ekm’s 31 NIGHTS OF HORROR: EVENING 4 – THE ABSENCE OF GOD IN RELIGIOUS HORROR FILMS
One of the more popular cinematic genres of the 1970s was the Religious Horror Film. Born as a reaction to the turbulent state of the world during this time, these modern-day interpretations of ancient beliefs both terrified and fascinated viewers across the world. What’s so interesting about how Christianity is represented – most notably in THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, as well as their latter-day sequels — is the idea that Evil is both alive and well in modern times; and yet for all the Biblical “truths” that contemporary society is willing to reaccept via the filmic medium, the supreme power in the universe–God Himself–is conspicuously absent within the narrative. Both THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN present the notion that Satan is at work in our advanced and seemingly civilized world, but God, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found in either tale except as an invisible (and apparently impotent) entity.
THE EXORCIST deals with the specter of religion on a personal level. Adapted for the screen from his novel, William Peter Blatty tells the story of 12 year-old Regan MacNeil and her possession by a diabolical entity. After much head-spinning, urination, vomiting, and masturbation with a crucifix, her movie star mother, Chris MacNeil, recruits the Catholic Church in the form of exorcists Damien Karras and Lankester Merrin. During the ritual, Merrin dies of heart failure, forcing Karras to take the demon into his own body; he presumably banishes it by hurling himself from the girl’s window, tumbling to his death down a long flight of stone steps.
What’s particularly interesting about this film is that the invading spirit (which claims to be Satan himself) is very much a leading character, speaking and interacting with our protagonists; yet God remains distant and removed from the narrative. One questions where the forces of Good are hiding while the girl is beaten, tortured, and held captive by an unseen adversary who wears her body like organic clothing. One could argue that Divine Intervention was impossible until Regan or her mother specifically requested it, but even once Chris MacNeil seeks spiritual aid, this doesn’t happen — at least not directly.
What we do see is highly disturbing. Aside from the horrible disfigurement and molestation of an innocent child, we also witness traumatic incidents in the lives of those who come into contact with her. Burke Dennings, the director of the film Chris is shooting in Georgetown, has his neck broken, and is then thrown from Regan’s bedroom window. This prompts Lieutenant Kinderman to nose about the MacNeil residence in a search for evidence that may result in the girl’s incarceration.* Throughout this nightmarish ordeal, the MacNeil family (made up of a mother, daughter, governess, and two servants) is torn apart by the inexplicable madness dwelling in the upstairs bedroom. Ultimately, Father Merrin arrives to perform the healing ritual only once irreparable damage has been inflicted, and though he’s an exorcist who has encountered this demon many times before and always emerged victorious, he dies, too; whether it’s his failing heart or demonic influence remains a mystery. Essentially, everything has been planned from the beginning, and our protagonists are being drawn into a web from which they cannot hope to escape.
One would think that a compassionate God would intervene of His own accord, and that the need for a stylized ritual would be irrelevant in light of the supernatural horrors occurring before us. Nevertheless, we see no sign of God, and the exorcism begins. For all the heart and soul Merrin and Karras put into the proceedings, they serve no purpose: the demon continues to vomit, hurl obscenities, and levitate above the room. Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come unto thee, implore the exorcists, but the only response comes from the demon in the form of vicious taunts.
In the end, Karras is forced to sacrifice his own life in order to save the girl, surrendering his body and taking a leap (of Faith?) to his death. Rather than intervening, God allows two of his soldiers to perish, leaving us to wonder whether the demon would have been victorious had Karras simply aborted the exorcism following Merrin’s death. It might be argued that God works through Man, and that Karras’ final decision was determined or guided by a power greater than he; but we’re left with the disturbing notion that God would rather kill his own children or allow them to suffer than to become directly involved. Conversely, demonic powers openly move throughout the material universe.** No one can argue that the exorcism itself is useless, and that it’s Karras’ desperate actions that lead to a resolution of the conflict.
What’s fascinating about the failure of the ritual per se is that it clearly indicates God was nowhere to be found during the film’s third act (to say nothing of the first two), not even in the form of our heroic priests. Theoretically, the exorcist “becomes” the physical embodiment of Christ, as if the spirit of Jesus Himself were in the room with the possessed. While this would seem to support the notion that Divine Intervention occurs through the actions of mortals here on Earth, it raises more questions than it answers. If Christ (the very first exorcist) were channeled through Merrin, then wouldn’t the demon be rendered powerless and thus forced to leave its host immediately? Instead, the malevolent spirit actually kills Merrin — whether directly or indirectly — forcing Karras to channel Christ yet a second time, but through an act of Free Will and conscious decision-making rather than spiritual empowerment. Armed only with his Faith in a higher power who is conspicuously absent, the exorcists are rendered powerless against a force much greater than themselves.
