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Examining the unexplained

Joshua Gunn, associate professor of communication studies, reveals why we’re so intrigued by stories of the supernatural and paranormal.

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Halloween is the time of year that conjures up images of pumpkins, exorcisms and ghosts, but what’s behind it all? How much of it is real and how much is a Hollywood creation? And what would possess someone to make a career out of those things?

We sat down with Joshua Gunn, associate professor of communication studies at The University of Texas at Austin, to find out.

Gunn does research at the intersection of rhetorical and cultural studies, in pursuit of two, interrelated projects: the integration of psychoanalysis and rhetorical/textual theory and a demonstration of the relevance and ubiquity of theological forms in public culture and daily life.

His latest published research focused on the role of theological form, from the apocalyptic, occult and paranormal to the mundane religiosity of the “theory wars” in the humanities. His teaching interests include courses in rhetorical theory and criticism, rhetoric and religion, and rhetoric and popular music.

Gunn recently published a book, “Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century” and has also published in a variety of journals, including The Journal of Communication and Religion, Popular Music and Society, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, Telos, Text and Performance Quarterly, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, and Visual Communication.

We asked Gunn a few (not-so-scary) questions about his fascinating area of expertise.

What led you to teaching about this topic?

The answer to this question depends on how far I go back in my personal history. If I were to stay in recent history, I started teaching a course on the paranormal and occult because I find the topic fascinating, of course, but also for pragmatic reasons. I’ll explain.

For my first job as an assistant professor at Louisiana State University, I had to teach the courses of the person I replaced. One of them was titled “Rhetoric and Religion,” a course I would have never taught by choice. The more traditional or straightforward course about the discourse of religion engages the sacred texts of mainline religions and various theories for interpreting them. I found, however, that this risked Bible-battles in the classroom. During graduate work, I learned that when I or others taught about religious topics, students would sometimes get into verse battles with each other or challenge the teacher by quoting scripture. I just didn’t want to be on the defensive as a teacher, nor did I want my students to feel defensive about their faiths. After all, one’s religious convictions are often at the very core of her identity — especially atheists.

Because I was finishing a book on occultism at the time, I decided I could still achieve the goals of the course — cultivating a respect for different viewpoints, understanding the character of faith and how we talk about it, and so on — by going at the topic slantwise. I soon realized that having students read about more unusual beliefs ironically helped them to maintain an open mind. Then, at the end of the course, I ask students to think about how strange their beliefs actually are. Yes, Whitley Strieber’s alien abduction story is very strange; however, so is the narrative of the deity who came to earth for the purpose of being tortured to death. Students really seem to dig this approach — the devoutly religious, especially. I teach courses on celebrity culture, popular music and rhetorical theory. My course on the supernatural and paranormal has been and remains the most popular. I think that popularity says something about the purchase of the supernatural in our culture and, more specifically, two persistent human obsessions: mortality and the problem of evil.

So, I teach about these topics because I find it is a great way to reach students for the sake of the “bigger picture.” And, of course, owing to our longings for immortality, the supernatural intrigues people because it flirts with some confirmation of life after death. In the end, the supernatural and paranormal are implicated in religious belief. These topics seem tangential, and are often culturally coded that way, but I think they are in fact central to the “big questions” of life.

Now, if we go way back in personal history, my interest in researching and teaching on these topics is rooted in childhood. I grew up in an evangelical church that taught young people that any interest in the supernatural and occult was “of the devil,” even that one could be possessed by seeing a horror film or enjoying heavy metal music. I believed in spiritual warfare until my early or mid-teens (cars and sexual awareness were the route of my growing doubt). So, part of my interest concerns wrestling with my own “demons,” deep-seated fears about what I once thought was a supernatural force, but now believe is essentially human: evil. Popular culture narratives about the paranormal, supernatural and so on help us, as a culture, to work through the stark and often disheartening realities of adulthood, as well as help us to craft something or someone else to blame (aliens, the devil, reanimated deceased pets, the in-laws). I think working through is good, and that’s how I teach material on the supernatural and paranormal. Still, as much as the spooky stuff represents a culture working through its traumas, it can also be used for harm and displace responsibility (e.g., did the devil really make you do it? Is the person you want to execute really possessed by a supernatural force?). Too much concrete evil is done in the name of fighting an abstract evil. As a species, humans routinely turn other people into monsters. It makes them easier to kill. This is the ugly side of the supernatural, and that needs to be taught as well.

