Horror movies are the guiltiest pleasure that I'll admit to, and the reason why “pleasure” must be qualified in this instance is merely because the genre comprises films that—compared with most other cinematic categories—are disproportionately terrible. As a general rule, I'll give a horror movie a shot if it has a Rotten Tomatoes score above 30 percent. These standards would never suffice for a drama or a comedy, and probably not even for any film that stars Dwayne Johnson.
Horror enthusiasts have been consigned to take what we can get, and this is especially true for those of us who love films about demonic possession. For me, the demon is the most terrifying of all supernatural entities because he is at the same time incredibly rational and purely malevolent. At times, his objective is a human soul, but no soul can sate his lust nor improve his condition. The wickedness he perpetrates serves only to deepen the trench of his damnation, and he nonetheless applies his considerable power and intelligence to no other end. In this way, his only motive is to do evil. He is the Iago of preternature.
The demon is malum mali gratis—evil for its own sake. While evil motives will always scare us, we are most afraid of that which we fail to understand. It is because the demon has no discernible motive that he is the most terrifying of things that go bump in the night. Since the infancy of systemic thought, men have attempted to taxonomize the demon and codify his behaviors, but his motiveless malevolence defies objectivity. In this sense, demonology is by definition paradoxical.
The good news for the general population is that skepticism has stolen from the demon the foundation of his power. In a post-Enlightenment world, we refuse to believe in that which cannot be explained. The bad news for horror enthusiasts is that our culture of disbelief has robbed from cinema some of its most frightful elements. We now accept any cinematic premise so long as it is supported by a systematized cosmology and a rational motive—which is fine, except that these formulas are inherently closed and comfortable.
The best horror films play on our worst fear: Perhaps God is apathetic.
The very best horror has always partaken of the paradoxes of demonology. Take the first and scariest Halloween, where a trench-coated Donald Pleasence will gravely insist to anyone he meets—the disbelieving bumpkin Sheriff or a textbook-toting Jamie Lee Curtis—that Michael Meyers, like a demon, is a manifestation of pure evil. Indeed this notion is reinforced by the killer’s facelessness and the fact that the post-production credits in the first Halloween film refer to Meyers not by name but as the "Shape."
As a demon is subject to nothing but his own egregious sin, Michael Meyers is a slave to the past. He is obliged to re-live the trauma, his interaction with the world is confined to a single night of the entire year, and outside of this minute window he is utterly impotent; virtually non-existent. Meyers must stalk a single target, whose significance is determined not by his own will but by her connection with his enthralling past. Meyers does not will but is compelled. This idea is illuminated by the fact that he does not seek to entrap, mislead, or otherwise outthink his victims. He merely pursues, slowly but steadily, and thus the horror rests in his relentlessness.
David Robert Mitchell's superb directorial debut, It Follows, isolates and exaggerates this concept, while the electronic score, suburban monotony, and disseminated anachronism similarly pay homage to John Carpenter's classic. The ingenious concept of a sexually transmitted presence gestures back to the themes of moral retribution featured perhaps most heavy-handedly in the Friday the 13th franchise. Promiscuity results in a gruesome death (sometimes post-coital, but often in flagrante delicto), while beer-drinking and spliff-smoking are also grounds for dispatch via machetes and jerry-rigged weed-whackers. Even when the villain didn’t have horns, a Judeo-Christian morality was generally at work.
But motif quickly becomes boring, especially as social views toward sexuality become more relaxed. To make up for the increasing irrelevance of Jason's role as moral enforcer, filmmakers direct him to kill his victims in increasingly contrived ways. By the third installment he squeezes a guy's head until his eyeball pops out (a phenomenon highlighted by a Charlie Brown trombone decrescendo), and in the eighth movie he punches a kid's head off his neck and neatly into a dumpster. Our manifestation of “pure evil” has become something closer to pure slapstick. Demons don’t do slapstick.
