Friday, October 30, 2009

Real Fear

At least once a year, usually around this time, I’ll watch The Exorcist. Along with Jaws, this movie was responsible for many childhood nightmares and fears. Jaws scared me out of the ocean the summer I saw it, when our family made its annual trip to Point Pleasant, NJ. With The Exorcist, I made the mistake of staying up late one night and watching it by myself on HBO. (Yes, HBO was around back then, in a radically different format. Showing hit movies like that, but also a lot of 70s dross, repeatedly, most of which I now own on DVD because the movies are so burned into my mind.)

I watch now not just for the scare tactics, but the actual stories that go along with the movie. I love the side story of Father Damien Karras, who has his own shit going on besides dealing with this demon. He’s a trained psychiatrist, who went into the priesthood and finds himself middle-aged, burned-out at his job (counseling other priests), questioning his own faith and racked with guilt because he’s living away from his aging/ailing mother, who lives alone in a rundown New York City neighborhood. (It looks like Hells Kitchen when he goes to visit her … brilliant, gritty display of how far New York had slipped in the 1970s). She falls deathly ill, he goes to visit, she rebuffs him because he wasn’t there to help her in any sense, his uncle makes him feel like an asshole because he didn’t use his psychiatric background to make more money and ensure his mother wouldn’t wind up in a grubby city hospital ward …

This is great stuff! Father Damien is one of my favorite 70s movies characters, someone I take inspiration from, a role model of sorts. I love the scene where he confesses his lack of faith to a fellow priest … in a Georgetown bar, over beers and cigarettes, listening to the Allman Brothers on the jukebox! (Once on a messageboard, I noted how cool I though this was, only to have some Catholic nut jump on me for degrading the church. Bullshit. If anything, showing priests in that light only makes them more human and easier to understand. I had enough of that “priests are sacrosanct” nonsense from my grandmother … and we both went to a parish where our priest in the mid-late 70s was later nailed for pedophilia. Horrifying to think that if my grandmother had her way and pushed us down the altar-boy path that we would have been more open to an attack from this monster.)

But being older, something occurs to me about The Exorcist that hadn’t before. So, this demon comes along and takes over the body of this little girl. What’s the logic? Why? Let’s say this happens, everyone knows it’s happened, and everyone in her life just throws up their hands and says, “OK, let’s accept the demon, life goes on.” No locking him up in a bedroom to rattle off a vast array of special effects. Talking backwards in latin? That’s cool. Nice trick. Let’s put him on The Dinah Shore Show.

Let the demon to school. Ride the bus. Go bowling. Interact with other people. Go to McDonalds. Demon’s got to eat, too! Have a birthday party for the demon. Cake, ice cream, projectile vomiting and head spinning. Hooray!

I’d say the demon in the movie suffers from poor social skills because he’s locked up in a dark bedroom in a little girl’s body. Let him circulate. Let evil walk among us. The demon’s not such a bad guy. He just felt the need to pop into a little girl’s body for a few days to remind us all that the devil is real, as opposed to us sensing true evil exists in various “world gone wrong” scenarios that are very real, but not self evident that they are the work of a dark spiritual force. Sooner or later, the demon will get bored and go away. If a demon can do something wild like that, inhabit a person’s body, why not shoot big and go after heads of state, thus causing real evil with some surely horrific decisions? Why some powerless little girl? People are people. There is no “demon shield” around presidents and generals. It’s always struck me that true evil is ambitious, wants everyone to know how truly awful and terrifying it is. Not something we have to shake our heads about and wonder if it really exists.

The axis of fear that movie creates is based on that sense of isolation and claustrophobia, being stuck in a small, dark room with this awful thing. Let it out. Isn’t evil all around us? It would blow my mind to be on a subway train, and a little girl with yellow cat eyes would turn her head completely around and start telling me weird family secrets in my dead grandmother’s voice. Why not? Why reserve that sort of mind-bending shit for a dark bedroom?

I remember as a kid, my main fear with The Exorcist was going to bed at night (because the story took place in a child’s bedroom), rolling over, and seeing that horrible demon face inches from mine. Or raising myself up and looking out the window over my bed to see that face. I was immobile many nights because of that fear. But sooner or later, I realized, a greater fear would be to roll over and see a real person there, someone breaking into the house, you know, real shit that happens all the time, as opposed to something from a movie screen. A home intruder is a very real fear … so now I have to worry about this other-worldly shit, too, that never seems to happen to anyone I know?

Lately, I’ve been catching the show Ghost Adventurers on the Travel Channel (seems to be the same show as Ghost Hunters on Scy Fy Channel). (Edit: I've looked it up, and both shows have different teams, but it's hard to tell them apart as they're so physically similar.) It’s about a paranormal research group from Rhode Island who go around “testing” various sites infamous for paranormal activity. You know, abandoned asylums, old prisons, mansions, Indian burial grounds that are now more traditional suburban sprawl, etc.

