Category Archives: Philosophy

Gotteskritik and Noah

So I haven’t done a movie review in a while (mostly because the horror angle dries up considerably in the spring season), but I feel compelled to write something about Noah.

I’m not sure it’s really to convince anyone of anything, but it’s a movie that stuck in my mind after seeing it, and I feel compelled to write about it. And, as usual, if you haven’t seen it, my reviews try to get at the themes and heart of the movie, so there are spoilers if you haven’t seen it.

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Outlook:

I went into Noah open minded, but worried. I knew a few things: 1) I love Darren Aronofsky. Black Swan and The Fountain are in my top five all-time favorite movies. 2) This was a big-budget feature that needed to make its money back. 3) When I saw this movie being advertised in the commercials for Nascar, I began to grow concerned. Nothing against Nascar audiences, but generally speaking, I saw this as an emphasis on reaching the Biblical audiences rather than the Aronofsky audiences. Knowing what I do about marketing, I wasn’t prepared to assume one thing over another about the movie by the marketing, but I was a bit wary. I also knew, 4) that the movie was drawing generally favorable reviews while also bothering Christian fundamentalists alongside atheists alike.

This final point was perhaps the most encouraging, because that’s exactly where I tend to fall. Generally, I am not a religious person. I grew up Methodist until my folks grew unhappy with the more modern slant that our church was moving, and they’ve spent the last fifteen years or so “searching for a new church”. Needless to say, that never really went anywhere. But I’d always enjoyed the security of — at least hoping — that there were greater forces in the universe. My drive toward paranormal research manifested in college, where I took courses in Religious Studies (examining mythological texts and their religious aspects) and Philosophy of Religion (in which arguments for and against religious propositions are considered). These classes have come to define my religious outlook. Because of my research into the paranormal, I am inclined to believe that there’s a possibly-spiritual component to our world largely unrecognized, and that through very similar pursuits into mysticism, there seems that these boundaries overlap, and suggest there to be a kind of divinity beyond the physical world we make up.

And for the most part, it stops there. I’d like to pursue a more personal mysticism more in the future. Mysticism is the practice and attempts to have a direct and personal spiritual experience, possibly of divinity, where much of our western religions (read: Christianity) tend to minimize the mystical component in favor of a dogmatic component. Many people tend to connote “dogma” with something negative, and it can be. But functionally, dogma is when you’re told to take a certain belief as true rather than learn it for yourself. Science has dogmas. Religions have dogmas. Christianity puts weight on them specifically because they believe that faith is their biggest point of salvation, and that the act of having faith is far more important than a path to knowledge, given that it tests you in different ways. I’m a bit Gnostic in the sense that I think knowledge is very important, and a bit Zen in the sense that I’d rather be put in a position to experience something than being told about it, especially given how fallible interpretations of spiritual experiences tend to be.

What this boils down to is that I’m very much a religious pluralist. I do think it’s very important for religious practitioners to select one religion and follow it because, if left to their own devices, people tend to pick and choose the easiest elements of each religion, where it’s often the hardest components that can be the most revelatory. My leanings toward pluralism come in that I think spiritual experiences are inherently ineffable. I think that they come from a realm outside of our physical construction, and so can’t be encompassed by language. Therefore I think that when people try to distill such an experience so far beyond them, they inherently build an explanation that’s heavily weighed by their culture and their limited language. In this way, I’ve always loved the metaphor of the three blind men touching the elephant, where the one who touches the tail believes it’s a rope, the one touching the legs believes it’s a tree, and the one touching the trunk believes it’s a snake. Taking these experiences back to their homes, each man is going to construct a wildly different interpretation of the same thing.

That being said, I fall into a strange blend where I love science (I think that there are avenues toward spiritual experience that can be explored scientifically), I have a deep respect for the spiritual and components of the religious (as I explored above), but where I’m also very heretical to some religious folks (in that I challenge many religions assertions that there is only one “right” way).

But it’s this blend between perspectives that put me in a very unique position to watch Noah.

The Theater Experience

A lot of reviewers are talking about what a spectacle this movie was, and how you should really go see it in theaters. I’m in between. I think that it’s an experience demanded to be seen in theaters. It’s  larger than life and it’s a movie about the destruction of the world. That’s big. You should see it big. But there are many moments where, because the CGI is so extensive through the whole movie, that the graphics are a bit disappointing, even ripping me from the immersive experience. Aronofsky also tends to direct his movies in very specific and beautiful ways, with shots that are often lost if you’re gazing up at the screen. Black Swan for instance, is a very different experience at home than it was in the theaters. Not that one is necessarily better over another, but there’s reasons to see it in theaters and to wait.

Formally

This movie was excellently filmed (other than the CGI hiccups), and excellently acted. Russell Crowe was an excellent Noah, playing the blend between warm and fatherly with just the right amount of rugged, hardcore, batshit crazy. The other actors I think did their jobs well, but I wasn’t ever all that blown away.

Thematically

So. With all that front-matter out of the way, I want to dig around inside the film a bit on a thematic level, which is where movies do their truest work for me.

This movie, while clunky at times, especially in the pacing, was very much a movie that built upon itself. We begin with this predilugian world that’s different from our own. This may well be a part that turns off many atheists, as it very quickly plunges you into a world that echoes, again and again, the “Creator” (read: Old Testament God). The bad guys are the ones who live in excess and violence and arrogance, and the good guys are the pious and the environmentally-minded who maintain a reverence for the Creator.

You can see how this is quickly divisive. Many more right-leaning Christians are immediately turned off by the very Granola-feeling “save the environment from the polluters” theme, and many Atheists are turned off by the overt God-centric world the characters are living in.

But the mindset you have to put yourself in, for the more Atheistic thinkers, is that this movie is in a fantasy world, where there is magic and rock-creature-transformer-angels and spark-rocks that make epic fire, and seeds that can grow an entire forest overnight. For the more Christian thinkers: if you make it through the movie, you understand that the tree-hugging theme is really one of respect, and sets more a tone for the premise than it does the conclusion. It returns a perspective to the Edenic perspective, of the innocence that many Christians idolize, in which a kind of harmony with nature was idolized, in that sense that we were unaware of good and evil, and very much just another animal ourselves.

Later in the movie, there was another potential turnoff for fundamentalists, in one of the most gorgeous and Aronofsky-esque sequences in the film, where the creation myth was told overlaying a very evolutionary sequence of the creation of the earth, a perspective I’ve always loved. Of course, I come from a religious-studies background, in that I have a very heavy respect for the cultural myths that were told about creation as purely that: stories. But, as an English Major, stories that talk of a deeper truth, and consider rich meaning.

Just like this one, in fact. This movie is art. It’s a fictional illustration of deeper meanings. And if you’re so literal that you can’t appreciate the dialogue happening underneath a sequence that suggests a non-literal interpretation of Genesis, well, that’s unfortunate. I’m not sure this review will mean much to you if you made it this far anyway.

But I loved that sequence, because it reflects an important blend of different beliefs (a theme Aronofsky explored extensively in The Fountain).

The deepest heart of the movie though, once we move beyond the places where believers and non-believers alike would be turned off, is in the emotional and ethical struggle DEEPLY RUNNING through this entire story.

Most of us know the story of Noah, whether we were taught in Sunday school or just through the society we live in, where such mythos are common. God wants to destroy the wicked. He entrusts Noah to build an ark to save the innocent. Noah builds it. Floods come. Everyone dies. Bird comes back with a sign of land. Noah and family repopulate the earth.

