Millennial Monsters

When it became clear how momentous a change was going to follow in the wake of the internet, and after that, how much the widespread use of the smartphone was going to transform our lives, speculation immediately began as to how the generation raised with these things would differ from the generations that had seen them come into existence.

I recently had occasion to think about how horror stories in particular have changed in the new, online world. Over the last couple of years, I’ve spent enough time watching YouTube ARG’s, reading creepypasta, watching movies, and listening to the right podcasts to notice a few patterns emerging.

Before I point these out, let me give a few caveats: I’m way more of a general speculative fiction guy than a horror guy. I also remember broadcast TV and thinking dialup was cutting edge. I am therefore a bit of an outsider when it comes to both horror and the smartphone generation, so take this with a grain of salt. This is an essay in the old sense of the word—a casual attempt to think through a topic, rather the thoroughly researched and well-cited work of an expert.

That said, I’ve noticed three things that stand out about the ghosts and monsters conjured up by horror fans and writers since the rise of the internet. The first has to do with their character, and the next two with different aspects of their appearance.

First off, millennial monsters seem, by and large, to be loners. Slender Man, the hat man, the rake, most shadow people, many sightings of black-eyed kids—all of these are lonesome creatures, often dwelling in isolated locations. Before the internet, this was certainly a category of horror creature. However, zombie hordes, or large packs of werewolves, or massive cults, or covens of vampires and witches seemed to be a bigger part of the genre. On YouTube and in creepypasta, the creatures of our nightmares all seem to be individual, anti-social monsters.

Second, a major change seems to have occurred in the appearance of popular monsters. In the 80’s, it seemed like the majority of scary critters you might run into were big and hairy. They were often shaggy, wild-looking, and above all, physically imposing. Slender Man, the rake, and their relatives, on the other hand, are lean and hairless, and often pale. Their appearance is frightening not due to size or weight, not because they are bestial, but because they look wrong. They are unearthly, and unsettling. They are distorted.

Third, the way they appear unsettling is particularly interesting. I used the word “distorted” because I think it’s particularly apt. Slender Man is not too terribly unsettling, except that he’s been stretched like a piece of gum far beyond what is normal for any human being. The rake is bent until he can go onto all fours, and thin as well. Dear David, of recent Twitter fame, has a bent-in head. Werewolves are not distorted—they are often anatomically believable, as long as you don’t catch them mid-transformation. Zombies are rotten, but they’re not oddly shaped. If anything, vampires are often even more physically perfect than the rest of us.

Before I go on to speculate about these three trends, it would be good to make a qualification. Millennials can and do, of course, watch older horror movies and read Stephen King and dress up as zombies and vampires and werewolves. There is no unbreachable wall between pop culture before and after the internet. These are just tendencies, and that’s worth keeping in mind as I outline the truly speculative part of this below.

It has been observed of older generations that zombie movies do well during Republican presidencies, and vampires are more popular under Democrats. The thinking here is that the people are working out their fears of what they might become in the form of horror stories. Republicans are a mindlessly conformist mass of soulless corpses who want to eat your brains, and Democrats are parasitic sexual libertines out to exploit the working man. Or something like that.

Apply the same thinking to millennial monsters. In an age of smartphones and laptops we can all stay up to unreasonably late hours, living in a virtual world, without human contact. We isolate ourselves, from human contact and from sunlight. In the high-contrast world of bright screens in dark rooms, is it any wonder we see people in the shadows? Is it so strange that we fear pale, manlike creatures emerging from the darkness? The appearance of these creatures, and their isolation, matches things we fear about ourselves—what might we be becoming?

The world of social media adds another layer to this. In a time where so much of who we are is a performance, a cultivation of the right photos and the right statuses, the right comments and sharing the right posts, every bit of our identity is subject to technological manipulation. We distort our personality and our appearance to convey messages about where we belong and what we hold sacred, and do so far more consciously and constantly, and in a far more chaotically diverse context than ever before.

Slender Man is stretched and distorted because we are stretched and distorted. The rake is twisted as we are twisted, and the hat man is reducible to one distinct identifying marker just as we can easily become nothing more than a brand, hiding unknown intentions behind a meaningless profile pic or Twitter handle. Our monsters are no longer hairy and physically imposing because the most common threats to us today are not physical, but about identity and belonging. We no longer fear we or our neighbors will become beasts, but that they will become alien and unreadable and hostile.

There is undoubtedly a lot more to be said here. As I mentioned earlier, I’m no expert on horror, and there is no doubt that there is quite a lot of continuity between previous generations and this one. I did see the IT remake a week or two back, and seems at least as popular as the original. But I think these trends are noteworthy, and worth more exploration.

It also occurred to me, as I was considering these things a few days ago, that the things I’ve pointed out here—the appearance and isolated character of millennial monsters—is probably far more significant the technology through which our ghost stories are now communicated. Chat roulette monsters and found footage seem like little more than novelties, while the form of the monsters themselves carries actual weight.

At any rate, it will be fascinating to watch as the fears and folklore of the next generation develops.

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Magic as Spiritual Technology, Part One: The Making of a Grimoire

Even when I take a break from the History of Witchery, I seem to stumble across it by accident. A week or so ago, I found a magical text referenced by a theologian. More recently, I asked someone in the field of Forteana—the study of bigfoot, UFOs, and similarly weird topics—to recommend researchers worth following. Among his recommendations was purported author of the fabled Necronomicon.

The History of the Necronomicon

For those who are in the know, the preceding sentence should sound a bit like nonsense. For those who aren’t, the Necronomicon is supposed to be a fictional work, a grimoire invented by horror author H. P. Lovecraft in the early twenties for use in his stories. There should be no author of the Necronomicon because the book does not exist.

But the tale only begins with Lovecraft. In an effort to add realism to his work, he advised friends to incorporate references to the Necronomicon in their own work, and he in turn referenced their fictional grimoires in his stories. For the unwary reader, it might seem like all these seemingly unrelated authors were referring to a book that genuinely existed, like The Lesser Key of Solomon or the Corpus Hermeticum. By the sixties, college kids were in on the prank, sneaking forged cards into the catalogues of university libraries so that naïve parties might stumble across the reference and assume it was real.

These pranks were only the beginning. Although occult beliefs had never really died out in the West—they barely retreated—the late sixties saw a massive upsurge in the popularity, coinciding with a similar explosion of neopagan religions that had begun with Wicca in Britain in the fifties and had now crossed the channel. Grimoires were no longer the province of pulp horror fanatics, but prizes sought after by people who might actually put them to use. The time was ripe for hoaxes.

