The Blood Cries Out to Me from the Ground

joshI’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular episode of VeggieTales.

For those who aren’t familiar, VeggieTales is a computer-animated children’s video series that originally ran from 1993-2000 (it’s gone through a number of iterations since). The premise is simple, if a bit bizarre to think about if one didn’t grow up with it: anthropomorphic vegetables and fruits get together to retell Bible stories to a young audience, with various skits and songs throughout. Lessons are learned, laughs are had. Fin. The series was something of a staple for a certain generation of us who grew up evangelical, and it’s actually not at all bad. It’s often quite funny, and unlike a lot of lesser religious children’s media it’s genuinely concerned with storytelling in addition to didacticism. And while it is overtly religious, many of the moral lessons it imparts are universal enough that kids growing up secular can learn a thing or two from it as well.

But then there’s “Josh and the Big Wall.”

This particular episode is, as the title implies, the vegetables’ retelling of the story of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho. The Israelites are played by most of the main vegetable characters (Joshua himself by Larry the Cucumber); the citizens of Jericho by the villainous, eminently mockable French Peas. When the Israelites attempt to enter the city—they explain to the Peas that God has given them the land, so there’s really no other option—they are rebuffed by a torrent of hurled slushies. Several minutes of further slapstick and such ensue before, inevitably, the troops rally around Jericho and the walls are brought down by a divine force. The Peas—no worse for wear after the collapse of their city besides a little bit of dust peppering their faces—turn and run. The Israelites have won their first victory in the conquest of Canaan. The End.

All in all a fairly innocuous, fairly amusing retelling of the Biblical story. Right?

That’s what my memories of it were for the last decade or so, anyway. It’s been about that long since I’ve actively watched a VeggieTales episode, so my recollections of it aren’t exactly sharp. It’s all sort of faded away into a vaguely pleasant melange of scenes and gags in the back of my mind, my fondness for it remaining despite my departure from the church.

But recently, for no particular reason that I can figure out, I started turning over “Josh and the Big Wall” in my mind again. And to my dismay, I realized:

This is an absolutely horrific way to tell a Bible story. To anyone, but especially to children.

* * * * *

In order for this essay to continue, there are a couple of basic premises we’re going to have to agree on.

1.) The Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the later books of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua is an attempted genocide against the inhabitants of that land in order to make way for God’s chosen people.

2.) This genocide mandated the killing not just of fighting men, but of women, children, and infants. Virgin women were spared to be raped.

Note that I’m not passing any moral judgment on the conquest of Canaan in stating these two premises. I’m not interested in writing a post about whether or not the acts described in these books are unconscionable atrocities—full disclosure, that is what I think (divine command morality can quite frankly go fuck itself), but there’s a whole literature devoted to just that point and I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything new there. So, Christian readers of this essay, I’m not asking you to accept my opinion that the Old Testament describes immoral, unforgivable acts of genocide mandated by God. But if this essay is going to be of any value to you, you’re going to have to accept that the premises above are both true.

It shouldn’t be hard, honestly. Those premises are pretty literal, neutral interpretations of what the Old Testament has to say on the matter. I’ll restrict my citations here to two, one for each premise:

But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded. that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

—Deuteronomy 20:16-18

They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. [. . .] And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. [. . .] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.

—Numbers 31:7, 9, 14-18 (ESV)

There isn’t really any getting around these passages. Not that evangelicals necessarily feel the need to! A good portion of the apologetics field is devoted to explaining how these acts are perfectly morally justified because of x reasons.

Again, I want to reiterate: I’m not here to combat those apologetics. But I do find it interesting that many evangelicals, though they’re perfectly happy to explain why these killings and rapes weren’t really wrong, are probably made profoundly uncomfortable by referring to them as a genocide. I’m sure a fair number of my Christian readers felt an initial urge to disagree with the two premises I listed above specifically because of that word.

Why is that?

* * * * *

Christian media really likes to erase certain terrible Biblical things from its consciousness.

It’s right there in that VeggieTales episode, where the complete slaughter of Jericho is turned into a food fight that ends with the losers simply running off into the distance. It’s there in innumerable retellings of Noah’s Ark, which are full of smiling animals and lovely talk of God’s promise with the rainbow and show no pictures of floating corpses. It’s there in the ways Christians love to tell their kids these Bible stories and mine them for examples of positive lessons—look how good God is, look at what can happen if we obey him, etc.—without ever dwelling on the darker side that’s plainly there in the actual Biblical text.

And I think that as Christians, parents should stop and think about the consequences of doing this.

I do not think that these are stories that should be told to children. And I think that when they are told to believers for the first time, it needs to be in a way that respects the full weight and consequence of the Biblical texts themselves. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of erasure of troubling things from our perception of the Bible repeats itself.

One Bible story that definitely isn’t told to children is that of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges. I’ll quote the relevant portion in full here:

 Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

—Judges 11:29-40 (ESV)

The first thing that needs to be accepted about this story is that God lets it happen. One could argue that His hands were tied in this situation because Jephthah had already made a binding oath, but that’s a flimsy reading for a number of reasons. First of all, God is conceived of as absolutely sovereign; if He does not wish something to happen, that something cannot happen. Second, God is conceived of as absolutely just; in this situation, it doesn’t take an ethical genius to work out that, if someone must die in this instance, it would be more just for the father to be wiped out for making a flippant oath than his innocent daughter to be wiped out for no wrong of her own. Third, and most obvious, we already know of at least one previous time in which God explicitly prevented the killing of an innocent child despite a divine command: the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. If God had truly wished for Jephthah’s daughter to be spared, He would have made it so. He did not. This is not an instance of a hand-wringing God; the burnt offering of the girl is endorsed by Him.

The above, rather laboriously made point is simply a necessary prologue to my real point, which is this: the text does not gloss over the horror of this situation. That’s the key to its power. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is pretty remarkably similar to a Greek tragedy; an inevitable doom awaits one of its key players, and she willingly embraces it knowing that there is no other option. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s beautiful precisely because of its willingness to recognize its own consequences. This nameless girl will never share her bed with a man, a man she may very well have loved when he came into her life. She will never bear children. She will never comfort her father in his old age, or be comforted by her own daughter in turn. She is a candle snuffed out, and she embraces this dying of the light because she knows there is no other choice.

These are the implications, fully present in the text, of a single death ordained by God. Now think back to the Canaanite genocide.

An invading force has been ravaging the surrounding land, killing left and right. The inhabitants of the city are terrified. They have heard that a supernatural force impossible to beat lends this invader strength, and now that supernatural force has commanded that this city’s people are next.

This is their home. It has been since before they can remember. And so, the men go out and fight. They tremble with fear, they shake as they move into battle position, but they have to give their families a chance. They are brave for their wives, for their children, and they all bleed out on the sand, throats torn out, limbs removed, heads severed.

The mothers do their best to crawl into the corners of their homes, to squeeze into shadows with their babies in their arms so that these terrifying strangers will pass over them. It does no good. Infants are torn from blankets and smashed against stones, their blood so inconceivably great a torrent from such small bodies. Little children, wailing, with no comprehension of what has swooped down upon them, are stabbed and strangled and torn to pieces. Young girls, no more than twelve, are led away by men two times their age to strange tents where unspeakable things will happen to them.

The invaders move on to the next city.

I hate to repeat myself again, but I want to emphasize: I am not passing moral judgment here. This is simply, if you believe the story, what would have happened.

This is what happened at Jericho. It’s what happened at dozens of other cities throughout the region. It’s what happened to the Amalekites centuries later when they had committed no crime except to descend from a city that had refused to let the Israelites through generations before. And all this pales in comparison to the watery deluge that sent everyone on earth to a screaming, choking grave, from infants to the oldest of men and women.

This is what God commanded.

And if you choose to look away from these implications—to simply brush past all of the human pain, terror, and anguish that are the direct results of stories whose main theme is usually distilled to a variant on “Trust in God to achieve great victory”—you are robbing the Biblical story of something that’s inextricably a part of it.

