Monday, January 30, 2012

BAD DREAMS

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THE TAGLINE

“Cynthia's got a grave problem! 13 years ago, something terrifying almost killed her. Now it's coming back to finish the job.”

THE PLOT

Awaking from a coma, Cynthia is befuddled to find 13 years have passed since the faithful night she escaped dying in the fiery suicide pact made between the enigmatic Franklin Harris and the Unity Fields cult of which she was a member. Under the watchful eyes of Doctors Karmen and Berrisford, Cynthis is placed in a borderline personalities therapy group where she struggles to regain the memories of that event, the details of which are of great interest to the local authorities. Unfortunately, as the memories emerge, so apparently does the spirit of Harris, who has seemingly returned from the grave to make Cynthia fulfill her promise to remain with Unity forever. The catch is that Harris insists that Cynthia must voluntarily take her own life in order to fulfill the pact, and until she does so, Harris will kill off her fellow patients one by one. In very messy ways. Some of which require a mop afterwards. And just to make matters worse, only Cynthia seems to be nearby each time someone is murdered, something which is also of great interest to the local authorities. So is it really the ghost of Harris committing the murders, or is Cynthia carrying more around in her head than just some emotional baggage? And just what exactly is going on with those little pills Dr. Berrisford  insists all the patients be given each day?

THE POINT

Okay, so what have we got here? Jennifer Rubin starring as a member of a group of psychiatric patients locked up in a hospital ward who begin to get picked off one at a time by a horribly burned man who appears to Jennifer in her dreams. You know, that sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? Maybe that’s because it’s basically the same plot as A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a movie released just one year prior to Bad Dreams in which Ms. Rubin appeared as a member of a group of psychiatric patients locked up in a hospital ward who begin to get picked off one at a time by a horribly burned man who appears to Jennifer in her dreams. Based solely on that, Bad Dreams is just a lower budgeted rip-off of an already low budget sequel to an even lower budgeted film. It’s like some kind of exponential growth Andromeda Strain of low budget movie badness.

But don’t be so quick to pass on Bad Dreams (as most everyone else did back when it was first released) because by the end credits the movie does actually manage to rise above the lack of originality in its setup. Not that the movie is all that scary, it isn’t, but it’s still displays some redeeming qualities, especially if you’re an 80s horror buff. It’s got some really gooey make-up effects for those who like that kind of thing (which is sort of required to be an 80s horror buff, even Spielberg movies had Nazi face melting in them back then). It’s got stalwart bit players like Elizabeth Daily (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) and Dean Cameron (Rockula) turning in reliably likable performances (hey, insane can be likeable every now and then, just take a look at my dating history). It’s got a great psychedelic soundtrack full of oddball 60s singles like The Electric Prunes’ I Had Too Much to Dream and The Chambers Brothers’ Time Has Come Today (with a welcome surprise visit from Sid Vicious singing My Way). It’s got the kind of ridiculous 80s dialog you just can’t help but love (“If you don’t like the way I drive, Doctor Addictive Buttface, then stay out of the parking lot!” is a particular favorite). But most of all, it’s got this guy…

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That’s right, it’s Richard Lynch, the man who has played so many murderous S.O.B.s in movies over the past few decades that, no matter how much of a sweetheart he may be in real life, if you ran into him on the street you’d probably want to preemptively smash him in the face with a baseball bat just to be on the safe side. (If he gets up and turns the other cheek, apologize and be on your way. If he gets up with a crooked smile on his lips, quickly smash him again and run for your life.) And he’s in top psychotic form here as Harris, the leader of the Unity Fields religious cult who convinces his followers to burn themselves alive in order to transcend the constraints of their physical bodies and become one eternal family in death. You know, you’d think a guy who accidently lit himself on fire for real back in the 60s would stay away from a roll like this, but Lynch seems prepared to give it his all. That’s especially true in what is probably the most riveting scene in the movie, the one in which Harris cajoles and seduces the cult members (men, women & children) to submit to a baptism by gasoline, after which he lights a match and they all succumb in seeming ecstasy to the resulting inferno.

