Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. The Exorcist, The Demon, and The One Who Is Not There

 

imageIt’s nearly Halloween, which means a cornucopia of horror movies on TV. Most of them are just awful, with a few masterpieces occasionally making the grade. Last night some cable channel featured Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and a couple of zombie features I’d never heard of. Frankly, the horror movie genre is in a slump. It’s zombies, zombies, zombies, all the way down and I’ve never understood their appeal. I have a pretty strong stomach — I always have anchovies on my pizza — but I demur when it comes to people eating people. I just don’t understand how they can be the luckiest people in the world.

For just over 40 years, The Exorcist has been the magnum opus of horror films. I’ve never completely understood how such a frankly religious movie has been transformed into a Halloween staple. Yes, it’s terrifying and — for whatever reason — people love to be terrified. But what makes it a perennial favorite, I think, is the gut deep fear that demonic possession may be possible. Nobody’s going to turn into a zombie or be resurrected as a member of the fraternity of the undead. But at a visceral level, most people believe fallen angels are more than superstition who literally, in the words of the Prayer to St. Michael, “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Satan is out of style, nowadays, which is a very bad thing. Archbishop Fulton Sheen pushed the idea of the devil with a great deal of fervor. Satan’s untimely death in the psyche of present day man is, he said, his greatest triumph. Modern man may be numbed to evil given the terrors of the present age. But when beheadings are all the rage in ISIS land, it might be wise to re-think our dangerous conceit that evil lives only in the hearts of men. Evil is personal. It may be ISIS policy to chop off heads, but individuals carry out the orders. And it could well be that a person — one of unfathomable power — and who is supernaturally skilled in the art of deception, tempts us to break free from the “superstition.”

I watch The Exorcist whenever I see it on my channel listings. If you ever decide to watch it, make sure you have a healthy and stout heart. It is very difficult to watch, and not just because of the sickening special effects — which I’ve never seen surpassed — but because of how well they fit into the story. The demon is the very epitome of darkness and ugliness. St. Faustina, who was given the fearsome privilege of actually seeing the chief of the fallen angels, described him as horrifying beyond conjuring. The unbounded ugliness in The Exorcist is a slim representation of the evil one.

That ugliness is the heart of the film. The demon is so perfectly horrible that no science — not even the magical theories of modern psychiatry — can begin to grasp his awesome power. That is where the priests come in. Here are two weak men, one elderly and sick, having battled the demon once before. The other spiritually sick, haunted by his own demons, and at the near end of his faith. Yet these two men, mortal and spent, finally stare down the evil dweller—and pay the price for their efforts.

I believe in the evil one. In fact, I suspect it would be easier for me to lose faith in God than in the demons. If that sounds strange, remember that we see God only darkly and through a glass, as St. Paul tells us. But if we’re attentive, we see Lucifer every day. And we see him not only in such manifest horrors as IS, or spree murderers like the one in California who gunned down two policemen. If we are attentive, we’ll see him in ourselves.

The Exorcist is the story of Satan run amuck. He rarely infects us so grotesquely. But every day — again and again — we hear his invitation to evil. It’s usually in the petty things: an unkind word, a bit of gossip, or looking too attentively at an attractive member of the species. Maybe these are too small to matter much. But maybe they are far more deadly than a thousand demonic possessions.

The great Catholic writer Frank Sheed observed that tiny wrongs accumulate like dirt and sweat; over time, the spirit comes to reek. And like physical stench, we tend not to be able to smell our own. Just as our family members may finally have to intervene and tell us that our bodies offend, so God may have to open our spiritual noses to encourage us to wash away the crapulence heaped upon us by Satan and his minions.

Philosophy and theology have long explained that evil is a deprivation of the good. In this sense the evil one is, as Mephistopheles said to Faust, “he who negates.” In Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T. S. Eliot gives evil a name: McCavity, the one who “is not there.”