Now, the stories as I’ve summarized them in the above paragraphs can’t be told to children, I’m sure many of you are thinking. I agree. They can’t. But I also maintain that to teach children the sanitized versions that evangelicals have all grown up with—the smiling animals, the rousing songs of victory at Jericho, the amusing vegetables launching frozen drinks at each other—is an obscenity.

Whether or not you believe that what happened to the Canaanites was morally justified, there’s no denying that it was a terrible thing. Terrible in its classical sense: Awesome. Fearful. Horrifying to behold. Someone may believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary; they will probably also readily admit that the scale and horror of the destruction were sobering and unfathomable. They’d have to be a completely emotionless shell not to. They’d also have to be a complete nut to show their child a picture of a smiling atomic bomb as it merrily laid waste to thousands of invisible, unnamed Japanese citizens, or to act as though the explosion was nothing more than a scary noise that caused the residents of Hiroshima to flee to the next town with no harm done.

* * * * *

When the movie Noah was released, one of the chief criticisms directed at it by evangelicals was an objection to what was perceived as a certain sordid quality. People in the film are shown clambering over each other to reach high ground, clinging to rocks in piles to avoid succumbing to the watery depths. Noah himself almost kills an innocent baby. This is immoral, was the cry. There is no excuse for this darkness.

Now, those objectors are in a sense right. These events are lurid and sordid and tragic and horrifying. And they’re the exact kind of thing that would have happened on an immense scale during the stories of the Old Testament, over and over and over again. But because our culture has been fed the sanitized versions of these stories since childhood, a good portion of us are unable to emotionally come to terms with the fact that these terrors are part and parcel of what God commands to his people.

It’s impossible to obtain the Bible’s full beauty without the horrific, the tragic, the awesome, the terrible. God is a fearful combination of love and wrath. “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal,” as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life puts it; that sentence itself is a microcosm of the Book of Job, probably the most stunning poem ever written. The power of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, is found in its paradoxes. A constant concern for the vulnerable juxtaposed with the divine order of the slaughter of infants. The tenderness of God’s still, small voice paired with with the desolation of the Ten Plagues. The healing power of the prophets alongside a massacre of young men by bears who tear them to pieces. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Whether or not we think these latter events were morally justified, they give us pause. They trouble us. They are the parts of the Bible that are ultimately the most moving, even as they disturb their readers.

Christians need to recognize the power of this paradox. They need to embrace it, and respect it. And part of doing so is realizing when the time is right to expose the next generation to the full weight of that power. Showing them only one side will not do. Infantilizing what the Bible itself is careful to depict as fearful won’t either.

If we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—atheists and believers both—we need to accept it for what it is, and to pass it on as such. And only when those it’s passed on to are ready to accept it in their turn.


The Year in Books, January-June: Nonfiction

The best of the nonfiction that I read in the first half of this year. For a broader introduction and for the best and worst of the fiction I read, see here.

22478The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes

puts on sunglasses and dons his Laurence Fishburne voice…

What if I told you that, despite existing for 100,000-250,000 years, humans were not actually conscious until roughly 3,000 years ago?

What if I told you that, if you take a closer look at ancient literature such as the Iliad and the earliest books of the Old Testament, you’ll notice none of the characters are actually capable of introspection or making decisions?

What if I told you that, until incredibly recently on an evolutionary timescale, we heard the hallucinatory “voice of the gods” every time we had to choose between one option or another, rather than weighing within ourselves what the best course of action was—because our “selves” as such did not exist?

Jaynes is a bit of a crackpot, and his hypothesis has quite a few holes in it—in fact, I spent much of this semester writing a paper on certain inconsistencies in his analysis of the Iliad. That said, his hypothesis—that humans were basically preconscious schizophrenics hallucinating decisions as divine commands due to the inability of one hemisphere of their brains to perceive the other—is compelling, disturbing, and almost certainly at least partially true, though certainly not entirely. More than that, even if he were completely wrong his book would be a joy to read. It’s a marvel of interdisciplinary studies, mixing cognitive science with philosophy, literary analysis, and anthropology in a manner that’s consistently engaging despite the volume’s rather dry title.

Like the best creation myths, Origin has the virtue of seeming completely true in the moment even if it has its flaws. And again like those myths, there’s also in all probability more than a kernel of actual truth present.

28248046Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, Philip Sandifer

Thanks to the depredations of the Rabid Puppies, this book never stood a chance of being nominated for a Hugo for Best Related Work. It’s a pity, as no other work of nonfiction published in 2015-16 so artfully sums up the state of the SF/F community as a result of the chaos Theodore Beale/Vox Day and his cronies wreaked upon the Hugo Awards.

The titular essay is the chief reason to buy the book. Originally published on Sandifer’s blog in the immediate aftermath of the realization that the Hugos had been gamed by a group of neo-fascist dudebros, it provides a comprehensive overview of the various factions involved in the fray—Sad and Rabid Puppies, the neoreactionary movement, etc. etc.—before using their gaming of the system as a launching pad to discuss the broader problems of right-wing extremism in the SF/F community. It’s as fine a polemic as I’ve ever read, expertly researched and devastatingly styled. The good news is the rest of the collection is just as high in quality. Whether the topic is the feminist roots of Ex Machina, the shared ties of True Detective and Hannibal, the strange history of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, or the occult themes of Doctor Who, Sandifer wields a combination of erudition and enthusiasm that’s hard to resist. And lest you think the whole book is a one-sided affair, another centerpiece is a transcript of Sandifer’s sitting down with Beale/Day himself and debating literature. A fun time was most definitely not had by all.

2448580Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

When I was in high school, the extremely right-wing history curriculum barely mentioned the Black Panther Party. When it did, it was in the context of terrorism, equating the Party to the Ku Klux Klan. While I’ve become a far more progressive person in the years since I left this kind of “education” behind, I had never bothered to re-educate myself on the Panthers. And so, when I stumbled upon a memoir by the founder of the group himself, I decided I needed to read it.

Newton’s book, part autobiography and part manifesto, is completely engrossing. His political arguments are occasionally painted in broad strokes, but are never anything less than cool, articulate, and clearly thought-out, and while I differ with him on points—the Party’s reliance on guns chief among them—he never commands anything less than respect for the manner in which he makes them. The larger part of the book, the story of his wrongful accusation of the murder of a police officer and subsequent trial, is the stuff of Hollywood courtroom drama, but Newton has too much respect for himself and for his audience to exploit the situation for a cheap emotional payoff. His relation of events is as dispassionate as his philosophical musings, and the book is much better for it.

The titular revolutionary suicide—actively sacrificing oneself for a cause—is contrasted by Newton with reactionary suicide—allowing the system to grind one’s soul into oblivion. While I can’t agree with the Panthers’ reliance on firearms, neither can I disagree with Newton’s ardent desire to die fighting for something meaningful rather than letting himself be broken on the wheel of racism. Their current image among a vast number of white Americans as a hate group is nothing short of character assassination; would that more of us would bother to read the words of their leader himself.

567590Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

I did not know until after I had read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that Dillard was only 29 years old when it received the Pulitzer Prize. Her authorial voice is so assured and mature that one gets the impression of a much older woman.

Then again, her subject could inject maturity into anyone’s voice. Dillard paints the Nature (with an intentional capital-N) that surrounds her home near the titular creek as an avatar of the deity in whose image it’s created—capricious and loving, cruel and beautiful, in equal measure, with no explanations given for the contradiction if they even exist. The book is a sort of naturalist’s Book of Job, the majesty of Dillard’s surroundings forming its own theodicy. These philosophical musings are balanced by the concrete detail in which she paints her universe—the anatomy and behavior of the animals that live in congress with her, the subtle intricacies of the ecology that dominates the area. It’s these tiny bits of reality that stay embedded in the reader’s head. The problem of evil as told by parasitic wasps. The shine of Tinker creek even beneath a starless sky. The horrifying fertility of praying mantises, the male continuing to thrust even after he’s been decapitated.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book that I honestly don’t know how to classify. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part popular science book, part philosophical treatise, part prayer. Whatever section of the bookstore shelf it belongs on, its quality can’t be argued with. It’s probably, along with Malick’s The Tree of Life, my favorite work of religious poetry in the last hundred years.

