Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 2

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August 27, 2013 by jmar198013

slasherfilmtheology

This is part two of a three-part series on how Christians might be able to appropriate biblical texts of violence and genocide redemptively. In this post, I will be reading the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of three early films from Wes Craven: “Last House on the Left” (1972); “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977); and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984); and suggesting that the stories these movies tell about “righteous” communities who undertake total warfare against a threat can teach us something about how to understand the Canaanite genocide stories. For my account of how stories of sanctified violence, particularly the Canaanite genocide, are problematic for Christians, see my previous post, Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1.

In my last post, I noted that there are two popular ways to interpret the biblical accounts of the Canaanite genocide (found especially in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua). One is to read them as straight history, and to defend God for having ordered them. The other is to take them as idealized historical accounts of settling the land that the often-beleaguered Israelites told to bolster themselves when their backs were against the wall. [1] I suggested that while the first option privileges the text, and the second option privileges the contexts, neither resolves the tension between a God who calls for total annihilation of another people and this same God who reveals himself through the cross of Christ.

In order to embrace this deep tension–a people gathered around the Prince of Peace has in its back story tales of bloody genocide–I offered the alternative of “critical traditioning” proposed by Ellen F. Davis. This means approaching a text as a tradition which “preserves (in some form) our mistakes and atrocities as well as our insights and moral victories” by presenting “side by side the disagreements that are still unresolved in the present” (“Critical Traditioning,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, 169 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003]). In terms of the Canaanite genocide, Davis notes that there is an official Deutronomic party line: “The only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” But she also points out that, while that party line “is never directly repudiated,” it is yet “undermined by the emergence of another voice, one that suggests a very different way of viewing both Canaanites and Israelites” (“Critical Traditioning,” 170-71).

I want to, in this section, see how both a party line of total warfare and a counter-narrative that undercuts that assumed party line obtains in the text. To do this, I am using three early films of horror director Wes Craven to illustrate in more recent times how a creative and insightful mind has been able to enter a bloody narrative and offer a counter-narrative that undercuts it. My suggestion is that we read the Canaanite genocide stories with the same suspicion. Whomever recorded these counter-narratives the following sections present inherited a tradition, but respectfully balked. They entered into the world created by the Canaanite ban stories and offered some competing claims about both Canaan and Israel. When read together, these two testimonies challenge, qualify, and correct one another. There is a genuine conversation going on in the story between the party line and a loyal opposition. And together, they offer a very nuanced perspective.

The official party line is, “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” But below, we shall observe three counter-narratives to that party line:

  • Jacob’s response to his boys massacring an entire Canaanite village when man from the village rapes their sister Dinah (Gen. 34)
  • The generosity and courage of the Canaanite madame Rahab (Josh. 2)
  • How the Israelite Achan’s sin made God put his own people under the same ban Canaan was under (Josh. 7)

In order to illustrate similar themes, I am drawing analogies with three Wes Craven films:

  • In “The Last House on the Left,” Craven suggests that you cannot slaughter your enemies with impunity.
  • In “The Hills Have Eyes,” in the midst of a gruesome total warfare between two peoples, a girl from a savage people displays courage and generosity to those who are annihilating her family.
  • In “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” the conceit of the film is that murdering a murderer still makes you a murderer.

Like the tradents who preserved the counter-testimonies of Gen. 34, Josh. 2, and Josh. 7, Craven was challenging in these films a party line that justified total warfare. For “Last House” and “Hills” were released during and just after the Vietnam War–a time where it was popular to assert that “in order to save a village you must destroy it.” “Elm Street” was released during the brutal culture wars of the Reagan era, when every conflict was considered grounds for identity politics and dehumanizing your enemy was considered an act of virtue. Craven’s films challenged those dominant cultural and political assumptions in ways similar to the counter-narratives which challenge the assumptions of the official line on Canaanites.

