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Hell Hath Opened Her Mouth:

A Review of Drag Me to Hell

by Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.

Warning:  This review contains spoilers.

I am a huge fan of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and 1940s (Dracula, 1931; Frankenstein, 1931; The Wolfman, 1941, etc.) and the Hammer Horror of the late 1950s through the early 1970s (The Horror of Dracula, 1958; The Evil of Frankenstein, 1963, etc.).  Consequently, the more modern horror movies, especially those of the infinite sequel slasher films never seem to measure up to my favorites of the past.  Many modern film critics also seem to be quite unimpressed with most of the horror movies that are being made now.  So, when a horror film is released that most critics give rave reviews, I am always intrigued, hoping that it will really be worthwhile.  When I first saw the title, Drag Me to Hell, I thought this would be another of the many low-budget, mediocre horror films that are currently produced; but when I saw critics, almost across the board, giving it outstanding reviews, I had to see it.  I viewed this film on the big screen when it first came out.  Now that the DVD has been released, I have decided to write a review of the Unrated Director’s Cut.

I should have known that this film had real possibilities when I saw that it is directed by Sam Raimi, director of the Spiderman trilogy and Evil Dead series.  Drag Me to Hell is gross, funny, and campy, with a few startling scenes thrown in to make the audience jump. As Raimi said in an interview with Larry Carroll, “This film is trying to be like a ‘spook-a-blast,’ which is those cheesy carnival rides you get on and you’re jerked around in the darkness, wondering if a skeleton will pop out.”   In many ways, it is a tribute to some of the horror movies of the past, giving an especially strong nod to Night of the Demon (1957).  In the midst of all the horror and dark humor, the film raises some interesting moral questions, as well.

The title of the film hints that some of its characters are in danger of being dragged to hell.  In the Bible, hell is often presented as something that devours, swallows—something that has a belly.  Interestingly, the key images of this film center around food and eating.  The movie is so replete with issues concerning food and dieting that some reviewers have felt that one of the subtexts of the movie is eating disorders.  There is no question that the most repulsive and grotesque  images of the film play with an idea about  horrors connected with the mouth, both what goes in and comes out of it.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a farm girl who has moved to the city to make a career for herself in the world of banking.  Having shed some pounds, she is diligently trying to leave behind her past as an overweight, country girl.  In her first scene, Christine is in her car, listening to an audio recording designed to improve diction.  She is repeating the sentence, “Good sounds abound when the mouth is round,” but she still says “round” in a way that betrays her origins.

Christine is in love with Clay Dalton (Justin Long), who is a newly appointed psychology professor from a wealthy family.  Christine overhears Clay’s mother say that he needs a woman that can help him advance in the world, not a farm girl.  Christine is up for a promotion as assistant manager of her bank branch, but the manager is not sure that she can make the tough decisions that her chief competitor for the job, Stu, is capable of making.  Just as Christine has assured her manager that she can make the tough decisions, she finds at her desk, Mrs. Ganush, a gypsy straight out of a 1930s horror film, complete with a thick, Hungarian accent reminiscent of Bela Lugosi.  Mrs. Ganush has received notice that she is going to be evicted from her house because she is behind on her payments to the bank.  She has already been granted two extensions and begs Christine for a third.  At first, Christine wants to help this poor old lady, but when she is reminded that these are the kinds of tough decisions an assistant manager must make, she refuses to grant her an extension, though it is in her power to do so.

Mrs. Ganush is a grotesque character, especially when one looks at her mouth.  She coughs up mucous, attaching itself to her  horrible false teeth, which she proceeds to take out when sitting at Christine’s desk.  While Christine is asking advice from her manager, Mrs. Ganush swipes candy from the dish on Christine’s desk and stuffs as much as she can into her mouth.   After Christine denies Mrs. Ganush the extension, Mrs. Ganush attacks Christine in the parking garage.  In the course of their fight, Mrs. Ganush loses her false teeth, but still puts her gums on Christine’s chin.  At first it looks as though she is trying to bite Christine, but it could also be seen as an attempt to swallow her.   In the course of the attack, Mrs. Ganush rips a button off Christine’s coat and utters a curse over the button.