127232On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Like Slavoj Zizek, Arendt doesn’t make arguments so much as free-associate. Thus this book is less an argument about revolution and more a series of observations on the subject, using the American and French revolutions as its anchors as it leaps from insight to insight.

There are, however, two central points that keep recurring: 1.) the American Revolution was the first revolution to deserve the name, as it was the first to involve a group of citizenry actively trying to change the system of government under which they were ruled rather than simply exchange a bad ruler for a good one; 2.) the American revolution succeeded because it was shaped by the guiding hand of elites and intellectuals rather than the popular masses. It’s the latter that I found the most interesting, especially when taken in tandem with Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites (below), which argues that this sort of meritocratic thinking is exactly what leads to the collapse of societies. In the wake of the financial crisis, Hayes’ position would certainly seem convincing; but with the rise of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist populism, so would Arendt’s. It remains to be seen which thinker will be more applicable to the future of America. Not that I particularly welcome either outcome.

27502War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Tied with The End of the Affair and The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the bleakest read of the year so far. Hedges, a foreign correspondent who has witnessed firsthand the devastation of war-torn countries, makes the case that war is ultimately the defining force behind our culture. It’s not just war, though, but the desperate need for tribalism to tell us who we can trust and who must be exterminated. In this age of neo-fascism, it’s sadly more relevant than ever.

2638701Violence, Slavoj Zizek

Like the other Zizek books I read this year, this one is hard to summarize, his characteristic enthusiasm and free-association taking him on tangents and sub-tangents with lightning velocity. What it lacks in coherence, though, it makes up for in wit and in flashes of brilliance as its author attempts to tackle his subject. How do we define violence, how does it affect us, and what aspects of it do we fail to notice even as they insidiously warp the fabric of society?

10199960Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine

Men and women are inherently different, you say? Science has demonstrated that there are biological discrepancies that can’t be reconciled?

plops book on your desk

Have fun, son.

649031A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, John Michael Greer

The first half of the book could have been happily written by any atheist—it dismantles argument after argument for a monotheistic deity, exposing inconsistencies both in thinking and morality. However, where Greer goes from there is far more interesting. Every single one of these arguments, he demonstrates, becomes remarkably tighter if we jettison the assumption of a single God and instead turn to the titular world full of gods: a polytheistic universe. As a defense of theism it’s more compelling than any monotheistic work on the subject I’ve read, and even if I still don’t believe it it’s a fascinating book.

12121640God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic

Zizek’s side, largely composed of essays that were compiled into The Puppet and the Dwarf, is utter genius, taking fundamental assumptions of Christianity and turning them on their heads with mingled wit and empathy—his insight that Dostoevsky’s “If there is no God everything is permitted” should instead be rendered “If there is a God everything is permitted” deserves an entire book of its own. Gunjevic’s contributions are less inspired but not without merit.

11623The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

As these are indeed unabridged journals, there’s quite a bit of tedious filler present—today Ted and I ate with such-and-such a person, she was wearing such-and-such a dress, etc. That said, the amounts of penetrating insight and assured prose composition on display here are not only extremely compelling but downright intimidating, especially when you consider that the stuff composed when Plath was seventeen is just as good as the stuff she wrote a few years prior to her death.

16030649Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes

As is the case with Hedges’ book, Elites is sadly more relevant than ever in the midst of the violent populism that currently engulfs America. Hayes methodically picks apart the underlying assumptions behind the belief that a meritocracy is the “fairest” system of government, demonstrates how America’s has failed, and then—most chillingly—shows how perhaps the worst consequence of our failed elites is that populist movements now show a distrust of any sort of expert knowledge. With climate change speeding up all around us, that’s a problem that could ultimately be fatal.

I never feel guilty eating anything (A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych)

cannibalism-evolution-beginning-endKaiseki. A Japanese art form that honors the taste and aesthetic of what we eat.

In 1971, German author Oscar Kiss Maerth published a book of pseudoscience entitled The Beginning Was the End. As an attempted work of science, it’s a complete failure—there is not a single reference or footnote present in the entire text, its argument constructed upon a foundation of anecdotal evidence. It’s also an intensely racist, misogynist piece of work. And yet there’s a profoundly unsettling, resonating aspect to Maerth’s hypothesis. Like any number of other creation myths, from the Garden of Eden to Julian Jaynes’ speculations on a preconscious state in which humanity hallucinated divine commands, it feels true in the act of reading, even if there’s absolutely no reason to believe it is.

Maerth believed that human consciousness came about through cannibalism. According to his hypothesis, apes began to eat the brains of their own kind when they discovered that said depravity had powerful aphrodisiac effects, resulting in a veritable orgy of cannibalism and rape. What the apes did not realize, at least at the time, was that as they consumed the brains of their fellow creatures, their own brains grew. Eventually, consciousness sprang into being; the result has been largely misery, as the discomfort caused by our overlarge brains pressing into our skulls has led to war, death, and isolation from nature.

Preposterous. And yet it lingers in the mind, once one has heard it.

Does Hannibal Lecter’s taste in cuisine explain, at least in part, why he is the way he is? Or does he dine on human flesh because of the way he is? The good doctor, at least in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, has no interest in answering this question of whether his cannibalistic essence preceded existence. “Nothing happened to me,” he tells Bedelia du Maurier when she tries to pry into his childhood. “I happened.”

Out-of-universe, this scene is probably at least partly a rebuke to Thomas Harris’ version of Hannibal in the books following The Silence of the Lambs. The novel Hannibal and its prequel Hannibal Rising went to great lengths to provide a concrete explanation for Hannibal’s existence, in the process crafting one of the worst “origin stories” in the history of fiction—Hannibal, Harris would have us believe, was perfectly normal until he was unwittingly fed, by Nazis no less, a soup made of his sister Mischa. The good doctor as conceived in Fuller’s Hannibal would no doubt sneer at such a clumsily Freudian handwave.

However, just because the line is somewhat of a cheap shot at Harris (who to be fair was contractually obligated to write Hannibal Rising unless he wanted to see it turned over to another author) does not mean it is insignificant. As far as the show is concerned, it is entirely the truth. Mads Mikkelsen, in an interview with the Telegraph, said of the character:

He is in a league of his own, and would probably find most other serial killers banal. Others have reasons to do what they do – their childhood, something their mother did – whatever. Hannibal is not like that. He finds the beauty of life right on the threshold of death. And that is not banal, in his mind . . . He is as close as you can come to the Devil, in the sense that the Devil has no reasons.

Childhood backstory or no, it does seem clear that to Hannibal, cannibalism is not incidental. Where to Todd it’s a tool and to Bateman it’s one of many methods, it is absolutely intrinsic to Hannibal’s identity. If he did not eat people, he would not be who he is.

hannibal-gif-525And who is he? “Superhuman” would not be an inappropriate designation. Indeed, Mikkelsen is far from the only person to refer to his character as the Devil. Out-of-universe, Bryan Fuller has also done so; in-universe, both Will Graham and Abel Gideon come to the conclusion. In the concrete world of Harris’ novels, we could be content to view this as little more than a metaphor. In the world of Hannibal, a magical-realist hell, it seems that both Will and Abel mean it quite literally.

It would be overly literal to apply Maerth’s hypothesis to Dr. Lecter at face value—it is not simply through consuming human flesh that Hannibal has attained his superiority over humanity. Rather, it’s through his self-awareness, and his awareness of humanity as a whole. This is the area in which he is completely removed from Todd and Bateman, each of whom only attains brief flashes of realization about his place in the world. Hannibal, by contrast, knows exactly who he is.

