Strange Passions

In Holy Horror I make the suggestion that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ can be considered a horror film. It certainly has more gratuitous blood and gore than many examples of the genre I’ve seen. Really, I had no desire to see it. One of the great aspects of teaching is learning from students. While an adjunct at Rutgers one of my undergrads brought me a copy of the DVD to watch. She said I needed to see it. Obligingly I did so. I knew if I returned the disc to her without watching she’d ask why I hadn’t. Apart from the famously sadistic flogging scene, it was, like any other Bible film, off base quite a bit of the time. This was commentary, not Scripture.

This came back to me reading Bob Cranmer’s account of his haunted house on Brownsville Road in the book about which I blogged a few days ago. Cranmer didn’t exactly follow orthodox methods for driving the demon out of his house. Some of his tactics were improvised. The one I found the most startling was that in the rooms that were most badly affected he played The Passion of the Christ on a continuous loop for weeks at a time. Not only does this suggest demons are capable of watching movies, but that this film can stand in for the actual events that took place in Israel two millennia ago. If the priests involved objected to this method, he didn’t record it. So we have what could be considered a horror movie being used to try to drive out a real life monster (depending on one’s point of view).

Interestingly, this is one of the points behind Holy Horror. Film (and other media) can be a powerful force in our experience of the world. We don’t just go to the cinema because everybody’s talking about a movie. Our experience of watching it is transformative, if only temporary. The same is true of live theater or a concert. Far from being mere entertainment, these cultural events provide a form of transcendence, if they speak to us. In my own case The Passion of the Christ didn’t sell me on Mr. Gibson’s vision. I have no doubts that Roman crucifixion was a horrible spectacle. I also have no doubts that the Good Book indicates that the point of all of this was elsewhere. The Gospels weren’t an effort to traumatize readers. That’s the job of horror movies. Apparently this is something on which even demons agree.

Pittsburgh Demons

Far be it from me to question someone else’s demons, but every story has at least two sides. After reading Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred’s The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle wit Evil in Their Home, I have to wonder about the other side. I have no doubts that strange things happen behind closed doors. Indeed, the aspect of space, or location, has far more entanglements than our science allows. I don’t question the haunting described in the pages of this book—Bob Cranmer was once a prominent political figure in Pittsburgh and has the credibility that comes with elected office (or at least used to). What is open to question is the interpretation.

The Catholic tradition, which is involved here, does accept that a demon can infest a house. The way this account is laid out, however, is as a personal battle between Cranmer and the demon. The story is not unlike Amityville—family moves into house, discovers it’s haunted, and has to decide what to do about it. They call in a priest. From there the stories diverge. Cranmer’s family started experiencing various misfortunes. These were attributed to the demon. The story is strongly patriarchal; Bob Cranmer is a take-charge kind of guy and he alone can take on this fallen angel in the final instance. There are priests involved—including a prominent monsignor in Pittsburgh—but also clergy from other faith traditions and a paranormal investigation group from Penn State. Did the events happen as described? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

A few things seem a little off here, though. A Catholic official stating that sex between married couples drives off demons? The discovery that the sins in this house stem from it being an illegal abortion clinic? That Native Americans murdered a family now buried on the property? The book doesn’t give documentation because it’s not that kind of book. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Cranmer family finally found relief from the presence that was haunting their home. Even watching a movie like The Amityville Horror makes people uncomfortable because the idea is so scary—home is a sanctuary and when it’s invaded by an invisible (in this case sometimes visible) enemy it becomes a nightmare. The reader is left with the impression that it came down to a battle of wills and that of a former Republican politician was stronger than that of one of Satan’s minions. Some things, particularly in the climate these days, are difficult to believe.