Category Archives: Religion

Link Dump: #27

Oh, that poor kitty from Drag Me to Hell. Clearly Alison Lohman just cannot be entrusted with animals. At least it got to spend its last moments on earth bein’ all cute and lying around in a laundry basket. Sorry that the Link Dumps have been MIA for the past two weeks, but between a lack of Internet access, moving back and forth, and preparing frantically for MoCCA Fest, it’s been hard to sit down long enough to post them. So here you go, as compensation: a compilation of the best (non-Rebecca-Black-related) Internet stuff from the past two weeks.

  • Here’s a fucking brilliant piece by Michael Dwyer of PopThought all about Blue Valentine, the MPAA, and American attitudes toward sexuality. This is sophisticated cultural commentary.
  • We all knew the Phelps family (of Westboro Baptist Church fame) was more than a little fucked up. Now we have proof, from the mouth of Fred Phelps’s son Nathan, who explains some of the disturbing but unsurprising secrets behind his family’s behavior.
  • Did you know that the anti-choice movement is also the Thought Police? A woman in Iowa was  jailed for thinking about having an abortion.
  • In less ragey news, what’s a collaboration that we’ve all always fucking wanted? Tom Waits and David Lynch.
  • Empire Online has the “Ultimate Shirt And Tie Picture Quiz,” wherein you match the suit to the movie. I got 8; how well can you do?
  • Todd Brown of Twitch has a pretty sophisticated piece about the effect of the PG-13 rating on movies for kids ages 10-13.
  • Rue Morgue offers up “100 Alternative Horror Films,” with some fun, relatively obscure additions like The Changeling, Martin, and Wait Until Dark.
  • Courtesy of our friends at Dead Homer Society, we have Fredrik Larsson’s medley of Simpsons song covers. He has a great voice and does wonderful segues; definitely go watch that video.

We had the occasional bizarre search term over the last few weeks. Some highlights include “pretend rape goes wrong”—I don’t even want to think about how it went wrong—and “Эмбер Хёрд,” which Google Translate informs me is Russian for “Amber Heard.” Someone was obviously very confused about the concept of pussy; how else to explain “pussy-???.???.???.???” Someone else was just confused in general, asking “what to do with myself”? Finally, I’m kind of honored: someone actually searched directly for “black swan andreas stoehr.” Hopefully they found the words of wisdom they were (presumably) looking for.

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Link Dump: #18

See? Even the unnamed couple from Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) loved kitties. They probably also loved links to cool things on the Internet, too… or at least they would’ve, if they were alive today. Anyway, here are those links:

  • Letters of Note has some cool documentation of Kubrick’s attempts to make his Napeoleon movie in the late ’60s, including his invitation to the semi-retired Audrey Hepburn to have her play Josephine.
  • If you’re like me (or, you know, not a fundamentalist psycho), you probably hate Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church. Here’s a documentary about them and their Lady Gaga-hating ways, as well as an article about an Arizona law banning them from protesting funerals after last week’s shootings.
  • What’s better than Criterion-style covers for new releases by a Criterion cover designer? Nothing. They’re just beautiful. Especially Toy Story 3 and Black Swan.
  • Shakesville has a well-written piece on the media’s treatment of work discrimination complaints.
  • The Advocate has an article on the gayest cities in America… and #1? Minneapolis! Yay, Twin Cities pride.
  • Vulture has the worst movies of 2010 – but really, Black Swan‘s on there? Vocal minority or not, that’s a stretch, especially in a year that saw Yogi Bear and Devil.
  • Holy fuck, there’s a plant that eats rats?!

Alas, we’re short on good search terms this week, but here are two vagina-centric ones: “niece wet cunt,” which I hope was a misspelling of “nice wet cunt,” because the other option is just kind of gross and weird, and “stolen pussy comics.” I’m not sure if that refers to comics about stolen pussy, or pussy comics that were stolen. Either way… weird.

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Link Dump: #8

[Via Nordenwald]

I’m not shy about my love of George Sanders. His worldly, acerbic presence was the cherry on top of many great movies. And hey, since it’s October, why not think about all the great scary movies that got the George Sanders treatment? Like Rebecca (1940), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), Lured (1947), Village of the Damned (1960), and many more, especially toward the end of his career. Sanders was always witty, even with bad dialogue, and wit is one of my favorite traits in a horror movie. Plus, he voiced worldly, acerbic kitty in a Disney movie. What’s not to love? Now, for this week’s links…

