as he was, we out-grew him. The caricatures and racist overtures were embarrassing if not self-implicating. And as the world began to merge with social media and a cacophony of international voices found their stages, it was quickly apparent that we could no longer expect to just make things up and not be called on it. Justice for the Mummy came on the wings of the internet…

Thank heaven for Paula Guran and the Mammoth Book imprint. At last we now have a modern anthology of Mummy tales that manages to “go beyond” a bit, encasing a little less orientalism – provided you don’t look too close at the cover (if you modernize a mummy, you shouldn’t cheapen the effort by abandoning harmless yet important factual detail by using gauze to do it)… Overall I liked this collection – especially because of the attempt to recapture the “spirit” of the monster in more contemporary ways.

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The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead is long overdue, and although “padded” with older tales, offers some new versions of the story…But then many of us stay away from the Mummy, worried no doubt about the ease of misrepresentation. This collection proves we are at least trying to get there. And I for one challenge writers to try their hands at a good Mummy story… a good don’t disturb-the-sleeping-dead story… because they are indeed harder to write well today.

But be respectful. First, be human. Then, be civilized.

What is not-human is willingness to disturb, to rob, to steal the tiny real estate that is a gravesite for fame and monetary gain.

What is not-civilized is to parade about the body parts like those individuals have forfeited their right to peace and respect by the lack of living guardian-relatives.

It’s more than time for new Mummy tales. It’s time for a reiteration of the real message hanging blatantly beyond cheap shot summer blockbusters and tomb raiding which we continue to accept because we employ scientists to do it on our behalf. We are just not “entitled” to dig up dead people to satisfy our curiosity. And if we can’t academically help ourselves, we should respectfully study, document, photograph and return such remains to their rightful tombs.

It really is time we lived up to what we claimed – that we just wanted to learn about these people and their culture, no harm intended.

Those Mummies have told us their tales. It was amazing. I am grateful. Now put those people back. And it wouldn’t hurt to apologize – especially for whatever Tom Cruise is about to do.

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The fact is, the Mummy ‘s tale is far from finished. We have merely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to disturb the dead no matter how long they have been put to rest.

Within these parameters the Mummy could not be more timely – right now when the populations of many cities in many countries are overflowing, and the demand for real estate to accommodate housing and the growing of food has never been more pressing, when wars and atrocities spring up like weeds in spring. We are no longer at liberty to not-reside in properties that have not seen death, and we are like the ancient Egyptians before us, running out of places to bury people, have lost track of old cemeteries, have lost records of old murders and battles and tragedies. We are going to have to rediscover what it means to live alongside our legacies – the good and the bad – to appease angry spirits of those we might well offend.

Surely there is a great Mummy story in that. Because even now we are so not without blemish…And the reason it should haunt us is a human one. A primal one.

Make no mistake. Treating corpses like “things” is a slippery slope…first it is an unwrapping party, then it is digging for coal under great, great grandma… or building houses on old black cemeteries…

Eternal rest. Now that’s an entitlement no matter who you are.

 

References

Guran, Paula, ed. The Mammoth Book of the Mummy: 19 Tales of the Immortal Dead. Germantown, MD: Prime Books, c2017

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, c1979

Stephens, John Richard. “The Truth of the Mummy’s Curse” (introduction). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999

Weigall, Arthur. “The Malevolence of Ancient Egyptian Spirits.” ). Into the Mummy’s Tomb. Edited by John Richard Stephens. New York: Barnes & Noble Inc., c2006, 1999

The Witch: What a Bookless Film Teaches Us About Writing in Our Own Genre


You might not have noticed, but one of the more critically acclaimed Horror movies that you didn’t hear much of not long ago hit DVD/Bluray release. The Witch, a 2016 debut from Robert Eggers, came at us from the Sundance Film Festival. And it came bookless – without fanfare, and without the promise of a sequel.

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Yet in theaters and in DVD stores, the film has failed to ignite, the sales not so stellar.

Why do Critics and some fans give this film the highest of marks, when it does not resemble what we have come to expect from “successful” Horror films? And specifically, if you have watched it and did not feel affected, why not?

