Oh, poor you!

That’s an expression which makes me shiver when I hear it. On the surface it sounds like mild sarcasm, a bit of fake sympathy offered to somebody who might be thought of as complaining too much. It’s actually more than that.

A person needs to have a little interest in language and psychology and literature to see (or hear) what else could be going on with that expression, but if ‘art imitates life’ as the cliché goes, then it seems there is more to that expression than mild sarcasm aimed at a moaner.

One possible interpretation is the usage from HBO’s The Sopranos. It’s not an expression used often, but it’s the characters which use it and the context which makes it interesting and gives it the power.

The Sopranos, if it is the best show made – and many argue it is – must be the best show for the writing because so many other shows are superbly filmed and acted and so on. It’s the writing, specifically the way a character’s character is exposed using language, that gives the show its standing, and some of the exposes are subtle.

Here’s a for instance. Consider Tony Soprano telling his mother and anyone else who brought it up, that Green Grove – the expensive facility he sends her to in the first series – is not a nursing home, ‘It’s a retirement community!’. There are several instances like this throughout the six seasons.

The character had to correct his mother and everyone else about the kind of facility he sent her to because he was trying to convince himself his decision to move her was a kinder decision than his conscience felt it was. That might sound simple, but it’s more complicated.

Tony Soprano’s entire character – everything he does and the way he does it, his success in the ‘business’ – is predicated on the denial of the fact his mother didn’t love him. He knows she didn’t, but won’t accept it, and the conflicts, the panic attacks, the ‘displaced rage’ all stem from this refusal accept what he knows is true.

It takes the character almost the entire six series to accept this: his constant correction of people who talk about about what kind of place he sends his mother to is a linguistic clue to a deeper psychological problem which hasn’t been solved or resolved. He can’t make his mother love him, but he can accept she didn’t, and this acceptance does eventually happen. The linguistic clues then change to show that, under the psychological surface, there’s a been a huge change.

What happens is simple. When a colleague mentions the wonderful retirement community Tony had his mother in, he shouts back ‘It’s a nursing home!’

So what of the expression, ‘oh, poor you’?

The writers use the expression in a similar way as mentioned in that it’s used as the linguistic clue to a deeper problem. ‘Oh, poor you’ isn’t mild sarcasm thrown at a person who’s moaning too much, it’s the mask dropping and the monster revealing its real face and real nature, but only for a moment.

And that real nature could be described as unpleasant.

It’s an expression which means ‘I don’t care how you feel!’ And this isn’t because the person cares only for themselves, but because the person can’t care about others and their feelings. It’s the three words which reveal the speaker is really bereft of positivity and all their smiling and laughing is faked.

It reveals something to us, the audience, while the speaker and the person to whom it is addressed do not recognise it for what it is, thus making it a narrow, yet extraordinarily deep example of dramatic irony.

The Exorcism of Mark Kermode

The Exorcist isn’t about religion. It reveals how much people hate children. It’s really about a child being tortured.

–      Max Von Sydow

 

 

Introduction:

Good and Bad Critics

 

I’m a film critic. You almost certainly are, too. If you’ve ever told a friend to go to see such and such a movie, or to avoid a movie because it’s terrible, you’re a critic. If they do go to see the movie, or if they do make sure to avoid seeing it based on your recommendation, that makes you a salesman into the bargain. But are you a good critic or a bad critic?

There is a simple way to explain the difference between a good and a bad critic: a bad critic will say ‘I hated it’ or ‘I loved it.’ Anyone can do that. A good critic will say they loved it or hated it then give you reasons. That’s the difference which makes the difference.

It might sound obvious, but try asking your beloved for reasons why they liked or disliked a movie next time they’re wearing their critic’s hat and see what happens. Ask them to be as specific as possible and an argument won’t be far in the distance. It could easily go something like this:

 

‘Why did you hate the movie?’

‘I just did, it was rubbish.’

‘Yeah, but why? What was it you hated?’

‘It just wasn’t my thing, you know? Not my cup of tea.’

‘No, I don’t know. Can you be more specific? I mean, do you actually know why you hated it?’

‘Why are you questioning me like this?’

‘I’m not, you said you hated the movie, I’m just asking if you’re able to tell me why.’

‘Able?’

‘I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘I’ll be specific: you’re a cunt.’

 

If I decide to say that Tarantino’s Death Proof is his best movie, then I should be able to follow it up by explaining it’s a movie which tickles the cocks of his male fans during the first half, then brutally slices them off in the second. Any bloke who hated Stuntman Mike come the end of the movie needs to reflect on why they liked him in the first half. They should then decode the dialogue between Kurt Russell and Rose McGowan at the bar. I’m talking about the point from which Mike slides his keys along the bar to where Tarantino, playing the bartender, Warren, sums up Mike’s drink – a ‘Virgin Pina Colada’ (Virgin’s Penis Collider) – by pointing at him and saying ‘virgin.’ It’s a wonderful exchange between Russell and Mcgowan that leads up to that, and the way to decode the dialogue is to ask why Mike corrects Pam by telling her he’s offering her a lift, not a ride

Or I could claim that George Clooney’s performance in From Dusk till Dawn was worthy of an Oscar – which it certainly was. Again, reasons should be offered. I could argue that it’s the way Clooney shows his character’s thought process and reasoning through small cricks of the neck and almost subliminal facial tics which marks this performance out as award-worthy. Or that the beautiful, understated pragmatism he shows when he decides his brother has to be killed is an example of the ‘less is more’ idea in action.

It doesn’t matter if these reasons are good or bad or agreed with or not, it matters only that they are offered and the position taken rises above the ‘It was good because I say so’ or the ‘It wasn’t my cup of tea’ level. Reasons are the difference between a good critic and a bad one.

Mark Kermode is a good critic – he gives reasons for what he likes and dislikes and, as it happens, I’d respect him as a critic without my slim (and glaringly self-serving) definition of the difference between good and bad. I think he’s very good. But I can’t understand his love for The Exorcist. It makes no sense.

I know that one man loves munching muesli while another loves munching muff, but personal taste is only part of the story. Let me put my confusion in context. If a person with a normal job said they thought The Exorcist was their favourite film, I’d automatically assume that was a question of personal taste: a matter for them and their psychiatrist; but if a film journalist, an actual movie critic, claims The Exorcist is the best film ever made – well, questions need to be asked about the story.

Let me make something clear. If Laurence Olivier – as Othello or Heathcliff, doesn’t matter – enters a scene, slams the door behind him and delivers a splendid speech while the wall of the set wobbles, that says nothing about the quality of the story. That should be obvious. The movie Left Behind, one of the stupidest movies ever, has a bible thumper tell Cassy Thomson that he hasn’t been ‘raptured’ into heaven because he’s lost his faith, and lost it years ago. He’s been going through the motions. Yet all the new-borns on the maternity ward – for reasons unknown to me (or the screenwriter) – have been raptured upstairs. When there’s a howler like this in the story’s logic, its premise, or whatever you want to call it, it’s not the fault of the set-designer.

This is a distinction worth making. Kermode cannot think The Exorcist is the best movie ever made for reasons which have nothing to do with the story. That would be ridiculous. This is fiction we’re talking about, the story is the point.

The question of what defines a ‘good’ film as compared to a ‘bad’ film is harder to answer than the same question about good and bad critics. It’s obviously possible to have a good story demonstrated by a poorly made film, and a stupid story demonstrated by a competently made movie; so, although technical questions are not beyond my scope in respect to The Exorcist film or novel, I’m interested more in why what is offered to the reader and viewer is absurd given the story’s premise, and those considerations don’t rely on whether we’re talking about a novel or a movie: I’d happily discuss the absurdities of Exorcist: The Musical or Exorcist: The Stageplay.

In other words, the medium used to deliver the story is of secondary importance to the story itself, and no technical skill or director’s “vision” can rescue a stupid story with top-notch cinematography or clever editing. How can it be otherwise?

This is why Kermode needs help: it’s not so much the movie that’s the problem – William Friedkin is no idiot and the movie is competently made – it’s the story. There are some fiddly questions to answer. Once you’ve decided a movie is “good” how much of that depends on the story, how much on the technical accomplishments of the director? How much on the acting skills of the players, how much on the actual dialogue they have to memorise? We’ve already seen, thanks to Tarantino’s Death Proof as the example, that the dialogue can mean more than the surface words before a player is hired to read them. Yet obviously the performance is important. Diane Keaton, telling Al Pacino in The Godfather II she’s had an abortion without his knowledge, is an example of the delivery of the lines taking the lines themselves to another place entirely. The surface words could be taken literally, but that seems to require Keaton to put some emphasis on “I,” changing ‘I had it killed’ to ‘I had it killed.’ She doesn’t do that, yet that’s the line that causes Michael to slap her. She’s mocking him, his family and the patriarchal tradition. It’s a beautiful scene which wouldn’t have its subtlety if Keaton had laid down the emphasis that a literal reading would require. Or take a simpler example. Robert Duvall telling Marlon Brando they shot Sonny on the causeway, ‘he’s dead.’ Duvall’s voice falters on the last word. To say he lifted the words off the page would be an understatement. Sometimes it does matter who’s in a film. I’m not immune to performance; it’s not all about the material and the assumptions of the story for me.

The first Jurassic Park might have been a technical triumph, but there’s not much story to talk about. If a critic said the film was the best ever made, it would a fair assumption the critic was a sort of tech-head, and it was only the effects and the visual power which did it for him. You can’t say that about The Exorcist, so the story must be a part of anyone’s claim it’s the best movie ever made.

The novel was a commercial success, selling millions of copies, and a person might assume the source material was competently written. It’s an easy mistake to make. There’s also another easily made mistake I’m mindful of in respect to criticism. You shouldn’t assume a character is there to offer the disguised opinions of the writer. However, if the narrative expresses attitudes which are not dialogue, and are not the character’s thoughts through obvious attribution or ‘free indirect style,’ then it is fair to assume those attitudes are held by the author, for who else owns them? Who put them on the page? And it is that which then allows for some gentle speculation: yes, maybe, the author is hiding behind his characters here and there?