If the message of THE EXORCIST is that there’s Good in the world to counter Evil, it’s a rather uneven statement. The Good, it seems, exists in the hearts of those who are willing to die for another, and yet that quality seems strikingly terrestrial. By the end of the film, we see a splintered family that goes their separate ways, unable to face one another after the horrors that have occurred. Two priests are dead. A dear friend of Chris MacNeil is murdered by the latter’s own daughter. A successful Hollywood career may never recover from the scandal that will undoubtedly taint it. Most importantly, though, a young girl has been symbolically (and physically) raped and tortured.*** Anything positive that has transpired has occurred through the direct action of Man rather than Deity.
We’re presented fairly early on with the notion that Chris MacNeil is an atheist, and that she has no reason to believe in a kind and intelligent Creator of the universe. During this era of Vietnam, Watergate and Woodstock, the traditional morals and values of the country were changing rapidly, and Chris’ fairly jaded outlook is in many ways a look into a contemporaneous cultural mirror. If THE EXORCIST was meant to show turbulent changes, both at home and abroad, through the metaphor of both the abduction and deliverance of a pubescent child — a child her own mother could no longer control or recognize — then it succeeded on a sociological level. If Blatty’s (and director William Friedkin’s) intent was to show viewers that God was still there for us in this era of social and political conflict, then one has to question the message. Chris MacNeil doesn’t appear to have found God in the end, but she’s certainly found the Devil.
This idea was expressed again in 1976 with Richard Donner’s THE OMEN, a story similar to THE EXORCIST in its exploration of a global breakdown of the family unit. THE OMEN takes things a step further and expands upon the ideas of its predecessor, looking at the effects of Satanic power on a wider canvas. The Devil, it seems, is no longer interested in hiding inside a child. This time, he is the child.
While THE EXORCIST tackles Biblical issues on a decidedly personal level, THE OMEN is the Book of Revelation brought life, with God having determined that we’ve come to End Times while a creature of supreme darkness is rising unnoticed. Rather than watching a small group of characters suffer in private, we see the initial stages of a spiritual Holocaust in which millions will suffer, and eventually, die. Whenever Satan is crossed, his vengeance is swift; and yet we see nothing of his heavenly foe.
The Antichrist, we’re told, is born into this world and adopted by Richard Thorn, the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. Little Damien seems good-natured enough, but sinister agents manipulating events behind the scenes surround the Thorn family. Their goal is to allow Damien to rise within the world of politics, inheriting all his adoptive father’s wealth and power so that he might eventually rule the nations. Thorn discovers this once Damien attempts matricide, and then grief-stricken, follows a trail of clues that leads him to Jerusalem and a set of daggers created specifically to dispose of the fabled Antichrist. In the end, Thorn is killed before he can finish his son off, and Damien is sent to live with his father’s good friend, the unnamed President of the United States. Basically, it turns out that the Book of Revelation was all about politics, and that the “Eternal Sea” is forever in turmoil, creating armies on either shore.
The problem with predicting the rise of the Antichrist thusly exists on two basic levels. On the one hand, it is foretold in the Book of Revelation that this will indeed come to pass, prompting one to consider that this is a preordained event falling in with God’s greater scheme. How we are supposed to rationalize the purpose of Armageddon and the suffering of millions is open to interpretation, but it begs the question of why He would allow it to transpire as depicted in The Omen. Even if the end result is the dominion of Christ, why must so many perish in order for others to prosper?