It’s a story I’ve shrugged off dozens of times. But I mean, holy shit. That’s HEAVY. God, the Creator (in hindsight, the God who’s supposed to be all-loving and benevolent and all that) is going to WIPE OUT THE EARTH, women, children, innocent, good, evil, wicked, WHOLE CULTURES in one go, because we’ve become so bloodthirsty and wicked.

People are dying. People who it’s VERY much up to debate may indeed be good-hearted and innocent. How much good is in a person to require their salvation? How much evil for their damnation? When is it decided that a person is so evil they’re not worth saving? That they can’t be rehabilitated? Are human beings inherently evil? Should any be saved?

I mean, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that these are the big questions and themes that really become driven home by the second act. But they’re themes that are very much at the heart of many Old Testament stories, but left for discussion and inference, as the Bible isn’t really big on fleshing out these ideas, but as illustrative and conversation-inspiring.

Anyone who can appreciate being placed in the context of this magical, God-structured world, and who can appreciate the severity of the ethics in the story itself (these questions are implicit right there in the Bible, they’re just less dramatized), should absolutely see and chew on this movie (yes, I’m saying you Atheists, and you Christians).

Because these are great questions. Weighing the amount of goodness or evil in a human being, and then discussing how seriously we should take a punishment for such evil… that’s fucking huge.

And Aronofsky handled this very deftly.

I said on Twitter after seeing the movie that I wasn’t sure it was great or just really goooood. I’m still leaning toward not-great. I was worried the movie wouldn’t be very deep as it started. I wasn’t seeing the themes or a real dramatic manifestation of these themes at first, but they came on like the deluge by the end, and that much I loved.

Watching Noah buckle under his ethical dilemmas was wonderful. Watching him get drunk in a cave by himself because the weight of whether he’d failed his god and/or failed humanity was extremely powerful. He did it because of Love. And whether that decision was a wrong decision was very challenging, because, I mean… what does that say about God?

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GOD.

My perspective on God is that, if there is such a being, he’s a kind of consciousness and energy. I feel that many interpretations of him are a personification. We’ve made him into a character, a kind of manifestation of themes and ideas, and in so doing, we’ve created an idea that can be interpreted and critiqued. I don’t feel that God is a bearded old man on a cloud, but to consider him as such, a human-esque character, we can weigh these ethics and themes in a more tangible discussion.

I understand that that’s very heretical for many religious types, but I feel that it’s important to discuss these things.

And here’s where I loved the subtlety of the movie. And perhaps where some sharp Christians may have started to falter. Because the movie asked some hard questions about God. They were subtle. They were respectful. God was a presence in the movie, but was never overtly a character, and this was a really wonderful choice by Aronofsky.

I, for one, really love critiquing the character of the Christian God. Because it’s a very complicated one. We have so many different visions of God, even in this one religion, and many are at odds with each other, and for such an encompassing figure, these are really big discussions.

The problem of evil, for example: How could an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent (read: all knowing, all good, all powerful) allow evil? If he knows of it and doesn’t do anything about it, he’s evil. If he knows of it and is all good, he’s impotent, and if he is all powerful and good, then perhaps he doesn’t know about it. It’s an important problem, and one that’s been discussed for hundreds of years, with excellent arguments on both sides. So here I don’t mean to suggest it in any way antagonistically toward Christianity, but in Religious Philosophy, it’s a big and important issue.

And it comes to manifest frequently in the Old Testament. We have a very wrathful, vengeful, emotional God who dishes out punishment right and left. Some of these for SERIOUSLY NO REASON. The psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung has a fascinating breakdown of this God Character, in which he blends very Eastern ideas (who see good and evil as halves of a whole, rather than polarized the way we see them in the west), and he makes a very interesting argument toward God being a totality of good and evil seeking to balance the two.

If you’re a deeply Christian person, much of what he says comes across as very blasphemous, but I for one love it, if not simply for the interpretation of how such a god could do the things done in the Old Testament. He continues his analysis by suggesting that Christ was a manifestation of himself as human so that he could understand human suffering, as well as understand himself by having a second perspective. Christ dying on the cross was then, in Jung’s vision, a sacrifice to not save humanity from our sins, but to save God from his own.

Radical, challenging stuff. I know.

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone or offend anyone with this. But I wanted to illustrate how challenging this Old Testament God-Figure can be in ethical terms, and how this movie very much explores that. What makes it brilliant is that it’s exploring it in a very subtle and dramatic way. It’s easy to watch the movie as a story about Noah’s own personal struggles with both faith, as well as ethics.

But the brilliance lies in the parallels between humanity and God. I don’t believe it’s in error that it was mentioned so many times that humanity was created in God’s Image. And that if we’re to be destroyed for being too inherently evil, that’s a very focused dialogue about the nature of God himself then. After all, who created the snake in the garden? (I’ve always been fascinated by the proposition that if God knowingly created the tempter, then obedience to him was more important than utopia).

But I digress. Consider though too, where Noah’s  ethical dilemma of killing his grandchildren falls. It’s very much a parallel to the later Christ story. Noah is in a position of whether or not to kill his grandchildren for the sake of ALL CREATION. God himself had, it would seem, a similar dilemma all those years later with his own son on earth, dying for the sake of ALL HUMANITY. Less genocide, different stakes, but a similar ethical choice.

Look at the temptation of the middle son, Ham, to kill his father in order to save all of humanity.

Though we never really see a positive side of his tempter, Tubal-Cain, he isn’t in an obviously evil situation when he convinces Ham to kill his father in order to let humanity continue to flourish.

How different is a son killing his father to save all of humanity from the later story, in which a father sacrifices his son in order to save all of humanity?

These are delicate dialogues and parallels happening below and within this movie. I would argue (and not just because I’m more open minded to Gotteskritik than most) that they’re not blasphemous, but posing ethical questions on a archetypal Old Testament story, one loaded with ethical and moral dilemmas. The dilemma of punishment, of genocide, of elimination of evil, of the nature of evil and the human being, of the nature of God himself.

Conclusion

Part of me wishes there was a bit more exploration of these themes than really the second half of the movie, but I understand that there was a certain amount of buildup to these themes that was important. The construction of this predilugian world, and the audience’s acceptance of it, was a very important narrative construction that needed to be ensured before we could be challenged in the second act.

And, while upon first viewing, the movie seemed almost disappointingly straightforward (humanity tries to get on the ark, Noah wonders if he must kill his family off too, and Ham must decide whether to kill his father), these things, upon analysis, were very BIG situations that were VERY thematically loaded, particularly as they extended to God.

Maybe this final element, the criticism of God — or, even less severe sounding: the questioning of God — will turn off many religious folks from the movie, but I hope it doesn’t. This is what made the movie for me, because it went BIG, but it did so very subtly. Noah’s story has always demanded an ethical illustration and discussion of one man’s handling of the need for genocide, but what’s always been there (more overtly in the story of Job) is God’s same handling of such a need. Any religious Christian has studied the story of Job and had discussions around why God would punish a man for no reason. And the story of Noah is very much a less challenging but no less BIG story of why God would punish man for GOOD reason. Asking questions about whether God was right, why he made his decisions, and the significance of the implications of such decisions is important for any religious follower, and certainly does not imply a path to rejecting God.

It’s cause for this movie staying very carefully to the Biblical story. It’s posing the questions that have always been there in dramatic fashion. Questions that make us FEEL, questions that make us cry, questions that make us scared. That’s art. Those are questions that need to be asked. And, I think, why Noah was really brilliant.

Karl Pfeiffer is a novelist, photographer, and ghost hunter. He’s the author of the book Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, lectures about the paranormal and religion across the nation, and shoots portrait photography in Northern Colorado. 

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Jung Wanted Hard Drive Crashes

So my hard drive crashed.