I think Blatty let a little too much of himself onto the pages of his famously awful novel, and I think he knew it.

 

 

Behind every holier than thou, sanctimonious, Dan Quayle type, I’ll show you a man who pays two transvestites to piss in his face.

  • Jack Nicholson

 


 The Exorcist:

Novel

 

Mark Kermode begins the discussion of the novel (in his thesis) with the following: ‘In 1971, William Peter Blatty, a relatively unsuccessful author who had worked mainly in comedy screenwriting, managed to persuade Bantam books to publish his supernatural Horror novel The Exorcist.’ Read any page of the novel and you’ll realise Kermode deserves a Knighthood for services to understatement. My copy of the book is the paperback ‘40th anniversary edition,’ the cover of which claims it’s ‘The most terrifying novel ever written.’

It isn’t.

Blatty’s prose is hilariously over-descriptive, contains incomplete sentences, and he didn’t care enough to attempt any improvement. There are numerous examples of his prose making no sense at all. Almost everywhere it’s appalling, in many places, gibberish.

The ‘prologue’ sets the tone for the rest of the book. This is where we meet Von Sydow’s character, Fr. Merrin. The novel begins by referring to Merrin as ‘the man in khaki’ – but, after we’ve been given his name, continues to refer to him this way. This is very strange.

The priest is served tea by a person Blatty decides not to dignify with a name, referring to him as ‘The Kurd’ (which is not far off how we should refer to the book.) By page two our ears are being twisted by his style:

 

The Kurd stood waiting like an ancient debt. The old man in khaki looked up into eyes that were damply bleached as if the membrane of an eggshell had been pasted over the irises. Glaucoma.

 

The final word renders everything after ‘eyes’ redundant. Personally, I think it deserves an exclamation mark. Once Blatty had written his way to his glaucoma ‘eureka moment’ he should have exorcised what went before it. Things get worse very quickly. We don’t know if he enjoyed his tea, but he ‘paid for his tea and left a tip of fifty fils on a splintered table the colour of sadness.’ The colour of sadness?

By the next page (page 3) Merrin is in the company of his friend, ‘the Mosul curator of antiquities.’ He has the amulet of Pazuzu, the demon which is going to be causing trouble later. This is our introduction to the demonic, and after it’s decided (out of nowhere) someone wore the amulet for protection, Mr Mosul comments:

 

“Evil against evil,” breathed the curator, languidly fanning himself with a French scientific periodical;

 

I laughed out-loud.

By page five, Merrin has wandered off to ‘The Temple of Nabu. The Temple of Ishtar.’ This is where he ‘sifted vibrations’ and found the limestone statue of Pazuzu. Blatty uses skill and subtlety to show us the significance of this after giving us our first description of the demon:

 

Ragged wings and taloned feet. A bulbous, jutting, stubby penis, and a mouth stretched taut in feral grin. The demon Pazuzu.

   Abruptly the man in khaki sagged.

   He bowed his head.

   He knew.

   It was coming.

 

Oh, please. This is only page five. Blatty has told us that Pazuzu is going to be making an appearance later, which is sweet of him to tip us off (who wants an element of the unknown in a horror novel?) and he manages to do it without telling us how his character knows it. So in the space of six lines we have a demon standing on either talons or feet (‘taloned feet’ seems confused) and a character blessed with spontaneously occurring information about the future; and information which makes all those pages with doctors testing Regan a frustrating (but hilarious) waste of time.

The prologue ends with Merrin planning to leave Iraq and return to the United States. His journey begins with ‘his heart encased in the icy conviction that soon he would be hunted by an ancient enemy whose face he had never seen. But he knew his name.’

Well that’s alright, then. At least he knows his name.

The ‘prologue’ contains an embarrassment of riches in respect to examples of the ludicrous. Consider this:

 

The man in khaki fixed his gaze on a speck of boiled chick-pea nestled in a corner of the Arab’s mouth; yet his eyes were distant. ‘Home,’ he repeated.

   The word had the sound of an ending.

   ‘The States,’ the Arab curator added, instantly wondering why he had.

   The man in khaki looked into the dark of the other’s concern.

 

By asking the following question I’m actually ignoring a great deal. Is Merrin focusing or in a daydream? It’s difficult to know because Blatty doesn’t care enough to make things clear. And if the nameless Arab is confused about what the author has made him say, he should spare a thought for the tortured reader. The ‘prologue’ is five pages of rubbish which leaves us assured that things can’t get any worse.

Things get worse.

Chapter One shifts the action to Washington DC and we are told that the prologue we just endured might have been irrelevant to begin with:

 

Like the brief doomed flare of exploding suns that registers dimly on blind men’s eyes, the beginning of the horror passed almost unnoticed; in the shriek of what followed, in fact, was forgotten and perhaps not connected to the horror at all. It was difficult to judge.

 

By asking the following question I am ignoring a great deal. Difficult for whom? Can it be clearer that Blatty hasn’t a clue what he’s doing? By page nine I began to whistle in amazement that this rubbish sold as many copies as it did. Certainly you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you definitely should never judge a book by its success, either. The public has a lot to answer for.

Once Blatty has written-off his prologue, he deftly describes the house in which the horror is to take place:

 

The house was a rental. Brooding. Tight.

Tight? Tight? I have no idea what that word is doing there, and I doubt the author would be able to explain it either, so I’m going to move on for the sake of my sanity.

He introduces us to Regan on chapter one’s first page, also to an attitude toward ‘the help’ which might have been ‘written in’ (among other things) without the author realising it:

 

Regan, her daughter, was sleeping down the hall; and asleep downstairs in a room off the pantry were the middle-aged housekeepers, Willie and Karl.

 

Do we need to know where the help’s bedroom is? Perhaps some snobbery has slipped onto the page unnoticed? Bear in mind, the Columbo-clone snob detective we’re forced to meet later, refers several times to Willie and Karl as ‘the servants,’ a rather hoity formulation when simply ‘the staff’ seems more appropriate. (The snob cop is called William.)

The first time we see Regan, she’s asleep, and Blatty feeds us this first look with more than a spoon full of sugar:

 

Her pretty eleven-year old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda. Pookey. Faded from years of smothering; years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.

 

To say that Regan is introduced with just a little too much syrupy ‘aw, shucks’ ‘gee whizz, mommy’ American, so-sugary-it-will-rot-your-teeth prose, would be an understatement. Consider the first morning in the tight house. Regan’s mother goes down for breakfast:

 

Looking down at her plate, she smiled fondly at a blush-red rose against its whiteness. Regan. That angel. Many a morning, when Chris was working, Regan would quietly slip out of bed, come down to the kitchen to place a flower on her mother’s empty plate and then grope her way crusty-eyed back to her sleep.

 

Well, the little angel wouldn’t plop the flower in the bean-juice, would she? This is absurdly forced, yet required for setting Regan up as a cloying, sickly fucking kiss-ass who we can find annoying enough to enjoy watching her rape herself later on.

Regan isn’t eleven for very long, and her birthday party offers the only creepy scene in the book. Consider the following. Regan, in the early stages of her possession, is in a sulky mood prior to her twelfth birthday:

 

Regan folded herself into silence. She stayed totally quiet all during the drive home, her mood persisting all the rest of that day and then, disturbingly, all through Monday.

   On Tuesday, Regan’s birthday, the spell of strange silence and sadness seemed to break.

 

The sarcasm and contempt are obvious, but whose words are these? They are not dialogue, and they are not ‘free indirect style’ – belonging to the narrative but really the thoughts of a character , so we have no choice but to conclude the attitude is Blatty’s. He doesn’t have the basic common-sense to hide his contempt behind a character.

Following this, Regan is on her mother’s film-set where the director, Burke Dennings, is spoiling her:

 

Always a kind and gentle man when sober, Dennings had the lights rewarmed and, loudly calling it a ‘screen test,’ filmed the scene as Regan blew out the candles and cut the cake, and then promised he would make her a star.

 

That’s creepy. When a director tells a twelve year-old girl he’ll make her a star the deal might involve a bit of the old ‘give and take’? Read your Mario Puzo. Let’s remember that Blatty, before typing The Exorcist, worked as a screenwriter and one must assume he had a fair working knowledge of the entertainment industry. Could this be peverse ‘insider’ humour? And this interpretation is justified later when Dennings is hurled from Regan’s bedroom window while no other adult is in the house…

 

If you’re going to present the story of a mother worried that her daughter might need a psychiatrist rather than a run-of-the-mill medical doctor, and do so in a story in which we know the daughter is being slowly possessed by a demon and will end up needing a priest, how fortuitous it is that Blatty has a character who is priest and psychiatrist. Karras is first seen visiting his wreck of a mother:

 

He sat in the kitchen and listened to her talk, the dingy walls and soiled floor seeping into his bones.

 

Karras, spongy dude that he is, actually absorbs the walls of his mother’s apartment. Perhaps it was he who absorbed the life out of her? Not only do we have the clanging coincidence of his psychiatry qualification, but also a crisis of faith into the bargain. I wonder what will happen to his doubts?

Regan’s behaviour deteriorates and her mother has to have some frank conversations with the medical profession. This is where Blatty forces another mention of the child Chris lost years before. He can’t be bothered to show Chris’s attitude, so he just tells you she’s got it. Regan’s mother is asking if the only doctor she trusts could come over and check her daughter personally. The author shoves in a memory for justification:

 

She was remembering Jamie and his lingering infection. Chris’s doctor at the time had prescribed a new, broad-spectrum antibiotic. Refilling a prescription at a local drugstore, the pharmacist was wary. ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am, but this…well, it’s quite new on the market, and they’ve found that in Georgia it’s been causing aplastic anemia in young boys.’ Jaime. Gone. Dead. Ever since, Chris had never trusted doctors. Only Marc, and that had taken years.

