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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/24/21

Silly Film Olympics Horror Special: "Demonic Possession - The Neo-Catholics Made Me Do It"

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The Exorcist
The Exorcist
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Frank Turek: "Where does evil come from?"

Christopher Hitchens: "Religion."

There are a number of ways to measure silliness in a film, both technically and thematically. This includes confusing cinematography, low-quality special effects, worn-out plots, flat characters, cliche' dialogue, actors who can't act and directors who can't direct. All good points to keep in mind when turning an inquisitive gaze towards films that examine paranormal activity; that is, films in which the central drama concerns demonic possession. Structurally, they follow the same basic pattern: "infestation, oppression, possession," as paranormal investigator Ed Warren describes it. (What Witchboard calls "progressive entrapment"; see Carol Clover.) In addition, from The Exorcist (1973) to the Conjuring films (2013 / 2021), their stories are consistently built around two fundamental themes: the cosmic struggle between good and evil is real, and only faith in the Catholic church can save you. Not in this world, of course, but later, after you're dead, when it counts.

Roll the clip.

The Exorcist (Friedkin 1973). A classic and still the best possession film ever, The Exorcist is based on William Peter Blatty's hugely successful novel, itself coined from reports of an exorcism performed on a 14-year-old boy living in Mount Rainier, Maryland, in 1949. The boy ("Rob Doe") was acting strangely, traditional medicine didn't help, so his family called a priest. The priest, E. Albert Hughes, determined the boy was possessed by a demon and agreed to perform the ritual, which reportedly lasted two months. According to Father Hughes, evidence for Doe's possession could be found in his use of foul language and outbursts of violence. He swore the boy could speak Latin and his bed would move across the room while he was sleeping. Ironically, in spite of the priest's efforts, the exorcism failed.

In the Friedkin film, a demon named Pazuzu is said to possess Regan McNeil, a 12-year-old girl staying in Washington, DC. At first there are only vague warning signs: "rats" in the attic, strange sounds in the basement, lights flashing on and off and the windows in Regan's bedroom staying open. But the assault quickly becomes personal. Regan has trouble sleeping, urinates on a rug, clings to a shaking bed and suffers epileptic episodes. She is subjected to a battery of medical procedures that appear to make things worse. By the time she masturbates with a crucifix ("Let Jesus f*** you!") and her head rotates 180 degrees, it's clear Pazuzu has the little girl in his power. Regan's speaking voice turns foreign, threatening, masculine. Through her the demon taunts Father Karras, vomits bile and speaks English backwards. Poor Regan, trapped by an evil force, writes "help me" from inside her own body. She is finally released when the priest demands the demon "come into" him instead. Pazuzu obliges and Karras, now possessed, promptly jumps out the window to his death. Creepy, hair-raising, and some very cool effects.

Fortunately, not a word of it is true. Journalist Mark Opsasnick's exhaustive investigation documents a number of discrepancies, inconsistencies and outright falsehoods between the original exorcism and its dramatization on screen. No one who lived around Rob Doe, for example, thought the boy was possessed, though it was well known he suffered from serious mental problems (his symptoms suggest an "antisocial personality disorder"). The demonic-possession part, according to Opsasnick's research, was entirely fabricated by his "obsessively religious mother and grandmother" and a "credulous priest." A second priest who was present during the exorcism, Father O'Hara of Marquette University, admitted he never witnessed any of the behavior described in the book or the film. He also stated the behavior he did see could be explained in other, more reasonable ways. While the boy recited some Latin, he was likely repeating phrases he'd heard from Father Hughes.

So, no possession. No epic battle for the soul. Just plain ol' neo-Catholic propaganda, straight no chaser. The pattern for possession horror is now set.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Derrickson 2005). The film is based on the case history of Anneliese Michel, a young woman raised by a strict Catholic family in Bavaria, West Germany. At eighteen, she begins to have terrible seizures and visions of "devils." She reacts violently when praying and starts hurting herself, eating insects and drinking her own urine. Medical doctors prescribe a number of drugs during this period but none of them help. Exhausted, the family puts their daughter's fate in the hands of the Catholic Church and not long after Bishop Josef Stangl grants permission to perform an exorcism (Rituale Romanum), in the strictest secrecy. It begins in September, 1975; eleven months later Anneliese is freed from her suffering. The priests who performed the exorcism, Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz, along with Anneliese's parents, are convinced the ritual worked and the demons (six altogether) were expelled from the girl's body moments before she passed. Mission accomplished.