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I’d lost everything I’d done in the month of July because I hadn’t backed it up. Dropped it down a couple stairs, and I was lucky enough to have it fight through another week. It fought through that week when I needed it most, which was a blessing. But the week’s false sense of security led to only surprise when it finally quit, and the data was gone.

Data which included the video I’d shot at camp, the video I’d shot for my how to play Gooberball video, and, most heartbreaking, the video of my girlfriend’s puppy Skye on the fourth of July.

I held out some hope by running a recovery scan on my computer, to dig up files I’d trashed two weeks before, and the process was poetic.

Amanda Palmer tweeted a few weeks ago that Jung wanted Twitter.

Jung being the early 20th century psychologist who theorized the collective unconscious, laying the foundation for theories about recurring elements of stories across cultures. Anyone who studied Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in high school understands this framework.

Palmer said Jung wanted Twitter because Twitter is a continuous snapshot of the world, two sentences at a time. What people are thinking, doing, eating, and consuming.

As I went through the recovered fragments of the scan, I realized that Jung wanted more than Twitter; He wanted hard drive crashes.

Here am I, on a sweaty summer afternoon, desperately paging through movie and mp4 files, searching for a lost puppy, trying to resurrect something I killed. But in-between, I only find snapshots. Peculiar, too. There were half-second video clips of people at a beach, running about with young women on their shoulders. There were stills of smiling adults and B-roll footage of foreign docks and cities. I have no idea where this stuff came from. Likely it was B-roll movie clips included in editing software and extras for DVD burning programs. But these weren’t clips from my life. From a Coke commercial, maybe.

But here I am, trying to resurrect the dead, searching about in a strange underworld brought to light, and though there are snippets of my past (recent music albums I’d tossed after duplicating, old photos, recent documents), here are fragments from someone else’s past. Many someone else’s.

It’s as if I reached into some collective whole and brought out a shattered mirror that not only reflected myself, my own history, but the world’s too.

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Recommended Paranormal Reading

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A fantastic question, and one that I wish I get more often. I answered this one a couple months ago, but thought it might be easier to lay it out in a blog.

Caveats of course come in the sense that there’s still dozens upon dozens of wonderful and mind-bending books on the paranormal that I haven’t gotten to yet. But there are a few that I think would be wonderful if people started getting their hands on.

9781450253567_p0_v1_s260x4201. Paranormal Technology: Understanding the Science of Ghost Hunting by David Rountree. 

If there is one book any serious technical investigator of the paranormal should read, it’s this one. Where in today’s paranormal world many teams are largely ignorant to scientific theories, equipment, and genuine methodologies, this book is quintessential reading to help understand not only how the tools you’re using work, but what they’re measuring. Some is over my head. Some is borderline scientistic and narrow-sighted, but overall required reading. There’s a big part of me that wants to suggest to any investigator to not use any piece of technology again until after reading this book.

 

 

images2. Psychic Explorations: A Challenge for Science, Understanding the Nature and Power of Consciousness by Edgar D. Mitchell. 

The paranormal extends SO much farther than simply ghosts. If you want your mind BLOWN when it comes to the paranormal, you absolutely must read this book. A compilation of articles from psi researchers in 1973, this book synthesizes data collected by three generations of psychical researchers, whose conclusions come up again and again that the existence of psychic abilities have been effectively proven to exist, and that the next step is learning more about how they work. Readable. Mind-bending. Wonderful. It’s thoroughly referenced and footnoted, so opportunities for further reading abound. 

(From my reading in this, I’ve got sitting near my headboard my on-deck reading, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death by FWH Myers and The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena by Dean Radin, which has gotten a wealth of wonderful reader reviews on Amazon.)

 

5676823. The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel

But the paranormal doesn’t stop at spirits and psychic phenomena. In fact, much of my reading list strays away from ghosts on their own entirely. Because of popular culture right now, we all get the general ideas behind the existence of ghosts. How many of us, after watching the first two seasons of Ghost Hunters can relay the three types of haunting and how EVP is different from disembodied voice? Keel’s Mothman Prophecies is a true achievement in paranormal research. Though I’m a big fan of the Pellington-directed movie, the book is fantastic reading. Diving so deeply into the strange events at point pleasant, Keel can’t help but become a part of the story. Despite breaking one of the first rules of journalism, the book then becomes instantly engaging on a level not purely intellectual, but reads as good as a fiction thriller. Mothman Prophecies brings together UFOlogy, some of the earliest reports of the Men in Black phenomena, poltergeist-type happenings, cryptids, and the titular prophecies. Where one phenomena stops and another begins? That’s the real question below this book.

(Note: Keel also wrote the wonderful Our Haunted Planet, which, while eye-opening as it dissects ancient mythology and the potential reality of gods, aliens, and faeries, is poorly referenced throughout, making many of his lofty claims immediately suspect to the careful reader. Though I’ve only read the opening chapters, it seems that Jacques Vallee’s Passport to Magonia–which is available used for $400 dollars on amazon, or as a free PDF on a quick google search–is a much better presented exploration of similar study).

9780253221810_med4. Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience by Anthony Steinbock

Readers familiar with my areas of research know that in much of college, I focused a lot of study on philosophy of religions (both east and west) as well as an emphasis on mysticism. Mysticism is the practice of having an experience of something divine or transcendent of the world around us. Steinbock’s textbook examines what makes a spiritual experience inherently spiritual and where it crosses with the world around us. Indeed, as paranormal researchers, if we are coming into contact with beings or creatures from a plane truly beyond our own, the similarities in experiences immediately come together. If any researchers are interested in the broader implications of what it means to contact beings from “somewhere beyond”, Steinbock is a must read.

(Mystical experience is broadly classified and broadly researched in a way that much of the paranormal hasn’t. Some other books for reading on the subject include William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. James was one of the founding members of the Society for Psychical research, which is necessarily referenced in Mitchell’s Psychic Explorations book. Funny how they all start linking together again, isn’t it? Also, try Sufism and Taoism: A Comparative Study of Key Philosophical Concepts, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Beliefand Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience.)

9780060653378 5. Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans by Malachi Martin

It should be noted that I have a problem with fundamental religious belief (which you’ll understand far more deeply if you pursue the mystical readings), but Martin’s book on possession is one of the best. It very thoroughly documents five case studies on various possessions that he researched. Where many television shows today like to throw around the “demon” word to keep their episodes exciting for the audience at home, the reality of demonic possession is shocking and very different. This book explores not only the exorcisms, but the circumstances surrounding the onset of the possession. This can be difficult to digest for the non-religious reader, as its very fundamentalist. But Martin is a professional and does a fine job of presenting the circumstances with very little bias. Even from the 1970s and with deeply religious background, such topics as transgender individuals are handled gracefully, though certain implications do leave a critical reader a bit wary. Regardless, as a study on the fact of possession, there’s much that cannot be denied, and the presentation here borders on masterpiece.

(If demonology is your thing, there is some fascinating reading on the subject. I also recommend The Dark Sacrament by David Kiely and Christina McKenna and The Rite by Matt Baglio).

41NPF555BTLHonorable Mention: The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion by James George Frazer.

The first time I tossed out these books on twitter, I added also that you should read anything that John Tenney recommends. If he told me there was insight in the phone book, I’d take to the phone book with a magnifying glass. At the time, his go-to book to add to the list was The Golden Bough. Because of his recommendation, this fat tome is sitting on my shelf patiently waiting my read. Written around the turn of the 20th century, this book is considered a foundation for modern-day Anthropology, studying how beliefs over time have changed from magic to religion, and from religion to science.

Those are my suggestions, caveats and thoughts and all. I do hope these help. If you have any suggestions of your own, feel free to sound off in the comments down below!

