Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons by Dr. Gregory L. Reece
By Kate Daley-Bailey
Gregory Reece begins his search for manifestations of the supernatural by invoking one of the most iconic and unnerving images from film history:
Human eyes peer from the blue faces of the flying monkeys, human eyes, deep-set, and hollow. The friendly organ-grinder costumes are made menacing by the Mohawk haircuts and buzzard wings, inexplicably feathered and sprouting from their furry backs. (2-3)
The flying monkeys, Reece points out, while not depicted in the book as particularly demonic creatures, are presented in the film as not quite monkey, not quite human, and despite the wings… not quite bird. While monkeys, humans, and birds, generically are rather innocuous… it is the ‘not quite’ element of these creatures… the incongruity, the hybridity of their nature that has made them the stuff of the nightmares of children and not too few adults. Reece aptly notes, via various illustrations, like ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ the French film J’Accuse! featuring reanimated corpses of soldiers returning from battle, and Lon Chaney’s scarred face in The Phantom of the Opera, that often times the things that makes us shudder are not necessarily the most grotesque or the most overtly gory but rather are those things that hint at the world of the unknown, the unseen, and evoke a subtle terror that eats at the back of our mind.
Here Reece introduces his frame for interpreting that unnerving sensation one gets when listening to ghost stories… German theologian Rudolf Otto’s classic text, Das Heilige (translated into English as The Idea of the Holy). Otto presented religion, not as a rational object of study, but as a matter of emotional experience… and his theories reflected that just as religion had a light side, it also had a dark one. Reece states that “the root and origin of religion is, Otto argued, to be found in the human feeling of fear, horror, and terror” but that overtime much of the dread of early religious expression was made less, well, dreadful. (13) Pointing to the “religious significance of horror (or, the horrific significance of religion),” Reece presents readers with some stories which will haunt us well beyond the pages of his book.
Gesturing to instances in which the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Holy Ghost, the author reminds us that Jesus in his post-resurrection appearances promised to send his disciples the Holy Ghost, one who would baptize them not with water but fire. This image of a resurrected, crucified Jesus beckoning his followers to put their fingers in his flesh and promising a baptism by fire itself must have been terrifying indeed and reminds us of Otto’s definition of the holy—arousing feelings of dread and unease. Drawing upon the theories of E. B. Tylor, the spiritualist works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the rappings of the Fox sisters, sensational stories of séances, poltergeists, and human combustion, Reece relates numerous investigations, explanations, and experiences of hauntings.
Before sparkly vampires like Edward Cullen, before Count Orlok of Nosferatu, even before Bram Stoker’s classic tale of Dracula, there were the vampire tales of European folklore. As Reece suggests, these early prototypes of the vampire are far-less glamorous that the stylized, Gothic vampires of Polidori, Le Fanu, and Stoker. They attack cattle as well as humans, resemble bloated ticks when exhumed, and they more physically favor our conception of a zombie than the modern day vampire. Not only does Reece present a thorough but enjoyable romp through the history of the vampire, he also explores research about various real-life vampire communities, such as work done by Joseph Laycock in Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampires.
Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in Reece’s book, according to this reviewer, is his chapter on werewolves, a chapter which plays upon the concepts presented in folktales made familiar by The Brothers Grimm, Perrault, and Paul DeLarue. The recorded and elaborated folktales, despite their idiosyncrasies, present a general outline of a classic tale many children have heard time and time again, the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Whether the particular werewolf was generated by the application of a magical ointment, a curse, a bite from a Tibetan werewolf, an incident of cannibalism, a deal with the devil, an unfortunate family lineage, or just represented an unnatural anomaly, the tracking of various episodes in folklore, films, novels, is a compelling one… not just due to the similarities between the stories but also due to the marked range of differences illustrated by them. And of course, the interview with an elder in an online werewolf community who resides in Selma, Alabama, proves to be an intriguing and enlightening encounter. Reece recounts a trial of a supposed werewolf in 1692 in which the accused openly confesses his werewolf nature but defends himself by stating that he was a hound of God, a holy werewolf who dared to venture into hell to bring back good stolen by witches.
Reece calls forth another disquieting image when he explores the relationship between the presumed innocents of beloved fairy tales and the demonic. In his chapter, titled ‘This Little Piggy,’ the harmless pigs of nursery rhymes are juxtaposed with the demons Jesus casts into a herd of swine in the Gospel of Mark. Reflecting upon the assembled expositions of demonic possession, detailed stages of exorcism, and numerous views on the signs of demonic possession, it is easy to make a link between the resurgence in reports of demonic activities and the secularization plaguing religious conservative communities but Reece judiciously doesn’t reduce these instances to mere church politics.
The final category of Reece’s inquiry into the dark side of the holy is Satanism. Pulling for the ‘confessions’ of the accused and the methods suggested by two Dominican inquisitors as documented in Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), Reece emphasizes that researching this history is doubly horrific, as the accusations/ ‘confessions’ and torture methods relate disturbing tales. And of course, Satanic scares are not ancient relics of the past; the 1980s in the U.S. experienced such a scare in the form of charges of SRA (Satanic Ritual Abuse).
Overall, Reece’s book combines an assortment of topics and texts into an amalgamation of wonder and horror, history and narrative, ethnography and analysis and is a highly pleasurable summer read! However, I don’t recommend reading it at night…