ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Screening the Devil to Death... or
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by Erich Kuersten


Nowadays it's easy to forget just how pervasive the influence of one film or television show in a summer could be across the nation, but before the advent of cable and VHS / Betamax you could only see what you could tune in on your antenna. And unless you had cool parents you wouldn't be allowed to see The Spy Who Loved Me of Smokey and the Bandit (both 1977) or even Jaws (1974), as they were rated R (It was also before PG-13)... but they were films talked about all over the place, upstairs and downstairs (parents upstairs at their bridge tables, kids downstairs at the ouija board) and if you didn't see the film but heard all about it, your lurid imagination made it ten times scarier. That's the key root of myth that's now long gone. Anything told in a hushed voice around the campfire will cause far more shivers than seeing "dreams come true" with CGI. As Val Lewton and the Blair Witch Project both knew, the unseen is terrifying - the actual sight of the monster always brings a sigh of relief -- it's just a dude in a mask and at least now you know where he is so he can't sneak up on you. 


Scariest of all in this department were the re-tellings of the adult horror films, which even parents didn't see... only the teenagers on dates went to them and therefore only kids with older siblings or loose-lipped babysitters heard the plot, and were thus blessed with supreme scary storyteller status. Films like Carrie (!976), Torso (1973) and Suspiria (1977) were scary enough just from their TV spots, but much more so when summarized by fellow children in the dark at a slumber party.  When The Exorcist was finally allowed onto prime time, children could see it but a) like me they generally had to go to bed halfway through the movie of the week, and never got to see the end and and b) everyone knew all the "curse words" were edited out, so yes we were seeing the eyes of the tiger, but the tiger was drugged, de-fanged and already fed.


Rosemary's Baby (1968) could be said to have paved the way for the Exorcist, but it was notoriously kid-friendly since it "never showed the monster" and the details of pregnancy via the devil were way over our heads and any implied sex was easily nipped away for TV. But even so it taught us all one thing: You can't make it in New York without help from Satan and if he wanted your wife, you gave her to him. Certainly the sudden easy “shooting up” the ladder of certain people at certain times begat furrow browed suspicion from us down in the packed throngs below and paranoia naturally followed.


But there is a gray zone miles wide between genuine right to be concerned about shadowy masonic conspiracies keeping you in low income bracket and your own shyness about meeting new people and the ability to look yourself in the uncanny valley of your own eye. Connections are forged via openings in one’s armor, the trickster zones, and acceptance of unpleasant duty is a daily practice: meditation and service as opposed to vice and egoic indulgence. And by egoic indulgence I do also mean forced piety just as much as I mean spending all your time watching horror movies instead of going outside to play.  If you want to use tender-footedness as an excuse to stay home from the war, don't complain if no one brings you back any spoils -- and if you keep watching the same movie or doing the same ritual over and over, it's bound to become utterly drained of signification and resonance. . 


The devil on the other hand, is the lawyer working to keep you out of the prison of staleness that results naturally from one's fear of change; the devil offers a way that egoic indulgence can prosper: depressed from being inside all day watching old movies? Don't go outside and get some air, here, nip some bourbon from your dad's liquor cabinet! Now you can watch more TV with your stale headache gone.

, Pictures, Images and Photos

What the devil does in Rosemary's Baby is to fulfill the masculine fantasy of truly “owning” the womb. The witches help John Cassavetes drug Mia Farrow and prepare her for a night with Satan, but this brings embarassment and guilt associated with the surplus of desire. JC can hardly stand to look at his wife and must continually treat her more and more like a child in order to convince himself of the rightness of his subtefuge. Compare this with the relationship of the absent father to Regan, or Karras to his mother in THE EXORCIST. In each case the feminine gives rise to the maternal which is in itself monstrous, even more so if the man tries to escape its clutches. Thus the coveted power of possession is in fact a stale yoking to the wheel, the fine print on the Satanic contract..


Satanic movies scared me (mainly since I hadn't seen them, as discussed above, so imagined them far more luridly than they later turned out)  as a child but I longed for a way to "tape" the horror movies I had seen that didn't scare me, to own them utterly.  The closest you could come in the early 1970s was a super 8mm projector and these little three-minute reels of highlights from the film, bought at camera stores or in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland. My wish--a Faustian bargain if ever there was one--owning the cinematic womb so to speak--has since been granted many time over and now I can project widescreen color The Exorcist -- digitally remastered and therefore drained of meaning--all day and all night.


