Tag Archives: The Exorcist

Amityville

Surely one of the most controversial haunting stories of my own lifetime was that which came to be known as The Amityville Horror. After the tragic deaths of the DeFeo family in 1974, the next occupants of the fatal house, the Lutz family, claimed to have experienced 28 days of terror before moving out in the middle of winter and taking no belongings with them. Their story, written by Jay Anson, became a sensational bestseller. Published just four years after the unexpected cinematic success of The Exorcist, a movie was quickly signed and it was all the talk of my high school before I was quite at the stage of watching real horror films. By the time I got around to seeing the DVD, the tropes were so well known that it wasn’t really that scary. I realized that I had never read the book.

Whether you find Anson’s account scary or not probably depends on your level of belief in demons. Although he concludes his book with the suggestion that a combination of ghosts and a demon plagued the Lutzes and their priest, the focus of the narrative is clearly on the demonic. Fr. Mancuso suffers because the demon wants to keep him out of the house. The multiplication of flies, the constant waking up just after 3:00 a.m., and the smell of excrement all point to demonic activity. The book does have its share of historical inaccuracies and embellishments. It has been declared a complete hoax by some while others claim that at least some of what was described in the book happened to the blended family that called it home for less than a month. If you don’t accept demons, there’s little here to frighten you beyond a couple of benign ghosts.

As with any story claiming supernatural activity, we’ll never really know what happened. The Amityville Horror is often classified as a novel now. Our minds are conditioned to reject anything so terribly out of the ordinary that it is difficult to accept what you’re reading. The DeFeo family was undoubtedly murdered in the house by one of their own. The Lutz family did buy and then abandon the house in fairly short order for such an expensive purchase. There was a priest involved. The question marks hover about the supernatural elements, as they generally do. These are the ghosts and demons of the rational world which we inhabit. We safely confine them to fiction. Then we sleep at night with the lights left on.

Getting Exorcize

Supply and demand may seem to be an odd framework to apply to religion, but it obviously exists within the polity of churches, synagogues, and mosques. What the people want does influence what’s on offer. Watching movies about demonic possession isn’t something that comes naturally to me. Demons are scary, and it doesn’t help that, historically speaking, they’ve never really been properly defined. Francis Young has provided a service to the curious with his book A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity. The book is just what it says, an examination of how Catholics have formally dealt with demons, or more properly, demoniacs, over the centuries. Young notes the protean nature of demons at the beginning—they meet cultural expectations of their time rather than obeying theological niceties. What to do about them?

Long relegated to the realm of epilepsy and mental illness, possession has gone through several periods of ascendency and decline. Indeed, in the nineteenth century it looked as though exorcism, in Catholicism, might have been on the endangered species list. Science was calling the reality of the spiritual world into question and nobody likes to be thought naive. With few exceptions, the move toward eliminating the role of the exorcist was gaining steam. Then in the twentieth century the demand for exorcism revived. As Young notes, a large part of the increasing interest arose from the novel and subsequent movie, The Exorcist. Possession was something so little talked about for so many years that it proved a rich ground for a new kind of monster that was eminently believable. The church, after all, never said there weren’t demons. Since that time, interest has been waxing once again.

Part of the reason would seem to be that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. When our main sources of authority in that realm are eroded, we start looking elsewhere to find succor. Ironically, outside Catholicism the mainstay of exorcism has been among various evangelical Protestant groups. They may not have an ancient ritual to use, but what they lack in experience they make up for in enthusiasm. Their demons are culled from a literal reading of the Bible. And interest among Catholics, in this strange supply and demand rubric, has meant that more exorcists are being trained and made available. The world that Young leads his readers through is one in which strange things reside. He makes no judgment about demons or their reality. He does, however, provide a very thorough history of what the Catholic Church has done about them, when the demand exceeds supply.

December Demons

Conversations with friends, inevitably, turn to the fiasco this country faces with Donald Trump. My response, apart from attempting a measure of optimism and combativeness, often involves escapism. Regular readers know that I watch horror movies. They may not know that I watch such films to help me cope with the very real fears of living in what has all the signs of being an out-of-control autocracy. With this in mind, I’ve been reading about horror films to try to understand myself a bit more. Perhaps a roundabout way to psychological insight, but it is cheaper than seeing a therapist. Over the weekend I again watched The Exorcist. A classic of the horror genre, it is rare in having been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and having received mainstream critical acclaim. What made it particularly interesting at this particular viewing is the fact that demons are such poorly understood monsters.

Mikhail Vrubel's demon, Wikimedia Commons

Mikhail Vrubel’s demon, Wikimedia Commons

One of the reasons for this is that no single entity known as “demon” fits all the ancient ideas about such spiritual beings. The earliest demons we know about, from ancient Mesopotamia, aren’t necessarily evil. They seem to be in control of natural forces that harm people, but that isn’t always intentional. From the human perspective this is bad, but from the point of view of the divine world, it’s neutral. Sumerians and those of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires did not believe in Hell. There was no Satan and therefore “fallen angels” intent on harming people weren’t part of their worldview. The Greeks, who gave us the word, referred to as “daimons” nature spirits that were generally benign. In the biblical world, influenced by Zoroastrianism, a dualistic understanding of the universe emerged and eventually demons came to be understood as angels that followed the Devil in revolt against God.