Was this something you studied before or after you became a professor?

Perhaps because the paranormal, occult, and so on were taboo in my youth, I’ve always found these topics interesting, but I did not formally study them until graduate school, however, and mostly as topics for term papers.

What really pushed me to start writing and publishing about these topics was the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Many journalists in the mainstream news media were reporting the gunmen were practicing Satanists or occultists; I noticed an explosion of discourse on the Internet (at that time, newsgroups were big) about demonic forces, the apocalypse, and so on connected to the shootings. Most of these sorts of claims turned out to be patently false, and I wanted to understand the larger, cultural processes that set them into circulation. Why was the claim that the gunmen were practicing Satanists credible in the first place? That’s an interesting cultural question to me. As a communication scholar in a college anchored by a journalism school, I know a little bit about how journalists are trained; that a journalist would publish that sort of thing says as much about our culture as it does the journalist.

Since that time, the best answer I’ve come up with to questions like these is simply this: We have a rather large vocabulary for discussing good things. We have a very poor and limited vocabulary for discussing the negative — for discoursing on evil. Television shows, movies, and stories about strange goings-on are, in some sense, a kind of cultural compensation for this poor vocabulary. Or, alternately, these have become our vocabulary for giving expression to that which we fear and have difficulty talking about. In this respect, the occult, supernatural and paranormal are a kind of poetics, a human striving to make sense something ineffable that we all feel but cannot name.

Do you incorporate horror/subculture studies into your classes? For example, do you assign your students horror movies to watch for homework?

Yes, but just for my paranormalism course (“Rhetoric and Religion”). The class covers the topics of spiritualism and psi phenomena, demonic possession, apocalyptic cults, and alien-abduction narratives. I don’t require students to watch the films (they are, after all, scary), but I suggest if they can bear it, they should see “The Legend of Hell House,” “The Exorcist” and “Close Encounters” before the appropriate week, because I draw examples from these films (and many others). Films are profoundly important for providing the collective imagination with images that circulate and, in a way, anchor narratives about the supernatural.

For kids today, Halloween is all about dressing up and trick-or-treating. What else should they know about the holiday? What are its origins?

I am going to assume by “kids,” you are not referring to anyone’s age. Halloween is precisely a holiday for kids, especially the middle-aged! I’ll come back to this.

A lot has been written about the date of Halloween, its links to various harvest festivals (Samhain) and so forth. What a lot of folks don’t know is that, like a lot of things imported to the United States, we have made Halloween our “own.” We know the celebration comes to us from the Irish and Scots, which may explain why Halloween was originally a class affair. David Skal, in his 2002 book on Halloween (“Death Makes a Holiday”), argues the holiday has a lot to do with class division. The Great Depression ended the largely upper-crust practice of ladies carving pumpkins and getting glimpses of their future beloveds at midnight when disgruntled, rock-throwing youngsters started “tricking” them. As Skal tells it, in New York City and related areas in the northeast, it became common practice for poor kids to beg for change on Thanksgiving. For some reason, the previously generous upper classes stopped giving handouts, and the “ragamuffins” started pranking and vandalizing rich folks’ homes. The story goes that the more well-to-do got the idea to open their homes on the night of the pranks, feeding the young people apples and cider and so forth to avoid vandalism. Offer a treat, or you’ll get tricked — and how! The practice drifted toward October over time. Of course, that’s just an explanation for the practice of trick-or-treating, and a lot more feeds into the way the holiday evolved to the way it exists for us today.

Regardless, I think the class-based tension underlying the holiday is still with us, both in terms of its association with the working class, but also psychologically. On what other day is a young person empowered to demand a gift? It’s the only holiday I can think of when a young person — the most disempowered of almost all cultures — gets the upper hand on the grown-ups. This power play is part of the joy, and perhaps why so many of us “regress” to our childlike selves when celebrating the holiday, or when reliving it through our children’s eyes. It’s the same dynamic that makes Maurice Sendak’s children’s books so enjoyable to children-kids and adult-kids alike: Max, denied dinner, becomes King of the Wild Things and commands all of them to have a “rumpus!”

Read the complete ProfNet QandA with Associate Professor Joshua Gunn.

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