“Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia,” Claire Cronin writes in Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. “I’ve always felt haunted…There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable.”
Some books arrive at the perfect time, but Cronin’s fascinating book feels absolutely made for this especially disturbing Halloween. It speaks to the transcendence of her concerns: she reveals how horror, ghosts, and God exist among each other.
Cronin’s vignette-style structure arrives like whispers in the dark, or frenetic prayers. Her sense of curiosity permeates the book. Fans of horror films and Catholics—devoted or drifted—will love this unique book, but so will those who seek to understand fear.
Cronin is a writer and musician. Her latest album, Big Dread Moon, was described as “a full-length folk horror movie” by The Fader. She has written for Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia.
We spoke about writing that scares us, the power of ritual, and the ghosts who walk among us.
The Millions: Blue Light of the Screen is unique, expansive, and scary—and I don’t think it’s merely because I read it during the Halloween season. Your book mines the spiritual in a true sense: the world of spirits and the spirit. Were you ever scared while writing this book?
Claire Cronin: I did sometimes feel scared of what I was revealing about myself. The process of writing about my past called distant memories to surface, and some of those memories were scary—or sad.
While working on the book over several years, I also became more attuned to uncanny experiences and weird synchronicities. By the time I finished it, I found I was more of a believer in the mysterious and supernatural than when I began, which was not the outcome I expected.
I think my experience of the spiritual world has always been one of awe, fear, and dread: the “tremendum” in Rudolf Ottos’s definition of the numinous as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It wasn’t ghosts and demons that most frightened me while writing; I was haunted by God.
TM: While reading your book, I recalled this observation by Father Andrew M. Greeley from The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility.” Catholicism and God permeate this book—there’s even a Johannine (Gospel of John) cadence to some of your formulations about horror, like “We see it to believe it, and in believing, see.” What makes Catholics particularly receptive to horror and discussions of mortality?
CC: Well, the version of Catholicism I grew up with combined ordinary, post-Vatican II masses and catechism with my mom’s more magical beliefs and practices. From a very early age, this gave me the sense that our lives stood in a complicated relationship to the hereafter, and that we were sustained by our connections to invisible beings: God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the dead, which meant both saints and dead people we knew personally. I learned that even if I couldn’t directly experience these beings, I should speak to them as if they were always present and listening. That whatever suffering I might face on earth was very small compared to the suffering of those who came before, and smaller still compared to the torments I might face in purgatory or hell. There’s a real horror to this idea, and it’s distinct from the secular, nihilistic horror of a vacuum. It’s a depth that’s filled with something—not a void.
And of course, the central rite of the Catholic mass is the sacrifice of Jesus’s body. This is very violent and mysterious. Catholics are taught to think of the eucharistic bread and wine as the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Through the power of the ritual, these substances are transformed. They are not symbols. When you’re actually in church, however, it’s hard to believe this because the eucharist still tastes and looks like bread…but there are stories of saints who were so holy that when they ate communion, they said it tasted like raw meat.
I think this muddling of the symbolic and the actual is what set me up to be an artist. I am, and always have been, fascinated by questions of what’s real and what’s unreal, what’s manifest and what’s occult. I learned elaborate prayers to the dead, saw images of wounded and transfigured bodies, heard gruesome stories of the martyrs, and took seriously the threat of demonic evil. All these things were present in my psyche before I recognized them in the horror genre.
TM: “TV is a medium of ghosts,” you write. You title one section “Spirit Box,” and tell the eerie story of the 13th-century St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television—who, unable to attend Mass in person, saw a vision of it projected on her wall in the convent. She is your namesake; what do you have in common with her? What does it mean to experience the world—material and spiritual—through a screen, a vision?
CC: I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to St. Clare. I’m not willing to give up everything I own, become an ascetic, and serve the poor with someone like St. Francis. My dad chose the name for me after his mother, but he’s also had a long career in the television industry, so it fits in several ways. Or perhaps the name determined my fate, and I grew into it.
I think visions seen on TV, movie, or computer screens are very different from spiritual visions like St. Clare’s, but the problem of visions is something I spend the whole book worrying about. In one sense, a vision is by definition unreal—it’s a delusion, fantasy, or dream. But at the same time, a spiritual vision can reveal something more true and real than what’s normally perceptible.
I don’t know that people are capable of experiencing reality in some pure, unmediated, wholly physical way. We’re always drifting off into visions of the past and future. We become overwhelmed by memories and fantasies and moods, and we spend many hours watching images flicker across screens. Some of us, like St. Clare or William Blake or the poet H.D., have spiritual visions so powerful that ordinary reality fades in comparison.
