133: Horror Movies As Spiritual Practice
December 22, 2017 6 a.m.
Episode 133: Horror Movies As Spiritual Practice
For some, cinemas are churches and for Katherine Buffington movies can provide a foundation for spiritual practice. She looks to "Star Wars" and more fully to horror movies as spiritual practice. Find out what horror movies from "Beetlejuice" to "Alien" to "It Follows" can tell us about how to live our lives. And don't worry, no spoilers about "The Last Jedi."
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Related Story: Podcast Episode 133: Horror Movies As Spiritual Practice
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another edition of listener’s supported KPBS Cinema Junkie Podcast. I’m Beth Accomando.
The holidays are upon us so what better time to think about spirituality. For some of us movie theaters are like churches, they’re places of worship, holy shrines where we sometimes have transcendent experiences. The New Star Wars film The Last Jedi just opened and it restored my faith in the Force as something spiritual that anyone can tap into. No need for those ridiculous midi-chlorians that George Lucas described in his prequels. And those prequels they tested our faith, they represented the dark times that Star Wars fans had to suffer through.
We had to deal with questions about why we still believed but most of us remain true to the Force even if we questioned the wisdom of its creator. But our reward has been a new trilogy and a new standalone film that have brought us out of the dark times and into the light. But Star Wars movies are not the only source of spirituality in the movies and that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
I was raised Catholic but I must confess I hadn’t been in a church for decades. So when a friend sent me information about a sermon at a Unitarian Church and suggested I go, I hesitated. But then I saw the topic of the sermon horror movies as spiritual practice. And the woman giving the sermon, Katherine Buffington, was a geek like me but one with a lot more impressive credentials.
In addition to making geeky crafts projects and engaging in role-playing games things he might leave off her resume. She has a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies where she did research centered around the Japanese feminist movement and modern manga. She’s written an interactive fiction novel that combines classic ninja manga and movie tropes and she teaches popular culture criticism as part of her composition classes at Palomar College. All this led me to put aside my fears and distaste for organized religion. And on October 22nd I stepped back into a church.
I have to admit I was surprised that instead of traditional hymns I was treated to a zombie song to open the service.
Then Katherine Buffington began her sermon with this, horror movies teach us that you never ever go into the basement alone without a flashlight. Horror movies teach us that if you want to survive you need to live a virtuous life. Horror movies teach us that you shouldn’t buy haunted real estate, no matter how good the deal, just don’t. Horror movies teach us that you should never ever split up from the group. Horror movies teach us that evil is an undeniable presence in our lives and horror movies teach us that fear is a lifelong condition – one that must be conquered so it will not consume us.
Ever since I became a Unitarian universalist I’ve been puzzled by the lack of discourse around topics of fear and evil. Initially I attributed this desire of many new congregations to distance themselves from a more traditional fire and brimstone brand of religious discourse. Fear after all, is it often a symbolic tool of the more patriarchal obey at all costs mindset that some institutions use to cement social conservatism.
Fear has taken a front seat in much of our political discussion these days and fear is a value that is aligned with the sort of political power that we find repugnant. Machiavelli tells us that it’s ideal for a leader to both be feared and respected. But in the event that the leader can’t have both fears is the more ideal choice because it is a constant of the human condition.
So perhaps it’s logical that modern UUs avoid talking about fear and evil and spend our time thinking about how to fight it instead. But constantly fighting a faceless presence or an ideology as tiring, lately fear and evil have felt like constant companions, dealing with them is draining and this feeling couples with shame, shame at admitting exhaustion or ignoring the problems that cause fear and doubt. The most important way I’ve come to deal with the existence of fear and evil is through horror movies.
Beth Accomando: Okay I was hooked. I wanted to know more and I wanted to invite her on my podcast to talk more about this notion of horror movies as spiritual practice. But since we met for the interview on the day the last Jedi opened, I decided we needed to chat just a little bit about Star Wars as spiritual practice. But fear not, no spoilers about the new film.
Audio clip – Just me, now reach out, what do you see? Light, darkness, a balance.
Star Wars has been in our pop culture since 1977 and this notion of the Force seems primed for incorporating into spiritual practice.
Katherine Buffington: Absolutely.
Beth Accomando: And you’re Star Wars fan. So what is this meant for you?
Katherine Buffington: Oh, it’s such a treat to see that the new films are fantastic. When it comes to spirituality I have a friend who used to joke with me that she didn’t go to church but every Sunday they watched one of the Star Wars Movies.
And I always think about that in the way that The Jedi order, in particular, how their costumes and their techniques as much as we see them in the films, mirrors, meditation practice and some Buddhist and Shinto philosophies now it draws on mythology from all over the world. And it’s a wonderful amalgam of all these things and when you sit in that theater and you see it for the first time, oh it’s like my heart sings, it’s amazing.
Beth Accomando: And I mean, is that something you see that fans kind of incorporate, I mean, after the first trilogy it felt like there was this real sense that what the Force was – was this thing where anyone could tap into it and it had this sense of, kind of, unlimited potential but without ignoring the fact that there was also a danger of evil.
Audio clip – Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. ..
Katherine Buffington: Well, there are people who do try to practice the Jedi lifestyle. It’s a real thing to them. I think it’s a wonderful metaphor that it works so well on so many levels for so many different types of people. If you think about it, it could be a Divine Force. It could be something in need to human beings or in this case all people in the Star Wars galaxy.
But the idea that there is a Force greater than ourselves whether it’s God or God’s plural or some higher plane of reality that we can reach through our own will power, that’s a really salient idea that dates all the way back to Renaissance humanism, if you want to think of it like that.
Beth Accomando: For me the first trilogy is the one that I tapped into in terms of this notion of the force and I have to say that when the first prequel came out The Phantom Menace and they introduced that notion of the midi-chlorians.
Audio clip – I’ve been wondering…what are midi-chlorians? Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life form that resides within all living cells. They live inside of me? Inside your cells, yes and we are symbionts with them. Symbionts? Life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force.
Beth Accomando: It made me go, wait a minute that’s not what I was thinking it was all about. Did that kind of jarred for you a little bit?
Katherine Buffington: Definitely and honestly like many fans I know my ideas that never happened. It was a hiccup. It was like an outtake that somehow weaseled its way into the film, I don’t know. But yeah that does take away from it in some major way that I think is greatly detrimental to the universe as a whole. I wish, yeah I wish George Lucas had thought that through a little bit more clearly. Maybe he wanted to make this more firmly science fiction…
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Katherine Buffington: …and a little less of the spiritual perhaps but that’s the Star Wars universe is great power. Sure it’s science fiction and sure it’s a space opera. But I think it has so many other elements, you know, spiritual storytelling that pull from so many spheres that so many people adore and love and that resonate with them. And so by putting it more firmly in that one place perhaps I think that was a fatal error in some ways.
Beth Accomando: Now the reason I invited you to come on my podcast was I have probably not stepped into a church since I was married and then divorced decades ago. And I was raised Catholic. So you can’t shed that it’s always there. And a friend of mine forwarded a notice saying that oh there’s going to be a talk about horror movies as spiritual practice at a Unitarian Church here in San Diego. And I was okay this may be the thing that gets me to step foot back into a church. And I did, and so you gave a sermon on this. So how did that come about and in kind of what motivated you?
Katherine Buffington: Well, first of all, I want to thank you for coming back. I, honestly I was like you for a long time. I wasn’t raised Catholic but I was raised Christian and my parents made a huge falling out about it at some point. And for a long time stepping into a religious building made me feel almost physically ill. I was – I felt very alienated from that even though there were many good things about Christianity in many ways.
