I grew up in a branch of Christianity that even now, ten years after I migrated elsewhere, still confounds me. How could something so beautiful be so crazy? How could otherwise rational people, people who were doctors and architects and teachers and caregivers, assert that the reason why some of us were depressed or scared was that demonic forces with personalities, strategies, and even names were attaching themselves to us because our great-grandparents had once played used drugs/gambling/a ouija board? Because that’s what we were doing: telling people that their pain could be explained by demonic possession. Sure, we modified it – turning ‘possession’ into ‘demonization’, wherein Christians couldn’t be totally overcome by the little imps, just overly affected by them; and it was a long way from the times when we might have burned or drowned people – especially women – just because they liked herbal tea. But perhaps it was still on the same evolutionary continuum – and, to be fair, not that much different from what most people believe, some of the time. There are folks who think that the policies of the current Democratic Party will bring about the resurgence of Stalinist collective farming; there are people who think that you shouldn’t purchase items with barcodes otherwise you’re giving yourself over to Satan; there are people who think friends of George W Bush engineered 9/11 because America needed a war.
Thankfully, in those moments when I get frustrated enough with the madness of Christianity’s shadow side to be diagnosed with a demon of anger, I can turn to an expert for help. The 40th anniversary of William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s ground-breaking horror film ‘The Exorcist’ is fast approaching, so I gave it an umpteenth viewing the other day. The first time I saw it, I was a teenager and I hid behind the sofa, which was more frightening, as the imagination always allows for worse than what’s on screen. The next time I was fully immersed in the demon-seeking subculture of the charismatic movement, so the experience of Regan, the teenage girl who floats and screams and vomits and whose head spins round, seemed half-plausible. The third time was in conjunction with viewing Paul Schrader’s prequel ‘Dominion’; a film written by a former Dutch Calvinist and co-scripter of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and so unsurprisingly it’s one of the more thoughtful treatments of religion on film; it also deepened my appreciation of Blatty’s conservative Catholic approach: he really does believe that a little girl could be consumed by the devil, and that there is power in the name of Jesus. For my part, ‘The Exorcist’ has become something like an old friend – it reminds me of the light and shadow of my religious heritage, and achieves something rare: a work of art that is preoccupied with death always leaves me feeling more alive.
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