Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean

51znevyguwlHurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 by Matthew Mulcahy is a revealing look at an obscure topic. Historians rarely give weather such an in-depth treatment, so it’s interesting to see how these weather events affected Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Quite a bit, as it turns out. Hurricanes influenced colonists’ morale, their perception of the natural world, health, social order, and economy. Hurricanes were an ever-present disruptive force that compelled colonists, and plantation owners in particular, to change the way they did business. They also caused an untold amount of damage to crops, human capital (slaves), and shipping throughout the region. Colonists had to rebuild and replant after every major hurricane in addition to meeting their basic survival needs, which put strains on every other aspect of colonial life.

Hurricanes undermined colonists’ morale by challenging the concept of improvement and by testing their faith that they could “dominate and transform” nature. British colonists came to the Caribbean with a sense they were pursuing a divine mission, so when hurricanes destroyed everything they built, their faith was shaken. “The threat from hurricanes helped create a sense of fragility and uncertainty among colonists as the possibility of violent destruction and chaos hovered over the region each year,” Mulcahy argued.

Central to the colonists’ sense of themselves was the belief they were taming and improving nature, but the destruction wrought by hurricanes demonstrated that nature would not be so easily tamed. Ironically, some of the “improvements” made to the Caribbean islands, such as the cutting down of trees, made colonists more vulnerable to the storms. Taken together, these effects caused some colonists to question whether they could successfully transplant English life and culture to the Caribbean.

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Dark Planet: Visions of America

dark-planetDark Planet: Visions of America, released in 2005 by Illuminati Pictures, portrays four youth subcultures as they are lived on the streets of the contemporary United States: skinhead, straightedge, black metal, and zealot. The documentary’s creators, Jason “Molotov” Mitchell and his wife, Patricia “DJ Dolce” Mitchell, are a new breed of conservative Christian, combining traditional values with a hipster ascetic. Both provide video commentary for WND.com. But “Molotov” Mitchell is familiar with subcultures and life on the streets. A former punk, Mitchell spent a year voluntarily living on the street and converted to evangelical Christianity in the late 1990s. D.J. Dolce appears in the documentary, but her relationship with the director, “Molotov” Mitchell, is not revealed in the film.

Dark Planet features interviews with members of all four subcultures. Three (skinhead, straightedge, and black metal) have evolved out of music scenes, and the fourth (zealot) was formed around evangelical Christianity. Zealot was the only subculture in this documentary that has not received much attention in literature about youth cultures, and seems to have been entirely made up by the filmmakers. Zealots, like straightedgers, reject drugs and alcohol, but also oppose pornography and feminism. They do not shy away from tattoos, piercings, and body modification.

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Suburban Gothic in The X-Files and Eerie, Indiana

the-x-files-t-1920x1080_v2Suburban Gothic is a form of Dark Romantic storytelling set in a suburban environment. Traditionally associated with aging Victorian mansions, crypts, and other macabre settings, the neat rows of white picket fences, manicured lawns, and modern tract housing of the suburbs may seem like an unusual home for Gothic tales. The suburbs, however, are a logical place for writers and filmmakers to express American Gothic sentiment, and episodes from two television shows in particular, The X-Files (1993-2002) and Eerie, Indiana (1991-1992), help us understand why.

American Gothic is our unique expression of Dark Romanticism, a broader nineteenth century literary and artistic movement. In early nineteenth century America, Romanticism gave rise to two opposing artistic and intellectual movements: Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of both people and nature, and that humanity is perfectible. In contrast, Dark Romantics like Edgar Allen Poe (who described Transcendentalism as a disease) believed humans were inherently fallible and prone to sin and self destruction. The modern Suburban Gothic tale is essentially a Dark Romantic argument against Transcendentalism.

In the nineteenth century, some Transcendentalists tried to put their ideas into practice by building utopian communities away from what they considered to be the corrupting influence of modern society. The idea that a carefully planned community could create a new, happier, and more productive life lived on into the twentieth century. As cities become overcrowded, the growing middle class sought refuge from high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions in nearby planned communities. These housing developments were designed to alleviate  inner city problems through strict zoning laws and community standards. Economic growth after World War 2 made it possible for millions of people to buy mass-produced homes and seek out the “American dream” in the suburbs.

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Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death

Ghost Hunters by Deborah BlumIn her groundbreaking book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deborah Blum has masterfully retold the story of the birth of spiritualism and the scientific pursuit of “psychical research.” In the late nineteenth century, William James, renowned philosopher and psychologist, and a small group of eminent scientists staked their reputations, their careers, even their sanity on one of the most extraordinary quests ever undertaken: to empirically prove the existence of ghosts, spirits, and psychic phenomena. Deborah Blum artfully retells this story. Along with Raymond Moody’s The Last Laugh, this book should be required reading for any aspiring investigator of the paranormal.