But when I joined the Unitarians as you know they were very progressive denomination. They – one of their pitches is like we welcome everyone agnostics, atheists, people of all religious faith, traditions. And so when we joined I thought oh wow, maybe this is a place where people would like to think about the way that I came back to spirituality or any kind of religious thought which was really through pop culture.
I think there were – I think particularly of Six Feet Under as a show that made me start thinking about religious practice and what I hadn’t before as when we see one of the characters, main characters David Fisher trying to reconcile his sexual or his sexual identity with his religious identity.
Audio clip – Why does being a deacon mean so much to you now? It wasn’t even a consideration for you a week ago.
I know you think it’s naive but I see it as a chance to make a difference, make the world just a little more tolerant.
David, we have our own church in West Hollywood which means the other churches and dioceses don’t have to tolerate us.
Frankly, I resent the notion that I need to be tolerated.
So, what, we should just allow ourselves to be ghettoized?
Why do you embrace an organization that doesn’t embrace you?
The church embraces everyone.
Oh yeah right, hate the sin, love the sinner, the operative word being “hate”.
What is with you? The other night you said you liked the idea.
I had a chance to think.
Katherine Buffington: The way that was written was so meaningful to me. I hadn’t ever considered stepping back into a church or a religious setting in that way. And I started paying attention in other contexts and wondering what messages was I missing perhaps and because pop culture is my great love in life, in one of the many actually, but that was where my primary source was. As for this sermon itself, I’d become a worship associate which basically is somebody who helps run the services and kind of organize things and do the shorter readings at the beginning in the end.
And in the summers, we usually have a series of guest speakers so that our minister can take some time to recharge and study and so forth. And I almost as a joke at one point, at one of the worship associate meetings said “Oh I’d like to do a talk about horror movies.” And our minister’s face kind of lit up and she said “That’s the best idea.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And so it didn’t work out that I think by the time I’ve thought of this we were full for the summer. But then she said well why don’t you do it in October it makes sense then. It’s close to Halloween and it’s fantastic and we do have a Halloween itself, we have a really lovely Day of the Dead Celebration that I enjoy very much. But that’s how it came about.
Beth Accomando: Now, you specifically talk about horror movies as spiritual practice. So what was it that made you focus on that genre?
Katherine Buffington: Well as I put it in the sermon, one time back in fires in 2007, this was the time of great stress. I mean our houses weren’t in danger but it was scary and on the Friday morning of the seven week that we had off work that nobody wanted. My husband turned to me and he said I can’t, I can’t take the news anymore, I can’t, like we can’t wait around. And I said well let’s go see a movie and we went and we saw a 30 Days of Night, not a great film. I love it but I acknowledged that it’s not the best of any, of anyone. And no offense to 30 Days of Night Fans, I’ve heard the comic is much better.
But when we came back from that my mother said, “Oh, did you see a movie?” and I said, “Yes.” And she said, “What did you see?” And I told her and her jaw dropped and she looked at me and she said, “Why would you see that?” And thinking about the answer to that question I began to wonder, why had we wanted to see fictional scares when there was a real life horror all around us. It had fixed something inside of me and I guess I hadn’t recognized that need until I went and saw it. And so that was the jumping-off point and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. And yeah that was really how we got started with that.
Beth Accomando: So what is, kind of, the fundamental underpinning of this notion of horror a spiritual practice? What, kind of, when you sat down to write that sermon, what was kind of the thing that crystallized that said like all right this is the point where I have to start to explain to these people who may not know anything about the points of reference I’m making?
Katherine Buffington: Yeah. I think horror films allow us to deal with fear in an abstract setting where we have a great amount of control. When you’re watching at home you can pause it, you can get up, you can go get snacks, you can turn it off, you can turn on more lights, you can have fewer lights, you can snark at it with your friends, you can do anything.
And even when you’re in the theater okay, maybe you went on opening night and its super crowded but then you’re with a big group of people and that is some of the most enjoyable movie going experiences that I think we can ever have, right? That we were in there and everyone is feeling the same emotions and people are reacting and it’s – it becomes this primal type of storytelling that we don’t get quite as much anymore. I really don’t, I mean this Star Wars is a great example of a collective story that many people are aware of and talk about in great detail. But shorter stories and horror movies in particular they allow us to have that shared experience of that primal kind of storytelling in a very healthy way.
Beth Accomando: And how does that translate into spiritual practice? I mean, most people think of spiritual practice as, oh you know, going to church or participating in certain kind of organized things as part of the religious practice and having the sense of morality or guidelines or rules. So, how do those horror movies then translate into a kind of spiritual practice?
Katherine Buffington: Well, obviously you don’t have to sit and meditate. You don’t have to get your rosary out after you watch a horror film. There’s nothing, it’s very much on your own terms which it appeals to me as a person who’s, I don’t want to say recovering but appeals to me as a person who comes from a deeply rooted place of skepticism.
All right, and so for me the spiritual practice involving horror movies, involves being close to other people, it involves confronting fears that I have and sometimes I know exactly what they are and going into it. I know what this is going to be and I’m going to concentrate on drawing strength from seeing another person overcome those fears. And other times I don’t know and it surprises me. And there’s a wonderful part I think Jewish tradition emphasizes us a lot but you have to be comfortable with being made uncomfortable. And there’s – that’s what horror movies are meant to do, you are not supposed to be comfortable.
And so, how you make that into a spiritual practice is really up to you. Usually what I do, I think about it a lot afterwards. I try to write about it, I try to say what can I learn from that if I didn’t like it how come or if it provokes extreme emotional reaction into me. I try to get to a quiet place with that in my mind and examine what was actually happening. And if I went and saw with a bunch of friends we talked about it, we might laugh about it, we might make fun of parts of it and really even snarking. It’s something I think has tremendous power, pointing out ridiculousness in things that frighten us makes them less hold on us and anything that does that is always good.
Beth Accomando: So if we were to look at maybe your conventional, your typical slasher film.
Audio clip – On a June night in 1980 Friday the 13th, 12 of her friends were murdered. Why should Friday the 13th 1981 be any different...Friday the 13th Part II the body count continues 14.
If you look at something like that, are you getting a lesson from that or can you find some commandment in that? Is there some sense of something that communally we can draw on and learn from that experience?
Katherine Buffington: Absolutely. So there’re two things that happened. I think in a conventional slasher film. First of all, there is a very black-and-white morality that usually pervades the whole story. The idea that, if you do bad things you suffer for them. And viewers are welcome to take away from that what they will very often when I think of slasher films, I think of the old East Sea horror comics, like Vault of Horror the Tales from the Crypt. Where we see like this very much if you – this Pagan or Wiccan idea that if you do evil it comes back to you threefold. And so on one hand there’s this very obvious morality lesson for you.
But then there’s also this collective purging of bad emotions right there. And Aristotle talks about this in his work on rhetoric specifically on drama. Where he talks about a good drama and for him this is Greek tragedy which has a lot in common with modern slasher films in my opinion not entirely but quite a lot. But where the – there’s a sense of a building of unclean thoughts. And then by participating communally in this tragedy you get to this this moment of catharsis or purgation where you’re able to purge those bad thoughts.
And so in a Slasher film typically we have kind of a combination of horror and mystery where who is the killer, what is his or her motive usually his but sometimes her. If it’s a torture porn movie what diabolical ways will hurt the characters, how do we feel about those characters but we usually build towards some kind of resolution. And hopefully at the end of that I think in a good horror film, we have some moment of closure that we don’t otherwise get. Real-life stories aren’t that clean. But in a horror film you have a moment we’re like okay it’s over now and it’s clear or maybe sometimes filmmakers go for the got you ending where jump scare it’s not but even so you’ve had that moment of catharsis and it’s a really wonderful experience. The slasher films are kind of on a simple plane it’s true.
