The National Catholic Review
What do horror films say about God?
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The Rite” fails both as a horror film and as a religious experience. But it didn’t have to happen that way. I read Matt Baglio book’s The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist (2009), on which the new film is loosely based, and talked to priests in California who knew the Rev. Gary Thomas, the priest who inspired the book and who served as technical adviser for the film. They spoke well of him. But it doesn’t take much imagination to hear the film’s script writer saying, “Yes, Father, but we’ve got to jazz it up to pull them in.”   

The central question, especially in a “religious” film, is: What is the director trying to say?

The classic horror films of the 1930s, based on good literature, usually carried a religious message as well. Both the original “Frankenstein” and the Claude Raines version of H. G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” took their theme from the biblical idea of human autonomy violating the Creator’s will. Just as Adam and Eve asserted their own ambition by disregarding God’s command to not eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, scientists move into “God’s territory” and unwittingly create destructive monsters. As the Invisible Man mutters on his deathbed, “There are some things it’s best not to know.”  

“The Wolf Man” is a variation on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: man as a divided creature, stuck with original sin, whose disposition toward violence is inherited by all of us as children of Cain; sometimes this buried other self gets the upper hand. In “Dracula” Dr. Van Helsing is a medical doctor who will use the crucifix as a weapon against the vampire; both book and film combine science and religion.

The premise of exorcist films is that there are, in effect, two “gods” who battle for our souls: the ancient heresy was called Manichaeism. Its contemporary variations posit that the God who created us and loves us also permits a rival “god,” Satan, to possess us at will, take over our bodies and minds, and force us to scream obscenities, fly around the room, vomit toads and nails and spill the personal secrets of anyone who dares to oppose him. That’s not the God I know.

Yes, the New Testament recounts Jesus expelling demons from the sick; but in the cosmology of Jesus’ time demons were considered the source of all kinds of ailments. When Jesus rebukes the storm at sea he is addressing a “demon” in the storm. Yes, we have exorcists in the church today; but it is extremely rare that they encounter what even they consider a genuine case of possession.

A missionary with 40 years experience described to me routine “exorcisms” where he labored; but it was understood by the participants that the source of the woman’s problem—and they were overwhelmingly women—was not an indwelling spirit but a psychological wound caused by a family quarrel. Today many modern theologians consider Satan a symbol of the evil forces at work in the world. This does not make evil any less real; rather it more realistically emphasizes the individual and social responsibility for sin. To explain the source of evil in the world we need to look no farther that our own weakness desires.

In the book, Father Gary Thomas, from San Jose, California, wants to improve his pastoral skills so his bishop sends him to Rome to be trained in exorcism. Thomas had worked as an embalmer in his father’s funeral home, fallen off a cliff during a hike and endured a long recovery from his injuries, including depression. In Rome he enrolls in an exorcism course at a college run by the Legionnaires of Christ, the church’s most conservative and discredited order—though Thomas might not have known that at the time. He allows the journalist Matt Baglio to hang out and take notes for his book. Attached to a Franciscan exorcist who trains him, Thomas comes to believe in diabolical possession, to the point where he suspects that the devil is making inroads on him. The book The Rite also includes the scientific explanations for the symptoms attributed to diabolic possession, including schizophrenia, hysteria, bipolar disease, epilepsy, Tourette’s Syndrome and multiple personality disorder.

In the film (directed by Michael Halstrom) Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue), son of an embalmer, goes to the seminary because he can’t afford college. He tries to pull out before ordination, but is persuaded by his dean to take some months in Rome in exorcism training to think things over. There Father Lukas (Anthony Hopkins), a Jesuit, takes him on as an exorcist’s apprentice.

But Michael is an independent thinker, challenges his Dominican professor in class with skeptical questions, and  observes Lukas’s exorcisms thinking that more psychiatrists should have been consulted.

