It all began with William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (novel, 1971 – 11 million copies sold; blockbuster 1973 movie – $193 million the first year), the literary and cinematic successes of which spawned the demon genre, including: The Amityville Horror (1979, based on Jay Anson’s book); The Shining (1980, based on Stephen King’s novel); and a slew of less successful books and films too numerous to mention. At least two films explored Jewish exorcism: The Unborn (2009) and The Possession (2012), neither of which managed to put the word dybbuk into common usage.
I have a personal connection to Blatty’s book. From the mid-Seventies until the mid-Eighties, I worked at Bantam Books, where my boss was the great editor/publisher Marc Jaffe. Blatty met him at a New Year’s Eve party in 1967 and pitched the idea for a novel about demonic possession. The rest is publishing and movie history.
Also thanks to the book biz, from the late 1970s until his death in 1999, I became acquainted with Malachi Martin, former Jesuit priest and author of Hostage to the Devil (1976) and other books. He was an interesting, complicated fellow – hard to trust, but luminously intelligent. In Hostage to the Devil he wrote:
The surest effect of possession in an individual – the most obvious and striking effect common to all possessed persons. . .is the great loss in human quality, in humanness.
I was talking with Malachi about possession one night over dinner, and (as in this column) I dropped Bill Blatty’s name (big mistake with someone who knew more – or believed he did – about exorcism). I also suggested that much of the uptick in claims of possession, then much in the news, was the result of The Exorcist and that they were probably cases of disturbed individuals acting out repressed blah-blah-blah. Malachi shot me a reproving gaze. “Perhaps. But don’t underestimate America’s loss of faith. The devil enters in through open doors.”
Fr. Gabriele Amorth, the most famous modern Catholic exorcist – who just died this week – also lamented that the revised rite of exorcism removed ancient designations of the Evil One as a person and have thereby become ineffective.
In Hostage to the Devil Martin wrote (forty years ago!):
There is an ongoing insistence that religion and any form of worship and all ideals based openly on Christian morality should be banished from public, tax-supported institutions – and that this is “objective” and “democratic.” In our mass entertainment – motion pictures, television, novels, theater – there are no hero figures and no concept of right and wrong, of good and evil.
Somewhat overstated in the matter of media, but it was prophetic with regard to democratic institutions. And Martin and Blatty were in sync with C.S. Lewis, who wrote in The Screwtape Letters:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
We can say, it seems to me, that the popular interest in exorcism (although not in the rite itself) is “excessive and unhealthy,” and there is real danger in this for Catholics (and others) not properly catechized. But Hollywood has fused itself to demons now and will not let go. It’s fair to ask: Who has hold of whom?
There was a pretty good movie, in 2013, called The Conjuring – good in large measure because of the stars, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The 2016 sequel, craftily titled The Conjuring 2, was just released for home viewing last.
These films purport to detail the actual investigations of a Catholic couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were involved in that Amityville case and were (Mrs. Warren is 89 and alive) self-taught paranormal investigators. Mrs. Warren claims to be psychic. Mr. Warren’s vita asserted he and his wife were “the only non-clerical demonologists recognized by the Vatican.” Sometimes the phrase is “Church-approved.” But if ever there were an actual recognition or endorsement by Rome of their activities, I can’t find it.
And given that Catholicism still has a rite and an office for such things, why would such recognition ever be forthcoming? Some believe the Warrens are charlatans.
Other films involving demons and possession have purported to be “based on real events,” and so are the Conjuring movies, both of which were directed by James Wan, famous – or infamous – as the creator of an eight-film series that began with Saw (2004) and launched the genre known as “torture porn.”
The Conjuring 2 is nothing like that. It’s almost old-fashioned – its visual style (tech, clothes, music, hairstyles) reflects the Me Decade, and it works the usual Seventies fright-flick tropes: tracking shots into dark spaces, figures rising up from behind in the dark or leaping out from shadows. Scary, contorted faces. A Ouija board. It’s all tropes all the time.
In addition to the Americans, Farmiga and Wilson, other talents wasted in this predictable drudgery include Franka Potente, a German, and the English actors Frances O’Connor and Simon McBurney, with Madison Wolfe of Louisiana as an English girl possessed.
A Connecticut priest convinces the Warrens to go to Merrie Olde to provide the Church with an overview of a possible possession of an English girl. It’s the last we see of the Church, although at one point Mr. Wilson waves a small crucifix while spouting Latin.
The best line comes from Ms. Farmiga, who in an early “vision” meets the demon they’ll later battle, and says to her husband: “That’s as close as I ever want to be to hell.”
So. . .hell, heaven, the Church, and Jesus Christ: all posited as real. Yet into the breach charge the unordained Warrens. I know there was this English Reformation thingy, but a few priests remain in Ol’ Blighty, any one of whom might have been called. That they weren’t tells us all we need to know about the credibility of these conjurings.
The Conjuring 2 is rated R for scary stuff.