Then they’re not – there’s not a lot of complexity. You can read things into them but there is this clarity to who is good and who is bad, very clear responses to what these films are.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: There’s some other science fiction in horror which becomes – where ideas become a little more complex. One film that you mentioned that you liked is the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Audio clip – Doctor, will you tell these fools I’m not crazy. Make them listen to me before it’s too late. Listen to me! Please listen! If you don’t, if you won’t, if you fail to understand, then the same incredible terror that’s menacing me will strike at you!
They come from another world, spawned in the light years of space unleashed to take over the bodies and souls of the people of our planet – bringing a new dimension in terror to the giant ‘superscope’ screen!”.
Whatever intelligence or instinct it is that can govern the forming of human flesh and blood out of thin air is, fantastically powerful, beyond any comprehension.
Beth Accomando: So what does this film say to you?
Katherine Buffington: Oh this film plays on the universal human fear of being the last person or being the only, the only one in a group. I love this movie, I love it despite its flows, it’s very much of its time but it’s so beautifully shot that some of the scenes are so eerily and perfectly composed. And the speeches that the villains give, that the Others give, and I want to use that Other with a capital O, right? The Others who’ve been taken over by the pods and made into these emotionless creatures and one of them has this line about this town was a place that where people with problems lived.
Audio clip – Then, out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer’s field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life.
So that’s how it began...out of the sky.
Your new bodies are growing in there. They’re taking you over cell for cell, atom for atom. There is no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep, they’ll absorb your minds, your memories and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.
Where everyone’s the same?
What a world. We’re not the last humans left. They’ll destroy you.
Tomorrow you won’t want them too, tomorrow you’ll be one of us.
I love Becky. Tomorrow will I feel the same?
There’s no need for love.
No emotion? Then you have no feelings, only the instinct to survive. You can’t love or be loved! Am I right?
You say it as if it were terrible. Believe me, it isn’t. You’ve been in love before. It didn’t last. It never does. Love. Desire. Ambition. Faith. Without them life so simple believe me.
I don’t want any part of it.
You’re forgetting something, Miles.
You have no choice.
Katherine Buffington: And there’s this wonderful push-pull between that desire, we have to not worry about things, to not have those problems and the fear that by not worrying about those problems we lose something important in ourselves. That story is just so perfect and I think it’s held up well. And it’s re-telling but I really got to say that original is where it’s at and beautiful black and white it’s fantastic.
Beth Accomando: Well to me, it gets to a very core fear I have maybe it’s not specifically spiritual but the most terrifying thing in horror is loss of identity.
Katherine Buffington: Yes, absolutely.
Beth Accomando: And that gets right to that issue.
Katherine Buffington: Well and there’s a spiritual side to that too. We live in a very individualistic society and for better or for worse and in most cases for better but the idea then that we could lose what makes us, us. What makes us not I hesitate to use the word special because it’s been overused and overdone so much but what makes us uniquely our sense of self is very important. And the idea that losing that is a possibility a stink possibility even a fictional context is enough to shake a lot of people to their spiritual core. What are you going to do if you are not you? What if you are part of that hive automaton mind. That’s very eerie and unfathomable for most of us.
Beth Accomando: Well and that kind of dovetails into a particular horror film I love which are zombie films.
Katherine Buffington: They give me panic attacks. I have to say it’s very funny that I ended up doing this sermon because I think in many ways I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to horror film. I have a sweet spot a genre I love. But zombie films I watched 28 days later and it gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards. But I can see what a powerful film it is. It’s so eerie all the shots of London and at first thing that light, that beautiful sunlight they got by shooting. I think they were like at 4:00 am in the morning or something but to see him completely solitary, wandering through the city and then the shock of encountering the infected. That scene, that opening scene is just terrifying in so many ways and yes.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: Then see my terror comes from a different perspective on that which is that loss of identity.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: So for me zombie films epitomize kind of the things I fear the most which is the combination of the thing – the monster could be someone you knew.
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Katherine Buffington: You know, here’s something coming at you that could have been your parents, your kid, your best friend.
Beth Accomando: Oh yes.
Katherine Buffington: And then the other side of that is if you become a zombie how aware are you of what you’re doing?
Beth Accomando: Exactly.
Katherine Buffington: And how – what’s your ability to stop what you’re doing. And, you know, recently we’ve had this trend of what is called the self-aware zombie which are zombies they are, kind of, know who they are let start it with Bob and Dave of the Dead where, he’s kind of getting, he holds a book and suddenly you see like, oh maybe he’s remembering, what he was. And recently we’ve had a comic version of that Warm Bodies.
Audio clip – What am I doing with my life? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh right, it’s cause I’m dead. I wish I could introduce myself, but I don’t remember my name. I think it started with an R that’s all I have left. It’s kind of a bummer. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I mean, we’re all dead. This is my best friend. We even have almost conversations sometimes. They call these guys bonies. They’ll eat anything with a heartbeat. I mean, I will too but at least I’m conflicted about it.
Beth Accomando: That to me gets to the same kind of core ideas Invasion of the Body Snatcher Safely.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: It’s a different context but it’s still this notion of it’s your body.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: You look like you but you no longer are doing the things that you would want to have control over.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly. And you’re combating terrible acts of violence.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: To boot or things that we find incredibly taboo like cannibals so for instance that and like I said there’s a lot of violence that Aristotle in his work if we could bring him forward in time, I think he would look her and say, oh yeah this is tragedy just jugs opposed and updated.
Beth Accomando: There’s another film that doesn’t deal with body snatching but is a film that built on something that’s very key to horror which is this notion of dread.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And It Follows.
Audio clip – This thing – it’s going to follow you. Somebody gave it to me, and I passed it to you back in the car. It could look like someone you know, or it could be a stranger in a crowd, whatever helps it get close to you. It can look like anyone but there’s only one of it. Help. Help.
Beth Accomando: There’s nothing really overt in it except for maybe the opening scene.
Katherine Buffington: The opening scene, yes.
Beth Accomando: Where there’s a gruesome bit of violence to kick it off and then there’s really nothing else except the dread of what might happen.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And so how does this play into your spiritual practice?
Katherine Buffington: That was fantastic! And I have to say that movie was so creepy and we talk about edge-of-the-seat entertainment. I think that one was I can’t take a breath entertainment because I was sitting in the theater and my hands were, I didn’t have weight knuckles but I was creeping the arms of the chair real hard and I got to keep thinking to myself like okay breathe, breathe. There’s one jump scare and the whole thing and that’s everything else is all this building, building sense of dread and it’s – oh it’s fantastic like recommend enough to anyone who hasn’t seen it it’s just wonderful.
As for spiritual stuff in that movie the idea that there is something wrong with you that is passed from person to person, this idea of a contagion. This metaphor, this can be just about anything. This can be an STI. This could be the wrong kind of ideas or ideologies. This could be vampirism. This can be werewolf stuff. This can be just about anything.
The idea that there is something inherently wrong in human contact that could come back to haunt us but this movie I thought the catharsis and it was just so intense. And it was a moment when we get to the final confrontation scene where I thought I was going to pass out. It was so intense. That movie was so terrifying that we got home and I told my husband. I said, “You need to go look upstairs” and he said, “By the logic of history and like no, go look upstairs. You have to check. I can’t handle it if there’s a tall man in my bedroom, I will freak out.” It was yes.
But I think the idea that was so potent in that and it’s obviously sexual contact in this movie that spreads this. But the idea that by doing something in consensually because both the main character was doing this of her own free will, out of her own desire by doing something that mistake would not be erased. And this television do a lot of people’s anxieties that and my own in the past that one mistake will come back to haunt you and you can’t erase. So you can’t go back in time. You can’t undo that particular thing and by contemplating that and putting in that extreme fictional setting. I think you start examining the idea that a mistake is that bad and saying to yourself, well perhaps not.