Perhaps the writers made Hopkins a Jesuit because Jesuits, with their 13-year training, have the reputation (deserved or not) for approaching complex issues more intellectually. But Lukas lives not with a Jesuit community but up a hill in a run-down, perpetually dark house, with a cluttered back yard, no shelves of books or apparent intellectual interests. In the film, Mike represents rationality with his questioning, while Lukas represents “faith”—to Mike, belief in what seems unbelievable.

Over time Mike witnesses a string of exorcisms, as if Lukas’ house is a doctor’s office with patients streaming in and out for a blessing or, if necessary, a wrestling, screaming and blessing session in order to “name” and expel the evil spirit.  Mike and Lukas pin down and bless one young “possessed” pregnant woman bouncing off the wall and writhing around the floor. Mike wonders whether this violence has injured her unborn child. The next day she attempts suicide and she and the child die in childbirth. It does not occur to Lukas that exorcism was not the proper response to her condition.

But then Lukas himself becomes possessed, and it is up to our young hero, accompanied by Angeline (Alice Braga) a pretty young female journalist who is writing about his adventures, to yank his mentor from the devil’s grip. In the film’s climax, Anthony Hopkins, tied to a chair, spews insults, reveals the inner thoughts of Mike and Angeline, and contorts his face into its most ugly expressions, while Mike, holding his exorcist’s handbook in one hand and the crucifix in the other, does battle. Meanwhile, the soundtrack crackles with grunts and screams.

The film’s message is that one must first believe in Satan in order to believe in God. I don’t buy it. There are those who think exorcism movies—like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” years ago —are pastorally helpful because they scare young people into going to church. That’s a religion based on superstition and fear. And is not a religion based on the God whom I know.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is associate editor of America.

Comments

BOB REGAN MR | 2/9/2011 - 11:46am
I saw the "Rite" nd thought it was pretty good. It was very "Catholic", and my biggest take away is that believing in Christ, trying to remain in a state fo grace, one does not have to worry about the devil because in a sense, you've turned from him towards Jesus and the devil, being a created being, can never overcome the power of Christ. As a Catholic, I've heard we should not fear Satan, but have contempt for him!

Interestingly, the last scene of the "Rite" shows the priest in the confessional booth hearing the confession of a young woman. The devil would never enter a confession, because the penitent has made the free-will decision and turned fully from satan towards Christ, hence the beauty and grace of the sacrament.
Bob Jackson | 2/8/2011 - 2:13pm
Wow, I'm reminded of the saying that "the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn't exist."

Mr Schroth writes: "The premise of exorcist films is that there are, in effect, two “gods” who battle for our souls: the ancient heresy was called Manichaeism. Its contemporary variations posit that the God who created us and loves us also permits a rival “god,” Satan, to possess us at will, take over our bodies and minds..."

With all due respect, it is also heresy to deny the existence of supernatural evil and Satan. And most people who believe in the healing ministry of exorcism believe that the possessed have (perhaps inadvertently) exposed themselves, or been exposed, to possession by tampering with evil. That is not to say that it is "their fault" but it does involve choices made by souls with free will. Satan's power is of temptation. Its voice can be as still, quiet and intelligent as God's own, but it does not have any power over our Lord.

Mr Schroth writes: "To explain the source of evil in the world we need to look no farther that our own weakness desires."

Wow, really? This is a textbook example of what I am talking about, and forgive me for saying that it seems to me it could only be written by someone who has not truly seen the dark side of life up close, firsthand. Spend some time in the military or law enforcement and you will eventually come face to face with evil that cannot be explained rationally. The desire and willingness to traffick in child sex slaves or commit serial torture and murder are "weakness desires" common to all human beings? That sounds like a very sheltered viewpoint. You are ascribing and incredible and unwarranted amount of power to mere human beings. And the idea that the field of modern psychiatry, one hundred years old and changing "official" positions as often as most people change the oil in their car, can explain all pathological behavior is demonstrably absurd.