The Last House on the Left and the Rape of Dinah

1972’s “Last House on the Left” was director Wes Craven’s first film. Craven has explained the continuing appeal of the film thus: “The story, about the painful side effects of revenge, is an evergreen. The headlines are full of people and nations taking revenge and getting caught up in endless cycles of violence.” Indeed, common consensus among movie critics is that “Last House” cries out to be interpreted against the backdrop of the horrors of the Vietnam War. Literary and film critic John Kenneth Muir offers some keen insight into the film’s motivation: “Forged during the time of the Vietnam War, Craven’s Last House on the Left is perhaps the ultimate anti-violence, anti-war film.”This might sound an odd way to describe a movie notorious for graphic depictions of sexualized violence and gruesome and depraved acts of brutality.

“Last House” is a film that confronts the viewer with violence in a variety of forms: bullying, torture, rape, class warfare, and retaliation. The movie focuses on two communities engaging in frontal conflict: on the one hand, you have the rich, suburban Collingwood family. On the other, you have an escaped gang of violent criminals, led by the patriarchal figure Krug Stillo. The conflict between the two tribes, the Collingwoods and Krug’s posse, will unfold in vicious brutality from both sides that ultimately accomplishes nothing. The refrain of the song that plays during the opening credits sums up the conceit of the film: “The road leads to nowhere.”

In "Last House on the Left" (1972), the Collingwoods typify the affluent nuclear family living the American Dream.

In “Last House on the Left” (1972), the Collingwoods typify the affluent nuclear family living the American Dream.

In the first movement of the film, viewers meet the gorgeous teenage daughter of the Collingwood family, Mari. Mari and her working class friend, Phyllis, are planning to go into the city and to watch a concert by a popular band, Bloodlust. It turns out that blood lust is not only the name of a rock band, but the very engine that propels the film along. Early in the movie, the issue of class-based strife (fear of  and hatred towards the outsider) is introduced when we see Mari’s parents’ reticence to let her daughter go out with the lower class Phyllis. It is no secret that they look down upon Phillis and her family, joking that Phyllis’ parents are in the “iron and steel business”: “She irons . . . he steals.” But they consent to allow their daughter to go to the concert with her poorer friend, if only to allow them time to prepare an elaborate surprise party for Mary’s 17th birthday the next evening. Before the girls leave for the city, Mari’s mother gives her an early birthday gift: a peace-symbol necklace.

After Mari and Phyllis have left for the city, we meet the film’s antagonists, a perverse band of escaped criminals led by serial rapist and murderer Krug Stillo. Krug’s posse includes a female sadist, appropriately dubbed “Sadie,” and a perennial pervert known as “Weasel.” Stillo’s son, Junior, also runs with the gang, though Junior is a somewhat different animal than the rest. Junior is a mentally unstable heroin addict, and Krug and the others control him by providing him drugs.

Krug's posse: from left, Krug Stillo, Sadie, and Fred "Weasel" Podowski.

Krug’s posse: from left, Krug Stillo, Sadie, and Fred “Weasel” Podowski.

Junio Stillo with his father.

Junior Stillo with his father.

Before the concert, Phyllis and Mari roam the streets of the city in search of marijuana. It is during their weed quest that they meet Junior Stillo, who tells them he knows where they can score some. Junior takes the girls back to the apartment in which Krug’s posse is squatting. The girls realize too late that they have been set up and are trapped. The slightly more street smart Phyllis tries to talk their way out of the killers’ apartment, but is attacked and gang raped. Note that in terms of social location, Phyllis is in the vicinity of Krug and his gang, but her “insider” status does not protect her from being cruelly exploited by them. However, her actions protect Mari, for the moment, from a similar fate. Mari’s prejudiced parents cannot see that there is more to Phyllis than meets their eyes. She is a strong and generous girl.

The next morning, Krug and his gang stow the girls in the trunk of a car and take them to the woods. Once there, Mari recognizes that they are on a road close to her home. Krug, Sadie, and Weasel torture and sexually humiliate the young girls for what seems like hours. Phyllis runs away, trying to provide a distraction that will allow Mari also to escape. Again, note that it is the “outsider” (from the Collingwoods’ perspective) who puts herself in danger to try and protect Mari. Krug, Sadie, and Weasel leave Junior standing guard over Mari, and chase after Phyllis. They finally corner her, and when they do, they promptly gut her and remove her entrails.

