An essay on occultism in film from my third year of my degree, part of a Spiritualities, Sacred and the Screen module.
The portrayal of the Occult, in particular Satanism and Demonic Children; focusing on the films The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby and Little Nicky
The term ‘Occult’ refers to many things, the word itself comes from the Latin word occultus which roughly translated means hidden or concealed. Primarily, it is a term used to group together the paranormal or supernatural, (Dictionary) as well as covering left-hand path religions and beliefs such as Satanism and Devil Worship. Many religious groups ranging from Abrahamic religions (for example; Christianity, Judaism, Islam) to India religions (for example; Hinduism, Sikhism) recognise the Occult in one form or another (Jenkins, 2004). However, some religions, in particular conservative Christians, view anything that is not Christian as being Satanic, or of Satan, and therefore deem anything that is un-Christian as being part of the Occult (Cult Awareness). Many of these religions deem the Occult as acts or articles of paranormal or supernatural activity which are not achieved by or through their idea of ‘God’, and are therefore considered the work of an opposing entity of some form. However, ‘Occult’ can also refer to acts that require knowledge which is not generally widely know or “talents which lie beyond the five senses” (Religious Tolerance)
Occultism is the study of the Occult and covers topics such as ‘Magick’, alchemy, spiritualism and astrology amongst others, and also includes activities such as tarot cards, tea leaf reading and Ouija boards (Cult Awareness). Many whom study the Occult, known as Occultists, claim to follow non-traditional religions such as Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Thelema and various forms of Satanism, such as LaVeyan Satanism and Luciferianism. It is unclear when exactly Occultism appeared, yet some ideas and beliefs systems can be traced back to at least the Middle Ages (Jenkins, 2004). However between the 15th and 17th centuries Occultism had a revival in Western countries (Jenkins, 2004). Many 17th century scientists, for example Sir Isaac Newton, were accused of using the Occult within their research and experiments (Isaac Newton's Life). This revival was stopped due to the Age Of Enlightenment, which saw more people accepting reasoning from science and natural philosophy over religion (What Is The Age Of Enlightenment?).
During and after the 1770s, Occultism saw another revival, which Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke claimed was “a reaction to the rationalist Enlightenment” (Goodrick-Clarke, 1985). Goodrick-Clarke also claimed that the reason for the revival of Occultism was “a strong desire to reconcile the findings of modern natural science with a religious view that could restore man to a position of centrality and dignity in the universe” (Goodrick-Clarke, 1985). Currently, religions such as Satanism and Wicca are amongst the most popular Occult movements. As people are open to many religious ideas and belief systems, these Occult ideas are becoming better known, especially due to the media frenzy over the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s (Kelly, Satanism & The Satanic Panic) (Jenkins, 2004).
Today, many films feature topics that are considered to be Occult, for example; witches, paranormal, Satanism, magic/magick, rituals and sacrifice. Over the last few decades, more and more films that cover this area have been produced, as these films generally fall into the currently popular horror genre, they generally have a large audience wishing to view them. Over the last 40 years some films concerning the Occult have caused major outcry in the media, have impacted upon censorship issues and as a result still remain infamous today.
One of the most infamous films to date is The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973), a horror adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same title. The film was highly popular and grossed around $402.5 million worldwide (The Exorcist). The Exorcist is centred on the 12 year old character Regan MacNeil and tells the story of her deterioration and possession. At first it is thought that Regan suffers due to the stress of her parents’ divorce, yet it is later made clear as her symptoms and behaviour become worse, that she is possessed by a demon, which via Regan claims to be the Devil himself. Two priests are called upon to perform an exorcism. After a dramatic climax to the film and the death of both priests, normality is restored and the end of the film sees Regan and her mother leaving their home to try and get over the ordeal (Ruined Endings) (The Exorcist Plot Summary).
Within the film there are several notable scenes that were considered horrific and gained the film its notoriety. In 1973, prior to the film, the act of exorcism had been deemed Occult and was abolished by the Catholic Church, yet after the release of the film it was no longer a secret ritual that privileged few had the knowledge of and interest in this area began to increase (Edwards, 2005, p. 1). The exorcism scene begins approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film and proceeds for roughly 20minutes, ending with Father Karras throwing himself from Regan’s window, and Regan crying in a corner, returned to her normal state. The exorcism ritual in the film has been criticised heavily by the Catholic church, mainly for being too long winded and drawn out (Exorcism & Catholic Priests). The priests, during the exorcism, are portrayed as being clearly terrified, in particular Karras whom Regan insults personally, yet they remain strong and continue with the rest of the ceremony as best they can. It is vital for the film to portray the priests as strong characters whom eventually triumph over the evil of the demon as it shows that the film does support the triumph of good over evil and does not portray the beliefs that God is weak or even that he doesn’t exist.
