Abominable Dr Phibes, Da Vinci Code, Dr Phibes, Robert Langdon, vengeance, Vincent Price, Vulnavia
It would be interesting to systematically examine the various portrayals of biblical scholars when they appear in various media – newspaper reports, television, etc – and in film and television, so as to discover the dominant ways in which they are represented, and so to discover the lenses through which biblical scholarship is typically presented to and construed by the general public.
One of the more familiar media idealisations of biblical scholars (which has little to do with reality) is of the scientific voice in the wilderness, of one who has suddenly discovered new “facts” which will potentially undermine all of Christendom and/or religion. The paradigm for this type of scholar, of course, is fictional “symbologist”(!) Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code fame. This type of character, the modern scholar in opposition to secretive, conspiratorial, fearful, and insecure traditional religion, is a modernist fantasy, but one which the media regularly constructs for “biblical scholarship” as a whole. Whenever some archaeological finding or piece of biblical scholarship hits the news (whether in fact new or old), a biblical scholar typically gets wheeled in for comments, which are then framed to fit the (often sensationalised) needs of the story. On occasion, the scholar’s point of view is portrayed more or less correctly, but more often than not she ends up serving this dominant caricature of biblical scholarship which has long been nurtured by the media.
Such a portrayal of biblical scholars is no less fictional than the portrayal of mass-murdering biblical scholar Dr Phibes in the 1971 horror film, The Abominable Dr Phibes – which plays on another widespread public misperception, the tendency to confuse the scholar with his subject matter. Played by Vincent Price, Dr Phibes has a PhD in Theology, which, as the chief inspector notes, “neatly explains his knowledge of the Old Testament.” For Dr Phibes plans to kill nine doctors and then himself, utilising methods that recollect the ten plagues of Egypt. For example, Dr. Hargraves’s head is crushed by a mechanical frog mask, Dr. Longstreet has all the blood drained out of his body by Phibes and his beautiful female assistant who is named Vulnavia, etc, etc. And – displaying the breadth of his biblical scholarship – Phibes designs amulets for each of the gruesome yet farcical murders, upon which is written the name of each plague… in Hebrew.
Dr Phibes seems to have embodied the vengeance and retribution which pervades the Old Testament; his nine murder victims are the medical doctors and nurse who failed to save his beloved wife from her mortal illness. The subject matter of the biblical scholar has become completely fused with the character of the scholar himself.
The whole film is viewable in its full splendour, here:
Eric Repphun said:
There is indeed a very interesting history to be written about representations of academics and academic life in popular culture. It might be fairly depressing, I would think. Save for odd appearances in things like the Cohen Brothers’ A Serious Man and for portraits of writers working in universities like Wonder Boys or even The Dark Half, I would imagine that scholars of religion exist largely in the movies to explain the happenings in horror movies to unbelievers and skeptics.
It is a fascinating fact of the horror film that so many of them treat the Christian cosmology (particularly its darker incarnations) as a given and tend to punish those who do not believe in it. See John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness for a very good example of this odd little morality play. On a far more serious, and far more chilling level, see John Doe, the informal scholar of history and religion in David Fincher’s nihilistic masterpiece Seven. Even in heroic characters, like Professor Indiana Jones, the academic life is usually used as a counterpoint to more adventurous types of living.
I suppose that in a place that is as virulently anti-intellectual as the United States (though it turns out, much to my surprise, that the US cannot hold a candle to New Zealand in terms of the suspicion of the intellectual), the best we can expect is Dan Brown’s Langdon, an expert in a subject that doesn’t actually exist. To anyone with a brush with the workings of the academy in the real world, Langdon is an incomprehensible character with a level of expertise that is impossible to fathom (I mean, a Harvard professor of the Humanities who can’t understand basic spoken French [in The Da Vinci Code, which I will admit to my shame that I actually read], but is familiar with the arcana of any number of religious or cultural traditions? I think not).