Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween 2010

Today is Halloween, one of the most widely celebrated holidays on our calendar and one of the most unique.

Most holidays in American culture can be divided into two categories, religious (Easter) and historical or national (Independence Day, Thanksgiving), and there are a few that overlap and exist in both categories at the same time (namely Christmas, which simultaneously exists as a religious holiday but is widely celebrated in a nonreligious fashion). And like most holidays and traditions, they serve a cyclical function in the culture as they remind and reinforce our myths and beliefs about ourselves. Every Thanksgiving we reenact the mythology of the Pilgrims and their feast with the Native Americans, even though the facts of history have little to do with the story that we keep retelling each generation. Christmas, in the religious version of the holiday, retells the story of Christ’s birth and represents renewed hope; the secular Christmas, in its most positive incarnation (as opposed the crass commercialism of the season), expresses a vision of America as a giving culture that cares for the unfortunate (while simultaneously giving Americans an excuse to ignore those in need in the other eleven months of the year).

Halloween is unique in that it is not explicitly religious—spiritualists who actively celebrate the holiday in a religious or semi-religious manner are few in number—but it also isn’t historical, at least not in an American context. There is a tradition of American Halloween celebration but it is not deeply rooted in our identity the way Thanksgiving is. There isn’t a cultural story or myth about Halloween that is attached to it like the story of the Pilgrims or the signing of the Declaration of Independence. No figure of national importance represents Halloween the way George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are linked to Presidents Day, although references to Hollywood movie monsters like Frankenstein and Michael Myers often suffice. And yet, Halloween has become one of the most popular holidays on the calendar.

Halloween’s rise to cultural prominence has been largely based on economics. The holiday is extraordinarily profitable for retailers of all kinds. But that isn’t all of it.

The rise of Halloween to the cultural status it now possesses primarily occurred in the 1970s through the present day, and it plays out against a background of seemingly contradictory cultural trends: the rise of politically active conservative Christianity and the collapse of traditional religious structures in people’s lives.

Throughout the 1980s, social conservatives pushed back against Halloween, decrying Halloween celebrations in public schools and putting forth urban legends of razor blades in candy bars and satanic ritual abuse. The result was partly effective. The tradition of children trick or treating, a staple of Halloween celebrations in suburban neighborhoods since the 1950s, went on the decline. In the short term, it would seem that the social conservatives had won.

But while social conservatives of the 1980s were taking Halloween away from children, the holiday adapted into an adult celebration. As open expressions of sexuality became increasingly accepted in mass media and by the culture at large, retailers found that they could profit off of it and provided the means for the public to indulge it. As the demand grew so did the supply—and vice versa. This of course had an escalating effect that lead to Halloween becoming the carnival of flesh that is has become today.

At the same time, religion’s place in the traditional social structure continued to erode. Church attendance was and is in free fall and the number of people publicly identifying themselves as atheists has risen. The effect of this on the culture is wide ranging, but the angle of it that relates to the rise of Halloween is the search for something sacred. In an environment where the traditions and symbols of spirituality have had their meanings diluted, the culture is in search of something to believe in. Robbed of the myths that traditionally gave them comfort, Halloween has been adopted as a replacement.

The various ways we celebrate Halloween reveals an attempt by a post-religious culture to retain its sense of wonder and mystery. Gathering around the television set to watch horror movies is not all that different from sitting around a campfire and listening to an elder convey the myths of our ancestors. And horror films often create the most visceral reactions in the viewers, either of fear or disgust, making them emotionally rather than intellectually stimulating. Dressing in costumes while drinking an elixir that undermines our mental faculties and then parading, strutting, and thrusting about on a dance floor has all the characteristics of a “primitive” ritual. In these acts we construct a sort of post-modern sacrament, using the same signifiers but always conscious that it is a cultural ritual.

It’s not that the culture is regressing. In fact, it is at some level maturing as it adjusts to a world after the death of the gods. Mankind, for all his technical achievements and philosophical advancements, still has, and perhaps always will have, one foot in the cave. Halloween provides an outlet for Eros and Thanatos to work themselves out. It’s true that not all of this is healthy; our month long love affair with fear and sex can be a bit like binge drinking behavior. But like an inexperienced drinker who overcompensates, hopefully we’ll eventually reach a point where everyday has a healthy recognition and acceptance of desire.

What we see in the present day Halloween is a new sacrament emerging. It is Dionysian in its values and post-modern in its orientation, but it also represents the emergence of a uniquely American holiday. The liberation of American culture from the tyranny of superstition while also allowing for the satisfaction and pleasure that indulging superstition brings could be the most sacred thing of all.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's 1692 Somewhere

Just in time for Halloween, Salon features this story about the new book Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps by Karen Palmer.

The villages Palmer writes of are not recreational get-togethers for actual witches, but refugee camps for women who have been driven out of their homes under under the accusation of witchcraft. From the article:
At Gambaga, the town Palmer moved to when she decided to dedicate a couple of years to the subject, there are more than 3,000 accused witches living in unenviable conditions. The residents aren't prisoners, exactly, but they can't go home. Unless they can convince their former neighbors that they've given up cannibalizing other people's souls in the spirit world or flying through the night in the form of a fireballs (a common practice of Ghanaian witches), they're likely to be beaten or stoned to death if they return.
Should this story get the attention it deserves, I hope that it shuts down some of the cheap shot attacks on Delaware's Senatorial Candidate Christine O'Donnell, namely referencing her asinine comments about dabbling in witchcraft as a teenager. While I am no fan of O'Donnell (far from it), the liberal wing of the media needs to realize that it is engaging in essentially the same game as right wingers who try to "slander" President Obama by labeling him a Muslim. This example from West Africa shows where this kind of rhetoric can lead.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Supplements for "Cannibal Holocaust" Screening

I have made two items related to the screening of Cannibal Holocaust publicly available.