The answer would be because this film is not conventional Horror: it is about Horror – it is how Literary Horror looks when filmmakers understand the importance of punctuating their plots with something deeper than splashy effects. This is an important lesson for writers of Horror to understand…Because even if you choose to write in-genre and somewhat pulpy fiction, you need to grasp just how to utilize words, setting, symbols, and psychological effects and then be able to deftly select from a smorgasbord of actual history, folklore, superstition, and disease (social and literal) to better enhance your Horror – to layer it in the intent of getting under the skin like a parasite. It’s why films like Insidious (the first one) worked where the plot and acting was less dimensional – there it is the imagery and the suggestions it makes to our subconscious that delivers the shivers. But it is also why so much 1980’s Horror worked – why Classic Horror still works…

When these ingredients are properly combined, films like The Witch, The Exorcist and The Birds result. The reliance on jump scares may still be present, but they are to a much lesser degree – relying instead on the direct connection to the personal fears of human beings – whether it is the reality of the Devil and his army of demons, or a preternatural and unsettling unification of nature against humanity.

In The Witch, there are pretty strong references to fear, terror and real Horror the way most of us imagine it. Yet a large chunk of our audience – the Horror audience – was unimpressed. Indeed, the reviews aren’t particularly stellar – especially among movie-goers and subsequently – Horror fans: according to film review site Rotten Tomatoes, only 55% of viewers liked it. But 91% of Critics did. Why the point spread? And what does this say about our genre?

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Tricks Are For Kids, Silly Rabbit

One of the first clues is the subtitle “A Folk Tale.” This film unabashedly shows its lineage to the viewer. For a murky, moody tale surrounding the Salem witch trials, it is not about the Salem witch trials – but the atmosphere created by the paranoia and dread such rampant fear invokes. Nested within rests the possibility, the suggestion that witchcraft and its consequences are real…the extension of which is the possibility that for the witch, perhaps not all is as it is promised.

We forget that the time period in question birthed the phrase “witch hunt” – a frenzied, irrational attack on anyone unfortunate enough to warrant a finger-point, whose differences or poor luck or gender was enough to justify their own persecution, torture, and death. But we also forget that tucked neatly away within our own religion are warnings about such fraternization with things unseen, with the dangers of envy, the vulnerability of being faithless.

We also forget that caught in the middle of such historical moments are real people, fearing that their own reactions or behaviors – however innocent –might be misinterpreted, costing whole families everything. We forget how easy it was to acquiesce to the momentum of the moment rather than take a risk, to see that the price of loyalty might well be one’s own life. We forget – especially today and in this country – what it is to fear the accusation of another that leads directly to death.

This is the importance of history, and of this specific time in our history. Because if we don’t see the mistakes that were made, we cannot prevent their cousins from rising as specters in the future.

And yet we have already managed to forget.

We make light of witches, even as our unpalatable history rests intact in Salem, Massachusetts. We amuse ourselves with the idea that our ancestors were simply superstitious, gullible, ignorant – not enlightened like ourselves.

We also make light of witchcraft, chiding ourselves into believing that if we play at it, we might be in charge of pre-selected consequences; we might dabble, be amazed, and then escape. Yet such is warned against in all religions; because in all religions are unwritten rules, forgotten wisdom, hidden Horrors. And the greatest Horror of all is not that one would be detected, persecuted and put to death… but that any such engagements might carry extenuating clauses in their contracts – ones that call for sacrifice of those loved other than the self.

But bad things, if they happen, happen to others. And we are all pretty certain sitting under our electric lights, that it is all superstition anyway.

Is that why we can sit disaffected by such a film as The Witch?

Indeed, much of our own religion today minimizes the possibility of the supernatural, the reality of a witch, or a ghost or a demon – all while handing us biblical verses mentioning those very possibilities. We have separated ourselves from those passages, determined to make them “symbolic” or “parables” or “metaphors.”

This film asks what if they are not? What if they are more – be it in the mind or the making?

Primitive humanity has always allowed for the unseen. And perhaps that is the problem: we seek to disavow our primal fears from our new, glossy, sciencey selves.

It’s why so many viewers might have missed the symbolism of the rabbit. To get it… to let ourselves be made very afraid we have to engage the folklore that might have its origins in very primitive truths.

While modern Horror fans are conditioned like Pavlov’s Dogs to quiver at vampire love and laugh at the startled scream after a scary face leaps from the dark of the theater, real terror – real fear – has more to do with things not-seen and things once seen that cannot be unseen…things that follow you because you saw them.

Tricks are for kids. The thing that wants your soul has something else in its toolbag. And it hides those things in the ordinary.

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The Devil In the Details

If you’ve ever had a bout of the Serious Superstitious, you know that once that roller coaster ride gets started, danger is everywhere. This means that whether you are writing Horror or watching it on the Big Screen, it is important to provide layer after layer of detail. Accurate detail. The imagination cannot be allowed to escape, to dismiss the entity come for you because the scroll saw marks are on the wood of the clapboards.