I got no problems with the guys themselves, despite their “we’re serious, man!” demeanor that comes off like unironic Ghostbusters. Some of the shows I’ve watched, genuinely weird shit happens – unexplained noises, doors shutting by themselves, what could be voices … a few even had members of the team being visibly scratched by unseen forces.

Or at least it looked that way. At two in the morning. Filming each other in pitch blackness with final product that was clearly edited to include numerous camera shots.

And THAT’S my problem with the show. From what I understand, all the equipment these guys use – the normal video cameras, infrared cameras, heat-sensitive cameras (to pickup any type of physical warmth that an apparition might leave behind), the audio recording equipment, the electro-magnetic field sensors (to sense what could be unseen presences) – probably WORKS BETTER in broad daylight, with lots of lighting for the cameras.

They’re wandering around abandoned insane asylums at two in the morning, filming each other in less than optimal circumstances to capture any image that may appear to them, much less an other-worldly apparition. I don’t think ghosts, demons, poltergeists, or whatever, would subscribe to the concept that they can only come out and scare people at two in the morning. You hear a strange sound in that kind of environment, it might just be rats scurrying around the next empty room over. Or some stray sound that carries from a few miles away. Most of what they film and claim to be paranormal seems like questionable bullshit – whether it’s staged, or just something I’d much rather see filmed in broad daylight with real lighting so there’s no mistaking it. If they seriously wanted to film this stuff as evidence, they wouldn’t be going about it this way. Fucking high-school kids work this way – like Scoobie Doo! These guys should be riding around in a '75 Chevy Van with a talking dog.

Of course you’re going to be on-edge wandering around places like that in the middle of night. If you were a genuine scientist looking to validate or invalidate paranormal activity, you wouldn’t be going about it in such a half-assed, purposely vague manner. (I know … they’re playing up the fear factor for TV.) Try walking down a stone staircase you’ve never seen before in the middle of the night with 20 lbs. of equipment on your back and only a small camera light to guide your way … you are not going to be in a relaxed, lucid state of mind. You’re going to panic at every sound, every glint of light, every cold draft of air, etc. Regardless of whether that was a staircase where a fiend raped and strangled a five-year-old girl in 1898, or just some staircase.

And I’m having a hard time figuring why abandoned insane asylums are such horrible places, aside from kids and horror movies romanticizing their plight. I thought the gist of this whole paranormal thing was people dying/leaving the earth violently, and their troubled spirits hanging around afterwards. Of course, if this was true, lower Manhattan, after 9/11, would be wall-to-wall ghosts, day and night, thousands of them … but have there been any reported sightings down there? I’ve read of a few incidents of construction crews in Manhattans uncovering slave graveyards in their excavations … shouldn’t the spirits of those same slaves have been wandering around those apartments and office buildings scaring people for centuries afterwards, since their resting place was defiled, as we’ve seen in so many horror movies?

People have surely been abused horribly at insane asylums, but there’s a huge difference between electro-shock therapy and lobotomies, and violent death. I guess the image of crazy people in straightjackets plays on another irrational fear with people (especially younger people, at whom most of this stuff seems aimed) – loss of sanity – thus when one of these places closes down and becomes abandoned industrial zone decades later, ooga-booga, here comes the crazy ice-pick killer ghost at two in the morning, making sure to dodge the stray gangs of kids having beer bashes in the basement because it’s so fucking cool, man. An abandoned insane asylum, dude!

Whatever. You know what real horror is? Watching a loved one waste away and die. Learning someone you know has died violently. Being diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Losing huge sums of money. Child abuse. Violent crime. War. You know … real things that happen to real people every day. We have enough bad shit to ponder without silly shit like ghosts, demons and vampires entering the picture after darkness falls. If those things are real? I sure as hell haven’t seen them – then again, I’m not looking for them either. And the guys who are seem like a bunch of manipulative ass clowns, at least based on what’s shown on TV. It would seem to me evil spirits would have bigger fish to fry than making a chair move to mess with some paranormal activity expert’s head. Maniacs are stockpiling automatic weapons and ammunition to take out innocent people in schools and shopping malls … yet we still need to pump ourselves full of rollercoaster-ride fear to convince us that true evil exists?

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"If a demon can do something wild like that, inhabit a person’s body, why not shoot big and go after heads of state, thus causing real evil with some surely horrific decisions?"

Because it would be redundant. It's like the old joke: Why don't sharks eat lawyers? Professional courtesy.

I remember seeing The Exorcist for the first time - in a real movie theater - and thinking the "possession" scenes were more comical than anything else. The only part of the movie that scared me is when she went to the hospital and got that big-ass needle. THAT really creeped me out.