Meanwhile, Mari has attempted to befriend the gentler Junior Stillo, appealing to the spark of humanity that resides in him behind the haze of insanity and addiction. She gives him her peace-symbol necklace as a token of trust. He is actually going to let her escape, but then Krug returns with the others, bearing pieces of Phyllis’ body with which to terrorize Mari. Krug mutilates Mari with his knife and rapes her. After the act, Mari vomits and then staggers to a nearby lake to wash herself. Krug follows her to the water, and promptly shoots her.

Now, there are two surprises embedded in what has just been recorded. The first is that Junior Stillo has a heart. He is not an unadulterated monster. The second is that just after they have brutalized and raped Mari Collingwood, Krug’s gang experiences a genuine moment of remorse over their transgressions, as suggested by this scene in the film, The three briefly emerge from the haze of their blood lust and stare at each other in awkward silence, trying vainly to clean the sticky blood from their hands. Krug’s facial expression actually seems to register repulsion for the brutal deeds he has just finished doing.

krugsremorse

Krug and his gang appear to be on the verge of repentance. But instead, they push aside their remorse and go to the water to shoot Mari down. It is as if they want to erase their guilt by erasing the existence of their victim.

The gang washes up, changes into Sunday finery and heads deeper into the woods. As fate would have it, their car breaks down just up the road from the Collingwood home. They are taken in as guests by Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood under the guise of being traveling salespeople whose car has thrown a rod. The Collingwoods graciously extend hospitality to them, but during the evening, Mrs. Collingwood notices something disturbing: she sees Mari’s peace-symbol necklace worn by Junior. Suspicious, she later rifles through the guests’ luggage and discovers bloody clothing. Mr. and Mrs. Collingwood rush into the woods, where they discover Mari, dying on the lake shore.

Mari’s parents return to their home, now filled with blood lust themselves, and proceed to unleash a bloodbath of vengeance on Krug’s gang. Mrs. Collingwood seduces Weasel, and while performing fellatio on him, bites off his genitals and leaves him to bleed to death. She then chases down Sadie and slits her throat with a knife. During the melee, Krug is able to manipulate his unstable boy Junior into committing suicide, only to be immediately hacked apart by Mr. Collingwood with a chainsaw.

At this point, two inept police officers, who have been pursuing Krug’s gang throughout the film, finally show up at the Collingwood home to discover the gory aftermath of their blood feud. The Collingwoods have completely vanquished Krug’s posse in an act of total warfare, but they have damaged their souls irreparably in the process.

Ruminating on the final scene of “Last House,” Muir concludes:

Very simply, the film ends on the face of two shattered people. They have been as violent and brutal as Krug and his fellow attackers . . . and yet their daughter is still dead. They have achieved nothing . . . except the lowering of themselves to barbarism; to the level of the criminals who were so monstrous. They have survived; they have prevailed . . . but now they don’t even know who — or what — they are, anymore.  Behind them, a tapestry announcing Mari’s birthday has fallen, in tatters…like their very lives.

This is the key to understanding why “Last House” can be characterized as an anti-war, anti-violence film. Craven’s point is that when you must meet violence with an equal or greater violence, all it ever does is create a vicious cycle. If your actions mirror those of your enemy’s, you cannot legitimately claim the moral high ground. We are what we do.

“Last House” presents us with the case that you cannot destroy your enemies, no matter the level of their moral perfidy, with impunity. You always damage yourself–strategically, if nothing else. Slaughter-in-kind only proves that you are like your enemy. In terms of the conflict between Israel and Canaan, we see a similar case made as early in the story as the book of Genesis. In Gen. 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah–like Mari Collingwood in “Last House”–goes to a strange Canaanite village with some questionable companions. While there, she is raped by a local rowdy named Shechem, whose father is the village jefe, Hamor. Shechem remains smitten with Dinah, and goes with his father to meet with Jacob and try and secure her as his wife. Dinah’s brothers are rightly infuriated, and cut a deal of their own with the Canaanites: we’ll let Shechem marry Dinah if he and all the other men of the village will be circumcised. The Canaanites agree to this, and somehow or another convince all the other dudes in town to do the same. While they are laid up in pain after the surgery, Dinah’s brothers sneak in, kill all the men, loot the town, and steal the women. When Jacob learns what his boys have done to avenge their sister, he is horrified: “You have ruined me! You’ve made me stink among all the people of this land—among all the Canaanites and Perizzites. We are so few that they will join forces and crush us. I will be ruined, and my entire household will be wiped out!” (Gen. 34.30 NLT) Jacob perceives that his sons’ overkill response will only serve to perpetuate cycles of violence. They have gained nothing but enemies. Davis notes here that “although Jacob is the first to perceive that Canaanites cannot be slaughtered with impunity, his is not an isolated response. In fact, viewed in light of the conquest tradition, Jacob-Israel’s response may be seen as paradigmatic for the people that assumes his name” (“Critical Traditioning,” 170).