The cast of characters in Ghost Hunters reads like a who’s who of late nineteenth and early twentieth century luminaries. Blum, however, leaves no one out of her narrative. Scientists, theologians, performers, mediums, lovers, poets, working class families, and con men all share the same stage. Biographic surprises lurk behind every page. Even those familiar with the father of pragmatism and psychology, William James, are usually ignorant of his role in the investigation of paranormal phenomenon at the turn of the previous century. Other names appear. Alfred Russel Wallace, the forgotten coauthor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles L. Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland), and even Samuel Clemens were all members of the British Society for Psychical Research.

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American Vampires Long on Lore, Short on Vampires

americanvampireAmerican Vampires: Their True Bloody History from New York to California by Dr. Bob Curran is an interesting look at the darker side of American folklore, but ultimately falls short as a guide to American vampire lore. Published in 2013 by New Page Books, American Vampires is 254 pages and retails for $15.99. It contains 14 chapters (including the intro and conclusion), and includes stories from Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Missouri, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Wyoming. It is beautifully illustrated by Ian Daniels.

American Vampires takes a multicultural view of American folklore, drawing from American Indian, British, Irish, and African sources to explain the origins of many of our tales. Readers will be treated to a rich tapestry of myths, all of which merge together to form the foundation of our own unique American folklore. This reminds us that certain themes about mortality—and what lurks in the darkness, are universally human. It is a fresh perspective that Dr. Curran, as a native of Ireland, brings to this book.

However, American Vampires suffers from a major thematic problem. Although Dr. Curran argues that vampires are more diverse and complex than often portrayed in popular culture, he stretches the definition of “vampire” to the breaking point and beyond. He describes any supernatural or folk-entity that drains energy or tastes blood as a vampire, and entire chapters go by with only passing reference to a “vampiric” creature.

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Haunted Beauty by Tim Weldon

Haunted Beauty by Tim WeldonHaunted Beauty: Aesthetics and Mindfulness in the Traditional Ghost Story by Tim Weldon is a brief but insightful book. Published in 2015, Haunted Beauty examines the literary tradition of the ghost story. Weldon, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, succinctly explains what makes ghost stories so popular. Though its academic tone is sometimes challenging, all readers will delight in the insights offered by this book, which includes examples from both modern and classic ghost stories.

In his introduction, Tim Weldon points out that ghosts are one of the only supernatural beings whose existence is continually in question. “As a subject, ghosts stand apart from the too far-fetched (no one asks if you believe in zombies),” he writes. In ghosts, we hold out hope for our own immortality. More than that, however, ghosts offer an intimate connection with the past. Ghost stories also offer us a pleasurable feeling of thrill, fright, and “the fun of the shudder.” Finally, Weldon argues that a great ghost story is great literature. One of the most beloved stories of all time, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, is a ghost story.

Haunted Beauty is divided into two parts. The first, “The All that Lingers,” is an exploration of sense and setting, time, and place in ghost stories. Part Two, “Thoughts Haunted,” is about why ghost stories are so psychologically appealing.

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What’s Wrong with the Suburbs? American Beauty and Desperate Housewives As Gothic Tales

There is a duality in American popular culture. On one hand, we idealize modern domestic life as safe, comfortable, and technologically advanced. On the other, we are aware that we’ve been unable to fully conquer our baser instincts. Writers and filmmakers often express this duality by criticizing a symbol of postwar American progress: the suburb. Carefully manicured lawns, safe neighborhoods, state of the art technology (for both security and cleanliness), and a car in every garage hold the promise of uninterrupted domestic bliss.

Yet the morning newspaper carries daily reminders that all is not right with the world. Despite ideal physical surroundings, dark human impulses remain. Murder, lust, betrayal, jealousy, and madness rear their ugly heads. Both the film American Beauty (1999) and the television series Desperate Housewives (2004-2012) tapped into this sentiment and portrayed the Janice-faced suburbs as a deceptively dangerous place.

american_beauty_posterWhile suburbs have technically existed for hundreds of years, the dramatic growth in modern suburbs began in the late nineteenth century as a consequence of rural residents moving to urban centers. As cities become overcrowded and began to experience high crime rates, congestion, and unsanitary conditions, the middle class sought refuge in nearby planned communities. These housing developments were meant to alleviate crowding, crime, and other inner city problems through strict zoning laws and community standards. Economic growth after World War 2  made it possible for millions of people to buy homes and seek out the “American dream” in the suburbs.

TV shows like Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), and Family Ties (1982-1989) portrayed the suburbs as largely idyllic and ideal for domestic family life. Pretty moms and wise, handsome dads taught lessons and safely guided their children to adulthood. Not everyone agreed with this portrayal, however. Ira Levin’s 1972 novel The Stepford Wives suggested suburban tranquility and conformity had a dark underside. Both the film American Beauty and the television series Desperate Housewives further capitalized on this sentiment.

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