Demonic possession and exorcism are constant and prominent themes in Gospel accounts of Christ's ministry. Chalking it up to primitive convention is denying a significant part of the Gospel and the Church's teaching that Christ is the omniscient and omnipotent God of creation. If you simply dismiss it then how can you take anything written in the Bible seriously?
Rhett Segall | 2/8/2011 - 8:07am

It is dismaying that so many are eager to comment on a movie they haven't seen.  I saw The Rite and compared to the Exorcist it was a very restrained replication of the sufferings of the possessed and in fact almost duplicates a you tube documentary of a Greek Orthodox (I'm presuming from the clerical garb) exorcism.  With today's technology, this movie could have spent a great deal of time and money on effects but it did not.  It represented not some imaginary horror but a real and present danger.  As with the Exorcist, the movie did present the belief in Satan leading to the belief in God, but in this case it was not a pre-requisite as suggested by the columnist and it certainly was not the message.  This is the case of a particular person's journey and was not the general approach being presented by the church for dealing with exorcism,Holy Orders or anything else.  It did have humor but it was used with a light hand and allowed the audience to walk in the shoes of the yet to be priest as he progressed from the common, modern attitude towards evil and the church's own attitudes of seriousness in it's approach to things.  While watching I was aware of the audience's reaction as they laughed in clear disdain of the representation of the church's stand to a gradual respect -not a sound-by the end of the movie.  This is a powerful tool for the Catholic Church.  It is well done and entertaining-after all it isn't a treatise, a documentary or a Powerpoint presentation on church doctrine.  It does, in fact, speak to young adults.  My son is 29 and was very impressed.  He is not a church-goer in spite of a complete Catholic school regimen, and his attitude matched that of the general audience at the beginning of the movie.  For heaven sakes stop shooting yourself in the foot,Fr. Schroft.  This meets the kids (and young adults) where they are at and brings them to another level.  Use it.  Don't disparage it.


 

James O'Connell | 2/7/2011 - 2:33pm

Thankfully, 'January release' is  movie-industry jargon which implies it's a film best forgotten by the time the awards nominations are announced..

eugene stark | 2/7/2011 - 12:31pm
It occurs to me that in none of the Christian credos is there any mention of believing in devils. If I'm not mistaken, the word "believe" is etymologically related to love. The Church has done the modern world a disservice by perpetuating ancient representations of evil. I heard a German Jesuit who is in charge of pressing for the beatification and cannonization of Pius XII speaking on TV. He claims Pius was convinced Hitler was possessed and would, from his balcony and facing toward Germany, pray that the demon(s) would leave him. Whatever one may think of that, I think everyone would agree that Auschwitz represents the face of Evil better than any horror movie.
Chris NUNEZ | 2/7/2011 - 12:05pm

GETTING READY TO CLOCK IN TO WORK, so I don't have time to read all the comments on this movie yet. But the first comment leaves me puzzled again. When referring to San Juan de la Cruz' "Dark Night of the Soul", it seems to reflect an 'understanding' of San Juan's work as something 'dark' and forboding. In its English and Spanish, it strikes me as an experience in seeking and finding the Lord in some excercise in discernment, much in the manner of the Ignatian exercises, and creative imaginings.


I must wonder why I see "Dark Night of the Soul" in a different way!

Frank Gibbons | 2/6/2011 - 10:19am
Father Schroth,

You wrote that "There are those who think exorcism movies—like William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” years ago — are pastorally helpful because they scare young people into going to church."

Can you site who these people are? Can your provide any sources or quotes to support this claim? Thanks.

