To Make A Demonic Movie
You Need The Holy Hardware
By John Bentley Mays -The National Post
Along with computers affflicted by bad attitude problems (2001: A Space Odyssey), demons have proven to be among the most durable non-human stars launched by Hollywood in the years around 1970. (OK, we'd rather have been given another Lassie, but that's another story.)
The letters-to-the-editor box will doubtless be stuffed for weeks with the nay-sayings of film fans about my next pronouncement. Undaunted, I'm declaring the kick-off year of the craze for movies about Satan and his demonic legions to be 1967.
That was the year the Prince of Darkness got Mia Farrow pregnant in Rosemary's Baby. The rage was on. Demon babies were still rolling off the Hollywood assembly line and coining box-office cash a decade later in such vehicles as The Omen (1976) and The Amityville Horror (1979). Those are pictures you've probably heard of.
Nobody, I suspect, could reel off the names or numbers of all the diabolical budget knock-offs of big-screen hits that are kicking around. The figure must be pushing a zillion. But if all their box-office receipts were rolled into one pile, it probably wouldn't tot up to much more than the US$150-million take of The Exorcist, the biggest and most influential demon flick of them all.
While the creators of these myriad movies are always stretching for a new gimmick or twist, there's at least one prop they all need. It's the Roman Catholic Church -- or, to be more precise, a Catholic priest or two, or an elaborate ritual, or arcane doctrine, a scrap of holy hardware.
The story of Rosemary's Baby, the demonic debut movie, assumes that Satan and his demons are real, personal (if inhuman and anti-human), extremely shrewd, especially ready to ambush stupid people who don't think demons exist, and very, very hungry. The movie takes for granted that, despite wide disbelief, that these popular Catholic beliefs are true. Without them, Rosemary's Baby would be just so much silly suburban wife-swapping, not the shocker it is.
Of course, you don't have to be Catholic, or believe in the supernatural at all, to get a kick out of Rosemary's Baby or any devil movie. Every scary film has spooky rattlings and ghastly surprises, scenes when ordinary reality is bent horribly out of shape and creepy suspense. (If you're lucky, it will also have good acting -- but don't count on that one.) Some Catholic-free scary movies are a lot more frightening than The Exorcist -- Hitchcock's Psycho, for example, or The Silence of the Lambs.
But the basic truth here remains unchanged. While you can enjoy a devil movie without being Catholic, a devil movie without Catholicism is well-nigh unthinkable. The Catholic Church really does have impressive rituals for casting out unclean spirits (of the sort that concludes The Exorcist), holy water for making demons cringe, holy statues and rosaries and such for demons or their human minions to desecrate, priests who are completely ordinary men except for their mysteriously powerful hands, which (we are frequently reminded in devil flicks) can change bread and wine into the true Flesh and Blood of God.
But in addition to providing good elements of film stage business, the Catholic Church can also be tapped for its ancient, well-formulated answers to the anxious question: What's going on here?
Much of The Exorcist, for instance, is taken up with the painfully desperate search of Mrs. MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) for an explanation of her daughter Regan's transfiguration from a sweet little girl into an ugly, obscenity-spluttering monster. The doctors keep scanning for a blip in Regan's brain. But there's no blip. A demon's in there -- a conscious mind that is disembodied but very real, thinking up ways to inflict maximum suffering, death and even spiritual extinction on its victims. In the film, Catholic priests identify this true, horrible root of Regan's problem, and, using age-old Catholic rituals, invoke the power of God to jerk it out.
This is no hocus-pocus superstition, held by a few looney cultists in Haiti. Catholics everywhere believe in Satan and demons. The fearsome rite of exorcism that concludes The Exorcist may be rarely performed, but it is on the books. Though most practising Catholics aren't aware of them, all the most familiar rituals include invocations to protect and relieve Christians from evil -- baptism, confession, simple blessings of various sorts, the Eucharist itself.
But all exist because the Catholic Church has always officially taught that Satan and his legions exist, are out there and devoted to the ruination, misery and death of everything good and decent, including you. Perhaps you don't believe that. Perhaps you've got a better explanation for the unspeakable, completely gratuitous horrors being visited on people somewhere in the world every minute. But the idea that inhuman, unseen concious forces are working for our annihilation is very old and very widespread. And if the idea has no other impact, it makes for good Hollywood movies.
But that really doesn't answer the question of why these hugely successful devil movies emerged when they did, in the mid-1960s. I have a hunch about this. It has to do with the Second Vatican Council.
Pope John XXIII convened this four-year gathering of the world's bishops in 1962 to end 400 years of coping badly or helplessly (or not at all) with the deep cultural changes that accompanied the technological and intellectual moderniziation of the world. As Pope John saw it, the new boldness he wanted for the Catholic Church was to be kicked off by abandoning timidity, and reviving what was most wise, enduring and strong in the Church's long history. (Horrid as the thought may seem to some people in the Church, John Paul II is very much an example of the new Catholic the Council called for.)
For whatever reason, many academic theologians, parish priests and layfolk didn't get it. To them, "Liturgical reform" meant ridding the churches of dignity and bringing in the Singing Nun. "Renewal" was a green light to chuck everything that's embarassing about Catholicism (which is quite a lot.). Such as the belief in demonic possession.
Father Karras, the Jesuit psychiatrist played by Jason Miller in The Exorcist, is trendy by training, but traditional enough to spot a demon when he sees one destroying a little girl. But Father Karras is a Hollywood priest, not a real one. Nor did the Church make The Exorcist.
In fact, devil movies of this sort arose at the very moment Catholic officialdom began playing down the reality of demonic posesssion and such, and they have become more popular as the Church has become more "respectable" on the matter. I don't think this is mere coincidence. It seems to be a rather good instance of mass media's supplying images of something the Church can't, or won't, give to the millions who harbour no wishful thinking about the disfiguring reality and danger of spiritual evil.
Hollywood being Hollywood, a lot of what gets shown is drivel and crap and teenage slasher garbage. But interestingly enough, the best devil movies get right the old-time Catholic teaching about evil a lot of the time. Evil is not enchanting. It's not even fun. It's vile. Want to see what I'm talking about? Then don't miss The Exoricist.

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