Such a scene might sound crazy and improbable, definitely belonging in a mostly forgotten low budget horror outing, but then one is reminded of such real world suicide cults like Heaven's Gate, The Order of the Solar Temple, and especially The Peoples Temple, where in 1978 over 900 people willingly lined up to drink cyanide laced Flavor Aid at the urgings of their leader Jim Jones. It’s then you realize that not only is truth stranger than fiction, it’s more horrifying as well. According to a 2008 article at CNN.com, “The key to understanding the tragedy that was Jonestown lies in the oratory skills of the Peoples Temple founder, Jim Jones. With the cadence and fervor of a Baptist preacher, the charm and folksiness of a country storyteller and the zeal and fury of a maniacal dictator, Jones exhorted his followers to a fever pitch… One follower who survived the ‘revolutionary suicide’ at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, said that Jones was the most dynamic speaker he had ever heard. Like all powerful speakers, Jones' greatest asset was his ability to determine what listeners wanted to hear and give it to them in simple language that appealed to them on an almost instinctual level. ‘He was very charismatic, very charismatic,’ said Leslie Wilson, who survived that fateful day in Jonestown by walking away from the settlement before the cyanide that killed more than 900 Peoples Temple members was distributed… ‘He could quote scripture and turn around and preach socialism. He appealed to anyone on any level at any time’… Spurred on by their leader's talk, Peoples Temple members were ready to follow Jones even into death. At his request, they even wrote personal notes to him expressing their willingness to die for their cause.This was the ultimate test of loyalty, and the absolute testimony to the power of his words. As history shows, Jim Jones the orator was chillingly effective.”

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In his book Feet Of Clay, Psychiatrist Anthony Storr attempts to explore the qualities that made up cult leaders such as Jim Jones, people whom Storr dubs ‘gurus’, that have allowed them to gain such control over others throughout history. “Gurus differ widely from each other in a variety of ways” Storr purports, “but most claim the possession of special spiritual insight based on personal revelation… This revelation is sometimes believed to come direct from God or from his angels… It is frequently the case that the guru’s new insight follows a period of mental distress or physical illness, in which the guru has been fruitlessly searching for an answer to his own emotional problems… When the guru’s ‘dark night of the soul’ has been ended by his new vision of reality, he usually appears to become convinced that he has discovered ‘the truth.” Once endowed with this truth, the guru then begins to use his or her charisma and skills as an orator to convince others of it. Obviously, it doesn’t take much to see that Storr’s description of a guru points towards any number of religious leaders throughout the ages (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and St. Ignatius Loyola in particular are called out by name), but he also includes secularists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung under his umbrella as well. In fact, during the book’s introduction, Storr almost seems timid in his approach to the major religions, going out of his way to note that Jesus, Mohammed, and The Buddha were gurus “whose holiness, lack of personal ambition, and integrity are beyond question” (though Mohammed gets a few points off for his views on legal punishment and treatment of women). A little bit later in his book, however, Storr confronts the question to which his line of reasoning inevitably leads, “What about the claims Jesus made of his divinity?”

For Storr, the answer appears simple. “If we conclude that he did really believe that he was God's deputy and that he would return to earth in the clouds of heaven and rule in glory, Jesus, in this respect, if in no other, is closely similar to other gurus whom we judge to be expressing delusions of grandeur.” Or in short, if Jesus said all of that, then he was just as much of a nutcase as Jim Jones. Just without the cyanide. Storr even points out the passage in Mark 3:21, the one in which Jesus’ relatives “set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ as evidence that some of Jesus’ contemporaries believed this very thing. What Storr is basically confronting is the same dilemma C. S. Lewis presented in Mere Christianity when he proclaimed, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."

