Assyria, Babylon, bad, Damien Karras, Demon Possesion, Demons, djinn, entity, Evil, Exorcism, Exorcist, Fear, Gabriel Byrne, genie, genii, Good, gothic, guardian spirits, Horror, Merrin, mythology, negative, pagan, Pazuzu, positive, psychology, Regan, Religion, Satan, superstition, The Devil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Gemini Killer, The Vatican, William Peter Blatty
I read two things this week that made me decide to write about the role of religion in horror. Firstly, my idol Gabriel Byrne said that he thought the Catholic Church was evil. Secondly, parks have a calming effect on the mind, apparently! What have these got to do with one another?
Well, although I’m pagan I have to both agree and disagree with Gabriel. Religion, like every entity, has a good and a bad side. Both positive and negative psychology exists in most religions. Many people have horrific or depressing experiences within the confines of a place of worship or due to the beliefs held, but just as many have hugely fulfilling life-long relationships with their God(s); despite my lack of Christian belief, I never fail to feel spiritually at peace in beautiful big Italian churches. They are designed that way deliberately, to give you a sense of peace. In much the same way as Nature is.
Over the years, many stories have been penned on the fight between good and evil. Like all horrors, they are intended to frighten the reader, or viewer. What better way to terrorise than through deep-rooted religious beliefs and superstitions? Therein, lie many supernatural beings, ready and willing to take your soul. The gothic horror novel can be scrutinised for the plentiful evidence of the much larger fears of society, and the horror genre in general is awash with (often) Christian symbolism. Sometimes, if it’s being especially clever, a story will throw in the debate of religion vs. science, with psychology being the obvious choice for the reasons behind baffling and frightening behaviour.
Truth be told, religious horror absolutely scares the beejeezus out of me, but I absolutely love it. Religion was never forced down my throat as a kid, so I can only imagine how devout Christians feel! I know many Catholics who just won’t watch or read, for example, The Exorcist, even though I tell them the Church is painted in a very good light and defeats Satan in the end. I first remember reading The Exorcist as a teenager, probably around the age of fifteen or so. It was a book given to me by my grandfather, who knew I liked Hammer Horror and Christopher Lee. My love of The Count was positively encouraged by my father, and I have many fond memories of our Dracula film nights! I don’t think my grandfather had any idea of what The Exorcist was about, or what lurked between the pages of that book. I’m sure he’d never have passed it on otherwise. I found it shocking, disturbing and highly entertaining, though it might have caused me some bouts of insomnia for a few weeks!
The Exorcist is the tale of a little girl, who becomes possessed by the Devil, and the fight of the priests to save her soul. The author, William Peter Blatty, supposedly derived inspiration from the exorcism of a young boy by a Jesuit priest in 1949.
However, Blatty chose not to go with Christian mythology when deciding on which evil spirit to use. The demon he chooses for his story is Pazuzu, a wind demon from Babylonian and Assyrian mythology. Demons, in ancient Iraq – where the story begins – are also called Djinn or, as we know them, ‘genie’. The genii in Assyro-Babylonian mythology were inferior to gods but played a major role in the daily lives of this ancient civilisation. There were both good and bad genii. The good ones were guardian spirits, but there were also evil genii from the lower world who overwhelmed people with disease, made them become criminals, split up families and decimated livestock. There was no way of appeasing them, and it was thought they did not heed either prayer or supplication. Seven of them were thought to be particularly dangerous: ‘…they dwell in holes in the ground, they live among the ruin of the earth’. They appear to mortals as terrifying creatures and can only be driven away by incantations performed…by an exorcist! (1)
Father Merrin, in The Exorcist, finds a small statue of Pazuzu and a St Joseph’s medal whilst on an archaeological dig in Iraq. Immediately the story is introduced as the fight for good against evil. As this is happening, in Georgetown (USA), a little girl and her mother start to experience disturbing events. As the story progresses the little girl, Regan, appears to be possessed by a demonic entity. Her mother immediately has various psychological tests carried out, as this is the obvious reason for her daughter’s behaviour. Eventually, at her wits end and seeking out another cure, she enlists the help of Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest trained in psychiatry; someone with a foot in both camps. Damien, however, is easy emotional prey for the demon. He has a crisis of faith and is guilt-ridden about the death of his mother. The Vatican enlist Merrin, an experienced exorcist, to drive the demon out of Regan and save her from the Hellishness she has succumbed to. The outcome is the death of Merrin and the ultimate sacrifice of Karras, who persuades the demon to take him instead of Regan. He then jumps out of the girl’s window, in an attempt to kill Pazuzu….
…and we think that’s it, until Legion (Exorcist III), also written by Blatty, but this time directed by him too. It is also a pretty good film. Particularly terrifying in this story, is the notion that evil has the ability to enter holy places, which most people like to believe are calm and spiritual havens of protection. Suddenly, nowhere is safe from evil and chaos, neither churches nor hospitals; devout clergy are as vulnerable as anyone from attack by powerful evil spirits.
Police are baffled when the trade-marks of the now dead Gemini Killer, which were kept secret, start appearing on victims’ bodies. It turns out to be a demon (presumably Pazuzu) possessing different people, making them commit horrific murders. It also turns out Damien didn’t die, but is still possessed by the spirit of a serial killer alongside Pazuzu. Damien is trapped in Hell, but still saves the day in the end.
I think this film is an absolute gem. The tension built up in some scenes is very well done. The “Nurse Scene” scared the crap out of me when I first watched it, and again when I watched it this very afternoon – even knowing what was coming. It is creepiness at its very best. The film won a much deserved Saturn award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA for Best Writing. The acting of Brad Dourif, for which he at least received a nomination, is utterly fantastic. It definitely should be on your list of books to read, and films to see.†
Another exorcism story, which keeps me awake and terrified, is The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Again, it is good vs evil, science vs religion. What I love about this story is that it leaves you to make up your own mind about the events that occur.
These events are based on the true, and very tragic, story of Anneliese Michel, an unfortunate German girl who died following an exorcism. It is thought, by some, to have been a case of misidentification of mental illness, negligence, abuse and religious hysteria (2). In the film, it is brought to the attention of a jury, and there is a fairly good case on both sides. The outcome is similar to the real outcome. In the film the exorcist is found guilty, but deemed to have suffered enough.
What I loved about this story is that it really draws upon the viewer’s beliefs at every point. It borders, like the best scary stories, on the edge of possibility; because the events, or ones very similar, actually took place.
What do I believe? I believe that demons and mental illness are the same thing dressed in different clothing, and I believe that in order to defeat anything you need to start with the beliefs of the affected person and adopt a holistic approach to treatment. The real horror is that science and spirituality seem to be forever at war, rather than forming an amicable ‘opposites attract’ partnership, defeating the cause on all sides – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Yes, I believe… I believe in death. I believe in disease. I believe in injustice and inhumanity and torture and anger and hate. I believe in murder. I believe in pain. I believe in cruelty and infidelity. I believe in slime and stink and every crawling, putrid thing… every possible ugliness and corruption, you son of a bitch! I believe…….in you (Lt. Kinderman, Exorcist III: Legion)
And I believe, even if you don’t believe, it is best not to be too arrogant about it.
Until next week readers. Your friend, A.D.
- New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1986 edition) Guild Publishing: London p65.
- – Duffey, John M. (2011). Lessons Learned: The Anneliese Michel Exorcism. ISBN 978-1-60899-664-3
† And what of The Exorcist II…? Well, we don’t really like to talk about it…