“You cannot prescribe to a symbol what it may be used to express. All that a symbol can express, it may express.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Notebooks 1914-1916, numbered 130-131
“I would imagine that scholars of religion exist largely in the movies to explain the happenings in horror movies to unbelievers and skeptics.”
The 1971 classic, The Abominable Dr Phibes, contains not just one character who is a biblical scholar, but two biblical scholars! It is a veritable biblical scholar-fest. In addition to Dr Phibes himself, the film includes a Jewish scholar and rabbi, whose role is to explain the hidden meaning of the murders to the investigating police detective. This is perhaps the most common and hackneyed role for the religious or biblical scholar appearing in horror movies, as Dr Repphun surmises above.
The old bearded scholar creates an ambivalent mix of scholarly erudition and mystical spookification. He provides the film with a rational (albeit contrived and ridiculous) explanation for the series of murders which is taking place – i.e. that they are mimicing the ten plagues of the book of Exodus. And he also heightens the sense of the uncanny within the film, that spine-chilling decentering which is the necessary fuel of any horror movie (and which in The Abominable Dr Phibes threatens to disappear underneath the film’s campy absurdity).
When we first view the Jewish scholar in his study, he appears through the frame of an iron gate, and is sitting behind a wooden and somewhat ecclesiastical-looking desk, with a colonnade in the background – a scene overdramatically mysterious and arcane. When the camera zooms in, the scholar is as wide-eyed as a lunatic – every part the mad academic. He is on the left-hand side of the shot, which foregrounds two huge feather quills in their respective inkwells and a collection of odd artefacts. On the right is a puzzled police detective, brow furrowed as he struggles to understand the scholar’s undoubted profundity.
While the scholar translates the meaning of Hebrew, he refers to the Hebrew word for blood as “the Hebrew symbol for blood.” As we know from Dr Langdon’s stated area of expertise in The Da Vinci Code, “symbols” are much more mysterious and profound than mere words. Again, there is a mix of rational explanation and mystification.
The greatest moment of spookification in this scene occurs when the police detective queries, concerning the ten plagues of Egypt, “But, ah, all of this would be myth, of course, Sir?” The scholar’s eyes open up wide, and he says, with a hushed reverence, “Oooooh, I think not… There is little doubt that the plagues did occur.” The scholar appears to know this for certain, and this can only be by some uncanny intuition which cannot be understood by the untrained. But absent is any hint of a scholarly method of arriving at such a conclusion. According to the rabbi, the stories of the plagues only “seem a myth.” When it comes to the great miracles of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the biblical scholar seems to be mystically in touch with reality in a way that transcends rational enquiry. Which is not too far from the MO of many current biblical scholars, I guess.