After the attack, images of the evils associated with eating continue to multiply.  When Christine goes home after the assault, she is looking through a cookbook, and an old picture of her falls out which shows her overweight, standing beside a sign that  “Pork Queen–Fair 1995,”  wearing a “Junior Famers League” T-shirt,  and standing beside a huge pig that has won the blue ribbon. It becomes obvious throughout the rest of the film by means of constant references to food, that Christine is obsessed with the evils that are associated with the mouth.  Though good sounds come when the mouth is round, the round mouth is also the place where food enters, making one fat, and, in her view, undesirable.

That night, as she is sleeping, a fly enters her mouth.  Flies also figure prominently in this film, perhaps a reference to Beelzebub, or the devil, being sometimes referred to as “Lord of the flies.”  Flies are shown as the opening credits are displayed on screen.  At the beginning of Drag Me to Hell, a young Hispanic boy is brought to a medium because he is suffering as a result of having taken a gypsy’s necklace.  When the mother and father show the medium the necklace, a fly appears, again associating the fly with evil spirits.  After the fly enters Christine’s mouth as she is sleeping, she has a nightmare about Mrs. Ganush being in bed with her, who vomits insects, worms, and maggots into Christine’s mouth.  When she goes back to the office the next day, Christine hears the sound of flies buzzing and grabs her stomach, as though the flies are located there.  Again, there seems to be some kind of association with her fear of eating and perhaps the cravings she is experiencing.  When her rival, Stu, comes to ask her some questions, he irritatingly drums his fingers on her desk.  Finally, Christine blurts out, “And get your filthy pig knuckles off my desk,” again, recalling her memories of being a former Pork Fair Queen.  Soon after making that statement, her nose starts to bleed, and she spews blood all over the bank manager, who asks, “Did I get any in my mouth?”

Christine visits a psychic name Rham Jas, who informs her that the button that was ripped from her coat is an accursed object that will draw an evil spirit called a Lamia who will drag its owner to hell after three days of torment.    The Lamia of Drag Me to Hell bears little resemblance to the Lamias we encounter in most folklore and literature. The more usual description of a Lamia, such as the one popularized in Keats’ poem,  is of a creature that is half woman, half snake.  The one similarity that the Lamia of Greek mythology has with the one of Drag Me to Hell is that the Greek Lamia devoured children, again, invoking the imagery of something involved in a repulsive form of eating.

In an effort to get rid of the curse before the three days are up, Christine tries to visit Mrs. Ganush, hoping to make amends, only to find that she has died.  When she goes inside the house, she finds herself in the midst of a memorial service for the old gypsy woman.  Mrs. Ganush’s daughter asks Christine, “You used to be a real fat girl, didn’t you?” As Christine is viewing the body of Mrs. Ganush, she accidentally falls on the corpse, but while trying to extricate herself, the toothless mouth of Mrs. Ganush again grips Christine’s chin, this time spewing a vile, green substance into Christine’s mouth.

Not being able to make restitution for what she has done, Christine asks Rham Jas for possible ways to escape her fate.  Now the question of the film becomes, “What will Christine be willing to do in order to rid herself of this curse?” She has been willing to do almost anything to get the job of branch manager.  Will she be willing to go against other moral scruples that she has in order to save herself?  One of Rham’s first suggestions is that she should offer a blood sacrifice by killing an animal in order to appease the Lamia.  When Christine protests that she could not possibly kill an animal, being so sensitive as to become a vegetarian, Rham replies, “You will be surprised what you will be willing to when the Lamia comes for you.”  After an attack by the spirit of Mrs. Ganush in which it shoves her whole arm down Christine’s throat, she decides to offer her pet kitten as a sacrifice, but the offering does not send the Lamia away.  Later, at a séance that attempts to free Christine from the evil spirit, the Lamia enters one of the members of the séance, and tells Christine, “I don’t want your cat, you dirty pork queen,” and then vomits out the kitten.   After Rham tells her of the medium we encountered earlier in the film who would be willing to help free her from the Lamia for $10,000.00, Christine sells everything she has, but when it appears that she will not be able to raise the money, she resigns herself to her destiny by sitting down and eating a half gallon of ice cream.

