There’s a new movie called The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins in some version of the Max Von Sydow exorcist role, which was essentially the John Wayne or Alan Ladd role, though instead of bank robbers, cattle rustlers, or hired gunslingers, the hero’s doing battle with the lord of the underworld. Even if this is a good movie; meaning, in show business parlance, if it makes money, it will have tough creative competition in the devil movie arena with two of the best films ever made – The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby-- along with another – The Omen -- which didn’t quite rise to classic movie status but was still pretty damn good.
When The Exorcist came out in 1973, there was so much hype, people were scared out of their minds just waiting on line to buy tickets. And then there were those moments: Linda Blair levitating off the bed, knocking a shrink halfway across the room, the word “help” carved on her stomach from the inside, that growling devil voice (courtesy of Mercedes McCambridge) and, of course, the pea soup projectile vomiting. And, of course, that climactic moment with Von Sydow and Jason Miller standing defiantly over the bed, armed with crosses, defying Satan to leave the child’s body, shouting: “THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!” while Linda Blair’s head twisted around like a Barbie doll. And though Rosemary’s Baby was more character piece than outright horror flick, there was that dream sequence with Mia Farrow being raped by the horned one, siring a devil child.
So as far as The Rite goes, it’s got some pretty big cloven hooves to fill. But no matter how good the hype, I won’t see it. I don’t have to. The log line, posters, and trailer tell me all I need to know. And most telling is the line from the poster stating that it’s “based on true events.” Marketing departments don’t choose these lines capriciously. By putting that line on the poster, they’re stating that they believe that people believe that there is a God who’s in a steel cage death match with his Satanic counterpart for earthly domination and ownership of people’s souls, and that every so often the devil inhabits someone’s body, possibly for sport, or just to make their head spin around. And only a priest holding a cross, armed with a book and some special words and special water can drive the demon from his temporary host. The people marketing this film believe that people believe that demonic possession is a “true event,” which is, frankly, moronic. My two-year-old seems possessed every now and then. But it makes me want to wrap him up in a straightjacket, not dial up the local priest.
But for all the horror hype, if you actually stop and think about the subject of religion, and begin to separate fact from folklore… When you realize there really isn’t A God, and there really isn’t A Devil, just anthropomorphic manifestations of an internal, psychological struggle between our selfish instincts and the knowledge that we ought to be more loving and compassionate… When you understand that the cross is a symbol, meant to inspire contemplation and introspection, not a powerful, secret weapon to thrust in the face of a villain, whether devil or vampire… When you eventually come to the realization that religion is, at its heart, a path to a transcendent experience of life... a funny thing happens: these movies instantly morph from horror… to comedy.
Linda Blair’s levitation, head-rotation and pea soup expectoration. Mia Farrow’s devil rape and demon seed baby… The hounds of hell attacking Gregory Peck in The Omen. Priests standing over a young girl waving crosses and spritzing her with holy water which tears at her flesh... It all just becomes absurd, silly, and borderline ridiculous. Outward manifestations of our innermost fears, maybe. Just not “real events.”At best, films like Rosemary’s Baby can illustrate the paranoid group think and violent behavior that can result when people sense that their beliefs and institutions are under attack, whether that institution is a witches coven, or the “Church” of Scientology.
The silliness of these devil movies is an outgrowth of the silliness of our popular beliefs. One look at the activities of the Westboro Baptist Church shows how something as noble in intent as religious practice can descend into the sewer in the hands of ignorant, hateful people. In those cases, what is most revealing is that these people out themselves by their own reactions. A truly religious person wouldn’t care if their practices or traditions were criticized, mocked or derogated. They would see it as just the opinion of one person and would shrug it off as such. But when institutions are built on lies and misinformation those in charge know that sunlight is a dangerous disinfectant and that any allegation needs to be attacked and instantly discredited for fear that a little truth could cause doubt, and doubt could bring the whole house down. Religion is not something one gets offended about. When you do get offended, angry, or violent over an attack on your religion, you negate your religion.
Despite our technical sophistication, when it comes to our understanding of religion, we might as well be running around in animal skins. And considering what we do to each other in the name of religion, the truth is: there is a devil… and he is us.