I grew up in a branch of Christianity that even now, ten years after I migrated elsewhere, still confounds me. How could something so beautiful be so crazy? How could otherwise rational people, people who were doctors and architects and teachers and caregivers, assert that the reason why some of us were depressed or scared was that demonic forces with personalities, strategies, and even names were attaching themselves to us because our great-grandparents once used drugs/gambling/a ouija board?
Because that’s what we were doing: telling people that their pain could be explained by demonic possession. Sure, we modified it – turning “possession” into “demonization,” wherein Christians couldn’t be totally overcome by the little imps, just overly affected by them; and it was a long way from the times when we might have burned or drowned people – especially women – just because they liked herbal tea. But perhaps it was still on the same evolutionary continuum – and, to be fair, it’s not that much different from what most people believe, some of the time.
There are people who think that the policies of the current Democratic Party will bring about the emergence of Stalinist collective farming in the Midwest; there are people who think that you shouldn’t purchase items that have barcodes otherwise you’re giving yourself over to Satan; there are people who think friends of George W. Bush engineered 9/11 because America needed a war.
Thankfully, when I get frustrated enough with the madness of Christianity’s shadow side to be diagnosed with a demon of anger, I can turn to an expert for help. The 40th anniversary of William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s ground-breaking horror film The Exorcist is fast approaching, so I gave it an umpteenth viewing the other day.
The first time I saw it, I was a teenager, and I hid behind the sofa, which was more frightening, as the imagination always allows for worse than what’s on screen. The next time, I was immersed in the demon-seeking subculture of the charismatic movement, so the experience of Regan, the teenage girl who floats and screams and vomits and whose head spins round, seemed half-plausible. The third time was in conjunction with viewing Paul Schrader’s prequel Dominion; a film written by a former Dutch Calvinist and co-scripter of The Last Temptation of Christ, and so, unsurprisingly, it’s one of the more thoughtful treatments of religion on film; it also deepened my appreciation of Blatty’s conservative Catholic approach: he really does believe that a little girl could be consumed by the devil, and that there is power in the name of Jesus.
For my part, The Exorcist has become something like an old friend – it reminds me of the light and shadow of my religious heritage, and achieves something rare: a work of art that is preoccupied with death always leaves me feeling more alive.
The Exorcist begins in Iraq at an archaeological dig, Muslim chant calling us to meditation on the story of a crisis of faith; an inner jihad fought by Fr. Damien Karras, a man of the cloth who feels incapable of doing his job – pastoring other priests – anymore. “There’s not a day in my life where I don’t feel like a fraud,” we see him hear one of his charges; but the same goes for Damien himself. Fr. Karras is caught between his scientific skepticism, his mother’s ailing health, and his fear that it is all for nothing.
Into this setting comes a story of the extraordinary ordinary, with the initiating Iraq sequence a bit like Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Georgetown domestic drama a little like Parenthood, and the whole thing – mother-daughter relationships, broken marriages, teenage angst, how economic privilege may hide itself, but doesn’t protect from suffering, and how a little fear is sometimes given to us so we can learn to transcend a lot – a bit like us. Everyone in The Exorcist tells the truth – what they really believe in any given moment: from the priest doubting his faith to the atheist mother confronting her fear, to the butler who breaks his social boundaries by violently reacting to a house guest’s insults, to the girl whose very body cries out, “Help Me.”
And people are scared – they don’t understand what’s going on, they want to help the vulnerable child, but they’re afraid of her too. The exorcist arrives, an elder, with charm and wisdom – his response to the offer of a little brandy is a gently mischievous: “The doctors say I shouldn’t, but thank God my will is weak.” His invocation of the rite of exorcism is accompanied by a philosophically profound theory of why such a thing could happen to a child: “I think the point is to make us despair, to see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.”
And this is the wisdom at the heart of The Exorcist – not that such things really happen to real people, although life is strange, to be sure, and there are more things in heaven and earth than any of us has heard tell; and not that magic words in a magic book spoken by men in magic uniforms would expel an ancient supernatural force from the body of a child. No. That was the problem with the demonology of the tradition I grew up in – to confuse style with substance, myth with medical diagnosis, parable with textbook, and maybe love with power.
There are psychologically wiser ideas about what some folk call “demonic” (see the work of Walter Wink in particular – who conceives of “the demonic” as the interior reality of shadows that are all too human), and these might respond to The Exorcist saying that there is light, and there is shadow, and sometimes it is just hard to be a person, but most of all – and I do mean Most – there is love that transcends evil.
The idea that ‘the devil made me do it’ is a subset of the conspiracy theory mindset, which has another looming anniversary – Blatty’s novel emerged in an era inaugurated with the assassination of a President, a cultural innocence that was ripped away 50 years ago next month. The conspiratorial musings of a thousand speculators has become more than background noise – for many, the conspiratorial-industrial-complex IS the story of the assassination. Oliver Stone’s film J.F.K. may take the lion’s share of responsibility or blame for its more recent incarnations.
As a work of cinematic craft, J.F.K. is a tour de force – with editing like modern dance choreography, a mini-series’ worth of A-list stars giving their all to conjecture about the terror of a murdered king, and Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison (the New Orleans district attorney who brought the only criminal proceedings in the assassination) standing in for the part of us that feels called to speak against injustice. As a work of investigative reporting, it should be neither ignored nor swallowed wholesale.
At one level, J.F.K. is journalistically tenuous, just as The Exorcist is sometimes theologically silly; but both are important, and deserve attention. We look for conspiracy theories – about why a child would growl, or why a President would be shot – because the truth seems unthinkable: that ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things for selfish reasons, and that there are some things we just don’t yet – and may never – understand. We look for explanations of the inexplicable because we think we are uncomfortable with mystery; in fact, the reverse is often true: mystery is frequently experienced as a source of wonder and even joy.
Beyond the mystery, what we do know is that experiencing a little fear can actually help us become less afraid (see Michael Shannon’s portrayal of a man terrorized by his own thoughts before giving way to psychic integration in Take Shelter for one of the best recent examples of how movies can help heal this pathology). Blatty says he wrote The Exorcist “as an affirmation of our belief in the Resurrection and the life…to give comfort, hope and strength;” Stone begins J.F.K. with the brief sermonic invocation of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s injunction “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” Both are perfect imaginations of the same thing: how to make meaning in your life. Fr Karras and Jim Garrison do this by self-giving love; their success or lack thereof is not what matters: it’s that they choose love over death, whatever the cost.
And love, as we are often told these days, wins. And it wins because its opposing force – the shadow of human nature, the part that wants to destroy the light – simply does not understand it. The shadow wants to fight. Love wants to love. The shadow wants to trap. Love wants to love. The shadow wants to kill. Love wants to love.
Even after 40 years, The Exorcist continues to illuminate my hope, because it understands the thing that will save the human race. Even the demon – whatever that is – knows this. The Exorcist may be, therefore, be the most hopeful film ever made. For this is a film that climaxes with a moment when the devil himself seems to be looking at the love the priest shows and is confounded, because this love is not just an alien emotion, but a totally incomprehensible – and undefeatable – strength.