November 19, 2018

A fearless plunge into why we’re forever ‘Haunted’

Halloween is almost here, and the time is right for Leo Braudy’s latest work of cultural history and criticism, irresistibly titled “Haunted: On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Worlds” (Yale University Press).

Braudy, a professor of English and American literature at USC, is a discerning commentator on the deeper meanings to be found in artifacts of culture, both high and low, ranging from “The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History” to “The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon.” He brings the same potent blend of scholarship and enthusiasm to his survey of the stories that are told about monsters: “They aren’t just in books or movies — they are under the bed or they leap out of the closet, they scrape on the window in the dead of night, and they reside patiently in the attic, in the basement, in every patch of darkness and shadow, waiting to pounce.”

It’s a timely endeavor, to be sure. “Fear is the pervasive topic of our times,” Braudy observes, and yet he also makes the case that it has always been so. “For Odysseus and his shipmates, monsters could be man-eaters like the giant Polyphemus or the Sirens,” he muses about the names we give to the things we fear. When he ponders the names we give to the monsters that stalk us, he recalls: “When I was a child, that name was Hitler. For some later 10-year-olds that name might have been Osama bin Laden.”

Among the countless number and variety of monsters who have haunted the human imagination over the millennia, Braudy sees four archetypes: “They are the monster from nature (like King Kong), the created monster (like Frankenstein), the monster from within (like Mr. Hyde) and the monster from the past (like Dracula),” all of which have “become a common coin of reference in Western culture.”  Thus, for example, “[m]edical advances in cloning and organ transplant give new life to Frankenstein, AIDS rings a turn on the blood-sucking vampire, and blind consumerism inspires the director George Romero to think of zombies.”

Braudy excavates the realm of horror and terror to its deepest theological and psychological roots, citing the “theological battles of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation” as readily as the equally elaborate constructs of Freud in his effort to decode the origins and meanings of what we regard as monstrous. But he is also capable of discerning the themes that run throughout history: “Even at the level of folk myth, the ogre, who specifically devours children (sorry, Shrek), is the figure of the threatening adult male, with perhaps some suggestion of Saturn, who ate his children in order to make sure he would not be replaced.” 

An impressive depth of knowledge allows Braudy to parse the multiple meanings in a single famous trope. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and the tale of Rabbi Loew of Prague both concern the consequences of a human being who dares to bring a new creature to life. Braudy points out that the story of the golem entered popular literature in the 19th century at a time when European Jews were struggling for emancipation. “Unlike Victor Frankenstein in the novel, Rabbi Loew is not aspiring to individual greatness by his creation; he seeks to protect his people, the Jews of Prague, from an emperor who wants to expel or exterminate them,” the author explains. “His purposes therefore are much more political than personal, and the golem in its turn is more of a warrior in the conflict than the Shelleyan evidence of an unprecedented ability to create life.”

The author’s eye falls on what is wholly new in the genre of horror and terror, but he still sees the linkages with what has come before. “In our own time, with the latest advanced technology, the so-called ‘found footage’ subgenre of horror reveals itself to be more integral to the history of horror than it might seem at first to be,” he explains. “Any actual author … disappears in favor of the supposedly objective authority of videotape or digital recording in such films as ‘The Blair Watch Project’ (1999) and ‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007). Yet, at the same time, no matter how advanced the technology that helps us see, it cannot protect us from our invisible fears and may even be the instrument of our doom.”

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can bestow on “Haunted” is to say that, thanks to the way Braudy has reframed the vast canvas on which stories of horror and terror are depicted, I don’t think I will ever watch a horror movie quite the same way again. 

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.