The Hills Have Eyes and the story of Rahab

Wes Craven’s 1977 siege film, “The Hills Have Eyes,” like “Last House,” pits two tribes–the Haves and the Have Nots–against one another in a similar scenario of total warfare. Yet, “Hills,” as we shall see, gives a much more nuanced account of the “good guys” and the “bad” than does “Last House.”

The protagonists of “The Hills Have Eyes” are a “whitebread” American family, the Carters. Led by bigoted know-it-all patriarch, Big Bob Carter, the Carter clan is rounded out by wife and mother, Ethel; son Bobby and his sister Brenda; elder sister Lynne, her husband Doug, and their baby Katie; and the family dogs, Beauty and Beast. The Carters are on a road trip from their home in Ohio to Los Angeles, CA, but stop along the way in a remote part of the Yucca desert, which the U.S. Air Force is using as a test range. Bob has just retired from the police force, and a family member has gifted him with a silver mine in the desert.

The Carters stop at a remote filling station owned by an old codger named Fred. Old Fred warns the family not to go into that area of the desert, explaining that the military uses it for bomb-testing and that the few people who do dwell out there are inhospitable. Big Bob, hardened and suspicious after a quarter century as a cop, refuses to listen to Fred, and in fact suspects that Fred is trying to keep them away from their silver mine because he has already nicked its contents. But what Bob does not know is that Fred knows much more about the folks dwelling in the desert than he is letting on. He should, for they are his own offspring, and he is terrified of them. Indeed, before the Carters arrived at his filling station, he had been preparing to leave for good.

We later learn that nearly fifty years previously, when old Fred was young and the gas station was brand new, he had a wife and a beautiful baby girl. But the next child, a boy, was a monstrosity from birth. Weighing nearly 20 pounds, the child emerged from his mother sideways, killing her in childbirth. He was full-grown by the age of ten, and prone to savagely kill neighbors’ dogs and livestock. One day, when Fred had gone into town on business, he came home to find that his house had burned to the ground. His daughter was killed, burned beyond recognition, but the son was unharmed. Fred knew the boy had killed his sister, and in a rage, beat him to death (he believed) with a tire iron and dumped the boy in the desert. But the boy survived. Adopting the moniker “Jupiter,” he eventually shacked up in the desert with “Mama,” the town whore, and the two of them proceeded to conceive a brood of malformed savages named after planets like their father: Pluto, Mercury, and Mars. The only child of the batch who was not a mutant maniac also happened to bear the relatively normal name of Ruby. The butt of much abuse from her family, Ruby longs to escape the desert with her grandfather, Fred. But Fred will not take her, noting that she smells like a horse and doesn’t even know how to use a fork and knife.

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Papa Jupiter’s clan, we learn, has historically survived by ambushing travelers and cannibalizing them. More recently, as fewer travelers have passed through the area, they have taken to stealing from the PX of the nearby Air Force Base. In the desert wasteland, they are a people on the brink of extinction. When they witness the Carter clan riding through their neck of the woods, they are not just bad guys seeing their victims: even more fundamentally, they are seeing an opportunity to extend their survival. Yet, having said that, they are still quite brutal. In Papa Jupiter’s family, we do not merely see primitives or savages–we see humans who have gone feral.