 

Where should one start with that? With the pharmacist whose information is better than the doctor’s, or with a new drug which affects only young boys in Georgia? The dialogue is absurd ‘I don’t want to alarm you, ma’am,’ (but really I do, so I’m going to.) And there’s that horrible ‘yes but no but’ rhythm to the final two lines.

By the end of the page, the doctor Chris trusts, the doctor it’s taken years for her to feel safe with, offers his thoughts about Regan with the subtlety and bedside manner you’d expect from Jason Voorhees:

 

‘Now what would you say,’ he proposed as an instance, ‘if you were my internist, God forbid, and I told you I had headaches, recurring nightmares, nausea, insomnia and blurring of the vision; and also that I generally felt unglued and was worried to death about my job? Would you say I was neurotic?’

   ‘I’m a bad one to ask, Marc; I know you’re neurotic.’

   ‘Those symptoms I gave you are the same as for brain tumour, Chris.’

 

What a nice man: talking to a friend of many years about her sickly, precious daughter and the symptoms she’s suffering from (apart from worrying about her job, obviously, Regan doesn’t have one because she’s a child) and he gives her a cold slap. And he does it – allowing for the conversational ‘rhythm’ – because he disapproves of her sense of humour.

There’s no effort gone into this at all; to the characters or the dynamic between them. What does Chris like about this doctor, that he’s blunt to the point of being unpleasant?

The doctors are not really characters, they’re disinterested drones. This is part of another conversation between Regan’s mother and someone called Dr. Klein:

 

   ‘Extraordinary strength is pretty common in pathology.’

   ‘Oh, really? How come?’

   Klein shrugged. ‘Who knows. Now, beside what you’ve told me,’ he continued, ‘have you noticed any other bizarre behaviour?’

 

That’s hilariously lazy. But the doctors aren’t done with Regan just yet. Matters come to a something of a climax after the hypnosis session. Her mother hears something of a rumpus and rushes into the bedroom and switches on the light to find

 

Regan and the doctors writhing on the bed in a tangle of shifting arms and legs, in a melee of grimaces, gasps and curses, and the howling and the yelping and that hideous laughter; Regan oinking and grunting like a pig, Regan neighing like a horse, and then the film racing faster with the bedstead shaking and violently quivering from side to side as Regan’s eyes rolled upward into their sockets and she wrenched up a keening shriek of terror torn raw and bloody from the base of her spine.

 

Can any thinking person believe this was written for theological reasons? Given Hollywood’s love of remakes and reboots, perhaps the film’s remake will be directed by Roman Polanski?

We don’t know at this point if this is the climax of the interactions between Regan and the doctors, but we can admire their efforts in trying to get to the bottom of things.

We’ve had the sneering sarcasm about sulky kids cheering up in time for their birthday, but he manages at least two more thinly disguised sneers. The first of these comes when Karras and the Columbo-clone snob cop are discussing the vandalism in the church:

 

   ‘And it couldn’t be some teenage lout?’

   ‘No, it couldn’t.’ Karras turned to look at Kinderman again. ‘It’s the Latin,’ he said.

   ‘The Latin? Oh, you mean on the alter card.’

   ‘Yes. The Latin’s flawless Lieutenant, and more than that, it’s got a definite style that’s extremely individual.’

 

I wonder about that little exchange. Perhaps as he typed it, Blatty realised that a teenager not being fluent in Latin was hardly a reason to sneer, so quickly tacked on the after-thought? The second is when Karras questions Regan’s mother about her daughter:

 

   ‘Would you consider her precocious?’

   ‘Not at all.’

   ‘Her IQ?’

   ‘Above average.’

   ‘Reading habits?’

   ‘Nancy Drew and comic books, mostly.’

 

She can’t find even a defensive compliment for her model-making, flower arranging brat? Gee, thanks mom. Perhaps her mother has been spending too much time with those diplomatic doctors?

I consider Blatty convicted, but there’s more to this than a nasty attitude to the young. There’s the playground idea of what’s shocking. Swearing or sex isn’t “controversial” or “shocking” unless you’re an adolescent or a troubled adult.

All the sex-talk spewed out by the possessed demonstrates the failing imagination of the writer. It’s the same in many movies. These are demons talking: not just non-human supernatural entities, like ghosts, but never-human entities. They come from hell, yet they can’t think of anything more shocking than playground sex-talk?

Consider just how hard Blatty was trying to shock with the famous masturbation scene:

 

Chris rushed at the bed, grasping blindly at the crucifix while, her features contorted infernally, Regan flared up at her in fury and, reaching out a hand, clutched Chris’s hair and, powerfully yanking her head down, firmly pressed Chris’s face against her vagina, smearing it with blood as Regan undulated her pelvis.

 

Good grief. Whose features are ‘contorted infernally’? (I feel obliged to point out something other than the obvious.) Read it out-loud in a lispy, breathless, school-boy voice. You might get a sense of the excited little mind required to write something like that.

Though Blatty has already told us Regan yanks her mother’s head ‘powerfully,’ he can’t resist telling us it was ‘firmly pressed.’ His adolescent mind is desperate for us not to miss the point. He wants us to know, yes, they really did touch.

   This wasn’t shocking in 1971 and it certainly isn’t now. I’d bet The Rice and Lloyd-Webber musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, caused more controversy by using that word to describe JC.

Karras visits the tight house but isn’t immediately convinced Regan is possessed. There seems to be some irony here. This priest won’t rush to conclusions about the supernatural, he will do his research. In one scene we have the hilarious image of a ‘sceptical priest’ reading a ‘scholarly work on witchcraft.’

The author explains the reasons for the priest’s scepticism. It is unclear from these reasons if it is the character or the author who needs the psychiatrist:

 

The cause of his scepticism and his doubts, his attempts to eliminate natural causes in the case of Regan’s seeming possession, was the fiery intensity of his yearning to believe.

 

I suppose if you’re a sceptical priest who reads scholarly works on witchcraft, or an author who doesn’t care about what he’s typing, those reasons might do nicely. I should have thought that Karras’s attempts to look for natural explanations were caused by his scepticism, wouldn’t you? But wait, that’s not what he’s saying at all. Karras has been trying to eliminate natural explanations, which suggests he already believes she’s possessed but needs bit of a nudge over the line. But if that’s the case, then his ‘scepticism and doubts’ seem to dissolve to nothing.

So there an example of a passage which, if you read it quickly, makes no sense; but if you read it slowly and think about what the author actually says, still makes no sense.

That Mark Kermode deserves his honour for services to understatement should be a point nobody could disagree with.

This book is shocking for the wrong reasons. No band releases the first rough-cut demos as finished work; no studio releases footage which is unedited and claims that’s the film done. The paying public would refuse the offer to trade. I don’t know why this book did so well. What can be so likeable about a semi-literate novel which has disguised child-rape fantasies and which sneers at the young, considering them stupid by definition?

It’s the snob cop who allows more sneering to be ‘written-in’ to the book. To call Kinderman a ‘Columbo-clone’ is correct. Blatty makes him a waffling, can’t-get-to-the-point-bumbler, who (naturally) has a sharp mind under the disarming exterior. He even has the cop suddenly ‘remember’ something and say, ‘and another thing’ before he talks to Karl outside the house. That was yet another scene where I laughed out loud.

The snob cop seems a bit clingy to me. He’s always asking people to go to the movies with him. But why does he invite people he meets while working? Doesn’t he have friends?

The cop tells Chris he likes to talk about the movie, to offer some criticism after the lights come up. Well, why not? Almost all of us are film critics. He tells Regan’s mother about a film of her he’s watched six times, but there’s

 

..one tiny, almost miniscule flaw. And please believe me, in such matters I am only a layman. Okay? I’m just audience. What do I know? However, it seemed to me the musical score was getting in the way of certain scenes. It was too intrusive.

 

After building the suspense, I was disappointed with such a banal observation and was hoping for something specific from a critic with sensitive ears.

 

There are two other exchanges which must be mentioned. In the first the snob cop is asking Karras to the cinema, in the second, Fr. Dyer:

 

   ‘Are you busy? I’ve got passes for the Biograph. It’s Othello.’

   ‘That depends on who’s in it.’

   ‘Who’s in it? John Wayne, Othello, and Desdemona, Doris Day…This is William F. Shakespeare! Doesn’t matter who’s starring, who’s not!’

 

And:

 

   ‘I’ve got passes for the Biograph tomorrow night. You’d like to go?’

   ‘What’s playing?’

   ‘Wuthering Heights.’

   ‘Who’s in it?’

   ‘Who’s in it?’ The detective’s eyebrows bunched together in a scowl as he gruffly answered, ‘Heathcliff, Sonny Bono and in the role Catherine Earnshaw, Cher. Are you coming or not?’

 

Perhaps it should say, ‘the role of Catherine Earnshaw’? (I don’t know, and by the time I got to the latter scene certainly didn’t care. But the image of John Wayne in blackface is amusing.)

Consider those two brief exchanges. This snob cop – who refers to the housekeepers as ‘the servants’ – is irritated because he thinks the writing is enough. His tastes are more refined than those of the priests he asks, and he wants them to know it. And that’s the measure of the snobbery because the priests are of a high status in this book, much higher than the clumsy, clanging doctors.

Would a film buff and critic, as this policeman is supposed to be, really think it wouldn’t matter who was in a film, given how sensitive his ear is meant to be to the music on the soundtrack?

A defence of sarcasm is that it can be funny, but there’s no humour in the snob cop’s sarcasm – only contempt for the lesser-mortals who don’t have the artistic sense he does.

 

Regan is eventually deemed possessed and the Church give the order for the exorcism to go ahead. It’s at this point the ‘man in khaki’ is mentioned again. Karras is impressed:

 

The news stunned him. Merrin! The philosopher-paleontologist! The soaring, staggering intellect! His books had stirred ferment in the Church, for they interpreted his faith in terms of matter that was still evolving and destined to be spirit that at the end of time would join with Christ, the “Omega Point.”

