Halloween is the time of year that conjures up images of pumpkins, exorcisms and ghosts, but what's behind it all? How much of it is real and how much is a Hollywood creation? And what would possess someone to make a career out of those things?
We sat down with Joshua Gunn, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to find out.
Gunn conducts research at the intersection of rhetorical and cultural studies, currently in pursuit of two, interrelated projects: the integration of psychoanalysis and rhetorical/textual theory; and a demonstration of the relevance and ubiquity of theological forms in public culture and daily life.
His latest published research has focused on the role of theological form, from the apocalyptic, occult, and paranormal to the mundane religiosity of the "theory wars" in the humanities. His teaching interests include courses in rhetorical theory and criticism, rhetoric and religion, and rhetoric and popular music.
Gunn recently published a book, “Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century” (2005, University of Alabama Press), and has also published in a variety of journals, including The Journal of Communication and Religion, Popular Music and Society, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Telos, Text and Performance Quarterly, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Visual Communication.
We asked Gunn a few (not-so-scary) questions about his fascinating area of expertise:
What led you to teaching about this topic?
The answer to this question depends on how far I go back in my personal history. If I were to stay in recent history, I started teaching a course on the paranormal and occult because I find the topic fascinating, of course, but also for pragmatic reasons. I’ll explain.
For my first job as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, I had to teach the courses of the person I replaced. One of them was titled “Rhetoric and Religion,” a course I would have never taught by choice. The more traditional or straightforward course about the discourse of religion engages the sacred texts of mainline religions and various theories for interpreting them. I found, however, that this risked Bible-battles in the classroom. During graduate work, I learned that when I or others taught about religious topics, students would sometimes get into verse battles with each other or challenge the teacher by quoting scripture. I just didn’t want to be on the defensive as a teacher, nor did I want my students to feel defensive about their faiths. After all, one’s religious convictions are often at the very core of her identity -- especially atheists.
Because I was finishing a book on occultism at the time, I decided I could still achieve the goals of the course -- cultivating a respect for different viewpoints, understanding the character of faith and how we talk about it, and so on -- by going at the topic slantwise. I soon realized that having students read about more unusual beliefs ironically helped them to maintain an open mind. Then, at the end of the course, I ask students to think about how strange their beliefs actually are. Yes, Whitley Strieber’s alien abduction story is very strange; however, so is the narrative of the deity who came to earth for the purpose of being tortured to death. Students really seem to dig this approach -- the devoutly religious, especially. I teach courses on celebrity culture, popular music and rhetorical theory. My course on the supernatural and paranormal has been and remains the most popular. I think that popularity says something about the purchase of the supernatural in our culture and, more specifically, two persistent human obsessions: mortality and the problem of evil.
So, I teach about these topics because I find it is a great way to reach students for the sake of the “bigger picture.” And, of course, owing to our longings for immortality, the supernatural intrigues people because it flirts with some confirmation of life after death. In the end, the supernatural and paranormal are implicated in religious belief. These topics seem tangential, and are often culturally coded that way, but I think they are in fact central to the “big questions” of life.
Now, if we go way back in personal history, my interest in researching and teaching on these topics is rooted in childhood. I grew up in an evangelical church that taught young people that any interest in the supernatural and occult was “of the devil,” even that one could be possessed by seeing a horror film or enjoying heavy metal music. I believed in spiritual warfare until my early or mid-teens (cars and sexual awareness were the route of my growing doubt). So, part of my interest concerns wrestling with my own “demons,” deep-seated fears about what I once thought was a supernatural force, but now believe is essentially human: evil. Popular culture narratives about the paranormal, supernatural and so on help us, as a culture, to work through the stark and often disheartening realities of adulthood, as well as help us to craft something or someone else to blame (aliens, the devil, reanimated deceased pets, the in-laws). I think working through is good, and that’s how I teach material on the supernatural and paranormal. Still, as much as the spooky stuff represents a culture working through its traumas, it can also be used for harm and displace responsibility (e.g., did the devil really make you do it? Is the person you want to execute really possessed by a supernatural force?). Too much concrete evil is done in the name of fighting an abstract evil. As a species, humans routinely turn other people into monsters. It makes them easier to kill. This is the ugly side of the supernatural, and that needs to be taught as well.
