Satanic Literalism

From the movie "The Last Exorcism". I'm not sure why this is scary. It just hurts.

From the movie “The Last Exorcism”. I’m not sure why this is scary. It just hurts.

I love good horror movies. These days, however, they are few and far between. For one thing, as always seems to be the case, horror seems to be a dumping ground for people who believe “just anyone” can make a movie. With the success of The Blair Witch Project, combined with the easy availability of cheap film technology, the market is flooded with simply horrid so-called “found footage” horror movies. Most seem to rely for what passes for “horror” on a teenage sensibility about urban legends, with predictable results.

There is, however, another sub-genre of horror movies, the “possession” movies, that have none of the panache and intelligence of The Exorcist. For their sense of horror, rather than leave room for doubt – as director William Friedkin did, right up until the last moments – there seems to be more than a dedication to typical horror movie tropes or a love of particular effects such as this:

White contacts and a little computer manipulation take a simple scream and tries to make it scary.

White contacts and a little computer manipulation take a simple scream and tries to make it scary.

The most galling, however, is a kind of Satanic fundamentalism that pervades far too many of these cheaply made, horribly written movies. By that I mean that the writers and directors (usually the same person, using the terms in their broadest sense) replace Christian fundamentalism with a literal adherence to legends about demons. Combine this with the aforementioned teenage sensibility about urban legends and the results lead to the awfulness that is a film that begins with a good idea: Inner Demons. Family and friends of a teenage heroin addict stage an intervention, convincing her to go to a treatment center, the costs covered by a reality TV production company. We discover that this young woman has been using heroin to combat a demonic possession. As the drugs leave her system, the demonic entity gains strength, including taunting two other recovering addicts during a group session.

As the film winds toward its conclusion, however, the hapless young production assistant for the TV program who believes the young woman’s story of demonic possession, tries to help her with a makeshift exorcism that ends with everyone but him dead. He, alas, is the new vessel for the demon, called “Moloch”. The ending also shows another trend in horror movies – everyone dies. While Joss Whedon’s reboot of Cabin In The Woods offers a fantastic justification for cast death, these lesser films seem to accept unhappy endings as a matter of course. Rather than a vehicle for confronting our own inner demons, as it were, and conquering them, this new trend in horror films offers no catharsis, no sense that evil can be defeated – regardless of cost – but rather is stronger than our best but meager efforts and our noblest and best of intentions. Satan, it seems, is more powerful than a God who seems interestingly – and tellingly – absent.

There is room for innovation in horror film. As Joss Whedon demonstrated, it’s possible to create an interesting, even fun, take on an old formula. Horror movie fans are far from stupid, yet distributors and production companies continue to flood the market with crap that can’t even be considered formulaic, At their worst, these films offer nothing in the way of hope, yet surprisingly little in the way of horror, either. A recent spin through several of these quickie indies left me underwhelmed with fright, and wondering if any of the people involved in any of these movies understood the purpose of horror fiction, or how to construct something more than a bunch of images strung together from bad YouTube entries and a kind of morbid excess of death.

Horror movies serve an important function in our collective imagination. At their best – The Exorcist, I Was A Teenage WerewolfPoltergeist – they allow us the opportunity to confront our worst collective fears (out-of-control teenagers in both The Exorcist and I Was A Teenage Werewolf; the emerging realization that the bland conformity of the suburbs hides terrors able to destroy families in the original Poltergeist). At their worst, however, they are little more than vehicles for those lacking either imagination or talent to revel in violence, gore, and death without either reason or purpose, celebrating a kind of nihilism that doesn’t offer anything other than itself.