When the séance fails to deliver Christine from the Lamia, Rham tells her that the only alternative she has is to transfer the curse to another person, who will be carried to hell in her place.  Christine then deals with the question, “Who deserves this?”  While gorging on sundaes and becoming a more obnoxious person every moment, she tries to find a suitable candidate.  Being unable to deal with the guilt of sending another person to hell, she learns from Rham that it would be possible to transfer the curse if she gave the accursed object to the dead Mrs. Ganush, but she would have to unearth the body and make a formal gift of it.  On a stormy night, Christine digs into Mrs. Ganush’s grave which rapidly becomes filled with mud and water.  She opens the coffin, and stuffs an envelope containing the button in the corpse’s mouth, saying, “Choke on it…”  But the corpse won’t let Christine leave, dragging her back into the grave.   A huge silver cross from a neighboring grave falls on Christine, and she sinks into the muddy water.  But just as we think she has drowned, Christine’s hand comes up out of the grave, grasps the cross, and by it, pulls herself out of the grave.  It appears that Christine has been baptized, buried in the likeness of the death of Christ by baptism, and saved by the cross.    In the next scene, Christine takes a shower that washes away all the filth of the grave and we think the threat of the curse has finally been eliminated.

At the end of the film, Christine finally confesses to Clay, her boyfriend, that she could have given Mrs. Ganush an extension, but it was her decision not to do so.  Clay tells her that she has such a good heart.  But the movie leaves us with the question, “Is Christine a good person, or does she deserve to be dragged to hell?”  After all, she was willing to evict a woman from her house for the sake of a promotion.  In Matthew 23:14, Jesus condemns an avaricious group of people by saying, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”  Interestingly, the name “Christine,” is derived from “Christ,” and when Christine first hears of Mrs. Ganush’s plight, like Christ, she feels compassion.  But when the choice is between helping a poor old lady and receiving a promotion, in an un-Christlike manner, she chooses her own advancement.  The Church also honors a St. Christina who was persecuted because she gave her father’s wealth to the poor.  She was cast into a furnace for her faith, but she was miraculously preserved.  Rather than showing compassion, Christine and the bank have devoured a widow’s house, yet at the end Clay sees her as having a good heart.  Christine seems to accept the compliment, though she spent the entire movie denying that it was her decision to throw Mrs. Ganush out of her house, choosing to blame it on the manager.

In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, director Sam Raimi said, “We just wanted to tell the story of a person who wants to be a good person but makes a sinful choice out of greed for their own betterment at the expense of somebody else…and pays the price for it.  It’s a simple morality tale about how greed leads to destruction” (Festival de Cannes).  Though it appears that Alison Lohman was a last minute choice to play this role, it seems that she is perfect for the part of Christine  She has such an innocent face, and we are made to feel sympathetic toward her, though we may have an uneasy feeling that Mrs. Ganush’s daughter  was right when she tells Christine, “You deserve everything that is coming to you.”  Nevertheless, the audience probably identifies with Christine, knowing that we have also done things that were wrong out of greed.  Don’t we instinctively identify with the innocent-looking, beautiful Christine when the alternative is helping a grotesque witch of an old woman?   In an interview with Todd Gilchrist, Sam Raimi said:

…. it’s also a story about the digression of a character – how one bad choice leads to another and another and another until she really becomes quite a despicable character at the picture’s end, even though she’s very pretty and likeable, supposedly, and somebody hopefully who the audience wants to root for. …so that when she sinned against that woman, I wanted the audience to sin with her so that when Alison [Christine] was punished by having this demon called up from Hell chasing her down over the next two days, that like it or not the audience would know that they had made that choice too at that time and they deserved this thing coming for her….The theme was about greed and its effects.