One particularly clever forgery was known as the Simon Necronomicon. Published in 1975, the book claims that it was stolen by unorthodox priest and smuggled into the hands of certain students of the occult in New York. There it was edited and published under the leadership of someone using the name “Simon,” who preferred to keep his real identity secret. But all this would have been just one more unbelievable story, if it were not for the fact that much of the contents of the Simon Necronomicon is actually authentic.

To understand what this means, you have to know what Simon was actually claiming. He did not say that everything Lovecraft wrote about the Necronomicon was true, and did not incorporate Lovecraft’s excerpts from the book into the work itself. Even Lovecraft’s infamous author, “the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred,” is not part of Simon’s work. There are no bald invocations of Lovecraftian gods or demons. The only thing that clearly links it to Lovecraft’s work is the title of the supposed manuscript—the Necronomicon.

Simon’s Necronomicon is accompanied by a long editorial preface making it clear that he finds the link to Lovecraft as astounding and unlikely as anyone else—but it is there all the same. He then dives deep into history, proposing tentative links between entities mentioned by Lovecraft and Sumerian and Babylonian deities. Perhaps, he suggests, Lovecraft was a sort of sensitive, open to the influence of forces that actual exist, despite his lack of belief in them. Or perhaps he did indeed encounter rumors and scraps from this work and incorporated them into his fiction. Perhaps his stories were not as fictional as he thought.

The text of the Necronomicon itself is taken from a multitude of Sumerian and Babylonian sources, authentic lore merely rearranged and given a new context as a grimoire. Spells are taken from actual hymns and invocations of these ancient Mesopotamian gods, with very little material actually invented. Very little is unknown to scholars of that region and era, and even less is familiar to fans of Lovecraft’s fiction. Other than the name, it comes across as a quite plausibly historical work.

Whether the work is authentic or not—and I remain highly skeptical—it was certainly accepted as a usable grimoire. The published copies sold out, and it was copied illegally and began to spread underground. Practitioners of magic used the spells written therein, and some even came to believe the things suggested in the preface. The Necronomicon had gone from fictional tome to real-world sacred object. Simon had conjured it into existence.

Simon Says

Simon did not disappear after the success of his book. He published again, and, with the advent of the internet, began to lurk in occult forums online. Though there has been much speculation as to his identity—including the suggestion that he might be Sandy Pearlman, author of Don’t Fear the Reaper—no conclusive cases have been made, and Simon has yet to out himself.

It was in the accusations against one particular man, the Fortean researcher I referred to earlier, that I discovered the link to an old interview of Simon from 2002 that originally appeared in Behutet Magazine. While this was interesting enough on its own, something leapt out at me which was particularly relevant to a theme I have been exploring in my History of Witchery posts: Simon repeatedly uses the phrase “spiritual technology” to describe the contents of his Necronomicon.

I have written before about the links between science and magic, how there is a spirit at the heart of both that unites them. Throughout history, pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Christian theologians like Augustine and Aquinas have asked us to look at the world outside ourselves, to find external standards for human behavior. Our desires, our appetites, ought to conform to objective realities about what is good for man. It is the way of the sorcerer and of the mad scientist to instead demand that the external world be made to conform to our appetites. Rather than demanding virtue, we demand that vice be without consequences. Rather than accepting the limits and position God has imposed upon us, we seek to fashion ourselves and our world after our own image. We seek power.

As C. S. Lewis pointed out in his own critique of science and magic, there is such a thing as true or noble science. Seeking to better understand the world is near the very heart of wisdom, and science of that kind should not be condemned. The science he was far more skeptical of, the kind that seemed so much like sorcery, was applied science—technology. There we learn to impose our will on the world without always considering why the world is the way it is, and what the consequences might be for ignoring it.

I could go on a long tirade, citing fictional morality plays like Frankenstein or Jurassic Park. I could point to real-world examples, such as the social effects of the wide availability of birth control or the ecological impact of industrial civilization. This is not the place for that, as the issue of technology and how we use it is a complicated one calling for a lot of nuance, and this is a post about how a horror writer’s world-building got out of hand.

But the link here is real and interesting. Simon does not view his magic as venerable traditions handed down from his ancestors, or liturgy appropriate to the worship of gods he holds sacred. It is technology. It is a tool. If you follow the procedures, you will get a result. That is very scientific way of looking at things, even if the science in question deals with the spiritual plane.

In the near future I hope to go over this interview in more detail, drawing out at length what Simon believes magic is and how it is to be used. For now, though, I will leave you with the suggestion that just as fiction can find itself bleeding over into reality, so the things we have labeled rational and superstitious are not so far apart as they seem. Rather than a holdover from the Dark Ages, interest in magic may be very modern indeed.

Right in Time: Nolan, Time, and Dramatic Tension

Stories have to be interesting. It can be any of a million things that draws us in and keeps us there, but there does have to be something. For action movies, it can be something as basic and primal as “will the hero survive?” People tend to be interested in not dying, and if someone is likable, we tend to be interested in their not dying too. But sometimes storytellers have something a little different in mind.

I went to see Dunkirk on opening weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Christopher Nolan has always struck me as a guy who would be invested in the mythos of World War II, and I was very happy when I first saw the trailer. I came out of the theater even happier. As someone else said somewhere else, this is the movie Nolan was born to make.

Anyone familiar with the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the movie’s promotional material, is aware that the story is not going to be about defeating the Nazis in battle. The only victory we would see in this movie would be mere survival. That gave me a bit of pause, as I’ve always thought of Nolan as something more than a pessimist, and this sounded like it could be my great disappointment.

I was very pleased to be wrong. Within the first few minutes we are presented with three different perspectives, each of which is taking place across a different timeline, and will interweave to tell the story. One is that of a soldier on the ground, escaping Nazi gunfire, realizing that his safe haven is surrounded and pressed up against the ocean, and that there is little to no hope of escape. This starts several days before the evacuation. A second perspective is that of civilians taking their boat to Dunkirk on the day of the evacuation, rather than simply giving it up to the Navy as they had been told. Two of the three-man crew are too young to be soldiers. The third perspective is that of several pilots patrolling the skies in the hours just prior to the evacuation, including everyone’s favorite actor, the upper half of ­­­Tom Hardy’s face.