And part of spirituality and part of watching, horror movie, that’s spiritual practice. Conquering your own fear I think is one of the greatest things we can do in life because then we can move forward. We can get things done. You free up mental space that was being taken up by anxiety or depression or sad thoughts or phobias or fear and you have so much more energy to do great things with and so with it follows. You have an opportunity to examine a profoundly anxiety making primus. And then on multiple levels too, like on a personal – on a person-to-person level, on a political one and then say wait a minute, that automatic thought makes no sense.
Maybe I don’t have to keep thinking that or maybe I have to remember that this isn’t like some uninvited stranger in my house that’s going to try and mess with me because that thing has no power over me. That’s one of the greatest things about a film like that. But it gives you that chance. Very few things in life give you that chance. Then a lot of people don’t reach out and take it.
Well, and I think the way that film progress is because when it starts, you don’t really know anything. You don’t even know from the first if it’s transmitted sexually or…
Beth Accomando: It’s true. It’s true.
Katherine Buffington: And so that taps into because I think a lot of people today have this kind of unfocused anxiety where they are not – they can’t point to one think and say like I am only – it’s the fires or it’s the president or it’s the economy or…
Beth Accomando: Exactly.
Katherine Buffington: There’s this kind of unfocused sense of like oh things just aren’t feeling good.
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Katherine Buffington: And that film allowed this character to kind of delve into that...
Beth Accomando: Exactly.
Katherine Buffington: …as they’re trying to figure out what it is that is making them experience the sense of dread.
Beth Accomando: That’s true.
Katherine Buffington: The other thing I liked about that film was that the characters made smart choices for the most part. Sometimes one of the things we mark in horror film is like people making foolish decisions. I mean, extremely foolish or perhaps I would like to say very human decisions because a lot of people cannot live well enough alone, right? That’s one of our greatest flaws and strengths in one place. But, and it follows, I thought the characters made some very interesting decisions and very – ones that were logical and when they were motivated by fear I thought yeah that’s the choice I would make in that situation too. I’d be terrified in making bad decisions all over the place.
Katherine Buffington: And communal decisions.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: Because a lot of it had to do with a lot of times in horror films. You get the let’s split up.
Beth Accomando: Oh yeah.
Katherine Buffington: …kind of thing and this was a lot about these kids getting together and saying what can we do to help each other?
Beth Accomando: Exactly.
Katherine Buffington: How can we watch over each other and try to prevent this from getting any worse.
Beth Accomando: Yeah
Katherine Buffington: And for them to even try to confront the monster when we learn, all right I don’t want to say monster but maybe the force of this thing. Yeah there’s the Force again. But when they finally decide to confront this thing, we get the impression that other people haven’t even thought about that that they are maybe the first to try and sort out what it is exactly. What its weakness might be and that’s a really fascinating thing. And then of course our parting shot at the end, throw some ambiguity into whether or not they have succeeded but I still adore that movie. I probably can’t handle it again for a while but I still adore it. That’s how I feel about a lot of horror film. It’s not something I view over and over again but may be more commit at once I would but, it’s still a fantastic experience.
Beth Accomando: These films we’ve talked about so far were American films and this notion of passing something on comes up in the Japanese film, the Ring which was wildly popular based on a manga, it had multiple sequels and inspired I think there was a Korean version, American version. The notion is this that this videotape is the thing that spreads the contagion. And what I found really interesting in this race is some cultural issues, is that sorry for anybody who hasn’t seen the film. This is a little of a spoiler but the choice that’s made by a character at one point is the sense of we need to put it to an end and she decides to pass this on to somebody who’s like on their deathbed. And it’s this kind of sense of how do we resolve this in a way that does the least harm and it was like a different way of thinking of approaching a problem that I don’t think you’d seen in American film.
Katherine Buffington: It’s a very, so the first time I ever saw the Ring, it was in Japanese with no subtitles and my language abilities were about I like to say it was like at a fourth grade reading level but I could understand a lot. But this movie goes very fast and there’s lot of ambiguous dialogue in it. So, we were watching it with a Japanese friend of ours and we kept, we paused about every 20 minutes. And I’d say I would ask you a question, I’d be like what’s going on here. Why is that guy doing that thing? And she would always answer, she would say, “I don’t know I didn’t read the manga, I don’t know.” And I’d say, “Oh, okay.”
And so I was really mystified for a long time what. What was the scare factor in this other than our final – the monster, other than Sadako. He was undeniably very, very frightening looking. And it wasn’t until years later I was doing some research for in my master’s program and I realized that that’s story was based on an old Japanese folktale the Yotsuya Kaidan which has been retold I think some amazing number of times. I think it’s been retold. I want to say at least 40 or 50 times in different film settings. You know, it’s a popular stage play.
Imagine if a local, local urban legend like the Jersey Devil or the Chupacabra got the big screen treatment, like about every five years like this is how popular the story is. And you’ve probably if you’ve seen the [indiscernible] [00:41:06] of the samurai facing off against the lantern that that’s story too. So the idea a samurai has wronged this woman, and she depending on the version of the story you read, she either kills herself or he kills her and then her spirit does not rest.
She comes back to haunt him. She will not let go. And so the idea that this is a very animistic tradition because I think this is very reflective of the Shinto tradition as it stands that emotion is so great that it can scare a landscape or it can create something permanent that’s indiscriminately greater than itself. This explains why we have a Cursed Videotape. And so, I think to some American audiences or people who weren’t familiar with this religious practice they thought what. Just not watch the videotape or why not and who’s passing videotapes around anyway that kind of thing.
But it’s a wonderful film in that I think it challenges both your cultural preconceived notions of what’s scary. And it allows the viewer to kind of think okay this isn’t how I view horror but there is this idea that still really potent in another context and setting.
Beth Accomando: And I just like the way they resolved it again and...
Katherine Buffington: Yeah.
Beth Accomando: …to me it seemed like it was a different cultural take where Americans have a lot of like kill it, destroy it but this wasn’t the cycle.
Katherine Buffington: This was a way of thinking. Let me think of a way to end the cycle without hurting others.
Beth Accomando: Yeah it’s true, it’s true.
Katherine Buffington: And it was really that first Ring film was amazing.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, you mentioned this notion of contagion but and you mentioned it in relation to vampires. So one of your vampire films you like is the Coppola version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Katherine Buffington: I adore that movie. I love how ridiculously over-the-top it is. I love how the costumes are just in your face and I love Gary Oldman’s dracula. I think he is having so much fun.
Audio clip – Welcome to my home. Enter freely of your own will, and leave some of the happiness you bring. Count Dracula. I am Dracula, and I bid you welcome Mr. Harker, to my house. You will, I trust, excuse me that I do not join you but I have already dined and I never drink...wine.
Katherine Buffington: I adore him and I love it. They kept a lot of the lines from the novel in there. I even love Keanu as Jonathan Harker. I think he is perfect for that role. It’s really quite entertaining but yeah vampires are the ultimate blank slate. They can be whatever you want them to be. Dracula can be colonialism. He can be like a conquering like an impressive force. He can be – oh he can be disease, he can be raped. These are very sexual dimension of that story which some movies like to play up others just kind of ignore him.
And we look at all our different vampire narratives and the evolution of the vampire and we’ve gone from Nosferatu to, I hesitate to say sparkle player. I hope that is not a major stepping stone on our progression but yes I think that movie, although the ending is a little frustrating. I think that movie really gives the viewer an over-the-top invitation to the vampire mythos and it just keeps being in your face the whole time and it’s ridiculous and I love it.
Beth Accomando: Well, and Bram Stoker wrote this during the Victorian era which was all about repression and especially repression of sexuality for women.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: So, this notion of a creature like a vampire freeing you of your inhibitions was something that tapped into a particular chord at that time.