 

Chris passes one of Merrin’s books to Karras, showing him a passage she has marked out. Blatty, for some reason, is happy for us to read some of this great theologian’s work, presumably so we, too, can appreciate the ‘soaring, staggering intellect.’

It might have been prudent to leave his work for our imaginations.

The exorcism itself is a bland few pages of religious waffle, mostly in English, though I would have thought the author would have wanted to more of the flawless Latin with the individual style.

The only part of the exorcism which is interesting is when Karras asks a pretty sensible question:

  

   ‘We say the demon cannot touch the victim’s will.’

   ‘Yes, that is so. There is no sin.’

   ‘Then what would be the purpose of possession. What’s the point?’

 

That is a long overdue question. I would have had this question coming from the mouth of Regan’s mother much earlier in the book, rather than from a priest assisting in the ritual, but that we get it at all is better than nothing.

We get lot of dialogue from Merrin in response to the question. He begins by saying ‘Who can know? Who can really hope to know?’ and then wanders off into vagueness and banality for almost a page and a half, though he closes with a flourish:

 

‘And yet even from this – from evil – there will finally come good in some way; in some way that we may never understand or even see.’ Merrin paused. ‘Perhaps evil is the crucible of goodness,’ he brooded. ‘And perhaps even Satan – Satan, in spite of himself – somehow serves to work out the will of God.’

 

The most pertinent question about demon possession is offered to the priest with the towering intellect, and all he can manage is a long-winded version of ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ This is the cop-out answer many religious offer when a sensible or difficult question is asked. It’s a worse answer than ‘I don’t know’ because it contains self-delusion and doublethink.

That’s about it all that happens.

Merrin’s heart gives out, Karras takes it badly. He invites the demon to ‘come into me’ and then jumps out the window, taking a header down the steps. Regan and her mother leave the tight house and that’s it.

The final laugh comes in the ‘Author’s note’ where he tells us he has ‘taken a few liberties with the current geography of the Georgetown University…moreover, the house on Prospect Street does not exist.’

It’s sweet of him to let us know the tight house was a figment of his imagination.

 

 Fear of things invisible is the natural seed of that which everyone in himself calls religion.

  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan


 

The Exorcist:

Story

 

 

That the film’s director and one of its main players disagree on what The Exorcist is actually about is interesting. Friedkin said the movie tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the world, both good and evil, Von Sydow said it’s not about religion, but reveals how much people hate children. How can they disagree so starkly? Who’s right? Are they both wrong? Are they both right?

The basics are easy to summarise. A young girl begins to demonstrate odd behaviour and her mother gets her checked by the medical profession. They tell her that they can find nothing physically wrong with the child. Her behaviour gets worse and the poor love ends up strapped to a bed screaming obscenities at whoever happens to be there. Eventually, after realising medicine won’t work (there’s no chemical solution to a spiritual problem, don’t you know) her mother gets a priest in to have a look at the child. The priest diagnoses a bad case of demonic possession and calls for a colleague – an expert on such matters – who comes over and the two of them have a crack at forcing the demon out of the child and back to the higher frequencies where it can get up to no harm.

During the struggle to evict the demon, one priest dies, and after the struggle which follows the discovery of the dead man, the second priest kills himself rather than be possessed by the demonic entity. The child is returned to normal and remembers nothing of the incident, and not even her shredded spinal-cord or mutilated vagina are enough to jog her fucking memory. Those are the basics of it. Anyone could flick through the movie and see that is, more or less, what happens. That is what the story is about– at least on the surface.

Friedkin’s comment is about the basic presupposition of the story: if demons exist, then a reality other than our own three-dimensional reality exists; if demons exist, their opposite numbers, angels, exist; and if angels exist then God exists, and if God exists, then (as far as Blatty cares) Christianity is true. That is the point of The Exorcist: it is meant as Christian propaganda.

Kermode knows all about the propaganda angle and uses a lengthy quotation about this from the author in his thesis.       Chapter two of that thesis, ‘Paedophobia in Modern Horror Fiction,’ has a first essay entitled ‘The Strange History of The Exorcist.’ The first half of the quote mentions the “true life” possession case (more on this later) which gave Blatty the idea for his novel, but it’s the second half of the quote I’m interested in:

 

In my youth, I had thought about entering the priesthood; at Georgetown had considered becoming a Jesuit. A novel of demonic possession, I believed – if only I could make it sufficiently convincing – might be token fulfilment of deflected vocation. Though let me make it clear that I would never write a novel that I thought would not engross or entertain.

 

Kermode is suspicious and begins his commentary by saying ‘If we accept Blatty at his word we can conclude that his intentions are evangelistic [..]’ I’m unsure if I’m going to take him at his word, and for two reasons.

First, I raise an eyebrow at how he finds equivalence between a vocation into the priesthood and the writing of a horror novel. Perhaps he recognises this himself? Notice the expression ‘token fulfilment of deflected vocation.’ He seems to want to have things both ways, here. On the one hand he’s fulfilled his ‘vocation’ – or ‘done his bit’ for the team – on the other he can hardly claim that writing one novel is comparable to decades of service in the priesthood, hence the ‘token’ part of his revealing phrase.

Second, if the book really was meant as Christian propaganda, then it is certainly rubbish propaganda to start off with. The author doesn’t understand his own position.

Simply, the existence of demons in no way presupposes the existence of angels. Why should it? The late Christopher Hitchens summed this up nicely during a debate with two rabbis on the question of an afterlife. He suggested, with a sort of amused shrug, that maybe there was a God, but one with a sense of humour: good people go to hell. If there is an afterlife then the nature of it is whatever it happens to be. It could be the case that God is an evil god; it’s not a stupid idea philosophically, and for instance, in 2011, the philosopher Stephen Law took on the theologian William Lane-Craig in a debate at Westminster Central Hall and set out the basics of such a case in response to Craig’s beloved Cosmological Argument. Blatty’s idea, that the existence of angels presupposes the existence of demons is just daft. The Exorcist story is flawed from the off.

Some might object and say to me ‘calm down, dear – it’s just a story – it is fiction,’ and they’d be right, it is. I’ll happily grant the fiction-writer any premise at all: be it vampires and werewolves or worm-holes and alien intelligence. I don’t think fiction must be realist, who would? But The Exorcist is different in that its author has claimed a more serious motive than simply a desire to ‘engross or entertain’ (which he fails to do) so it’s worth looking at the foundation upon which his story sits because I’m sceptical about his motivations for writing the book to begin with. And in any case, if a person wanted to write a story which presupposed the existence of angels, why not write a story which has a few angels in it?

That’s the first problem with The Exorcist – the motivation for writing the story is philosophically incoherent, and therefore any story which comes from this confused beginning is going suffer whether the writer is a genius or not, and Blatty is not.

This doesn’t have to be the case with a premise which assumes the existence of dark spiritual forces. Oculus (a superb horror movie) manages to offer a coherent story based on a similar, ludicrous premise: the existence of malevolent forces not of this world; yet at no point does Oculus become absurd, because (and more importantly) the movie is written in such a way as to allow the visions and all the other goings-on to be symptoms of mental-illness from which the characters might be suffering. We can believe that Karen Gillan hallucinates an apple which is really a lightbulb because the entity is playing games, then drops the spell once she’s bit into it, or we can believe the hallucination is all hers and she’s shocked back to reality once her mouth appears cut. Both are possible given the movie’s presentation. A premise which is fantastic can be used as one explanation within an ambiguous scenario, adding a layer of uncertainty to the viewer.

This is why The Exorcist story is not scary. The story squats on top of its premise and remains there without offering anything ‘unknown’ or even ambiguous or uncertain of any importance. Demonic possession isn’t scary because we know what’s going on: a person is possessed by a demon. Door closed on the imagination. To properly scare a person the writer needs to appreciate that people scare themselves, and leaving some things unknown, or at least ambiguous, allows the person to fill the space with whatever scares them the most.

Orwell understood this which is why the Big Brother machine didn’t have a universal torture method inside room 101. There are no spaces for a person to fill with The Exorcist.

Another movie which understands the effectiveness of leaving some things unknown is Sinister. This movie is almost the perfect horror film, though the last sixty seconds, when the creepy entity appears with the kid in the home-movie being projected, ruin it. Up to that point we know that, although families have been murdered horribly in the backstory, one child from each family remains missing. That is scarier than the found footage we’ve been watching along with the too-curious Ethan Hawke, and it’s scary for the reason mentioned – we don’t know where those missing children are, but we’ve been told they are missing, so our subconscious minds have no choice but to start imagining.

Here’s a simple example. Stephen King withholds the information about who or what sends out the ‘the pulse’ in Cell. King knows what he’s doing. Here’s a simpler example: he injects a tiny element of the unknown into his novel Revival by choosing to tell us that nobody knows who set the lighting rod into the granite, yet he didn’t have to mention it. There are too many examples to mention. But here’s one which cannot go unmentioned:

 

‘…Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me then! The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe – I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always – take any form – drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!’

   He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.

To say that Heathcliff doesn’t react well to Cathy’s death would be the least of it, and that passage could easily have inspired the spooky warning be careful what you wish for.

Wuthering Heights is a fine example of a novel in which a character is possessed by a demon; indeed, Lovecraft calls Wuthering Heights ‘a piece of terror literature’ and says of Heathcliff ‘that he is in truth a diabolic spirit rather than a human being is more than once suggested.’ And that’s the point – it’s suggested, not gracelessly vomited in your mouth. There are several hints that Heathcliff might be more (or less) than human. For instance, our hero, embracing the frail Cathy too tightly for Nelly’s liking, isn’t grateful for the housekeeper’s concern:

 

‘..on my approaching hurriedly to ascertain if she had fainted, he gnashed at me, and foamed like a mad dog, and gathered her to him with greedy jealousy. I did not feel as if I were in the company of a creature of my own species.’

 

If Lovecraft is mistaken and Heathcliff isn’t a demon, then he’s certainly possessed by one. It doesn’t matter which it is. Things are implied to keep our psychology, our subconscious, a little on edge.

