Nothing accompanies the slow decent into winter like scary movies. Now that autumn is officially here, it is time to look for the religious motifs in frightening movies again. Perhaps it is time to join Netflicks, because when it comes to my own movies I have mainly choices among bargain basement films I’ve picked up over the years. Over the weekend I watched one of them. John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness is the second of his apocalyptic-themed movies, following on the remarkably creepy The Thing. (This is one of the few remakes that manages to outdo the original in just about every way.) Prince of Darkness, however falters almost from the beginning. I do appreciate a movie that is straightforward about using religion as the source of fear, and one that even has a character who is a graduate student in theology! Apart from the priest and street people, all the ill-fated characters are academics—professors and grad students of theoretical physics, the sciences, and our one, lone theologian. The plot revolves, literally, around a swirling green liquid in a decrepit church, which is the Anti-Christ.
Although the trappings are all here for a truly frightening experience, Christianity doesn’t really lend itself to a frightening mythology. To get to something truly tremendous, Prince of Darkness posits a kind of gnostic anti-God who is the father of Satan. The persona is evil writ so large that it is simply not believable that a corroded screw-top jar is able to contain him. For anyone who’s studied history or anthropology, placing the date of the Ball Mason jar back seven million years ago sounds like random guesswork. Homo sapiens sapiens weren’t even around then, making one wonder why God thought of a jar to trap the viscous Anti-Christ millions of years before the “fall” necessitated a regular Christ. The Bible appears, in transmogrified form, as an ancient book of spells that when translated sound suspiciously like the good old King James.
The movie does have its creepy moments—abandoned churches are scary; even fully functional ones can be remarkably spooky at night. It is difficult to accept that a priest would go to a physics professor before consulting his bishop, but then we have to prevent this movie from becoming just a watered-down Exorcist flick. Having Alice Cooper appear as the leader of the homeless minions was a nice touch, in any case. Since we are all still here, the movie ends predictably enough, with Satan’s Dad being stopped before entering the world. It does, in a de rigueur metanarrative, involve a self-sacrifice, albeit not a virginal one. And for the surviving handful of academics, life goes on as normal the morning after. Perhaps evil was blown too large to be believable here. Enough human-sized diabolism exists to frighten any reasonable person. And autumn is only just starting.
Anyone who’s never had anything very weird happen to her or him, raise your hand. Hmm, I thought so. Strangeness, whether prevalent or simply a unique event, is part of life. It is when we turn to explanations that the religious side of the equation suggests itself. Now I have a confession to make. When Borders was going out of business last year, I was in mourning. Those last poignant hours in my favorite bookstore I wandered the aisles picking up the books left behind by others, many of which I would not have otherwise purchased or read. One of those books was The Rite by Matt Baglio. I had seen the hype for the movie, and although the idea of possession terrifies me I’m not sure there’s anything here that can’t be explained by the likes of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Still, riding through the flickering lights of the Lincoln Tunnel on a bus on a gray and rainy morning, literal shadows of doubts creep in.
There is no doubt that events happen to us that seem to defy explanation. There is also no doubt that the enormous wealth of Christian mythology taken literally by Baglio defies all but the most gullible of readers. The problem is the black box. Nobody sees what goes on inside the locked chamber where the exorcist practices his art. Yes, it is a manly enterprise since the Catholic Church won’t admit of women priests. This was one books that left me tottering between what I know to be true and that shadowy place where doubts dwell. It is utterly certain that our perspective helps to determine what we see. A priest in a stuffy or chilly closed-off room believing a demon lurks therein will see the signs in the behavior of the victim. Throughout the book I kept pondering how so many possessed people lived in heavily Catholic Rome while in locales with more mixed religious traditions the phenomenon is rare.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the fact that Baglio readily admits: most of the possessed are women. In a religion where women have been marginalized as a matter of course from the early days, can this really be a surprise? And when the exorcist, a celibate priest, experiences sexual arousal how else can he interpret it but as demonic? The human mind is a fascinating system, capable of launching a body into stunning, adrenaline-induced feats of strength and endurance. It conjures gods and demons. And it can make a grown man cower on a dark and windy night with stories of possession racing through his head. I had a difficult time believing much of what I read in The Rite, but I do think perhaps it is now time to make a date with Carl Sagan. Lighting a candle in the dark is a very human thing to do.