 

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

 

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Dogville, an Analysis

The awkward thing about a blog such as this is that I don’t think you should read it.

Which is to say, it’s a discussion of the movie Dogville, by Lars von Trier, and if you haven’t seen the movie (which is likely most of you), I suggest that you watch it first. Suggestion seems too light a word. Really it should be kind of mandatory.

Lars von Trier is the director of the Depression trilogy, which features the deeply-disturbing Antichrist, 2012’s much-hyped Melancholia, and the forthcoming Nymphomaniac. Dogville is the first of his America trilogy, the second film of which is called Manderlay. 

Here I’m only focusing on Dogville, but, whatever you do, don’t pull the Fight Club card like I did in high school and let the end be spoiled for you because you’re sure you’re never going to see it.

It’s the kind of movie that you must know nothing before going into. Don’t even go googling for a trailer. If you do choose to watch it, sit through the entire movie. For the first two thirds, you may well feel like turning it off or doing something else, the only thing I can say is watch the whole movie.

Unfortunately it’s not on Netflix instant at the moment, so it’ll take more legwork, but if cerebral movies are your thing, it’s incredible.

Go watch it and then come back. I’ll wait.

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For the rest of you lovelies, I want to talk about this movie, because it demands talking about. The first time I watched it was a year ago, early in the morning, with my filmmaker buddy AJ, and by the last twenty minutes, I was sitting up on my bed with my hair in my hands in shock.

The second time I watched it was last night with my girlfriend, and the experience was no less profound, but far less visceral. The shock of the town’s descent and, later, the film’s abrupt left turn into allegory had fallen, and instead I could watch the development of the philosophy and commentary happening within.

Perhaps many of you were more toward my girlfriend’s level of engagement and expectation, where she laughed afterward that she’d have been very disappointed if they didn’t machine-gun the town. But I was along purely for the journey, with a kind of lack of expectation or suspension of disbelief that registered in manifested shock by the final forty minutes of film.

A quick perusal of online reviews of this movie — a very quick perusal, I should point out — seems that what most reviews are discussing is the success or failure of the film as a critique on America. There’s a sense of discussion, not of the themes dissected, but more of whether the film deserved consideration as an anti-American film, and whether it was a bad film because of it. Released in an altogether post-9/11 world, attacking America in any way shape or form, cinematic, politically, or philosophically, constituted an echo of the violence of two or three years before. Though America quickly turned back on itself in the years following, there was still a certain mindset of community that would turn on outsiders butting in with an upheld index finger and a curt “this is our discussion right now, please.”

Von Trier presents the town of Dogville in a claustrophobic, campy, allegorical sense of something bigger than itself. Despite being located in the Rocky Mountains near Georgetown, Dogville could be anywhere. As Henry Sheehan’s underwhelming review attempts to get at, and placed in wonderful terms by the New York Times: Dogville is stripped down humanity. As the Times points out:

[…]there aren’t any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise.

Which isn’t to say that it’s not America. Dogville is very specifically within America, and very specifically begins von Trier’s planned America trilogy for a reason. The town of Dogville is very intentionally placed in the Rocky Mountains, that quintessential staple of the west, in a place characteristically defined by the gold rush of barely a few decades earlier, in the timeline of the film. Indeed, the provocative credits sequence makes the American distinction quite clear, as is discussed in reviews over and over again.

But I would suggest that for one thing, we have a better position to consider such a critique of America now, a decade after the film’s release. Regardless of your belief as a conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the decline in popularity of the Bush Administration’s final seven years following the events of September 11th, along with two decidedly controversial wars, reeled America back into a heated critique that quickly came to counter the unity found in the short months following September 2001. This national wariness extended into the Obama Administration’s takeover, counterbalancing his projection of hope and clarity to make up for the decade’s confusion prior. Any extreme, supported or otherwise, is going to meet a distinct amount of critique. Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on here, whether elephant, donkey, foreigner, or otherwise, the point is that American solidarity, even after the uniting events of 2001, has again began to crumble.

And by 2013, we’re again open to reception of criticism. Take the virality and boldness of the opening scene of 2012’s The Newsroom. 

[Love that video… except for the whole worst period generation period ever period. Every new generation is the worst period generation period ever period to the old generation. If he were a teacher who got to deal with the parents of our worst period generation period ever period, I think he’d start to understand why we “all” think we’re so entitled. That said, there’s obviously blame to go around, and we’ve got some issues. But I digress.]

So, now that we’ve learned to accept critique not as an attack, but for exactly what it is, critique, we can get to the real heart of Dogville, and we can stop nitpicking whether or not it was a deserved attack on American culture, or whether it should be written off as an “anti-American” movie by a filmmaker who at the time had never even been to the country.

That all said, it is absolutely necessary that Dogville both be located in America and representing America.

This is because America, popularly, is the pinnacle of Western culture. Whether it’s deserving of that title or even on any less fragile a pedestal because of such standing is irrelevant. America, structured by a thousand years of crescendoing Christianity and ideology focusing intensely upon the individual, with its sudden rise both as an ideological powerhouse and a relatively successful one, is the perfect canvas for deconstruction of those themes.

In the New York Times piece, they illustrate von Trier’s reaction to the point:

What makes ”Dogville” so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. ”You mean, why not just call it Denmark?” Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn’t possibly be Denmark. It’s America.

Earlier in the article too, von Trier specifically pointed out this idea of America as a canvas, when referencing Franz Kafka having never visited America either, before writing his story Amerika.

“I must say I’m very fond of this idea that Kafka didn’t go to America,” Mr. von Trier said. ”For me it’s about America, even though it’s about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use.”

America is the pinnacle of the individual, and hence is the pinnacle of selfishness and greed. Our entire economic system runs on the idea of greed and competition. You don’t have to visit America to be familiar with greed and competition, and it’s not an insult to America to use it as a canvas to illustrate such abstraction taken to the extreme. The entire point of the film is to illustrate how communities that claim or even function as a single unit in an individualistic society can succumb to selfishness and, ultimately, when given the right circumstances, evil.

Is this ultimately a kind of discussion between the Capitalistic, individual-centric west versus a more socialistic east? Yeah, kind of. Von Trier even said,

”I can’t deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society.”

The delicate line that von Trier walks with a movie such as this is between labeling an entire country (one that inherently defines itself on pluralistic values) by a single allegorical situation, and using an abstraction of a country to present a discussion between ideologies. The former borders on insulting (especially given the post-9/11 world it premiered to), and ignorance, in that obviously characterizing a whole people with a single allegory is a narrow viewpoint. But! The latter, illustrating what a country (or religion, or philosophy, anyone so-defined by their fundamental ideologies) stands for–well, isn’t that art?

Is Dogville anti-American? Perhaps. But that’s skipping straight to the conclusion, and in so doing misses the point entirely. Good art is about the conversation. What would it mean to be anti-American, anyway? The knee jerk reaction is to think that “they (he, whoever) hate us.” I identify as an American, and so they must hate me. But America is a way of thinking and a way of life. It’s a compound of beliefs and practices, and even though we started as a melting pot of the world’s cultures, even though if you put a liberal and a conservative at a table and had them duke it out, we have to recognize that there are fundamental issues at the heart of our country, and it’s these issues that are examined in any smart American critique. Before we condemn them for condemning us, we have to clarify what’s being condemned (or, if we relax, discussed) in the first place.

Where Mr. Sheehan concludes that Dogville wasn’t particularly provocative save a few moments, I would argue that the entire premise is provocative. To watch “good, honest people” fall into the depths of human evils and utterly justify it to themselves is an incredible experience to engage it.