Through our greed, we often destroy one another, devour one another, and drag one another to hell.  The imagery of connecting hell and demons with devouring, eating, and  swallowing is very biblical, especially in the King James Version of the Bible.  In I Peter 5:8, the devil is described in this manner:  “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”  Christine, the bank, Mrs. Ganush, and the Lamia are all devourers of some kind, thus associated with evil, the devil, and hell.  In Isaiah 5:14, we read another description of hell being a kind of devouring monster: “Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it.”  It appears throughout the film, that Christine and Mrs. Ganush, have been trying to devour one another, recalling the language of the apostle Paul who said, “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15).  Our own greed and avarice seems to be matched by the greed and avarice of hell.  If we bite and devour one another, our just punishment is to be devoured by the greed of hell that is never satisfied: “Hell and destruction are never full” (Prov. 20:7).  Though the Old Testament references to hell might be translated as Sheol, or “the grave,” the basic meaning is that our sinful choices lead to an inevitable destruction, whether in the grave, or in the flames of hell.   Our obsession with food often mirrors our passion to have other things as well, even if the price is destroying other people in the process.  In Drag Me to Hell, the images of mouths, food, swallowing, and vomiting, not only recall Biblical images of hell, but our, often, uncontrollable urge to consume others by our greed, creating present and future hells for one another.

Works Cited

Carroll, Larry.  “Sam Raimi Won’t Say Whether ‘Drag Me To Hell’ Actually Takes Viewers To Hell.” MTV.com.   28 Oct. 2008.  27 Oct. 2009.

http:/www.mtv.com/movies/news/articles/1598026/story.jhtml

Gilchrist, Todd.  Interview:  ‘Drag Me to Hell’ Director Sam Raimi.’  Cinematical. 28 May 2009.

27 Oct. 2009.

http://www.cinematical,com/2009/05/28/interview-drag-me-to-hell-director-sam-raimi/

Raimi, Sam.  Interview.  Festival de Cannes.  24 May 2009.  27 Oct. 2009.  http://www.festival

cannes.com/en/mediaPlayer/10041.html.

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Another Failed Utopia

 

A Review of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village” by S. Randall Toms

 

Warning:  This review contains “spoilers,” so you may want to watch the movie before you read this review.

 When one watches a movie by M. Night Shyamalan, one expects an incredibly surprising twist at the end, such as the conclusion of one of his other hit movies, The Sixth Sense.  His latest movies, both Signs and The Village do not contain twists that overpower us the way The Sixth Sense did.  As one watches The Village, one is aware that there are a few ways that the movie can end.  When it does end in one of those ways, we just say, “I thought so.”   Shyamalan, in some ways, is a victim of his own success.  Everybody expects all of his movies to be another episode of The Twilight Zone.   The Village is beautifully shot, well-acted, and has a great story.  Just don’t expect another Sixth Sense.  Though The Village does not surprise us a great deal, it does contain an interesting theme that I would like to pursue for this review.

The Village concerns a group of people living in rural, communal setting.  On festive occasions, or even to mourn the passing away of a loved one, all of the villagers take their  meals together, outdoors, at long tables.  The people are dressed in what would appear to be nineteenth century dress.  The community is governed by a council of elders, although there is no hint that this is a religious sect.  The name of God is mentioned only once in this movie in a vague and nebulous sense.  Prayer is mentioned twice.   Though the film frequently confronts us with images of an idyllic setting, the movie opens on a somber note with a father weeping over the coffin of a child.  Immediately, we know that all is not well in the village.  Not far into the movie, we find that the people live in fear of “those we do not speak of.”  We do not know what these beings might be, but there are certain rules that the people must obey concerning them.  No one must venture into the forest surrounding the village.  Thus, no one is ever to leave the village.  The people in the village know that there are towns outside the village, but they must never go there for they would have to pass through the woods to get to the towns.  There must be no color red in the village, because red attracts those that they must not speak of.  There is a watchtower at the edge of the forest to alert people in case these creatures come to the village. 