Who he is is entirely represented by his aesthetic taste. This is the one aspect of himself that he is incapable of hiding, even in his most desperate hour of need. When he flees to hiding in Europe, he chooses for his locale not a tiny hamlet in an obscure country, but the art museums of Florence. His house is if anything more extravagant than the one he left behind in Maryland. He changes his culinary preferences not one iota. Alana Bloom and Mason Verger believe that this is a mistake on his part, a slip that will allow him to be caught, but Bedelia du Maruier is under no such delusion. “You are drawing them to you,” she says, and in reply Hannibal simply smiles. His inability to betray his aesthetic sensibilities is the height of self-knowledge; he cannot exist contrary the thing that represents nothing more or less than himself. “Whimsy,” Bedelia tells Jack Crawford and Alana Bloom at one point, “is how he will be caught,” but she underestimates just how clearly Hannibal understands who he is and the risks that are attendant to his existence. In Harris’ novels, he is outsmarted and captured by Will Graham; in the television show, he turns himself in, because it’s the only way he could possibly be taken. It would be impossible for anyone to catch him, because to do so would be to understand him better than he does himself.

Nor is self-knowledge the only knowledge Hannibal possesses. It is his knowledge of humanity as meat that also defines him and his cannibalism. This insight has already been repeated at length over the course of the last few entries: there is no such thing as humanity or consciousness as such, only puppets run by nerve impulses, ghosts in the machine.

Others in the series also recognize this truth to various degrees, and it is to them that Hannibal affords most of his respect. Bedelia du Maurier, a person in some ways almost as terrifying as Hannibal himself, has the privilege of serving as his “psychiatrist” primarily due to their mutual philosophical positions as regard humanity. Will Graham, his own fragmented self testament to the nature of consciousness in general, finds himself drawn to Hannibal because “I’ve never known myself as well as I know myself when I’m with him,” and Hannibal in return falls in love with Will. One of his chief aims is to take the limited awareness of these people and raise it to its fullest potential; in this he is entirely a psychiatrist despite his unorthodox methods.

His response to everyone else is based largely on aesthetic merit. If they are mannered and tasteful, they are allowed to live. If they are rude, they are butchered like the swine they are. It is not enough for Hannibal simply to degrade them in this way, however. Rather, he fully displays his superiority by, even in death, helping them to better themselves. He takes their ugly humanity and transforms it into dishes that are utterly beautiful.

This stands in marked contrast to the other cannibal of the series, whose death at the hands of Will Graham begins the latter’s descent into Hannibal’s universe.  Garrett Jacob Hobbs chooses to “honor every part” of his victims much as he does with the deer he and his daughter Abigail hunt. Their flesh is consumed, their body parts made into household items, not as a means of expressing superiority but as an apology for their deaths. Hannibal’s cannibalism, on the other hand, is powerfully degrading, displaying his utter contempt for his victims. Their transformation into something new is not for their benefit, but for that of their killer; they are made into something beautiful not for their glory but for his.

This implicit mirroring of Yahweh is not accidental—a support for Hannibal’s infernal nature comes in his frequent comparisons of himself to God. Of particular note is an early conversation between him and Will:

Hannibal: Killing must feel good to God, too. He does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?

Will: Depends on who you ask.

Hannibal: God’s terrific. He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshipers last Wednesday night in Texas, while they sang a hymn.

Will: Did God feel good about that?

Hannibal: He felt powerful.

He collects these church collapses, he later tells Will. It’s notable that Hannibal passes no particular moral judgment on God when discussing this; he does not use the church collapses as the opening of an antitheistic rant. If anything, these cruelties are God’s right, if he is indeed superior to us. This is the key to Hannibal’s philosophy as regards himself: he recognizes the nature of humanity, and is thus superior to them. He expresses this superiority in a way that is characteristically elegant—as humanity is meat, he treats them as such. Malleable, disposable, dead flesh, to be crafted by its Redeemer into something new. There is no morality involved, simply a desire to bring the universe into line with his view of it.

It would be impossible for Hannibal to exist were he not a cannibal. While there is no one-to-one relationship between himself and his consumption, as Maerth would have it, it is inevitable that, once he came to realize his place among humanity, he would begin to eat them.

Nothing else would be quite as elegant, and elegance is all that matters, in the end.

(to be continued)


A great black pit: Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Hannibal Lecter, a triptych (introduction)


If there is an archetype wholly original to the 20th and now 21st centuries (if anything can ever claim to be wholly original), it’s that of the sympathetic serial killer. The serial killer himself (and occasionally herself) has existed in the popular imagination since time immemorial in the supernatural forms of bloodthirsty spirits or monsters or witches, and in human form for the last several hundred years at least. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that serial killer chic truly clawed its way into the public consciousness. It hasn’t shown any signs of leaving since.

Serial killers are attractive, even if we claim their deeds are not (and in the cases of particularly compelling killers, even that moral caveat tends to grow thinner and thinner). With some comes the allure of the sensual—they’re suave, they’re beautiful, they’re cultured, as if nature has decided it must compensate for these outer dwellers’ deficiency of manners in that one vital area by granting them impeccable taste elsewhere. With others comes the allure of understanding—we are attracted to them because we think we know their plight and their emotions, because we view these killers themselves as victims of larger forces, the great black hand of Social Injustice or Abusive Parents or Past Trauma forcing them to walk a presdestinate path of mayhem.

And there’s a subtler, ultimately more primal and powerful force at work behind each of these variants on a theme, the same force that’s at work in any piece of art but especially the art of the fantastic and the horrific. We’re attracted to these killers because we are, in a sense, the killers. Each serial murderer represents at some level the anxieties of his (or her) age, the demons and discontents and deadly flaws made manifest in a wash of crimson fluid. The artistic serial killer is society writ large, the avatar of what we wish to do but cannot find the strength to carry out or of what we do not wish to do but are too weak to avoid. The metaphors of mutilated bodies and the perverse consumption of flesh are, for their sheer visceral power, perhaps the best way we have of expressing the effects of society upon our art and upon ourselves. Just ask Christ.

*   *   *   *   *

It’s always a loser’s game to declare anything The Most or The Best and so on and so forth, but it’s undeniable that, of the multitude of murderers the past century’s art has given us, three of the most compelling and widely known are Sweeney Todd, Patrick Bateman, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter  (and yes, I’m aware that the former has actually been around since the mid-19th century; I’m coming to that). The members of this triptych are fairly representative of the serial killer archetype’s numerous facets, each formed under wildly different sorts of pressures and operating for unique personal and societal reasons. And each of these facets is in turn made up of further facets, different portrayals and interpretations ranging, in at least one case, across the centuries.

  • Sweeney Todd has been the antagonist and dubious protagonist of penny dreadful novels, black-and-white horror films, comics, and stage plays since 1846; the most famous of his selves, the face I’ll be devoting the most attention to over the course of this series, is the one forged by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in his 1979 magnum opus of musical theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and its 2007 film adaptation by Tim Burton.
  • Patrick Bateman has been the subject of a novel, a film, and a stage musical; these variants are closer together in spirit and theme than the veritable sea of demon barbers, but I’ll still be focusing largely on a single one of them, the original Bateman of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.
  • And the good Dr. Hannibal Lecter, himself a patron of the arts, has been featured in four novels, five films, a television series, and a fan parody musical. Of these, Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs is the most immediately compelling and certainly the most famous, and has the distinction of having influenced most serial killers on the screen since its 1991 release date. However, it’s neither this famous depiction nor Thomas Harris’ literary creation that is the most fulfilling portrait of Lecter. Rather, it’s Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller-penned and Mads Mikkelsen-performed incarnation of the Doctor, in all his alien glory, that I’ll be examining throughout the course of this series.

Each of the killers is of a piece with his brothers in at least one notable way. Both Sweeney Todd and Patrick Bateman are themselves victims as much as their hapless targets. Bateman and Lecter are both responsible for increasingly intricate murder tableaux as a means of fulfillment. Both Lecter and Todd are obsessed at some level with the idea of a hungry deity. Lecter ultimately stands apart from his companions in depravity for a number of reasons which will be explored, but each of the three can be seen as a stage in a progression.

Todd represents the violence of justice run amok. Bateman represents violence as a means of escape. Lecter represents violence for its own sake, or for the sake of aesthetics—two alternatives which, as Oscar Wilde so memorably points out in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, are largely the same thing.

And each of the three can be seen as society’s diagnosing its own ills, whether the ill is classism, capitalism, or posthumanism.

If we can be so bold as to even slap such labels on the problem. It is perhaps the supreme horror of Hannibal Lecter that he maintains no such diagnosis will ever solve the ultimate problem.