Katherine Buffington: Absolutely and when you look at the novel, in particular, there’s some really interesting passages particularly when Stoker is writing from Mina’s point of view or Lucy’s point of view. And he describe their repulsion at particularly Mina’s repulsion at seeing her friend become so open about her sexual desires and very, she uses the word “wanton”. This idea that women would actively pursue something is repulsive and apparently too many level for Stoker and its readers.
But one of my favorite parts of Dracula is that at one point when we know the Dracula’s in Mina’s room and something bad is going on there the male character stand around and argue about whether they should go into a lady’s room uninvited because that’s important. And in that moment we see the values of the time magnified against the horror of the story and I don’t think Stoker set out to be subversive but I think in that particular scene he nails it. He just nails it. It’s perfect and wonderful.
I want to give a plug here. If anyone hasn’t checked our Becky Cloonan’s illustrated edition of Dracula, you should absolutely look at it. She is a wonderful illustrator and she brings out the sensuality and the predatory nature of Dracula in her beautiful illustrations. So I can recommend that highly enough.
Beth Accomando: And what is a film like this or this notion of vampires. How does that tap into, kind of, a sense of moral values because it’s trying to tackle because of its origins are in Victorian era where there was this very strong sense of morality weighing down on people. And, so how does this kind of play into spiritual practice in the sense of both acknowledging that there are these like moral values and also suggesting that there is a reason to may be challenged them.
Katherine Buffington: Well that’s – oh I like that question, that’s really interesting. Well two things, let’s see. So part of the vampire metaphor that I really like is toxic people do exists and identifying them often is a moral imperative to us because we want relationships that are healthy. We don’t want – obviously people don’t want to end up in a bad situation or have a friendship that turns out to be just like somebody constantly trying to wound up you all the time and so part of that vampire mythos.
There’s a little sneaky underhanded in primer here for don’t go with a person who’s bad for you, and try to identify that person. But people don’t make the best decisions and so then the morality becomes how do we if or do we even have an obligation to save people from themselves and the decisions they make and can we save ourselves from the poor decisions that we make. And the vampire narrative gives us this in almost like in epic term because very often a vampire is immortal and many of them spent their time saying things like I wish I hadn’t done this but now I am stuck, right?
You have to think about interview with a vampire where you have these long-lived vampires who are – a couple of them are really doubting of that decision. They’re like, oh no, if only I hadn’t done this. There’s a wonderful manga that a Japanese comic that I love called Millennium Snow were the two main characters. One of them, the boy is vampire; and the girl, the main character is, she has a heart condition and she could die. She very much wants immortality and he says this is a curse and I don’t want to give it to you.
And so, even though they are very, very, very attracted to each other the story plays out with her saying, you could save my life and him saying I love you so much, I don’t want – I won’t wish this on anyone. And both of them trying to come to a place where they can accept the answer from each other and so from a modern spiritual standpoint, we might say what are the consequences of our decisions? Obviously none of us is immortal. None of us has to worry about living forever and getting bored and that kind of thing. But what if we make a bad decision? How long does it follow us again and we’re back to follows but all of these things swirl around the same idea. Human nature is to move forward for better for worse and if we make a bad decision. How do we deal with that? Who do we rely ourselves with? Who will help us the most going forward?
Beth Accomando: You’ve brought up mangas a few times and you were in Japan for a while. Mangas and anime have always fascinated me because unlike American animation or it’s been changing but basically American animation tends to have in their head it’s aimed for children.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And that it’s simplified and the message is kind of in the forefront. Japanese anime and mangas are not specifically aimed only at children.
Katherine Buffington: It’s true.
Beth Accomando: They’re aimed at a much broader audience and they tend to be, because I ran an anime and manga club in my son’s middle school. And what I loved about this is they brought up so much complexity. And they brought up some really fascinating ideas and talking about this reminds me of Death Note.
Katherine Buffington: Yes, yes.
Beth Accomando: Which – there’s a horrible American version out now but the original Japanese manga and the anime series. This notion of there’s a death notebook where if you write in it, you can basically foretell the death of someone. You can say and make it happen. You could make it happen and it can be way in the future or immediate and you can write specifics but the thing that’s interesting about it is the moral questions it raises because one of the characters is he is the son of a police officer.
Katherine Buffington: Yeah, he is the son of the officer-in-charge of investigating all of these mysterious deaths.
Beth Accomando: So he takes it – he finds this notebook and his initial response is what we would have like oh if we had the ability to ferret out these evil people who are getting away with murder literally we could do good in the world.
Katherine Buffington: It’s true.
Beth Accomando: And so that’s his starting point.
Katherine Buffington: But.
Beth Accomando: But then he becomes, kind of, pumped up with this god-like sense and it’s well just somebody who annoys me maybe.
Katherine Buffington: Yeah that’s the problem.
Beth Accomando: So the moral questions of that read, it’s not a conventionally horror genre the Death Note but it brings up ideas that are definitely horrific.
Katherine Buffington: Absolutely, absolutely. And one thing to keep in mind about manga and anime is that the attitudes that I encountered when I lived there was that it’s cheap thrill entertainment.
Beth Accomando: Yes.
Katherine Buffington: Yes, it’s written for adults or and some of it is obviously written for children. But many adults, they might read it on the train and they throw it out when they were done. I don’t think it has the kind of following the comics duo here in America. The other thing to keep in mind is that what is considered inappropriate to share with children is very different in Asia.
I was a little flabbergasted by some of the things I saw. One of the horror manga that I really love though and it is most definitely not for children is the work of Junji Ito. This guy, if he – if we could resurrect H. P. Lovecraft and make him lose all his races nonsense. These two men together would create a horror manga that would like end world. It would be so terrifying, we’d get a heart attack from just looking at it but Junji Ito was I think it is previous work, he was a dental hygienist and he came to manga a little bit later. He wasn’t – he didn’t take the usual career path but he writes these stories and he draws these things that have to do. There’s a lot of body horror and he nails body horror. He knows what makes people squirm.
But I think he also explores the horror of conformity or the idea that in order to be in a homogenous society, you have to lose a part of yourself. And when you start losing that stuff that makes you different or that makes you strong what happens. And so his works if you haven’t checked, if you haven’t read them, he’s done a lot of short stories. I would start with a horror of Amigara Fault which is all under statement and it is all about the pull of a bad decision.
In this case, a fatal decision or maybe not a fatal decision but it’s about that urge that we have to do what we know is incorrect coupled with the consequences of conformity and it’s – he’s great. And that’s floating around the internet but animated series of his works is coming out and I am excited and also thinking like oh no, oh no, oh no, but he’s, so he is creepy. And if you see Uzumaki, you have seen his work the manga called Spiral. I think it’s translated as Spiral. I would say Vertigo almost too but yeah that’s a particularly famous work and well worth checking out.
Beth Accomando: Thank god we could speak solely about anime and manga.
Katherine Buffington: Yes we could.
Beth Accomando: There’s another brilliant one that Monster I think was the title. I’m familiar with, I haven’t read it unfortunately.
Katherine Buffington: Well, the kind of the primus on that is what if you save someone who turns out to be a serial killer.
Beth Accomando: Oh, yeah.
Katherine Buffington: It’s, I think haven’t – I read it when it first came out and I believe what it was is there was a situation where there was a murder scene…
Beth Accomando: I see.
Katherine Buffington: …and a young child and they think the child is one of the victims and they take the person to the hospital, save them and it turns out that – the kid I think was the killer. But whatever turns out is the doctor has saved someone who turns out to do evil things. And again you have that moral question and the thoughts of if you could back and do it again.
Beth Accomando: Exactly.