Regards,

Frank Gibbons
Norman Costa | 2/5/2011 - 5:35pm
@ cgreen:  Many thanks. :)
CATHERINE GREEN MRS | 2/5/2011 - 4:11pm

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Life by Tony Hendra

from Publishers Weekly:

When he was 14, Hendra had an affair with a married woman. One afternoon, her husband, a devout Roman Catholic, discovered the two in each other's arms. The husband, acting more out of concern for Hendra's soul than out of anger, arranged for the teenager to spend several weeks under the tutelage of Father Joe at a Benedictine abbey in England. Expecting cruel treatment similar to that handed out by the monks in his Catholic elementary school, Hendra was surprised to meet instead a rotund, knobby-kneed confessor whose thoughtful, open manner changed Hendra's life forever. As Hendra reveals in this graceful, humorous tale, Father Joe acted not only as a confessor, but also as a friend and as the guiding spirit of Hendra's life (the author is now married with three children). Under the influence of Father Joe, Hendra passionately decided to follow the monastic life. At every turn, he met Father Joe's gentle insistence that he wasn't yet ready to enter the monastery. At Cambridge, Hendra discovered a new passion-comedy-and pursued it as ardently as he'd pursued religion. Hendra writes well (he spent several years as the head writer at National Lampoon), chronicling the failure of his first marriage, his descent into substance abuse, his self-hatred and his incessant search for meaning in compelling prose and with clear-eyed honesty. Throughout Hendra's life, Father Joe stands by his side, like a gentle shepherd leading a lost sheep back to a place where it can graze safely. 

Edward Visel | 2/4/2011 - 10:24pm

In the history of film, Psycho is always spoken of as a turning point in the horror genre. It was, in two ways: one, it humanized the antagonist; and two, it manipulated the audience into shocking scream moments (e.g. the shower scene). This isn't really inherently good or bad — nor are the horror films that preceded it — but significantly informs the genre ever since.

It has gone two ways, for each of Psycho's innovations: a string of films that humanize the antogonist in order to lead the audience to investigate the darkness in themselves (maybe Silence of the Lambs) and slasher films and scream fests that abandon the effort to be good films to the effort to be scary, to the detriment of the genre (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). That is not to say films must be wholly one or the other (Silence of the Lambs certainly has its screams), but they do tend to one or the other. This film (from the review; it looks too bad to see) looks to fall in the middle, with a tendency towards the scream, if not the gore.

A more interesting genre is following from the humanization of the antagonist, towards a juxtaposition of the antagonist as an antihero. Interview with the Vampire is the earliest that comes to mind (though obviously the Anne Rice book came prior), a clear break with previous vampire movies (Nosferatu (both), Vampyr, Dracula, et al), borne out in those that followed (Underworld (all), Van Helsing, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Twilight). These movies and shows may have a lot less respect than those that went before, but I think that is due more to a failure in the coexistance of money and art. In terms of narrative space, there's a lot more possibility that a mere evil being that must be killed. Honestly, the plot of Nosferatu or Vampyr is too simple and dull for the more demanding audience of today (not that they are not great films).

When the tendency of the humanization of the antagonist leads to proper antiheroes, who are no longer quite antagonists, and fall outside the realm of horror, we find all variety of ingenious cinema. House, Mad Men, The Hurt Locker, The Social Network – most of cinema today owes a debt to Psycho. For better and worse.
Norman Costa | 2/4/2011 - 3:53pm
Can someone enlighten me on "Fr. Joe?" I am not aware of the story.
CATHERINE GREEN MRS | 2/4/2011 - 12:32pm

I second the opinion above that there should be a movie on "Father Joe"  - Meanwhile I am looking forward to Emilio Estevan's movie on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela called "The Way" which is currently on the "film festival circuit."   Let's see more inspirational films and less frightful films!

Norman Costa | 2/2/2011 - 1:14pm
Lord, save us from ourselves!

Of course, "The Rite," will be followed by the Discovery series on rites of exorcism in the Catholic Church.

Father Ray, I remember the movie, "Island of Doctor Moreau," starring Charles Laughton and, I believe, Bela Lagosi.  Dr. Moreau is giving a tour of his island bound research in accelerating evolution.  He is taking animals and hurrying along evolution to a human species.  At one point he pauses and says to his visiting guest, though more an internal conversation with himself, "Do you know what it is like to be God?"

