The Devil You Say

Linda Blair in her makeup from The Exorcist

Linda Blair in her makeup from The Exorcist

The actress is credited as "Female Demon", an infamous image from the recent movie Grave Encounters

The actress is credited as “Female Demon”, an infamous image from the recent movie Grave Encounters

The Devil from a panel in a Jack Chick tract.

The Devil from a panel in a Jack Chick tract.

I’ve always enjoyed horror films.  When I was ten, I ordered one of those Great Monsters of the Movies books from the book order form at school, and I became even more hooked.  Whether it was Boris Karloff in near-back-breaking gear underneath his costume, helping to make him lumber about as the monster in the first Frankenstein, King Kong fighting the T-Rex as Fay Wray screamed from a nearby tree, or a Hammer feature with more skin and blood, I always enjoyed a good scare.  When I graduated to movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, and other more adult-oriented and contemporary fare, I brought with me a whole lot of desire to discover new ways to be frightened.  I should admit that the first time I saw The Exorcist, I wasn’t so much frightened as I was shocked at what I thought was the gratuity of some of the events.  That sense only increased when I saw The Omen.  Also, a little girl puking and mooing just didn’t frighten me; a little girl masturbating with a crucifix I found nauseating and unnecessary, as I did the killing of a priest in The Omen by a long spike through his chest.

Today, it’s even more difficult to truly “frighten” me.  Oh, I detest the jump-scares that are a staple of so much contemporary horror films, but that isn’t what I’m talking about.  What I mean is, the films tend to fall in to just a couple categories, done in a couple styles, with a need on the part of the viewer to be familiar enough with the landscape of contemporary horror – the myths and popular legends about vampires, werewolves, the undead, and demons and the devil – to find meaning, let alone fright, in the images on the screen.  Leaving aside the slasher films, with their too-often reactionary messages (the bad kids doing things like smoking weed, drinking beer, or having sex die early and often at the hands of the revenants Jason Voorhees and Freddie Kreuger), I find the plethora of common themes and imagery from contemporary horror film to be intriguing in what it says about our current culture, and what the producers think of the predominantly youthful intended audience.  In a time when America is becoming less and less religious, the weight of the demonic and even Satanic imagery on display in these films can be overwhelming.  Even if, as in the image from the movie Grave Encounters pictured above, there is no need to call something “demon”, it is anyway, precisely because “ghost” just doesn’t seem to have the emotional punch of a demon.

The demonic and Satanic imagery from these films, as well as much of the mythology supporting it, is Gothic Christian in both look and feel.* Even when, for instance vampires or the flood of zombie movies, do not include any antagonist that can trace its lineage to a Christian context, there always seems to be something more than a little sinister (in the original meaning of the word) about these creatures that are really nothing more than animals doing what they do.  I find this more than interesting, this reliance upon uniquely Christian imagery and mythology at a time when this same religion is decreasing both in adherents and  cultural cache.  God, it seems, is nearly impossible to accept; yet in our world the personification of evil and his minions and their propensity to invade the psyches of vulnerable individuals continues to be accepted without a whole lot of trouble.  Indeed, it is popular in some of these films to have members of the (Roman Catholic, almost exclusively) Church depicted as skeptical of claims of demonic possession.  All the while the main character(s) and, of course the audience, know better.  I’m thinking in particular of the movie The Devil Insidewith the “priests” also being “scientists” and even doctors.  And this reliance upon contemporary science and understanding is too often pictured as a hindrance to real understanding of whatever events are depicted.

So our contemporary youth, while skeptical of God, are quite willing to accept the personification of evil, as first created by artists and authors in the early Renaissance and Gothic eras; they are skeptical, too, of the ability of science and medicine to understand certain human phenomena, including what usually appears as a physical and/or mental illness.  What I find fascinating about some of these, especially the too-prevalent “found footage” movies, is that much of what is shown, things that are supposed to be frightening (or, as many viewers and critics say, at least creepy) are things that I would most assuredly not assume are supernatural events.  Bangs on the wall or floor, doors opening and/or closing, even creaking boards in the middle of the night are all things I would assume had quite mundane origins, from water in pipes to duct work expanding and contracting to a building or house settling.  Perhaps age has dulled my ability to perceive the uncanny precisely because I know it is rare enough not to be the first thing to leap to mind, even if I were, say, locked in an abandoned house or mental hospital.

This is not an argument like that presented at the end of The Exorcist, i.e., if you believe in the devil as the source of evil, why not believe in God as the author of goodness.  On the contrary, that kind of silly, superficial way of considering the moral universe we human beings inhabit, as well as who the Christian is as depicted in our Scriptures and traditions, has little to do with the Christian faith.  I am not wondering why youth of today can’t make that “leap”, which isn’t a leap at all, but a kind of logical error, answering a question by assuming things not in evidence.  After all, there is no reason, ipso facto, to accept the existence of a benevolent spiritual presence simply because a malevolent one is accepted as existing.  No, I’m just curious as to what these movies tell us about our contemporary moral situation.  The idea that evil and destruction are outside human control; that evil actions are not the result of human agency; and the limiting of evil to the destruction of individual lives through extraordinary means; all this is troubling to me.  Haven’t we, over the past decade and more, seen human evil act on a grand scale?  From the attacks on the United States in 2001 to the Iraq invasion and its aftermath (with which and through which we still live), from Columbine to Sandy Hook, from attacks on Christians in Muslim countries through attacks on Muslims here in the United States, we have plenty of evidence that evil is not something that exists outside human control.  On the contrary, evil is an all-too-human reality that, relying upon such Gothic notions as demonic possessions and Satanic worship leaves us unable to grapple with its presence in our collective lives.  When “evil” becomes swearing, puking children who kill, we make a mockery of the whole notion of evil.

What these movies tell me is that, far from some weird contradiction in which the devil is accepted while God is not, ours is becoming a society incapable of understanding the reality of evil as a human phenomenon.  We also find it nearly impossible to show “evil” as a collective act, demonstrating collective culpability.  In these movies evil, destruction, and death only exist at the level of the individual.  The rare moment an entire community is shown as corrupt, whether in Children of the Corn or the more recent Nothing Left To Fear, the story still relies upon that same Gothic mythology for their sense of foreboding as well as the events as they unfold.  It seems whole towns escape responsibility with evil being something “outside”, albeit something the community invites in.  Rather than intelligible, these films demonstrate that ours is a time when neither evil nor good make any sense; that we humans aren’t even in charge of the most important events in our lives, and when evil in particular strikes, we should content ourselves with not understanding.

Evil that comes from outside is not only unintelligible; it also becomes easier to accept as a part of human existence precisely because of the insistence that it comes from outside.  Since we can’t control it, when evil strikes all we can do is make sure we understand it is evil and not illness (and for God sakes, don’t take it so unseriously that you try to “investigate” it; that always seems to end badly) and therefore just something that, while horrible, is beyond us.

This, more than the faces pictured above, or even the thought of eternal damnation accompanied by unending physical torment, is truly frightening and should keep many of us awake at night.

*I would exempt the television series Supernatural from this general rule.  Their depiction of Lucifer relies more on Muslim legends and theology than either Christian sources or, say, Milton and Dante. In that program, Lucifer rebels not out of pride but out of love for God that refuses to bow to humanity once Creation is complete.  Lucifer is portrayed, as several characters note, as someone with “Daddy-issues” more than the great and terrible author of eternal human destruction.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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