Katherine Buffington: That’s what I really love about so much of the Japanese anime and mangas that it’s breezing these questions that prevent you from making quick simple decisions.
Katherine Buffington: It’s like a nice update of the EC horror, right? And I love EC but I notice it moves along very quickly whereas manga because of the way it’s published in the format and the serialization, you have more time to explore those issues and that’s really nicely done. I love that.
Beth Accomando: The stuff we’ve been talking about so far has been horror, horror.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: But there’s some light-hearted horror where if you don’t want to venture into some really morally complex ground or some gruesome horror, you could try something like Beetlejuice.
Katherine Buffington: Oh, Beetlejuice is the best. It’s a horror movie with training wheels. It has really frightening images. There’re some wonderful practical special effects in it but I think at its core it’s just the most loving heart. It’s so wonderful. This film made a strong impression on me as a child. There’s a moment where Lydia Deetz who’s moved into a house that turned out to be haunted. She’s varied and she is played by Winona Ryder in like full-on goth phase and she plays this very goth teenager, very disaffected.
Audio clip – I am utterly alone. By the time you read this I will be gone. Having jumped, having plummeted off the Winter River Bridge.
Katherine Buffington: And she’s been hinting for about half the film how she wants to kill herself. There’s her parents are, I think they’re very distant. They’re kind people but very self-centered and not. And she has issues but there’s a really wonderful moment in that movie that’s always stuck with me where the two resident ghosts, who she’s gotten to know, urge her not to commit suicide because death is not that great.
Audio clip – What’s going on? He told me that if I let him out, he would take me to the other side to find you. No Lydia, we’re dead. I want to be dead too. No! Lydia, being dead really doesn’t make things any easier. Listen to her this, Lydia. This is something we know a lot about.
Katherine Buffington: That heart is always stuck with me. That’s just such a – that message is so persuasive and so real and there’s just so many funny moments in that movie. There’s the great use of music. Also, Danny Elfman is having the time of his life and then there’s a working scale model of the town that they live near that becomes like the source of so much comedy and I think that’s just a genius. And I would recommend that to people who are thinking well I don’t really like horror movies but I want to try it out.
Go slow, don’t see something that you know is going to bother you, it’s okay to be uncomfortable but don’t hit 11 right away, maybe start with a two that’s you don’t want to, get to the point where you can’t unsee things so yeah.
Now if we want to go the opposite direction. There’s also something like Alien oh that’s fantastic, I love that movie. And the advantage of that movie is that to me the horror is offset by the sheer bad-assness of Ellen Ripley. She is phenomenal and it often when I’m in a scary situation like she’s one of the names I run through I’m like what would Ripley do here.
Audio clip – Get away from her, you bitch!
Katherine Buffington: When you see a character like that particularly for me a woman but obviously your listeners will have people, characters they resonate with. When you see them confronting something terrifying and not backing down, not giving up that is one of the best spiritual moments for me because spiritual practice should give you strength.
We live in a very complicated world. There are many frustrations, many questions and sometimes even if you were the strongest person that you know sometimes you need a little bucking up and that’s okay to admit and by watching other people go through those same struggles you gain a little extra. All right you gain a little extra for yourself and that’s just fantastic, yeah.
Beth Accomando: So if you were to pick out maybe three films to recommend people as like a little primer, a little starter on your horror…
Katherine Buffington: That’s tough.
Beth Accomando: Yeah I know, anytime you have to narrow down.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: It’s always a difficult task but if somebody were to say like I’m not quite sure I get this notion of horror as spiritual practice where might you say, all right, how about you start here
Katherine Buffington: Okay.
Beth Accomando: And then come back and talk to me later.
Katherine Buffington: Well for starters, I think the best way to get into horror is to move kind of sideways from things that you already like. So if you really enjoy kind of high literature Regency Jane Austen, I’d recommend the others with Nicole Kidman since that’s a haunted house period film that’s just beautifully shot. And even if the scary parts of it make you jump, you can still look around and appreciate the craft of the storytelling as well.
If you love science fiction then you’re in luck there’re so much crossover. And I had a lot of people tell me after the sermon they said, “Oh, I would never watch a horror film.” But, and that’s fine if that’s not what you’re into, you don’t have to do this. On YouTube, there are many short horror films and I recommend seeing some of those, that’s a good way to get started if you don’t want to do an entire feature film. There’s one that’s the movie Lights Out was based on and the title of which unfortunately escapes me but it’s a two – it’s like a five-minute film. It’s supremely scary but it – and it just, but it’s such an example of compact efficient storytelling I recommend the heck out of that.
I would say if you haven’t seen Beetlejuice, I recommend you go there. I’d say start, if you’re really, really nervous maybe go to a classic comedy. The first movie, the first scary movie and I put scary in quotes that I plan to show my son who’s seven is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Because all the monsters are there, they have, you have some set up of like jump scares but there’s so much comedy. The whole scariness the whole thing is completely, completely offset and that’s probably where I would start.
Obviously I wouldn’t recommend showing your children, really terrifying things but you could also go to classic film. I feel like there are some films that to be culturally literate, it would help, Jaws is another good example of that. Because that movie completely changed the way we view the summer blockbuster. And even if you know you’re scared of the fake – admittedly very fake shark, you can appreciate this movie for the type of storytelling that we see. Now you can look, I think the human actors at it just do epic jobs. I really enjoy many parts of this film and it’s not ultimately so terrifying now.
I know some people said oh, I’ll never go in the water again. Well, I don’t think you have to worry about Jaws, happening as long as you’re careful, if you don’t do anything foolish. But the final film that I recommend to people is Get Out.
Audio clip – Sir, can I see your license please? Wait why? Yeah, I have state ID. No, no, he wasn’t driving. I didn’t ask who was driving. I asked to see his ID. Yeah, why? That doesn’t make any sense. Here. You don’t have to give him your ID because you haven’t done anything wrong. Baby, baby, it’s okay. Come on. Anytime there is an incident, we have every right to ask. That’s bullshit. Ma’am, everything all right, Ryan? Yeah, I’m good. That headlight fixed and that mirror. Thank you officer.
Katherine Buffington: And this one in particular for the current political situation we find ourselves in, particularly understanding the consequences of racism. For many white people, I think the idea that you are discriminated against in certain way is alien to them. It’s or they may say well, I’m, they might say well, though that doesn’t exist. I don’t believe it because I’ve never experienced that.
And what the film Get Out allows you to do is sort of see the consequences of that denial of racism. And it tackles all our primary fears – the fear of losing yourself, the fear of not being heard, the fear of oh man, the fear of people oppressing you in a very specific and disturbing body horror way. It’s a violent film but the violence feels, it’s not protrudes, it’s not violence for the sake of violence.
It feels earned in the context of the story and honestly the first few times it happened I was cheering for the character to do that violence because we’d seen the stuff that was happening to him and was going to happen to him if he did not commit those acts of violence and it was horrifying. And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, I would recommend it to a lot of people, it’s scary, that’s a good place to start that’s where I would start.
Beth Accomando: Well and that’s a great one that came out this year so
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: It’s a new film and again, you’re right. It taps into that loss of identity as well…
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: …which is a terrifying thing in this sense of being invisible.
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: Of not being seen and in a certain way it kind of ties back to the very origins of zombie films when…
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: …you go back to the Voodoo tradition because that was all about oppression and slavery.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: In the sense of another person controlling you as opposed to the George A. Romero’s zombies which are, they’ve been bitten and infected and they crave human flesh but it’s not this other person kind of trying to control or oppress you.
Katherine Buffington: Yeah, exactly and this actually, the interesting thing about Get Out is that it has a scientific veneer but really it boils down to that witchcraft idea of somehow we’re going to do this thing, right? I don’t want to give anything away for people who haven’t seen it but it’s really, I thought it was a really unique twist in it. Jordan Peele had just some really fantastic ideas that played out really well on the big screen.