The film relies heavily on special effects to make the film horrific and believable. Make up, harnesses, dummies, specially made moving furniture and lots of fake blood were all used to create the image of possession and supernatural behaviour (Kermode, 1998, p. 72). One of the most infamous scenes the ‘spider-walk’ scene was cut from the theatrical release for unknown reasons, it is thought that it was cut as it was technically not of good enough quality, however it would have provided the audience with confirmation that Regan was indeed possessed (Kermode, 1998, p. 61). However scenes in which Regan’s head rotates 360 degrees, she levitates and in which she masturbates with a crucifix along with the profanities and obscenities that stream from her give clear indication to the audience that something horrific has happened to what was an innocent and pleasant child at the films beginning. The character of Regan once possessed is terrifying, the makeup and effects used make her look ugly and grotesque, therefore repulsing viewers as much as her actions do. The enormous difference between the actions and physical looks of ordinary Regan and possessed Regan are what causes such “hysterical reaction to the movie” (Kermode, 1998, p. 85).
In this film the effects are dramatic and over the top, this creates a huge feeling of fear and tension within the audience. By creating this fear and disgust at the acts which the viewers are seeing the film portrays the message that if demonic possession is indeed real; the novel is supposedly based on real events (Dirks, The Exorcist), it is horrific, powerful and is rightly deemed Occult due to its opposition of the Christian God. The film also suggests that the devil or demon is a weak deity, as he possessed a small girl and is overcome by two mortal men whom have a strong belief in their God. Blatty, the novel’s author, felt that the final scene in which Karras throws himself along with the demon out of the window needed to be portrayed clearly so as to show that Karras had regained strong faith in his beliefs, which he had questioned earlier in the film, in order to ensure that faith won over evil (Kermode, 1998, p. 81).
Another infamous film concerning the Occult is the classic Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Rosemary's Baby, 1968). Also based on a novel (Levin, 1967), Rosemary’s Baby tells the story of Rosemary and Guy, a young couple whom have just moved into an apartment block in Manhattan. They move into an apartment which has a horrible history of Occult activities. Budding actor Guy begins to spend more and more time with their strange new neighbours and his luck begins to increase. Shortly after the couple decided to conceive a baby, Rosemary becomes pregnant after having a dream in which she is raped by a monster or demon, but as the pregnancy continues her symptoms are unnatural and she begins to suspect her neighbours of being part of a cult. After the birth, Rosemary is told the baby has died, yet after hearing a baby crying in the apartment block, she discovers the child being worshiped by the cult (Rosemary's Baby Plot Summary) (Polanski, Rosemary's Baby, 1968).
As with most films concerning cults, Rosemary is a good, innocent woman and she is taken advantage of and secretly manipulated by both her husband and neighbours, along with the cult itself. She is gradually isolated so that the cult can exploit her to the maximum (Bozzola). This sense of separation from the outside world is part of what makes the film so claustrophobic and harrowing (Gonzalez). She is used as a vessel to birth the devil’s child. After eating a desert given to her by Minnie Castevet, her neighbour, Rosemary feels ill and has a strange dream in which she is raped by the devil. This has been thought of as an inverted version of the selection of Mary to have a virgin birth in order to produce God’s child, Jesus (Bozzola). The scene’s setting is dark, smoky, gloomy and all the cult members are lingering in the shadows, fully nude. Nudity during rituals is a stereotypical idea held about cults and Satanic practise, yet is not always true (Forms Of Satanism). The painting of cult symbols onto Rosemary’s naked torso is also a cliché ritual, as are the claw-esque scratches on her back created during the rape by a devil covered in scales, with snake-like eyes. These are also not correct of modern forms of Satanism, as they do not promote ideas of violence, sex orgies, drugs or sacrifice, especially towards children and animals (Eleven Satanic Rules Of The Earth) (Church Of Satan).