This is how The Witch ensnares the wary, the skeptical, the Modern Human. The senses are so burdened by detail, by the weight of the period the viewer can almost smell the farm animals, the sweat, the decay of crops, the whiff of goat.

This is not the same dark forest of Hollywood, but the thick tangle of copse and ravine that cradle our folk and fairy lore – the ones that left their echoes outside our safe houses, in the skeletal, wet-black branch that claws at our windows in a storm, that still lives as a microcosm in our National Parks, and spills forth from children’s book illustrations. This is the dark wood our ancestors walked and succumbed to… a wood where death happens, and where a scream goes unheard and unanswered.

If you have never had the privilege of walking in a natural wood, you cannot imagine the depth of the darkness, the ease of disorientation, the uncanny sense of being watched… or stalked. Nor can you appreciate the stories of our folk heritage that came from such a place, the legitimacy that wilderness gives them.

Yet it is why we tore down the woods, killed the wolves and the bears, and planted our tame crops to feed our domesticated animals to ourselves. It’s how we beat The Witch… we tore down her temple.

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We hung our pictures of blond Jesus, and separated ourselves from all but the most sacred of miracles, we philosophized Hell, and electrocuted our ghosts.

Yet. What if? What if even some part of the parable were true?

This is how we build great prose. This is how the Horror classics still terrify. When we read classic Horror, we allow ourselves to identify with and in a sense become the character whose very times and place are darker and more indistinct than our own. We suspend our belief and accept that of the character.

Modern presentation of character and scene are not the same. The character goes into a house…a modern house, just like all the others. There is no depth of description because it has become a stage set upon which the all-important action will occur. Yet it is anticipation of action that equates to dread. Those moments of anticipation are laced with the observations made by the mind – the analysis of shadow, the assessment of danger, the awareness of the rise of adrenaline, the shakiness in the legs and hands. All of that is dependent on detail.

So much detail. Like the tangles of knots in Celtic design meant to entrap the curiousity of fairies, rendering them harmless…the writer or filmmaker must overload the senses for mistakes and miscalculations to be made. We have to be ensnared. For that, we have to be persuaded to believe.

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Bookless, She Came From the Woods to Terrify Us All

I find it wonderful that this film comes without a book or promise of sequel. It is a folktale – a warning, a tale of caution.

There is so much here for the writer to learn from another artist’s medium. This is storytelling. At no moment does the viewer not feel the connection being made to much older stories – actual accounts of such things being used by Eggers to fortify his imagery. In this film, the story is firmly rooted in Horror tradition, in folktale tradition, in fairytale tradition… yet it is no also-ran. It is an outgrowth, another link in the chain of evidence of such storytelling. It is a modern rendition of the folktale told using the harsh and vulnerable times of Colonial America to do so.

This is a lesson in how to build on tradition in the way the British have managed… This is what has been so lacking in contemporary American Horror.

If a writer is willing to really watch this film, there are important lessons here about story-telling and the best delivery method for Horror: the primal one already there, just under the skin, just under the surface – the one that creates surface tension like the skin on water.

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This is not your ordinary night at the campfire, but the slowly unfolding tale of all that goes unforgivably wrong in human interaction and hides somewhere between deceit and coincidence. It is about failure, and desperation, and need for answers. It is about the things that hear you in your darkest moments and most hopeless prayers. It is about choices and faith and the relentless stalk of the predator upon the alleged innocent.

It is also about how we look at misfortune, how we primitively expect good behavior to be rewarded with all manner of blessings: how we seek to lay blame and accusation to rationalize and rebalance…Life. And then it is about how far we will all go to restore the balance – to re-conjure our own illusions about ourselves. How quickly do we turn… Such is the makings of some of the world’s greatest Literature – the rationalizations for so many oppressions and genocides and wars, for exploiting children and locking up women, for labelling people criminals and fanatics and less equal, for silencing whole generations and rewriting history… for hunting, trying, and burning witches.

That which does not or cannot conform is a threat to our theory of how the world works. Therein resides the deepest of human Horrors pressed out of the fabric of our secret fears.

Sometimes you have to sneak up on an audience, dragging them deep into the imagery of their own making… to hold up mirrors. This is why The Witch works for some and not others: some are afraid to see what else is reflected in the glass, to allow it out…

Critics love this film because so many layers offer so many interpretations of what the film symbolizes: the role of the nonexistent apple tree and its connection to original sin, the questions about faith and afterlife and coming of age of our nation, the nod to the dark ages of superstition coiled in the body of a recurring rabbit.