As the story unfolds, Big Bob crashes his truck and the trailer he is hauling, leaving the Carter family stranded in the wilderness. The Carters are left as sitting ducks. Papa Jupe’s clan unleashes a reign of terror in the desert. Jupiter kills his father, old Fred, with a tire iron before he can escape to civilization. Jupe and Pluto crucify Big Bob and set him afire, and later feed on his roasted flesh. The Jupiter clan kills one of the dogs, Beauty, and feeds her to Ruby (this is Ruby’s punishment for taking up with her grandfather). Pluto and Mars brutally rape Brenda and kidnap the baby Katie (to whom they refer as a Thanksgiving turkey), then murder Ethel and Lynne.

The surviving members of the Carter clan–Doug, Bobby, and Brenda, along with the dog Beast–soon learn that they will need to be as savage as Papa Jupe’s family if they are to survive. Doug, who to this point has been henpecked and pliant, dashes off into the mountains to reclaim his baby daughter from the cannibals. Meanwhile, back at the crashed trailer, Bobby and Brenda use their mother’s corpse as bait. When Papa Jupiter comes to snatch the body for more food, the teens have set a booby-trap, rigging the trailer into a crude bomb. Papa Jupiter is badly burnt in the explosion, and Bobby finishes him off with two bullets fired at close range.

Meanwhile, back in the mountains, Doug is doing a decent job whooping cannibal butt, but he does not swoop in Clint Eastwood style and single-handedly wipe out the bad guys. Much of the credit for this goes to the family dog, Beast. Beast leaps into Mercury, pushing him off a cliff to his death. Beast also savagely mauls Pluto, incapacitating him for the rest of the action.

But–and this is important–the true hero of the film is a member of the Jupiter clan: Ruby. Ruby longs to escape her family, and is the key to the survival of the remaining Carters. It is Ruby who knocks out Mama and takes baby Katie away from the cannibal’s lair. And it is Ruby who, upon seeing her brother Mars finally getting the best of Doug in a mountainside brawl, saves Doug by picking up a rattlesnake and placing it where it will strike her brother. The rattlesnake’s bite to Mars’ neck flips the fight. Doug grabs Mars’ knife and stabs him frantically.

Again, John Kenneth Muir offers an assessment of the closing shot of the film:

The final freeze frame of the The Hills Have Eyes shows Doug hovering viciously over Mars’ body. It is a shot which suggests man has violent tendencies just beneath the surface, instincts that he can tap even with hundreds of years of civilization behind him. When the frame turns blood red, the indication is that man is a creature awash in blood and that there really is no difference between civilized people who supposedly have morals and the wild sociopaths who roam the hills. Both will fight to protect their families. (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998], 68).

As in “Last House,” the typical American family–“righteous,” but fatally flawed–engages in total warfare with a mirror tribe (in “Hills, this mirroring is made even more explicit–Big Bob and Papa Jupe are very similar in personality), dispatching the enemy as gruesomely as the enemy would them. As Muir so deftly noted, although quite distant in social location, both will fight to preserve their families. As in “Last House,” one member of the savage clan distances themselves from their peers. In “Last House,” it is Junior Stillo, who eventually commits suicide. In “Hills,” it is Ruby, who proves herself even more virtuous than the Carters in her heroic stand against her family. It is at least hinted that Ruby will find a home in the midst of the surviving Carter clan.

In Joshua 2, we meet a character analogous to Ruby in “Hills” in the person of Rahab, a loose Canaanite woman (her name–which means “broad”–is a dirty joke, used in Ugaritic literature to denote female genitalia). Rahab runs a brothel in the Canaanite town of Jericho, and spies sent by Joshua sneak into town (in opposition to Joshua’s command to “be brave and strong,” Josh. 1.6-7, 9) and bed down there (mixing business with pleasure, perhaps?). When the king of Jericho’s goons come searching for the Israelite spies, Rahab hustles them onto her roof and covers them with flax (they are looking less and less heroic at every turn). Then she concocts a brilliant diversion on the fly: The men left when it was time to close the gate at dark, but I don’t know where the men went. Hurry! Chase after them! You might catch up with them (Josh. 2.5). Then, while Israel’s best and brightest are still hiding under the flax, this Canaanite whore confesses the awesomeness of Israel’s God and her allegiance to his people:

