Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Censoring Magick

The other day I was looking through new movie reviews and came across this one for Rob Zombie's new horror film, The Lords of Salem. Normally it's not the sort of thing I bring up on this blog, since while I am a fan of cheesy horror films they're not truly magical or paranormal in any sense of the word. If anything they distort the concept of magick nearly beyond recognition, and frankly the film loses points with me right off the bat for its deliberate association with the set of clown shoes that is the Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft scene. However, it was this bit at the end of the article that captured my attention:

“The Lords of Salem” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for language, nudity, gore and spell chanting.

I'm familiar with Rob Zombie's work, and as such the idea that a film from him would ever get a lower rating than R seems pretty farfetched. Nonetheless, I had no idea before now that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave movies that depict "spell chanting" a more restrictive rating. That's yet another area where the Poor Oppressed Christians are so utterly non-oppressed. Has a film ever had its rating increased for depicting prayer for a specific intent? Of course not - even though casting a spell is essentially the same thing once you remove the sectarian associations.

Now the MPAA is in fact a notoriously messed up organization. Between its bungling attempts to combat movie piracy and its insistence that depictions of sexuality are apparently far more damaging to children than depictions of extreme violence, it seems to me that the organization's bad reputation is deserved. In an interview years ago, Trey Parker of South Park fame explained that when he and Matt Stone made Team America: World Police they filmed an unbelievably extended and graphic version of the film's well-known puppet sex scene with the full knowledge that most of it would have to be cut - just so that the MPAA's raters would have to endure watching the whole thing.

But as bad as the MPAA is, genuine censorship - that is, completely banning a film - is far worse than simply jacking up the rating in response to something innocuous like "chanting." As I was contemplating what I was going to say about the latter, I found this article from the Indian press. According to the article, social activist Dr. Dinesh Mishra is lobbying the government to ban films that "encourage superstition." That would include just about anything involving magick and the paranormal, and if you remove every Hollywood blockbuster with those elements from the canon it becomes a whole lot more dull.

Fantasy films would be right out, though I suppose clever screenwriters could put together vaguely plausible technological explanations for the "magical" elements and call the results science fiction, like when Anne McCaffrey wrote The Dragonriders of Pern but didn't want to associate it with the fantasy genre, which was apparently considered less reputable at the time it was first published. So instead of magical creatures, you get genetically engineered creatures that just happen to precisely resemble mythical dragons and a colonized planet somewhere out in space that has lost most of its advanced technology and just happens to precisely resemble a medieval society. But that's a lot of work, and the result comes off as pretty contrived.

To be fair, in societies like India lynchings of suspected witches do still occur, and according to Mishra this is his main concern.

Mishra, who has been working against witchcraft and black magic for more than 15 years, had contributed largely by bringing the Prevention of Witchcraft and Black Magic Act in Chhattisgarh in 2005. He warns of danger against women in state who are already in trouble due to supernatural beliefs. Talking about numbers, Mishra said that according to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 1,700 deaths of women in country since 2001 were because of the delusion that they were indulging in black magic. While Chhattisgarh has already witnessed more than 500 such cases and 167 deaths of women during the same time, he said that such movies shouldn't be promoted in state as it could trigger more incidents.

"While a tantrik was sentenced to death for beheading 11-year-old boy in Raigarh district recently, there are more than hundred goats being sacrificed in different parts of the state everyday during the nine days of Navratri.

In fact, the temples where these sacrifices are done here are located very close to the capital. The scene is horrific with dozens of beheaded heads bathed in blood lying on one side and rear part of the body on the other stack. Large crowds from far off places gather to witness the bloodshed. Wouldn't that trigger a faith in their minds?" Mishra said.

While such concerns are not completely unfounded, at the same time I find it rather dubious that films depicting paranormal elements are responsible for witch hunts, even in India. Accused witches were being killed all over the world long before the arrival of cinema, and usually the killings are directly related to community dynamics. In fact, it strikes me as akin to blaming video games for violent incidents like mass shootings - such violence peaked in 1991 in the United States and as technology allowed video games to become more realistic the number of incidents declined substantially at the same time.

What also strikes me as strange about Mishra's statements is the conflation of animal and human sacrifice, when in fact there's an enormous difference between the two, which makes me wonder about moral panic elements creeping into his rationale. To my way of thinking, anyone who has a problem with killing an animal as part of a religious ritual but still is perfectly okay with eating a hamburger is either willfully ignorant or simply a hypocrite. From an ethical standpoint, either killing an animal is justified or it isn't, period. The context of the death should make little difference so long as the killing itself is done humanely.

Likewise, the idea that animal sacrifice leads inevitably to human sacrifice has been used to hound religions such as Voudon and Santeria pretty much since the public became aware of them. With the number of people sacrificing animals in the context of those religious systems, you would expect to see a lot more murders going on if that assertion were even remotely true. It leaves me wondering if Mishra is just opposed to magical practices and is using the witchcraft issue as a cover for censoring material that he simply finds offensive. The article makes no mention of his personal religious beliefs, which might shed some light on his motives.

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