Film & TV

The Demons in Our Skyscrapers

A self-proclaimed witch performs a hex on U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh effigy in Brooklyn, N.Y. October 2018. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Decades ago, a pair of movies about men, women, and the devil grappled with Americans’ changing attitudes towards religion

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

With the rise of technology and urbanization and the waning of organized religion in the developed world, we were supposed to leave past superstitions behind.

But that is not quite what has happened. Organized religion may indeed be weakening, but people aren’t quite abandoning the paranormal. This past summer, New Agey self-help guru and now Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson briefly topped Google searches of all candidates after a presidential debate in which she said that a “dark psychic force” was the real problem with America. Last week, America’s newspaper of record declared that America had reached ‘peak witch.'” And evidence of our bitter clinging to supernatural belief runs deeper than the idle musings of would-be politicians. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 21 percent of Americans believe in witches. A 2018 Pew Survey found that 62 percent of U.S. adults believe in at least one of the following: psychics, reincarnation, astrology, or the presence of spiritual energy in physical things. A 2013 YouGov poll revealed that 57 percent of Americans believe in the devil; 51 percent believe that the devil possesses human beings.

Nor can witches and demons stay out of the headlines. Last fall, during now–Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, some outlets reported on an attempt by witches to hex him. Last December, The Atlantic ran a long story on exorcisms. In seeming defiance of the inevitabilist rhetoric of Enlightenment rationality, our demons follow us to our skyscrapers.

Yes, active belief in the reality of the numinous is not what it once was. Yet the fact that it persists at all defies the predictions of progress prophets. Why? What is it about the idea of mysterious, frightening things lurking in the shadows, beneath our beds, in dilapidated homes (and souls), to help us or to hurt us, that modernity can’t kill?

We can turn to two resources for guidance: Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. These books, published in 1967 and 1971, became iconic horror films whose 50th and 45th anniversaries, respectively, came last year. The books have several superficial similarities: main characters who are actors, deaths by falling that set their plots in motion, dream sequences, fictional books-within-books about devil worship, rearrangements of words as key plot points, and a reliance on the agnosticism and skepticism of main characters for evil to succeed.

The far more important similarity, however, is that both books, as well as their subsequent film adaptations, were not merely thrilling supernatural yarns told in decidedly modern settings (Rosemary’s Baby largely in New York City and The Exorcist mostly in Washington, D.C. — the twin capitals of modernity). They also mix in with their supernatural horror a heavy helping of contemporary anxieties. Taken together, they suggest a frightening answer to the question of why the supernatural seems to cling bitterly to the supposedly rationalist present.

On its face, Rosemary’s Baby is merely a modern adaptation of a frightening gothic tale: a newly expectant mother who begins to suspect that others have dark designs on her unborn child. But beneath this lurid surface, much of the contemporary anxiety of the 1960s creeps. Rosemary, though trying to live happily in New York City with her striving actor husband Guy, does not belong there. Describing herself as a “country girl at heart,” Rosemary is, in fact, a lapsed Catholic who “escaped” from her big family in Omaha, Neb., among whom she considered herself “the black sheep.” Like many urban refugees from a purportedly oppressive heartland, she has cut herself off from this family . . . and yet retains many of the modes, manners, and folkways of her kin: crossing herself on instinct, chafing against her husband’s insistence against children because he “wasn’t ready yet,” desiring to see in person the visiting pope and reflexively defending him against irreligious neighbors.

As the plot against Rosemary’s child becomes clear to her, however, she confronts another aspect of urban life. Her fellow apartment residents, whom she comes to suspect are devil-worshipers, have expertly manipulated her social circle so that she is essentially alone in confronting them. Atomized city life becomes itself a fearsome foe, as does the lure of the world itself: When Rosemary’s husband reveals his complicity in these devil-worshipers’ plot, he justifies it on the basis that “we’re getting so much in return . . .” Many misguided souls, across place and time, have found gaining the world but losing that soul an attractive bargain. All these phenomena are amplified by conspiracy and dramatic effect, but draw from real-world urban dislocations.