I know that the Lord has given you the land. Terror over you has overwhelmed us. The entire population of the land has melted down in fear because of you.  We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Reed Sea in front of you when you left Egypt. We have also heard what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan. You utterly wiped them out. We heard this and our hearts turned to water. Because of you, people can no longer work up their courage. This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.  Now, I have been loyal to you. So pledge to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith.  Spare the lives of my father, mother, brothers, and sisters, along with everything they own. Rescue us from death. (Josh. 2.9-13)

Rahab’s confession actually makes her seem more like a faithful Israelite than the actual Israelites cowering under the flax on her roof. Owing their lives to her, the spies agree to covenant with her for protection of her family and its stuff–but by doing so actually violate Torah (cf. Deut. 7.1-5; Deut. 20)! Because she has saved these men, Rahab and her family (quintessenial Canaanites!) find a home in the people of Israel (Josh 6.22-25). Like Ruby in “Hills,” Rahab’s virtue transcends not only that of her own tribe, but of the tribe who has come to conquer them. Again, Ellen Davis observes:

In the story of Rahab, the stock notion of Canaanite wickedness is . . . radically relativized, if not demolished altogether. Moreover, the corresponding notion of Israelite faithfulness is certainly not strengthened. Indeed, in the whole conquest account, the only recorded sins in the promised land are those committed by Israelites. (“Critical Traditioning,” 172)

The Rahab story challenges the assumption that, “the only good Canaanite is a dead Canaanite.” Indeed, it challenges identity politics and tribalism altogether, because it forces the hearer to re-think just who is an Israelite and who is a Canaanite. If a Canaanite acts like an Israelite, are they still a Canaanite? This question of identity–one that depends more on doing than being–is raised again in the story of Achan’s sin in Joshua 7. It is also raised in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which challenges viewers with similar questions about identity and action.

A Nightmare on Elm Street and Achan’s sin

After “The Hills Have Eyes,” Wes Craven spent several years doing other sorts of movies. In 1978, he was a cinematographer for “Last House” producer (and later Friday the 13th franchise director) Sean Cunningham’s G-rated “Bad News Bears” rip-off, “Here Come the Tigers.” In 1982, Craven took a stab at the sci-fi genre with the well-received “Swamp Thing.” However, in 1984, Craven returned to the horror genre, and delivered the film that would secure his legacy (and incidentally also give us Johnny Depp and New Line Cinema as theater mainstays) : “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

“Elm Street” sees Craven revisiting familiar territory: whitebread American families committing gruesome offenses in order to combat an evil that threatened them. The basic plot of the film is this: the children of a suburban white picket fence town are being terrorized in their dreams by a haunting figure. It is a terribly burned man, wearing a disorienting red and green sweater, a dirty fedora, and a glove with blades on the fingers, with which he menaces the children. One by one, the children of Elm Street begin dying in their sleep, sliced to shreds in their dreams by the disfigured man with the razor glove.

It is not until several of the children of Elm Street have died that the parents of the film’s protagonist, Nancy Thompson, reveal to her the dark secret of their past–and the whole town’s–that is coming back to haunt the kids in their dreams. Several years before, a local handyman named Fred Krueger had murdered about twenty of the town’s children. His weapon? A custom-made glove with bladed fingers. In fact, Nancy’s mother had kept the glove as a trophy of the lynching of Krueger in which she and the other parents of Elm Street had participated. Krueger had been caught by the police, but because a judge forgot to sign a search warrant, he was later released. Enraged, the parents of Elm Street cornered him in the boiler room where he worked (and where he had taken his victims), doused him with gasoline, and burned him alive. Now the spirit of Fred Krueger was extracting its own revenge from beyond the grave–the sins of the parents are being visited upon their children.