In ancient times people were sometimes possessed by gods. They were called “prophets” and they gained a breed of knowledge hidden from most other people. Demons were believed to exist, but they did not possess people. Instead, demons were used as explanations for misfortune, whether malevolently premeditated or not. Demons reflect, in today’s society, the concept of pure evil. Fr. Vincent Lampert, one of America’s 24 official exorcists, visited Montclair State last night to discuss evil, and according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, he believes evil is a reflex of how people treat one another more often than a “figure with the hooves and horns.” No doubt there is a public fascination with demons, but few people understand their religious pedigree or what other explanations may be used to categorize them. According to the paper, Italy claims 300 exorcists – demonstrating that demons show culturally determined characteristics.
The 2005 movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, lays out how science and religion differ on the issue of the demonic. Anneliese Michel, a young German woman, died in 1976 after being subjected to a prolonged treatment of exorcism. Her story was the “inspiration” for the film, and it raises the question of the reality of the demonic in the physical world. Fr. Lampert is more circumspect, noting that real life exorcisms are not as dramatic as those shown in the movies. He does, however, recall having seen a person levitate, but not during an exorcism. The human behavior he’s seen while on duty may all be readily explained by mundane physical and mental phenomena.
What does seem certain in all of this is that demons are not the behooved and behorned antagonists of films like Constantine or countless other graphic-novelesque portrayals of evil. Their Pan-based characteristics hearken back to the days when Christianity had to make plain its dismissal of foreign gods. In the ancient world hooves and horns were symbols of strength generally associated with powerful, if sometimes capricious, deities. In other words, what were one culture’s gods have become another culture’s demons. Movie makers understand the simultaneous revulsion and draw of the demonic character, but it seems that Fr. Lampert strives for a more balanced perspective. Evil has many faces, and most of them do not conform to Hollywood standards. Perhaps if all religions were respected demons would lose their power to torment and people would learn to get along with each other.
One of the perks to life among a university community is the special programs that come to campus. As an adjunct instructor with a schedule so confusing that even Escher would get lost, however, I do not often have the opportunity to take advantage of such programs. More’s the pity since next week Montclair State University is hosting an event called “The Real Exorcist.” One of the very few authorized exorcists of the Catholic Church will be speaking on campus. The event overlaps with a previously scheduled class at Rutgers.
A little disappointed, last night I sat down to watch Paranormal Activity, the indie movie that made such a splash last year. Assuming it was a ghost story, I wasn’t too concerned about watching it alone on an October night. When I discovered it was a demon story, however, I wasn’t sure watching it alone was such a good idea. You see, in the hands of paranormal investigators the demon has undergone a transformation. Ancient Mesopotamians believed in a set of lesser gods who caused misfortune, although they don’t seem to have been pure evil and they didn’t call them demons. By the time we reach nascent Christianity, demons are cohorts of the Devil and are utterly malign and capable of possessing a person making them do the bidding of their dark lord. That’s where they remained on the divinity scale until modern day investigators using scientific equipment found them. I confess to having watched Ghost Hunters a time or two. Here the demon has morphed into a non-human disembodied entity – the very antagonist of Paranormal Activity.
Being aware of the origin of concepts is often a comforting place to be. When I realize that no special revelation has suddenly validated the existence of a baleful creature set to do me serious harm, a relief encompasses me. The problem with demons is that they don’t evaporate so easily. “Invented” by the Mesopotamians to explain misfortune, by the change of the era they had evolved into (largely) an explanation for epilepsy and mental illness. Now today they are back as haunting entities that have no human sympathy since they were never human. Paranormal investigators take them very seriously, despite their checkered theological pedigree. I guess I side with Shakespeare on this one: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio…” After all, it is October and the nights are growing noticeably long.