But Lucifer is obvious to me. Some of the things I’ve done over the years simply defy another explanation. I could not have dreamed them up without a little help. I’ve never killed a man, committed adultery, or robbed a liquor store. But I’ve hurt others in my words, and offended God in my thoughts, and done some nasty stuff. If Satan is real, he’s offered these up on a platter, and I’ve gorged myself on his fare.

How science can explain evil — a negation — is beyond my understanding. In The Exorcist, Fr. Karas, a psychiatrist, exhausts every scientific means to explain the phenomenon he sees. In the end, though, he can find no consolation in the tools of men. He sees evil for what it is, or more accurately, who he is.

The chances of my being possessed are roughly equal to being killed by a watermelon dropped from an airplane. But when I spread my life out in front of me — and when I am attentive — I see the crooked smile of the one who isn’t there.

That’s knee-buckling horror that no movie can match.

There are 31 comments.

  1. Michael S Inactive

    It’s a fascinating topic. Your suggestion that The Exorcist scares so deeply because of the fear that it just might depict a living reality is insightful. I don’t “do” horror movies and I doubt I’ll ever watch The Exorcist. For now I’m sticking with The Screwtape Letters and prayers to St. Michael.

    • #1
    • October 29, 2014, at 5:05 PM PST
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  2. Jules PA Member

    Mike Rapkoch: If we are attentive we’ll see him in ourselves. The Exorcist is the story of Satan run amuck. He rarely infects us so grotesquely. But every day, again and again, we hear his invitation to evil. It’s usually in the petty things: an unkind word, a bit of gossip, or looking too attentively at an attractive member of the species. Maybe these are too small to matter much. But maybe they are far more deadly than a thousand demonic possessions.

    I think films like The Exorcist desensitize us to the “small” things that are equally as deadly as a demonic possession. You see, I think to myself, “I am not vomiting up Satan’s swill. I’m good.” But as you said, I am not. We are not.

    I know I saw parts of the film, but I have never watched all of it, and am so glad I did not. Every view is a little piece of Satan’s dirt and sweat to stick to me, to stick to my soul, and torment me.

    I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    Whatever is good…think on these things.

    • #2
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:05 PM PST
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  3. Max Ledoux Admin

    Pasting from Word

    • #3
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:08 PM PST
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  4. rico Inactive

    Mike Rapkoch:

    Yes, it’s a terrifying flick, and for whatever reason people love to be terrified. But what makes it a perennial favorite, I think, is the gut deep fear that demonic possession may be possible.

    It is very difficult to watch, and not just because of the sickening special effects (which have not been improved upon in any movie I’ve ever seen), but because the effects fit perfectly into the story.

    Precisely. It is an extremely well-made film. I would only add to Mike’s excellent review, that for me, the sound track (along with the special effects) was essential in inducing the gut deep fear that Mike refers to. And, if one is brought up in the Catholic faith this film is simply terrifying.

    As for the special effects, they are not gratuitous. This is not a “horror” movie. The special effects fit perfectly into the story, as Mike says. They are used to provide a glimpse of the antagonist —to dispel any doubt the viewer might have, up to that point, of his existence.

    • #4
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:26 PM PST
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  5. Jules PA Member

    Max the Volunteer Admin:Pasting from Word

    I like your work here Max…the updated text in the post looks very lovely.

    • #5
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:27 PM PST
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  6. rico Inactive

    Julia PA: I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    This is certainly true. Satan exercises his evil directly through one innocent little girl. It is a shocking example of Satan’s power. For me, it was not at all desensitizing. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it leaves people feeling vulnerable. If Satan can infest such an innocent little girl…

    • #6
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:40 PM PST
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  7. Jules PA Member

    rico:

    Julia PA: I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    This is certainly true. Satan exercises his evil directly through one innocent little girl. It is a shocking example of Satan’s power. For me, it was not at all desensitizing. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it leaves people feeling vulnerable. If Satan can infest such an innocent little girl…

    Alas, not having seen the film, I missed that point. But I will take your word for it, as I feel vulnerable, and plenty, having seen the bits.