The tools the movie employs are directly related to its study of both this altogether western human experience and theme. The other most popular talking-point about the movie, aside from its critique of America, is the design of the set as wall-less and stark. The wall-less, staged nature is at once Campy. Camp being the style–primarily in theater–that focused on artifice. Though often Camp is presented as a kind of silly commentary on the nature of various social constructions, Dogville is aware of its Campy nature, but applies it in a refreshingly serious way. The most notable scene in the movie being when Stellan Skarsgard rapes Nicole Kidman in sight of the entire town as the rest of the town goes about its business, completely oblivious.

The lack of walls goes on to suggest a variety of commentary on the nature of community, on the nature of what is seen or understood but socially denied, but also it speaks toward a kind of essential humanity. There’s a play here on the nature of privacy. Privacy is a curious beast because its very nature depends on this essential Western ideal of individuality. We see ourselves as inherently different from everyone else. This as a direct counterpoint to the more Eastern beliefs epitomized by Buddhism by way of Fight Club, if I may, in which emphasis is placed on the fact that we are not beautiful and unique snowflakes. We are the same living, breathing organic matter as everyone else. At the end of the day, we are all simply human beings.

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You’re the all singing, all-dancing crap of the world.

Consider cameras in every room of your house. The discomfort of being watched at every moment, of having your privacy revoked. These things then that we want to hide, or keep private, come curiously because most of the things that we hide are either altogether natural acts (sexing, shitting, showering–most inherent in the way we clothe ourselves, the way we consider nudity a private affair) or the actions we are ashamed of (crimes, betrayal, or secrets). Hiding the former is ultimately kind of odd, as there’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of. As the popular children’s story asserts, Everybody Poops.

Between those things we want to hide, the latter becomes far more complex, and begins to bleed into the issues illustrated by Dogville. Are there absolutes in private crimes? Crimes designed purely out of malevolence? Dogville’s premise alone begs the question as to whether there are crimes that are purely malicious, or whether everything is a strange blend between self-disillusionment coupled with selfishness and a lack of community consequence. Indeed, much of the violence in the film is an illustration of precisely this: evil that can occur anywhere given the right circumstances.

And much of the situational drama that nuances the movie begs the question as to whether community accountability is the best treatment for such selfishness. Because ultimately, these crimes in the movie are at their essence selfishness. Self-justified acts on selfishness inflicted on Nicole Kidman as Grace.

It’s ironic then, how in the film, those acts most selfish (and by the end, most twisted) are justified by the need for comfort in another: a need for community. Skarsgard as Chuck tries to kiss Grace because he feels lonely and sexually unsatisfied. Ben, in much the same way, needs the company of kind women and sexual satisfaction. Indeed, even Paul Bettany’s Tom ultimately wants companionship. The irony falls in this dynamic between wanting comfort in another, lacking respect for that other person because the desire is so high, and a lack of community accountability because of such blind selfishness, which may well provide a substitute for such comfort.

If there’s a critique of Western society here, it’s in the emphasis on the individual. That even individual interests as a part of a societal whole restrict empathy and true understanding of others. Illustrated to their extreme when these issues are brought to the community as Tom pushes Grace to come clean with the group, there is no accountability because everyone in the town is so absorbed in their own selfishness.

Indeed, the critique extends to the way we manifest this individual in our political process. Consider the moments of democracy in the film. Every decision the town makes is based upon a vote of the townspeople. Our moral code in America is decided by the collective. If enough people deem something as acceptable, it is not morally wrong. What tension then, when we consider issues like the morality of abortion, of gay rights, of smoking marijuana, or the death penalty. If there’s a law for it, it’s morally permissible, if there’s not, it’s not. Von Trier takes this to the logical extreme, in which a town collectively decides it’s acceptable to keep an outsider as a sexual and indentured servant.

In fact, the commentary goes farther to consider the position of America on immigrants. Grace, in the film, comes from a place foreign and far, finds herself in the town, and in their struggle as to whether or not they should accept her as one of their own, puts her to work. How easily that becomes exploited when it’s suddenly acceptable to force someone into such labor, and it’s in relatively little time that her work is doubled, her wages cut in half, because of a perceived wrong. A wrong in large part based on the communities own navel-gazing and a treatment as different. As an outsider.

Now, certainly the film doesn’t dive into the justice system and whether such an “objective” system helps prevent against such individual selfishness, but that should be taken less as an oversight of von Trier and more as a separate issue entirely. The town forms its own justice system, a microcosm of the modern, hyper-structured, rule-filled system designed by the populace in the first place. The film’s focus is on the individual’s role in a community and how we treat each other. And the movie is long enough as it is.

But I want to get back to this idea of human nature and those crimes we’re ashamed of. Where before we considered whether crime comes from a community’s self-delusion, we on the other hand have to consider the other premise of the movie: whether malice is human nature, whether we can extend this reflection of private crimes to instances of Clockwork Orange-type violence. If such malice is in any individual’s nature, it would suggest a malicious undercurrent wrapped up in our own collective human nature.

Grace and her father discuss the issue in the car during Chapter Nine:

Father: Rapists and murders may be the victims according to you, but I–I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.

Grace: But dogs only obey their own nature, so why shouldn’t we forgive them?

Father: Dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature.

But von Trier studies the strange blend between the two, and considers whether selfishness is human nature. Perhaps that’s the film’s conclusion: that malice isn’t inherent, but selfishness is (at least in a culture that idolizes the individual), and look what that can lead to.

The question of the necessity and right of an individual to privacy (and as an inherent part of freedom) is one for another time and so I want to move on from this question of privacy, shame, and human nature, and start to move into what’s absolutely the most provocative part of the film, that of Chapter Nine, the dialogue with the father figure (or “big man”), and the religious connotations within.

One of the remarkable distillations of this moment is in recognizing that Nicole Kidman’s Grace is actually of a kind of Anti-Christ nature. This of course is not in the sense of the Antichrist as Satan incarnate to bring about the end of the world, but as a kind of second coming of Christ–or a more modern day re-envisioning of the Christ story.

This of course hinges upon this idea of the father figure, the “big man” figure as a symbol for God. He’s all-powerful and holds deep responsibilities, hands out judgements and destruction, and hails from a “city” of opulence and wealth, dreamt of by the townspeople, who are altogether separate from it. And Grace is His daughter (God’s Grace, get it?), who then acts a direct counterpoint to Christ, who was God’s incarnate son. Grace’s entire character arc is of a high-born woman who finds herself, after running away, amongst townspeople–human beings. And over the course of the movie, she seeks to understand them and ultimately, God-willing (har, har), become a part of them. But she’s separate from them. She’s pure. In this manner, the film is a kind of imagining of that “what if God was one of us” situation. The age old question as to what if Christ returns as a homeless man on the street? Would we help him?

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“Well, my gut says ‘no’, but then again, my gut’s made of an advanced polymer, and it doesn’t know what the hell it’s talking about. Stupid gut.”

In the God symbolized by the father figure, the head gangster, we have also symbolized the Old Testament, and the God that goes with it. Oftentimes in today’s changing world, many nu-Christians (like, nu-metal, anyone? anyone?) consider the New Testament as an updating of the Old Testament. From Carl Jung to modern day, progressive Christians, there’s an idea of a wrathful, jealous, emotional, un-empathetic God coming to terms with humanity through his son, Christ. In Jungian theology, this Christ figure died on the cross not for our sins, but for God’s sins, in order for God to fully understand the human condition through his experience as an incarnate human being, with emphasis on the suffering humans go through in the physical realm. But on a less controversial level, the more progressive Christians consider Christ as God 2.0, an update who brings peace and understanding, where the Old Testament God gives way to this more fully realized God.