  • Last week was Banned Books Week, but don’t forget that some library books are just awful. This hilarious website shows some of them. (Of course, even the most awful books shouldn’t be banned; that’s just silly.)
  • To follow up on our coverage of Satoshi Kon’s passing a few weeks ago, here’s a piece from Filmwell discussing his all-too-short career.
  • Look! Weird Danish comics!
  • This is truly incredible: the theme from Psycho played on a church organ.
  • In the last Link Dump, I mentioned Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project. Well, it’s inspired a flood of responses. Here’s an article on Jezebel defending the project against criticisms from within the LGBT community; a new project called Make It Better that takes Savage’s one step further; and two very powerful, touching pieces on the film blogs Billy Loves Stu and I’m Not Patty.
  • If there’s anything we love to hate, it’s wacky fundamentalist websites. Movieguide.org is like Jack Chick writing movie reviews; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It gave me hours of lolz. Princess Mononoke is “demonic”? Palindromes is “putrid”? Oh yes, and there’s more ahead! (Hint: If a movie has any queer content… outlook not so good.) Alas, their web design is not as immaculate as their souls, so the site’s pretty hard to navigate.
  • Speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a satirical piece about the evils of Glee. Best line: “Sports are essential for keeping fit, strong and attractive!”
  • And still speaking of fundamentalist wackos, here’s a story about a teacher who was driven out of her job by censorship done, you know, in the best interest of the children.
  • Jezebel has the scoop on the smutty side of Edith Wharton.
  • Everybody loves gendered stereotypes, right? Here’s a Twitter feed full of them called GuysTruths! Sample tweet: the classic “Fellas, when you see a girl cry, just hug her.”
  • Super Punch had a Calvin and Hobbes art contest, which includes awesome Let the Right One In and The Sandman parodies; the last entry on here (reading “Playtime is over”) is by a friend and former classmate of mine.
  • Finally, do you like webcomics? Do you like them funky and sexy? Scott has what you need with Funky Sexy Jazzmen, updated weekly.

On the search terms front, the last couple weeks haven’t seen anything especially exciting. I think I’ve seen “nipple masturbation” and “pregnant gore” juxtaposed so often that I’m officially desensitized to all the words involved. However, one search did manage to weird even me out: “fire extinguisher pussy.” That phrase has unpleasant implications I don’t want to explore. Somebody searched for everyone’s least favorite kind of hipster, the “public masturbation hipster.” I hate those hipsters so much, always masturbating in public! Some cool news: Pussy Goes Grrr is officially the #1 hit on the search “emilie karsunke,” which is the real name of Mieze from Berlin Alexanderplatz. And lastly, someone posed the all-important question, “how big is a whales pussy”? I’m stumped on this one. But, for some fascinating whale pussy-related trivia, I turn to Spencer Tinker’s Whales of the World, page 96:

A very unusual structure called the vaginal “plug” is found in the vagina of some toothed whales (Odontoceti), but does not occur in any known species of whalebone whales (Mysticeti). This puzzling structure is formed by secretions from the wall of the vagina and is composed in part of hard, calcareous substances. The purpose of this “plug” is doubtless related to reproduction, possibly copulation.

Thank you for reading.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart Sells His Soul

Just before the month ends, here’s July’s analysis of The Simpsons‘ brilliant, multifaceted artistry. (All previous entries can be viewed here.) Perhaps The Simpsons‘ most dazzling feat was its ability to emanate such crusty cynicism while retaining a core of profound sincerity. And I’m not referring to the saccharine sincerity of sitcom “very special episodes,” either; I’m talking about moments that disclosed what the show’s writers really believed in. They were moments of vulnerability suggesting that the Simpsons weren’t just cartoonish punching bags, but real people with real beliefs, desires, and fears. “Bart Sells His Soul,” which hails from the beginning of the seventh season (and with it, the Oakley/Weinstein era), is 20 full minutes suffused with this same vulnerability. It’s about a young boy’s spiritual self-discovery through “suffering and thought and prayer,” as Lisa puts it. Even for a show as adventurous and groundbreaking as The Simpsons, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

The show, however, acquits itself impressively with an unflinching gaze into the essence of Bart. Yes, Bart: he of the chalkboard gags, the skateboard, and the mouthy t-shirt slogans, the envy of every kid alive in the 1990s. But, of course, beneath the too-cool-for-school posturing, Bart has always been just another 10-year-old, and “Bart Sells His Soul” even-handedly interrogates the disparity between image and reality. The episode opens with a brazen prank as Bart hands First Church of Springfield parishioners the lyrics to a “hymn” entitled “In the Garden of Eden” – really Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute relic of psychedelic rock. The disarming audacity with which he deceives the congregation epitomizes, as the French would say, the “Bartesque.” He tricks the churchgoers into eating his shorts, and then tells them not to have a cow, man.

Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, however, does nothing but have a cow. He’s Springfield’s envoy of tradition-bound organized religion and therefore a major figure of patriarchal authority. He’s also, in keeping with the show’s anti-authoritarian satirical outlook, ridiculously incompetent. From the outset, he’s gullible and out of touch. “Wait a minute,” he opines to himself, an eyebrow raised, “this sounds like rock and/or roll!” After his flock has been humiliated and exhausted, he takes the church’s youngsters aside and feeds them a Mad Libs-style script of fire and brimstone so as to force a confession.1 But Bart repeats the lines right back with an air of blasé disinterest. To Bart, Lovejoy’s threats of eternal damnation are just as impotent as Principal Skinner’s threats of detention, and it’s both because he’s an untamable rebel, à la Brando in The Wild One, and because these patriarchs are so neurotic and hypocritical.