In addition, Bronte leaves two huge unknowns in Wuthering Heights: We are given no explanation for Heathcliff’s history: his parents and place of birth are unknown: old-man Earnshaw picks him up off the street and takes him home.

Where did he come from?

The second is even creepier. No explanation is given for how Heathcliff earns his fortune during the three years he is absent from Wuthering Heights. We are left to wonder who or what helped him become a man of means so quickly.

Where did he go?

Where Heathcliff has been is the same ‘unknown’ as the question about the missing children from Sinister.

Why didn’t Blatty understand this? Why didn’t he care?

What is “great” about a horror novel which demonstrates its author doesn’t know or care about the psychology of fear?

Five minutes of research will show that he claimed scaring his readers was never his intention; his claim is somewhat convenient. One wonders if, had the book been terrifying, he’d claim that was an accident. But this claim increases my scepticism about his motivation for writing the story.

Stories of eternity in hell have been the method used to terrify people, especially children, for centuries. By lying to children and terrifying them you can influence what they believe as adults. It’s a basic tactic and a very old racket. The scare-stories are a fundamental part of the modus-operandi of the religious recruiter. So to have no intention to scare (absurd in itself when writing a horror novel) is to drop the evangelist’s ace-card.

By denying he attempted to scare his readers, it follows he chose to be less persuasive than he could have; yet he’s also claimed to have made a (face value) evangelical case – yet persuasion is the ultimate point of evangelism.

The Exorcist doesn’t offer any sickly descriptions of the bliss of Heaven, either – true enough – but that’s a problem for Blatty, not me. It means his daft story just fails in the other direction as the Christian propaganda he claims he wanted it to be. Could it be his claim about motivation is simply ‘justification after the fact’?

What of Max Von Sydow’s comment, that The Exorcist has nothing to do with religion and is really about a child being tortured?

Subtext is obviously important and can be ‘written in’ to the story without the author’s conscious knowledge. Stephen King came to realise, for instance, that his novel, Misery, is about alcoholism. (Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ is a metaphor about this process and Alan Moore, in Writing for Comics, makes a similar point about thorough research.)

This happens thanks to the process of writing: just sitting there, hour after hour, typing away can produce an altered state, a sort of hypnotic trance, in which material gets typed into the story without the author being consciously aware of it. This material can manifest itself as the subtext or theme of the story; or sometimes the author might discover he doesn’t think what he thought he thought about a particular topic. When this happens it can be a pleasure or a shock (or maybe a shocking pleasure?) but there’s no doubt this happens. Any writer would confirm it and there’s no reason to believe Blatty doesn’t know it. He might even have been embarrassed by it.

Another interesting little psychological idea is that humans do what they do for emotional reasons, then find intellectual justification after the fact. Robert Cialdini, for instance, talks about this in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. He suggests this is true whether we are buying a car or battling our way through the initiation to become a warrior of a tribe, and suffering brutal torture, to earn the ‘right’ to wear different coloured headdress from the uninitiated. (This is interesting by itself and might explain why certain ‘elite’ military regiments put so much emphasis on the colour of the beret.)

We intellectualise after the fact.

Even Kermode, die-hard Exorcist fan that he is, seems not to believe Blatty’s justifications. He says in his thesis that most critics thought the author’s reasons were ‘eccentric.’ This is just politeness on the part of anyone who thinks it – with a hint of excuse-making thrown in. His reasons were not ‘eccentric’ – they were probably ‘bullshit.’ The Exorcist is the semi-literate, barely disguised hate-fuck fantasy of a religious whack-job.

 

Hollywood movies make demons look barely competent in the possession business. These creatures seem to be extremely powerful and utterly ineffectual in equal measure.

As Karras asked Merrin, what does a demon gain from a possession? It gets to torture the person who is possessed and this, in turn, allows mental anguish to be inflicted upon the family of the possessed. An evil and sadistic entity, which enjoys inflicting suffering, gets to do so. That’s okay as far as it goes, but could it go further?

The priest demands that it enters him to spare the girl at the end of the story. The demon does so and attempts to force the priest to kill Regan. To protect her, he jumps out the bedroom window, falls down the stone steps and lands squarely on the spot marked ‘Hollywood legend’.

What’s the demon doing at this point?

If it could ‘jump’ from Regan into the priest then why not jump back and have Regan go the way of the priest? The demon has Regan ‘softened-up’ as it were so the lock on her psyche should be easy enough for a powerful demon to pick. (In any case, at this point, the demon has ceased squatting in Regan’s mind only moments before, so what are the chances she’s had time to put up the psychic shutters?)

So there we have an example of power and no power at the same time. Also, that the demon had to ‘jump’ from Regan to the priest is interesting. In doing that we see the demon has not the ability to be in two places (in this case, two minds) at once.

The symptoms of possession come and go – the possessed has lucid moments now and then which are used to beg for help, thus implying they are aware that something is wrong. And at other times the demon seems to be the only one at home, spitting obscenities at whoever is in attendance.

So where are the demons during the lucid moments? Having a break? Out to lunch? Possessing someone else, maybe? Perhaps one victim’s lucid moment is another’s time to vomit and climb the walls? Perhaps the mind of the victim, at some level, is battling the demon and the lucid moments represent periods during this struggle where the victim has the advantage? Whatever the reason for the demon being quiet at certain times during the possession, it seems to become mighty annoyed when a priest enters the room and begins the exorcism procedure, which is odd when its behaviour is the thing which brings the priest to the scene.

If I was a demon and I did not wish to be driven out of my victim then I might decide to stay hidden in some way. If the incantations from a priest were enough to get me evicted then I would not want a priest to show up to begin with. Why not possess a dog, or an eagle, or an astronaut on the space-station, or a prime minister or president?

What of that sweary sex talk? Pazuzu uses sexual language to taunt those close-by. Regan grabs her mother’s head, shoving it into her vagina, screaming “Lick me! Lick me!’ The sexual language doesn’t function as much more than a distraction to the priests in attendance. All the talk of cock-sucking and cunt-licking and ass-fucking might prevent them from concentrating, but anything it shouted would do that, so why sexual obscenities? What does it say about the writer, and what the writer thinks of the human animal, that all his imagination can come up with is sex talk? But assume the sex talk is a tactic, and assume it works, and the exorcism fails. We’re left with a girl tied to a bed, the demon victorious and then…what? The girl/demon goes on a rampage and uses preternatural strength to break the necks of policemen and anyone else it fancies until cornered and shot? It’s a fair question: what would have happened to Regan if both priests had failed and old Pazuzu had remained in there?

 

Why would some of the best hell has to offer wish to torment one uninteresting human for such a time? No reason is given; it is simply the case that it’s happened. Though the demon might be deriving twisted pleasure from torturing Regan and her family, it also suggests that they don’t have anything better to do, or that she might be worth the effort, but if she is – why?

 

The Exorcist is hardly the only story with this problem; more recent movies care even less about the point of possession than Blatty did, and that’s saying something.

The Devil Inside is one such movie, but it actually starts off ok. The documentary-style shooting is one which lends itself to the idea of an exorcism because such a procedure would very likely be filmed in this way. The shaky camera, the lack of space – these things add to the surface realism, giving the viewer the chance to enter the action more thoroughly than if the footage was laden with production values and effects and set-pieces: this is one advantage first-person-visual has over third-person-visual.

Consider the first exorcism shown. A young girl is strapped to a bed in her parents’ basement. Our first sight of the girl is genuinely horrific. She is under her bed sheet and contorted grotesquely out of shape. That is a sight which affects the viewer because what we are looking at is a thing which should not be: a human bent and twisted into a sick yoga parody, something from Lovecraft.

The girl is injected with a muscle relaxant and her bones crack, dislocate and twist themselves as her form is returned to normal. This scene does make one think of Regan’s head turning 360 degrees in The Exorcist – a scene which shocked many, yet is one of the more ludicrous sights in that film. The Devil Inside’s contortion-in-reverse is not so absurd because the contortions seem to be possible without killing the possessed human. Regan’s head-spinning would have left the child dead after the demon leaves her for the unfortunate priest, yet she is fine at the end of the film.

Once relaxed, the attending priests set to work to rid the girl of the thing which possesses her, a demon called Berith.

This allows us to know the two priests (who are performing exorcisms off-the-books) are serious practitioners of the ritual and just the fellows to help sort out the lead-character’s mother. This victim isn’t the point of the film, but even this victim, when in demon-mode, has to mention blow-jobs to one of the priests.

The mother has been possessed for fifteen years and by four demons. If four of them are in there, surely there’s a good reason and the victim is worth the effort? Alas, nothing is suggested as an explanation (but they might be enjoying baffling the incompetent doctors.)The Exorcist has but one demon doing the possession-for-the-sake-of-it, four is ridiculous.

One of the most offensive possession movies ever – and a film which is actually worse than Left Behind – is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

 

The movie should actually be called The Implied Gang Rape of Emily Rose, because that’s what it’s about. A young farm girl gets raped – the rapists take Emily’s virginity – and she’s tortured by the guilt for the rest of her miserable life.

The film is another attempt at Christian propaganda, and in this respect it’s better than Blatty’s child-rape wankathon, but that just makes it more insulting to the intelligence.

That is a basic outline of the subtext. One could say that, after reading the outline, they know what the film is about.

The key to this conclusion lies in the flashback scenes which come while hearing the testimony of the witnesses in court. Without carving up each flashback scene and attributing it to each witness, I’ll give another outline of the story-within-a-story which the flashbacks represent and mention some scenes from the present in more detail.

A young and attractive farm-girl is jumping up and down on her bed because she’s heard that she has won a scholarship to university. Her mother bursts in to her room and Emily stops her child-like behaviour and becomes serious, telling her far-from-worldly mother that a scholarship means “they pay for everything”. This tells us from where Emily is coming: a non-sophisticated, non-metropolitan, simple background of good, honest work “down on the farm;” Sunday-school and bible-class; in other words, a traditional god-fearing all-American background. (They’re big on chastity, by the way.)