Beth Accomando: And putting you in that other position giving you that point of view of someone whose position you might not understand like getting you to see something from a different point of view, which is a spiritual thing as well.
Katherine Buffington: Absolutely. Like that’s – and that’s the other great gift that we can give to ourselves is if we can understand another person’s perspective, put and literally we talked about putting ourselves in other people’s shoes but that’s a hard thing to do. And often a work of fiction makes it more acceptable and easier to understand rather than listening to the news or reading, reading the paper which has, has often the opposite effect.
I think people just kind of shut down whereas in a story, it’s like it’s, it’s in the abstract and you can deal with it on a level that’s not necessarily yourself and only later, you can bring that closer to you and your own experience and synergize those two things.
Beth Accomando: Well, I think that’s the great thing about pop culture is that there are messages sometimes deliberate, sometimes unintentional but there are messages in pop culture that can reach people who would not be reached by a sermon in a church...
Katherine Buffington: Oh exactly, yeah.
Beth Accomando: …or by a news article or by something that was very on point to trying to give you a message.
Katherine Buffington: Yeah, oh no, this is so true. Like I was, I’m always amazed at how many people have strong feelings about Harry Potter. It can be and it’s like, it’s all different aspects of that story that that time period in the universe and the rules for magic. People who I do not expect to have feelings about Harry Potter will see my T-shirt and they’ll say you know what I don’t like? I don’t like how Snape got treated or they’ll say well, like I’ve had one person say to me. She saw my Ravenclaw sweater and she’s like, I don’t like you I’m a slithering. I was like what but that people feel that so deeply.
And then we ask ourselves this whole like what house do you belong to? Well, what do you value in life? It’s a really easy way to quickly delineate that. But then we get to deeper and more complicated questions like are all Slytherins really born evil. Is being ambitious necessarily an evil trait? How do we temper that and why aren’t there some Slytherins? We’re like hey, we’re not on board with this Draco Malfoy like back off.
But that the universality of that narrative is just fabulous and the same thing for Lord of the Rings that people feel that that particular narrative, the way it’s told and especially with the Peter Jackson’s films appeals so universally. Because it puts everybody in that position and in many complicated moral positions of these characters, Frodo and Sam even Boromir that’s, as there’s a guy who makes a bad decision and pays for it. But we still value him very greatly because a lot of people could understand his desire to take the ring for himself and use it to power in service of his own people.
A lot of people would make that choice no matter what the consequences were. But yeah, I love pop culture and I’m hoping to do more sermons about it. I’d love to bring in more comic book stuff since we’re lucky enough to have comic-con here in San Diego. And I’m hoping I can do a Star Wars I and just because it’s not something, it’s throwaway entertainment, most people think oh, I just see this doesn’t matter. But then years later, you’re still thinking about that one scene in Half-Blood Prince where Harry should have done this thing, right? It’s still happening and yeah, it’s still happening.
Beth Accomando: You mentioned like wearing a Harry Potter shirt I have this custom-made Star Wars dress that I love and when people see it like, I have so many people just come up to me and just somebody will say like “may the force be with you” or just like oh Star Wars, do you know, I remember seeing that and you get this in connection with people and one of the things I was talking to my son.
I said, I always have fun when I wear this dress because total strangers walk up to me and share some Star Wars memory with me, like oh, the dress is made from these sheets like oh, my brother had those sheets I remember them and we saw Star Wars when I was like 10 years old whatever but it’s like, it creates this odd sense of community.
Katherine Buffington: It is fantastic, right? At least you have that shared bomb strangers. I mean unless you’re a Ravenclaw and they’re still there in like I don’t know what to do in that case there’s very little we can do but that’s the other thing. It creates that sense of community that I think a lot of people really would like to have. The Internet is fantastic and I love it but it’s not the same as meeting people in person or talking about the things you love. And that’s when you see somebody in person, usually the reason I’m so happy during comic-con I just, I have a smile plastered my face the entire time because I know these people, right? And they know my T-shirts and we get into, I get into the most random conversations with most lovely people over like the smallest thing we have in common, in like the noticing of details or the debates and all this fun stuff.
And horror movie fans I’ve noticed it’s the same way everyone has strong feelings on particular directors or which monster is the best or which Freddy versus Jason and I heard that confrontation was not that exciting after all or I have a friend who, she doesn’t watch any horror movies except the Alien and Predator franchises and for Alien versus Predator, she was like I’m there, she was so excited. And I’m like okay, that’s how she deals with like scary things. I think is that she watches those movies and she just memorized most of them at this point. But they’re almost a religious experience for her to go and watch them and do that thing so.
Beth Accomando: Well, and comic-con is a Mecca where we all make it pilgrimage too.
Katherine Buffington: Yes. And I mean I feel like I can tell the difference between the comic-con fans who’ve been going for a long time from the people who are only coming for maybe, the Hollywood panels it. Because people who complain about waiting in line, I feel like on a certain level, that’s part of the charm of…
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Katherine Buffington: …comic-con because you are guaranteed to be in line with someone who’s as geeky as you are.
Beth Accomando: Oh yeah.
Katherine Buffington: And you’re going to find, unless you go to the wrong panel like you go to something which you don’t actually like it.
Beth Accomando: It’s true, yeah.
Katherine Buffington: Then you’re going to be in line with people who you can’t share values with. But I was in the line for I think Shaun of the Dead when they had a panel or Spaced…
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Katherine Buffington: …I think is actually a panel for Spaced and it’s like oh yeah, so we can talk about all the episodes and all the little details and the Easter eggs and a couple hours in line is not that bad.
Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been on the trolley with the people in costume about like, what their hopes for the day are, I love that. Or just seeing people in in costumes doing paperwork like Batman has to sign this release formally that’s wonderful but yeah, I’ve met such wonderful people and we’ve had, we’ve had such amazing talks. I once, I was in line for the Doctor Who panel a couple years ago and this guy introduced himself to me, he said “I’m he said I’m from England and I love comics so much I named my daughter Storm.” And I was like dude, you’re my kind of dad, we had the nicest conversation for that 45 minutes we were waiting and it’s one of my happiest memories.
And the same thing goes for horror movie too that like I was there with you in that theater that I screamed at that particular jump scare or when we went and saw it, my husband knows that it was me going fuck, fuck, fuck like every 10 seconds at particular scenes because I was so worked up. But that’s a common thing that we share and that we both remember and he, a lot of people don’t want to admit their vulnerabilities but that’s ultimately what you end up doing.
Beth Accomando: Uh-huh.
Katherine Buffington: When you meet someone who shares the same values as you and who likes the same pop culture as you, you’re opening yourself up in a way that most of the time we don’t dare that yeah, geek, geekdom and fandom and nerdy things are more cool now but there’s still a stigma to being out about it all the time.
But when you attend a movie like that you’re a fan of or if you go to an event like that and you spend time with other people who are like you with your tribe, then that primal part of you is satisfied and it’s just so good. And I think it’s an akin to a spiritual practice. It doesn’t have to be necessarily religion or Christian God. But it’s a human thing and it makes us whole in ways that are really important that we don’t always get.
Beth Accomando: We’ve been talking mostly about recent films or contemporary films, you did mention the Abbott Costello Meet Frankenstein?
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: But I wanted to ask, how do you feel about those Universal horror films, the original one like Frankenstein?
Katherine Buffington: Oh, those are good too.
Beth Accomando: How do you, I mean those were great.