As voiced by Harry Shearer, Lovejoy is a model of Middle American self-righteousness. His every sentence has the same pompous intonations, rendered ineffectual by his slight lisp, and his face is usually furrowed in the same disapproving frown. He mechanically advocates an impersonal brand of Christianity; it’s not hard to see why Bart dismisses his sermons and, with them, the adult world’s belief in the soul. Bart, a veteran trickster, is too sharp to be so easily duped.2 Milhouse, however, is just sheepish enough to give in, and Bart is outraged when he lets faith trump friendship. The two of them have an argument that brings questions of personal identity down to a 10-year-old’s level – to hell with the mind/body divide; what if you die while in a submarine? Incensed at his friend’s willingness to swallow adult lies, Bart exclaims, “Listen: you don’t have a soul, I don’t have a soul, there’s no such thing as a soul!” And to demonstrate his prioritization of money, a pragmatic, real-world concern, over religious dogma, which he regards as nothing but a collection of fairy tales,3 Bart strikes the titular bargain.

The first challenge to Bart’s cynical materialism comes from his sagacious sister. Unlike Lovejoy, Lisa doesn’t have any hypocritical motivations to espouse the concept of the soul, and unlike Milhouse, she doesn’t confront him with a mess of folk beliefs and fear-driven superstitions. Instead, she has her faith in the soul’s symbolic value, which is deeply rooted in her sense of self rather than any specific belief system. Bart and Lisa’s conversation in the driveway is really the kernel of the episode’s deepest philosophical exploration: here are two children in the America of the ’90s, where all traditional authorities (government, businesses, media, schools, churches)4 have been thoroughly discredited. So what do they put their faith in, and how do they define themselves as human beings? Whereas Lisa has her own simple, functional theory of the self,5 Bart has pranks and cold hard cash – his is a reactive ethos, as he prefers to beat society within its own system rather than formulate one of his own. He comes to regret his hubris, however, after the rest of the episode delivers a concussive wallop of spiritual horror.

Ashley told me that she once thought “Bart Sells His Soul” was a Treehouse of Horror episode, and it’s understandable given the events that round off the first act. Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II growl and hiss at Bart, respectively, with no apparent motivation; the Kwik-E-Mart’s automatic door admits the pious Rod and Tod Flanders, but not him; and he can’t even fog up glass with his breath. It all plays out very ambiguously, with only the subtle, subjective implication that these are the consequences of selling one’s soul. Its primary effect isn’t outright fear, but more a feeling of unsettledness. As Bart grumbles when his face smacks against the door, “This is getting weird.” The final, unsettling straw is when Bart loses his ability to enjoy Itchy and Scratchy. Lisa quotes Pablo Neruda: “Laughter is the language of the soul.” I love Lisa’s role in this episode: she’s at once the precocious, argumentative little sister and the voice of reason, sincerely worried about her brother’s well-being.

She tests Bart’s capacity for laughter by making Homer trip and get his head caught in the stairs. While Bart would normally be the one causing such mischief, he’s now incapable of enjoying it, and Lisa concludes, “I think you really did lose your soul.” As before, in Lisa’s reckoning it doesn’t matter if the soul is “physically real,” or if Bart’s sense of humor is merely a psychological (and therefore not “real”) casualty of his exchange. The point is that Bart’s mistake, in giving up a part of himself, has left him unable to properly interact with the outside world. He returns to Milhouse, who’s undergoing no such tribulation but is instead carrying on with his childhood; unsympathetic to Bart’s angst, he offers to sell the soul back only at a wildly inflated price. Facing a potentially permanent existential quandary, Bart can now see beyond the petty, childish dealings that were once his métier.

In a scene that’s at once touching and disturbing, Marge detects something “off” about Bart’s hug. She considers the usual diagnoses for a troubled 10-year-old – “it’s not fear of nuclear war… it’s not swim test anxiety…” – but when Bart suggests a missing soul, she blindly dismisses it: “Aw, honey, you’re not a monster.” These dead-on mother/son interactions are some of those vulnerable moments I was speaking of: Marge does her best to assuage her son’s very palpable fears, but inadvertently exacerbates the situation. Here, The Simpsons is speaking to a very critical youth/adult disconnect. It’s not the jaded mistrust that characterizes Bart’s relationship with Lovejoy or Skinner; it’s a painful breakdown within the core of the family. And it has none of the mawkish sentiment that abounds in some of the weaker family-centric episodes. It’s just a moment of very real emotion and very dark humor, as Bart’s mother implicitly but unintentionally calls him a soulless monster and turns out the light.

Then we get one of the series’ great dream sequences, complete with pink, Seussian landscapes, green skies, and eerily sweet music. All the other children are playing with their souls, as represented by phantasmal blue outlines of themselves; they jump into rowboats and head toward an Oz-like emerald city on the horizon. Bart, however, is left alone – so here, the loss of a soul becomes the loss of a friend, and Bart is condemned to be left behind. This dream really crystallizes the episode’s child’s-eye-view of the soul. It’s not about what adult authorities think the soul is; it’s what Bart learns for himself, through his anguish. His long nightmare lends him insight into the soul’s true meaning: it’s about identity, belonging, humor, companionship. As the third act confirms, “Bart Sells His Soul” is really about how Bart earns his soul.

Like “Homer’s Enemy,” this episode has a much, much lighter subplot to complement the main story’s existential heft. In it, Moe converts his once-dank tavern into a tacky family restaurant. The two storylines intersect when Homer takes the family to Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag. Lisa says a spiteful grace in which she emphasizes the word soul, prompting Bart to run off into the night, and he enters the final stage of his grueling spiritual odyssey. There’s little real analysis to be done on the Moe subplot; suffice it to say that it’s a much more expected sitcom story, and its easy jokes definitely alleviate some of the episode’s overall bleakness. As it approaches its climax, it gets very bleak: Bart faces one terrifying anomaly after another as he descends into Springfield’s desolate urban depths,6 from an exterminator clad in a Vader-like suit to a cackling street cleaner. Finally, he runs into Ralph Wiggum and begs desperately for Ralph’s soul. It’s so bizarre, albeit strangely plausible, that it’s easy to miss the frighteningly real portrayal of a babbling schizophrenic in the same scene.