Complicating the picture, possession, in world religions, is not always a negative thing. In some cases it is a way of having a deity inhabit one’s body—something of a blessing. In the New Testament demons may have been an explanation for epilepsy. They were, however, understood in that day as possessing spirits of evil intent, in league with Satan. Thoroughly evil, they could evoke paranormal phenomena and could completely control a person unless expelled. In modern media, where reality television dictates the terms, demons are responsible for some hauntings. They are disembodied entities “that were never human” and they are always malevolent. One of the reasons they are so scary is that no one really knows what they are. And in cases where one has no idea what to expect, fear is a natural result.

Omen, O Man!

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Of the unholy trinity of late-60s to mid-70s horror movies Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976), the last always seemed the least effective to me. Having recently read about the Devil in American popular culture, and having a rainy Friday evening alone, I decided to give it a try again. Based as heavily on Hal Lindsey as it is, once one outgrows dispensationalism it is hard to be frightened by the idea of biblical end times. Everything from making up verses in “Revelations” to utterly bogus Holy Land geography (Megiddo is north of Jerusalem, not south—did the writers not even own a map?) contributes to a set of untenable tenets, even among the bibliterati. The film relies mostly on shocks and startles to earn its horror stripes, and after you’ve seen the movie once, these lose their power in subsequent viewings. Nevertheless, on this rainy May night, so close to June 6, I noticed new ways in which the movie undermines its own message.

The premise, of course, is that Damien, the son of the Devil (who apparently has a thing for bestiality), is plotting to take over the world through the means of politics. Having been watching the events of the past few months I have to wonder how the Devil could improve on progress through such channels. But I digress. His step-father Robert Thorn, US ambassador to London, discovers his “son”‘s identity and tries to kill him. With a strong anti-Catholic bias (the Antichrist is born in Rome, the seat of the church, and is protected by Roman clergy) the film nevertheless spawns sympathy for the Devil. As a child, Harvey Stephens hardly appears diabolical. Maybe it’s just because my brothers and I also spilled goldfish from their bowl once, but it seems to me he acts just like most little boys do. Who really wants to go to church at that age? As the movie approaches its climax, he’s represented as the biblical good-guy.

Thorn has to confirm Damien’s satanic identity. Like Delilah, he creeps up on the sleeping boy and cuts his hair. Convinced by a man who introduces himself “I am Bugenhagen” that he has to stab the boy, Thorn in a white car outraces police (so there might be a bit of prophecy here after all) to sacrifice the child on the altar. The movie casts Damien as both Samson and Isaac within a few short minutes. Apart from the film’s use of violence against women’s bodies (Thorn won’t allow an abortion, Kathy seems to have a penchant from falling from high places in slow motion, Baylock gets a fork in the neck) it actually seems ambivalent about the evil of the boy. An unfortunate birthmark does not a devil make. We’ve made it through the change of the millennium and many other hazards, yet dispensationalism is still with us, as is its anticlimactic Antichrist, Damien. He’s less scary than the real politics of an entirely secular age.

Not Your Father’s Demon

AmericanPossRegan MacNeil is a name that can still send shudders up and down stout spines. Despite advances in CGI and special effects, The Exorcist is consistently rated among the scariest movies of all time. Demon possession, clearly, is a very troubling thing. American Possessions, by Sean McCloud, is not a place to go to find Catholic priests expelling the forces of darkness. Subtitled Fighting Demons in the Contemporary United States, the book, one might suspect, is saying more than it seems to be letting on. This is a book about Third Wave evangelicalism and its demon-fighting manuals. Although the term “Third Wave” may be unfamiliar, the next time you go to a Tea Party you’ll know you’re among them. These born again uber-capitalists believe in a literal demonic world. In fact, demons are so common that Jesus would’ve had a hard time keeping up with their exponential economic growth. These demons are more frightening than those that possessed Regan. The are more akin to a different Reagan.

Especially popular among Pentecostals (the fastest growing form of Christianity) this modern day belief in demons sees them in places Jesus didn’t think to look. Family curses (at places ruled out in the Bible, but still, apparently, possible), addiction, depression, sexual urges—these are all demonic. And once these modern demons are cast out, unlike that of Regan, they can come back. And if they don’t possess you they will oppress you. And they can live in your material goods, your house, and even the land it is built upon. They are everywhere, and they have to be fought against constantly. They also, apparently, vote Republican.

This view of the world, strange as it is to many people with a basic education in science, motivates a large sector of the United States population. Expelling these demons requires a specific view of Christianity—a view that absolutely excludes Catholics. And it is a view that promotes free market economics, blaming the victims of poverty for allowing themselves to be oppressed by demons. Many aspects to this belief system will strike the reader as completely unbelievable, all the more for being so seriously believed. At the same time, we are told, we should pay no attention to religion, at least as educated people. The problem with this is that these true believers vote. And the kingdom they would have come on earth is, in a way they would certainly deny, possessed.

True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.