Derrickson's film picks up this version of the story and multiplies it times ten. The victim is re-named Emily Rose and her terrifying ordeal is shown in flashbacks narrated by Father Richard Moore, the priest charged with "negligence resulting in death" for performing an exorcism on the 19-year-old girl. From his jail cell Moore explains the situation to Erin Bruner, the lawyer who's been assigned to his case and who begins her representation as a clear-eyed skeptic. She doesn't believe a thing the priest says and only reluctantly agrees to hear him out. As the drama unfolds, however, the secular lawyer and relapsed Catholic begins to experience the same supernatural intrusions Emily experienced, strange smells and sounds. Even her clock stops at 3am. At this point Erin is beginning to accept the truth. Demonic possession is real, and the closer she gets to it, the more it targets her as the next victim. In court, Father Moore reads a letter Emily wrote shortly before her death. She has decided to continue her suffering, she explains, because she believes it will help "prove" the existence of God. Father Moore is found guilty but released for time served. In the concluding scene, Erin Bruner and Father Moore pray together at Emily's grave.

Stop me if you've heard this before: not a bit of it is true. There was an exorcism, a young woman did die and the priests who performed the ritual were tried, found guilty and sent to prison. The rest is neo-Catholic marketing.

In reality, Anneliese Michel received neither aid nor comfort from the church. She wasn't possessed and she didn't need saving. She was mentally ill, a fact the church admitted to after trial. She certainly didn't write a letter advancing the sadistic notion that physical suffering leads to spiritual enlightenment. A secular court found Ms. Michel died as a result of her treatment by the two Catholic priests, Renz and Alt. Anneliese's parent were also charged and convicted. An autopsy revealed she was severely malnourished and dehydrated. She had pneumonia, both her knees were broken and she weighed 68 pounds. The Catholic church was so desperate to prove the existence of evil it sent two thugs to torture a young girl to death. Even worse, it found a group of filmmakers who were willing to twist religious savagery into cinematic hero-worship. At least Renz and Alt were convicted of manslaughter and jailed.

The Conjuring universe introduces a structural shift in possession films with the arrival of Lorraine and Ed Warren, self-described paranormal investigators who "represent" the Catholic church but are not officially part of it. In a move that was likely inspired by the church's child-rape scandal, the battle between good and evil will now be fought not by the Vatican but by surrogates like the Warrens. The church itself, the institution responsible for the insanity, is allowed to recede quietly into the background, with an anxious Father Gordon as its cinematic face. To be clear, the politics of the films do not change, inasmuch as each one practices a similar brand of dishonest story-telling, God and Satan and demons and the rest. The Warrens are simply a variation of the con.

The Conjuring (Wan 2013). The first film in the series draws on another historical event, the so-called "Harrisburg Haunting." In January 1971, Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five children move into a farmhouse on the outskirts of Burrillville, Rhode Island, where they begin experiencing supernatural occurrences almost immediately, from apparitions to physical attacks. They contact the church for help. Ed and Lorraine Warren also become involved and the case quickly receives national attention. The Perron's eldest daughter eventually pens a three-volume series in which she details a panoply of demonic disturbances, the most frequent being a woman with a broken neck, popularized as Bathsheba Sherman. She describes Mrs. Sherman as pure evil, a witch who murders her own baby, declares her love for Satan and then hangs herself from a tree in the front yard. Hence the broken neck. Andrea Perron also writes of a scythe flying across a room and almost cutting her sister's head off, and how the farmhouse was responsible for several unusual deaths: John Arnold commits suicide and two others, Edwin Arnold (no relation) and Jarvis Smith, freeze to death. The Perrons eventually vacate the property in 1980.

[to be continued...]

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BK Faunce is a retired Associate Professor of English (UMW / UCSC) specializing in British Romantic Literature, Film Theory and Writing. His recent work examines the use of state power and its impact on visual culture.

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