As the child develops within Rosemary, she loses weight, looks pale and feels drained due to the constant pain she feels. This suggests that the unborn child is draining Rosemary for everything it needs in order to survive, possibly due to whom it is descended from, and Rosemary, being only a mortal woman, struggles to cope with the demands. The use of ‘tannis root’, special pills/drinks and spells/curses within the film by members of the cult suggest that they are involved with black magic. However, this is more commonly associated with Paganism, not Satanism. Satanism focuses more on symbolic acts rather than magic spells, or magick as it is commonly known, and even then, most Pagans use spells for ‘good’ (Forms Of Satanism).
The film is often thought to be a truly genuine portrayal of Satanism and Satanic ritual due to rumours that Anton LaVey, who founded the Church Of Satan in 1966, was the technical and expert advisor on the set of the film (Rosemary's Baby Trivia). LaVey rapidly gained notoriety in the 70s and 80s through his church, published works and the media created ‘Satanic Panic’ (Kelly, Satanism & The Satanic Panic). Rumours also suggested that LaVey himself had played the devil that rapes Rosemary (Rosemary's Baby Trivia). Although these rumours were not true, there are references within the film which indicate that LaVeyan Satanism concepts could have been the influence for the film, for example; 70 minutes into the film at a New Years Eve party, Roman Castevet toasts “to 1966, the year one” (Polanski, Rosemary's Baby, 1968) which is the founding year of the Church of Satan (CoS) and was proclaimed the ‘year one’ by Anton LaVey during Walpurgistnacht (LaVey, 1969).
Towards the end of the film, Roman Castevet is heard making a speech in which he announces Satan’s rebirth and claims that the baby, Adrian, will “wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and the tortured” on the world (Polanski, Rosemary's Baby Screenplay, 1967). Although Rosemary initially wants nothing to do with the cult member or the child, Roman eventually persuades her to be a proper mother to the baby; she is particularly won over when the baby cries from being rocked too fast. This raises questions as to whether a mother could love her child regardless (Bozzola), and suggests that her maternal instincts over rule her desire to keep away from evil, and also that evil (in this instance Roman Castevet) can persuade good (or Rosemary) to succumb to their wishes due to their power. This is one element of Satanism that is generally accurate. All Satanists believe that they have power and control over their lives and elements in it (LaVey, 1969) (Forms Of Satanism).
However, the film has been lightly criticised for characters such as Guy Woodhouse and Dr Sapirstein not being sinister enough and even slightly unbelievable (Rosemary's Baby Review, 1968). Some critics found it had to believe that both of these characters would have sex with Rosemary when passed out and give her witchcraft potions respectively. However, most critics agree that the characters the Castevets are at first are a seemingly nice and quirky elderly couple, yet as the days pass the begin to start to carry out their plans, allowing the audience to see their cold, cruel sides (Bozzola). This portrays to the audience their personality traits that are often linked to Satanism, such as the ability to lie and the ability to use people for their own purposes.
The film was the first film concerning satanic cults to become a mainstream success. This was largely due to its well suited selection of cast and crew members and also due to its quality as a film both within the horror genre and within mainstream Hollywood. After much critical acclaim, the film won several awards and had many nominations at major ceremonies. Since the film’s release in 1968, many films and television shows that feature similar concepts of cults and children of demons have been produced (Dirks, Rosemary's Baby), such as The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973), The Omen (Donner, 1976) , It’s Alive (Cohen, 1974) and Point Pleasant (McLaughlin, Point Pleasant, 2005), and is still one of the most referenced horror films within the media today.
The Omen (Donner, 1976), similar to The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) and Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, Rosemary's Baby, 1968) also deals with a demonic child. Damien Thorn is the replacement for Robert and Katherine Thorn’s still born baby. After approximately 5 years, strange events start occurring, and with the appearance of new nanny Mrs Baylock, Robert begins to realise that something is wrong. After Katherine’s death, Robert and photographer Keith Jennings begin to discover more about Damien’s true heritage and his destiny to become the Antichrist. The pair discovers that in order to stop him they need to stab him with 7 knives, after Keith’s death and the confirmation that Damien is the antichrist via the 666 birthmark; Robert attempts to kill the child, but is shot by the police in the process. The film ends with Damien attending his parents’ funeral (Donner, 1976) (The Omen Plot Summary).
The film features several horrific murders which are made to look to be accidents. The first death, the original nanny hanging herself at Damien’s party is shocking and horrific due to the setting and the hundreds of children. The deaths of Father Brennan and Keith Jennings are also added for shock value. The burnt face of Father Spiletto also illustrates to the audience the extent of the lengths gone to by the child and its protectors. The revelation of the murder of the Thorn’s actual baby at its birth also illustrates this point. The styles of these deaths are unusual and horrific, and show the power that evil has when trying to protect Damien.