There is something about watching a convincing horror film that is akin to having a terrible vision or a nightmare. But I think it would be an oversimplification to say that films are the same as dreams or delusions, or that witnessing an apparition of a ghost in a horror movie is the same as seeing a ghost appear at the foot of your own bed. The difference is the essence of the thing, which is the hardest part to define and yet the most important.
TM: I love to see Malachi Martin included in this book! Hostage to the Devil was a book I found in my house as a kid, and, fresh off repeated viewings of The Exorcist (and probably clutching a rosary), I pored through Martin’s disturbing tales. For the uninitiated: could you tell us a little about Father Martin? And how do you see possession relating to ghosts?
CC: Yes, thank you, Malachi Martin is fascinating! I still don’t know what to make of him. He was an Irish priest who left the Jesuits in the mid-1960s because of their alleged corruption, then he moved to New York, where he began a writing career and started practicing as an exorcist. He’s most known for Hostage to the Devil, which gives a terrifying and convincing account of several possessions. The book was a bestseller, but reviewers weren’t sure how seriously to take him, and he won as many followers as enemies.
I like Hostage to the Devil and find it scary, but I’m more convinced when I hear recordings of Martin speak. He gave a few long interviews on Coast to Coast, Art Bell’s long-running fringe paranormal talk show, and I found Martin to be so erudite and charming that I sincerely considered everything he said, though much of it is plainly impossible. The effect of that was chilling.
Within the world of horror, Martin was in the same circle as other paranormal investigators, like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and mentored a few contemporary demonologists who are still working in the field. The stories from these exorcists have been used as fodder for fictional horror films for decades.
As for the differences between demonic possession and ghostly hauntings, I think a person can be haunted, literally or figuratively, in such a strong way that it can seem as if they are possessed. What I mean is almost Freudian: that the ghost of a deceased parent or other ancestor can stay with a person and dwell within them, determining their interests, moods, and thoughts.
A demonic possession is something totally other. It’s not a frustrated or unhappy human spirit exerting its influence. It’s a nonhuman entity that has only hatred for our species and wants to see us utterly destroyed. In horror films and paranormal reality shows, these two kinds of spirits often coexist: a house or a person may be tormented by both demons and ghosts. Very unlucky! But a demonic possession is much worse; your soul is at risk. A demon works with a logic and power we can’t understand and shouldn’t underestimate. No matter how frightening a ghost may be, they are essentially the same as us.
In my book, I think about haunting and possession as different metaphors for the experience of depression and suicidal ideation. Both are states of being overtaken by a negative force. My description of those states gets a little more complicated and nuanced in the manuscript.
TM: Rilke, Plath, McLuhan, Merton, Deleuze, Sontag, Styron, Baudelaire, Kristeva, Freud, Lucretius, and Barthes all make appearances in this book—and that’s nowhere a complete list of thinkers and writers you reference. You include an especially great quote from Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” I can’t help but receive this quote in the world of 2020—and connect it with your observation that horror, possibly more than any other genre, “gives its fans the gratifying daze of repetition.” Are we somnambulating through this moment? How do you view horror films during a time of visceral, worldwide horror?
CC: It’s a good question, and we’ll see what happens in the next few months—if things get better or worse as the year comes to an end. Since lockdown began for me in March, I’ve have had the strange sense that life has never been more virtual, more screen-mediated, yet the danger which keeps me trapped inside is physical. I have never felt more aware of my own bodily fragility and mortality, and never more afraid of the hatred, violence, and delusion in our country, which is making the pandemic so much worse.
No matter how much time I spend “doom scrolling” on social media or reading the news on my phone, I don’t feel numb. I don’t think we’re sleepwalking through this, though time has taken on very strange proportions, and life has often felt surreal. The distance between me and everything that’s awful (which is, perhaps, the distance of a screen) doesn’t make the situation less emotionally charged, it just makes me feel more powerless. But of course I’m grateful that it’s not my body on the line right now, and that I have the tentative good fortune of health and safety.
I think people are still watching a lot of horror in 2020. It can be a helpful genre in a terrible time because it works as a distraction (replacing a bad thing with something worse) and as a way to think through questions about evil, violence, and death at an entertaining distance. There are many subgenres of horror that speak directly to the issues we’re dealing with now, though as always, I get the most satisfaction out of ghost stories. I think a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year, and I wonder what those ghosts might ask of us in the future. I suspect they’ll be returning, seeking justice.