Since SPLICE, the effects studio working with Committee Films on America Unearthed, put out a press release yesterday acknowledging what I’ve known confidentially for months, I guess I’m free to tell you that H2 has hired Committee Films to produce a new documentary series on ancient mythology called Monsters, Myths & Legends, which will examine the history and evolution of monster stories and ancient mythology, probing their deep origins. If this seems a lot like Clash of Gods, the similarities are almost certainly intentional. Given that my most recent book, Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, sought much the same information, I suppose I’ll have plenty to say about the series when it airs, and I’ll probably disagree with most of what they have to say. If you’ve read my book, you know I disagree with many of the theories about the origins of particular myths, particularly psychosexual ones. It should probably surprise no one that I wasn’t among those asked to participate in the series.
In the current issue of Communication Quarterly (vol. 62, no. 5), Joseph M. Valenzano III and Erika Engstrom have an interesting article on the CW’s Supernatural, which they see as a representation of American exceptionalism and Christian fundamentalism. In “Cowboys, Angels, and Demons: American Exceptionalism and the Frontier Myth in the CW’S Supernatural,” the two authors argue that the series makes use of the tropes of Christian mythology and the cowboy myth to the effect of arguing that modern Americans view the country as the equal to and proxy for God himself. What interests me is how this analysis applies equally well to some of fringe history’s most popular claims, which use similar imagery to the same effect.
I recently watched the first episode of the BBC’s fascinating three-part documentary Art of Gothic, written and presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, and it was a wonderful look at the influence of the Gothic on the arts in Britain in the late eighteenth century. As you might have guessed, what Graham-Dixon calls “Gothic” art, we here stateside prefer to term Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic, to distinguish it from the period that succeeded the Romanesque in the Middle Ages. The documentary featured gorgeous photography and a cultured and urbane narration that skillfully and insightfully examined the origins of the dark and gloomy moment of terror that overtook Britain at the end of the Enlightenment.
Since it’s the Halloween season, stories about hauntings, ghosts, and horror have begun to fill the society and culture sections of mainstream publications in an annual orgy of macabre journalism. Over at Salon.com, sex and porn correspondent Tracy Clark-Flory published a piece linking horror to sadomasochistic sex, reflecting outdated conceptions of horror that trace their descent to Sigmund Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919). Or, as Clark-Flory put it in her inimitably eloquent style:
Sex, sexuality, sexiness — they are all so blatantly hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-fist-sized-dildo present in everything from slasher movies to women’s Halloween costumes. Then again, sex is such a long-time staple of horror that it’s easy not to notice or wonder about it. It just is, as the sky is blue.
I thought for a change of pace today I might talk about the past week in the supernatural—the fictional kind that is. It was a big week for supernatural horror, and I have a few thoughts about some of the highlights.
Let’s start today by passing along a bit of news. America Unearthed host Scott Wolter visited Westford, Massachusetts with a crew from Committee Films to shoot a segment for the upcoming season of his television show. According to the Westford Eagle, which incorrectly identified his show (twice!) as airing on the Discovery Channel and the History Channel (it airs on H2), Wolter was in town last week to observe a newly discovered marking on the stone housing the Westford Knight.
Yes, I am aware that Syfy showed Aliens on the Moon last night, but if you think I’m turning over two hours of primetime to listening to Nick Pope and friends blather on about how blurry photographs might or might not show alien moon bases, you have another thing coming. I watched a few segments of it, enough to know that it has nothing that would pass for proof and was generally a sub-Ancient Aliens batch of insinuation.
On the other hand, I watched the second episode of The Strain, and I’m not sure that this was a better choice. The clichés are strong in this one. I don’t know what the book was like, but this episode seemed constructed out of spare parts and duct tape. How laughable was it that suddenly a 200-page set of documents related to the incident was leaked just hours after the plane landed? I mean, I write fast, but seriously… It’s not possible to have a plausible disinformation campaign with leaked documents (200 perfect bound pages!) and a CEO scandal the very next morning! Russia certainly tried with MH17, but it took them the whole weekend to manufacture a fake story about Ukrainian culpability. And let us not get started on the ridiculous view of federal bureaucracy on the show...
The early buzz on The Strain was filled with dramatic adjectives. “Unique” got tossed around several times, though not by every reviewer. After watching the pilot episode, I can’t imagine how anyone could have applied the word unique to anything about The Strain, which is perhaps the most derivative vampire story to come to the small screen in years. In recent years, we’ve had vampire detectives (Angel and Moonlight), vampire lovers (True Blood), vampire teens (The Vampire Diaries), vampire aristocrats (The Originals), vampire slackers (Being Human), vampire capitalists (Dracula), and a bunch of Canadian vampires on the Syfy channel. The Strain, from producers Guillermo Del Toro, Chuck Hogan, and Carlton Cuse, wanted to reverse the trend toward human and relatable vampires and return them to their roots in horror.
Back when the documentary Killer Legends was broadcast on the Chiller channel, I wrote a blog post explaining a dispute I had with the filmmaker and explaining that I found his presentation to be a bit simplistic and superficial. The movie explored recent crimes that the filmmaker tied to famous urban legends, particularly those of the “Hook Man” and Killer Clowns. In writing about why I didn’t feel that the urban legends had an immediate origin in recent crimes, I wrote that “I don’t believe that most urban legends emerge from specific incidents from the recent past; if they did so, they wouldn’t be folklore and could easily have been verified by the original tellers of the stories.” I therefore presented some precedents for the urban legends in the myths and folklore of the nineteenth century.