On the other hand, if the rise of the Antichrist is not something of which He approves, then why does He remain silent throughout the film? Like The EXORCIST before it, THE OMEN gives us a Satan who is actively involved with everything that transpires. When Father Brennan, the former Satanist who delivered Damien at birth, tries to warn Thorn of what his son truly is, he is impaled by a falling steeple (which, of course, reinforces the paradox of God’s dubious stance). When Thorn’s wife, Kathy, begins to suspect that Damien isn’t her natural son, she suffers two falls, the second of which claims her life. When Keith Jennings, the photographer who accompanies Thorn to Jerusalem, takes the daggers of Meggido into his possession, he is beheaded by a sheet of glass. And that’s not all: Thorn himself dies trying to slay Damien upon a church altar, killed by the same government agents who routinely protect him.****
It’s saying something when God fails to intervene with the murders of those who wish to promote His own cause, but unlike THE EXORCIST, we’re given no reason to believe that Free Will allows our protagonists to achieve what God will not. Everything has been foretold in advance. In fact, Jennings discovers the unsettling fact that the targets of Damien’s protectors display evidence of their impending doom in photographs taken shortly before their deaths. This causes the viewer to wonder whether God has lost interest in His universe, or if the dominion of Satan is His plan. The situation is disturbing in both cases.*****
Most appalling is the fate of Baby Thorn, the natural child of Kathy and Richard, who, we are told early on, died during childbirth, making way for the adoption of Damien from the hospital in Rome. It’s late in the film that we discover the Thorns’ child was murdered during its final moments on Earth, and then unceremoniously dumped in a shallow grave beside Damien’s true mother (a jackal). When Thorn himself discovers the grave and pries it open, and we see the mummified remains of his true son — its skull broken, its skeleton tiny and frail — we realize at last that the most heinous crime has been committed here, off-screen. Hidden away in an ancient, unhallowed Etruscan cemetary, Baby Thorn is as far from God as can be imagined.
And what of these clues left for sharp-eyed investigators and theologians to follow? The photographic evidence, the physical markings on Damien’s scalp (a triumverate of sixes)? Why do they exist? They certainly aren’t there to help our protagonists conquer the evil that surrounds them, as some might suggest. All who behold such clues are killed outright. Even the daggers of Meggido, a literal deus ex machina, are unusable. No one stands a chance against the Devil. To try is to fail.
THE OMEN never tries to be anything more than it is: a good, scary movie. It succeeds. Where THE EXORCIST suffers is in its insistence that God is a being of hope and strength that will never fail those whose Faith is unwavering. THE OMEN jettisons the spiritual messages in favor of “jump moments” and stylish death sequences. Both films are meant to frighten, and both succeed in doing so. One can’t delve too deeply for Faith-affirming (or even Faith-negating) messages in works of popular entertainment.
Nevertheless, our society moves further and further from God as time passes, and it’s a fact that becomes apparent while watching movies of this sort. Perhaps the absence of God in these films reflects our absence in Him.
*Besides the murder of Dennings, Kinderman also suspects Regan of desecrating the altar of a Church at the university where Karras serves as psychiatrist. It seems strange that an All-Powerful God would allow His earthly house to be treated in such a way, particularly when one considers that each new demonic occurrence moves Regan one step closer to full-blown possession.
**The argument that the spirit of God is working through Karras becomes hollow when the viewer takes into account the events of Blatty’s later directorial effort, THE EXORCIST III, in which we learn that Karras never actually died, but was possessed by a serial killer (!) and buried alive. His body, freed of its coffin and wandering the streets of Georgetown, is locked away in a mental ward for nearly fifteen years, with Karras himself conscious and trapped inside. While it’s a sequel and normally appropriate for discussions of what constitutes canon, THE EXORCIST III comes from the mind of Blatty himself; and if his reason for sacrificing Karras was to demonstrate the influence of God upon Man, then why does God allow Karras to suffer for so long after his noble death…?
***In the 2000 re-release, THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN, a new scene is added during which Merrin and Karras break during the exorcism and talk quietly about the purpose of possession. The target isn’t Regan, Merrin says, but rather everyone around her, including the priests themselves. When one examines the effects of the possession on the very people the demon intended to psychologically attack, whether through death or despair, one has to wonder whether or not the demon really lost.
****One of the things the OMEN series is best known for is its creative killings of characters who “know the truth.” As the series progresses, these sequences become more and more outlandish (as well as entertaining). By the end of the fourth film (generally considered a separate entity from its predecessors), the body count is high, but we never see a near-death, or an occasion where Divine Intervention has saved a victim. The basic message of the series is simple: Mess with The Devil and lose.
*****In THE FINAL CONFLICT, the concluding chapter of the series, Damien is at last dispatched by the agents of God, and as the Antichrist dies, Jesus is resurrected upon Earth. While it would make sense to some that everything leading up to this moment “happened for a reason,” one need only review the trilogy as a whole to realize that none of the events of any of the films played a part in paving the road to the Second Coming. Countless individuals die, and yet their deaths are meaningless. When Christ finally appears, it’s almost an afterthought, prompting the viewer to wonder why He took his time getting here.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)