We then cut to a close up of a Martini – two olives, not one – on the counter of an ultra-modern metropolitan bar. This is where the hot-shot city lawyers hang-out and drink expensive martinis. The place is chrome and glass and the exotic alcohol on the shelves behind the bar give the place colour. Its customers are sharp-suited city sophisticates, and Erin Bruner is first seen here, doing a deal with her boss to take Fr. Moore’s case in return for promotion. She is clearly the opposite of Emily Rose. That is the first thing to note: the church-bake sale purity of Emily in contrast to the slick, amoral lawyer.

Erin Bruner takes the case after making sure there is something in it for herself (she’s obviously a bitch) and her boss is happy because she recently won a case for a client (who is not featured in the movie, but is very relevant to Bruner’s story arc and will be mentioned later) and is, therefore, on something of a roll.

Emily Rose finds herself away from the protective bosom of her family for the first time. There she is: on her own in for the first time, sleeping in a dormitory at university. Some things need to be noted about the university. The place is, without doubt, the most poorly lit educational establishment I’ve ever seen represented on film. The place is unreasonably dark and yet universities are meant to be the places of enlightenment. I wonder why the university is portrayed this way.

One scene, in which Emily has a vision of another student’s face becoming demonic is set in a class-room with students at desks, but the room is sufficiently dark that you wouldn’t be able to read your notes; in addition, this particular lesson is taking place at night. The non-subtle implication is that universities are dark and miserable places and should be avoided. (This is, actually, far from standard with Hollywood movies, even horror movies. There are too many movies to mention in which the college or high school the doomed characters go to, or are already attending when the film starts, is packed with noise, life and colour and parties involving lots of booze and lots of sex. One could get the impression from Hollywood’s depiction of college-life that it’s one big fuckathon.)

After leaving her life of dust and dungarees for the unlit university, she has a nasty experience. She wakes up at 3:00am, disturbed by something, and wanders out into the hall to check. We get a shot of a corridor with the door now swinging open. This is an odd shot (demons don’t use doors) but wasn’t filmed by accident, so I wonder what the director was trying to suggest?

She goes back to her room and climbs back into bed. What is this girl, newly left-home and on her own in the adult world, wearing in bed? She doesn’t wear a short, slinky night-shirt or cropped top and shorts – nothing like that, there’s no dirty, shameful, gratuitous flesh on display; no, Emily is wearing a passion-killing boring nightdress which no red-blooded frat-boy would ever strain his jock-strap for a chance to get into. So it’s clear the good-girl from the good Christian home has kept to her roots and not become a dirty slut who has sex outside marriage. It’s the laughable bed-wear which convinced me about the rape, not just the sex.

This is when she gets attacked, for the first time, by the demonic entity. Invisible hands pull her covers away and an unseen weight holds her down. She is left crying and shrieking on her knees at the side of her bed after this attack and the scene is exactly what one would expect after a rape. She runs from her room, sobbing, into the night.

Now, it needs to be mentioned that it is not only Emily Rose, in flashback, who is “visited” by demons, her priest’s lawyer, Erin Bruner, is harassed by the forces of darkness in the present day. It is her contact with the demons which confirms what the entities require of a potential human host to gain access. The answer is guilt. The back-story is that Erin recently got a “not guilty”, and that victory was one of the reasons for her boss offering her the Fr. Moore case. As Erin sits in her local cocktail bar – the sophisticated bar with all the glass and chrome and exotic booze – she sees a news story on the television about a man just arrested. That man is, obviously, the guy she got-off and – would you believe it? – he’s only gone and killed someone; thus confirming that slick-lawyers are shysters and giving Erin a perfect reason to find the Christian goodness lurking under her weapons-grade ambition and begin to see the error of her godless ways. (This process of finding herself and changing her shitty attitude takes the rest of the film, but is complete when she speaks to Fr. Barron for the last time, when she has, in a symbolic way, become a Christian and by definition redeemed herself.) The murder on the television news gives Erin – crucially in terms of the movie’s underlying theme – a reason to feel guilty about something.

After seeing this news story and realising she put a bad man on the streets to kill, the very next shot shows the consequences of that guilt. She comes out of a toilet cubicle and approaches the sinks to wash her hands. There is, it appears, nobody else in there. Then she is startled by a loud crash and a tall, black-clad figure exits a cubicle and approaches the sink next to her. It is unclear if this figure is male or female, but, in addition to the black clothes, this male or female figure is wearing either a hood or scarf, obscuring its head. Erin gives this odd addition to the cast-list a quick, nervous look and exits the bathroom. The figure doesn’t look at her, but we can clearly see that its eyes are hidden in dark shadows giving it an obvious and deliberately sinister appearance. This is a demon. The point of this scene is to show that the guilt she feels about getting a bad guy back on the streets is the doorway the demons use to get access to their victims; and the intensity of guilt is in direct relation to the intensity of the possession or the mischief the demons are able to enact upon the guilty person. Erin feels not much guilt about the guy she let off, so the demons can only clang a door here and there in her apartment. Emily’s guilt is significantly more intense.

Emily Rose has not one, but six demons inside her wreaking havoc, so one is forced to ponder what the poor love feels guilty about? There’s also the idea of possession to begin with, and the question of why six demons would infest the mind of this unlucky female.

Emily Rose should be better, smarter, slicker and cleverer than The Exorcist, but it’s more ludicrous – it’s a downright ugly movie. It rejects knowledge, reason, education and enlightenment for dumb hick myths of the supernatural.

I have to check every few weeks that this insulting trash was made by the same bloke who made Sinister. I can hardly believe it.

While possessed, Emily has a vision and is told that heaven is not indifferent to her suffering, and is offered the chance to end her agony by dying straightaway. That doesn’t seem very charitable, but remember God moves in mysterious ways. Emily is told the demons will not leave her alone if she goes back to her body. Heaven is not indifferent, but won’t be sending anyone out. That the demons will not leave her alone is another way of saying she will never get over the guilt and trauma of the gang-rape.

Heaven does suggest that if she returns to her physical body, suffers at the hands of the demons for as long as she can last, others will learn from her example and be inspired to come to Christ because, obviously – and here we go again – if demons exist and can do terrible things to us, it rather suggests that angels exist and we might want to take out some religious insurance. Her sacrifice is for the greater good and a lesson to us all. I’m sure I’ve heard that story somewhere before.

Emily Rose, in all but name, becomes a modern day messiah, her case bringing about an increase in people coming to the church and leaves everyone happy.

There’s nothing about this film which is any good. A person could argue that there is at least a reason for the possession of Emily, unlike Regan, but the reason is the subtext, remember, not on the surface of things. On the surface we are meant to believe she’s actually possessed by demons with nothing better to do.

This should be the other way about, with the rape on the surface, as something we see has happened to her, and the guilt/demonic dynamic happening down in the subtext where we can’t see it and have to ask if she’s really possessed or losing her mind because of that guilt: a similar ambiguity to the structure of Oculus. To have the physical in the subtext and the supernatural on the surface is a strange way to arrange matters.

And Emily Rose is, like Blatty’s novel, claims to have been based on a true story, and it might be claims like this which annoy me more than anything else about films like this.

It might be true that these tales were based on true stories, but ‘based on a true story’ just means it’s true the story was reported, not that the story was true. The ‘true stories’ Emily Rose and The Exorcist were based on were not genuine cases of possession because demons don’t exist.

The story would just be ridiculous, but for the author’s claim it was written for theological reasons. Because of that, the story is worse than ridiculous, and shouldn’t be taken seriously by any thinking person.

 

 

These Barbarous Wretches

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html

Peter Hitchens and the Death Penalty

 

…satisfy your blood lust, and tell yourself you were good to the victim because blood atonement remitted the sin. You gave the fellow a chance to get to the hereafter, after all. This business of living for eternity certainly contributed to capital punishment, brutality and war.

 

  • Norman Mailer

 

 

I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds for such actions, which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.

 

  • Oliver Cromwell

 

 

1

Get the Gush Gone

A good title should have a sense of humour. I got into (yet another) discussion on the death penalty with a couple of persons on Peter Hitchens’s blogsite recently. It can be frustrating trying to have a discussion there. Mr Hitchens has said the arguments against the death penalty are an insult to the intelligence. I’m not sure if even he believes this, but who knows. I am opposed to the religious human sacrifice which some refer to as ‘the death penalty,’ though I think it is a fascinating topic to discuss, and significantly more complicated than many persons think it is.

One reason I’m so interested in the discussion is that the ‘death penalty’ is the first topic on which I wrote myself to a change of mind. I used to be all for it. I’m not a professional or trained writer, and had no idea that the process of writing – the actual physical process – could act like a sort of ‘hypnosis,’ and if done enough, a person might find his subconscious telling him things he didn’t know he knew and giving him thoughts he didn’t know were there. It’s a wonderful experience to be writing away, tapping the keys and transcribing the thoughts flowing up from below, and to realise that you are actually changing your own mind on something. (It’s odd to think of myself as a card-carrying member of the ‘hang ‘em high’ club, when all the time I actually thought the opposite to what I thought I thought.)

When such moments happen, a person has a choice: he can reject what his own psyche is telling him – perhaps because he ‘identifies’ with his position on whatever the topic is, or he can take a deep breath and keep going into unknown psychological territory. I say ‘take a deep breath’ because we do tend to like our beliefs and dislike it when somebody challenges them, so when it is us doing the challenging, it actually takes a small amount of bravery to continue tapping the keys.

Peter Hitchens supports this ‘penalty of death,’ and hardly is he on his own. The death penalty is something wanted by the public, and something which would be restored if put to the public in a vote. On the death penalty question I’d wager we have a situation where the State is refusing to give the public what it wants. (The relationship between public opinion and demand, and the State and what it does in response to that demand, is a fascinating question, yet could be reduced to a ‘who blinks first’ dynamic because the State is, at bottom, a collection of humans with their own interests, just like the public.) Why the State won’t allow religious human sacrifice, when such a move would (almost certainly)be a popular one, is another interesting question, especially considering the state likes power over the citizen.