Was this something you studied before or after you became a professor?
Perhaps because the paranormal, occult, and so on were taboo in my youth, I’ve always found these topics interesting, but I did not formally study them until graduate school, however, and mostly as topics for term papers.
What really pushed me to start writing and publishing about these topics was the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Many journalists in the mainstream news media were reporting the gunmen were practicing Satanists or occultists; I noticed an explosion of discourse on the Internet (at that time, newsgroups were big) about demonic forces, the apocalypse, and so on connected to the shootings. Most of these sorts of claims turned out to be patently false, and I wanted to understand the larger, cultural processes that set them into circulation. Why was the claim that the gunmen were practicing Satanists credible in the first place? That’s an interesting cultural question to me. As a communication scholar in a college anchored by a journalism school, I know a little bit about how journalists are trained; that a journalist would publish that sort of thing says as much about our culture as it does the journalist.
Since that time, the best answer I’ve come up with to questions like these is simply this: We have a rather large vocabulary for discussing good things. We have a very poor and limited vocabulary for discussing the negative -- for discoursing on evil. Television shows, movies, and stories about strange goings-on are, in some sense, a kind of cultural compensation for this poor vocabulary. Or, alternately, these have become our vocabulary for giving expression to that which we fear and have difficulty talking about. In this respect, the occult, supernatural, and paranormal are a kind of poetics, a human striving to make sense something ineffable that we all feel but cannot name.
Do you incorporate horror/subculture studies into your classes? For example, do you assign your students horror movies to watch for homework?
Yes, but just for my paranormalism course (“Rhetoric and Religion”). The class covers the topics of spiritualism and psi phenomena, demonic possession, apocalyptic cults, and alien-abduction narratives. I don’t require students to watch the films (they are, after all, scary), but I suggest if they can bear it, they should see “The Legend of Hell House,” “The Exorcist,” and “Close Encounters” before the appropriate week, because I draw examples from these films (and many others). Films are profoundly important for providing the collective imagination with images that circulate and, in a way, anchor narratives about the supernatural.
For kids today, Halloween is all about dressing up and trick-or-treating. What else should they know about the holiday? What are its origins?
I am going to assume by “kids,” you are not referring to anyone’s age. Halloween is precisely a holiday for kids, especially the middle-aged! I’ll come back to this.
A lot has been written about the date of Halloween, its links to various harvest festivals (Samhain) and so forth. What a lot of folks don’t know is that, like a lot of things imported to the United States, we have made Halloween our “own.” We know the celebration comes to us from the Irish and Scots, which may explain why Halloween was originally a class affair. David Skal, in his 2002 book on Halloween (“Death Makes a Holiday”), argues the holiday has a lot to do with class division. The Great Depression ended the largely upper-crust practice of ladies carving pumpkins and getting glimpses of their future beloveds at midnight when disgruntled, rock-throwing youngsters started “tricking” them. As Skal tells it, in New York City and related areas in the northeast, it became common practice for poor kids to beg for change on Thanksgiving. For some reason, the previously generous upper classes stopped giving handouts, and the “ragamuffins” started pranking and vandalizing rich folks’ homes. The story goes that the more well-to-do got the idea to open their homes on the night of the pranks, feeding the young people apples and cider and so forth to avoid vandalism. Offer a treat, or you’ll get tricked -- and how! The practice drifted toward October over time. Of course, that’s just an explanation for the practice of trick-or-treating, and a lot more feeds into the way the holiday evolved to the way it exists for us today.
Regardless, I think the class-based tension underlying the holiday is still with us, both in terms of its association with the working class, but also psychologically. On what other day is a young person empowered to demand a gift? It’s the only holiday I can think of when a young person -- the most disempowered of almost all cultures -- gets the upper hand on the grown-ups. This power play is part of the joy, and perhaps why so many of us “regress” to our childlike selves when celebrating the holiday, or when reliving it through our children’s eyes. It’s the same dynamic that makes Maurice Sendak’s children’s books so enjoyable to children-kids and adult-kids alike: Max, denied dinner, becomes King of the Wild Things and commands all of them to have a “rumpus!”
