Tag Archives: Harry Potter

Is “Twilight” turning teens into wannabe vampires?

According to one father, “Twilight” inspires kids to dabble in sex, the occult, and home-style vampirism.

Just in time for the final Twilight movie to hit the theaters, we have a worried dad (and pastor) attempting to connect the films with a subculture that, frankly, has been around a lot longer than Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. He somehow stumbled across the various “vampire” communities on the Internet, began (as many parents do) casting his 15-year-old daughter in that scene, and got scared.

He writes:

There, girls the same age of my 15-year-old daughter are talking about “awakening,” which is their word for converting to paganism (like the Christian word “born again”). In a perverted twist on Communion, their sacraments include the giving of your own blood by becoming a “donor.” This is entirely pagan. These storylines offer eternality without God and salvation; in the place of Jesus’ shed blood, girls and boys shed their own blood to be awakened to their own salvation of a new spiritual way of life filled with sex and occult behavior.

We heard a lot of similar chatter around the Harry Potter books and films: that they would turn young children into occult-obsessed heathens, that their souls would be lost. Even the Vatican changed its mind about that theory once it became clear that millions of kids hadn’t taken up the wizarding life.

Here’s the thing about teens, paganism, sex, and “vampires.” When I grew up, teens were reading Anne Rice’s books and playing Vampire: The Masquerade. They played at being vampires, dressing in dark clothing and wearing faux fangs. Few, almost none, drank anyone’s blood. It was a game, a role play like any other. A chance to try on a different identity, one that’s more mysterious and powerful than, let’s face it, just about any drab-feeling 15-year-old.

What I’m saying is this: teens (and adults) have been playing with this trope for a while now; it didn’t start with Twilight. The fact that Twilight took off suggests that there’s something in the cultural zeitgeist right now that makes it a good fit. What we need to do is analyze what that is — actually talk to kids about why they love the books and why they may be imagining themselves in some of the roles — and go from there. It isn’t about the Devil or the Internet/Mormon authors luring them to their doom. It’s about something that’s part and parcel of adolescence — coupled with the way the world is right now, and has been for the past 30 or so years since Lestat emerged from Rice’s imagination and hit the pages of a book — that’s driving people’s interest.

Fortunately, the author of this piece more or less does the right thing with his own daughter:

I do not shelter my children from these sorts of things. Pop culture is too pervasive to hide from (on a recent trip to a Barnes & Noble with my daughter we noticed an entire section of books dedicated to “Teenage Vampire Romance”). My wife and I talk to my daughter about these things so that she can be discerning, informed, and safe.

I don’t agree with him that media is “a potential threat to her well-being,” and would encourage him to let his daughter use her own discernment to seek out what she needs, and keep the lines of communication open so they can talk when she’s pursuing something that gives him pause.

I don’t think he’s wrong to worry. That’s what parents do. They want their kids to grow up safe, healthy, and happy. And, because he’s a pastor, he enters that role with a pretty specific worldview, and maybe even an obligation to keep his kids on the straight and narrow. But it isn’t Twilight tempting them — or anyone’s kids — to role-play as vampires.

So what is it, then?

Why not ask them, instead of judging them?

Are “The Hunger Games” sacrifices Satanic?

Are the themes of child sacrifice in The Hunger Games enough to label it “occult/Satanic?” Some groups think so.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy has earned many accolades, and is one of the best-selling young-adult book series since Harry Potter. This week, news broke that the books garnered a different type of honor in 2011: they’re among of the most-challenged library books in America.

Challenges happen anytime someone would like to request that a book be removed from public libraries. (Banning is when they actually are removed.) In this case, individuals and groups challenged The Hunger Games books on several grounds: “unsuited to age group and violence,” “anti-ethnic; anti-family,” and “occult/satanic,” earning the series the #3 spot in the 2011 top-10 list (which also includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and many recent releases.)

The Wall Street Journal caused a ruckus last year when it published a piece by Meghan Cox Gurdon decrying the violent state of young-adult fiction, including The Hunger Games.

