A Christian Perspective on Horror in Movies & Culture
- Friday, October 12, 2012
Our problem is that in our grievously foolish and fallen nature we don't think God is real either.
I hesitate to even talk about this movie, which is considered by many people to be the most frightening and disturbing film ever made. I have written essays on the film, lectured on it, and used clips and (in a few instances) the whole film while teaching at a large public university years ago. But it is by no means a movie that I like to sit down and watch. I feel unnerved just thinking about it, quite honestly. I am primarily interested in its psychological effects and "spiritual" content. It does contain some highly offensive material, of course, and is not for the faint of heart. But if a movie about the devil possessing a young girl were not offensive, then what in the world would be? Several scenes are shockingly vulgar, but lots of movies are vulgar, and in worse ways. What is interesting to note about the film is that it is disturbing—it makes viewers genuinely uncomfortable. It causes deep psychological distress and even real terror that lasts, for many viewers, long after the movie is over.11 After seeing it when I was probably sixteen, I went home and fashioned a crude wooden cross and stuffed it under my pillow for several weeks. I didn't really believe in God or anything. (I was far too sophisticated for that, I remember thinking.) But the devil scared me to death. Even though I didn't believe in him either. But I figured, why take chances? Those unauthorized and long-suppressed nights with "Creature Feature" had come back—in another form and with the vengeance of very frightening poetic justice for me. I did not wish to find out what lies beneath.
Few Hollywood movies have had the courage to deal so frankly with supernatural evil—with unrelenting demonic evil. It is easy to make a scary movie about demons or cultic wackos; it takes little imagination to portray Christians as nut-jobs and cranks (many movies do—Carrie for example). It is easy to take these subjects and make light of them. But there may well be a reason that The Exorcist struck such a nerve with the movie going public: a fear that the film may at some level be accurate, and that there could in fact be a supernatural enemy of mankind that can and does intervene in human lives. Now, I do not think that the scenario in the film is exactly a biblically sound one. I disagree with elements of Catholic doctrine and see very little contiguity between the Roman rite of exorcism and how demonic activity is represented in Scripture. Nonetheless I believe that the reason the film is so powerful is because it taps into a very basic human fear about both God and Satan. Interestingly, William Friedkin, the director, is a believing Jew, and William Peter Blatty, the screenwriter who penned the original novel, is a Catholic. Both have spoken quite openly about their faiths and said that they do not view the premise behind the story as fictional in the least. Is it any wonder that it took two artists who believe seriously in God and Satan, as well as human and demonic evil, to produce what many consider the most terrifying film ever made—not to mention an extremely lucrative one?12 Few films that take themselves seriously have the courage to present evil so uncompromisingly, so convincingly, and with such conviction that no admixture of good and evil is present in the villain. Even if you don't believe at any level in Judeo-Christian theism, the mere possibility that this story might accurately represent basic structural elements of reality—sharply defined good and evil in absolutely personal form—is enough to give anyone nightmares. Because it foregrounds the uncomfortable truth (the biblical truth) that real evil is never merely abstract: it is someone.
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