I have known a "stigmatist" for several years.  Well, she would be considered a "stigmatist" if the disposition of her "wounds" corresponded to the wounds of the crucified Jesus.  This victim of extreme sexual abuse, can be triggered by associations to her trauma, and several locations on her body will fissure and start to bleed.  The loci correspond to specific locations of sexual abuse and torture.

The "stigmatist" display might last for a short time with minimal bleeding, or elapse over a day or two or more with minimal to more noticeable oozing.  These episodes are signs of the emergence of previously repressed memories of sexual abuse and torture.  

The emergence of the "stigmatist" wounds, though somewhat painful, are actually good in that it leads to recovering the specific, repressed memory of a specific act of abuse. Once she deals with in it therapy by recovering the repressed memory and the attending affect, the symptom disappears.  At different times, the symptoms appear to return. However, they return because they are related to yet another specific event of abuse.  Her abusers were family members and clergy (Catholic and non-Catholic.)

One thing I find interesting in your essay is the following:

"A missionary with 40 years experience described to me routine “exorcisms” where he labored; but it was understood by the participants that the source of the woman’s problem—and they were overwhelmingly women—was not an indwelling spirit but a psychological wound caused by a family quarrel."

My personal view is that abuse may be a factor in some of the mimicking of experiences of supernatural interventions.  Your comment suggests that cultural or social or intra-familial elements may be contributing factors as well.

I think it is important to note that I observed different reactions to the movie, "The Exorcist," depending on religious affiliations.  I met a black woman, years ago, a Vassar grad and raised in a culture of Voodoo in Baltimore.  She saw the movie, but found she could never discuss the movie because of its frightening effect on her.  Catholics tended to relate being terribly scared and anxious.  A methodist might regard it as just Hollywood horror that was entertaining.  Jews thought it was typical Goyische Kopf, and very funny.  

"The Exorcist" was a box office hit in the States.  In Europe it was a box office disaster.  This is the same Europe that George Wiegel refers to as "a spiritual wasteland."  Maybe he's got a point.  We could use statistics on box office receipts as an indication of national spirituality.  We win, hands down.

"In the book, Father Gary Thomas, from San Jose, California, wants to improve his pastoral skills so his bishop sends him to Rome to be trained in exorcism."

Can't you see an ad in a Catholic publication featuring a training program for priests and religious:

"Improve you pastoral skills.  Join us for a 3-day seminar on how to conduct exorcisms in your own parish church. Be a resource to your flock, and an asset to your bishop. We will have a special guest lecture by Louis Cypher.  $895 for four nights and three days, exclusive of travel and transfers.  Includes meals and lodging at the famous Fire Lake resort, near the famous Sulphur Springs, located in the Badlands region of South Dakota.  You receive 2 credits toward your certification in bringing the Church back into the dark ages."

Lord, save us from ourselves.
David Pasinski | 2/2/2011 - 9:13am
I appreciate and concur with Fr. Schroth's thoughts although I have not seen this film and do and do not plan to do so. I DO remember many years ago as a seminarian reading the discredited Malachi Martin's "Hostage to the Devil" and being scared... very scared! A few chats with some fine professors put a better perspective on all of that, but there were some deep impressions...!
It will be intersting to see if this film develops much press or following or interest. After "The Exorcist" I was busy for the next year dealing with all sorts of youth and adult ed groups on these questions. I remember a book by a Fr. Woods, OP, that was helpful a the time...
I wish they would make a movie about "Fr. Joe" That is a tale that should be told!!!
Kay Satterfield | 2/1/2011 - 6:26pm

I caught this interview with Charlie Rose and Anthony Hopkins last week. Of course the main point was to promote the movie.  However, in the interview Anthony Hopkins give an honest faith testimony.  I as impressed. Hopkins was counseled by a Jesuit himself at one point in his life and repeated a line in the movie that the Jesuit had told him about the "dark night of the soul".  Maybe that's why he's a Jesuit in the movie? 

I won't see the movie because it's just not my kind of movie though I am a fan of Anthony Hopkins.

It's really good. Check it out.

http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/11436

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