As the movie progresses, there are signs that these creatures may be on the verge of attacking the village.  The people are terrified when they find some of their animals killed and skinned.  One night, all of the doors are marked with red.  Supposedly these warnings are given because some of the young people have dared to venture into the woods.  Also, Lucius Hunt, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has asked for permission to go to the towns to get medical supplies to prevent further deaths. After Lucius’ request, we are given a glimpse of one of these beings.  It is dressed in a red cloak, appears to have something like porcupine quills coming out of its back, and has long claws, or perhaps, talons.

One of the important subplots of the movie is the love relationship between Ivy Walker, a blind girl, played by Bryce Dallas Howard (director Ron Howard’s daughter), and Lucius Hunt.  Bryce Dallas Howard really steals the show with her first performance in a starring role.  Another character, Noah Percy (played by academy award winner Adrien Brody), a young man who is mentally deranged in some way, is a very good friend of Ivy’s.  Noah is not mentally retarded.  He seems to be incredibly hyperactive, but he has a good vocabulary when he can calm himself down enough to speak, once remarking, “Capital idea!”   When Noah finds that Ivy is about to marry Lucius, he stabs Lucius out of jealousy.  Ivy wants to go to the towns to buy medicine to save Lucius.  Ivy’s father,  Edward Walker (played by Willaim Hurt),  one of the elders, decides to let her go.  Before she leaves, Ivy’s father decides to show her the truth about those they do not speak of.  He takes her into a shed and shows her one of these creatures.  Of course, since Ivy is blind, she has to touch this creature.  When she turns away hysterically, her father tells her that is a farce.  There are no such creatures.  The elders of the village have made this elaborate costume to wear from time to time in order to frighten the people.  The elders invented them to keep the people from ever trying to leave the village. Thus, the elders have created a myth, a very fearful one, to keep the people in the village.    Since the elders know the truth about these creatures, the creation of the myth is strictly for the benefit of the young, so that they will never try to stray.  The elders of the village appear to have no religion, so they do not have an established religion, such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, to use as a means of control.   In the course of time, the elders realized that they had to create a fearful myth in order to keep their children from ever leaving the village to be corrupted by the towns.  They have done what Joseph Campbell advocated for the modern world. 

Campbell believed that we had outgrown the old myths (he considered Christianity to be one of those), and there was a need to create a new myth.  The elders in The Village have done exactly that.  The myth is so effective in the lives of their children, that when two of the young men try to accompany Ivy through the woods, they turn back and leave her alone to fend for herself, because they are so afraid of these mythical creatures.  The elders have, in effect, created “the boogeyman” to threaten their children.

The elders have created a quasi-religious community.  The young people are assigned duties in the watchtowers.  Though the elders know that there are no creatures, the young spend fearful nights waiting for them to come.  When one of the “creatures” does make an appearance, the children huddle in fear in basements.  It seems cruel that the elders would allow the children to be so horribly frightened by a lie, but the elders have convinced themselves that this creation of fear is for a good cause.  This religion also has taboos.  They are not to speak of these creatures.  They are to avoid the color red.    They even have a “ceremony of meat” in which they offer an animal at the edge of the woods to appease the wrath of these creatures for the “sin” of venturing into the forbidden forest.  The elders have also created a myth concerning time.  The headstone for the recently deceased Daniel Nicholson, has the date of death as 1897.  But it is not 1897.  When Ivy crosses the fence, a vehicle arrives which has an inspection sticker that will expire 12/04.  It seems that for this community, the 20th century was an evil time, filled with violence.  The 19th century was a time of greater innocence, before the modern world had been corrupted by all the horrors of crime and two world wars.