Bart’s attempt to track down Milhouse proves pointless, however, as Milhouse has already resold Bart’s soul so as to purchase the most ephemeral, meaningless toys of all – ALF pogs. Bart visits the buyer, Comic Book Guy, who reports that an unnamed party bought it, and that they “were most interested in having possession of little boy’s soul.” Here, the languages of preteen consumerism and spiritual self-identification are oddly but seamlessly mixed. Rather than being just the product of obsolete superstitions, Bart learns that the soul is surprisingly relevant even in a world where the al-ighty ollar7 is the end goal of all transactions. Finally, he resorts to a long, earnest prayer: “I just want it back. Please? I hope you can hear this…” and with that, Lisa gives him back his soul. Note that I don’t say “gives him back his sheet of paper.” By this point, that paper has been so imbued with meaning that, as far as the viewer’s concerned, it is his soul. The episode ends with Bart dreaming again – but this time, he has his soul as a rowing companion, and they ram Martin’s boat. Bart has fought and prayed, and now he has his self back, prankish and rebellious as ever.

“Bart Sells His Soul” is both a child’s fable of loss and retrieval and a mature rumination on postmodern spiritual bankruptcy. With Bart, we see adult hypocrisies as ripe for skewering, but we also endure an episode’s worth of self-inflicted suffering, culminating in a newfound humility, and a gratitude for one’s own identity. It’s cathartic without being melodramatic, instead attaining its considerable emotional pull in the traditional Simpsons way: through nonstop jokes, which are sometimes brutal and dark, but still spot-on. The episode is also a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, who shows impressive range and accuracy in capturing the scope and detail of a 10-year-old’s worldview. “Bart Sells His Soul” is unequaled in the rest of the series for its fearlessness in stripping away the façade and revealing to us who Bart truly is, soul and all. And that ain’t not bad.

So, what do you think of this episode? And which one should I tackle next? Leave any suggestions in the comment box below.

1 I especially liked the “murderers and single mothers” line as a jab at Lovejoy’s outdated but indignant worldview.

2 Unless, of course, the religious authorities lower themselves to his level, as with the Li’l Bastard Brainwashing Kit in “The Joy of Sect.”

3 They’re lies and fairy tales, however, with very pragmatic, real-world rewards, as the episode bitingly demonstrates when Milhouse asks, “What would [religions] have to gain?” and we cut to Lovejoy dumping collection baskets into a coin-sorting machine.

4 Read: Quimby, Burns, Brockman, Skinner, and Lovejoy.

5 This presages her conversion to Buddhism, but her beliefs are stated so much more elegantly (and less stridently) here than they would be “She of Little Faith” and subsequent episodes.

6 The episode’s writer, Greg Daniels, says that Bart’s nocturnal trials were partially inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and it shows, including just a touch of the same manically black comedy.

7 See “Team Homer.” I couldn’t resist.

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One Hour Mark: Häxan

During the witchcraft era it was dangerous to be old and ugly, but it was not safe to be young and pretty either.

Horror can be a powerful tool in the hands of the right director. Take Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre Häxan (1922), aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, which was probably 50-60 years ahead of its time. Using all manner of grotesque iconography, Christensen makes his film simultaneously a collection of vignettes, a documentary, a twisted satire, and one hell of a spectacle. This is an image from 1:00:00 into the film, as the nameless sister of Anna, wife of the late printer, crouches by the table. It’s far removed from the film’s infamous shots of gore, torture, and taboo-splattering debauchery, yet it’s still seeping with creepy potency. It still speaks the film’s dark messages about religion, sexuality, and ignorance. It’s rife with the same real-world horrors that are unveiled in Christensen’s more explicitly demented fantasies.

When I showed Ashley this picture, she was quiet at first; when I mentioned, “There’s a person in the lower right,” she immediately cried, “Eww!” and had to stop looking at it. Taken as a still, there’s definitely something off about it – how Anna’s sister is so far from the center and so low to the floor, almost hidden behind the table and its contents. She’s just witnessed the inquisitors hauling off her sister and mother, who are merely the latest casualties in an ongoing cycle of small-town treachery. (They had earlier named their accuser, Maria the weaver, as a witch.) She herself has been shoved to the floor, and will momentarily rise, only to faint. So this scene is of a 15th century Danish household in crisis, with all of its matriarchs about to be interrogated and killed; this imminent catastrophe is embodied in the maiden’s anomalous position within the frame.

There’s subtle irony in this particular framing as well. Christensen uses shots identical to this one several times earlier in the film to present the activity in Anna’s house through long, static takes. It’s through this perspective that we’re introduced to her family, and this is how we see Maria the weaver dragged away by the inquisitors. Using the same angle to view the abduction of Anna and her mother, and her sister’s subsequent anguish, links the series of events both causally and morally, but also connects the family’s downfall to its earlier complacency. After all, this isn’t just a room – it’s also the space that connects the bedroom with the outside world (background), and the site of eating (foreground). It’s a spacial representation of domestic existence.