At first I took these three timelines as a mere novelty, just something Nolan likes to do. Partway through the movie, however, something happened that led me to rethink Nolan’s use of time, not just in Dunkirk, but in his entire body of work. Spoilers ahead.

At one point in the soldier-on-the-ground’s story, he joins up with the tattered remains of a Highland regiment. They are walking across the sand towards an abandoned boat that had been beached at high tide. They are far from the rest of the Allied soldiers, and once they are all inside, trying to determine if the thing will float, Germans begin using the hull for target practice. It is determined that the boat will float despite leaks, but they may have to get rid of some weight. One of the companions our POV soldier has picked up turns out to be a Frenchman who is trying to escape with the British soldiers, and the Highlanders debate getting rid of him so the boat will float.

Now in an ordinary telling, the source of dramatic tension, the thing that keeps us interested, is the question of survival. Will the boat float in the first place, and will the tide come in before the target-practicing Germans either kill off the people inside the boat on accident, or fill it so full of holes in the first place that it can no longer float? Nolan has already added a moral dimension to the Highlanders’ behavior, but we don’t even know if their decision here will make a difference in the larger question of survival.

But then we switch perspectives. Our pilot in the air is trying to protect a fleeing ship from German bombers. As he approaches, we a second boat nearby. It is the blue boat from the beach. It has tipped over and begun to sink, but there are men in the water fleeing from it to the ship our pilot is protecting. We know that they made it off the beach—the Germans did not kill everyone off or fill it so full of holes it would not float. They are halfway across the channel. They survived.

This shifts the source of dramatic tension. When we return to that timeline, we are no longer asking if they will survive, but what they will do to survive. Will they sacrifice the life of the frightened Frenchman to save their own, or will they leave Dunkirk as defenders of the weak? The source of dramatic tension is now the ethics of the situation. Through the use of his mixed-up timelines, Nolan has shifted our attention from the physical danger of the situation to the moral dangers and the character of these soldiers.

Someone else somewhere else said that Nolan is very interested in time. As I thought about this sequence from Dunkirk, and reflected on the other Nolan movies I’ve seen, I realized that this is only half true. Nolan is certainly interested in treating time in unusual ways in his stories, but I’m not sure that’s the focus of the stories themselves so much as it is a tool he is particularly adept at using. For Nolan, non-linear storytelling is a way of drawing attention to moral dilemmas rather than mere questions of survival.

After Dunkirk, two more examples come to mind. The first is Batman Begins. I recently got a pretty solid deal on twenty DVD’s, and this was on my list. It had been several years since I had watched it, and I never really appreciated it as much as the other two movies in the series, or the rest of Nolan’s work. This time I realized why.

The superhero genre is a staple of American pop culture, but for most of its history, especially in the 90’s, it has been targeted at children. These are people with silly names in unlikely costumes who fight improbable villains in defense of mythical cities. We don’t watch them for their realism, but for the very operatic strangeness that makes them so attractive to children. Given this, we expect the story to draw dramatic tension from the larger-than-life character of the villain and his insane schemes, or from the incredible powers of the superhero and the impossible odds he must overcome. If there is some deeper lesson to be learned, we expect it to be tied pretty closely to our hero’s gimmicks—Captain America tells us something about patriotism, Hulk about anger, the X-Men about being different, and Batman about nobless oblige or the social benefits of a healthy population of winged rodents.

Batman Begins is not interested in more gimmicky or straightforward lessons, and even less interested in being zany and larger-than-life. The man under the cowl is not George Clooney. And that’s why the first half of the movie does something very Christopher Nolan: it messes with the timelines.

Now, this is not Dunkirk. There very clearly a primary timeline, and the secondary timeline is easily labeled as a series of flashbacks, most of them more or less explicitly memories that Bruce is meditating on for pretty straightforward reasons. He has been living as a criminal, trying to understand their mindset, and he has been taken in by a shadowy organization that promises to teach him how to make criminals pay for what they do to society. Naturally, he thinks about the points in his life where he learned fear, where he saw what crime did, where he thirsted for vengeance, and where he learned that vengeance may not be enough.

But that’s interesting. In the past, I was always annoyed because it seemed to take forever for the story to go anywhere. But that’s because I expected a very different story than Nolan wanted to tell. He wasn’t worried about the existential threat against Batman or against Gotham. Survival was not the point. He was interested in justice. Why do people commit crimes? How do they get away with it? Who deserves justice? What does justice look like? Who is entitled to mete out justice? What methods should they use? The series of flashbacks combined with Bruce’s training by the League of Shadows does not draw attention to any particular villainous threat, but does ask us to look at these themes. By combining past events who outcome is already known with a present which does not noticeably advance for quite some time, Nolan shifts the dramatic tension to the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces, rather than threats to his city.

The third place I see Nolan using complex timelines to draw our attention away from mere survival and towards moral dilemmas is in Memento. This may seem a far more obvious example to those familiar with the movie. For those who are not, this is how the movie works: there are two timelines, one in black and white, and one in color. We switch back and forth between them. One is working backwards from end of the story being told, and one forward from its beginning. The two timelines will meet in the middle, and our climax will be the transition from one to the other.

The very structure of this plot looks like a test case for the interwoven timelines of Dunkirk or the extensive use of flashbacks in the first half of Batman Begins. We know early on who will live and who will die. We find out far more quickly than our protagonist exactly who can be trusted and who cannot. We know where the story is going. What we don’t know is why the protagonist has made the decisions he has. We don’t understand the moral landscape. By the time we reach the end of the movie, we understand the protagonist’s motivations and the motivations of the other characters, but our knowledge of whether he survives or not has not changed. Survival was never the point—the moral landscape was.

Now I am sure that Christopher Nolan is interested in time for other reasons. It is also without a doubt true that he is good at creating threats to the survival of his heroes, and having them confront these threats in interesting ways. He is certainly a good action director, and he is also a bit of nerd when it comes to thinking about time.

But I believe this is an established pattern that Christopher Nolan has. He uses nonlinear storytelling as a tool to draw our attention from more basic threats to survival and towards moral dilemmas. Realizing this not only opens up new dimensions in Nolan’s work, but leads to the consideration of non-linear storytelling more generally. How do other writers and directors use it? What are they drawing attention to? What potential sources of dramatic tension are they defusing?

For me, this is one more good reason to be interested not only in stories, but storytelling.