Though this creation of a fearful myth may seem cruel, the elders are convinced that they have done it for the good of their children.  They have left the modern world, and created the myth to protect their young.  One of the young people speaks of the town as being “wicked places where wicked people live.”   Sadly, the elders find that they find that they cannot create the utopia that will shield the children.  Children still die, and they are still subject to violence.   Toward the end of the movie, we find that the elders all left the modern world, because they had experienced some kind of tragedy in their lives due to the violence of the towns.  They are trying to shield their children from these things.  Ivy’s father tells her that all the elders had experienced a terrible loss in their lives, and he wanted to shield her from the darkness of that experience.  Thus, what we have in The Village is the portrayal of another attempt to establish a utopian community that will shield themselves and their children from the tragedies encountered in the modern world.  All of the elders in the village have met great tragedies because of the violence of the modern world.  They keep pictures, newspapers, and other reminders of this violence in locked boxes in each of their homes.  Alice Hunt (played by Sigourney Weaver) says that she keeps them as a reminder of her past.  She is afraid that if she forgets these horrible events, they may be born again in another form.  Each elder keeps such a box as a reminder of why they are there.

Like all utopian schemes, this community cannot shield its members from the tragedies of life.  As I mentioned earlier, the movie opens with one of the elders, August Nicholson, burying one of his children.  He later tells Lucius that there is no way to escape the sorrow–“it can smell you.”  The people in the village try to escape the violence of the modern world, yet Noah tries to murder another person for no other reason than jealousy.  The interesting point of Noah being the bringer of violence to the community is that, since he is mentally handicapped, he is considered to be “an innocent.”  Yet, it is this “innocent” that is guilty of attempted murder.  From the beginning, we find that Noah has a penchant for violence.  He likes playing games where he hits other boys with sticks.  Ivy threatens to put him in “the quiet room” if he doesn’t stop hitting people.  Also, Noah seems to want an invasion from “those whom we do not speak of.” 

Whenever it seems that the creatures are going to appear, he gets very excited, laughs, and claps his hands.  Toward the end of the film, we find that it is Noah who has discovered one of the creature costumes, and that he has been the one skinning the animals.  Giving this character the name “Noah” was a great touch by Shyamalan.    During the days of the Biblical Noah, the book of Genesis tells us, “The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11).  After all the people in the world were killed during the flood, except for Noah and his family, the world had a chance to start anew.  But as we all know, violence came back to the world.  In The Village, in an ironic twist, it is Noah that brings back violence to the new world the elders have tried to create.  He brings back the dread red color, the color of blood.  At the end of the movie, Noah dies while trying to kill Ivy.  Thus, Noah, the innocent, moves from jealousy, to an attempt to murder his rival, and finally to an attempt to murder the one he loves.  When Edward Walker explains why he has allowed Ivy to go to the towns, he says that if he hadn’t done so, the community would never have been able to maintain its innocence.  He argues that the one thing this community has is innocence.  But is this community innocent?  Some of the deaths in the village could have been prevented if they had been willing to go to the towns to get medical attention.  Their control of the children is based on lies and deception.  Furthermore, Noah’s actions indicate that innocence cannot be totally maintained.  This utopian community finds that jealousy, envy, greed, and covetousness are not only in the towns, but within themselves and the children who have been reared in the village.  In spite of these facts, the elders persist in trying to perpetuate the myth.  When Noah dies, they decide to tell the rest of the people in the village that this is what the creatures will try to do to those who go into the woods.  Edward Walker tells Noah’s parents, “Your son has made our stories true.  Noah has given us a chance to continue in this place.”  Like Noah of old, this new Noah has given them a chance to start again, but this new start is built once again on deception.