In Dogville though, we see illustrated this deeply empathetic New Testament offspring-of-God-figure engaged in–finally–a conversation with the Old Testament God Figure. The story follows this idea of Grace telling him what she thought of him, then running away, treating the analogous Christ story as less God’s intention and more Christ’s. As her father says, “Our last conversation, the one in which you told me what you don’t like about me, never really concluded, as you ran away. I should  be allowed to tell you what I don’t like about you.”

It’s as if the crucifixion story was paused to allow God to come down from the heavens and discuss how Jesus should best handle the situation.

In Dogville, we finally have a dialogue between the judging, powerful Old Testament God (“I… I call them dogs.”) with the New, empathetic one (“Why shouldn’t we forgive them?”). The discussion of arrogance, of the worth of humanity, of human nature, of what’s best for the world, unravels between them. Eventually, Grace gives in that she’s “arrogant because I forgive people,”. The conclusion here being of the importance of holding standards, about punishment and mercy in order to raise people to their best, rather than forgive them constantly.

“You do not pass judgment because you sympathize with them…” The Father figure says. “Does every human being need to be accountable for their actions? Of course they do. You do not even give them that chance. And that is extremely arrogant.”

This echoes even the alchemical, mystical sense that I like to speak of, in which it’s suffering that’s the method toward purity (see boiling dirty water or tearing down muscles to rebuild them stronger when working out). It brings back ideals of tough love that are echoed throughout antiquity.

The culmination of their dialogue leads to Grace’s revelation that the town’s actions were indeed wrong, and that no matter who committed such actions, there needed to be punishment. To be made an example of, in a sense. As the narrator says:

“What they had done was not good enough. And if one had the power to put it to rights, it was one’s duty to do so. For the sake of other towns. For the sake of humanity. And not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.”

Grace then makes the decision to kill the town and to burn it, echoing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. What’s fascinating here though is the reversal from the earlier New Testament Christ story. Where in that story, Christ sacrifices himself in order to save humanity, so sparing his wrong-doers, here, with the influence this Old Testament God-Figure, Grace makes the opposite decision, coming back around to the Old Testament ways, destroying her captors explicitly for the sake of “other towns…of humanity” and “not least for the sake of the human being that was Grace herself.” Where in Christian mythology, Christ was sacrificed by tyrants and ultimately saved all of humanity, here we have a reversal, in which our Christ figure instead sacrifices the tyrants to save humanity

The emphasis on the end of the quote, toward the importance of her decision on herself as a human being speaks toward God’s revelation in his manifestation as a human being. Where Jung understood this manifestation as His coming to terms with the nature of suffering on the physical plane and a kind of self-recognition, here this manifestation is about coming to terms with the necessity for punishment. It’s like an episode of Undercover Boss in which the boss realizes his employees don’t need extra reward, but a good spanking.

"What's this, Chuck? You raped all our customers? I've decided to give you $5,000 for your kid's college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus."

“Chuck, you’ve been doing such a good job down in that apple orchard, I’ve decided to give you $5,000 for your kid’s college, and a free trip to Hawaii for you and the missus.”

It’s in this way then that she’s the anti-Christ in the sense that she’s Christ’s opposite in action, not his opposite in essence  She is herself a messiah figure, but one who ultimately comes to understand humanity and the Old Testament God at once. From this perspective then, it would seem that Dogville could be more aptly titled Antichrist than von Trier’s 2009 movie was of the same title.

But the religious allegory doesn’t stop there. Without stretching it, there’s a commentary extending to the broken figure of Stellan Skarsgard Chuck as the embodiment of Satan. Midway through the movie comes the revelation to Grace that Chuck was from the city once, and that he rejects her because he can’t stand the reminder of everything that he came to Dogville to find. Chuck also tries to tempt her in the orchard, and devotes his life to harvesting apples.

Where Grace is a revision of the Christ figure, Chuck serves as a reflection on the far-earlier-fallen Satan, who ran from Heaven because he was upset with God. A re-envisioning of Satan then, in that he didn’t run to the humans in order to corrupt God’s most favorite creations (and what good would that do, as they’re already corrupt enough and God is all to happy to punish them when they transgress), but he ran to them in order to find something genuine and pure, but was mistaken in much the same way that Grace was.

Exactly the same way as Grace was, in fact. Consider if Grace decided to stay? Perhaps eventually she would be accepted, in strained terms, until she made a defeated life with Tom, had five kids and the white picket fence, picking apples in the orchard all day, and utterly down-trodden with the life she leads. This narrative then reverses the old ideals, that it was humanity that was corrupted by Satan, and instead suggests that maybe it’s Satan who was corrupted by humanity.

Satan then, in this allegory,  is no more the manifestation of evil than Christ. Simply speaking, he’s the broken product of evil and misguided hope. Satan is a long-defeated Christ.

So what’s the use of this religious allegorical nonsense? Particularly how it interacts with the other heart of the film: that of the American critique.

I could ruminate on the way that American culture, yet in its infancy, embodies both the roles of the Dogville community and the Old Testament God figure, dishing out judgement and punishment to the rest of the world. I could reflect on the thusly ironic and pessimistic question of the film, in that if America really is such a godless society, who will give us the punishment we need? I could continue into some sort of conclusion about whether this conclusion really is anti-American and whether or not that’s truly warranted by the end of it.

But I won’t elaborate on these, or seek to answer them. Because these are the questions left for the individual. These are the questions any one of us need to ask ourselves, not only as part of America or as part of Western culture in general, but as human beings who are inherently given to our selfish natures, who inherently must look out of only one pair of eyes for our entire lives.

Whether there’s truth in this commentary is not a success or a failure of the film. It’s not an argument in the philosophical sense, where it can be proven wrong by logic and so devalued. As a film exploring these issues in a way that not only makes us feel deeply, but in a way that makes us think deeply, Dogville is truly an achievement.

Karl Pfeiffer won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team. He’s the author of the novel Hallowtide, writes for the TAPS Paramagazine and Paranormal Pop Culture Blog, works with investigative teams across Colorado, lectures across America, and leads the public ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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The Afterlife?

So Hallowtide is about Will’s journey through his personal hell. Since I’ve read the book, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the afterlife and ghosts… Do you believe that everyone has their own personal afterlife tailored specifically for them? Or does everyone have the same afterlife (according to their religion or beliefs)? Or maybe some elements are the same in everyone’s afterlife. I can’t help but think that maybe some ghosts are just living their afterlife and that’s why they haunt specific places. For example, heaven for them would be a particular place that made them the most happy and hell would be a particular place that gave them a horrible experience (where they died, where they were abused, etc.) -Kelly G

This is a great question, and one that I thought would make a good blog post to reply to. Without giving too much away, my novel Hallowtide is indeed about a young man and his journey to Hell. This journey seems to, at the most superficial, be taking place within his dreams. Dreams are a space of subconscious interaction, and many psychologists believe that this dream state is a good place to manifest the mind’s invisible. But the questions are raised within the book when it comes to the “truth” within these dreams, the “truth” of the subconscious, and the doors that opens to much of psychologist Carl Jung’s philosophy, in which there is a deeper layer of unconscious space, the Collective Unconscious, where the collective subtleties of a culture pool. Joseph Campbell took this idea and ran with it toward his search in finding universal consistencies within mythic hero stories. I bring this back in the novel to discussions about then what might be spiritually real happening within Will’s dreams.

The research and study that I did in college and my personal life while working on the novel has definitely melted into my own thoughts on the nature of the afterlife too. Obviously this is a popular topic of reflection too with my job as a ghost hunter.