Richard Hooker and Hermes Trismegistus

Besides the History of Witchery, I’m also interested in theology. One theologian in particular, an Elizabethan-era guy by the name of Richard Hooker, has caught my attention lately. He wrote a book called Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity as an answer to Puritans who thought the Church of England’s style of church government—its ecclesiastical polity—was unbiblical and therefore evidence of high rebellion, and a good reason not to submit to church authority.

Hooker’s response starts by examining what laws are and where they come from in the first place—not just laws the government enforces, but laws of nature, universal moral laws, and the laws given in the Bible. His major point is that the Bible doesn’t have the answers to every question, and isn’t meant to. God gave us the ability to reason, and commanded us to grow in wisdom, and so we are therefore not only allowed, but expected to use our judgment on any number of issues where the Bible doesn’t give a clear answer. For his purposes that means church government, but principles he expounds can be applied to many other issues. I highly recommend the modernized version I have been reading. Language has, after all, changed since the time of Shakespeare.

But the reason I bring this up is that I was surprised to find that Richard Hooker was familiar with one of the big names in the history of witchery: Hermes Trismegistus.

Hermes, also known as Mercury, was the Greco-Roman god of many things, magic among them. He is sometimes identified with the Egyptian god Thoth and the Norse god Odin. Some later Jewish and Christian authors identified him with the Old Testament saint Enoch, who “walked with God and was not, for God took him.” In post-Biblical legends, he is supposed to have been a particularly holy man who was therefore given quite a bit of wisdom, which he then passed on to his sons. In more occult readings of this story, this means secret, magical wisdom which only initiates have access to.

The Corpus Hermeticum is the body of work attributed to this figure, referred to by readers of the work as “Hermes Trismegistus.” The philosophy contained in these books inspired a lot of more high-class, mystical and ceremonial magic in the later medieval period and beyond. One of the more recent magical societies, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, draws inspiration from him, as do other modern practitioners.

So imagine my surprise when I found this inspirer of magicians referenced in the very respectable book of a quite orthodox theologian. Of course, any confusion is quickly cleared up when one pays attention to how Richard Hooker references Hermes.

The first reference in Book I comes as Hooker is arguing that God does everything according to a plan, a sort of law He has established for Himself.[1] Having stated his case, and before he dives into Biblical proofs, he asserts that “Even wise and learned pagans” agree on this point. He cites Homer, Anaxagoras, Plato, and the Stoics. In the midst of this cavalcade of wise pagans, he cites Hermes Trismegistus:

“…and Hermes Trismegistus admits the same when he says that the demiurge made all the world, not by hands, but by reason.”

Below, the editors note the passage he is citing. They use the Mead translation, which is as follows:

“With Reason… not with hands, did the World-maker make the universal World.”[2]

In my version, which is much older, it goes:

“The Workman made this Universal World, not with his Hands, but his Word.”

If, as I suspect, the underlying Greek word for Reason/Word is “logos,” then not only do the differing translations make sense, but there may be some additional, probably intentional, Christological significance to the statement. The passage comes from verse one of what their translation calls “The Cup or Monad,” and what mine calls “His Crater or Monas,” which is the twelfth book of the Corpus Hermeticum.

The other reference in Book I of the Laws also cites Hermes as a wise pagan who recognizes a Biblical truth.[3] That, I think, is a sensible use of such mystic texts. When they get things right, there is no harm in acknowledging it, but they are not authorities on par with Scripture. This does imply that pagan thinkers, even magical ones, can obtain a certain degree of truth through natural reason alone, and that was exactly Hooker’s point. Reason is a gift from God, and though it won’t get you everywhere you need to go, it is often quite a reliable guide, even in theological issues.

Beyond this theological point, Hooker’s use of Hermes also extends our picture of the influence of magicians on the modern world. Note only were scientists often dabblers in mystical realms, at least one major theologian of the Church of England was familiar with one of the more influential magical works in history. I don’t read enough footnoted early modern theologians to promise I’ll follow this thread, but as I continue to make my way through Hooker’s Laws I’ll certainly make note of any future references to Hermes or his ilk here.


[1] Hooker, Richard. W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner, editors. Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization. Lincoln, Nebraska: The Davenant Trust, 2017. Pg. 6.

[2] They cite it as “The Cup or Monad 1. Cf. The Corpus Hermeticum, trans. G. Mead (United States of American: IAP, 2009), 29.”

[3] Hooker, pg. 24.

Witchcraft and Individual Freedom

Distinctly Modern Magic

 

Sometimes we have a habit of thinking of magic as a throwback to an earlier time, a period when people didn’t exactly understand the way the world worked. Even a cursory study of the history of witchcraft, astrology, “high magic,” and related arts, however, should quickly disabuse us of this idea. Magical ways of thinking about and interacting with the world did not go away with the Enlightenment, but only changed to match the times. Certain practices became less common, others more. Some explanations for the way magic worked fell by the wayside, and others became more important.

Michael Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe is merely an overview of the topic, with truly modern magic occupying only a chapter, or perhaps a chapter and a half if you draw the lines more loosely. But even in this short space, Bailey finds room to suggest ways in which much modern magic is not merely a holdover from a bygone era, but a uniquely modern creature. One way he does this is by drawing attention to the way some have attempted to remove the stigma of participating in magical practices. In the past, he says:

“The labels of magician, sorcerer, and especially witch were assigned to individuals, whether by powerful religious or secular authorities acting through legal courts, or by neighbors acting through equally effective systems of village gossip and community opinion. Many people, indeed most, engaged in actions that some others might well have considered magical, but few judged their own personal practices to be magic, at least not in the sense that magic was transgressive or illicit.”[1]

That is, in the past people may have engaged in a little hocus-pocus, but they would hardly have accepted the label “witch.”

We throw around words like “countercultural” pretty easily today, as if that meant very little, but in many societies being countercultural was a far costlier choice than in our own. We enshrine individual freedom as one of the central tenets of our society—people should be free to believe what they want, to do what they want, to be who they want, so long as it does not directly harm another individual. Both right and left have accepted this basic idea for some time, though of course they apply it very differently, with the right embracing more economic freedom, the left more social and cultural freedom, and libertarians trying to get the best of both worlds.

In societies where social, cultural, economic, and even religious freedom were simply not on the menu, where there were no popular elections with competing parties dividing people into contrasting ideologies, the idea that one would differ significantly from one’s neighbor by choice was a bit strange. Your livelihood was, to one degree or another, dependent on finding a way to belong. If you failed to do so, you generally lacked the mobility necessary to pick up and move on to another place where you had some hope of starting over.