Have you ever witnessed an exorcism/demonic possession?
Yes, many times. Bob Larson, the head of the Spiritual Freedom Church in Denver and the most visible exorcist of the Deliverance Movement (an off-shoot of Pentecostalism), routinely holds weekend seminars and forums in cities across the country in which he exorcizes people. Many of the seminars and forums are free and open to the public, and I’ve been to number of the forums in which he exorcized people. For a fee, you can also take a class to learn how to do it yourself. I’ve not taken a class because I’m cheap. Still, it’s quite something to witness -- folks behave much like the possessed do in Hollywood films. Notably, the exorcisms are much less profane than the ones often portrayed in films. The possessed rarely drop a curse word.
I was once contacted by a student who believed she was possessed; we had a very unusual series of email exchanges and phone conversations. I gave her the name of a Shaman who performs exorcisms in town, as well as encouraged her to seek medical attention. I also contacted her dean, who got in touch with her parents. It turned out she was schizophrenic and had gone off her meds.
I mention the Larson exorcism and the woman who contacted me together for a reason. Many people have asked me if I believe in demonic possession. Personally, I am an agnostic on the issue of angels or demons. But really, what I believe is beside the point. The fact is that people do believe that they are possessed, and they are seeking help. Someone who reaches out for help is someone who can be helped. I don’t doubt that those who have exorcisms feel better, or that some are moved to happier lives. And that’s why I offered the troubled woman my Shaman contact. I admit, as an educator and as a person, my preference is psychotherapy and psychiatrics for possession cases. Even so, most therapists will tell you that you do not help someone who believes she is possessed by denying her reality. For the possessed, the demon is real, and one must start with that assumed reality.
Do you have personal stories of experiences with ghosts, hauntings, etc.?
Yes, but I’m always the reticent, open-minded-but-skeptic in these stories. Because my interest in the supernatural and occult is as a cultural critic, I tend to “read” stories of hauntings or alien sightings as the manifest narrative for something else. For example, a man contacted me once pleading for help concerning his haunted house. There was a persistent feeling of dread, strange noises, bursting light bulbs and so on. I usually do not get involved with those who contact me for help regarding this sort of thing. Other than listen to these stories, what I usually end up doing is providing contacts to paranormal investigators (there’s more than one ghost-hunting group in town), which I did for this man. After a second conversation, however, I suspected the haunting was about a marriage on the rocks. Still, I put him in contact with a local paranormalist and that was that. I tend to pull out of invitations to “investigate” the paranormal on a first-hand basis; it’s just outside of my domain of expertise. Because I think so much of this is psychological in origin -- that is, because I tend to believe there is a secular explanation -- getting involved would require a scientific or medical training that I do not have.
I will say, however, there are many times in my life I have been “spooked,” especially as a young person. I used to get “night terrors” as a kid, and although in retrospect I know my hallucinations (of seeing demons, ghosts, and so forth) were psychological or biological or what have you, that did not make the experiences any less terrifying. That we all experience terror or feelings of panic is one of the reasons stories of the supernatural have such a common purchase. We can all relate to the feelings these stories inspire, and they can anchor and validate our personal experiences. It is often comforting to have a label and explanation for an intense feeling of fear, dread, or shock.
Has your perspective on all this changed since you started a career in this field?
Absolutely. Just like any profession, academics can be hardheaded and just as closed-minded as the most dogmatic, religious zealot. When I started researching in this area (focused mostly on popular culture -- films, books, and so forth), I was told indirectly and -- sometimes directly -- that taking the supernatural, occult, and paranormal seriously was a “career destroyer” and a waste of time. In part, that attitude is the legacy of a very long and often bloody history of freethinkers trying to make sense of the world without persecution (Galileo, for example, was accused of practicing witchcraft).
Thankfully, that attitude has changed a lot since I entered the academy over a decade ago, but it still remains. Research on the supernatural is sometimes described as a waste of time, or trivial, or of interest to marginal publics. Recently, outside forces, mostly political, have been critical of academics studying this kind of thing as opposed to, say, something better suited to the marketplace (vocational and professional topics). But these attitudes are precisely backwards: Who isn’t intrigued by things that go bump in the night? And why are we intrigued? Cultural narratives about the supernatural and occult permeate our culture, providing not only enjoyment but also meaning for many, many people. The supernatural does things for people, helps them make sense of the world, it helps them interrogate themselves, and, sadly, it helps them demonize others. Isn’t that worth studying?