“Elm Street” provides several significant departures from and development of themes that first appear in “Last House” and “Hills.” In contrast to those films, the threat is not from outside the community, but from within. Unlike Krug’s gang in “Last House” and Papa Jupiter’s clan in “Hills,” Fred Krueger is an “insider threat”–a neighbor, someone known in the community. Second, whereas the perverse posse in “Last House” and the cannibal clan in “Hills” constitute a group threat–a bizarro mirror of the community which they attack–Krueger is a singular aberration who disrupts the fabric of the community. This is directly related to the final departure-from-yet-development-of the themes that determine Craven’s previous horror films: neither “Last House” nor “Hills” lingers on to deal with the aftermath of the family’s violence towards the threat. We suppose that those families are damaged, perhaps beyond repair, but we are not left to see how they function (or do not) as they come to terms (or fail to come to terms) with what has happened to them and what they have done. This is precisely where “Elm Street” picks up, and it is not a pretty picture. Whereas “Last House” depicted an idyllic nuclear family, and “Hills” portrayed an extended family, in “Elm Street,” protagonist Nancy Thompson’s home is broken. Her parents are divorced and constantly at odds. Her father (like Big Bob in “Hills”) is an overbearing police officer; her mother is a functioning alcoholic. Their marriage cannot bear the strain of their shared secret, and they have retreated into their own ways of (not) coping with what they participated in, at the expense of their daughter’s well-being. In this way, “Elm Street” completes the story arc of “Last House” and “Hills,” allowing us to see what happens to the families who undertake total warfare–however justified it may seem at the time–against a menacing other.

There are many ways in which the “Elm Street” saga echoes the story of Achan in Joshua 7. According to the text, Achan had stolen Canaanite loot instead of destroying it as a sacrifice to the LORD, and this led to thirty-six Israelite soldiers being killed in a rout. Like Achan, Fred Krueger is a singular aberration whose unholy conduct threatens to tear apart the fabric of the community (cf. Josh. 7.1-5; notice how one man’s sin threatens the whole people). But this is where the similarities between Krueger and Achan end. From there on out, it is the parents of Elm Street who bear a remarkable likeness to Achan. To see why this is so, we will need to pay close attention to Josh. 7.12, which reads: The Israelites can’t stand up to their enemies. They retreat before their enemies because they themselves have become a doomed thing reserved for me. I will no longer be with you unless you destroy the things reserved for me that are present among you. What the CEB translates as “doomed thing reserved for me” is the Hebrew herem, which refers to “the ban” or “total destruction” which was the fate reserved for the Canaanites. In his Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), Frank Spina says of this passage:

In light of what God has just declared, the unpalatable fact is that Israel has become Canaanite . . . If Israelites act as Canaanites, then God will regard them as Canaanite and treat them accordingly. (67)

By lynching Krueger, the parents of Elm Street have acted as lawlessly as Krueger did; they have become murderers. This is in direct parallel to the concept of Israelites behaving as Canaanites. A look at Josh. 7.13 is also instructive: You won’t be able to stand up to your enemies until you remove from your presence the things reserved for me. Like Achan, the parents of Elm Street have stolen what is reserved for God: vengeance (Deut. 32.35; cf. Rom. 12.19). Incidentally, there is a direct parallel between Achan and Nancy Thompson’s parents: they both kept trophies of their conquest. Nancy’s mom kept Fred Krueger’s bladed glove, and Achan kept a Canaanite robe, a bar of gold, and some silver (Josh. 7.20-21). Finally, like Achan, the sins of the Elm Street parents tore apart their families and cost the lives of their children (Josh 7.24-25).

The experience of the parents (and children!) of Elm Street highlights another facet of the narrative that qualifies the Canaanite ban: it isn’t about tribalism; it’s not a matter of “us versus them.” Who you are depends on what you do: if you act like Canaanites, you are regarded as Canaanites.

In my next post, I will explore how the word of God in the cross of Christ acts as a judgment upon all human history–including the Canaanite genocide. The cross seems to legitimate the counter-narratives presented in Gen. 34, Josh. 2, and Josh. 7. That is, the cross does not invite us to engage in “us versus them” identity politics which leads to tribalism and genocide. Rather, the cross invites us to welcome the other, even the enemy.

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[1] Usually correlative to this view is arguing that the archaeological evidence does not support the biblical narrative. My response is, whether those things happened precisely that way or not, ancient Israelites believed they did and preserved them as part of their origin story. Hence, their identity was at least in part formed by these accounts. Since the church inherits these traditions as part of our story, we still have to figure out what to do with them, whether or not they actually “happened” as recorded.

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One thought on “Vengeance and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 2

  1. […] and genocide: sanctified violence in the Scriptures and slasher film theology, part 1, and part 2. In previous posts, I read the Canaanite genocide narratives through the lenses of three early […]

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