Katherine Buffington: Oh those are wonderful and I’m a sucker for black and white, so I’m yeah, okay, no it’s amazing. When I first watched the Murnau’s Nosferatu, I think we did it that as a double feature with Shadow of the Vampire, which is a really, that’s a good double feature. Even though, it wasn’t particularly scary and with things that frighten us have changed, you could still feel the presence of that film kind of radiating at you. When Nosferatu stands up in that coffin with his clawed hands crossed on his chest, when I show that to my students in Humanities class because we do talk about or no, I did it in English this time because we’re reading Dracula for Halloween or an excerpt. I said you may, this might not seem that scary to you but think about for people who’d never seen this image before. It had only up until I point it only been in their imagination and maybe like one illustration that went with the text. And think about seeing that if you’d never seen a movie before how frightening it would be.
And I think it still has a lot of potency, right? That it’s, yeah, it’s one vision of this creature and yes, it’s in black and white and without a sound, without dialogue but it’s still, there’s still something about it that shadow creeping along the wall that it’s right there in the fields, if you want to put it that way. It’s right there in that zone of I am uncomfortable, I don’t like this. Even though you know it’s not that sophisticated and not that frightening but it still appeals to that sense. And yes, the Frankenstein has produced so many classic parodies and so forth and yeah.
Beth Accomando: Yeah. Well it seems like this, we recently did a few years ago, a universal horror series where we showed all the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man, The Mummy all these films…
Katherine Buffington: Yes.
Beth Accomando: And they’re just such amazing films and they really do rate especially Frankenstein, Frankenstein really just has so much like nuance to it and levels of interpretation that it seems like a great film to kind of start people off on for horror.
Katherine Buffington: That would be a good place to start. And then I would urge people if they haven’t read the Mary Shelley didn’t go there and strike that out, it’s a very thoughtful piece of writing.
Beth Accomando: Yeah.
Katherine Buffington: In many ways and the monster, the creature is actually a really thoughtful creature. He reads that, he reads Paradise Lost to gain his knowledge of human nature when that’s for better or for worse. But this conflict, this conflict of the idea of something that you create is wrong. All right there’s that, I also love that Mary Shelley apparently wrote this while spending time with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.
And knowing what we do about Lord Byron in particular, I would probably pen a horror novel at some point because that guy, that must have gotten really old really fast so I can understand why she wanted to tell a story. But I think she also does something uniquely feminist, which is to make a male character and it probably a male audience sympathize with a fear of childbirth, right? Because the idea that frightened, do you know Dr. Frankenstein creates this thing which then turns out to be wrong somehow. That’s another primal fear we have particularly surrounding women’s bodies and child birthing and the idea that something that grew inside of you is wrong or that you have this alien thing in there and it’s profoundly, it’s a profoundly disquieting idea. So yeah, that would be a great place to start too.
Beth Accomando: Yes absolutely. So, you have plans to do more of these sermons?
Katherine Buffington: I sure do, I sure do.
Beth Accomando: Tell people where they can find information if they decide that they want to maybe go to one of these, where can I find information about what you do?
Katherine Buffington: I belong to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito that’s uufsd.org. These upcoming sermons are usually put up by the month. I will try and update my Facebook page if you go to Katherine Buffington, I’ll try to put the public entries of what I’m doing next so you could come and see that. And yeah, hopefully we’ll do a couple more. I’d really love to do some comic book stuff, I’d like to talk about Six Feet Under in more detail like all of these things. I have a lot of ideas.
Beth Accomando: And if you want to leave people with one kind of notion about this, what, I mean what, what do you want people to take away from this idea of horror movies as spiritual practice? What would you like them to take away from this – should they go and see some films? Should they rethink some of the things they’ve already seen? What kind of takeaway should they have?
Katherine Buffington: Okay. So obviously, if you aren’t going to like a horror film, if you know in your bones that it’s going to be too intense or too scary, don’t rush out and subject yourself to something hard. But if you’re thinking, I don’t like how frightened I am all the time, I think there are some really great places where horror films would give you the opportunity to both purge that bad emotion and move forward from it. And make that lateral move, if you know if you like one genre that’s not hard, try to find a horror, cross over because chances are you’re going to find one, there’s a ton of those things.
If you are a scaredy-cat, there is no shame in reading IMDB to find out the ending or the level of violence. There’s also a website dedicated to Does the Dog Die and if you’re like me and you’re tenderhearted, maybe you need to know that before you go into a movie. Okay, and again no shame but confronting what makes us afraid is, it can only be a good thing. And it doesn’t have to be the most intense thing ever, it doesn’t have to be like oh, I went to the midnight showing of this film, that’s my worst fear, don’t do 0 to 60 in 10 seconds.
But getting to a point where your worst fear doesn’t define your actions or hold you back, is a really good goal. And that’s what I think horror movies can do for you is give you a setting in which you’re in control, you can get up and leave unlike real life fears that we have, where life is happening. A horror movie, you can get up and leave, you can get up and do other stuff. It’s all on you. So take control of that fear and don’t let it run your life, that’s what I would say to people.
Beth Accomando: Can they also get a sense of values?
Katherine Buffington: Oh, absolutely. You know what do you, what’s important to you? How, and even the question what would I do in a similar situation? This is empowering too, right? Because we know the situation isn’t real but we can begin to prepare for dealing with that level of trauma, okay? And not necessarily assuming it’s going to come and not catastrophizing but just saying okay. If there was something akin to that, how would I move forward? What would be important to me?
You know the question I find people talking about right now is if the fires came up, what items would I rescue from my house? And this is the same form of that question. What would you do, what would you do? You know zombie apocalypse where are you going to hide out? You know, I have friends who have some really detail they answers like they’ve thought about it and it’s so much so much time has gone into that plan.
But by not succumbing to that fear and just being like, I’d roll over in a ditch and cry you’ve moved past it. And that’s a really useful worthwhile thing and knowing what you value and what is important to you or where you stand on the side of morals, this also helps you define nebulous things in life and it can, it can help you identify people who might be toxic, it can help you identify concepts that bother you and it can help you get at the why? Why are these things important? Why are these values important to me? Why does this one ideology appeal to me? Why does another one not? Because thinking about that only leads us to a greater understanding of ourselves in the world and ultimately that’s what makes life really awesome.
Beth Accomando: I want to thank you for talking to me; we could’ve talked for hours more…
Katherine Buffington: I know.
Beth Accomando: …because there’s so many like every time you mentioned one I go oh, but there is that clear one.
Katherine Buffington: I know, well thank you for having me I, yeah and if anyone wants to come and chat horror movies, I’m always up for that. And I’ve also up for anime and comics and so many other things. And I really believe there is for everyone out there, there is a comic, there is a horror film, there is really any genre film, okay? And there is a book, there are all of these things that will appeal to you, you just have to be willing to put in the time to find it and…
Beth Accomando: Or talk to the right person.
Katherine Buffington: …or talk to the right person.
Beth Accomando: Pointing in the right direction.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly.
Beth Accomando: And that’s the great thing about comic book stores.
Katherine Buffington: All right, yes.
Beth Accomando: Is that you can talk to people who know their stuff and can point you in the right direction.
Katherine Buffington: Exactly, yes.
Beth Accomando: Well, thank you very much.
Katherine Buffington: Thank you.
Beth Accomando: That was awesome. That was Katherine Buffington. She’s a Worship Associate at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito and we’ve been talking about movies, horror movies in particular, a spiritual practice. Thanks for listening to another edition of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast.
If you’re feeling generous this holiday season, consider leaving a review for the podcast on iTunes or just recommending it to a friend. A personal recommendation is the best way to get new listeners for the show. You are the best advertisement we have. You can also donate to support the show at kpbs.org/feed the junky. Cinema junkie and I will be taking a short break for the holidays but we’ll return in January with an episode on Film noir. Thanks for listening and happy holidays. Considering the theme of this show, I’ll go out with this inspirational holiday tune.
Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando, your resident cinema junkie.