The character of Father Brennan is a very stereotypical portrayal of a Devil-fearing character with strong Christian beliefs. This is eminent from the scene in which is set in his room, which is covered from wall to wall in pages from the bible and crucifixes. Whilst in this room, it is also discovered that a star similar to the star of Bethlehem was seen but on the opposite side of the world. Also discovered is the exact date and time of Damien’s birth contains the number 666 and was the exact time when the star appeared. This information works on the basis that the audience are well acquainted with the story of the birth of Christ and that 666 is supposedly the number of the beast. Father Brennan is dismissed by several characters as being crazy and delusional, which is often the case in films which are dealing with the Occult or supernatural (The Omen Review).
The plot surrounds the character of Damien, even though he is not the lead character in the film as such. Damien’s behaviour begins as being typical of a normal 5 year old boy, yet begins to become more unusual as the film continues. For example, when Damien is taken to church he cries, screams and attacks his mother. This suggests the cliché idea that evil cannot set foot onto pure church grounds. Another example would be when the baboons at the safari park attack the car containing Damien and his mother, as though they are trying to scare away the evil that they sense from him (The Omen Review).
The film also raises question for Robert Thorn, late in the film he discovers he must kill his son. Although not technically his own son, this is a child that he has cared about for the last 5 years and therefore feels a strong bond to. This provides Thorn with a difficult decision about whether it is right to kill a child just because he is supposedly the evil son of the Devil. It also illustrates the fact that evil wins over good in the end as Thorn is stopped from ending Damien’s evil ruling (Curse Or Coincidence? (Bonus Feature)).
The film was particularly successful due to the fact that it cashes in on the fascination with the Occult and the end of the world that was held by society during the time of production and release (The Omen Review, 2008). It tells the story in a serious and day-to-day manner, and is similar to films such as Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) which rely heavily on portraying to the audience their own ideas of Satanism and the Occult, rather than a factual one. Instead The Omen (Donner, 1976) slowly builds up a sense of dread and fear within the audience and used its advertising campaigns to drive this feeling home (The Omen Film Review, 2008). Like Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski, 1968) before it, the film spawned 3 sequels, a 2006 remake and a documentary looking at the accidents associated with the production of the film.
Unlike the earlier mentioned films, Little Nicky (Brill, 2000) is a comedy film about the kind hearted son of Satan. Nicky, a ‘daddy’s boy’, has to go on a mission to save his father after his brothers go on a rampage on Earth. Generally, the story is light-hearted and comical, and features a love story when Nicky meets a girl (Herlihy & Sandler).
The character of Nicky, played by Adam Sandler, does not have the characteristics that generally would be associated with the son of Satan. Instead Nicky is portrayed as being kind, sweet and gentle, if a little naive. He is shown as the underdog; physically deformed, burdened with a speech impediment and constantly in the shadow of his more evil older brothers. He is an unlikely hero and gives off an awkward persona (O'Connell, 2000). This character is portrayed in this way to show to the audience that there can be good and bad in everyone, regardless of whom they are supposed to be. Even though Nicky is so closely related to ‘evil’ and should in theory be the same as his siblings, he is shown as the black sheep of the family, which is easy for audience members to relate to, therefore the viewers begin to like the character more. This charm he has over the audience highlights their desire to see good win over evil.
Nicky is the only un-stereotypical character in the film. Nicky’s brothers are typical versions of demons; they perform evil, cruel acts for fun. They block the wall of fire that serves as the entrance point into Hell, knowing that by doing so they cause their own father to begin to disintegrate, they also merge the lines between good and evil, therefore gaining power over everything (Sammy, 2008). Although a comedy film, the brothers are portrayed as powerful, strong and terrifying whilst they wreak havoc and attempt to force the world to submit to them. Their father is also a typical Devil figure, and Hell is also very stereotypical. Satan wears all black, has a clawed throne and Hell is dark, dingy and surrounded by fires, including the huge wall of fire entrance, and even shows a Hitler character being tortured at one point (Brill, 2000). All the ‘good’ characters, such as Nicky’s mother and Valerie, Nicky’s love interest, are portrayed in a similar stereotypical way. Nicky’s mother, an angel, is seen as a beautiful angel, dressed all in white in the luscious surroundings of Heaven. She is pleasant, feminine and wants to help Nicky. This is basically a personification of ‘goodness’ and shows that good people and acts are rewarded with the lavishness of Heaven. Valerie, also a ‘good’ character, is portrayed as being shy and fairly plain. Her personality and good ways are attractive to Nicky, and eventually at the end of the film they end up married with a baby, also an indication that love and righteousness conquers all (Fisher, 2001). This film portrays its characters in a typical ‘angel and demon’ fashion, meaning that it is easy for the audience to understand the message that good always triumphs over evil. Essentially it has a simple plotline that can be seen in other films, yet uses Heaven and Hell as a theme, setting and to shape its characters to fit the theme and setting.
