Return of the nightmare angel
Sorry to all for having missed my normal Saturday update. Naturally I would never willingly fail to meet a self-imposed deadline.
In case you haven’t heard, one week from today the ABC television network will premier a limited series titled Fallen, which is based on a series of young-adult books about angelic warfare. A recent press release at Sci Fi Wire contained the following:
“Fallen is based on Thomas Sniegoski’s young-adult book series The Fallen, about a young man (Paul Wesley) who discovers he’s half-human and half-angel, a member of a race called the Fallen. He and his family have been tracked down by a group of killer angels. Fallen will premiere as a two-hour film on July 23, then return next summer as a four-hour limited series.
“Sniegoski said he based the series on his research into the biblical history of angels. ‘I’d always wanted to do something with angels at some point in my career and accumulated a ton of stuff about the Old Testament writings and even older stuff than that and found some really wild stuff that I used to build the mythology of the four books,’ he told reporters. He added: ‘It’s a much scarier interpretations of angels. But at the same time, you look at the biblical stuff, and. . . what did God send when he was ticked off?’”
I find Sniegoski’s final comment-slash-rhetorical question about terrifying angels to be fascinating, not only because it’s entirely true, but also because it’s not original. And that’s not to slam him. I just can’t help but wonder what he’s been watching and reading over the years that might have inspired him to devote such attention to the ancient Nightmare Angel, as Emily Hahn called the figure in her quirky and interesting little book, Breath of God: A book about angels, demons, familiars, elementals, and spirits. Throughout most of world history, in every culture where people have believed in angels or their equivalents, these beings have been conceived as terrifying creatures that possess tremendous power. Even people who have believed that angels are basically benevolent have still feared them, as evidenced by the notable example of the terrified reactions angels invariably receive when they appear to people in biblical stories.
The Prophecy series of movies did much to resurrect this creature for the modern media-drinking public. Now perhaps Sniegoski and ABC will further the cause. I can’t help but think that Sniegoski has been watching the Prophecy movies, since his comment so closely echoes a brilliant bit of dialogue that Gregory Widen, the writer-director of the original The Prophecy, put into the mouth of one of his characters: “Did you ever notice how in the Bible whenever God needed to punish someone or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?” Not only is this a surprisingly intelligent piece of dialogue for a Hollywood horror movie, but it’s one of the most crystal-clear and concentrated statements of a very significant religious-cultural truth that anybody has ever penned. You’d be hard-pressed to find the matter expressed so succinctly in theological literature.
If you’ll forgive me the vanity of quoting myself, I’d like to offer a passage from my essay “The Angel and the Demon,” which will appear later this year in the reference work Icons of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by S.T. Joshi for Greenwood Press. I spent several months earlier this year researching and writing this essay about angels and demons as icons in supernatural literature and film, and so my attention is still hot on the topic. I’m hopeful that Fallen will represent a continuation of the Nightmare Angel’s resurrection out of the tomb of dreary-fluffy cuddliness that overtook the figure for more than a century. In my essay I explained this degradation as follows:
“A final bit of duality to enter into the figure of the Angel is found in [the] area of artistic representation. On the one hand, the image continued in its original majestic form down through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, arguably culminating in the paintings of the Dominican monk Fra Angelico (‘the angelic friar,’ c. 1400-1455), for whom angels were a favorite subject. C.S. Lewis voiced a widely held sentiment when he wrote that ‘Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven.’ It was these same Renaissance-style angels that television critic O’Connor noted had been ‘culled from art masterpieces” to populate NBC’s Angels: The Mysterious Messengers. That was in 1994, so obviously this type of angelic representation has survived to the modern day.
“But in the same breath when he was praising angels in the tradition of Fra Angelico and other, similar artists, C.S. Lewis also voiced a widely noted observation about a different artistic trend that produced a decidedly different sort of angel: ‘In the plastic arts these symbols [i.e., representations of angels] have steadily degenerated’ (Lewis 7). The specific degeneration he referred to is the steady birth of the cuddlier, cuter Angel that has carved out a distinctive niche for itself in Western popular consciousness and is most associated with the work of Fra Angelico’s near-contemporary Raphael (1483-1520). If the angels of the former call to mind ‘the peace and authority of Heaven,’ then those of the latter, which appear in the form of fat, naked babies adorned with candied white wings, call to mind the cloying sweetness of a Barney episode. They are also matched by another less majestic angel in the form of the pale feminine figure that arose to populate the art world during the 19th century. A few prominent artists such as William Blake may have labored to maintain a more transcendently serious vision of the Angel, but the shape of the future was nonetheless clear.
“Hahn links these changes to an impulse that arose with the advent of the Christian religion itself: ‘Taking stock of itself, the new Christianity made a change in all this [i.e., the fearsome angels of Middle Eastern religion]. The type of angel desired and needed by Christians, it became increasingly evident, was not the sort of Being the Jews had been satisfied with, so the authorities, viz., historians and illustrators, evolved a new concept of angel which, though we cannot all claim to love it, at least does not send us rushing off in screaming flight if we happen to encounter it in dreams’ (53).
“For Hahn, all Christian angels, even those of the Middle Ages, represent a kind of devolution of power. ‘[I]f we are to believe the medieval painters,’ she writes, ‘all was sweetness and light before the birth of jesus. After He made His appearance, the manger must have been full of the soft rustle of cherub wings, as little angels—not griffins or sphinxes, but amoretti—hovered over the crib, peering down lovingly at the Babe, between the ears of donkeys and the horns of cattle—two horns per animal, no more. Something new in religion came in with Jesus: prettiness, innocence, call it what you will. The Nightmare Angel’s sway was over’ (58).
“Obviously, Hahn was taking poetic license with history when she wrote that. The change did not occur immediately with the advent of Christianity. But occur it did, so that today, two millennia after the birth of Christ, Mark Edmundson can accurately observe in his Nightmare on Main Street that ‘America’s current angels are fluffy creatures, flown off the fronts of greeting cards,’ who compare unfavorably with the original biblical angels which are ‘beings of another order: an encounter with an angel transforms life—puts one on a harder, higher path’ (80).
“Lewis, for his part, brings the issue to a head and also summarizes the history of this degeneration in his typically inimitable way: ‘Later [i.e. in the wake of Fra Angelico’s angels] come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a teatable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there’ (Lewis 7).
“One can only wish Lewis were still around to comment on the angel-oriented advertising campaign mounted by the American lingerie company Victoria’s Secret in the early 2000s, which featured images of nearly-nude female models decked out with large, white, feathery wings. This enormously profitable mockery of the iconic Angel both underscored the figure’s cultural prevalence and one-upped the ‘pernicious symbol’ of Victorian art by presenting a figure that managed to appear exceedingly voluptuous and artistically insipid all at once.”
So to reiterate, I’m hoping ABC’s Fallen will further the rescue mission represented by the Prophecy movies and a few other cultural items, such as Frank Peretti’s inclusion of warrior angels in some of his Milton-Lite evangelical horror-thriller novels. Maybe Sniegoski’s source novels have already kicked the project off; I don’t know, because I haven’t read them. But if I do, I’ll surely mention them and give my reaction here at The Teeming Brain.
Incidentally, if you end up reading my essay in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and fail to find the above passage in its entirety, it’s because the essay initially turned out to be nearly twice the allotted length. I had to cut it way down. The passage I’ve quoted is from the full version, for which I’m still seeking publication.