While I’m actually quite taken with Jung’s mythology, I also find a certain foundation in the theory of Mystical Experiences. Much of mysticism (a broad, broad category in its own right) suggests that there are at least two levels of worlds (more often a spectrum between the two), one of which is this physical world in which we operate (the one of empiricism, the five senses, sciences, and that which we can document) and then the more Platonic world of ideals, ideas, the abstract, a space where perhaps morality and good and evil and intention are as tangible as here, the flesh. This is the spiritual world. This is the non-physical. It seems to me that the act of death is a shedding of the physical, and that whatever is at the core of our experience, this consciousness (soul, spirit, what have you) is then in this inherently non-physical, ineffable place beyond this world we know.

But it seems that these worlds intercross (a spectrum, as many mystics believe). Indeed, if we ourselves are physical and spiritual beings both, most pertinently then, within ourselves.

Emotions play an interesting role here that I haven’t come to a conclusion on. Emotions, I’ve always felt, are what help us to transcend this place. My inner romantic believes that emotions like true love, that deep, world-shaking (indeed, breaking) feelings of compassion, or utter selflessness (even hatred perhaps) transcends this world and puts us on the level of spiritual creatures. But we also find that with emotion is often material attachment. We often find ourselves most emotionally attached to things: temporary, physical, stuff. Whether that’s a person, a place, or a thing, all of which will fade in time.

Emotions then have this kind of two-fold place, where on the one hand I think that they can help us transcend to the non-physical, on the other they tie us to the physical. And I’ve found that with spirits, with these ghosts that we interact with, there always seems to be some kind of lingering attachment. And also, as might be an inherent part of this transition to the non-physical, their emotions and attachments often seem amplified.

There’s a story I like to share, the source of which has gotten fuzzy in my memory (but I think it was from Andy Coppock), of this spirit in an old run down California hospital. Creepy place. This spirit was apparently violent and angry down in the lower levels. But this team went down there, dispensed with the bull, said ‘stop yelling at us, and instead tell us why you’re so upset.’ And what they got from this spirit was that he’d been killed accidentally on the operating table when he was a patient at this hospital in the 60s. Being so upset about this, he made it his goal to try to scare everyone away from this hospital so that the same thing didn’t happen to them. But he was still seeing this hospital as functioning and running as it was the day he died.

This to me suggests a kind of correlation to the old cliches, the Sixth Sense and Casper ghosts who have unfinished business and who see what they want to see. It seems to me though that these emotions that become so pure after death, that surround these various focuses and objects of attachment, do align with a distortion of this physical reality, and the changes in ways of interaction that so go along with it.

But most importantly it suggests to me that the individual spiritual experience is a very powerful and oftentimes unique one.

And that oftentimes it’s layered with attachments, illusions (though who is to say what’s “real” when you’re operating beyond the real), and struggles.

Buddhists, in focusing around the elimination of dukha, (suffering or dis-ease) are focused–you could say–in the study of happiness. And they don’t believe that true happiness is found in material objects because they are temporary. Every single thing in this world will break down. You. Me. Your loved ones. And so finding happiness within them is not true happiness because it will eventually turn to sadness. It’s dependent. True happiness should be independent, and stand on its own. So even, I expect, for a spirit finding happiness–its own kind of Heaven–in something of the material world (a loved one, a home, an object), is not, under this kind of thinking, truly happy. It’s a kind of false happiness. One that, the Buddhists would suggest, is bested by the peace of inner-happiness and of acceptance. Or, as the mystics might suggest, the kind of peace found in transcendence, in moving on, in letting go, in embracing the spiritual, the divine–whatever that indescribable non-physical pinnacle is of such a world.

I think letting go of this pure physical reality is difficult for many of us and that it’s a lifetime(s) of learning what we’re here to learn and then trying to overcome the intoxication of the pleasures (and pain) of the physical that is a real challenge, but a necessary and natural one. Why we don’t see many spirits from the past few hundred years alone suggests that there’s something to move on to. Whether that’s reincarnation or a more pure form of non-physical spirituality (divinity, as some mystics would suggest) (or both), I think that isn’t not nearly so absolute a process of life and death as we think here in our physical world.

Beyond that, to suggest what people see then in their afterlife experiences, I think can be a bit messy. If they’re “seeing” something, there’s an inherent suggestion that there’s still something physical happening there. They have eyes to ‘see’ and that there is something to “be seen.” All of these would suggest that in such a setting there is a still some tie to the physical. So I think if someone is seeing something that can be described, it might be again, some kind of focus or attachment that’s overwhelming the pure experience that is the afterlife. Whether that’s guilt, or whether that’s a kind of excitement for something specific, I think it could become hard to trust.

While researching mysticism, we find this idea of people accessing the divine, the spiritual. Indeed, this is the foundation of many of the religions that surround the globe, especially the theistic ones. A person has an experience of something beyond the physical. They want to share this experience and they want to share how they discovered it (setting grounds for a belief and a set of practices, the foundational cornerstones of any ideology). Of course they try to describe it in words. But the experience is beyond the physical world. And words are a limited construction of the physical. You cannot describe the indescribable. You can only point at it). The mystic also describes it in terms of their culture, which can also be very limited. The culture picks and chooses which elements fit their framework for viewing the world, the experience is repeated, doctrine is described, and in its sharing with thousands of people, is often changed. And so, it’s no surprise to me that we get wildly differing accounts of religious experiences across the world.

So by putting any one religious theory of the afterlife over another, or even trying to describe it in words at all, is to muddy the waters. But I hope that this gives some idea of my perspectives on it all. Certainly I come from a very mystical perspective, one that has lead to a much more pluralistic religious perspective, but one that sustains a lot of respect to all religions and belief systems.

But I certainly don’t know. Many far smarter than I have written many books on the subject. Some of which are quite good, many of which I haven’t gotten to yet. But this framework is what at the moment makes the most kind of sense to me, and ultimately, as structured the question, what found its way into the story of my first novel, Hallowtide. 

Any more questions? Disagreements? Furthering thoughts? Dive into a conversation below. But keep it cool. Religion is touchy. Death is frightening. And we’re all just trying to figure it out.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the novel Hallowtide. After winning the first season of the pilot reality series Ghost Hunters Academy, he went on to work with the Ghost Hunters International team on the same network. Since then he’s graduated Colorado State University with a degree in Creative Writing and an emphasis on Religious Studies. He works at the Stanley Hotel leading the weekend public ghost hunts and writes for the TAPS Paramagazine. More can be found at www.KarlPfeiffer.com

Immortality Project

By now I hope you’ve heard about the upcoming Immortality Project. It’s not a movie with a catchy name, but it’s the new project the University of California, Riverside will take on studying topics of the afterlife thanks to a five million dollar grant. If you haven’t read about it, there’s a solid article from Huffington Post LA, here.

The money will fund research into heaven, hell, purgatory, karma, and other topics, according to the university’s web site.

Which is brilliant. If you’re going to do a study of the afterlife, absolutely do it academically. We in the ghost-hunting field have been pushing for “scientific” documentation of these experiences of the supernatural, which is still needed. But taking an approach to the afterlife in general on a level of theology, culture, philosophy, and biology is a solid approach. If you’re going to explore the afterlife, regardless of conclusion, there are questions that need exploring along the way. “Are we immortal beings? Would we even want to be immortal? What would immortality even look like?” An approach that considers both the fact of the issue and the philosophy is absolutely the right thinking.

“We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions,” Fischer said in a statement. “Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports.”

