Sign up for our free newsletter
It’s a dark and stormy morning, a day so gloomy that cars drive with their headlights on, and people crouch under umbrellas, holding them sideways to shield against the wind. In other words, the perfectly clichéd backdrop for “Horrors,” the freshman English course Father Ed Ingebretsen teaches at Georgetown.
The 45-year-old Jesuit priest is the author of Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory From the Puritans to Stephen King, a social history and linguistic analysis of horror in the United States from Cotton Mather to Carrie. Today, his class discusses American Psycho, the over-the-top slash-fest by Gen-X hack Bret Easton Ellis.
“In what kind of culture does a text like this become possible?” asks Ingebretsen, whose slacks, tie, and suspenders look more ready for happy hour at Clyde’s than vespers.
“The book is a criticism of the idealized culture,” says a student.
“And what culture is that?”
“The ’80s ‘Me Culture,’ “offers a young woman. Father Ed doesn’t respond, but his expression indicates that the class is missing something.
“What is the first axiom of Mr. Ed’s school of reading?”
“Don’t be seduced by point of view.”
The students respond by saying that the point of view is obvious. After all, the title of the book is American Psycho.
“Never trust covers,” Ingebretsen retorts. “They’re like people—what you see is not what you get.”
The same thing could be said about Ingebretsen. On paper, he seems like the kind of guy Pat Buchanan would be proud to know. The son of a career Navy man in Bethesda, Ingebretsen went to Catholic prep school, eventually entered the seminary, and was ordained in 1981. Almost impossible to pin in an argument, he has a verbal agility and intellectual sharpness that are as intimidating as his physique, which gets constant attention in the weight room and resembles that of a 20-year-old boxer. He is remarkably good-looking, a published poet, and the author of a book on Robert Frost. He’s also a man of God.
Ingebretsen’s vocational collar is deceiving. Compulsive, even hyperactive, his interests “turn to obsessions” that might make the Vatican squirm. A marcher in the annual D.C. AIDS walk, he teaches a course on gay literature and hawks the kind of PC interpretations of literature—every “text” interpreted through the lens of race, class, gender—that give conservative critics fits.
But Ingebretsen’s most incongruous fixation is horror as a tool of social control; he became obsessed with it a few years ago while preparing his homilies for Mass. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a painstaking, at times ponderously academic, examination of the role macabre icons play in American culture. He believes that horror—whether it’s the psychosexual fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King sending teen-agers to hell in Carrie—has been used to marginalize certain kinds of people since the Puritans crashed on these shores. In his book, he suggests that “religious imperatives woven into the fabric of American culture keep its citizenry dutiful during the day and frightened at night.” Ingebretsen argues that horrific motifs are used reflexively to “cleanse the body politic” of any lifestyle or philosophy it finds threatening.
“The public is given a language to talk about social reality that is not ethical or aesthetic. In fact, it’s grade-B horror-film stuff,” he says, munching on a plate of vegetables in the cafeteria of the Jesuit community house at Georgetown.
“People like Jeffrey Dahmer are constructed for us as ‘monstrous,’” he continues. “But the problem with Jeffrey Dahmer is that he is precisely not Frankenstein’s creature; he is one of us. He was precisely human in his ritualization. To dehumanize him takes the burden away and places evil where it always is—in someone else’s camp. But the only true monster is one who’s slightly human, or human out of focus. The monster is, by definition, human.”
And often close at hand. Although Ingebretsen is publicly reticent about his personal life and history, he admits he is the product of what he calls “a typical dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family,” and reveals, off the record, a childhood that would make Wes Craven shudder. Like many kids who find themselves in untenable situations at home, Ingebretsen sought refuge in art—in his case, poetry. “From the time I was 12 or 13, I was always at a typewriter. For a 14-year-old boy, poetry was a very safe way of saying all kinds of horrific things, or expressing feelings, at least to myself. I could use metaphor to speak about all kinds of important things—family, sex, religion, the whole thing.”
After spending four years at a Jesuit prep school in Washington state and graduating from Gonzaga University, Ingebretsen attended the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. He published the first of two books of poetry in 1981, the same year he was ordained, and the second in 1985. He taught fiction, poetry, and creative writing at Gonzaga and Marymount in Los Angeles before coming to Georgetown in 1986.
Soon after arriving, Ingebretsen began to teach his theories about the “unspeakable” and how it emerges in culture. He was soon drawing a connection between American culture’s castigation of homosexuality and the punitive, moralistic language of horror and fantasy fiction.
“The New Right invokes the monster, whether it’s the fallen woman or the sexual monster, for political gain.” Like the New Right, of course, the Catholic Church has has gotten a lot of mileage out of bolting the doors of sexuality. Still, Ingebretsen doesn’t see anything strange about someone with his sympathies becoming a priest. “My vocation found me, not the other way around,” he says. “And they didn’t ordain me to be a rubber stamp.” His academic idiosyncrasies have not gone unnoticed. Last year his course on gay literature, “Unspeakable Lives: Gay and Lesbian Narrative,” was sighted in the Washington Times as a prime example of PC foolishness. Ingebretsen says he came home one night to find the article hanging on a bulletin board in the Jesuit community house with his course highlighted in yellow.
As he recalls the incident, he looks around the room, as if anxious that one of his fellow Jesuits will hear him. He suggests Stephen King, whom he recently introduced at a speech at Georgetown, knows a thing or two about America’s collective anxiety.
“Those things we cannot or will not say become the various anxieties clustering our closets,” he says, “and Stephen King has a good finger for where they are and what they are. Salem’s Lot is a compendium of American perversity. In a culture that rhetorizes family values, to read Salem’s Lot is to come across child abuse, female and male rape, spouse abuse. But we don’t pay any attention to it because we’re too busy paying attention to the monsters. King’s point is that Main Street is full of monsters, and the monsters are us.” —Mark Gauvreau Judge