    I will always admit, I am overly sensitive, with an imagination that is as sensitive as a polaroid. I have nightmares now, after watching ‘Dark Shadows’ soap opera and Saturday Vampire flicks as a kid. I need to wear a scuba mask if watching anything scary, because my head is always under a blanket.

    Basically, I’m a big baby. And someone who believes Satan is very real, and looking for cracks in our armor.

    • #7
    • October 29, 2014, at 6:51 PM PST
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  8. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Mike Rapkoch: For 40 years or so The Exorcist has been the magnum opus of horror films.

    It’s good, but I think calling it the “magnum opus” is pretty debatable.

    I would suggest that The Omen, Rosemary’ Baby, Poltergeist, and The Shining all give it a run for its money (not to mention the original Alien, which definitely counts as a horror movie!).

    Especially The Omen. Gregory Peck in a horror movie! The nanny’s hanging scene! The priest getting impaled by the lightning rod! This was heavy duty stuff!

    Even the sequels are pretty underrated. William Holden in #2 and Sam Neil in #3 give pretty fantastic performances.

    (The Seventh Sign, one of Demi Moore’s early movies, is also an underrated gem, IMHO. It actually brought my mom to tears!)

    • #8
    • October 29, 2014, at 7:01 PM PST
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  9. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    rico:

    Julia PA: I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    This is certainly true. Satan exercises his evil directly through one innocent little girl. It is a shocking example of Satan’s power. For me, it was not at all desensitizing. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it leaves people feeling vulnerable. If Satan can infest such an innocent little girl…

    I seem to remember that it was a lowly demon, rather than Satan himself.

    • #9
    • October 29, 2014, at 7:06 PM PST
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  10. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    If you’re interested in a couple of (IMHO) underrated horror movies made a little more recently, I would recommend the first two Final Destination flicks, where the villain is Death itself.

    The series descended into gore porn with the third installment, but the first two genuinely scared the heck out of moi.

    What makes these flicks so effectively scary is how the kill scenes are so incredibly plausible and mundane. A multi-car pileup on the highway. A guy slipping in the shower. A girl getting hit by a bus. Etc.

    The horror comes from the unescapable truth that death does comes for us all. It’s just a matter of where, when, and how.

    • #10
    • October 29, 2014, at 7:15 PM PST
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  11. Lash LaRoche Inactive

    Brilliant essay, Mike. Thanks for posting.

    • #11
    • October 29, 2014, at 7:28 PM PST
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  12. MJBubba Inactive

    The thing that makes “The Exorcist” different and better than all those other flicks is that it is a true story.

    The parents went to a Lutheran pastor, who called in seminary heavyweights. They quickly said they needed to refer the family to real experts, and called in the Roman Catholic Church for an experienced exorcist. The Roman Catholics took the case seriously and assembled a team of spiritually tough priests. A couple of Lutheran pastors followed the case and spoke with the priests about it. I have spoken with three Lutheran pastors who were acquainted with participants in that incident, which happened in 1949. This is a real incident where demons were encountered in an exhibit of their spiritual power.

    (American Lutherans did not have the breadth of experience in the most intense form of spiritual battle; our Catholic allies, being closer to their global fellows, have an incredibly deep well from which to draw.)

    http://diabolicalconfusions.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/the-story-of-r-the-real-life-story-that-inspired-the-exorcist/

    • #12
    • October 29, 2014, at 8:13 PM PST
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  13. rico Inactive

    Misthiocracy:

    rico:

    Julia PA: I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    This is certainly true. Satan exercises his evil directly through one innocent little girl. It is a shocking example of Satan’s power. For me, it was not at all desensitizing. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it leaves people feeling vulnerable. If Satan can infest such an innocent little girl…

    I seem to remember that it was a lowly demon, rather than Satan himself.

    I don’t recall. It might have been an anonymous Satan staffer.