Nothing happened to me.

I happened.

(to be continued)

Once you get into cosmological shit like this, you got to throw away the instruction manual (“It” postmortem: cosmogony)

tripping-in-the-deadlights_440One of the poorer artistic decisions in the history of genre fiction was August Derleth’s retconning of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (a term which Derleth himself coined) from cosmic horror to cosmic religion, taking Lovecraft’s posthumanist universe of human insignificance and transforming it into the stage for a titanic battle between Good—the Elder Gods of Derleth’s invention—and Evil—the Great Old Ones such as Yog-Sothoth and Nyarlathotep. The most resonant and influential aspect of Lovecraft’s stories is the fact that the Great Old Ones are not evil, but completely amoral—they commit horrible deeds against humanity not out of malice but out of a complete lack of recognition of human sentience. In fact, it’s rather tiresome of me to even type the former sentence, the philosophical core of Lovecraft’s tales is so widely known. It’s fortunate that Derleth’s attempt to trample on this posthumanism have been largely forgotten, but the fact that he made it remains an artistic blunder of baffling proportions.

The mythology of It takes a similar baffling swerve deep into its length. It’s not nearly as disastrous as Derleth’s meddlings—the point of King’s novel is not that the universe is a horrifyingly uncaring place—but it’s a bizarre choice, and in addition to weakening Pennywise it firmly shifts the novel’s genre out of the horrific and into the fantastic as discussed in the introduction to this series.

I have to wonder if the decision to introduce the influence of the Turtle came as the result of planning for the Dark Tower series, or if King conceived of it separately and only later decided to weld it onto the behemoth retcon that is that series’ continuity. The former explanation would make the sudden shift into cosmicism a lot more understandable, but I don’t necessarily think it’s feasible; The Waste Lands, the book that introduced the concept of the Turtle and Shardik and numerous other massive animals as guardians of the Beams, wasn’t published until 1991, five years after It. Couple this with King’s notorious antipathy for preplanning, especially within the Dark Tower series itself, and it seems more likely that he came up with the Turtle without some grander plan, only later deciding to make it a part of the Dark Tower universe. At any rate, getting into the cosmogony of It as part of the larger whole that is the Dark Tower could probably be a series on its own, and would also require me to sit down and re-read all seven of those novels, so henceforth I’ll be treating It as a self-contained novel, not part of King’s larger universe (macroverse, if you will).

There’s a sort of twisted Gnosticism at work in King’s conception of It and the Turtle. Throughout the book there’s a disgust and horror that pervades the physical, along with all the damage it can wreak and that can be wrought upon it. The primal fear of a monster eating its victims, which Pennywise plays heavily upon, is a deeply physical one, though there’s also the metaphysical horror of one’s essence being absorbed by another entity. The chief horror of the Derry sewers, besides their darkness, is the stifling mess of shit and waste that runs through them; the most horrific part of Beverly’s encounter with Pennywise in the form of an old woman is the fact that she unknowingly (at first) drinks liquid shit in the form of tea served to her by It. Patrick Hockstetter, a solipsist who believes himself to be the only real person in existence, has only one fear—that of leeches draining his blood, which of course happens to him in short order. And so on and so forth. The physical can be redeemed, as happens in the Losers’ final bonding in the sewers, but on the whole is depicted as vile and horrific throughout the novel.

If this flesh is a prison, Pennywise is the demiurge who rules over it. Its flesh is not like that of the children who It terrorizes; It is fluid, capable of becoming anything it wishes rather than remaining trapped in one form. And even this malleable physical container is not Its final form. The Deadlights, the metaphysical terror hovering in the outer macroverse, are the closest it has to a true self. All this, of course, smacks of a Gnostic conception of the universe—the true reality lies beyond the physical, our own universe only an illusion preventing us from seeing what truly is.

Things are complicated, however, by the fact that It is not the only demiurge; It exploits the physical, but It didn’t trap us there to begin with. That blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the Turtle, who vomited up our reality in the midst of a bout of nausea. This event is, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, widely viewed as a bad move; the Turtle himself pleads with Bill for forgiveness, telling him

I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.

Thus there are two demiurges existent in It‘s cosmogony, one that is actively malevolent toward the physical creation and one who is responsible for the creation itself. The Turtle is not a binary opposite of Pennywise, however; it is not quite indifferent, but if it’s benevolent it’s a weak sort of benevolence, one that can stand by and throw away a platitude or two but can’t offer much in the way of actual assistance.

did you enjoy meeting my friend the Turtle? I thought that stupid old fuck died years ago, and for all the good he could do you, he might as well have, did you think he could help you?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInexplicably, the Turtle vanishes in the midst of the novel’s second climax—It crows to the remaining adult Losers that he died choking on a galaxy. One gets the sense that King realized he couldn’t have any sort of useful deity present to upset his horrific universe, but it feels sloppy; just as soon as the Turtle abruptly enters, he’s gone again.

And indeed, the horrific nature of the novel is lost regardless due to a passing remark the narrator makes shortly after the final demise of It, one that has radical implications for his novel’s cosmogony:

And clearly, [Bill] heard the Voice of the Other; the Turtle might be dead, but whatever invested it was not.

Son, you did real good.

If we were to bring in the heap of canon welding that is the Dark Tower continuity, this Other could be called Gan, that series’ vague equivalent to God. Considered alone, it comes to about the same thing; some mysterious uber-deity that lies beyond even the macroverse. It’s apparently the driving force at work behind the strange coincidences that bring the Losers together, as well as the force that ensures they (mostly) remain childless and prosperous before their final showdown with Pennywise. It is, it could be said, the God to the twin demiurges of the Turtle and Pennywise, trying to undo the physical and metaphysical damage wrought by them.

Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as neat as all that. To begin with, there’s the question of why this Other invests the Turtle with power if it is, in fact, the Turtle’s fault that the universe exists in the first place. There’s also, as ever, the problem of a benevolent deity existing in the world of a horror novel and yet failing to directly save its children. In the context of a Gnostic universe this is more acceptable, as the God of a Gnostic cosmogony is remote and doesn’t directly intervene; however, this is also muddled, as the Other doesn’t act through savior figures in It but apparently wields a direct influence on the Losers, never enough to actually substantially alter events but just enough to shift probability.

There’s also the question of knowledge as the source of salvation. Gnosticism is obviously deeply concerned with this issue, and believes that divine knowledge of the reality that lies beyond our fleshly, material prison is the only way to achieve salvation. In It, however, the reward the Other grants the Losers for performing their duty is to erase their knowledge that such things ever happened. They forget their friends, their loved ones, their childhoods; more importantly, in a theological sense, they forget the metaphysical realities that have been revealed to them in the course of their quest to defeat Pennywise. If the Other is indeed benevolent, blinding the Losers to reality can’t mean their damnation. It also results, however, in a total inability to directly map King’s cosmogony onto a Gnostic one. What we’re left with is a rather muddled conception of the universe.

I’m probably giving this issue more thought than it deserves in the context of the novel. If there’s one thing that It isn’t concerned with thematically, it’s a classically Gnostic view of salvation. There’s also the out-of-universe reality that King was mired deepest in his cocaine addiction and alcoholism at this point, and it’s probably overly charitable to assume that he was thinking deeply about a workable theological framework for his novel (though then again, Philip K. Dick’s addictions never stood in his way. . .). However, the enormity of the cosmic fantasy the novel’s final quarter indulges in means it can’t simply be brushed over, especially if one does indeed try to tie it to the larger cosmogony of the Dark Tower universe. It would be fascinating for King to write a metaphysical treatise of sorts on the nature of his fictional universe; perhaps he has answers that he simply hasn’t told us, or, more likely, perhaps he really was simply making it up as he went along.