Another irony in this separatist village is that though they try to separate themselves from the modern world, they can never entirely escape their need of the towns.  Ivy must go to the towns to get the medical supplies that are needed to save Lucius’ life.  The village faces the dilemma of all separatist communities:  Can we reach back into the modern world to take out of it what is good?  Ivy’s father tells her that when she finally went blind, he was so ashamed?  Why was he ashamed?  Was it because Ivy’s blindness could have been prevented if he had gone to the towns to get medical help for her?  Finally, he gives permission for Ivy to go to the town’s to save Lucius.  His wife talks him out of going to the towns himself, because he has taken an oath that he never would go back.  When he gives permission for Ivy to go, some of the other elders fear that he has endangered their entire project, for other people may find their location.

Shyamalan’s The Village is a commentary on our utopian schemes, especially those that advocate a withdrawal from the world.  The Village reveals that such schemes never ultimately deliver us from the sorrows and tragedies we try to escape.  From a Christian perspective we can say that The Village is an example of Jesus’ words, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies”(Matthew 15:18).  No matter how far we retreat from the modern world, these evils are present with us, inside of us.  Jesus said that he wanted his followers to be in the world, but not of the world.  All those who try to escape the temptations and tragedies of life by a retreat from the world will find their efforts to be futile.  Even the creation of a new myth, a myth without God, will not result in a better world.  Furthermore, as ? says, “We cannot escape the heartaches of life.  We know that now.”  Like most utopian communities, people thinking that they can make a better world find that what they have tried to leave behind has only followed them to a new location.

Christians often have utopian schemes, but we fail to take into account the heart of man.  The Christian must not retreat from the world, but function as salt and light.  Escapist illusions, whether Christian or secular, have always met with similar fates—either abandonment of the project, or the creation of lies to sustain an illusion.

Copyright c 2004 by Stephan R. Toms 

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Spiderman and Self-Denial

A Review by S. Randall Toms, Ph. D. 

In both the original and the sequel, the Spiderman films deal with the consequences of selfishness and the rewards and hardships of self-denial.  In the first Spiderman, Peter Parker is a typical teen-ager who wants to impress the beautiful girl.  When he finds that he has superhuman, spider-like qualities, he decides to enter a wrestling match in order to win enough to buy a car that will impress the love of his life, Mary Jane.  His first act of selfishness is to enter the wrestling match instead of studying at the library.  After winning the contest, the promoter refuses to pay him.  At that very moment, the promoter is robbed.  Peter watches the theft and allows the criminal to escape.  His second act of selfishness is allowing his desire to see vengeance done to the promoter, rather than stopping the theft.  These two acts of selfishness have consequences for many people, including his uncle, his aunt, and himself.  The thief that he allows to escape murders Uncle Ben, while the thief tries to steal Uncle Ben’s car.  The murder leaves Pete’s Aunt Mae a widow.  In both the original film and the sequel, Peter grapples with the guilt of being partially responsible for the death of his grandfather.  If Peter had been at the library, if he hadn’t put his personal desires for a girl ahead of his responsibilities,  and if he hadn’t allowed a criminal to escape, his Uncle Ben might still be alive. 

 

In Spiderman II, Peter Parker, still wrestling with his guilt concerning the death of Uncle Ben, has to make another choice between selfishness and self-denial.  As Spiderman, he is helping people in their many distresses, as well as putting criminals behind bars.  But Spiderman turns out to be a reluctant superhero.  He knows that as long as he is Spiderman, he cannot have a relationship with Mary Jane.     Spiderman finds that he is beginning to lose some of his superpowers, such as the ability to cast webs and climb walls.  Eventually, he discovers that his superpowers are failing because he is not sure that he really wants to be Spiderman.  After learning that Mary Jane is going to marry someone else, he declares, “I am Spiderman no more.”  We are reminded of how Superman in Superman II gave up his superpowers for

Lois Lane

.  Peter Parker throws his Spiderman costume in the garbage and begins to lead a new life, free from the responsibilities of being Spiderman.  The next few scenes of the film show Peter enjoying life as a normal student and making some progress with Mary Jane.

