The Theology of Monsters: Part 6, Monsters, Horror & Death

To this point in the series we've been talking about monsters classically understood: A beastly creature that intrudes upon our world and brings chaos. We still see this classic take on monsters in film. A recent example I liked was Cloverfield. And I still think the greatest monster movie ever was Jaws.

But in addition to this classic form of monster movie we have seen the rise of the "horror film," bloody slasher movies where an implacable killer systematically eliminates a group of people, mainly screaming young women (a combination that seems like a Freudian death/sex thing, to me at least).

Why are people attracted to these horror films? Why do people seek out films that are filled with blood, gore, and decapitations?

A similar genre, somewhat between the monster and horror film, is the zombie movie, where the dead come back to life to feed on the living. Although the zombie movie is relatively new the fear of the reanimated dead is not, as witnessed in the classic mummy movies. Why this fascination with movies about the dead?

There are lots of answers to these questions. I'd just like to share one. But before we go there, I'd just like, for the sake of cultural nostalgia and fun, for you to view this clip of the greatest pop music video ever recorded.

I still get a kick out of that video. Okay, back to work.

Thanatologists, those scholars who study how cultures deal with death, call our current era "the pornography of death." That is, modern life in America is typified by systematic cultural death repression. That is, death is systematically pushed out of consciousness. Consequently, to discuss death in the public sphere is inappropriate. Like pornography, talk of death is illicit.

How did this cultural stance toward death come about? There were two primary causes. First, the Industrial Revolution changed how Americans obtained their food. The movement from rural to urban living meant that American families became dislocated from food processing. Farm children lived with death on a daily basis. City kids got their meat from a store. And, as generations passed, the meat began to look less and less like the animal it came from. A Chicken McNugget looks nothing like a chicken leg. Boneless meat fosters a kind of death repression.

A second influence was the rise of the modern hospital. Before the advent of the germ theory of disease hospitals were killing fields. The last place you wanted to be if you were sick was a hospital. You had a much better chance of surviving childbirth or surgery at home. But with the rise of modern medicine hospitals became the location of childbirth, medical treatment, and death. Before the rise of the modern hospital we died at home in our own beds. After death, the body was prepared and displayed in the home. The wake was in the home. In short, death and dead bodies were common features in every American household.

But when we began to die in hospitals a need arose to process and display the body outside the home. This need created the funeral industry. Rather than having the viewing in the parlor of the home the body was taken from the hospital to a "funeral home" that specialized in the funeral arts. This change also affected the location of cemeteries. Rather than being buried in the family plot close to the homestead or next to the church, we are buried in "memorial gardens" set apart from the home and the church. This was no small change. The church and homestead gravesites meant that one's whole life was lived in close proximity and communion with the dead. In modern America, one never comes into contact with the dead. This lack of contact fosters death repression.

My analysis is that this massive and systemic death repression is implicated in the attraction to horror and zombie movies. There is no place to encounter death in modern American culture other than in the media. True, this particular avenue in confronting death is likely to be unhealthy and counterproductive. But I'm only diagnosing motives. I'm not commenting on the relative moral or psychological issues involved in frequenting horror films.

A few years ago I was asked to give a chapel meditation on October 31. I was asked, if I could, to make the meditation connect with Halloween. This talk is on my sidebar but I'd like to post it again here as I think it nicely captures the existential issues involved in modern horror movies:

I like talking to dead people.

The trouble is, in today’s world the dead aren’t around much. It’s hard to find them.

This is why I visit cemeteries. I enjoy visiting cemeteries because I feel like I need to converse with the dead. I find it an important part of my spiritual life. The dead tell you things the living do not.

But in modern America it is harder and harder to find the dead.

Why is this? Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.

But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.

But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”

And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.

And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.

But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.

For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.

Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.

To invite the dead I'll decorate my frontyard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.

Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.

And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.

I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.

I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.

And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.

The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.

Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.

Happy Halloween.

--ACU Honor's Chapel, All Hallows Eve, 2007

Next Post: Hospitality & Monsters

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4 thoughts on “The Theology of Monsters: Part 6, Monsters, Horror & Death”

  1. A common practice in Buddhist monasteries is spending time with the dead. Buddhist societies have a completely different attitude toward the dead. Perhaps a much better attitude than western culture.

  2. Of course, in nearby cultures "The Day of the Dead" is an even more pronounced, specific, and festive celebration. All Saints Day (and All Souls Day) is a marvelous remembrance.

    The "parlor" to "living room" transition is fascinating. I grew up talking about the "living room" and the "den" for those friends that had multiple common areas, and wondering what made the distinction. (And why they weren't living room 1 and 2 b/c our house *only* had a living room.) I remember thinking as a young child, "That's where Uncle Herb drinks his beer", and imagining a large rack of ribs, leg of lamb, or whole pig being craved apart while watching football on the "better" TV. (Us young-ins weren't allowed in there.) The word "den" certainly has the earthy feel to it.

  3. As a bit of trivia, there was a second verse to the Vincent Price rap in "Thriller" that was edited out, here is the transcript:
    The demons squeal in sheer delight
    It's you they spy, so plump so right
    For though the groove is hard to beat
    Yet still you stand with frozen feet
    You try to run
    You try to scream
    But no more sun you'll ever see
    For evil reaches from the crypt
    To crush you in its icy grip

  4. The Church has benefitted from death, as well, as Hollywood. And maybe we should understand death as a commercial "commodity" as useful for benefitting whatever "cause" we think is of ultimate importance.

    Death is a fact of life. But, just because modern culture does not experience death on a regular basis, does not mean that modern culture is somehow immoral.

    Those who would like to expose modern culture to death, suppose that it will hightlight the realities in this world and possibly educate those who are immune to the immediate neccessities of life. I don't think that bringing "evil" into another's life through the "idea of educational development" will do anything except embitter those who are "preyed upon" in the name of the "common good".

    Individuals must choose themselves to respond to need. And Americans do more than any other nation, I just heard on the news today. But, socialists, marxists would not be satisfied with this statistic, as there is still poverty in the world, so EVeryone must do everything they can do to alleviate it. I wrote more on my blogsite about moral moral problems are many, which one is to be legislated or universalized...and what authority does anyone have over another in choosing what their moral conviction will or must be?

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