Bailey connects the emergence of individual freedom with new trends in magic and superstition:

“In the modern West, however, with its stress on individual freedom (and, critically, freedom from legal punishment for performing previously illicit forms of magic), certain people began to prove very willing if not eager to take on the title of magician, and later also of witch, in no small part because these titles and practices associated with them have been considered to transgress limits imposed by the structures of modern society. Yet in the very act of transgressing and to some extent attempting to transform these limits, these individuals actually behave in a very modern, at times perhaps postmodern, fashion.”[2]

Consider what it takes to sustain a society where individual freedom is important. You have to not only create the political and religious structures that allow for individual freedom, you also have to pass that value on. You have to tell stories about the courageous individual, bravely standing up against the villainous society which seeks to restrain him. To keep a liberal society going, we have to tell stories of the marginalized confronting the powerful, and being in the right. The witch is by definition marginal, a ready-made hero of a society that values individual choice and self-definition.

 

Witch Trials and Liberal Storytelling

 

There are a number of ways modern magical practices and traditions, especially Wicca, embody a distinctly liberal ethos. I hope to examine several of them more fully when we reach that part of this study. For now, however, I want to draw attention to one of the more interesting ways in which witchcraft lends itself to the “brave individual vs. the world” narrative: the witch trials.

If there’s anything we know about witches, other than brooms, hats, and cauldrons, it’s that the Church loved to burn them. The middle ages was one long slog of random women tied to stakes and set on fire, maybe because their neighbors didn’t like them, and maybe because Judge Claude Frollo is repressed and doesn’t know how to deal with it. We all know that millions of women were killed this way. It was practically a holocaust. More specifically, it was a male-driven holocaust perpetrated mostly against women.

This is, of course, a gross exaggeration in almost every detail. To begin with, rather than millions of people killed, the European witch trials probably claimed less than 100,000 lives, spread across the entire continent, and over three centuries.[3] More likely, the number was actually between forty and fifty thousand.[4]  Moreover, the witch trials were not a medieval phenomenon, but an early modern one. The worst half century was from 1580 to 1630, well after both the Reformation had ended the monopoly of Roman Catholic religious power, and after the Scientific Revolution had already begun.[5] Also, while the trials were certainly directed more often at women, on average 25 percent of the accused were men, though in pockets like Normandy the number might actually be 75 percent, or over 90 percent in Iceland.[6] Furthermore, it was not the Roman Catholic Church or the Spanish Inquisition that drove these trials. Trials, conviction, and execution were all far more common in places where centralized church or state government had less influence, not where they had more.[7] In fact, Spain, home of the famous Inquisition, executed far fewer witches than almost any other country in Europe, with Italy not far behind. This number, for the curious, is a mere 300 in the century from 1560 to 1660, the height of European witch trials.[8]

Fifty thousand spread across three centuries, for the curious, is about 167 people a year. This was spread across the kingdoms of England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal, as well as the patchwork quilt of Italian city-states and the realms of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland, and other assorted European nations. Massive hunts were not the norm, but the exception. Rather than burnings in every village for the entire course of the middle ages, we ought to imagine sporadic and isolated events spread unevenly over a very large area.

This is not to say that the witch trials were not a serious miscarriage of justice, or to minimize the suffering inflicted many no doubt innocent people. There is, however, a rather large gap between our picture of what happened, and what actually did happen. This ought to make us curious. Where did our picture come from?

Weirdly enough, the first group to really embrace this notion of the European witch trials was the Nazi party:

“By the mid-twentieth century, the notion that medieval and early modern witches had actually been practitioners of a pre-Christian, pagan religion…had gained considerable credence. The Nazi leadership decided that witches would make useful symbols of northern European völkisch culture, in opposition to essentially Mediterranean Christianity, which was, moreover, rooted in Judaism.”[9]

As the Third Reich expanded, the SS’s “Special Witch Unit” went through records of witch trails in various regions, hoping to use them for propaganda purposes. [10] The Nazi brand of feminism—wherein Aryan women were decidedly superior to the men of other races—even adopted a line common to later feminist takes on witchcraft, proclaiming that it was an assault on Aryan womanhood by degenerate Christian men.[11] The Nazi’s conception of a witch-holocaust was expressed in the 1935 pamphlet Der christliche Hexenwahn, or “The Christian Witch-Craze.” A year before, another leader of the German pagan movement, Mathilde Ludendorff, printed Christliche Grausamkeit an Deutschen Frauen, “Christian Cruelty to German Women,” which claimed that approximately nine million women had been killed throughout the witch hunts.[12]

None of this is to suggest any sort of moral equivalence between Nazis and people who have a similar understanding of the witch hunts. To claim that because, say, Wiccans share certain beliefs about history with Nazis, that they must be similarly monstrous and wicked is patently ridiculous. Such smear tactics have no place in any sort of civil discussion, whether they are directed marginalized or at mainstream religious, ethnic, or political groups.

But there may be a reason liberal narratives of the witch hunts and the Nazi narratives are so similar. These two disparate movements had a common enemy—the Christian Church. A unified Christian Church, even in the loosest sense, can compete with the Aryan race for German loyalty, as it did in the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church. It can also present itself to individuals as an entity demanding moral and behavioral conformity. In either case, it is convenient to believe that the Christian Church perpetrated a massive slaughter of either fiercely independent women or of noble Aryan pagans when at the height of its power.

Every movement needs heroes, and a good hero will often breed a movement. Looking back to the exaggerated tale of nine million women slaughtered in a holocaust of superstition and prejudice, especially if one believes these women were carrying on an ancient pagan faith, it is easy to see what makes identifying with them attractive. They seemed to have a spirit of independence and courage, as well as a connection to something more ancient and apparently more good than the currently prevailing religion. If we, as a society, teach our children to value these things, is it any wonder a number of them will grow up to claim the label “witch?”

As always, it is a mistake to assume that facts automatically lead to beliefs. Often the version of history we select is driven more by which stories express our values than which has the most evidence behind it. If Christians want to win hearts, we should aim to shape hearts, not just convey information. And we should also learn to pay attention to myths and storytelling tropes, at least as much as we do to actual history.

 

 

Update: I recently began another nonfiction project offline, with an eye towards publication. While I will continue the History of Witchery project, the other has priority, and new posts will likely be more spaced out than they were in June.


[1] Bailey, pg. 216.

[2] Bailey, 216.

[3] Bailey, 176.

[4] Bailey, 175.

