Monday, September 27, 2004

Fright-night

The popularity of C. S. Lewis and Cordwainer Smith have made SF a favorite genre for many Christians. Yet, in many respects, the horror genre intersects with the Christian worldview in a way that the SF genre does not.

Why is it, then, that the horror genre has failed to capture the Christian imagination? Perhaps they find the subject-matter something best to be avoided. In addition, the horror genre is a dumping ground for a good deal of decadent material--B-movies, slash-'um-ups, heaving bosoms and the like.

Still, some of the occult themes of the horror genre overlap or originate in Scripture and church history.

The area of overlaps consists in a couple of sometimes interrelated themes: possession and the Antichrist.

Although most horror flicks are campy, trashy exercises in vicarious sadism and voyeurism, there are a handful which achieve a certain distinction in the handling of their subject-matter. It is not, perhaps, coincidental that some of these began life as novels (Dracula, The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby). They had a certain literary distinction which, in turn, jumpstarted the screenplay.

The classic film on the subject of possession is, of course, The Exorcist. The degree to which this was effective was the degree to which it was orthodox. It took seriously the traditional Roman Catholic theology of possession and exorcism seriously. Although the viewpoint was Roman Catholic, the underlying ideas are firmly founded in Scripture.

The film was respectful of the priestly vocation. And it explored the tension between tradition and modernity. Fr. Merrin, the senior priest and exorcist, represents traditional piety. By contrast, Fr. Karras, the junior priest, trained in modern-day psychiatry, is a sceptic. However, as he's drawn ever further into this case, secular explanations fail him.

The film also benefited from an outstanding cast (Blair, Burstyn, Miller, von Sydow). The film does not make for easy viewing, and no one is duty-bound to watch it. But it addresses a genuine phenomenon of religious significance.

The treatment of the Antichrist theme takes to basic forms. The more immediate is the direct treatment of the Antichrist. The classic film on this subject is, of course, Rosemary's Baby, although The Omen, while not at quite the same artistic level, is also a quality production, with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in the lead roles.

And idea of the Antichrist has its roots in both the NT and the OT. It surfaces in the prophecies of Dan 7, 9,11-12 but it has a more submerged prehistory in the idea of a serpentine seed, which has its inception in the Protevangelion (Gen 3:15), and moves up through Gen 49:17, Deut 33:22 and Jer 8:16-17. The theme is picked up again in the Olivet Discourse (Mt 24:15,24), Paul's prophecy of the man of sin (2 Thes 2), and the Johannine writings (1 Jn 2:18; 4:3,6; Rev 13).

In cinematic treatments, such as the above, the advent of the Antichrist is facilitated by a diabolical impregnation. This has its roots in the medieval notion of the incubus or succubus, which has, in turn, more ancient antecedents. (Just consult the literature on "Old Hag syndrome".)

Although Scripture is not explicit on this point, the idea is consistent with the traditional interpretation of Gen 6:1-4 (cf. 1 Pet 3:19-20; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6-7).

This interpretation is often though to be ruled out on account of Mt 22:29-30 (par. Mk 12:24-25; Lk 20:34-36). However, this has reference to the heavenly angels, not the fallen angels. Inasmuch as angels are evidently able to assume corporeal (e.g., Gen 19:1-3), they may, for all we know, be capable of carnal congress as well, although this would, of course, represent an unnatural abuse of their natural powers.

A mediating position, which, in fact, covers both of the cinematic themes under consideration, is the idea that the "sons of God" were men possessed of the devil. In Jewish and medieval lore, the lineage of the Antichrist is, in fact, associated Gen 6 and the origin of the Nephilim or "fallen ones."

An indirect treatment of the Antichrist theme is to center the story on a character that exemplifies that figure. And, in this respect, the character of Dracula is the most frequent vehicle. Of course, there are an inexhaustible number of B-movies about vampires, but a few achieve artistic distinction: Bram Stoker's Dracula (Coppola, Gary Oldman); Count Dracula (BBC miniseries, Louis Jourdan); Count Dracula (Jess Franco, Christopher Lee);
Nosferatu: The Vampyre (Herzog, Kinski).

Dracula is, in several respects, a type of the Antichrist. He is in league with the dark side. He confers eternal life on his favored victims. He confers eternal life by allowing them to drink his blood. He takes a consort or harem, in a travesty of Christ and the church.

The literary character of Dracula is a product of the Romantic era, for whom the Devil was their exemplary antihero. This aspect is showcased by the likes of Gary Oldman and Louis Jordan.

The Coppola adaptation is distinctive for introducing the count as a Christian apostate. In a semi-historic prelude, it draws attention to career of Vlad the Impaler as a Crusader and a one-time communicant of the Rumanian Orthodox Church, before he turned against God to embrace the dark side.

By contrast, Nosferatu presents Dracula as a truly ghoulish and bestial remnant of his long lost humanity. This is a monster, both inside and out--reminiscent of final fate of Milton's archfiend. He brings a retinue of plague-infested rats wherever he goes.

On a mundane level, the shape-shifting, gravity-defiant powers of the vampire defy all scientific sense. But on another plane, their preternatural powers are supposed to be paranormal, for these are supernatural creatures, trafficking with evil spirits. And this is why they are repelled by sacred objects (e.g., the crucifix, holy water).

For a chance of pace, Roman Polanski's Fearless Vampire Killers is a brilliant spoof on the whole vampiric genre, featuring a swishy bloodsucker and a hilarious ballroom scene--among other things.

This point is not that these vampiric depictions are at all realistic in the representational sense. They are not descriptive of reality, but rather, palpable emblems of an often impalpable presence in the world--one which is generally known only by its effect. Rarely is the veil pulled back to reveal the ultimate agent. And that, indeed, is why it is called the "occult."

Contemporary efforts to domesticate and gentrify the occult (e.g., Harry Potter, Brimstone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Forever Knight, Crossing Over, horoscopes, psychic hotlines) are a softening up device to prep the general public for a neopagan renaissance. Dark Shadows, a cult TV-series, was the tip of the spear.

On the other hand, a movie like Hellboy makes subversive and satirical use of occult cliches to channel a redemptive message. Opportunism can cut either way.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks Steve, that was really insightful. I was wondering, since it is so popular these days, what do you make of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, particularly from the perspective of a Christian (or Christian Calvinist, if we should make the distinction)? Many thanks! :-)

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  2. Hello, just visited your bible blog, I also have a bible related website, it's about some books which is helpful to understand the God's Words

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