Mephistopheles

Jeffrey Burton Russell is one of the clearest thinkers I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him in my background reading for Holy Horror, and have subsequently tracked down his books on the history of evil.  In what is a dangerous move for a scholar, Russell admits in The Devil that he believes in some kind of personified evil.  Except for religion scholars employed in seminaries, such thoughts are generally kept carefully guarded as academia has followed the materialist paradigm since it boldly declared that there’s no other way to know the world.  Russell’s intellect penetrates through that posturing and logically lays out what can or can’t be known based on empirical evidence.  And in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World, he concludes his historical sweep of an idea as old as civilization itself.

This is a wide-ranging book.  The previous three covered long periods as well: antiquity through the Hebrew Bible, New Testament through late antiquity, and the Medieval Period.  Mephistopheles has to cover from the Reformation through the present of the latter 20th century (when it was written).  Finding evil in the modern world is arguably way too easy.  Since 2016 it has become more fashionable to the point that an entire political party can laud it.  Russell writes with the strong conviction that love and the will to goodness can overcome the tendencies of humans to allow hatred, fear, and prejudice to rule.  What seems to be lacking, some three decades on, is the will.  We have given in to our cynicism and elected the worst of our inclinations.

In William Friedkin’s documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, Russell, looking depressed, is interviewed about the reality of demons.  His advice is to look for the good instead.  Nevertheless, having spent years of his life researching how evil appears and reappears, his own fascination demonstrates why we return to the subject time and again.  The world hasn’t righted itself.  His books indicate that there is a way, but we continue to ignore that way, preferring instead to follow the loudest of mouths rather than the warmest of hearts.  Some would personify this into Mephistopheles, the modern, entertaining aspect of the Devil.  Others would claim it’s merely a metaphor.  No matter which may be the case there’s no denying that evil exists.  And if it exists it behooves us to know about it.  And once we learn its identity we must name it.

Beneath the Exorcist

William Friedkin rose to fame as the director of The French Connection.  William Peter Blatty had written the screenplay for the Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark.  Now Blatty had a serious project in mind as he considered whom to pitch to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.  He wanted, and got, Friedkin.  The two disagreed about the final cut of the movie, with Friedkin winning out.  The movie was a tremendous success.  Several years later the cut favored by Blatty was released, again with success.  Blatty died last year.  The year before that so did Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.  Last night I watched The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary by William Friedkin about the famed exorcist.

The Exorcist made an impact on the lives of many people, not least Friedkin.  Over four decades after making this film, the director is still mulling it over.  The Devil and Father Amorth is primarily footage shot by Friedkin of an exorcism performed by Amorth.  In general the filming of exorcisms is forbidden, but given his stature as a film-maker, Friedkin was given permission to film without crew, on a small, hand-held video camera.  Although nowhere near as violent as the fictionalized film, it is disturbing to watch.  As a documentary, it includes interviews with doctors, some from Columbia University, who agree that possession is “a thing,” but one suspects they might disagree with the director as to what that thing might be.

Although Friedkin isn’t an academic, society accepts that (at least some) film-makers are intellectuals.  Perhaps lacking subject specialization, they nevertheless read a lot and possess quite a bit of street knowledge concerning psychology.  Friedkin does.  At just over an hour, this documentary isn’t long, but it is provocative.  For me it raises once again an issue that I address in Nightmares with the Bible—the curious laity, due to lack of engagement by traditional scholars, must rely on such efforts to get information about spiritual entities.  The documentary, which deals with a heavy subject, is one that Friedkin tries to lighten a bit at the end by stating that if there are demons then angels must also exist.  This goes back to the idea, discussed more fully in my book, that demons derive from fallen angels.  The “one size fits all” approach of academia has shoehorned belief in one direction.  While The Devil and Father Amorth won’t likely convince skeptics, many who watch it will be left wondering.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.