[5] Bailey, 143.

[6] Bailey, 149.

[7] Bailey, 161-170, but especially 162.

[8] Bailey, 165.

[9] Bailey, 236.

[10] Bailey, 236.

[11] Bailey, 237.

[12] Bailey, 238.

Justice and Patriotism in The Four Loves

One of the fundamental truths about the human condition is that justice is blind, but we are not. That is, murder, adultery, envy, and theft are wrong, regardless of who is committing them. On the other hand, the murder we wish to commit always seems justifiable, and our adultery is the product of a pure love and a marriage that should never have been, while our envy is grounded in what we really deserve, and what we steal is only that which is owed us. We have a habit of believing the facts are always on our side.

Now the examples I gave are all driven by self-interest, but we can also cheat justice out of love for others. We all know parents whose children can do no wrong. Their love for their children prevents them from clearly assessing the situation, and from doing what justice demands. Love may be blind, but they are not. They see their children.

There are many loves in the world—love of children or love of parents, love of spouse, and love of friends to name just a few. One love in particular is the cause of much bickering, especially between what we call the right and the left at the present moment: love of country.

In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis writes of two kinds of love of country, exemplified by two extremely patriotic Englishmen. In order to understand the stark contrast between them, he outlines several elements which go into love of country:

“First, there is love of home, of the place we grew up in or the places, perhaps many, which have been our homes; and of all places fairly near these and fairly like them; love of old acquaintances, of familiar sights, sounds and smells. Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about ‘Britain.’”[1]

We might say the same about “America.” To be sure, we can have a certain allegiance to the whole thing, but for most of us the love of the familiar places and people is quite specific—Chicagoland is a very different place from the Five Boroughs or the Bay Area, and Deep East Texas is not Eastern Washington, and Northern Michigan is most assuredly not South Florida. This element of patriotism does not stretch especially far.

“With this love of place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because ‘he could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“It would be hard to find any legitimate point of view from which this feeling could be condemned. As the family offers the first step beyond self-love, so this offers us the first step beyond family selfishness. Of course it is not pure charity; it involves love our neighbours in the local, not of our Neighbour, in the Dominical, sense. But those who do not love the fellow-villagers or fellow-townsmen whom they have seen are not likely to have got very far towards loving “man” whom they have not.”[2]

I began this post by bringing up that crucial fact that justice is blind, but we are not. Here we begin to see the way in which love of country might color our vision. The way my friends and neighbors do things will seem quite normal and sensible and right, while the way someone from a distant community does things will seem odd and backwards and wrong. In the heads of most 21st-century Americans we have a notion that this may lead quickly and inevitably to war and foreign conquest—let’s make the whole world like ourselves. Lewis is not so hasty. We must remember that this is merely love of the familiar:

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?”[3]

Both these statements are straightforward and sensible. We will protect our children if they are threatened, but not many people go out looking to kidnap other children and teach them to behave like their own. Similarly, we recognize that the affection we feel for our parents is something which most people who had a decent childhood are likely to share. No one is demanding that there be only one “World’s Best Dad” mug. Nor is someone else having different friends much of a threat to our own friendships. Indeed, the fact that we all have similar loves towards different objects is one point which unites us, rather than divides us. We know what it is like to have friends and family, and sympathize with those that do.

Lewis goes on to add a second element to love of country:

“The second ingredient is a particular attitude to our country’s past. I mean to the past as it lives in popular imagination; the great deeds of our ancestors. Remember Marathon. Remember Waterloo. ‘We must be free or die who speak the tongue Shakespeare spoke.’ This past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance; we must not fall below the standard our fathers set us, and because we are their sons there is good hope we shall not.”[4]

Living in the age we do, we are of course aware that the past is not all sunshine and daisies. Our ancestors may have done—and likely did—horrible deeds as well as great ones. But Lewis thinks “it is possible to be strengthened by the image of the past without being either deceived or puffed up.”[5] The key, he suggests, is to maintain the distinction between patriotic odes and real history. Let Mel Gibson do grand things on the big screen, but let us become familiar with every shade of gray in the actual classroom. We may enjoy the former, but not take it seriously. The latter we may or may not enjoy, but we must certainly take seriously.

But why does Lewis value the former at all? Why does he want to keep the rose-hued image of our nation’s heroes, rather than occupy our images of them entirely with the subtle shades of reality? His answer is brief, but pointed, “But who can condemn what clearly makes many people, at many important moments, behave so much better than they could have done without its help?”[6] The Founding Fathers of the United States fought against overwhelming odds and won. We too may one day find ourselves having to fight against overwhelming odds, and it is those tales of bygone glory, not the complicated reality, that will inspire us to real deeds of heroism. Our ancestors may not have actually achieved high standards of virtue, but those high standards, understood appropriately, are a force for good in the world.

But Lewis is quite explicit that this element of love of country, the love of great deeds done by her past heroes, is far more dangerous than simple love of the familiar. If we confuse our folktales for history, in may creep “the tacit assumption that other nations have not equally their heroes; perhaps even the belief—surely it is very bad biology—that we can literally ‘inherit’ a tradition. And these almost inevitably lead on to a third thing that is sometimes called patriotism.”[7] It is this third thing which most concerns us, and which can most easily lead to a miscarriage of justice.

“The third thing is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, ‘But sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?’ He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—‘Yes, but in England it’s true.’ To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”[8]

This, to me, is more insidious than the flaws of the previous two shades of “love of country” combined. It is so insidious, because it understands itself not to be the biased affection of a son for his mother country, but objective assessment of reality. I once knew someone who roundly condemned patriotism in general, even perhaps the idea of nations, soberly explain that his part of the country was most morally, technologically, and politically advanced part of the world. Indeed, the major city in that region was the center from which all culture emanated. Simply listing Hollywood, New York, and Washington, D.C. next to each other is more than enough to debunk such nonsense, leaving actually foreign countries out of the equation.