The implications of all this theological rigmarole for It‘s genre have been touched on at length in the introduction to this series. The presence of the Turtle and the Other muddy the conceptual waters enough that I don’t think It can be labeled a horror novel in its entirety, but a fantasy with strong horrific overtones. The categorical purist in me is frustrated by this, especially because it completely overturns what is otherwise a rather perfect encapsulation of what horror means in a philosophical sense, courtesy of Stan Uris:

There were things that were not supposed to be. They offended any sane person’s sense of order, they offended the central idea that God had given the earth a final tilt on its axis so that twilight would only last about twelve minutes at the equator and linger for an hour or more up where the Eskimos built their ice-cube houses, that He had done that and He then had said, in effect: “Okay, you can figure out the tilt, you can figure out any damn thing you choose. Because even light has weight, and when the note of a trainwhistle suddenly drops it’s the Doppler effect and when an airplane breaks the sound barrier that bang isn’t the applause of angels or the flatulence of demons but only air collapsing back into place. I gave you the tilt and then I sat back about halfway up the auditorium to watch the show. I got nothing else to say, except that two and two makes four, the lights in the sky are stars, if there’s blood grownups can see it as well as kids, and dead kids stay dead.” You can live with fear, I think, Stan would have said if he could. Maybe not forever, but for a long, long time. It’s  offense you maybe can’t live with, because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are live things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down in that dark, and after awhile you think maybe there’s a whole other universe down there, a universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five, and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses that sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could.  Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.

The power of this passage is blunted by the fact that Its existence is not, in fact, a hole in the order of the universe after all, but part of a fantastic framework. It’s still chilling, but how much more chilling it would be if Stan’s universe were indeed an otherwise completely rational one.

What matters more than abstract questions of genre are the implications for Pennywise’s character. Unfortunately, Pennywise completely collapses once Its backstory is explained in detail. The appeal of the monster lurking underneath the bridge or inside the closet is that it is inexplicable; its motives, its origins, its nature, are all unknowns, making it impossible to fight. Learning exactly what It is, and worse, seeing inside Its head and reading its thoughts, undermines nearly all of the horror built by Its mystique; It is reduced from a seemingly omniscient, dastardly cunning monster to a whinging, cringing tyrant bloated by its own pompous self-importance (using the phrase I demand, no, I command it! is cringe-inducing from just about anyone; from a malevolent clown it’s even worse).

One could make the case that this is precisely the point—knowledge is all that’s required to drive away monsters in the closet, and while growing up renders us more susceptible to horror at things that shouldn’t exist, it also renders us more able to explain them away. And so, it would seem, knowledge is indeed a sort of salvation within King’s cosmogony.

Except for when it isn’t.

(to be continued)

What went we out into this wilderness to find?: “The Witch” review

the-witch-poster ✦ ½ of five

When I was still a Christian, I had a severe demon problem. They’d come to me at night, looming in the dark corners of my bedroom, waiting just behind my curtains if only I’d open them. They’d whisper things to me, and I couldn’t make it stop.

I could call to my parents when things got particularly upsetting, when I was younger—I once, at the age of seven, wailed for them because Satan’s voice was in my head. He was telling me to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus decries as the only unforgivable sin: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). I don’t remember, looking back, which was worse; that I could hear his voice in my head, or that if I so much as slipped, so much as had the thought of blasphemy—which, thoughts being what they are, was sure to happen—I would in a stroke be condemned to eternal damnation. At any rate, my parents stayed up with me, and prayed, and all was temporarily well.

As I grew older, however, I no longer had that recourse. We had moved houses, and in our new home my parents’ bedroom was on the opposite end of the house from mine. Running from one end of a vast black expanse to the other, with the stairwell to the basement plunging downward on the left side, was not my idea of a relief from horror. And more importantly, I was eleven, twelve, thirteen, and so on. Parents could not be a source of nighttime comfort any longer.

And so, I endured. I lay there in the dark, and strove to block the voices out, and opened and closed my eyes over. And over. And over again. I prayed a mantra, a litany, in between telling the demons to go away in the name of Jesus, but they never did and I never fell asleep easily.

This was one of the most immediate reliefs of my leaving the faith at age sixteen. Almost immediately, the demons stopped talking. Nearly three years later, and I haven’t heard them since. There are other night fears, to be certain—I didn’t sleep well for months after seeing The Babadook, my toddler nightmares of monsters in the closet raging back to life—but once you’ve failed to believe in God, the demonic largely loses its teeth (as I wrote about in detail in my analysis of demon possession in the horror genre).

When I first saw a trailer for The VVitch, several months ago, I was intrigued. First, because it looked to be a genuinely good horror picture with an excellent premise and a good deal of critical praise. Second, because I was hoping it might be able to provide an exception to the rule of a Christian framework failing to work within an atheistic/maltheistic genre. Third, because I was, on some level, curious. I wanted to see if it would be able to reawaken that deeply ingrained childhood religious terror, my three years of secularism notwithstanding.

Having seen it a few hours prior to the writing of this review, I can say that points one and three were fulfilled admirably. I’m not convinced of point two, but I think The VVitch comes the closest of any piece of religious horror I’ve encountered to justifying itself. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deeply admirable one and a deeply disturbing one, and I suspect it will grow even better upon rewatching.

The New England folk tale of the subtitle begins with isolation. William (Ralph Ineson), a devout Puritan who takes issue with the way his church chooses to express its faith, is banished from the congregation. Outcast, he makes for the outskirts of the massive nearby woods, taking with him his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), his prepubescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), his maturing daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the young twins Mercy and Jonas, and the infant Samuel. Before long, there are unsettling signs that the family is not alone—Samuel vanishes into the forest, and Mercy begins telling tales of a child-devouring witch who lives there in covenant with Satan. Grief turns into paranoia, and as the nights drag on the family begins to unravel, unsure if even their faith in God will be enough to protect them from the evil in the wood.

There be spoilers from here on out!

witch02The film upsets viewer expectations almost immediately by displaying the witch herself—rather than leaving it up to the viewers to wonder what has happened to Samuel, director Robert Eggers presents the woman’s naked back as she cradles the baby in her arms, before proceeding to do to him exactly what it is we’re told witches do to children. Giving us this glimpse of the titular horror is a massive risk, one that I almost certainly would not have taken, and it pays off immensely. The prominence of the witch’s nakedness reveals one of the film’s underlying themes—the gnawing transgression of sexuality—and its proximity to a deed that almost caused me to gasp aloud (nothing of the actual slaying of the baby is shown, but what remains onscreen is shocking enough) tells the viewer exactly what they’re in for: this movie is going to be about children, and it’s gong to hurt them badly.

From there, what we’re given is a slow-burn descent into madness highly reminiscent of The Thing, but even more disturbing in the context of a family turning on itself rather than a group of men falling apart. This is one area in which the film’s trailer is misleading—it depicts the family as a cold and unloving one, whereas in the film itself Ineson’s patriarch is a warm, devoted father who has a deep love for his eldest son and daughter, which makes his gradual disintegration even more affecting. His performance is matched by those of newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, who manage more nuance and feeling in their roles than many adults could. Combine the audience’s sympathy for their characters with the horrors that are inflicted upon them, and the result is some of the most deeply upsetting moments of horror art in recent memory. To be quite honest, I’m stunned the film got away with some of them at merely an R rating.

Caleb is on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film makes a point to let the camera linger on Thomasin’s chest a few different times when the two of them are together, emphasizing the perversity that the religion of the day assigned to lust; the hints of incestuous flutters are required to make us feel the revulsion that was part and parcel of sexual attraction in the film’s 1630 setting. When the witch is shown for the second time, it’s in the guise of a provocative young woman who lures Caleb to her as he wanders, lost, through the woods. What follows was shocking to me as an adolescent male—I can’t imagine a parent’s reaction to the image.

Subsequently, a naked Caleb returns home, seemingly possessed of an evil spirit. As he begins going through the requisite contortions and yowls, his family gathers around him and prays frantically, and he himself begins to shriek the name of Jesus until it appears that his faith has won the battle. However, in an astonishingly acted shot that goes on and on, his tearful confession of love for his savior morphs into a twisted parody that is barely subtext, his voice rising to a woman’s high moan as he begs for the Son of God to kiss him on the mouth and embrace him again and again. When he dies shortly thereafter, it’s a mercy.

