In From Angels To Aliens Lynn Schofield Clark explores the resurgence of interest in the supernatural among teenagers. She theorizes this is happening, at least in part, as a result of the legacy and suffusion of evangelical Christianity in American culture. A generation ago, religious identity was something one was born into; increasingly it is becoming something we chose for ourselves, selected from various narratives presented in media and religion. (bricolage?) People are less religious but more “spiritual”. This means that while people (especially youth) are dissatisfied, confused, or disappointed with the job science and religion have done providing ultimate answers for life, they remain open to the notion that there may be more to our world than meets the eye.
In their quest to form a religious identity, people develop certain strategies. Culture, as Clark defines it, is the store of public symbols and stories that flesh out and reinforce these strategies of how things should be done, making them seem sensible and even meaningful (10). Film and television offer satisfaction because they symbolically resolve conflicts that are troubling to our society. Although teenagers may develop their taste in media based on what fits their “style”, their exposure to various ideologies is one of the ways they gather materials from which they construct identities. Identity is a result of both parenting and exposure to cultural products.
Within evangelicalism there has been a tendency to draw lines in the sand: us vs. them, sacred vs. secular, holy vs. demonic, etc. In what was initially an attempt to convert people to Christianity (“repent or burn!”), evangelicals ended up simply encouraging Americans to accept the notion of cosmic, incomprehensible forces at work in (or responsible for) our visible world. Thus, today popular teen culture is rife with elements of the supernatural—vampires, aliens, demons (does The Hunger Gamesdystopian future count?) etc. Horror stories, especially those with supernatural elements, “allow young people to experience and relieve fears about death, the afterlife, and in general, the forces in life that they believe are beyond their control—which includes quite a bit, from the teen perspective” (64). Since the Divine can be somewhat ineffable, we occasionally explore it through its negation.
Clark then roughly categorizes her research subjects (interviews with teens and their families) as having one of five various approaches. They refer to teenagers’ feelings on supernatural and organized religion, and range from loving one while hating the other to the other way around. Science and religion are not necessarily at odds with each other, as they might have been a few decades ago. The line between them ranges from non-existent to blurry to firm, depending on the teen’s family history (were they raised in a religious household?), parenting style (do they limit media exposure?), socioeconomic status (how marginalized to they feel?), etc. The group in the middle seems the most normative or typical: seekers, or “customizers” are individuals who actively select from various sources to make sense of their worlds and to meaningfully participate in them (118). Some teens desire to distinguish between religion and myth but have trouble doing so.
Teenagers’ wide range of perspectives on the supernatural is reflected in the ways their parents raise them. Some parents see religion as harmful; some see it as providing a good moral foundation. Media is approached in much the same way—some let their kids be exposed to everything available in to help them make “informed” decisions; some carefully filter the media their teens consume. Clark states that the purpose of her book is not to celebrate some semiotic democracy where infinite meaning can be constructed from a number of media texts, but to demonstrate that “the choices teens have are limited…and were influenced by their positions and their perceived relation to culture and its resources” (231). Popular culture is neither completely toxic or redemptive; the goal is simply to encourage teens (and everyone) to think and discuss the ways in which they process the media they encounter, since it is frequently easier to discuss media than personal life experiences.
Clark, L. S. (2003). From angels to aliens: Teenagers, the media, and the supernatural. Oxford: Oxford University Press.