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Storr’s solution to this dilemma is the one chosen by so many modernists eager to hold onto Jesus’ moral teachings while rejecting his divinity, and that is to choose the third option not mentioned by Lewis. Storr makes the assumption that Jesus was a guru along the lines of Budhha whose clear and simple self-help teachings were later corrupted by an organized religion which tacked on all that Holy Trinity business for their own purposes. By taking that position, Storr gets to admire all of the Bible’s peace and love stuff, but reject all of the hell and damnation that comes along with it. Which would be fine, I guess... if there were even one iota of evidence supporting such a theory. Unfortunately for Storr’s arguments, the writings of the early Church fathers makes it pretty clear that all of the “clouds of heaven and rule in glory” stuff was there right from the get go. Which means if we reject Jesus’ claims to godhood, then we’re left with Storr’s original assertion that no matter how benign his message, Jesus was still just a whacko and all of us Christians throughout the ages have been little more than glorified cult members.

Putting aside the argument of Jesus’ divinity for another time, the funny thing is that Storr is actually correct about the Church being a cult, at least in the original sense of the word which used to refer to just about any type of systematic religious belief. But by the end of the 1970’s, after events like the Jonestown Massacre and the Manson Family murders, the word ‘cult’ has taken on a more specific usage. The American Heritage Dictionary now defines a cult primarily as “a religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.” And that new definition doesn’t really apply to Christianity, or the Catholic Church in particular. Or does it? (Dom Dom Dommmmm!) It doesn’t take long poking around the Internet (try ten seconds) to find out there are a number of folks who believe that it most certainly does apply. Over at Answer.com, which is a site edited by users much like Wikipedia (that font of all wisdom), the CORRECT answer given to the question “Why is the Catholic Church considered a cult?” is  given as “The Catholic Church is considered a cult (traditionally, especially in ancient Rome) because it focuses belief around a central human (well physical) figure with a radical and new (for the time) teaching. Currently they give all power to a single leader (the pope) leading it to being similar to a cult of personality or even a normal cult. It also has extremist views in some areas, like homosexuality, abortion, and stem cell research.” Wow. Based on that, it sounds like all we Catholic cultists are missing is Richard Lynch and a can of gasoline.

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It seems pretty clear that the respondent at Answer.com is someone disgruntled over the Church’s inability (not unwillingness, inability) to change her (EXTREME!) teachings on sexual issues. But be that as it may, it shows that the mindset to declare the Catholic Church a cult is still out there. And given that, it might be a fun and useful mental exercise to compare a few major points and see if we can’t figure out some things that make the Church different from a cult.

1. MEMBERSHIP

CULTS

CATHOLICISM

“Hi, I’m in a mind-numbing freedom-stealing cult. Want to join?” Pretty bad approach, huh? Common sense tells us that no group is going to tell you up front they are a cult. New members are often deliberately deceived about the obligations of belonging to the group until after they’ve already joined.

A catechumen clearly knows what the organization is that he or she is joining. In fact, new members often have to wait for several months, or even a year, before joining while they take classes on Church teaching just to make sure that the obligations and expectations of being a Catholic are clearly understood. (In theory. Don’t get me started on religious ed.)

2. LEADERSHIP

CULTS

CATHOLICISM

As Anthony Storr points out, a cult leader is often self-appointed, dogmatic, messianic, and not accountable to anyone. This person is always right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. Cult members who criticize the leader are often belittled, treated violently, or even expelled from the group.

The Pope, elected by a conference of Cardinals, is not the sole source of authority in the Catholic Church (sorry Answers.com). There is also the Bible, Church Law, and various writings by other Catholic authorities. And the right for Church members to offer criticism is protected by Church Law itself. While a number of actions can get a person excommunicated, the official recognition of such is rare.

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3. TEACHING

CULTS

CATHOLICISM

Cults rarely teach anything but their own doctrines. In many cases members are isolated and come to know less and less about the outside world. In this way they soon develop a psychological dependence on the group. As far as quality of education, cults rarely train a person in anything that has any value to the greater society outside of the cult.

Catholics are free to choose their own friends, politics, and spouse. They retain access to the Internet, television, radio, reading material, telephone, and mail. In fact, all reading, education, and knowledge are encouraged by the Catholic Church. The Church founded most of the first western universities after all.