    • #13
    • October 29, 2014, at 9:14 PM PST
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  14. rico Inactive

    Misthiocracy: I would suggest that The Omen, Rosemary’ Baby, Poltergeist, and The Shining all give it a run for its money (not to mention the original Alien, which definitely counts as a horror movie!).

    Especially The Omen. Gregory Peck in a horror movie! The nanny’s hanging scene! The priest getting impaled by the lightning rod! This was heavy duty stuff!

    I agree that all of these were great. I’d say Rosemary’s Baby was eerie, but relatively tame. The Omen was similar to The Exorcist, but not nearly as impactful. It had the feel of a knockoff, though very well done (the plate glass decapitation scene was masterful). Alien was an entirely different genre IMO. As a straight up horror movie I don’t think anything else can touch it.

    • #14
    • October 29, 2014, at 9:34 PM PST
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  15. Basil Fawlty Member

    Misthiocracy:

    Mike Rapkoch: For 40 years or so The Exorcist has been the magnum opus of horror films.

    It’s good, but I think calling it the “magnum opus” is pretty debatable.

    I would suggest that The Omen, Rosemary’ Baby, Poltergeist, and The Shining all give it a run for its money (not to mention the original Alien, which definitely counts as a horror movie!).

    Especially The Omen. Gregory Peck in a horror movie! The nanny’s hanging scene! The priest getting impaled by the lightning rod! This was heavy duty stuff!

    Even the sequels are pretty underrated. William Holden in #2 and Sam Neil in #3 give pretty fantastic performances.

    (The Seventh Sign, one of Demi Moore’s early movies, is also an underrated gem, IMHO. It actually brought my mom to tears!)

    I liked Rosemary’s Baby. Gary McVey was great playing Roman Castevet.

    • #15
    • October 30, 2014, at 3:57 AM PST
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  16. Aaron Miller Member

    I have never seen The Exorcist and never will precisely because it’s at least loosely based on reality.

    Curiosity can lead good people down dark roads. The most realistic movie I have seen regarding demons is White Noise with Michael Keaton. The protagonist does not realize that he is being manipulated. That is what’s so dangerous about Ouija boards, Tarot, palm reading, and other forms of divination. It is an invitation to devious powers.

    Demons cannot possess a soul without being invited. But they can effect considerable damage through introduction of ideas and twisting of desires. The little things open the way to greater corruption. Curiosity can be destructive.

    • #16
    • October 30, 2014, at 7:49 AM PST
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  17. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    rico:

    Misthiocracy:

    rico:

    Julia PA: I don’t think of The Exorcist as a story of Satan run amuck, I think of it as a realization of one of Satan’s battles, just one in his war to conquer the soul of every human.

    This is certainly true. Satan exercises his evil directly through one innocent little girl. It is a shocking example of Satan’s power. For me, it was not at all desensitizing. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it leaves people feeling vulnerable. If Satan can infest such an innocent little girl…

    I seem to remember that it was a lowly demon, rather than Satan himself.

    I don’t recall. It might have been an anonymous Satan staffer.

    Staffers of the underworld, unite!

    • #17
    • October 30, 2014, at 7:52 AM PST
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  18. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    < devil’s advocate mode = on >

    The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring, Annabelle, and any number of other pieces of mendacious schlock were also “based on” “true” stories.

    < devil’s advocate mode = off >

    • #18
    • October 30, 2014, at 8:17 AM PST
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  19. The (apathetic) King Prawn Inactive

    I first saw it when I was 7 or 8. I slept in my brother’s room for months. Agreed on the original Alien.

    • #19
    • October 30, 2014, at 8:40 AM PST
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  20. Fricosis Guy Listener

    MJBubba:The thing that makes “The Exorcist” different and better than all those other flicks is that it is a true story.