But there is so much more for the Horror fan, should he or she be willing to admit that the contemporary explosion in jump-scare Horror and found footage is a phase. Sure, such films are great for grabbing your significant other or reasonable facsimile in the theater; they are a summertime blast.

But do you really want to be scared? Exorcist-scared?

Then you’ll have to let go of the bar. Because Horror is bigger than flashlights under the chin.

Horror is about the Big Questions that unsettle us all.

You have to be willing to ask yourself just how much of the real world is real, and how much is illusion. You might even have to wonder about life and death and what comes after, that if it is anything at all, there may be players in the game you cannot see and whose motivations you cannot sate or outmaneuver.

You might have to admit that we live at the mercy of others and the luck of fate, that we may have success or long life because we managed to avoid the notice of Others.

They say that most Horror writers do not believe in what they write about. Perhaps this is so. But I tend to think that at our very primal core, none of us is sure. We live according to our theories, and sometimes we think that the supernatural is a fun place in which to scare ourselves silly.

But if you really want to scare your audience or be scared with the audience, you have to be willing to surrender your talismans and amulets. You have to turn out the lights. You have to go naked into the forest, to wonder if you would have the courage to accept a terrifying death and be lost to the world, or whether you would be just curious enough – just innocent enough – to stray into the darkness and expect to outsmart what lies coiled there.

In the film, the protagonist is asked if she would like “to see the world, to live life deliciously”… What is most telling is how the audience wants her to say yes…even having glimpsed the hellish truth of the misery that drives the witch of the wood just to keep young and potent. Is the protagonist Eve, or ourselves?

We are never told what conditions await the signatory of such a contract with the devil. We are too busy imagining what the offer means, too busy justifying the needs and subsequent choices being made. And in the end we are left to wonder about our own roles and choices in the world.

We are left to wonder what this creature is, this Witch.

Is she us – bargaining away the lives and fortunes of others so that we might live the way we believe we are entitled to?

Have we mistaken desire for need for so long that we don’t want to know what happened to the baby, and we don’t see the tears behind the laughter as our protagonist is lifted in flight?

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Do we not care about the coworker we volunteered for lay-off, or the civilians caught in the crossfire of our wars? And isn’t that the Horror?

A lot has been said about The Witch as one of the genre’s best offerings in decades. A lot of Horror fans apparently don’t agree.

What I find unfortunate, is that this could mean we are not-seeing exactly what makes the Horror genre great: its ability to take the mundane, the everyday, the culture of contemporary society, and make it monstrous.

It could mean a percentage of Horror fans don’t want to think about why they might be afraid of something: they just want a good time.

Those are the Horror fans who will probably age out of the genre.

Because what stays with you in Horror is the stuff you can’t get out of your head…. And I’m not talking about old lady butts (of which I have one and it does indeed get scarier every day, but it is not Horror Mr. Shyamalan).

I am talking about the contracts we make every day with the devil… about that darker unknown that lurks in the woods of our minds, that fails us when we should have been better, and that eats our flesh and bargains our souls for a few more seconds of youth.

Horror is about the real world and the many things that crouch within it. It is about the long, patient stalk of a predator, and sometimes, about dying well. It is about what makes itself known when we are at our most vulnerable.

When it combines well with an audience educated in all of its nuances, such a story – whether on film or between two covers – is received like Hitchcock or Poe. But the catch is this: if we lose and continue to lose our connection to real life, then we are losing our Horror vocabularythe most valuable tool in our storytelling arsenal.

As writers we are unable to convey what raises the goosebumps on our own skins, to name the Horror – to conjure it behind the eyes of our audience. Nothing resonates because nothing is there. This is exactly how we have come to this place in Horror where nothing – and I mean nothing – is scary enough.

Without a shared vocabulary that includes an understanding of humanity and a willingness to be led virtually anywhere in our torrid and shameful human history, film goers and book readers will simply not get it… and Horror will continue to descend into less-scary, less meaningful works that currently mirror the two dimensions of what we have come to see as “normal” – and worseto consider as acceptable work in our genre.

If you want to write effective Horror, this means you will have to get your hands dirty. You need to crawl into that cave and summon spirits. You need accuracy and detail and the ability to overwhelm the needs of your audience. That means you need to understand where we come from – that very primal place where so many unlikeable things are possible, and happy endings do not come from stories with witches in them.

You need to story-tell. And that means first, you have to listen.

So pull up a bearskin. Study folklore and fairy tales. Tell ghost stories. Ponder those warnings in the Scriptures and other Holy Books. And watch The Witch… Let your mind slowly take in all in… And then watch it again.

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