Granted, repeatedly viewing areas from the same angle was pretty standard in early silent films, going back to the fixed camera of the Lumières. But Christensen’s mise-en-scène here directly adds to his broader arguments about hypocrisy and resentment as the roots of witch hunts. For him, the persecution of witches starts in the home, aided by religious fervor, and eventually returns to destroy it. Despite all of the film’s graphic depictions of occult behavior, it ultimately takes a very Enlightenment stance, debunking its own gruesome images and replacing them with a model of “witchcraft” far more sinister: as a self-destructive way for the town’s women to express their petty grievances. This is a totally natural form of horror, the fruits of malicious human selfishness.

This is the conclusion of Christensen’s documentary and his satire, which operate side by side throughout the film. Witch hunts are located with a larger institution of violence and oppression whose processes are curiously gendered. The women are the accusers and, in turn, the accused – the witches whose sexuality is equated with a satanic pact. The men are the monks, totally puritanical and militantly resistant to the possibility of sexual desire. They are distinct from the home; their realm is the church. The story sees the two spheres as attached in a self-sustaining loop of accusation, arrest, and confession. And it’s in the torture/confession that both genders express their hatred and lust. The visualizations of satanic rites are just projections of the hidden urges that motivate the witch hunt in the first place.

That was a slight digression, partially inspired by Carol Clover’s reading of The Exorcists Father Karras, which I’ve been reading recently, but my point is that this single frame contains a number of threatened values (womanhood, motherhood, family, home), and implies the existence of their opposites. Häxan is an audacious and intelligent film that functions at once as delirious horror cinema and as sober historical inquiry. This image is a rich example of Christensen’s multi-tiered imagination feverishly at work.

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Pop culture and the world of Jack Chick

And now, after another (couple of) sad weeks of blogging inactivity, I return. Since Ashley now has Internet, she’ll hopefully be inspired into a spate of blogging soon, but until that happens, this will have to suffice. It’s important, after all, to keep on writing, generating ideas, weaving this giant ball of digital ideas together. I’m really tired from two consecutive nights of very little sleep, but nonetheless I’ll try to write coherently. I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, and intend to discuss the Oscars soon, but first, I must discuss a vital topic very near and dear to my heart.

That’s right: the art of fundamentalist cuckoo Jack Chick. I’ve gone on at length about Chick’s extremely idiosyncratic style and his wackily illogical messages before, and I feel like it’s worth doing again. He’s one of those artists toward whom I have a strange yet powerful set of mixed reactions. He’s full of acidic hatred aimed at millions of people, but his art is so out there, so irrational, and so un-self-aware that it somehow becomes compelling. He has these immediately visible authorial trademarks, from his mediocre and often nonsensical drawing style to his attitude of seething, pervasive paranoia. His comics are so very easy to mock, but so intensely sincere that they couldn’t be an elaborate prank, although sometimes it feels like they can be nothing else.

So today I specifically want to address Chick’s relationship to the rest of the world – you know, the comparatively “normal” world you and I inhabit – and the language it speaks, namely pop culture. Unsurprisingly, considering that he’s an 85-year-old religious extremist who considers Bewitched sinful, Chick doesn’t really have his hand on the pulse of today’s youth. But knowing nothing about young people, to say nothing of how they think or behave, doesn’t stop Chick from making America’s youth one of the primary markets for his evangelism. Countless tracts feature “hip,” dissolute young folk on the road to hell, sinning freely until a tract-brandishing Christian shows them the way. Granted, a lot of tracts also appeal to little kids (easier to convince) or middle-aged men, but teenagers seem to be a special target for Chick.

And naturally, in trying to appeal to kids, Chick tries to speak to them in their own argot by referencing pop culture. But he makes a mistake common to uptight old people who want kids to do what they say: he tries too hard to come across as cool, and ends up sounding dated, desperate, and clueless (which, to be honest, he is). To make my point, I’ll make use of three similar tracts that each drive home a typical Chick argument – i.e., that Satan lures the youth into hell through witchcraft – Dark Dungeons (1984), The Poor Little Witch (1987), and The Nervous Witch (2002).

Dark Dungeons was and still is perhaps the most notorious of all Chick’s tracts. It’s far from the most morally extreme or artistically absurd, but it’s a perfect representation for a mainstream audience of the one-of-a-kind brand of crazy that is Jack Chick. Dungeons & Dragons was first released in 1974, but the big panic didn’t start until the ’80s, prompted by the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Eggbert III, and the subsequent book and TV movie very loosely based on his case, Mazes and Monsters. (The latter of which starred Tom Hanks.) Not one to be left out of a moral panic, Chick jumped all over it, both by publishing two pieces by Bill Schnoebelen and, of course, by writing Dark Dungeons.

With Dark Dungeons, Chick tries to reach vulnerable teens in the most heavy-handed and poorly thought-out of ways, and as a result depicts a world which exists only in his paranoid, puritanical imagination. Admittedly, I’ve never played D&D or had any interest in it, but as someone who’s been generally a part of nerd communities since high school, I can easily debunk a few aspects of the tract. For example: D&D as something played obsessively by covens? As a gateway to actual magical powers? As a game played in equal numbers by boys and girls? Each of these representations are demonstrably untrue. (Besides, among other questions, if playing D&D gives you access to “mind bondage” spells, why the hell would you then sit in a grungy basement playing D&D?)

