Watching Scary Movies: Horror & the Inference of Blame in Current Events


Horror has always been suspect.

What kinds of people watch, write, or put on film and in our minds such awful images? What kinds of people like that sort of thing?

Since it first emerged as its own genre, Horror has been blamed for being the cause or the effect of mental derangement, of moral impropriety and religious slander. Hidden behind the guise of the immaturity of adolescent boys, everyone has intentionally overlooked the real origins and depth of the genre, trading it for gratuitous sex and violence and wielding it like a magic wand to explain the irrational behaviors we have come to embrace as “evil.”

Most recently we had the Slender Man girls. And now we have the Scary Movie-Watching Florida middle school girls who planned to murder smaller classmates in the girl’s restroom…

As a Horror writer, I feel we must brace ourselves for the interrogation of the genre that will surely come next because it has already been inferred: does Horror cause people to commit sordid crimes? Worse, does it cause or divulge mental instability? And do creators of Horror have any responsibility for subsequent audience behavior?

If you hear the creak of the attic door, you are not alone…

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Evil As a Modifier

We are living in tumultuous times. With globalization comes the questioning of individuals as to how much responsibility any of us have in either causing, enabling, or allowing bad human behavior to unfold and have its way with innocent other people. The pressure can be phenomenal.

Because even if we sense, feel, or believe we have some level of responsibility for such events, or even feel compelled to do something about what common sense tells us are indeed bad things and that therefore the people who do them should be brought to heel, the facts are that we feel equally powerless as isolated individuals to prevent such human behavior. And the greater the guilt we sense we should shoulder, the more frustrated we become – all too often looking to blame anyone and anything else we can to absolve ourselves from having to address the issue so we can rebury it and get on with our comfortable lives.

We want so desperately to shut the images and their truths off.

It’s how we got here to this place of isolationism in the U.S…It’s how we got caught up in the idea that if we could only turn back the clock to “simpler times” we could all finally….breathe.

Yet the reality is isolationism does not work: ask native tribes that were living blissful lives until boatloads of Europeans floated ashore…Sooner or later the world comes for you and the trick is to be ready to embrace the facts that cannot be changed – not blaming yet another strata of people and superficial issues.

One particularly unsavory fact needing a hug is that human beings are flawed.

And none of us are exempt from those flaws, which include any number of mental and personality disorders. Why do you think psychologists and psychiatrists burn out? Can you imagine the horror of realizing most of humanity is not completely sane?

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But because humans are also not entirely stupid, we realize that things are askew and we haphazardly seek to fix them ourselves or find explanations for why it is ok these little deficiencies exist. They disturb us. They make us doubt ourselves in ways that make us seek out others of our own kind and similar thinking (for how else will we get a fair shake?)… For a while, religion filled this function nicely.

Yet if we look at the evolution of the Horror genre, we see that humanity has always had questions that are not so easily put to rest, questions religion could not or would not answer directly. Through Horror we have pondered the Big Questions about the existence of God and an afterlife, we have poked corpses in the attempt to understand the differences between life and death and that mysterious road that leads from one to the other. We have asked where consciousness and life begin and end, we have recoiled from the many ways the human mind grabs onto sanity by buffering itself in insanity.

When religion fell short or its leaders were exposed to be just as human as the rest of us, we held God at fault. And we punished Him by running away into the dark forest, using our cellphones for light.

Horror is so brain science, so philosophy, so religion, so psychology…but it is also superstition and sociology. And to our endless Horror – history.

In our fear and trepidation, we manage to scoop everything we do not understand but fear immensely into one word: evil.

We like to think God abandoned us, not the other way around. And so we set out to clearly delineate what is God stuff, and what we can actually change. What is God stuff is all mystical and indistinct – anything that upsets our daily, ghost-free lives. So when two little girls act in ways that had clearly been banished from view, we need tools to make our world right again.

It was those darn violent, Satan-worshipping movies… It was those bad parents…It was all the Church scandals… It was those negligent teachers…

Or maybe it was just the devil. Because then none of us have to do anything. It all becomes no one’s fault – not even the little girls’ unless we want to make them into the personification of evil, but first we will have to look into the matter…do the criminal court thing…toss them into a pond to see if they float…

It is somehow easier to envision all manner of demons and devils rising from Sulphur-lined pits to test our faith and resolve than it is to admit that we all too often just get it wrong, or that we make decisions from ignorance or unsound minds.

It is an excellent, totally encompassing word that explains all and clarifies nothing.

It is a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.

And best of all it is a dehumanizing word. It gives us permission to act in irrational ways to bury the problem that scares us the most: mental illness in children.

Whether we are talking terrorists, serial killers, political opponents or middle-school kids… when we toss the word “evil” into the mix we give collective societal permission for everyone to nod in unspoken understanding, to shrug and walk away, to stuff the “evil ones” into the attic of social choice and call it a day. If the doer is evil, we are not only absolved, but elevated for being more moral, more ethical, more superior…less flawed…

Yet if Horror has taught us anything, it is that evil never dissipates – it merely changes form…

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Two Little Maids From School Are We

When the Slender Man attempted murder story broke, there was ample discussion of what the girls had been into.

Fortunately for Evil-spotters everywhere, the newest culprits have supplied us with exactly what we need: they are admitted Satanists.