4. MONEY

CULTS

CATHOLICISM

Cults are often preoccupied with making money. In many cults, members are expected to turn over to the cult all money and worldly possessions. Although many cults start as altruistic, in the end a cult’s wealth most often does not benefit its members or society, but rather just those in charge.

While anyone who has sat through a fund raising drive may feel as if the Church is also preoccupied with money, the fact is that Church members get to keep their wealth and property. Giving is encouraged (and encouraged and encouraged) but is ultimately left to the member’s ability and conscience. The majority of the Church’s resources go towards helping others, even non-Christians.

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So, from all those charts (assuming you trudged through them), it shouldn't be that hard to recognize that cults and Catholicism clash most when it comes to areas involving free will. No matter how overbearing or dogmatic or EXTREME! the Church is accused of being, the truth is that you always have the choice to get up and walk out on its teachings whenever you want to. And it appears, at least in my home country of the United States, the time has come where that choice is being fostered on us by a government which has given religious institutions one year before they’ll be forced to comply with provisions in the new health care laws that demand they violate their teachings on contraception and abortion or else quit providing health insurance to their employees (for which they will, of course, be severely penalized).

Look, we don’t do politics that much here at The B-Movie Catechism. As the title of the blog suggests, around these parts, it’s all about bad movies and learning about God. But enough is enough. I sat in a pew this last Sunday while a visiting priest, a former Episcopalian and lifelong Democrat, sadly shook his head and said that sometimes you are faced with the choice of following your own preferences or of being a faithful Catholic. And this election year, he was going to be a Catholic. Amen. I’m not telling you who to vote for (or even to vote at this point, cripes), but in the name of God do something to help stem the anti-religious course this country is on. Pray (always pray), write letters, talk to people, whatever. The time has more than come to put a public face on our religious beliefs. So get out there and dare to be called a cultist, dare to be called EXTREME!, dare to be a Christian.

Dare to be Catholic.

THE STINGER

Sorry for the tirade, everybody. I know it’s not my style, but this couldn’t go unaddressed. And it sure is nice to see the USCCB take this head on. The letter written by Archbishop Gregory which was read at all masses in my archdiocese this last Sunday can be found here.

7 comments:

Francesca Paolucci said...

Very interesting blog!

EegahInc said...

Thanks for the kind words, Francesca. Most of the posts here are a little goofier than this one, but... I was in a mood.

Rocket Scientist said...

I'm looking forward to rereading this on a non-mobile device because I can't read the chart on my phone. Being on travel in largely Democrat Ohio (except for Franciscan U in Steubenville of course) I've been surprised at how many people had no idea of what was in the new healthcare provisions. But I've been pleasantly surprised at how much press coverage has been given to it since Sunday (I've spent a lot of time staring at TVs in airports). If each of us only makes one or two people aware of what is going on, the whole country will know. The best coverage I saw was a short sound byte in a Toledo TV station by the local bishop: "If they can make us do things that violate our consciences like abortion and contraception today, what will they make you do tomorrow?" don't underestimate even a quick comment to a friend. Great post as usual, and thought-provoking.

EegahInc said...

Weird. I pulled up the site on my Kindle Fire and the formatting was a little weird too (though the charts did show up). I wonder if I should try and start formatting for mobile devices.

That's a good point about just commenting to a friend or two. Considering there are tens of millions of Catholics in the country, that adds up to a lot of friends (or twoses).

Rocket Scientist said...

The formatting was great on my home computer. But I do most of my surfing and computer work on my iPhone because the computers are always in use for homework. I don't think I'm alone in this. The phones are handy and usually on our person, so when we get a sudden thought: "Gee, there hasn't been a post in the last 15 minutes on the B-Movie Catechism site! Think I'll check again.", we can do it right away. It would be worth it to program for mobile devices, if it doesn't take too much time away from your composing posts or spending time with your family.

EegahInc said...

Well, apparently it took all of clicking one button and choosing a background color. So the site should show up fine on mobile devices now. I tried it on my phone and even the charts showed up. Thanks for the heads up on that problem.

Rocket Scientist said...

Great I'll check it out!