It’s not hard to see why Dark Dungeons is seen as the archetypal Chick tract,  serving as the model for many parody strips like Daniel Clowes’ “Devil Doll?” It follows the usual tract storyline to a T – sinner goes on the path to hell, gets saved, old friends go to hell – and, so early on and so memorably, it showed how out of touch Chick was with any part of youth culture. But he wasn’t about to let up. Oh, no. Only 3 years later he struck again with The Poor Little Witch. This time around, he dropped D&D as a gateway into satanism, and broadened his scope to the general high school experience.

Chick does have a definite cultural touchstone here; however, it’s presented pretty obliquely. He’s borrowing liberally from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which had already been out for over a decade at the time this tract was written. But instead of the female outsider developing psychic powers and using them on her peers, her peers are the ones with the powers, which they’re willing to share with her. Chick uses some familiar names and images from Carrie – the volleyball scene that opens the film and tract, the last name White, even the biblical quote “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live…” – and repurposes them in his own incoherent, self-contradictory ways.

As usual in Chick’s visions of the world, the devil is everywhere (here he goes under the name “Bruth”). Whereas De Palma and Stephen King saw the cruelties of Carrie’s classmates as an evil of its own, Chick portrays it, along with their influence on his Carrie stand-in “Mandy,” their tendencies to drink the blood of infants, and the hypocrisies of the local church as all manifestations of the same big evil in the service of Satan. Chick starts out with a similar premise, but veers off in his own formulaic, counterintuitive directions, unwilling to stop until Mandy has been thoroughly converted by fundamentalists. No matter how convoluted and implausible the storyline becomes, Chick insists on each tract reaching this identical ending.

And just as he shoehorns his stories into these neat little finales, dictating who goes to heaven and hell, Chick has to shoehorn his worldview into his faith, no matter how far the end result may depart from what the world is actually like. Obviously pressures to drink baby blood weren’t the greatest form of evil confronting American girls, but to Chick it only makes sense that blood-guzzling satanists would be causing this decline in teenage morality. After all, it allows him to divide the world up into good and bad, “Christian” and “Satanist,” without having to face any kind of moral ambiguity.

So Chick isn’t just out of touch with the youth culture because he’s ignorant; it’s also because he’s too ethically and intellectually lazy to accept that anything other than Satan himself acts as an obstacle in teenagers’ everyday lives (or that anything other than loving Jesus could give them real satisfaction). The most recent of the tracts I’m discussing, The Nervous Witch, is pretty much a revamp of the other two, reworking the same themes of peer pressure and the occult.

Comparatively, though, it kind of falls flat, since Chick leaves behind the cultural specificity of D&D or the paranoid fantasy of a small town under Satan’s thumb that dominated The Poor Little Witch, and instead creates a mano-a-mano spiritual battle between Sam and Holly, two girls who think that “God… loves us witches!” and Sam’s saintly uncle Bob. (In retrospect, “Bob Williams, Demon Hunter” would have made for a far more compelling title.) The battle never really climaxes, though, since Holly just walks off (and presumably goes to hell), while Bob literally pulls the evil spirit out of Sam.

The tract also suffers, as do so many of them, since the storyline is stopped dead for a heavily-anotated Bible story, immediately and sensibly decried by Sam as “lousy.” (Also, how mature is Bob’s retort to Holly’s “And we win!” with “No, you lose“?) But beyond this poor pacing and his apparent assumption that all pairs of young female friends are also God-hating witches, Chick manages to make even more outlandish, audience-alienating claims.

Bob: Tell me, Samantha… How did you and Holly get into the craft?

Sam: Through the Harry Potter books! We wanted his powers… so we called for spirit guides. Then they came into us… They led us into stuff we found in the Harry Potter* books – tarot cards, ouija boards, crystal balls…

That’s right: never one to be left off of a moralistic bandwagon, Chick takes this last-minute chance to hammer away at the Harry Potter series. By 2002, four books had already been released. The fundamentalist furor against them had already reached its peak, even resulting in an Onion parody in 2000. But Chick, of course, wants to remind everybody that he knows what’s new in the world of evil! Chick somehow even outdoes the Onion‘s coverage of the outrage, going so far as to mention magical phenomena – spirit guides, tarot cards, and Ouija boards – that are completely absent from the books.

The tract then concludes with a good old-fashioned bonfire of demonic paraphernalia, showing that Chick hasn’t really tuned in to pop culture since John Lennon said something about being bigger than Jesus. In the end, comparing these tracts does lead to a few revelations: Chick takes an extraordinarily reductionistic, one-size-fits-all view of morality. This probably helps explain why so many of his tracts follow these rigid narrative patterns. Whether the issue at stake is D&D, Harry Potter, or generic witchcraft, Chick can’t conceive of any cause that doesn’t involve satanic intervention, or any solution that doesn’t involve turning to Christ.

This also points the way to Chick’s greater understanding of humanity itself: basically, we’re all puppets. Even though Chick believes passionately that salvation comes from belief in Jesus Christ and that alone, he still thinks that bad behavior comes from demonic prodding, and good behavior from… well, that’s unclear. Chick demands to eat his cake and have it too in every situation, to the point that Uncle Bob can fail to convince Sam or Holly with his “lousy story,” yet still somehow “win” by the end of the tract.

