Tuesdays are release days for many new media products. I’m not sure why, but I accept it. This past Sunday’s paper ran a couple of stories by Stephen Whitty concerning the Blu-ray release of The Exorcist, counted by some critics as the scariest movie of all time. The press around the original release of the film in the early 1970s was enough to prevent me from seeing it until I was in my forties. I’m done using the word “release.” In an interview with Linda Blair, the iconic Regan MacNeil of the film, Whitty quotes her as noting that the rumors of “curses” on the filming of the movie were without basis. “But other people seemed to be trying to find something that didn’t exist,” she said. That sage statement could refer to considerable aspects of a society hungry for religious answers, but ill-educated on the religious facts-of-life.
Although sorely critiqued at the time by those whose religious sensibilities had been offended (Blatty is no theologian), Whitty nevertheless notes, “It may be a film full of gross obscenity. But in the end, ‘The Exorcist’ is a recruiting poster for that old-time religion.” He correctly observes that beliefs in possessing demons and that challenged social conventions will lead to evil permeate the movie. Traditional Catholicism wins out over that foreign Pazuzu every time. Even for those with more progressive beliefs, the film is difficult to watch. Religion, in addition to criticizing films, also provides some of the best plots.
Not to be counted among those best, but illustrative of the point, is Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Ever since my days at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students have been after me to watch this film. Confused, dream-like, and at times difficult to follow, the movie opens with a claim to have been based on a true story. It isn’t the typical zombie movie either, although it features zombies. More of an attempted scientific thriller, the film explores the dangers of tetrodotoxin, “the zombie drug” when in the wrong hands. Understated in the movie, however, is the religious nature of Voodou. This is perhaps the most obvious failing point in the story. If the movie were to be really scary, the viewer has to believe that this is possible. The skepticism of science blocks the potential for unbridled religious expression. That is perhaps why The Exorcist has retained its power over all the years. Unlike more rational explorations of the world, it allows the audience to believe in personified evil that only old-time religion can cure.