I imagine that I pestered my parents quite a bit as a seven-year-old child. It was 1963, and a new show – Shock Theater – was airing late Friday night. Starring Ghoulardi, one of the first in a long line of horror hosts continuing even today, Shock Theater presented B-grade monster and science fiction films to the generation born during the imminent threat of nuclear holocaust and Communist invasion. We were a demographic ripe for the fertile nurturing of terror.
I had already seen The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits would burst on the scene later that year. So, I couldn’t wait to stay up past my bedtime for this offering. What made Shock Theater different was that Ghoulardi was cool – a funny and irreverent Beatnik. Ghoulardi became a master of the catch phrase. If you happen to remember minor novelty hits like “The Bird is the Word,” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” by The Rivingtons – that was Ghoulardi.
Between cinematic classics like Kronos and The Deadly Mantis, Ghoulardi also exposed me to the classic Universal horror monster films of the 1930’s. Even if you have never watched a minute of these movies, you know the themes. These characters pervaded 20th century media and still represent icons of modern cultural literacy.
Dracula, the Vampire – a soulless, loveless creature of seemingly overwhelming strength and ability. Modeled after Vlad the Impaler, an historically notorious slaughterer of enemies, Dracula lives on today in endless film and print versions. Vampire stories on the small screen range from Buffy and Angel, to Being Human and True Blood. And who could be oblivious to the new interpretation of the vampire myth that has a generation of young girls rapt in the Twilight series?
The vampire represents the terror of powerlessness, a hypnotic horror that doesn’t just kill your spirit quickly, but slowly drains it away. The vampire is no force of nature, but a conscious and malevolent power bent on the deflowering of the innocent and the tainting of the pure. Protection exists for those with unwavering faith, and especially strong believers can wield the tools capable of destroying the monster. Ironically, mortal love is the one variable most able to foil the vampire’s plans.
In some ways quite the opposite of Bela Lugosi’s Count was Imhotep, the Mummy, a reanimated flesh golem whose sole purpose of existence is to complete the execution of an ancient curse. The Mummy is less popular, especially among the ladies, perhaps because of his lack of independent initiative or creativity – and the dirty bandages don’t help. The Mummy is a brute, pummeling or strangling victims, with none of the subtlety and finesse of the vampire.
The Mummy represents the terror of inevitability, because no matter what you do, the monster will eventually catch you. Unlike the vampire, little can put the Mummy off your track as his slow but relentless pursuit wears you down until you relax your guard just once. But, like the vampire, the Mummy has one key weakness that makes it ultimately vulnerable – his forbidden love for the Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. And while his body is impervious to attack, the paper scroll containing his life-giving spell can be burned to end his threat.
A much more human character was Larry Talbot, the Wolfman – a gallant, but innocent soul infected with a disease that transforms his body and subjugates his mind. Over time, writers have often pitted the werewolf and the vampire against each other, most notably in the recent Underworld series and the aforementioned Twilight books and films. For, while we helpless rabble might lump one monster with another, these two are irrevocably different. The vampire is lifeless, a heartless killing machine with only vague memories of mortality. But, the werewolf is still a living human inflicted with the disease of lycanthropy.
The Wolfman symbolizes the terror of corruption, an unyielding virus that insidiously attacks the body from within. The lycanthrope has the mighty power of animal nature, driven by the mysterious power of the Moon, an eternal metaphor for darkness and mystery. The true evil of the werewolf lies in the non-death of the circumstance. Unlike the mummy or the vampire, lycanthropy steals away one’s free will, but not one’s life. Once again, in death there lies release, but only when delivered by the hands of a loved one.
And then, there is the ultimate Monster, the unnatural creation of Dr. Henry Frankenstein. This once human, now perverse sacrilege of God’s handiwork, the Monster evokes equal parts pity and revulsion, awe and rage. Given our routine exposure to mayhem and carnage today, one can hardly believe that this film once caused fainting spells and heart attacks in theaters. Most would agree, however, that Boris Karloff’s performance made the Monster the memorable figure it remains today – humane and childlike, yet savage.
The Frankenstein Monster exemplifies the terror of profanity, the vile and blasphemous embodiment of humanity’s inflated ego and arrogance. This creature, at the same time both trauma-inducing and tragic, makes us look in the mirror and question our purpose in the world and our relation with the order of the universe. Only when his monster threatens his bride on their wedding day does Henry Frankenstein recognize his error and fight to end his creation’s reign of violence.
All of these terrors – powerlessness, inevitability, corruption, and profanity – alone are enough to vanquish the weak and to conquer those lacking the skill and devotion to battle their power. But, there is one more terror, a terror perhaps worse than the others combined. For this power, however, we must leave the comfort of cushioned theater seat and the delight of a tub of buttered popcorn for the all-too-real world. Because, this terror only exists in a universe where the monster can actually emerge victorious when the credits roll.
In June 1876, a real-life character not unlike Henry Frankenstein in his boldness and arrogance took on an overwhelming force of Lakotas, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapahoe in the Battle of Little Big Horn. George Armstrong Custer was among 268 soldiers of the 7th cavalry killed in the action, which has acquired mythic proportions in American history. One item nearly always omitted from the popular account is that Custer was found with shots to the left chest and left temple. He seemed to have bled from only the chest wound, meaning his head wound may have been delivered post-mortem. Some Lakota oral histories assert that Custer committed suicide to avoid capture and subsequent torture.