But Lewis is quite right that this misguided love of country can “produce asses that kick and bite.” It is only when we genuinely believe that our own land is actually morally superior to all others that we begin to claim that justice and the good of our country are the same thing. In doing so, we confer upon our country a divine status:

“This brings us to the fourth ingredient. If our nation is really so much better than others it may be held to have either the duties or the rights of a superior being towards them. In the nineteenth century the English became very conscious of such duties: the ‘white man’s burden.’ What we called natives were our wards and we their self-appointed guardians. This was not all hypocrisy. We did do them some good. But our habit of talking as if England’s motives for acquiring an empire (or any youngster’s motives for seeking a job in the Indian Civil Service) had been mainly altruistic nauseated the world. And yet this showed the sense of superiority working at its best. Some nations who have also felt it have stressed the rights not the duties. To them, some foreigners were so bad that one had the right to exterminate them. Others, fitted only to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the chosen people, had better be made to get on with their hewing and drawing. Dogs, know your betters!”[9]

Everybody today knows the joke about America bringing democracy to other nations, and “You’d better watch out, or we’ll bring democracy to your country next!” This sense that we are objectively superior justifies placing ourselves in charge of other nations. We did not conquer the Indians because we loved the East Coast too much. We spread west because we thought we had an objectively superior civilization, and we were therefore justified in either carrying it to the barbarians, or else destroying those barbarians who were beyond saving.

At last we come to the point where Lewis can contrast the patriotism of Kipling with the patriotism of Chesterton. Both men “love their country,” but what this means is very different from one man to the other:

“Chesterton picked on two lines from Kipling as the perfect example. It was unfair to Kipling, who knew—wonderfully, for so homeless a man—what the love of home can mean. But the lines, in isolation, can be taken to sum up the thing. They run:

If England was what England seems
‘Ow quick we’d drop ‘er. But she ain’t!

Love never spoke that way. It is like loving your children only ‘if they’re good,’ your wife only while she keeps her looks, your husband only so long as he is famous and successful. ‘No man,’ said one of the Greeks, ‘loves his city because it is great, but because it is his.’ A man who really loves his country will love her in her ruin and degradation—‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still.’ She will be to him ‘a poor thing but mine own.’ He may think her good and great, when she is not, because he loves her; the delusion is up to a point pardonable. But Kipling’s soldier reverses it; he loves her because he thinks her good and great—loves her on her merits. She is a fine going concern and it gratifies his pride to be in it. How if she ceased to be such? The answer is plainly given: ‘’Ow quick we’d drop ‘er.’ When the ship begins to sink he will leave her.”[10]

This “patriotism” is nothing of the kind. There is no love in it, and no loyalty. It is the flip side of believing your country is objectively superior. On the one hand, you may perform horrible atrocities because whatever she does is by definition better. On the other, if you ever cease to believe she is better, she loses your loyalty and you will do nothing to improve her. The first is straightforwardly bad for other countries, and the second straightforwardly bad for your own. Nothing good comes out of it.

In today’s global society, and in a society which values individual freedom so highly, we are skeptical of anything that might place demands on the individual, any sort of love which might call for service or lasting loyalty. Having seen the pitfalls of so-called patriotism, it is only natural that many of us might question the value of patriotism at all. Justice is blind, but we are blinded to it by our love of country. So why not do away with love of country?

But this does not fix the problem. The very flaw in the false patriotism of the two lines from Kipling is that the soldier does not love his country. Instead, he believes it to be objectively superior. If we do away with love of country, true justice is not what steps into its place:

“For a long time yet, or perhaps forever, nations will live in danger. Rulers must somehow nerve their subjects to defend them or at least to prepare for their defence. Where the sentiment of patriotism has been destroyed this can be done only be presenting every international conflict in a purely ethical light. If people will spend neither sweat nor blood for ‘their country’ they must be made to feel that they are spending them for justice, or civilisation, or humanity.”[11]

It should be pointed out that though Lewis mentions “nations” living in danger, this is really shorthand for any group of people. The European Union, transnational though it is, will encounter internal and external threats, and must be defended. Progressive Westerners consider themselves members of a global community that transcends borders, but even this global community will have to confront reactionary or anti-globalist threats. Until the end of history, mankind is in conflict with itself, and if there is any good worth preserving anywhere in it, from time to time we will be called to fight in its defense. In patriotic countries, love of country could serve as this call to arms. In communities that reject patriotism, so higher ideal must step in. This, however, is not the path to justice:

“This is a step down, not up. Patriotic sentiment did not of course need to disregard ethics. Good men needed to be convinced that their country’s cause was just; but it was still their country’s cause, not the cause of justice as such. The difference seems to me important. I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds—wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine—I become insufferable. The pretence that when England’s cause is just we are on England’s side—as some neutral Don Quixote might be—for that reason alone is equally spurious. And nonsense draws evil after it. If our country’s cause is the cause of God, wars must be wars of annihilation. A false transcendence is given to things which are very much of this world.”[12]

We like to talk these days as if Adolf Hitler went about conquering and committing atrocities simply because of his love of country. This is false. Hitler was not overly loyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which he was born, nor to the Germany to which he immigrated. He believed that the Aryan race was the most advanced portion of the human species, and that its success meant the continuation of humanity, and its failure meant the end of all humanity had ever stood for. His cause was a transcendent cause, not a local or parochial one. And for that reason, his was a war of annihilation.

Stalin did not conquer in the name of Russia, but in the name of humanity—he was liberating the international working class from its capitalist oppressors, not making Russia great again. It must be remembered that he was among the revolutionaries who, temporarily, had made Russia cease to be great. Likewise, the Great Khan thought he ruled all under heaven by divine right, and the early Islamic empire conquered because it was spreading the religion of the one true to God. And as Lewis said, the British Empire was spreading civilization to all mankind because the good things of Britain were not merely British goods—they were universal, and it was the white man’s burden to spread them. It is pretending our nation’s good is the same as some transcendent ideal that leads to blood and death and empire, not mere love of our locale.

“The glory of the old sentiment was that while it could steel men to the utmost endeavor, it still knew itself to be a sentiment. Wars could be heroic without pretending to be Holy Wars. The hero’s death was not confused with the martyr’s. And (delightfully) the same sentiment which could be so serious in a rear-guard action could also in peacetime take itself as lightly as all happy loves often do. It could laugh at itself. Our older patriotic songs cannot be sung without a twinkle in the eye; later ones sound more like hymns.”[13]

Justice is blind, but we are not. In a global age and an individualistic age, we think this means it is better to destroy all the sentiments which color our vision of the world. But this does not make us objective and non-partisan, it merely blinds us to our own partisan spirit. The way to prevent our sentiments from leading us to injustice is not to deny our sentiments, but to acknowledge that is all they are. They may lead us to loving our neighbors, or defending our dependents, or doing some heroic deed of self-sacrifice. They may just as easily lead to prejudice. The one thing they may not do is become themselves the standard of justice.