    The parents went to a Lutheran pastor, who called in seminary heavyweights. They quickly said they needed to refer the family to real experts, and called in the Roman Catholic Church for an experienced exorcist. The Roman Catholics took the case seriously and assembled a team of spiritually tough priests. A couple of Lutheran pastors followed the case and spoke with the priests about it. I have spoken with three Lutheran pastors who were acquainted with participants in that incident, which happened in 1949. This is a real incident where demons were encountered in an exhibit of their spiritual power.

    (American Lutherans did not have the breadth of experience in the most intense form of spiritual battle; our Catholic allies, being closer to their global fellows, have an incredibly deep well from which to draw.)

    http://diabolicalconfusions.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/the-story-of-r-the-real-life-story-that-inspired-the-exorcist/

    http://www.amazon.com/Hostage-Devil-Possession-Contemporary-Americans/dp/006065337X

    Lutherans in the mission field have revived our confession’s interest in this ancient practice. I’ve heard an interview with the author of I Am Not Afraid, which tells of present-day spiritual warfare in Madagascar.

    • #20
    • October 30, 2014, at 8:55 AM PST
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  21. Bob Wainwright Member

    It was based on a real exorcism but it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting or supernatural as the movie. Google “The Haunted Boy” to read about it.

    I think it’s interesting in the movie that all their rituals failed to get the demon out. It was only when the priest was willing to sacrifice himself that he succeeded.

    • #21
    • October 30, 2014, at 9:29 AM PST
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  22. Profile Photo Member

    Bob Wainwright:It was based on a real exorcism but it wasn’t anywhere near as exciting or supernatural as the movie. Google “The Haunted Boy” to read about it.

    I think it’s interesting in the movie that all their rituals failed to get the demon out. It was only when the priest was willing to sacrifice himself that he succeeded.

    The Haunted Boy of Cottage City” really was a fantastic piece of investigative journalism. The late 90’s was just about the latest possible time it could have been done, since I imagine many of the people who spoke for it are now dead.

    That piece tactfully did not release the name of the haunted boy, but with the rise of the internet it has now been splashed all over the public record by people following the original author’s research.

    • #22
    • October 30, 2014, at 9:48 AM PST
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  23. Aaron Miller Member

    An interview by EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo with a former chief exorcist of New York:

    • #23
    • October 30, 2014, at 9:57 AM PST
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  24. Mike Rapkoch Member
    Mike Rapkoch Post author

    The movie has morphed into a Halloween favorite. That’s probably because, in an ever more doubting world, scariness has triumphed over the unapologetic religiosity of the film. It is, nonetheless, a religious movie. The possession in and of itself made the movie popular, but the deeper meaning is that we all must fight the battle against He Who Is Not there every day and at every moment. What Christians call “Spiritual Warfare.”

    Alien and some of the other movies discussed here are horror films, although The Omen is, too me, a religious movie too. I think The Exorcist is a type of cleansing, a sort of personal and individual cleansing. I know it has frequently sent me into the confessional(-:

    • #24
    • October 30, 2014, at 10:22 AM PST
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  25. Mike Rapkoch Member
    Mike Rapkoch Post author

    By the way, the book, which is profound in its analysis of sin, man, and evil, was written by Peter Blatty, an orthodox and very active Catholic. He joined the Georgetown Newman Society in petitioning the Vatican to strip Georgetown (his alma mater) of its Catholic university status because, he argued, that university has abandoned its Catholicity. If you want to avoid the special effects of the movie, I’d recommend the book, although it is in many ways more unnerving.

    BTW, if I recall correctly, Blatty wrote or co-wrote the Peter Sellar’s movie A Shot in the Dark, another classic film.

    • #25
    • October 30, 2014, at 10:34 AM PST
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  26. Ekosj Inactive

    I’m not much of a movie person. But on the topic of horror and exorcism, I’d like to point out a book by the late Malachi Martin – ‘Hostage to the Devil’

    I almost said “I’d like to recommend…” But I’m not sure that ‘recommend’ is the right word. The book is terrifying. And it troubled me for some time after I was finished reading it. But it is a classic work on the topic….for those so inclined. Easily one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read.