Chick can also have his treacherous reverend quote the “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” line and give its biblical attribution, then undermine it with another Bible quote. This is one aspect of the tracts that makes them so compelling: their total lack of internal consistency. As long as the final outcome is the same (somebody goes up before God and is either accepted or condemned), it doesn’t matter what came before. And if the logical puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, Chick will nibble on the ends until they do. It doesn’t matter if Harry Potter doesn’t use tarot cards, or if D&D just doesn’t work that way at all. Truth or reality are always a distant second to Chick’s all-consuming faith. Don’t bother trying to figure out how his world works, because it’s not like ours. Jack Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist.

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The Wicker Man: Sex, Songs, and Summerisle

[The following was written by both us as part of the Film Club over at the horror blog Final Girl; go check them out. Also note that spoilers are abundant, like crops after a human sacrifice.]

Andreas:

Last night, Ashley and I watched Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) together for the second time. It’s a fascinatingly dense movie, one that begs to be rewatched, brimming over with conflicts: between the insular culture of Summerisle (a fictional island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland) and the outside world; between puritanical repression and sexual liberation; between superstitious tradition and scientific modernity; and between poor, misguided Sgt. Neil Howie and the pagans he runs up against.

The Wicker Man is such a strange, unconventional horror film. It starts out as a rural mystery, when Sgt. Howie comes by plane to Summerisle to search for a missing girl, Rowan Morrison. And, unsurprisingly, the film pulls out the old “all is not as it seems” card – but the trope is deployed in such a creative way that the viewer’s never really on solid ground. The inhabitants of Summerisle are like a society beholden to trickster gods, refusing to give Sgt. Howie (and, in turn, the viewer) any clues except those which are methodically parceled out: a little girl’s story about a rabbit, a doctor’s cause of death, a gravestone. But the whole mystery is like a conspiracy of red herrings, in which every citizen of the island has a part to play.

This investigation is complicated by the unreliability of Sgt. Howie himself, a troubled outsider who turns to his faith in Christ for answers. As played by the late Edward Woodward, Howie is easily disturbed by the behaviors he witnesses on Summerisle, and spends much of the film standing at the edge of the frame, staring in horror at the heathen rites being celebrated. He comes with the authority of England’s law (making him “king-like” in the pagans’ eyes), yet finds that Summerisle doesn’t play by his rules. He only has a badge, but they have deeper, older magic.

Even when he’s not actively fighting the islanders’ traditions, Howie stands out in contrast to his surroundings, and this keeps the conflict always visually on the surface. In his black uniform, he makes a bad fit with the rolling green hills and crashing waves, while the pagans are constantly bedecked in smiles and bright, springtime outfits – often reds and yellows. They’re fully in communion with their island, and Howie, as a foreign pathogen, must inevitably be wiped out.

But the film is beautifully, endlessly ambivalent about whose side is right. The islanders are presented as cheerful, earthy, musical people, fully content in their way of life, with Howie as a sour interloper. However, several cracks appear in their façade, suggesting underlying problems with their lifestyle. For example, their very reason for bringing Howie to the island is based in the failure of their crops the previous year, and the film’s ending leaves the question open: will Lord Summerisle be vindicated the following year, or was the island really not meant to bear fruit?

The islanders also embrace a number of irrational, violent traditions, frequently inviting comparison to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” The entire third act is devoted to these increasingly bizarre rites – the animal masks, the pentagram formed by the chopping swords, and finally, the live sacrifice within the title edifice. There’s no real reasoning behind them other than the sheer authority of Lord Summerisle and his ancient pagan beliefs. Christopher Lee is great here; his usual urbane villainy (see Dracula, Scaramanga, etc.) is coupled with an easygoing love of life and sincere desire to help his people.

His charisma and immorality are all the more frightening because they’re not motivated by simple evil, but rather by political necessity and self-preservation. I think this is The Wicker Man‘s triumph: it manages to express multiple nuanced arguments rather than providing the audience with a right and a wrong. It shows us a sexually frozen man always on his guard (reminiscent for me of Batman in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum) as he comes face to face with people enjoying themselves in ways he can’t understand, and at the same time gives us hints as to why we should fear for his life.

It’s a great and blood-chilling moment toward the end when Howie realizes that it isn’t Rowan Morrison who’s in danger at all, and I think this captures the film’s narrative well. It isn’t about the islanders endangering each other’s lives; they act as one. It is about Howie himself, his internal and external struggles, all of which work together to deliver him into Lord Summerisle’s hand. He is the individuality to their conformity; he is the moral guardian to their libertines. In the end, the values and traditions of Summerisle show their teeth, and consume Sgt. Howie within their eeriest and darkest rite, incorporating his ashes into the cycle of death and rebirth.

Ashley:

The Wicker Man is an interesting little gem of a movie. If it weren’t for the fact that most people going into the film expect something of a horrifying nature, you wouldn’t really know what to expect from the get-go. It’s one part mystery, one part horror, two parts musical and just a tiny bit of dark comedy thrown in there for good measure. I’ve seen this movie about four times now and I’m left with a different impression of it each time. With this viewing I found myself taking note quite often of the parallels between Sgt. Howie’s ramrod-straight, religious attitude and the citizens of Summerisle’s free-spirited, phallic-symbol loving, orgies-in-the-field (yeah, there are totally orgies in the field) Paganism.