Satanism along with the concepts of the Devil, Hell and demons amongst other elements became popular in the 70s and 80s, following the releases of the afore mentioned films (Except Little Nicky (Brill, 2000)) and films such as Legend (Scott, 1985), The Brotherhood Of Satan (McEveety, 1971) and Evilspeak (Weston, 1981). The ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s, led to a rise in popularity in film and media concerned with Satanism, worshiping of the Devil, Black Mass and sacrificial rituals. The surge in awareness of this matter was exploited via film, television shows and newspapers, and many people whom gave out false information on the subject claimed that were “doing God’s work” (Kelly, Satanism & The Satanic Panic) and wanted to protect children by bringing the subject to the attention of parents across the world. After many false stories, which had been sensationalised by the media, the dread and alarm died down as more people who actually lived the ‘Satanic life’ were allowed to give their opinions on the topic and the general public eventually began to see Satanists as respectable people who did not act in the ways declared by the media (Kelly, Satanism & The Satanic Panic).
Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) was also a part of the ‘Satanic Panic’. A single definition was never decided upon, but the term basically covered any physical or sexual abuse suffered by an individual at the hands of an Occult organisation or during a ‘Satanic ritual’ in some manner (Jenkins, 2004). There were many reported cases of SRA, yet many of the accused parties were not found guilty of crimes relating to Satanism, cult or other Occult activity (Jason, 2009) (The Times, 2006) (Elliot, 2005). However, for most films to get through the rating system, they had to portray Satanic or cult activity in a negative, non-glamorised way in order to pass out a similar message to that told within other news reporting media.
It is debated that the Occult became more popular through the hippy culture of the 1960s and is therefore to blame for the rise in popularity of the theme within film and then as a result inspired awareness and terror within the general public (Jenkins, 2004). Acts made infamous in the media, such as the Manson ‘Family’ killings have since been mimicked within film. This is mainly due to the public’s desire and interest in this case and others similar to it, and would therefore guarantee filmmakers the ratings that they longed for. Another reason that Occult-based films did so well, especially during and around the Satanic Panic, was due to the fact that they were terrifying for audiences, mainly due to the fact that at the time they were seemingly rooted deeply in truth. Films which play upon the exact fears of its watching audience are usually the films that are most successful at the box office (Schneider, 2004).
Over the last 10 years, Occultism is still predominant in film, especially in the horror genre. Films such as Long Time Dead (Adams, 2002) and Chemical Wedding (Doyle, 2008) along with television series such as Point Pleasant (McLaughlin, 2005) and God, The Devil & Bob (Carlson, 2000-2003) have all seen success from an audience perspective. Modern audiences appear to prefer the theme of the Occult to be dealt with in a more over-the-top, explosive way than audiences of the 1970s and 1980s. This is likely to be to cater for modern day audiences demands for plots that are fast moving, rather than slow paced and realistic, and for top of the range special effects. Due to the rise in popularity of comedy films, modern audiences also desire serious subjects such as the Occult to be looked at from a comical view point, hence the popularity of films such as Little Nicky (Brill, 2000) which contains one of today’s biggest comedy stars; Adam Sandler.
In conclusion, the Occult must be portrayed in a negative, un-glamorised light within films so that it does not project the wrong ‘devil worshiping’ ideology and so that it does not promote or endorse the performance of ritual or sacrificial behaviours. Several instances of abnormal or violent behaviour have been blamed on films which deal with these issues, yet many have held no ground in the eyes of court. Generally, most films show good winning over evil, and illustrate the negative and unconstructive aspects of the occult issue that is contained within its theme. This means that films are successful in showing what Satanism and the Occult are about, without encouraging the audience to be influenced by their ideas. The portrayal of Satanism and the Occult is not always factually correct, yet provides the audience with stereotypical characters and behaviours that are easily recognisable.
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