Being right-handed, historians generally discount reports of Custer taking his own life. However, several accounts of Indian witnesses note that soldiers committed suicide near the end of the battle. Walking Blanket Woman told of the mass suicide of C Company, which was described by Black Wolf, Pine, Limpy, Bobtail Horse, Rising Sun, Red Fox, and Dives Backward – all Northern Cheyennes. Wooden Leg, also a Cheyenne, described the same incident to his friend, Dr. Thomas B. Marquis, who later wrote a book titled, Keep The Last Bullet for Yourself: The True Story of Custer’s Last Stand. Wooden Leg later recalled: “[T]he white men went crazy. Instead of shooting us, they turned their guns upon themselves. Almost before we could get to them, every one of them was dead. They killed themselves.” Other Indian combatants spoke of still more suicides among the American soldiers, including He Dog and Turning Hawk.
Now, many of Custer’s men were the rawest of recruits, with no experience fighting the Native Americans, and little practice even firing their weapons. One might imagine how their heads had by then been filled with accounts of brutal mistreatment and torture at the hands of this particular enemy. This combination of fighting an unknown enemy to whom all manner of atrocities had been attributed understandably made these soldiers succumb to this most powerful of terrors – the terror of hopelessness.
This addition brings us a complete picture of true terror. True terror makes us feel powerless and as if relentless bad outcomes are inevitable. We see the causes of terror as corrupting that which is innocent and pure and profaning our foundational principles and beliefs. Worst of all, true terror robs us of any hope that we can cope with these feelings. In the face of our recent history, the exploits of Freddy Krueger, Jason, and Michael Myers cannot possibly complete as threats to really terrifying us beyond the confines of 90-minute entertainments.
For the real terror today wields almost limitless financial power and political influence; its doors may only be open from 9:00 to 5:00, but its efforts require no sleep or sustenance. The real terror has taken a sound theory and corrupted it, not only creating chaos and confusion, but then trying to convince us that chaos and confusion are eventually good for us. Millions without jobs…millions without medical care…millions homeless and hungry…millions robbed of futures…millions of dreams destroyed…millions deprived of the hope that is America.
The real terror today is the Frankenstein monster that we have built, that we have assembled part by bloody part, often through our own indifference or our own pursuit of comfort. The real terror today is the perversion of capitalism and democracy generically labeled “Wall Street.” We see evidence of its attacks on our communities every day. Our jobs can disappear overnight taking with them pensions and insurance; organizations devoted to improving workers’ rights and workplace conditions are being dismantled by our elected officials; and greed can erase home ownership and the fruits of a lifetime of hard work with the stroke of a pen or the tapping of a calculator.
This monster possesses an insatiable appetite and will never rest until it owns everything. This monster knows no law but the backroom deal, the special interest group, and the campaign donation. This monster will happily gobble up all the sacrifices we make to placate it, and then come back for more.
We are not Custer’s raw recruits. We know our enemy well and have too often turned a blind eye to its misbehaviors. Individually, we may not have the skills needed to combat the monster, but we know how to acquire them and how to work together to share our available talents and energy.
In recent weeks, people with hope have begun to act. People from all walks of life, from 9 to 90, dock workers and doctors, people of all faiths, races, identities and backgrounds have come together in more than 1,000 cities and towns across the country. The grassroots Occupy Movement continues to grow everywhere where people feel the monster at their doorstep.
Despite the best efforts of corporate-owned media to make the movement sound unfocused and leaderless, a statement approved by the general assembly of protesters at Liberty Square in New York City articulates a widely-held call to action.
As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments…
• They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
• They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
• They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
• They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
• They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals, and actively hide these practices.
• They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
• They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
• They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
• They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
• They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
• They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
• They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.
• They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
• They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
• They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.
• They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
• They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.
• They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
• They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
• They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
• They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad.
• They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
• They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.
To the people of the world, We…urge you to assert your power. Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone…Join us and make your voices heard!
Where do our churches fit in this movement? As Unitarian Universalists, I believe that a connection with this movement – if you agree with its assertions – is undeniable. We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, which includes the 1% and the 99%. And, a corporation is not a person. We affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, all of which have been under assault in recent years. We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, another area facing challenges from unjustified arrests and detentions, to efforts to undermine our constitutional rights. We affirm and promote the goal of world community, a goal unattainable so long as primacy is giving to profits over people.
I think that we as religious people, laity and clergy, wield the one force capable of slaying all monsters. We possess the one tool able to saving their victims, of curing the afflicted, and motivating even the most unruly mob to coordinated action.
We are the agents of love. No silver bullets, no garlic and stakes, no torches and pitchforks. Just pure love. Innocent love. The love of a child, of a parent, of a brother or sister, of a neighbor. We can bring the power of our love to this movement, helping to heal the pain felt by the 99%. By standing on the side of love, we can once again show that our churches are relevant in our day-to-day lives, and that a strategy of nonviolence can overcome any obstacle.
I intend to stay involved in this particular war against terror. I ask you to get informed and make your voices heard.