From the very beginning these differences are one of the main driving forces of the film and I found myself thinking about how off-putting Howie’s behavior is. It makes him kind of inaccessible as a protagonist. Unless you are also a staunch, strict religious person, you’re probably not going to relate to his disapproving, judgmental looks, his tut-tutting of these apparently happy, care-free people, and his unwavering belief that HIS God is THE God and these heathens are wholly sinful and wrong. It’s an interesting trick the movie plays on the viewer; you don’t root for Howie or really want him to come out triumphant because it seems like all the threats he perceives are completely in his head and the product of his own fears and intolerance.

But there is still this underlying sense of unease, just below the surface of the film. You know these people are strange, you can sense they’re hiding something from Howie but is he truly in danger? It isn’t until you get more than halfway into the movie that you begin to suspect that, hmmm, maybe these people ARE really fucked up (in a totally dangerous way) and maybe Sgt. Howie IS in peril.

It isn’t until the very end, for me anyway, when Howie is faced with the titular figure, faced with his own mortality that my heart starts to pound for him and I feel sorry for him and want him to escape and come out triumphant. It’s an incredibly powerful scene; Howie begins to scream out to his Christian God and you feel his terror cut through you. And to the very end, I was noting the parallels between the two faiths: as the effigy burns Howie prays and sings out to Christ as the citizens of Summerisle sing about the coming of summer.

And therein lies something that, if the movie were without it, it would not work as well. The music. This movie is weirdly part musical and it just adds to the ethereal weirdness of the island. Sgt. Howie looks on in disdainful confusion and disgust as the citizens sing lewd songs about the Landlord’s Daughter and as the young boys tug (or jerk) strategically placed ribbons while circling a maypole and learning the importance of fertility during the Maypole Song. Oddly enough, these songs don’t seem random or out of place; it fits so perfectly with the otherworldly strangeness that is Summerisle that it only makes sense that these people like to break out into song.

And the soundtrack, which was entirely composed by Paul Giovanni, is a huge part of the different moods and atmospheres of the film. While the playful, suggestive lyrics and tunes of the aforementioned songs create an air of festivity and liveliness the slower, throbbing, earthier melodies of Gently Johnny and Willow’s Song give portions of the film a deep, strange sensuality: they’re inviting you, tempting you, just like they’re tempting Sgt. Howie, to come deeper into this world of carefree lust and spiritual sexuality.

And speaking of which: Willow. Oh, Willow, be still my heart. Sucker that I am for a beautiful girl, I love the character of Willow. Played with a gentle sensuality and purposeful, knowing innocence by Britt Ekland, she’s a soft, luscious but dangerous aspect of the film. We first see her as the friendly, soft-spoken, object of lust for the inn patrons, the landlord’s daughter of the song, dancing around and bringing dinner to Sgt. Howie.

As the film goes on, it becomes clear, as with all the shady citizens of Summerisle, that there’s more to this salacious siren than originally thought. During a climactic (in more ways than one) scene, Willow sings her song, inviting Howie and writhing sensually around her room, pounding the doors and walls and touching and stroking the many phallic shaped objects in her room.

It soon becomes clear that this strumpet is just like the rest of the citizens of Summerisle: hiding something. She has an agenda, her every move and word have a purpose and it’s all tightly woven into the fabric of the all-encompassing tapestry of the plot. Everything that is said and done by these islanders, from the moment Howie’s plane touches down and even before that, is carefully calculated and purposeful. He was brought here for a very specific purpose: a “willing, king-like, virgin fool” is needed for sacrifice and it’s all so airtight by the end of the film that you are just as stricken by it as Howie is. In so many other movies, with a plot device or requirement that insanely specific it would seem overreaching and ridiculous; but the citizens of Summerisle live their lives by ancient tradition. They put toads in the children’s mouths to cure sore throats. This seems perfectly normal as far as their traditions go. It just happens to be chillingly homicidal.

As Andreas and I were watching last night we talked a lot about how, despite the crazy rituals involved in this Pagan faith, is it any more or less crazily demanding than any other religion? At the core of this film, along with a lot of other themes and ideas, is the idea of faith. What faith and belief makes people do. There are constant clashes of faith between Howie and the inhabitants of Summerisle and neither side will back down from their beliefs, even when it leads to murder. And even the act of murder and death are two completely different things when look at through these two faiths. To Howie and the viewers, he is being murdered. To the islanders, they’re just trying to save their crops. Howie will not die; he will be transmuted into their successful crops.

Andreas:

So that’s The Wicker Man, a film of bottomless complexity which entangles eroticism, religious tradition, man’s relationship to the earth, and utter terror. It’s worth noting that the director, Robin Hardy, has only directed one other film, and has a follow-up to The Wicker Man, entitled The Wicker Tree, due out next year. Will it compare in any way? I hope we get a chance to find out. (There was also a 2006 remake, but we don’t like to talk about that.) Till then, we’ll go on pondering the fate of Sgt. Howie and the motives of the islanders, reaping a bountiful harvest of entertainment from this horror masterpiece.

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