We spend a lot of time here at Backward Messages examining what types of content are appropriate for kids, particularly in the context of video games. There’s plenty of evidence that such fiction does not harm kids, and that in general young people are good about recognizing the difference between fiction and reality. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in last year’s ruling on Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, had this to say about violent content in kids’ fiction:

California’s argument would fare better if there were a longstanding tradition in this country of specially restricting children’s access to depictions of violence, but there is none. Certainly the books we give children to read — or read to them when they are younger — contain no shortage of gore. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed. As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers “till she fell dead on the floor, a sad example of envy and jealousy.” The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales 198 (2006 ed.). Cinderella’s evil stepsisters have their eyes pecked out by doves. Id., at 95. And Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven. Id., at 54.

High-school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. The Odyssey of Homer, Book IX, p. 125 (S. Butcher & A. Lang transls. 1909) (“Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame”). In the Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. Canto XXI, pp. 187–189 (A. Mandelbaum transl. Bantam Classic ed. 1982). And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island. W. Golding, Lord of the Flies 208–209 (1997 ed.).

Are Lord of the Flies and The Odyssey still taught in classrooms? Is The Hunger Games more violent or offensive?

Actually, all this is beside the point I wanted to make, which is that I had to think long and hard before I figured out what about The Hunger Games would qualify as “occult” or “Satanic.” Finally, I realized they must be talking about the competition itself, and the requirement that each district (potentially) sacrifice a boy and a girl each year, some as young as 12.

Given that Abrahamic religions have been responsible for some pretty horrific tales of infanticide, child sacrifice, and fratricide, it’s tricky business calling a book “occult” or “Satanic” if it contains those themes — particularly since no occult or Satanic faiths practice human sacrifice, particularly child sacrifice.

Some may recall the religious furor over Harry Potter, which Catholics recently rescinded. Hopefully, those who challenge The Hunger Games for its themes — which also, by the way, painfully illuminate a number of pending problems in our society — will eventually come around as well. A series that’s getting more teens reading — and reading about ideas and possibilities that really matter — shouldn’t be challenged; it should be celebrated.

What’s behind our “teen witch” obsession?

Why do we fear the occult — and the teenage girls who dabble in it? Sady Doyle has some clues. Photo by Flickr user alicetiara.

In my research for Backward Messages, I came across more than one story about groups of teen girls who became temporarily obsessed with the film The Craft. This was before Harry Potter. Indeed, it was before Charmed, the show which brought young, attractive, savvy witches to television screens everywhere. Having a teenager suddenly enthralled by witches definitely worried some parents — but most admitted it was a phase, and it passed.

Still, truths are hidden in our scary movies (even if The Craft doesn’t really fall into that category). Sady Doyle, who writes at the blog Rookie, tackles this topic personally and gracefully in one of her latest posts, “The Season of the Witch.” In it, she writes about her own teen obsession with witchy films — as well as the cultural anxieties that are often behind horror films and our fears of them.

Before there was The Craft, there were the Salem witch trials, which started because the young girls of the town were engaging in unearthly, demonic behavior—such as “screaming” and “throwing things.” You know. The sort of thing you’d never do as a 12-year-old, especially not if you were stuck in a freezing-cold Puritan settlement where the funnest activity was churning butter.

Doyle smartly addresses the stories of cultural figures like Annelise Michel, a teenage girl who died in Germany in 1976 of neglect and starvation because her staunchly Catholic parents insisted that her adolescent behavior (and epilepsy) was the work of demons possessing her. In a more fictional account, there’s The Exorcist, which Doyle views thusly:

Once you realize that The Exorcist is, essentially, the story of a 12-year-old who starts cussing, masturbating, and disobeying her mother — in other words, going through puberty — it becomes apparent to the feminist-minded viewer why two adult men are called in to slap her around for much of the third act. People are convinced that something spooky is going on with girls; that, once they reach a certain age, they lose their adorable innocence and start tapping into something powerful and forbidden.

In our society, women’s sexuality and the occult remain two subjects many people understand less well than they should — and we fear what we don’t understand. It makes sense that these two should be combined, or serve as metaphors for one another, in our films and fiction.