Forget for a moment that middle school kids no matter how “sophisticated” haven’t a clue what that means. This is a godsend. Clearly it was no one’s fault but the devil. We now have permission to proceed, but heads must roll.

Surely the watching of scary movies is of importance. Where on earth else would innocent children even learn the term “Satan worshippers”? Become “tainted”? “Infected”? Turned…

Obviously not from this election cycle…

The reporting uses words like “chilling” “disturbing” “childlike drawings” “planned killing” and “suicide”…It was emphasized that the plot was “hatched” while watching scary movies during a sleepover… https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/News/video/girls-stopped-carrying-deadly-school-assault-police-58738128

And every subsequent report reveals ever more sensational allegations – the intent to drink the blood of their murdered class mates, of being found with a goblet, planning to dismember the bodies and commit suicide…of being confessed Satanists. ..

Of course it is shocking. Of course we want to know how did this happen?

Because we so desperately want to believe it would be so simple as watching a few scary movies…that dreaded mental illness has its root in merely viewing what your parents told you not to watch, that you can save your children by banning exactly that.

The news reports reflect all of our responses…a certain and desperate need to believe this anathema appeared from nowhere to possess innocent children.

Of course it must be the Horror movies. It has to be the Horror movies. Because that way it becomes its own Horror movie and all Horror movies have formulas to follow and supernatural entities to blame…

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And what about all of those horrible movies? That awful Stephen King? Those clearly twisted individuals who like and propagate the kind of psychotic drivel that is the Horror genre?

But these questions are not so simple. And contrary to the beliefs of questioners who will most certainly come forward, Horror – like video games – do not cause human behavior as clearly as both reflect it.

Horror is a mirror. Horror writers and filmmakers pull nothing from the air; they are not magicians. They merely report what they observe – pulling at loose threads because the questions of what causes human beings to do the terrible things they do to each other bothers them deep down…

Most certainly there is a spectrum upon which Horror creators fall. Some are more observant of some parts of human nature than others, some revel in the shock of human behavior and its implied consequences… Others thrash about in the darkness of the human mind, desperate to understand where all of the real lines are…But there is one common denominator: the determination to make their audience think, if not think twice.

Any balanced person who reads a Horror story or watches a Horror movie receives the warning in exchange for riding the roller coaster to the end. And the warning is always the same: tinkering with things you don’t understand can get you eliminated from normal life or life itself. Worse, it can drag you into hells you have never imagined and from which there is no hope of return.

Horror is fire and brimstone. Death is just the beginning.

So where do two middle school girls fall into this?

They fall into the category of like attracting like, of one more charismatic mind manipulating another eager to please. They fall into the category all of us dread – the mentally flawed, the psychotic or the wide range of antisocial personality disorders…And they did so with our social memories of movies like Children of the Corn and The Omen so vivid in all our adult minds…

Nothing terrifies us more than a child that seems to have preternatural, predatory awareness as shaped by mental illness.

It is so wrong, an anathema to our expectation and dreams of innocent childhood we all hope for our children.

It is an unforgivable unsettling of our little ordered worlds. And we wonder where this horrible disease might hide – that it hides being a whole different terror.

But in the end it is just illness. In the end, parents are busy and hopeful and rationalizing and maybe uninsured. Just like teachers. Just like neighbors. And even pediatricians. Signs get missed. Signs get subverted. Signs get blissfully, ignorantly overlooked. And sometimes they get hidden.

How do we know there is blame to be assigned? Owners of personality disorders and many mental illnesses learn early to hide their irregularities; many are astute observers of the normal so that they might imitate it, innocently trying to fix their own problems before embracing their differences. They can be very difficult to spot, even when you live among them – maybe more so because you live among them and desire better truths…

If these two cases of murderous little girls teach us anything, it is that we are none of us perfect – not in mental health, not in social behavior, not in being armchair psychologists…

We cannot hide our blindsiding dreams for our children that cause us to miss important signs, or underestimate the savviness of ill children to disguise their illnesses. But we should also stop believing that all things have a simple, black-and-white fix, that life is so easy we can patch the holes in the boat with an assortment of potent labels.

Horror does not cause mental illness. Horror creators as a group are not mentally ill, and no amount of binge-watching scary movies or reading urban legends and stories of Horror monsters cause crime or mental illness. That is not to say criminals and the mentally ill are not drawn there. Idiots dressing up as scary clowns to terrify strangers is the perfect example. But so are the imperfectly sane drawn to the important messages in the genre.

We have to stop calling people evil, using the word to modify any behavior we cannot or do not want to explain and take responsibility for.

We need to look at these two young girls as what they are – misfits, and unfortunates plagued by an unbearable illness — one that draws out the lifeblood of its victims and their families hope first.

We need to do better than wax poetic for the good old days.

We need to fix the broken ones we are living in now. And we do that by admitting we missed the signs…that we allowed ourselves to be distracted by easier or more garish problems. We owe these little girls that, we owe their parents and families that if we are to begin to fix the problems we have saddled our children with as a species and as a society. The weight of that burden is too great to bear alone.

It takes a village for a reason…

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https://thegibraltarmagazine.com/mid-harbours-family-community-centre-inaugurated/o-helping-hand-facebook/

 

 

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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.