If Rosemary’s Baby mostly draws from sociological observations of city life, The Exorcist concerns itself with a perceived crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. Against the backdrop of Vatican II, pews that had begun their great and tragic emptying, and a Church unsure of itself, The Exorcist also confronts the undeniable contemporary reality of evil, and whether faith can have any answer.

The story of The Exorcist has penetrated pop culture arguably more than any horror film, and barely needs summary: Regan, a young girl finds herself increasingly under the control of an apparently demonic entity; Chris, her mother, desperately turns to a Catholic priest. Alas, the priest she first turns to is Fr. Damien Karras, a Jesuit at Georgetown University and also an academic psychologist. Karras, a stand-in for Blatty’s perceived institutional rot in the contemporary Catholic Church, among priests and laity alike, agonizes over “the silence of God,” a theological problem that is causing his self-proclaimed loss of faith. It is a growing doubt that, at first, thwarts his attempts to help Regan’s mother. “Many educated Catholics . . . don’t believe in the Devil anymore . . . ,” he tells her. Yet she, the agnostic forced to confront the clearly supernatural evil coming into the world through her daughter, finds the Prince of Darkness far easier to acknowledge.

Into this drama of doubt step two figures who clarify the stakes: the demon itself, and Fr. Lankester Merrin. In the tradition of C. S. Lewis, Blatty has the demon mischievously (yet somewhat blatantly) elucidate the nature of evil. It joyously greets the arrival of Karras, a “rational” man, because “nothing would prove anything at all to you . . . That is why I love all reasonable men.” The demon watches gleefully as Karras burns through every possible alternative explanation (including several of the New Age variety) before finally becoming convinced of the necessity of exorcism, if only for psychological reasons.

Fortunately, the uncertainty of Karras, and the despicable evil of the demon, receive an answer in Merrin. An older priest, Merrin does not merely bring a surer resolve to this spiritual warfare. Blatty also roots Merrin’s deeper faith in a profound conviction about the world that answers the doubt of Karras. Merrin sees the possession of Regan as a metastasized instance of “the little things . . . the senseless, petty spites and misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends. Between lovers. Between husbands and wives . . . Enough of these and we have no need of Satan to manage our wars; these we manage for ourselves . . . for ourselves . . .” But Merrin sees past this, to the reality of love and transcendence that persist in a fallen world. For “even from this — from evil — there will finally come good in some way; in some way that we may never understand or even see . . . Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness . . . And perhaps even Satan — Satan, in spite of himself — somehow serves to work out the will of God.”

Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, both the books and their film adaptations, have much in common. As works of horror, they are hard to beat. As social commentary, they present more than meets the eye. They differ in one important respect, however. Rosemary’s Baby ends with evil triumphant, as a sort of Satanic perversion of the Nativity (completing the earlier perversion of the Virgin Mary’s fiat) reveals that Rosemary has given birth to a devil. Whereas The Exorcist culminates in the death of its two exorcists, but the restoration of Karras’s faith and the defeat of the demon they fought.

This is, in part, due to the differences between the authors and their respective intents: Ira Levin, then at just the beginning of a career writing excellent thrillers, was interested first and foremost in telling a story of a subtle conspiracy against an isolated woman; he constructs his plot both credibly and understatedly. William Peter Blatty, however, was a conservative Catholic obviously concerned about the direction of the Church. His story and its beats are far less subtle (e.g., vomit); his conclusion, somewhat more uplifting. One’s preference for each vision will turn somewhat on one’s preference for each respective purpose.

But whatever the choice may be, there is one thing that must not be forgotten about both works. Each speaks to contemporary anxieties with stories that place ancient fears in modern settings. And in doing so, each suggests that our ancient fears will always be with us, always manifesting in new ways, and that we shall never escape them completely. In confronting them, we may find more guidance in older beliefs than in the empty platitudes of our supposedly secular age.


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