The question remains: why do we fear teenage girls so much? I’ve seen this asked many times, but haven’t found a comprehensive answer. Certainly, it is a topic we revisit in horror films. What’s interesting is, some films are obviously there to allow people to explore these fears in a safe, fictional way. And other films — such as The Craft — help teenage girls come to grips with fears about how their bodies and minds are changing as they enter adolescence and, eventually, adulthood. Although it would be great to leave these fears behind, we haven’t — and this is how we’re dealing with it, for now.

Do these films contribute to actual girl-hatred and girl-fear in our culture? Or do they simply reflect and (hopefully) exorcise the fear that already exists? I suspect it’s more the latter. What do you think?

Televangelist Hagee says humanists, pagans fill “mental hospitals and singles bars”

Cornerstone Church pastor John Hagee. Photo by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman.

John Hagee, televangelist and senior pastor at the evangelical megachurch known as the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, TX, apparently has it in for pagans, witches, Harry Potter, secular humanists, and lesbian parents. In one of his latest semons, he rails against these evils and the problems he says they cause:

Secular humanism is a pagan god and America is bowing at the shrine. It has filled our drug rehab centers. It has filled the divorce courts. It has filled the shelter for battered wives. It has filled the rape crisis centers. It has filled the mental hospitals and singles bars. It has filled the penitentiaries and the [guest rosters] for the brain-dead television shows from New York. Think about that. We’re in a moral free-fall. When your children can be taught witchcraft by Harry Potter, that Heather has two mommies, you can substitute Christmas for a midwinter holiday. Call it anything you want to, but don’t call it Christmas. Kick God out of the Christmas event…

It goes on from there.

Now, I know such remarks are not meant to be based in facts or logic, and to expect otherwise is to be both foolish and disappointed. These are comments directed to a specific group of people whose values center on faith and the teachings of the Bible, and Hagee’s words are right in line with both.

And yet, here we are, almost in 2012. Our understanding of both pagan faiths and non-religious belief systems, such as secular humanism, is better than ever. But to folks like Hagee, and the people who follow his work, these beliefs all fall into the same junkpile, the one with the big neon sign labeled “evil.” Or at least labeled “morally corrupt.” It’s all a big slippery slope that starts with rejecting religious dogma and ends with jailtime. (What are the beliefs among prisoners in Hagee’s home state? According to one census, 30% are baptist and 18% are Catholic. Hmmm. Ooops, there I go, injecting pesky “facts” into the discussion again.)

Still, it bothers me (and, I suspect, many pagans) that folks on the fence would hear Hagee’s very compelling sermon and come to believe that secular humanism is bad. Or that secular humanism is paganism, since Hagee seems to conflate the two. Or that paganism is bad. Or that Harry Potter teaches witchcraft to kids. (Memo to Hagee: Catholics don’t believe that anymore.) Or that kids learning witchcraft is bad.

Or, you know, that Christians were the inventors of the winter holiday.

Then again, this man claimed that New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina because God wanted to prevent a planned gay-rights rally from taking place.

Fortunately, Hagee has some highly placed critics, such as Bill Moyers, who challenged the name of one of Hagee’s organizations: “Someone who didn’t know better could imagine from the very name Christians United For Israel — CUFI — that pastor John Hagee speaks for all Christians. Well, he doesn’t.”

Are there people who take pastors like John Hagee seriously? Why do they do so? And what’s the best way of injecting reason into the debate?

The Harry Potter debate: When is magic evil, and when is it a miracle?

Does Harry Potter’s use of “evil” sorcery to defeat evil make him good? Or evil? Even the Vatican can’t decide.

As I mentioned last week, the Vatican has had a change of heart regarding the occult overtones in the Harry Potter multimedia franchise. After years of claiming that the young wizard’s tale would lead impressionable readers to practice witchcraft and sorcery, someone in Italy must have noticed that that wasn’t really happening.