I think we need to continue examining our superstitions and fears and how we choose to represent them because doing so tells us something about “human nature.” Representations of the supernatural can evoke powerful emotions in us and are more influential than many folks realize. For example, after Sept. 11, President Bush delivered a number of addresses to the nation that utilized the language of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is a growing belief system among many Christian faiths. The core idea is that demons exist among us and possess people. In many of Bush’s Sept. 11 speeches, the “terrorists” are described as demons or possessed with demonic forces, and whether it was accidental or deliberate, the fact remains that an analysis of those speeches shows an exorcist-like narrative of purging a foreign body of its evil. I think that supernatural beliefs influenced, or at the very least justified, foreign policy. Why should we study the practice of exorcism? My answer is that it tracks a form of discourse that justified war.
Incidentally, this discourse has not left the political scene. The much discussed “Day of Prayer” headlining Texas Governor Rick Perry was sponsored by the Texas Apostolic Prayer Network, a group that is at the forefront of the spiritual warfare movement. Whatever Perry’s political beliefs, the fact remains that the rhetoric of demonology is in our political discourse, often indirectly or at a barely noticeable level. But it’s there. It’s not just “at the movies.”
What impact have media (film, TV, books, etc.) had on public perception of the supernatural?
Well, I think the assumption of the question is a false one; publics are constituted by “media.” A public does not exist without mediation.
But in the spirit of the question: Because I tend to think about the occult, the supernatural, the paranormal, and related “spooky” things are fundamentally based in image and narrative, the media have been central -- they are the force of impact! The story here is one of circulation.
Many 19th and early 20th century thinkers prophesied the end of superstition (even religion), but that has not come to pass (and I don’t think it will). Rather, we’ve seen an explosion of interest in the supernatural, the emergence of new religious beliefs, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories. This has to be, in part, a consequence of the speed of information flow, the way in which the speaker and screen can distribute a singular image to millions upon millions of ears and eyeballs at once. Stories move quickly and can engender widespread belief before any critical apparatus can come into play (e.g., “fact-checking” what politicians say in a debate, for example). Lived experience is an increasingly collective one. This entails all sorts of things, not the least of which is the erosion of the trust in authorities, a person (or institution) who can say “that is false” or “President Obama is a U.S. citizen.” The democratization of information entails a price; one of them has been a resurgence of belief in the paranormal and supernatural. As images and stories circulate to more and more communities, certain images can become ubiquitous and stay in one’s mind. An image, such as that of the World Trade towers in smoke, can come to represent and anchor as “real” the belief that Satan’s reign on earth has begun.
I realize this all rather abstract, so let me use a concrete example -- a pre-Internet example, the 1973 film “The Exorcist.” In his book “American Exorcism,” Michael W. Cuneo shows how, prior to the film, it was very rare for the Catholic Church to authorize an exorcism. After the film, the practice steadily grew. The film’s overriding message of a spiritual battle between good and evil was so powerful that it ended up providing a vocabulary (and diagnosis, really) for making sense of the cultural malaise of the ‘70s. It was powerful enough to inspire the Deliverance movement -- the practice of “amateur” exorcisms and, I would argue, the spiritual warfare movement. Before that film, folks simply didn’t know how the possessed behaved. Before that film, certain folks didn’t have demonic possession as a possible, spiritual explanation for this or that self-destructive behavior (remember, in the film, the mother pursues every possible medical explanation before she goes to the Church). It’s interesting to note here that when Bob Larson holds his seminars or freedom forums, he often shows a videotape of himself performing an exorcism on someone, a sort of preview of what is to come. It makes for good theatre, but it also makes for good priming. After the audience views the video, they know how to act possessed -- or at least, an unconscious part of them knows.
That said, mass media, broadly construed, have the biggest impact today on beliefs concerning the supernatural (or anything, really); without the circulation made possible by contemporary media technologies, folks wouldn’t be on the same page -- or better, image or sound -- about da spook.