Thursday, October 28, 2004

Beheadings: Halloween horror vs. the real thing;
Also: Scariest movie villain chosen

(The following item comes courtesy of Sightings, a publicaton of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.)
Beheading: Horror in Film and War
-- David L. Simmons

Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, will be overshadowed this year by the presidential election and the all-too-present horrors of Iraq. Prayers were offered in the worship service I attended on Sunday for the children's aid worker Margaret Hassan, whose heart-wrenching pleas were broadcast around the world that weekend. "I don't want to die like Bigley," she said.

Since the beheading of Nicholas Berg in May, I have been reflecting on the cultural significance of representations of decapitation in film and on television. It is a classic trope of the horror movies that are frequently shown in the weeks before Halloween, and since I am a fan of the genre, I have done some soul-searching about the fears and desires that are encoded in such popular entertainments.

These thoughts led me back to Tim Burton's 1999 film Sleepy Hollow. As an adaptation of Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the American ancestor of all Halloween thrillers, the film is a powerful piece of mythmaking. It wraps the story of the Headless Horseman into a myth about the origins of our nation in a way that is surprisingly revelatory when compared to the discourse about war, religion, and politics currently circulating in our media.

Although tinged with Burton's macabre humor, Sleepy Hollow is a grim fairy tale whose gruesome representation of eighteen beheadings has become impossible to imagine as entertainment. Purists have noted that the script departs from the original story, but the innovations make it much more relevant. In the story, Ichabod Crane is a "Connecticut Yankee" schoolteacher with morbid fantasies who can quote Cotton Mather's "history of New England witchcraft" (Wonders of the Invisible World) from memory.

In the film, Ichabod (whose Hebraic name means "the glory of God is gone") is a character out of Poe, a New York City constable sent to Sleepy Hollow to solve the Horseman's murders using forensic science and deductive reasoning. It is later revealed that his mother was a practicing witch who was tortured to death by his own puritanical father. In Burton's revision, then, scientific reason and enlightened skepticism are pitted against Dutch Reform piety and a capitalist social hierarchy on one hand, and a kind of "folk religion" of black and white magic, which turns out to be very real, on the other.

In both versions, the Headless Horseman was, in life, a Hessian mercenary fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War. In the film, the Hessian is a demonic, barbaric figure, foreign and brutal, a professional warrior whose bloodlust has survived the grave. He is a baroque emblem of war itself, suggested by his resemblance to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The relentless decapitations are Burton's invention, an homage to Roger Corman and the Hammer horror movies that popularized these blood and gore effects. But the nightmarish identification of the Horseman with war and witchcraft is not. In the original story, the war is still a fresh trauma, Salem more than a memory, and the Horseman finally appears as the scourge of Ichabod's hidden appetites: lust, jealousy, greed, and gluttony.

"Heads Will Roll," the ad slogan when Sleepy Hollow was released, today seems a bleakly ironic comment on the many jingoistic rallying cries for U.S. military engagement. On the other hand, the image of Irving's Hessian mercenary has returned in the form of the Afghani warlords in Democratic campaign rhetoric. In this context, the myth of Sleepy Hollow reads like a cautionary tale. Wherever the horror of war is systematically repressed by the demonization and persecution of the innocent, couched in appeals to God, Providence, and prosperity, the specter of the Horseman rises.

In the real world, it is no longer phantoms and fairy tales that terrify us. This Halloween we pray that the pleas of the compassionate will dispel the imminent threat that hangs over the heads of all of those being held hostage.

David L. Simmons is a doctoral candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a current Marty Center dissertation fellow.

And from the Internet Movie Database:

Bush Voted Year's Top Film Villain

American President George W. Bush has topped an unlikely poll in Britain - as this year's top screen villain. Bush won the dubious accolade for his unauthorized appearance in Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. The politician beat out the likes of Doc Ock, played by Alfred Molina, in Spider-Man 2; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface; Andy Serkis' Gollum from Lord Of The Rings trilogy; and Elle Driver, the assassin played by Daryl Hannah in Kill Bill. Almost 10,000 people voted in the poll, conducted by Total Film Magazine.

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