    And for another terrifying read on a different – but current – topic, Richard Preston’s ‘Hot Zone’ … a true account of Ebola in America in 1989. Also one of the most frightening things I have ever read. Apparently in 25 years the CDC hasn’t learned a thing.

    • #26
    • October 30, 2014, at 10:42 AM PST
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  27. MeanDurphy Member

    Aaron Miller:That is what’s so dangerous about Ouija boards, Tarot, palm reading, and other forms of divination. It is an invitation to devious powers.

    Uh-oh… I used to be a telephone psychic and did Tarot readings for money.

    • #27
    • October 30, 2014, at 2:31 PM PST
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  28. Eugene Kriegsmann Member

    A couple of years before it became a movie, I read Blatty’s book. I was at that time pretty much convinced that I was an atheist. However, the pope who said, give me the child until he is five and I will own him for life, had it right. I was in my early twenties when I read the book and it terrified me. I thought I have moved beyond God or the Devil, but what the book said to me was that, if there is a Devil, then priests should be able to deal with it. That the two priest could only succeed through dying was truly terrifying.

    I have since seen the film a number of times, more recently in its new director’s cut. It remains the most frightening film of all times even though I, truly, cannot convince myself at any level that organized Evil in the sense of a devil really exists.

    What I find interesting was that at the time I read the book was married to a Jewish woman. She read it and sort of ho-hummed it. I really believe that a Catholic background creates a kind of fertile ground in which this book and its derived film can implant itself. It may be that, as I have believed for a long time, that we never really grow up. That inside of the oldest of us there is that young child we once were looking out through our aged eyes with wonder at the world.

    • #28
    • October 30, 2014, at 2:46 PM PST
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  29. Mister D Member

    Exorcist is my wife’s favorite film, and as an avid horror fan one of my top 5. I am a zombie fan, and for me the appeal of those films is less about the zombies themselves (though the fun with makeup is a part of the appeal) than it is about the survivors. Almost all of the traditional zombie films (ie those modeled after Night of the Living Dead) are really some variation on Life Boat, but with the undead instead of an ocean.

    As for “based on real events” films (Amityville, Conjuring, Annabelle) they are of course even less reliable than films based on historical events. On my podcast we did episodes on the Conjuring (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_108.html) and Annabel (http://darkdiscussions.com/Pages/podcast_157.html) we were joined by a couple who know the Warrens. While the hosts (myself included) can safely be called skeptics, our guests (Kristie and Nate Schoonover) are believers, but they did a great job explaining just how badly these films exaggerate events. For example, in the Amityville house, the walls dripped water, not blood, which sounds more like a plumbing issue than a demonic one.

    Lastly, about horror being in a slump. Hollywood has realized they can make money by being cheap (Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity, the Purge) and so have largely stopped making A-list films like the Exorcist or the Omen. There are a lot of good horror films being made by independent filmmakers. If you like satanic films, there was one we particularly liked from 2012 called Devil’s Rock, which was set during WW2.

    • #29
    • October 30, 2014, at 8:08 PM PST
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  30. Aaron Miller Member

    Dean Murphy:

    Aaron Miller:That is what’s so dangerous about Ouija boards, Tarot, palm reading, and other forms of divination. It is an invitation to devious powers.

    Uh-oh… I used to be a telephone psychic and did Tarot readings for money.

    Some people dabble with cocaine and get away it in good health. That doesn’t make their choice any less foolish.

    Also, I’m sure you have heard that, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.” Sometimes the absence of apparent consequences is the consequence. Some souls can be turned to malice or atheism. Others can be coaxed toward agnosticism, multiculturalism, and apathy. To make an evil seem benign is no small victory for the wicked.

    You might have been just joking. But when Ouija boards are sold next to children’s games and Presidents host seances in the White House, it’s no joke.

    • #30
    • October 31, 2014, at 7:50 AM PST
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