First is the audio from the panel discussion  that followed the screening. The panel includes Nick Ozment and Andrea Wood of the Winona State English Department and they discuss the controversy of the film and how to evaluate and understand it. You can download the audio file here.

Second, I have published an essay about Cannibal Holocaust on In the essay I explain why I screened the film and why I think this is an important movie. Here is an excerpt:
Cannibal Holocaust is not troubling to the audience for any one charge made against it, but for its cumulative effect. The barbarity of the animal killings, the display of economic and sexual exploitation, and the parallel acts of violence craft a vision of humanity darker than the stories of Joseph Conrad or William Golding. There is a totality to its nihilistic presentation of humanity that stamps out hope.

When a viewer watches a horror film, he or she intentionally submits him or herself to trauma. Most mainstream horror films like Jaws or Psycho scare us and thrill us but in the end leave viewers knowing that good has triumphed over evil and all is right with the world. More challenging horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes do not offer quite the same solace of a closed resolution but generally there is a survivor who we can empathize with and whose self preservation is a source of relief. These films have a cathartic effect on the viewer, allowing him or her to experience terror and fear from the safety of the theater seat or the living room sofa and then walk away to carry on with his or her life.

Cannibal Holocaust refuses to engage in this kind of pattern. It piles on the awfulness and as the rapes and murders accumulate, the film abandons all unwritten agreements of propriety between the filmmaker and the audience. For those who expect to see a liberal humanist notion of human decency emerge from the darkness, the film offers a moral black hole. For those who demand a meaningful resolution where death is not in vain, the film offers none. And for those who want to preserve hope in humanity, Ruggero Deodato cinematically gives his audience the finger. In short, Cannibal Holocaust tells the truth.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Cannibal Holocaust Screening Oct. 18

Remember that your chance to attend a free screening of Cannibal Holocaust occurs tomorrow, October 18th, at 7pm in Science Lab 120 on the Winona State University campus. A panel discussion about the film will follow.

Please keep in mind that the screening is limited to viewers over 18 years of age.

More information on the film and the screening can be found here.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Meghan McCain's Sarah Palin Problem

Meghan McCain has written this interesting piece for The Daily Beast about the reaction to the book, Dirty, Sexy Politics, and what she refers to as the "fetishization" of Sarah Palin by the media. Here is a key excerpt:

I thought two years after the election there would be something or someone more interesting. But there isn’t, and now the question remains will there ever be? Must we, as Republican women, clone ourselves in every way as Sarahbot’s to have a serious chance of running for office? And if so, what kind of dangerous message is this sending young women? It isn’t that there is anything wrong with Sarah Palin as a politician per se, it is that there apparently isn’t any room for anyone else in 2010 and beyond. The majority of the questions I was asked from the people I met during my book signings were not about Sarah Palin. And this is important to note because it seems that the media’s obsession doesn’t necessarily correlate to what Americans want to know.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

October Programming on Sounds of Cinema

It is October and Sounds of Cinema is in Halloween mode. Here is a run down of this month's episodes and events:

October 3 - Friday the 13th and The Shining
Released within weeks of each other in the spring of 1980, Friday the 13th and The Shining came from completely opposite ends of the film making scene. Since their release, both of these film have become classics of the horror genre and represent both the beginning and end of respective eras of the American horror film.

October 10 - Psycho and Peeping Tom
Psycho and Peeping Tom were released in 1960 and the two films are remarkably similar in their examination of psychologically disturbed characters. Although both films are now considered important entries in the horror genre, Psycho was tolerated by the critical establishment while Peeping Tom was not and the failure of the film critically and financially ended director Michael Powell's career.

Update: Those listening to the show from 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato will hear a special pledge drive edition of Sounds of Cinema on October 10th.

October 17 - Bride of Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Throughout the 1930s and 40s, Universal Studios released an entire catalogue of horror films such as Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and all of their sequels and spin offs. Widely considered among the greatest of these films is Bride of Frankenstein. Influenced by Bride of Frankenstein as well as many other monster films of the 1940s and 50s, Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975 to a disastrous reception but in years that followed it became the ultimate cult film.

October 18 - Film Screening: Cannibal Holocaust
A public screening of Cannibal Holocaust will be held at 7pm in Science Lab Auditorium 120 (between Pasteur and Stark Halls) on the Winona State University campus. Admission is free but no one under 18 will be permitted to see the film. A panel discussion will follow the screening. Find out more about the film and the screening here.

October 24 - Cannibal Holocaust and American Psycho
This episode will take on two films known for their controversial material. Released in 1980, Cannibal Holocaust quickly became one of the most widely censored films of all time. Its highly realistic scenes of human murder as well as actual footage of animal cruelty were cause for protest and even legal prosecution. In years since, the film has gained renewed relevance as a commentary on documentary films and the exploitation of developing cultures by industrialized cultures. In 2000, director Mary Harron adapted Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, probably the most controversial piece of literature in the last quarter of the 20th century, into a commentary on the culture of greed of the 1980s. On the tenth anniversary of the film's release, that commentary has found renewed relevance.

October 31 - Lucifer Rising
Lucifer Rising was one of the final films by experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. His production of Lucifer Rising was complicated by rivalries and disasters big and small. This episode will include the complete score for Lucifer Rising composed by former Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil.

Remember that you can find out more about the show at