Five Scary Things Religious Studies Should be Researching
W. Scott Poole
“Note to Self: Religion, creepy.”-Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I think historians of American religion might agree with Buffy. Sometimes the research paths we pursue end us up in the darkest parts of the forest.
Some may think it odd that I began my career working on memory and religion in the Reconstruction South, moved to work on the Devil and am now working on Monsters. I think most of my religion and American history colleagues find this perfectly explicable.
And yet, I do think that we need more history of religion scholars thinking about these frightening topics, especially in relation to American history. There are some good studies out there on horror narratives and how they intersect with media, the religious impulse and the human psyche, but they often don’t focus in on American culture or historical experience.
So, for your Halloween pleasure (did you hear, by the way, about Jesus-ween?), I’ve compiled a short list of some topics worth examining.
Here are five areas where I think American religious historians need to get scary:
1.) Zombies: Ok, maybe this is a monster whose time has crested and, more importantly, maybe Kelly J. Baker has the zombie apocalypse under control with her new work on the relationship between apocalyptic ideas and zombie-mania. At the same time, there are so many religious narratives about the end of the world, purity/corruption and resurrection embedded in the zombie story that we need to engage this one from a lot of angles.
By the way, I’m a big fan of religious studies scholar, and fellow Baylor author, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead. Great with students and not a bad place to begin with your reading on zombies and religious studies.
2.) Alien visitation narratives: The Cold War and the sci-fi genre seemed to come together in the 50s and 60s to produce the narrative of “invaders/saviors” from beyond the stars. Many of these stories functioned as conversion narratives with messianic overtones. Some of these narratives even created religious movements that remain with us. A good place to begin is Christopher D. Bader. F. Carson Menken and Joseph D. Baker’s Paranormal America.
3.) The new spiritualism: The interest in paranormal encounters is driving (and of course being driven by) the popularity of the Ghosthunters franchise. When considering this phenomenon, I think most scholars of religious history automatically will think the tradition of American spiritualism. How does this new American spiritualism compare to earlier versions? Is it driven primarily by pop culture or are their deeper sources?
4.) Posthuman terrors: I prognosticate a bit in Monsters in America that our next terror will be posthuman monsters, a category that I think includes everything from the killer androids, to dark things waiting for us on the digital frontier, to the human body finding something horrible on the other side of transcendence, to disease creating a posthuman world.
One possible path into this area is the one taken by Myra Seaman, a friend in medieval literary studies and an editor of Postmedieval. Seaman has written of how medieval conceptions of transcendence through mystical union with Christ bears some resemblance to posthuman narratives like the Matrix.
Come on Americanists, surely there are similar connections to be made between these ideas and various kinds of American conversion narratives? Moreover, what does it tell us about American apocalyptic narratives that there are so many “godless apocalypses” out there…and that there have been for thirty-to forty years now?
5.) The Devil himself: Mark Twain once complained that, “all the churches issue bibles against him…but no one wants to listen to his side of the story.” The history of the development of beliefs about the Devil, crucial to understanding American religious consciousness over time, needs further study. Most works have dealt with the European Devil or focused on the witchcraft trials (and mainly Salem, of course).
Yes, I did write a book about Satan in America: The Devil We Know. But, like most first books on a new area of study it is a.) limited, b.) flawed, and c.) really a call to further study as much as anything. Colonial witchunts beyond Salem, slavery and conceptions of Satan, the history of exorcism in America, all of these are wide-open fields in diabolical studies.
I should add that I’m very excited about Sean McCloud’s work on evangelical demonology and how it also points us in some new directions in considering the Prince of Darkness.
Final note, for religion scholars interested in walking on the dark side, let me recommend to you John W. Morehead’s Theofantastique site. John is both a great guy and a great scholar who has created a real nexus of study for these topics. His blog is on my regular reading list and it’s really how I keep up with new books and scholars I need to know in my freaky little subfield.