I’m going to mention some arguments in favour of the death penalty used by Peter Hitchens, and why the practice, regardless of what those in favour say of it, is an obscenity. Peter Hitchens is a prominent journalist and has the ability to influence opinion, so he’s a fair target. Also he has put some interesting arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice. I doubt he is enthusiastic for the practice, though I accept he could be. He once stated ‘I would prefer not to have to defend the dark rituals of execution, especially since I have witnessed them at first hand. However, those who wish to say anything serious about government and law must be ready to argue for difficult things.’1

This is interesting in itself as arguing for the death penalty is absurdly easy. The topic is a demagogue’s dream, so simple is it to think up emotive examples of crimes (usually murders of children) to get the crowd or the reader quickly on your side. It’s the ease with which a person can support this practice that is an interesting thing to consider when thinking about Peter Hitchens’s arguments in favour of it. He is on the record as being suspicious of public opinion and conventional wisdom, yet seems not bothered by popularity of the thing he’s arguing for, here. I would expect him to be suspicious of something public opinion supported, and look harder for the argument against – and whoever reads his stuff can say he usually does this – so I wonder if Peter Hitchens agrees with the public sentiment on this, or thinks the public are right by accident, so supports this practice for reasons which are different to those reasons the public animal wants Capital Punishment returned?

I suspect Peter Hitchens’s support for Capital Punishment rests on his religion, and the public’s desire for it rests on their blood-thirsty, emotion-riddled knee-jerkism. If this is true, it’s perhaps understandable why Peter Hitchens finds the death penalty difficult to argue for, or a difficult thing to argue for, and the public finds it easy to support. Peter Hitchens is no demagogue, and public opinion is of no worth whatsoever.

I know I’m talking as if it’s a given that the public would restore capital punishment overnight, and I think it’s a safe position to take given the polls which have been taken. In 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 61% of the public were in favour of the death penalty for murder,2 so that’s a clear, unambiguous majority, and that Peter Hitchens finds himself in the majority is unusual in itself.

One point to note is this: never trust anyone who says killing people saves lives. Killing people costs lives – the lives of those killed. We’ve all heard this curious form of words used before. The argument that killing saves lives, the ‘argument’ used to justify the atomic bombs dropped by the US over Japan, which is similar to the argument which says ‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,’ is an ‘argument’ which is loved by the hand-waiver who states: ‘It’s as simple as that.’ In other words, it’s a line taken by a mind which has a poor conscience, hasn’t thought about it, or has thought about it, but doesn’t care about it. Whichever it is, the person delivering this sort of ‘black is white’ or ‘war is peace’ line should be questioned further. Never accept this sort of thing without investigation.

I haven’t chosen Peter Hitchens’s position or arguments on the death penalty because I have some sort of ‘problem’ with him. I’m not one of those who attack him on Twitter, or post comments to his newspaper blogsite using fake names and with unbalanced criticisms – or attack him anywhere else. I happen to have admiration for Peter Hitchens and wish there were more journalists like him. I could make the case, quite easily, that even his enemies owe him a certain debt of gratitude. Anybody who can’t see, straight away, that writers like Peter Hitchens keep the rest of us a little bit safer will probably never be able to see it.

I ask you this: in a world of politically correct witch-hunts, where man denounces man for imagined ‘heresies’ against the orthodoxy – and does so for no other reason than to claim his own purity and ensure the witch-hunters move to the next cottage – what value shall we put on a fellow who can make politicians nervous?

Quite a high value, I’d say.

 

2

A Sword in the Hand

That’s the gush out the way. It is easy to make arguments from emotion, that should be remembered; but to begin, a person should decide which side they are on, and this is the question they should answer to decide their side. Do you think it is better to have societal norms, rules and laws based on reason, logic and utility, with all three anchored to the assumption that excessive power over the citizen by the state is axiomatically bad, or do you think what a just society needs to function, and function at its best, are laws and practices which are based on the human animal’s base nature, and which in turn, therefore, allow the state to have the ultimate power over the citizen?

Or, to put the same point another way: do you prefer liberty or security?

To condense the two positions on capital punishment down to a choice between two words is not to attempt a simplification of the topic; it’s just to state that such a reduction can be done. When an argument is followed right to its bedrock, there’s usually not much more than a word or short phrase at the bottom. The entire Christian position can be reduced to Idealist, for instance, and that is what is waiting for the supporter of Capital Punishment; or, to describe it correctly: religious human sacrifice.

Liberty and Security are like the two ends of the playground see-saw, when one is up, the other is always down. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. To say your preference is for equal weights of both is to reveal you don’t care much, or know much, about human nature – or the nature of the human.

There are examples from history and literature which suggest that humans, when in possession of power, position and authority over other humans, sometimes use it in a way which doesn’t always benefit the majority. There are many examples from history and literature of the State making and passing laws which benefit and protect it, not the citizen. (That the State is made up of humans makes this a fascinating thing to consider. Why would a single person, or a small group of persons, make decisions which benefit the whole state, even while they know that under certain circumstances, they could suffer under the very rules or legislation they are proposing? Perhaps these drops of lubricant in the machine are truly selfless, or perhaps bureaucracy has a way of bringing out the inner sadist from a person?)

So my first contention is this:

 

The supporter of capital punishment is the enemy of liberty.

 

Peter Hitchens claims to be a lover of liberty, but is he really a lover of liberty? There is a preening, chin-stroking attitude which many people who support the death penalty have. Many have convinced themselves their position is a refined position because they support the practice for murder only. Consider this for a moment. Such a position presupposes they’ve ruled out other crimes and therefore have ‘thought deeply’ about their view. This might not be the case. It is possible such a person has camouflaged their desire for religious revenge under an intellectual veneer. Indeed, some supporters of the death penalty have their opinions so deeply ‘dug-in’ that they manage to support the practice while carrying the politician’s ‘heavy-heart’. To support a practice, but ‘with regret’, is a smart move: it presupposes not only how deeply the question has been thought about, but also that the supporter has taken a selfless, sacrificial position, in that they are prepared to suffer for their belief because what they believe is ultimately good for society. It’s a curious type of ego-mania and understated narcissism. Can a supporter of capital punishment ever be a lover of liberty?

Peter Hitchens knows as well as anyone what the State can do to a person. The State is the enemy of the individual, and the enemy of the family unit, and very well Peter Hitchens knows it. He wrote in The Abolition of Britain that the State dislikes the family because it fashions bonds which are stronger than patriotism. The State can lock you up, take your children, take your house from you via compulsory purchase – it can impose many things upon the individual. How can a person be a lover of liberty if they want the State to have the power to do what it can already do, yet also the power to reach into a citizen’s body and stop their heart from beating? To support the death penalty, even if you support it for murder only, is to want the State to have absolute power

This is liberty with qualifications, which means it’s not liberty.

For instance he supports ‘freedom of speech’ so long as something called ‘incitement to violence’ is not part of it. (He’s not the only person who postures in this way.) This is the ‘yes but no’ attitude which happens when somebody wants to claim to be a certain type of person, but doesn’t genuinely want the thing they claim to want that would make them that type of person. Most of us will have had the following experience. We did something naughty when we were small and were caught, perhaps by a teacher. The teacher demanded to know why we did such and such, and we say – because we were little and didn’t ‘get it’ at such a young age – that so and so ‘told me to do it.’ The teacher will then have then offered us a particular ‘look’ and said something like ‘Well, if so and so told you to jump of a bridge would you do it?’ We know we wouldn’t have done that, so we then realise we are to blame for what we actually do, and can’t blame others for ‘making’ us do it. The illogical nonsense about ‘incitement’ is the teacher saying ‘Right! Let’s go and round-up so and so, too! And we’ll see who gave him the idea, and then we’ll get them in room 101 as well!’ Before you could say ‘witch-hunt’ you’d have all the toddlers in the playschool on trial ‘by-teacher’ for their part in a non-existent conspiracy of influence. A Stalinist madness.

The position Peter Hitchens takes on ‘freedom of speech’ is contradictory because he doesn’t want speech to be ‘free’ in any way at all, he wants it to be limited. When you advertise your ‘free beer’ but actually charge 1p for it, it isn’t free. One you’ve added your qualification, you have dissolved your principle.

This qualification serves the same purpose as the ‘for murder only’ qualification serves: it presupposes deep thought and implies the person is a ‘serious’ person who is exquisitely discriminatory. But how can a person be serious when they argue for ‘free speech’ in this way? I think it’s unlikely that Peter Hitchens cannot see the ‘freedom of speech’ contradiction, because he’s obviously an intelligent person, and words are his business. This leaves me thinking that he can see it, and is happy with it, because it accurately expresses the truth of the matter, and is happy for others not to notice. What other option is there?

There’s a scene I want you to create in your mind and it will be mentioned later. I want you to imagine you are walking back to your car, and you take a shortcut through an alley. In that alley you find the body of a child. The child has met a violent end: the head is bashed and smashed; there are bits of blood, skull and brain splattered on the walls. Lying next to the body is a hammer with bloody fingerprints on the handle, and you see bloody footprints leading away from the scene.

Let’s say the child is a ten year old girl.

Do you think any wrong has been done to the little girl? You think yes? I’d guess most people would. Now here’s the thing: anyone who thinks that the little girl has had wrong done to her should not support capital punishment.

Now I know that might sound odd. It seems obvious that the person who bashed her head in deserves to swing, but I’m afraid things are not as simple as they seem, and the arguments for and against capital punishment are not as simple as the simple feel they are.

Leave that scenario in the back of your mind while we flash-forward in hypothetical time and create another scenario.

You’re watching the evening news and the story comes on about the person convicted of killing the child from the alley. The cameras have captured the following: the convicted is making his way to court for sentencing, and a crowd has gathered, waiting just for this moment. They cannot put hands the guilty, and lucky for him, because he is locked safely in the armoured police-van which drives slowly through that crowd. The persons gathered shout and scream at the van, some throw things, some spit at it and some rock it sideways in an attempt to tip it over, before the officers pull the mob from the vehicle and it drives through.