My friend who thought his region the center of the world was not liberated from prejudice because he thought it was objectively true. Instead, his prejudice was given all the shine of holiness and transcendence. If we learn to love the little neighborhood in which God has placed us, even if it is not a very good one, we will not become shackled to prejudices either. Instead, we may learn to sympathize with people whose ways of life are very different than our own, simply because their love for those ways is not.

 

 

I wrote this post after listening to the first episode in the Mere Fidelity podcast’s series on the The Four Loves. I highly recommender the podcast in general, and this episode in particular. These links are to the web page, but it can also be found on iTunes.


 

[1] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Pg. 23.

[2] Lewis, pgs. 23-24.

[3] Lewis, pg. 24.

[4] Lewis, pgs. 24-25.

[5] Lewis, pg. 25.

[6] Lewis, pg. 25.

[7] Lewis, pg. 26.

[8] Lewis, pg. 26.

[9] Lewis, pg. 27.

[10] Lewis, pgs. 27-28.

[11] Lewis, pg. 29.

[12] Lewis, pg. 29.

[13] Lewis, pgs. 29-30.

The Mummy (2017)

The new Mummy has less to do with the Brendan Fraser Mummy than it does with Universal’s new attempt to dredge up its old monster movies and weave them together into a new “Dark Universe.” With that in mind, one might it expect it to bear some resemblance to the original Mummy movie, from back in the Universal monster golden age. Not so much.

While those born in the first half of the twentieth century filled their nightmares with Frankenstein and the Wolfman, I filled my young head with another terrifying revenant: the Latin language. Lucky for me, that’s exactly where this movie begins.

It’s A.D. 1127 and what looks like a bunch of Templars are droning out a dark and mysterious chant deep under the surface of Rome, as they bury their comrade with an ominously blood-red gem. At least, I’m sure that was the intended mood and effect. All I heard was “panem nostrum quotidianem, da nobis hodie,” and just about burst out laughing. Their “ominous chant” was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m pretty sure most Latin students start chanting in the third grade.

That set the tone for the whole movie. Folks, this is a Tom Cruise flick, where he does the airplane thing he did in the last Tom Cruise flick. The trailers tried so hard to make that epic, and so hard to impress you with—wait for it—a girl Mummy. Also, there was voiceover from Russell Crowe, and Paint it Black was playing, so it was pretty much designed to draw audiences in the cheapest way possible. I went in expecting a flat, poorly made flick that would basically serve no purpose beyond fueling my popcorn addiction.

Well, this was no Wonder Woman, but I was pleasantly surprised.

This movie deserves to be rifftraxed, and not because it’s that bad, but because that’s how seriously it takes itself. Like its flawless namesake, the “present” timeline starts out with our hero and his sidekick in the Middle Eastern desert facing down gunfire from the locals. The sidekick, though, is no Benny. He honestly belongs in a comedy movie set on a beach somewhere. He reminds me of Owen Wilson in the Shanghai Noon movies, or Steve Zahn in Sahara. He exists for witty banter and to show us how reckless Tom Cruise is—until he goes Obi Wan in the most hilarious way possible. I’ll let you figure what that means.

Tom Cruise, by the way, is a guy that always gets my views, but more out of sympathy and nostalgia than anything else. He’s kind of a nut, but he’s also Ethan Hunt, and Mission: Impossible was my kind of movie back in the day. Anyways, he plays the same Tom Cruise he plays in every other Tom Cruise movie, but the writers actually gave him enough character to make this Tom Cruise seriously flawed and kind of sleazy, and definitely in need of a redemption arc, which the movie is certainly ready to provide. Like Brendan Fraser’s O’Connell, this is a hero frequently played for laughs, though the humor is somewhat more adult, seeing as it’s largely based on an undead Egyptian princess wanting to turn him into her lover from beyond the grave.

The other half of the adult humor and of the redemption arc is, for me, the most disappointing character in the movie—the Hollywood-pretty archeologist “Jenny.” That’s about all there is to her character. I don’t know why Cruise has a crush on her, but he does, and that factors into the redemption arc. It also factors into the unexpected moment where Jenny is told to run. I immediately thought of Forrest Gump, because, like I said, this movie deserves a rifftrax.

And it really does. There is a deliberate and direct allusion to this video, played totally straight. Ish.

But all this humor is only oddly out of place because the movie is so often kind of dark. Cruise’s character is seriously flawed, and we’re not a third of the way through the movie before he is dead. Then, in a moment that should have been accompanied by pop-goes-the-weasel music, and was in my theater, he returns to life. But the lingering implication the whole time is that if the Mummy is put down, he’s going to be dead again. He wants redemption, and there’s a time limit to it.

The darkness lies in other areas as well. There is betrayal and implied horrific torture by people that are sort of the good guys. Things go badly wrong towards the finale, and Cruise’s redemption may be farther away than he anticipated. Also, a baby is murdered just off-screen in flashbacks. Twice. And this is referred to multiple times throughout.

So the humor and the darkness play against each other oddly, and so does the cast. If Tom Cruise were the only big star here, this might be a cheap studio action flick. But Tom Cruise gets played off Russell Crowe, whose role forces him to be far zanier than I expected. These two get stuck in a room together several times, but in one scene it’s just them, and it’s like a battle of the stars. They play off each other in very distinctive ways, chew up scenery, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

But the real surprise was Sofia Nutella Boutella as Amunet. I was expecting the role to give her far less acting and far more sauntering down exploding London streets. Turns out her face is a window into a dark universe inhabited by the Platonic forms of bitterness, anger, sorrow, and vengeance. In the Brendan Fraser Mummy, Imhotep was intimidating because he was taller than you and had supernatural powers. In this one, it’s because she radiates all sorts of emotions that boil down to “I am sorry, but you are very dead.” It was very appropriately haunting.

In the midst of the darkness, the humor, and the heavyweight acting, the themes of this one are also a bit more hefty than I expected. They really are worried about death, and about redemption. Neither is as much of a driving force of the movie as I would like—it really is an action flick. But it’s there.

And that really sums it up. This is a movie that is not grand, not a classic. But it really does try. It has a lot of character, a very distinct flavor that makes you want to like it. It’s hilarious, and occasionally moving, and pretty darn coherent up until the climax. Even after that, it stumbles into a recovery that made me genuinely look forward to future Dark Universe movies. If you’ve got money to burn and evening to waste, this is not a bad place to waste it.

Unless, of course, you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, and could be watching that. In which case, that’s clearly what you need to be doing.