In a review of the final film in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, reported, “evil is never presented as fascinating or attractive in the saga, but the values of friendship and of sacrifice are highlighted.” Another critic noted, “the saga champion[s] values that Christians and non-Christians share and provide[s] opportunities for Christian parents to talk to their children about how those values are presented in a special way in the Bible.”

The Catholic Register also has positive words for the film, though the critic is uncomfortable with some of the language surrounding resurrection.

However, it’s unclear whether this positive spin on the Harry Potter world trumps such statements as then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2005 letters discussing how the wizard’s saga contains “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.”

There’s also the statement from the Vatican’s chief exorcist, Rev. Gabriele Amorth, who said, “You start off with Harry Potter, who comes across as a likeable wizard, but you end up with the Devil … By reading Harry Potter a young child will be drawn into magic and from there it is a simple step to Satanism and the Devil.” Again, this is a statement from a half-decade ago; has Amorth changed his mind?

Michael D. O’Brien, author of Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture, argues:

To believe that the Potter message is about fighting evil is superficial. On practically every page of the series, and in its spin-off films, evil is presented as ‘bad’, and yet the evil means by which the evil is resisted are presented as good.

Admittedly, I am on the other side of the aisle from O’Brien. Not only do I not believe magic is evil, I don’t even agree that the magic depicted in Harry Potter is intended to represent literal sorcery. Was Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus sorcery? After all, he says some magic words and Lazarus comes back to life after four days in a tomb:

41 So they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying.
Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said,
“Father, I thank you that you listened to me.
42 I know that you always listen to me,
but because of the multitude that stands around I said this,
that they may believe that you sent me.”
Lazarus, come out!

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
44 He who was dead came out, bound hand and foot with wrappings,
and his face was wrapped around with a cloth.
Jesus said to them, “Free him, and let him go.”

I may get in trouble with Christian readers for saying this, but honestly, the only reason this isn’t considered evil sorcery is that it’s presented as a miracle — in the same collection of stories that says sorcery is evil. Yes, the Bible is full of contradictions; arguably this is one of them.

So, here’s the question: is O’Brien right? Is the good vs. evil message in Harry Potter “superficial”? Is the use of “evil” to fight evil the real message of the saga? What do you think?

And the latest moral panic is … books?

Andrew Smith’s “The Marbury Lens” is among the young-adult books in WSJ writer Meghan Cox Gurdon’s crosshairs — she says it’s inappropriate for teens.

In what rulebook, operations manual, or parenting guide is it written that children and teens are pure, innocent, and morally untainted? Where is it written that they never have sexual or violent ideas, aggressive feelings, or fears inspired not by media fictions but by real life or their own fertile imaginations? The idea that kids are blank slates, happy and pure of thought until corrupted, is at the root of every child-related moral panic, from the crackdown on comic books to in the 1950s to the current outrage over … young-adult books. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far, does it?

Last month, Wall Street Journal writer Meghan Cox Gurdon penned a screed decrying the current state of young-adult fiction. It’s a state she describes as, “Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things.”

In the course of her article, Gurdon goes after a number of YA books, describing their content in lurid detail (almost echoing Justice Scalia’s recent descriptions of the gore and violence contained in youth literature dating back to the Brothers Grimm). These concepts, she argues, threaten “a child’s happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it.”

Personally, I’m wondering whether it has dawned on her that reading accounts of teens’ dire straits might a) shine a light on the fact that far too many children experience trauma, or b) that reading about such experiences might actually help readers develop that “tenderness of heart” toward such experiences that Gurdon is fighting for. It doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind; instead, she posits, “books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.”

Fortunately, Gurdon’s piece opened a dialogue. One of those dialogues was with Lauren Myracle, author of “Shine,” one of the books on Gurdon’s blacklist. Myracle and Gurdon chatted last week on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and Myracle responded to Gurdon’s claims:

Do books normalize dangerous behaviors? My answer would be people aren’t dummies. Some are, but most aren’t. Kids aren’t, either. I think that kids are, again and again, not given enough credit for being smart and for being critical thinkers.

(Remember when the Harry Potter books came out, and religious leaders were convinced they’d inspire kids to become demon-worshipping wizards? The Vatican is now championing the final Potter film.)