The Exorcist was so scary for so many people because at the time (1973--I had a child's eye view), people were still riding the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll liberation wave under the unstable patriarchal early 1970s. The film was among other things a primal terror confrontation of the crumbling ruins of belief and patriarchal artifice. Regan with her pea soup vomit was inarguable as an iconic countercultural myth far more resonant than the stale rituals Karras performs alone while wrestling with his conscience. The Catholic Church, like any other mythic engine, thrives on continued dramatic tension/release duality to hold audiences: You will be damned forever (tension!!) unless you tune in next Sunday! (release). The only way to win against that kind of resonance is to drain it of meaning through repetition (which is why you go to mass only once or twice a week), hence the devil's contract pay-back; the diminishing value of an object in relation to its duration of stay and proximity. Regan is so fearsome to the priests because she represents that hideous surplus of enjoyment which poses a threat to the "measured" rewards of the social order. She's two thousand years of overdue black masses all happening at once. She's mythic resonance without structure, the very opposite of the church.


Note that for the Catholics in the film, any contact with the feminine is risky and traumatic: Karras abandons his own mother, leaving her to rot in Bellevue for the vague reason that he's "busy";  the banal is made uncanny through proximity: the fear of going into your daughter's room to tuck her in at night. The father of Regan cannot even call her on her birthday, probably for fear of facing the outraged mother who will lay in with the guilt. He doesn't want to face his wife just as Karras is loath to face his own mother. Thus Regan's possession is a flinging open the doors to the dark animus as a result of the lack created, in effect, by the father's fear of his own castration (or rather afraid of being forced to check under his elastic band of protection and realize that his phallus is already long gone).

Rosemary's Baby Pictures, Images and Photos

Consider this metaphor: a man has inherited a priceless sword from his dead father. His mother, still alive, has the matching shield; together they are even more priceless. Now the son takes the sword along for protection while he goes off to see the world for the first time, but within a few days he gets drunk and loses it on the road. Ashamed to tell his mom, he roams the world acting as if it's still lefts locked up in a trunk in his attic with the mom's shield. Mom thinks he still has it and when she asks him to bring it home for Thanksgiving he pretends he can't make the trip.  His daughter at home meanwhile (she lives with grandma) misses him and the sword so the first guy that comes along with any kind of blade... look out.


What's the happy answer to this story? Admitting you fucking lost the sword, because the truth is, it was a phony anyway; mom just told you it was real so you would leave the house. The real one is locked up in a vault in Area 51 or the Pentagon, or Oz, or whatever.... it's like, inside, man.

Because of the devil's bargain I signed in the 1970s to make DVD possible, the draining of cinema's magic power through "home" media has become epidemic. The television is the "mock" sword house: rather than tell you stories of this beautiful missing sword and all the things it can do and create, TV shows us images of it, keeps us in awe until the repetition  kills the mythic resonance and it's just another phallic symbol full of sound and fury, selling insurance and corn flakes. The video library ensures that all movies can be accessed at any given moment, making the Satanic power of celluloid all but gone. Thus it is truly the devil's bargain that every time a wish for "more" is granted, the desire for more is quenched. Nothing makes everything boring and old quite like the knowledge it's never going away.  The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen stands as living proof of this - as in the so-called "unedited" version with its photoshopped demon faces grinning out of the darkened hallways and it's just silly. Once this face was the stuff of nightmare, now even the phrase "stuff of nightmare" has lost all meaning. Through repetition--and this is again is the root drive of Freud's repetition-compulsion disorder--even the most harrowing experiences become routine, boring and ubiquitous. Getting everything we want then becomes the ultimate monkey's paw irony - our materialist drives must be by definition unfulfilled to have any mythic clout. 

When surplus kills desire to swiftly, even Satan suffers, reduced in power and meaning until he's just the bland face of corporate groupthink writ large upon the screen in yet another hackneyed, hard rock-scored, MTV-flash edited Exorcist prequel, seen at the multiplex or at home on cable by glazed-eyed children for whom extreme torture porn raises little more than an eyebrow.  For all his evil and child-scarring vileness, even Satan couldn't have predicted Saw IV. .


c. 2009 acidemic.

photos "fair used" and c. their studio sources

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244