 

Then, Peter Parker begins to realize that some people are being hurt, because he is no longer Spiderman.  Crime in the city goes up 75%.  He witnesses a beating, and, instead of helping the victim, he just turns and walks away.  Finally, he sees a burning building and hears that there is a child trapped inside.  At this point, he decides that he can no longer stand idly by.  He rushes into the inferno and saves the child, but afterward he hears that someone died in the building, a person that he could have saved if he had not refused to be Spiderman.  At last, Peter Parker realizes that his decision to leave behind his role as Spiderman may not have been wise.  Nevertheless, there is still Mary Jane.  Peter keeps hearing the words of Uncle Ben, “With great gifts come great responsibilities,” which echo the words of Jesus, “For unto whom much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48).    While mulling over the decision of whether to return as Spiderman, his aunt tells him that sometimes we have to be steady and constant, and do our duty, even at the cost of our dreams.”  I was happy that someone in the popular media finally made this point.  Too often, in American culture we hear the maxim that we must achieve our dreams no matter the cost.  Sometimes, because of the responsibilities of life, we do have to deny ourselves some of our dearest plans, goals, and dreams.  Peter Parker finally realizes that he must give up the dream of having Mary Jane in order that he might help other people.  Perhaps he would be happier with Mary Jane than he would be Spiderman, but many people would suffer because he was too concerned about his own happiness.

 

The primary command of Jesus to his disciples is to deny themselves and follow him.  Jesus said in Matthew 14:26, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”  When Jesus uses the word “hate” in this context he does not mean that we should harbor strong feelings of antagonism and aversion toward others.  He is speaking in comparative terms.  He is saying that our love for him, and our allegiance to him must be so strong, that if it comes to a choice between following him and our own loves and desires, we must choose him.  Our love for him must be so strong, that our deep love for others would seem like hate in comparison.  Peter Parker loves Mary Jane very much, but he realizes that his responsibility for the safety and happiness of others must outweigh his love for MJ. 

 

In Matthew 10:37, Jesus said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me:  and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of
me.”:  Peter Parker’s cross is leaving Mary Jane behind while he fights criminals and saves those in distress.  His allegiance to the goal of being a help to others, outweighs his need for his own happiness.

 

As Christians, we must learn the discipline of self-denial.  If you are a student, in order to achieve an academic excellence that would glorify Christ, you must deny yourself many of the joys and pleasures that your friends are experiencing in order to keep studying.  The decision is difficult, but worthwhile.  Sometimes a husband and father, must make a choice to stay with his wife and children rather than pursue another woman, another career, or freedom from the responsibilities of married life.  Sometimes, we have to make a choice between spending time with our families, or chasing the dollar and other dreams.  Christians are faced with many temptations that come to us disguised merely as dreams we must follow.  If any such dream comes into conflict with the will of God, then we must deny ourselves the pleasure of seeing that dream fulfilled in order that we might remain loyal to our commitment to Christ and to others. 

 

At the end of Spiderman II, Peter gets to be Spiderman, plus, he wins the girl he loves.  Mary Jane decides not to marry someone else.  Perhaps we will have to wait for Spiderman III to see if the relationship is going to work out between Pete/Spiderman and MJ.  Nevertheless, by denying himself, Peter Parker actually gains more than he lost.  While that result may seem to be true only in the movies, Jesus made a promise to his followers that we would gain more than we lose when we follow him:  “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29).

 

The lesson we learn from Spiderman is that our responsibility to others is more important than our own dreams; nevertheless, our greatest satisfaction comes when we do our duty.    At the end of Spiderman II, Peter Parker is firm in his commitment to be Spiderman, no matter the personal cost to him.  Are you firm in your commitment to follow Christ, or are you willing to neglect your responsibilities for selfish dreams? 

 

Copyright (c) 2004 Stephan R. Toms

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