YA author Frank Portman, author of King Dork and Andromeda Klein, chimed in on his own blog. He writes:

For Meghan Cox Gurdon, a book that fails to advance, or even merely complicates, that agenda, let alone actually impedes it, is a bad book, worse than useless, unsuited to the task at hand, which is, essentially, social engineering.

But, of course, that’s not at all how or why people read novels. In fact, some of the best novels, like other forms of art, were created with precisely the opposite agenda in mind: to rile, to irritate, to provoke, to test, to undermine conventional assumptions and to discourage conformity. I’d even go so far as to say that the books that have meant the most to me over the years, “young” and otherwise, have been the ones deliberately constructed in order to make the parent’s job harder.

Portman also goes after the anti-Gurdon movement, which tagged many missives on Twitter with the tag #YAsaves. Young-adult fiction, Portman points out, isn’t there to save lives any more than it’s there to make parents’ jobs easier. It’s there to be art. To be fiction. For teens who enjoy reading. End of story.

What’s the darkest thing you’ve ever read in a young-adult fiction book, and how did it affect you when you read it? Share your tales in the comments.

Are RPGs still the enemy?

A trio of Belegarth players pause between battles. Photo by Flickr user Glenn Loos-Austin.

Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t toss a 20-sided die without hitting someone who thought role-playing games were a gateway to Satanism and suicide. Today, those suspicions have moved on to Harry Potter and Twilight. But role-playing games, both tabletop and live-action, are still alive and well. Hopefully, as a new generation is introduced to them, those Reagan-era fears won’t resurface.

Recently, gamer and author Ethan Gilsdorf penned a piece for Salon.com called “How Dungeons & Dragons changed my life.” It’s a worthy read, full of insight regarding how this nerdy game-based culture has now worked itself into modern life as the gamer geeks of the 1980s move into positions of corporate power and influence.

[Author] Myke Cole, 37 — the first in his military-fantasy “Shadow Ops” book series is forthcoming — echoed Brett’s thought but added one more wrinkle: “We are socially enfranchised and successful because of our D&D days.” A nine-year veteran of military operations and federal law enforcement, he’s been to war three times. “I wasn’t raised to the sword. My parents were committed aesthetes who eschewed violence and the institutions that wield it, and worked hard to instill those values in their children,” he wrote me in an e-mail after Boskone. “It was D&D that permitted the pasty, scrawny weakling child that I was to imagine myself as a broadsword-wielding knight of the realm.” He played a lot of fighters and paladins before he became one in real life. “That game gave me a gift I will never forget: It stretched my mind around the possibilities that hover around us, unnoticed, all the time. D&D taught me to imagine, and that was the first step to bending the world to my will.”

In another recent look at RPGs, Anna Van Straten wrote Planet LARP for City On A Hill Press, a student-run newspaper in Santa Cruz. Straten examines, among other things, a Belegarth group that re-enacts medieval battles in Santa Cruz. Like their tabletop counterparts, LARPers are in it for more than just a good time.

Some LARPers see the game as not only a hobby but as a form of escapism. Rick McCoy, for example, said that as a child he read books constantly.

“You know, that was my escape,” McCoy said. “Then I found role-playing games when I was 10, and it was the ultimate escapism, the ultimate way of getting out of reality.”

Instead of escape, the game can also be seen as a form of control, of building a character up from the ground in whichever way the player desires.

“I think it’s a way of controlling your own person, controlling your own destiny despite what life has thrown at you,” Andrew “Sieglatan” Hodnet said.

It’s a shame that something so psychologically rich would frighten parents. Then again, these kinds of riches — which kids so desperately crave and need — have always frightened adults, who would much rather have their kids remain in the shallow, “harmless”, risk-free worlds of Disney, Barney, and so on.

The moral panic around RPGs and LARPing has died down, giving us the opportunity to look at folks who played these games and ask: were the fears justified? Did these games have any lasting harmful effect on players? If not, then are we right to yank video-game controllers out of kids’ hands when they want to play Red Dead Redemption or Bulletstorm?