Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | October 30, 2012

“On Halloween everyone is a demon for a night”: World Religions and Horror

This semester I’m teaching a section of Introduction to World Religions, and I decided to depart from our regularly schedule programming to do a Halloween special focusing on world religions and horror. The chupacabra, werewolves, demons, exorcisms, and ghosts all made an appearance in the class (not literally, of course). And I would try this again.

One of the first decisions I made was the assigned reading. I already had a sense of what I wanted to talk about in class, now I just needed to provide my students with either background information or theory. I sought the advice of the wonderful Kelly Baker, a friend and FSU alumna who is currently teaching a class this fall on religion and horror in American culture (I’m jealous of her students because I bet she is rocking this class). I decided to assign Jeffrey Cohen’s introduction to his 1996 edited volume Monster Theory: Reading Culture. The essay, called “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” explains how monsters tell us so much about the culture that creates them. He writes, “Monsters must be examined within the intricate matrix of relations (social, cultural, and literary-historical) that generate them.” As a scholar of religion, I think we can add religious to that list. In short, monsters are not silly or gory stories meant to simply entertain; rather “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (thesis 1). Monsters reflect what is culturally unacceptable. It is a bit of a difficult reading, in large part because Cohen cites numerous theories of culture and many monster references. Whenever I assign readings that seem a bit more difficult, I create a short reading guide to help corral the students’ focus.

For class, we started off by working through the reading and Cohen’s seven theses. I asked them for their reactions to the reading, and many of them bought it. It made sense to them, especially since we spent time at the beginning of the semester talking about how religion can work as an othering discourse. So it was logical development for them that monsters would have a lot in common with cultural “others.” I also asked them if it reminded of material covered previously in class. And since just last week we discussed anti-Judaism and blood libels, it was pretty easy for them to identify examples of religious “monsters.”

Hindu exorcist, from South Asian Folklore: An Encyclopedia

Then we moved through a series of case studies in religion and horror. One of the professors at the University of Missouri-Columbia (where I did my master’s degree) studies Hindu exorcisms and ghost stories, and I used the stories Dan Cohen told me to demonstrate how 1) exorcisms are not limited to Christianity, and 2) what do exorcisms and ghosts reflect about Hindu ideas about family and the cosmos. From there we moved onto exorcisms and demons in Christianity because discussing exorcisms would naturally lead in that direction (perhaps because of this). Together, these stories of demons, ghosts, and exorcisms tell us something about how fears regarding death and the permeability of the line between the living and dead or the natural and the supernatural manifest in various ways. And medieval fears about demon-human hybrids not only highlight the feared attraction to evil in the medieval world but also provided a nice segue to werewolves.

Caroline Walker Bynum’s Metamorphosis and Identity is a favorite book of mine. In the book, Bynum explores medieval werewolf stories in order to explore historical conceptions of identity, hybridity, masquerades, and metamorphoses. Key to the stories she examines are contemporary questions of change–its structure, meanings, and ramifications. She argues that her subjects viewed “change as an ontological problem” and were fascinated by “the fundamental fact that something can become something else.” The book is fantastic. And in terms of what it directly offers a lecture on religion and horror is how she is able to relate werewolf stories to theological assumptions and debates and changing ideas about the “true nature” of things.

Werewolf, by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, 1512

I introduced the class to Puritan wonder stories if for no other reason than the awesomeness of Mary Dyer’s monstrous baby. It also helps them make sense of the Salem witch trials and how fears and accusations of witchcraft reveal much about the instability of colonial American life. From there we moved onto Buddhist hungry ghosts and how they’re more than just a realm of samsara. They illustrate the dangers of insatiable appetites, addictions, and greed. Also, festivals in which hungry ghosts are fed reveal much about Buddhist anxieties regarding their own future rebirths and the current state of their dead relatives. Since Bryan Cuevas teaches at FSU, no discussion of Buddhism and horror would be complete with a trip to hell. His book Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet is a fascinating look at the texts of those Buddhists who traveled to hell and returned to Earth with much to say about proper Buddhist belief and practice. Since they’ve been to hell, they know who’s there and why.

Then we briefly revisited the Haitian belief in zombies. My students had read an excerpt from Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica back when we covered Haitian Vodou in class. They were familiar with the loas and the permeable crossroads between the visible and invisible worlds. We talked more about zombies and the history of the bizangos and their volatile political history.

The zombie, Felicia Felix-Mentor, photo by Zora Neale Hurston

I wasn’t sure how World Religions and Horror day would go, but I think it was a success. I wanted to cover a wide range of case studies and examples, but I think I picked too many. As much as I love the description of Mary Dyer’s monster baby, I would cut the Puritan wonder stories next time and maybe even zombies. I would do this again in my world religions class, though I would narrow the focus. Next time, I think I would focus on only ghosts, demons, and exorcisms. At the same time, covering such a wide range of case studies and examples is what made it work. Giving them multiple examples of how monsters, ghosts, demons, witches, and zombies and their place in culture illustrated how the horrific, the uncanny, and monstrous can tell us much more than what they see in Halloween movies.

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