This scene, along with an earlier moment in which Caleb, alone and desperate in the woods, repeats a prayer over and over again, is the one that struck the closest to the bone for me. It made me remember all too well the nights of lying in bed, alternately too scared to open my eyes and too scared to close them (if I may paraphrase another famous film of witchery) praying over and over again and failing to dispel the fear. For the religious person, this may be the worst fear of all: the fear that belief alone is not enough, that prayer will do nothing to ward away an enemy who seems far more potent and seductive in its terror than a far-away benevolent God ever could.

It’s only the midpoint of the film, however, and Thomasin comes to the fore as matters fall apart at an even faster rate. The amount of violence the film is willing to show rises as the tension does likewise, with a few particularly well-chosen images leaving impressions on the brain that are hard to scrub away. By the time things draw to a close, Thomasin is alone, stranded with the ebony goat Black Philip, whose ominous appearance has been a constant throughout the film. She enters the barn with him, chills run up the viewer’s spine. . .and then, for a moment, horror evaporates.

Alas, just as The Exorcist chose to spell out to its viewers that the same Pazuzu whose statue appeared in the opening scene is what holds possession of Regan, The VVitch chooses to bring the devil himself into the narrative. We never see him directly, but it’s clear who he is, and it just. Doesn’t. Work. The sense of mystery collapses, the horror of the unknown becomes the horror of an identifiable quantity, and the same question that always arises in such circumstances does so here: if God so clearly isn’t present here, why is his Adversary?

What follows this, however, is an ending that is perfectly shot and skin-crawling in the literal sense of the word. And while it’s unfortunate that His Infernal Majesty had to show up, rather than the titular witch being the one to fill the role, the movie’s 1630s setting makes even this almost work. Eggers makes a point to have a troubled Caleb question his father following the disappearance of Samuel: if we are all born in sin, and he was not yet baptized, isn’t he in hell? William has no answer for him. The God of the Puritans was a wildly capricious, terrifyingly distant deity, one whose salvation one could never be assured of and whose hellfire was a constant threat. If He is the God of The VVitch, the whole movie can be seen as a particularly perverse test of faith (and indeed William namechecks Abraham and Isaac later on in its running time). The family has been exiled from their congregation to test their loyalty to their heavenly father, and each and every one is found wanting.

There are two readings of the film’s final scene, each as valid as the other. A graphically naked Thomasin, her covenant with Satan made, stumbles into the wood and watches as a circle of equally naked women chants a praise to their father below, before ascending to the tops of the trees. Firelight dancing across her face, Thomasin slowly begins to rise as well, and we cannot tell if the laughter on her face is that of madness or that of freedom. The Satanic Temple certainly believes it to be the latter—they infamously partnered with A24 to promote the film before its release—and they have a fair amount of evidence to support their case, with the entire film’s nightmare treatment of pent-up sexuality serving as prelude to Thomasin’s glorious sexual release and rejection of Puritan paranoia. The various evils that lead to this moment might seem too heavy to justify this interpretation, but the film does ask the question: if the God of this world could allow such terrible things to happen to those who want nothing more than to serve him, is Satan truly more evil in comparison?

Ultimately, the other reading of the film’s ending—that the witches are indeed abhorrent and Thomasin’s embrace of her sexuality is the final step on her path to damnation—while it would seem to better fit the worldview of the film’s religious players, is the more disturbing of the two. It was rightly pointed out to me before I saw the film that witches are one of the only cultural groups that are still widely considered fair game to demonize, with most people drawing no distinction between Wiccans and neopagans and the Satanic monsters of old campfire stories—and not bothering to do the five minutes’ research it would take to reveal that the two are completely different (not to mention the fact that the latter never existed). Not only could The VVitch lead to a renewed Satanic panic in religious viewers and encourage them to dehumanize modern witches, it paints a revisionist view of history in which Satanic witches did indeed exist and thus justified the presence of witch hunts and burnings. It’s a troubling moral issue, and while the subtitle A New England Folk Tale encourages the viewer to remember that it’s really “just a story”, such things tend to get thrown by the wayside when religious paranoia comes along.

The ramblings above haven’t even begun to touch on the film’s cinematography, which is stark and haunting, its score, which takes cues from The Shining‘s use of Penderecki’s Utrenja and is incredibly effective, or its screenplay, which according to a mid-credits interlude takes much of its dialogue from period accounts and is archaic without sacrificing intelligibility. I’ve also hardly done justice to the issue of sexual repression vs. sexual liberation within the film, which could easily form its own essay. That said, at 2,300 words consisting largely of spoilers, this writeup has gone on longer than it deserves. And so, I end on this note:

The VVitch is not a perfect movie. It has not, as of this writing, affected me as viscerally as other recent horror films (The Babadook) or impressed me with its utter lack of problems (as does The Descent). However, I’ve the feeling I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. Partly because I’ll be dwelling on numerous of its images, unable to get them out of my head. And partly because, for ninety minutes, it put religious fear back into my brain in a way I haven’t experienced since I deconverted. It’s an enormously impressive effort, will launch its director and actors onto equally impressive careers, and has indeed earned its place as one of the finest, most deeply unsettling pieces of horror art in the last decade. If that means I’ll be regressing to my seven-year-old self under the covers tonight, the movie has damn well earned it.


An infernal nuisance: “The Exorcist” and the problem of demonic possession

the_exorcist_1971Next to Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Haunting of Hill House, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist is probably the most important horror novel ever written. It and its more famous film adaptation near-singlehandedly ushered in the Horror Boom of the 1970s-80s, a period that permanently raised the horror genre’s place in public consciousness and gave us authors such as Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker. The entire subgenre of demonic-possession story was also brought to popularity by the book and the film, and has never since gone away (even The Babadook, an otherwise classically monster-in-the-closet tale, can’t escape its influence). It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the story’s two versions to the genre of horror and to popular culture in general. Which is why it’s a shame that both are deeply flawed, and the novel in particular simply isn’t that good.

Let me qualify the above by saying that the novel still merited three stars out of five as my Goodreads rating. Fun is a large factor in how I rate certain books, and it’s undeniable that Blatty’s novel is indeed quite a bit of fun. Even given all its flaws, it moves at a tremendous clip, and while it never scared me it did have me turning pages at a pretty tight rate. It, like books by Michael Crichton and Jack McDevitt and others like them, is a great stress-reliever; one goes into it knowing exactly what they’re getting and leaves feeling solidly entertained. But where Crichton’s Jurassic Park or McDevitt’s Polaris are also successfully told stories, The Exorcist is merely fun. It lacks a coherence and an internal logic, and this paucity of sense draws attention to itself at all the worst moments.

I can’t place the blame for this solely on Blatty, because these problems are not, by and large, with The Exorcist in particular but with the concept of demonic possession as a whole. It simply can’t be made to work in a piece of horror art, at least not the specifically Christian conception of possession that pervades nearly every such story. Below, I lay out a brief critique of the numerous problems for demons in horror literature, beginning with problems specific to The Exorcist before broadening my approach to the Christian framework of demonic possession in general.

Problems Inherent to The Exorcist‘s Depiction of Possession

250px-pazuzudemonassyria1stmil_2The largest problem in The Exorcist that is created specifically by Blatty is involved in the incredible coincidence required for the plot to come about in the first place. Both the novel and the film open in the midst of an archaeological dig in Iraq, with the titular exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin, as our viewpoint character. Merrin is disturbed to discover that one of the artifacts that has been unearthed is an amulet bearing the likeness of Pazuzu, an Assyro-Babylonian wind demon. The priest, who has apparently beaten Pazuzu once before, senses that another showdown is imminent, and promptly vanishes before indeed reappearing in the final act to assist Father Damien Karras in driving the demon from the body of horrifically possessed little girl Regan MacNeil. Ignoring the straining of credulity required to believe that Pazuzu would have fled across hemispheres to possess a little girl who just so happens to live in the same location as Merrin’s Catholic cohorts, his ties to the old priest introduce huge internal problems to The Exorcist.