So not all the bias toward the supernatural has been thrown out with this step forward. All in due time I suppose. Alien abductions might not be trendy like ghosts or the more PC, less-restrictive term, “the afterlife,” and their supporters still seem crazy (really, the same as ghosts fifteen years ago). But the deeper you look into alien abduction reports, the more similarities you find between them and “Old Hag Syndrome,” or sleep paralysis, or classical mythology and religions. Indeed, alien reports carry remarkable tie-ins with much of religious mythology and lore. John Keel’s Our Haunted Planet is a fine resource for these connections and, according to him, inconsistencies.

Though not so much correlative to the near-death experience, close encounters of the fourth kind do resemble religious or mystical experiences. Though this study is focusing, at least for the moment, on experiences occurring around the time of death, it’s not a far stone’s throw to the mystical experiences of higher (or different) consciousness. See (bright lights appearing in the sky, terrifying beings who appear on earth and supply prophesies, strange chariots appearing in the air).

The question then: is this exactly what we need right now? Not just the “we” who are paranormally inclined. But the “we” of the human race, in a science-worshipping world tearing itself apart over religion and ideology.

Or will this divide us further? If we find indication that there may be something after, something further, will this only increase the hostilities between two parties to be more “right” than the other? If you suggest that the soul does exist, what does that say of God? If God exists, what does that say of these fighting religions? If we live on after we die, what does that say toward the morality of homicide?

Either way, it’s a fascinating project, and I’ll be first in line for the book in five years.

 

Absurdity

You begin with rejecting materialism, that fundamental staple of the West. Americana. You’ve survived if you could buy a home and support a family. You’ve thrived if you could buy nice things for them and for yourself. Wealth has become the yardstick of our society.

And you define the ridiculousness of such a yardstick. It’s only stuff. These books are only slices of trees and ink. Your clothes are woven threads. Your car only metal and gasoline. That we cling to these things, that we hold them above all else, is meaningless. Your house burns down. You’ve lost four walls, however shiny or complex. You’ve lost the stuff within. You remain. You are still alive and so you’ve thrived.

But reducto ad absurdum. Wander the outdoors and find stimulation in the running of wild animals. The world around us is just as arbitrary. Trees are only wooden sprouts. Grass is only a weed. These elements and objects, however fundamental, have only as much meaning as we supply. Are they so different from your flashy car and tailored clothes?

If meaning is only so where we attach it, we can only combat the absurd, the nihilism, the meaningless, with the challenge of putting good meaning to those things we hold close.

If we’re going to worship, choose. And then create. And in what you create, hold close, find a resonance. And know that the value of such creation is not within the object itself. So burn your words and wipe away the art in your sand and shed no tears when they’re gone.

A Warning

Scientism is this belief that any and all information, facts, and phenomena are ultimately reducible and can be expressed in the form of science. And, closely related, anything which is not reducible to physics, chemistry, or biological investigation, is not a legitimate area of pursuit. Science does not equal scientism. 

The field of the paranormal, at least as far as ghosts are concerned, inherently deals with this realm we call the spiritual, in which spirits exist, sometimes detected but often undetected by human beings.

The question is then whether this spiritual realm can be documented by science, or whether it follows the path of mysticism and exists by definition beyond the realms of physical experience. The question is whether what we experience as paranormal phenomena (moving objects, voices, apparitions) are themselves spirits appearing, or are manifesting from a spiritual realm into this physical realm.

If the latter is the case, then our science can only go so far, can only measure the manifestation, and never reach the source itself.

But if indeed we, as human beings, carry some kind of soul or connection to the spiritual, then it’s through spiritual pursuit that will get us closer to the source, these entities that we pursue.

Which isn’t then to say we should stop pursuing science. Science will lead us to new discoveries, we’ll push at that edge of the veil, we’ll be able to find proof of the manifestation.

But we should stop the scientism.

We should stop condemning people for going on investigations for personal enjoyment, for trying devices that have no real “scientific” value (or even sense), for not using a row of technical devices connected to computers. Stop all the bickering and stay open minded. And smart.

Across the street from the west side of the Colorado State campus is a Planned Parenthood center, tucked behind a Qdoba and a travel agency. Outside it, on the street, when the temperature is over 45 degrees, moralists stand with signs condemning abortion.

I don’t play politics. I think politics is a hateful and toxic realm. I like constructive discussions, but even then they have to be approached casually, open-minded, and usually with some degree of meta-awareness to help keep folks from getting too heated. Most of the time I avoid opinions because 1) I usually don’t know enough about the matter or 2) because whoever I’m discussing the issue with will likely not want to change their mind, and frankly, I probably won’t want to either.

One of these moralists was standing lonely by the brick wall today with a sign reading “Be thankful that your mother chose life.”

And from this I was struck, not in a political sense, but in a cosmic one, where the grandness of the universe dwarfed both moral debates, or late-night heart-pounding decisions, (or next-morning heart-pounding decisions, or next-month heart-pounding decisions).

My mother indeed chose life. As did yours. Whether it was an accident, a plan, a pleasant surprise, or a stressful decision.

But she was one of a series of decisions. Stray bullets missed, ill-timed illness dodged, a “holy shit!” moment and that kind of awkward laughter when you ran a red light and narrowly missed collision, when your horse threw your greatest grandfather and he lay, broken, wondering if he’d be found in time, a long walk on a cold night.

Further still, atoms colliding, hydrogen and helium in supernova spectacle, manifest oxygen, carbon, bubble forth this life, your parents, their parents before them, gasses of space, light years and that perfect distance from a star.

How many hundreds of trillions of voices of those who could-be and could-have-been cry out,

thousands lost in a stray bullet, the silence in the space after shrieking metal where the laugh should have been, the chill wind across cooling skin, a baby’s cries each time the deed is done or a box of contraception purchased.

I don’t know when contraception turns to abortion, where prevention becomes killing,

where

that death so empty,

the part that draws tears, for me, at funerals,

of what could have been,

rings in silence the same way as any other death, but more universal, more pressing,

and so surrounding, emphasizes both the

vastness, our own insignificance,

does it matter anyway, so long as we are alive, were alive, will be alive?

Because equally, from this vastness we came

by design or guide or happenstance or

from gasses we emerged, and somehow beat the odds, and someday too will be

what could have been.

Be grateful your mother chose life,

be grateful the universe so aligned, that from one ripple you rose,

you. only you.

and wonder if it would be a different you had they waited, killed, miscarried, later conceived,

and then wonder at the others until you join them anyway.

But if it makes you feel better, wonder of the ripple, study your hand or your skin or your lungs or just the fact that

you’re here at all.

What Could Have Been

And, it’s not content, so much — describe his work by content, and you pretty much get ‘horror’ –it’s the shape of his stories, how they kind of wyrm their way into the back of your brain, and spell it like that while they’re doing it, which is somehow worse, and better, and more permanent…

For me, what horror hopes to do is scare the reader, to instill dread or terror, to plant a seed of fear in them that they can’t shake. Which is very honorable. Those few times you zing your arrow past all the baffles and obstacles and get it right in the reader’s head, such that they leave the lights on at night? That’s what it’s all about You’ve changed them, you’re a part of them now, and, and: horror, I wonder if it’s one of those genres that’s functionally incomplete without closing the circuit, without getting a reader? I mean, if I write something, it’s not scary until it scares somebody, right? Anyway, horror’s dynamic, its intent, it’s similar to weird fiction’s, I think, but … I think what weird fiction tries to do, it’s unsettle you to some degree. But it also wants to make the world bigger than you ever thought it was, or could be. And, sure, Lovecraft’s the standard-bearer for all this, but it’s still happening, too. Just in less tentacly ways. And sometimes with tentacles intact.

Stephen Graham Jones, from his interview with Weird Fiction Review

In Less Tentacly Ways