Historically, the demon of Christian tradition has always been subject to divine authority. Until quite recently, demons were a component of virtually all religious and mythological systems. In the first few centuries of Christianity, Church Fathers had much to do regarding the erasure of pagan theology in favor of a Christian one, including pagan demonology. While John Milton in the 17th century would assert that the sundry deities of pre-Christian religions were really Abrahamic demons, 1,300 years earlier Saint Augustine sought to prevent fledgling Christians from merely assimilating the pantheon of their pagan forefathers into the Bible. In his City of God, Augustine argued that such entities, whether benevolent and malevolent, were God's creatures and thus obliged to obey His Will. Augustine rejected the idea that daemones functioned as divine agents or intermediaries between God and men.
Within this general framework, however, there exists a spectrum of possible demonic agency and will. A few centuries after Augustine, demons enjoyed substantial freedom and power to beleaguer mankind. The Aristotelian father of Christian Theology, Saint Thomas Aquinas, ceded considerable (though not completely autonomous) agency to the collective demons who identified themselves as “Legion.” In his commentary on Jesus' exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), Aquinas' emphasis is on the nature of demons. He asserts that demons attack men because we are made in the image of God, whom the devils hate, though he says nothing of the method by which demons determine which men to attack. Instead, like a good Aristotelian, his emphasis rests on a description of the nature of demons, assuming that they opted to enter the swine instead of the goats because demons prefer filth over cleanliness.
But the Reformation, with its emphasis on personal sanctity and the individual Christian's relationship with God devoid of cleric mediation, required that demonic agency and power be re-evaluated. Just as each Christian is responsible for their own status in the eyes of God, so God maintains an active interest in each of His individual children. Thus, demonic affliction was explained to be the result of special Providence, and men and women were plagued by devils in order that God might try and increase their faith. Thus Calvin's commentary on Mark 5 differs significantly from that of Aquinas: In Calvin's mind, God directs every detail of where demons go and what they do, including their possession of human beings, whether pious or profane.
In a majority of possession films, there is method in demonic madness. In the Possession, an otherwise normal young girl is plagued by a Dybbuk (a possessing spirit of Jewish folklore that the film only sort of gets right) when she buys the magic box to which it has been confined at a yard sale. The malevolent entity of the wonderfully frightful Paranormal Activity films is scary, but that’s mainly because of the meticulous editing of subtle scares, off-camera space, and a crescendo of action—alongside the shrouded nature and motives of the paranormal actor.
Not until the third film to we learn that the demon plagues its victims as the result of witchcraft, and the explanation robs the demonic entity of much of its scariness; if it can be controlled and coerced, its is less of a threat.
But in the most successful and terrifying tales, such as the Exorcist, the demon attacks at random. The connection between the discovery of a pagan idol at an archaeological dig in the Levant and the possession of an unexceptional girl in Washington, D.C., is never explained. Perhaps there is an unknown method, but for as much as men can tell the demon's selection is arbitrary. And arbitrariness is fertile garden of terrifying possibilities.
But the arbitrariness would be significantly less terrifying did God not so utterly permeate the world of that film. The ambiguity of the demonic motive offers commentary on Father Karras' ambiguous relationship with God. While Karras is unable to reconcile the supremacy of a supposedly benevolent God with the wickedness and pain of the world, the audience is unable to account for Reagan's unspeakable suffering. The conclusions available to us are equally disturbing: either God is not real, or he chooses to plague us for reasons we cannot possibly understand. Either way, we have grossly misinterpreted our relationship with Him.
Thus, the best horror films play on our worst fear: Perhaps God is apathetic. For all our insistence on empiricism, science, and reason, there is a glaring exception to the skepticism with which we treat the preternatural: religious faith. The best demonic movies must be pervaded by the specter of God. If we aren't necessarily of Calvin's party doctrinally, we are his adherents in our obsession with the individual, both in the mundane and spiritual arenas. But this same cultural expectation undermines the success of these narratives in that our utter irrelevance and averageness, especially in the eyes of our Creator, is the thing that we fear above all else.
Now that you're older, wiser, and more is stake, give the Exorcist another watch. You've been spoiled: the effects will no longer move you. The pea soup is comically superfluous, the bucking bed looks like a charlatan's ploy, and the profanity are bird bolts against our modern sensibilities. Sure, it's a good drama, but “horror” hardly describes the viewing experience.
But the Exorcist is still horrifying, thanks to the questions that flit about the back of our minds when the lights are out, hours after we've shut off the television; the cosmic questions of when, why, and to where God has disappeared.
Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.