First of these is the damage that the desert opening does to the story’s atmosphere. One of the elements present in The Exorcist that became integral to the horror boom is the familiarity of its setting. Stephen King especially would learn from this, setting nearly all of his novels in a set of small towns in the state of Maine and never departing from the city limits; the same can be said for Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (which itself borrows heavily from King’s ‘Salem’s Lot) and countless other novels and films of the Horror Boom. Even today, the tactic hasn’t grown stale—placing an alien horror in the midst of an otherwise completely “normal” and familiar environment is a tremendously effective device for making a story’s central evil a much more invasive and paranoia-inducing threat than it otherwise would be. Unfortunately, Blatty undermines his own stroke of genius in this regard by deliberately opening his novel in a conspicuously exotic setting. The sense of scope this lends the narrative, though it leads to some very pretty shots in the film adaptation, is precisely what is not needed—it collapses the otherwise claustrophobic invasion of the mundane by the supernatural in a manner that cannot conceptually be recovered from.

The second problem caused by Blatty’s introduction of Merrin and his foe is the confusion it adds to the story’s internal mythology. The spirit that possesses Regan is very clearly one that fits the Christian conception of a demon (which, as is discussed below, brings with it a whole host of its own problems), answers to such biblical labels as the devil and Legion, and has a particular dislike for crucifixes and holy water. Identifying it as the Assyro-Babylonian Pazuzu, however, takes what is otherwise a purely Christian enemy and hopelessly muddles it. Are we to assume Pazuzu is lying, adapting itself to a Christian culture’s fears in order to better exploit it? Did the Assyrians and Babylonians identify as a god an entity that is in fact nothing more than one of Satan’s host (we’ll ignore all the problems of cultural disrespect this entails)? If we were given one of these answers it would at least partially repair the damage, but Blatty never attempts to offer an explanation for the cultural cross-pollination. Pazuzu simply transforms into a Christian demon, and in doing so renders The Exorcist a mythological scrap-heap.

The final problem caused by the story’s opening is one of effective horror. In this regard the film is perhaps the worse offender, in that it explicitly shows Pazuzu’s silhouette behind Regan after Father Merrin is killed by his efforts to save her. This explicit labeling of the story’s shadowy antagonist deflates a huge portion of the fear and tension that have built up prior to the silhouette’s appearance; it takes what has (in the film) been up to this moment an unidentified enemy and explicitly gives him a name and identity. The old truism that the unknown is more frightening than the known holds true here, and we find we can’t be nearly as scared of Pazuzu now that we see him as a concrete entity. In the novel, which unlike its adaptation names the demon in its opening pages, no such climax-interrupting revelation comes; and while Blatty’s text is technically the more egregious breaker of rules due to its presenting its villain’s identity up front, the impact of this flaw is felt less due to its not coming in the midst of such an important scene.

Problems Inherent to the Christian Concept of Possession

the-exorcist-large-msg-115263114357Without even considering its impact on horror specifically quite yet, the Christian conception of demon possession is inherently problematic as concerns motive. If we are to accept the Christian definition of a demon as a former angel now fallen and ruled by Satan, the actions of a demonic possession cease to make any sort of sense when considered in detail.

The first of many questions: why possess a human being at all? Blatty’s novel makes a vague comment about Pazuzu’s desire for a warm body, but this causes more problems than it resolves. To begin with, there’s no compelling reason as to why a demon would want to inhabit a body. Even if the Gnostic revulsion for the physical that still pervades a good deal of Christian theology is cast aside, there’s not a particularly large list of advantages for a former angel of God in possessing a meat-puppet. Not only does it seemingly substantially limit the demon’s freedom (rendering it firmly corporeal rather than able to flit throughout the world as it pleases, unable to utilize supernatural powers beyond vague object-moving and other such parlor tricks), it traps it in a body subject to damage, decay, and eventual death. The latter apparently isn’t much of a concern to Christian demons, however—indeed, rather than slowing those processes they attempt to hasten them! Regan is emblematic of a typical Christian possession in this regard, practicing self-mutilation, regularly shitting and vomiting on herself, and growing increasingly sickly. Even if a demon could for whatever reason take enough pleasure in inhabiting a body to regularly attempt to do so, deliberately wrecking its new home and providing it with generally miserable physical sensations rather than pleasurable ones is utterly nonsensical.

The other major question raised by Christian demonic possession: what is the demon’s goal? Presented outside of a Christian framework, possession doesn’t have to make sense; an unknown entity’s goals needn’t be limited to a certain theological system. A specifically Christian demon, though, is automatically saddled with an agenda, one that possession doesn’t seem to suit very well. Causing pain and misery to God’s creatures is a commonly given answer, but if so possession is hardly the most efficient way to go about it; surely using one’s telekinetic powers to, say, collapse a bridge or tear several people’s hearts from their chests is more effective than simply causing one little girl to mutilate herself and shriek obscenities? In The Exorcist, Father Merrin speculates that perhaps the demon possesses a victim in order to drive others to despair; if this is the case, it rather resoundingly backfires, with Pazuzu’s possession of Regan driving her firmly atheist mother to seek spiritual guidance. And if, as is commonly held among Christians who believe in demonic possession, it is impossible for one inhabited by the Holy Spirit to be possessed, isn’t it far more likely that possession would indeed frequently convince unbelievers of the power of the supernatural, rather than causing believers to doubt their faith? Once again, The Exorcist fails to provide an answer, and in this case is not alone.

More interesting than this sort of plothole-picking, though, are the implications that arise when Christian possession is the fuel for a horror novel. It’s my firm contention that all horror, or at least all successful horror, is essentially atheistic or at best maltheistic. This is not to say that horror stories cannot have happy endings (though it’s usually best that they don’t), but those happy endings cannot be obtained through divine intervention. The existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God irreparably undermines the central philosophical conceit of horror—that humans are nothing more than thinking meat, that we are alone in a completely uncaring if not actively malevolent universe, that if anyone is going to save us it must be ourselves (and even the odds of that are inconceivably slim). Once this kind of God is brought into a narrative, it ceases to be horror and becomes nothing more than fantasy, no matter how gruesome its details.

This presents a rather titanic problem for demonic possession stories, at least ones that rely on a Christian framework. We can either bring in God as literal deus ex machina to save the day, rendering our story a completely unsuccessful horror tale; or we dispense with God altogether, which retains a horrific atmosphere but begs the question: what the hell are Christian demons doing in a world without a Christian God?

The Exorcist chooses the latter option. None of the Christian rituals or invocations of Christ’s name desperately hurled at Pazuzu by Merrin and Karras are ultimately effective—they affect the demon not one whit, and Merrin, the perfectly pious saint, dies in the midst of attempting to drive it out. It is only when Karras, furious, demands that Pazuzu come into him, willingly rejecting God and embracing the demonic, that the enemy is beaten; he enters the priest, who promptly hurls himself through a window and down a flight of stone steps. This (if we ignore the book’s sequel, which I’m completely comfortable with doing) apparently kills Pazuzu (yet again bringing up the question of why the hell demons are so keen to inhabit mortal bodies in the first place). It’s a triumph, but rather an empty one; in order to achieve victory, Karras is forced to address the demon on its own terms, rather than relying on a God who is at best unresponsive and more likely simply isn’t present. The film emphasizes this; where the book depicts a priest delivering hasty last rites to the dying Karras, the adaptation shows him breathing his last before even this can occur.

In choosing this ending, Blatty makes the proper aesthetic and philosophical choice, denying any chance of an all-powerful deity saving the day. Unfortunately, in doing so he exposes the inescapable problem of utilizing Christian possession in horror: why does demonic possession occur if the demons’ foe is both good and all-powerful, and if He does not exist what are the demons doing running around in the first place?

* * *

The monumental status of The Exorcist can’t be denied, and its merits, while they’re of a distinctly potboiler quality, are substantial. That said, it remains an essentially unsuccessful story due both to Blatty’s own choices and the constraints of the mythology upon which the novel hinges. As evidenced by its immense influence and popular appeal, it’s an undeniably powerful tale, especially in its film adaptation. Unfortunately, much of its power comes from one’s own religious belief and the accompanying terror of the forces of Satan. Once that’s left behind, fear starts to unravel in the face of questions—and those questions ultimately can’t be recovered from.