Then we cut to a shot from on high, where the handcuffed child-killer is lead from the rear of the van into the building. Next we’ll be shown an artist’s colour-pencil sketch of the beast in the dock, and we’ll be told he spoke only to confirm his name, and some other details, and we’ll be told what the judge had to say as he passed sentence. Usually at this point we cut to the reporter whose voice has been heard over the pictures: she will be standing outside the court, microphone in hand, having a chat with the news presenter in the studio.

Whatever is said the by reporter or the presenter, the behaviour of the crowd won’t be condemned. If it’s mentioned at all it will be to offer the banal observation that feelings were ‘running high.’ I wonder what number of us, watching such a thing in our homes, secretly wishes the mob could gain access to the vehicle, and get at the killer? And I wonder what might happen if such a thing occurred?

Perhaps one of the mob would drive the vehicle to waste ground, where the guilty could be taken to task, and some collective need in the mob could be satisfied while helicopter cameras captured the celebration in high definition?

What is that need or urge which drives the mob to picket the court, waiting for the guilty? What motivates the van rocking mob? What do they want?

Their behaviour could be described as odd, possibly stupid, because they know their missiles – their eggs, rocks and coke-cans – won’t penetrate the armoured vehicle, they will never get at the man inside. One can’t help but wonder why they bother.

The explanation needs to be that the spitting and throwing things, and trying to tip the van over, are not considered actions but a spontaneous expression of rage. That would make some sense. But consider the behaviour of the crowd before the police van shows up. The crowd is still a crowd at this point, not yet a mob, and can we believe they turned feral at the site of a vehicle they could never gain access to? What next, try to tip the building over because the guilty is in there?

No, the mob’s behaviour upon the arrival of the police van is a considered action, certainly not ‘spontaneous’ and the reporter is right in a sense, feelings are running high. Years ago, there might be some point in forming a mob and going after a suspect, flaming torches in one hand, bible in the other, while others in the mob ran with dogs straining at the lead. That made some sense because there was a chance they could catch the suspect and lynch him. The mob around the police van can’t do that – they know they can’t, therefore their behaviour is posturing and an expression of vanity.

The mob believe that they are safe to show this side of human nature, not only to each other but to the cameras, because the crime, the murder of the child, is vile enough that the normal standards of conduct don’t apply, and they have numbers on their side if you disagree. The options with such a running mob are to join in or step aside; trying to reason with them is a waste of time, trying to stop them is dangerous.

That humans can be violent when emotional is not interesting, but it is interesting to consider the lynch-mob mentality, and to conclude that it takes not so much to bring that part of the character of the human animal to the surface.

The argument about Capital Punishment usually begins with the supporter arguing for deterrence and the opposer claiming execution of the innocent is the unanswerable position. Both are (very often) the first arguments either side deploys. When my side of the house – the side which believes in liberty over security – mentions the innocent it’s common for the supporter to play the ‘accident’ card.

‘Yes,’ they say, ‘an innocent person executed is a terrible thing, but terrible things happen all the time, should we reject or abolish everything which causes accidental deaths? We’d have to abolish cars and planes and all sorts of things.’

But of course such a person is being slippery. They are suggesting an accidental death is equivalent to a deliberate death, which it isn’t and they’re missing the point into the bargain.

No person sacrificed by the State via the death penalty is killed by accident. No prisoner ever walked along their landing, tripped, fell into a noose and got hanged.

Every execution is a deliberate act, so the ‘accident’ card relies on a false parallel. Not a good start for the supporter of human sacrifice.

The argument about an innocent person executed is airtight; it cannot be met by anything from the other side. In addition there is no answer to the charge that, by executing the innocent, you have by default freed the guilty – so it’s a double outrage.

But arguments from ‘body-count’ miss the point, too. The enlightened side of the house reject the idea of capital punishment; reject the idea that the state can have this power over the citizen; and contend that, when the death penalty option is retained, the state has too much power over the citizen by definition, and the relationship between the two is ultimately totalitarian in practice and religious in theory (which just means totalitarian in theory, too.)

A word on ‘deterrence’.

 Often the supporter will cling to the idea of deterrence and not be swayed by logic. In a debate, formal discussion or even just a conversation, there are some things a person should not do. They should not claim something is true when they don’t know it is, and they should not claim something is true if they can’t know. Consider the words of the author and scientist, Sam Harris:

Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do.3

This is a problem with the ‘deterrence’ argument. The only thing which can be known is that capital punishment is not 100% effective as a deterrent. There’s no way to calculate what number of persons have been deterred from doing something. You can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened. It is not known if capital punishment is a deterrent: its supporters just claim it is because they think it’s a safe claim. But how can a claim for something be safe when those supporters can’t know if it’s true? It’s impossible to know if the death penalty is a deterrent, and I think arguments from deterrence should be disqualified immediately.

Even the academic ‘studies’ can’t answer it, and the impossibility of ever getting an answer leads to some hilarious examples of chin-stroking ‘seriousness’.

Read these and try not to laugh:

The view that the death penalty deters is still the product of belief, not evidence. The reason for this is simple: over the past half century the U.S. has not experimented enough with capital punishment policy to permit strong conclusions. Even complex econometrics cannot sidestep this basic fact. The data are simply too noisy, and the conclusions from any study are too fragile. On balance, the evidence suggests that the death penalty may increase the murder rate although it remains possible that the death penalty may decrease it.4

On balance, that final sentence cracks me up every time I read it. And that’s from John J. Donohue, a professor at Yale Law School and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and Justin Wolfers, a professor at the Wharton School of Business and a Research Affiliate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Or consider this from the brief of yet another report into ‘deterrence’:

The studies use incomplete or implausible models of potential murderers’ perceptions of and response to the use of capital punishment. Much of the research assumes that potential murderers respond to the objective risk of execution.

It’s actually shocking. This is a confession, made so straight-faced you’re not meant to notice. Read it again, slowly; then contrast with this:

..there is good reason to believe that potential murderers’ perceived risk deviates from the objective risk.5

And that means there’s good reason to believe that murderers think they won’t get caught. It says the opposite to the first example, and both quotes are from the same brief. Where would we be without this sort of clarity of thinking making everything simpler? Why don’t these ‘academics’ just say ‘we don’t know because we can’t count-up acts which haven’t happened’?

There are other example of academics making strange statements . Consider this from Peter Hitchens:

The Home Office pathologist Professor Bernard Knight said recently that the British homicide rate was artificially low. Advances in medical treatment, he explained, now save hundreds of people who would have died from their wounds 40 years ago. The actual amount of lethal violence has risen to heights our fathers would have thought impossible.6

How can the homicide rate be artificially low? This point is meretricious. The homicide rate is whatever it happens to be. Just count the bodies. Are we to believe the death-in-childbirth-rate is artificially low thanks to medical advances? I don’t think so. The point is claiming an increase in violence, and Hitchens’s position is that lethal violence has increased since there’s been no death penalty. Is that actually true? Consider the words of Leon Britain from July 1983:

Those who argue for restoring the death penalty rightly point to the sharp rise in homicides since 1960. Between the end of the war and 1960 the number of homicides had shown a generally downward trend. In 1960, the offences initially recorded as homicide in England and Wales totalled 282. In 1965, the year capital punishment was abolished, the total was 325, in 1970 it was 396, in 1980 it was 621, and in 1982 it was 619. There are those who argue that the upward trend starting in 1960 is of no significance as that trend started before abolition. Against that, it can be said that the number of executions actually carried out in the last few years of capital punishment was very small and the deterrent effect might, therefore, if it existed, have been somewhat reduced.7

Note the rise in violence beginning before the abolition, and the important acknowledgement the deterrent effect might not exist to begin with. And it’s on his final point that Leon Britain touches on an important question about public executions.

Albert Camus, in his essay ‘Reflections on the Guillotine,’ makes the strong case that if the death penalty does have any deterrent effect, keeping the executions private, behind the prison walls, won’t allow the practice to work its dark magic on the minds of the peasantry:

We must either kill publicly, or admit we do not feel authorized to kill. If society justifies the death penalty as a necessary example, then it must justify itself by providing the publicity necessary to make an example. Society must display the executioner’s hands on each occasion, and require the most squeamish citizens to look at them, as well as those who, directly or remotely, have supported the work of those hands from the first.8

It’s a pretty strong point. Why bother with an example which nobody gets to see? And that’s assuming – and assuming against the logic – that there’s a deterrent effect to begin with.

If capital punishment was a genuine deterrent there wouldn’t be murders within jurisdictions which had human sacrifice as the punishment for a qualifying crime. But there are plenty of murders within jurisdictions such as these and always have been. This suggests human sacrifice is not a deterrent, and it’s probably not because most murders are not done by ice-man assassins. The majority of murders are emotional acts driven by money and sex and jealousy and other base drivers.

A word on the other ‘arguments’ and an argument against.

There are many positions taken by those who support religious human sacrifice. They talk about justice for the victim without considering that the victim can’t receive justice because the victim is dead and can’t receive anything. They then change their minds and claim and they want justice for the family of the victim. Bereavement requires justice, but not when the killer’s family are bereaved. For some reason they don’t count.

They argue that the cost of keeping murderers locked up is too high and executing them saves the tax-payer money. This argument is one of my favourites. It is simultaneously the stupidest and most dishonest argument: imagine two cells next to each other. In one is a murderer, serving twenty years, in the other is a non-murderer serving twenty years. Now consider the argument is supposed to be about the saving the tax payer money. Do I need to explain further?

Another silly argument is the argument from mercy. Peter Hitchens says:

The death penalty is far more humane than a long prison sentence. That is one of the best reasons for bringing it back. I’m sorry to say that the Court of Human Rights is correct in condemning our policy of locking up heinous murderers without hope of release and for so long they forget what they have done. It’s incredibly cruel.9

This argument claims that because decades in prison are a cruel, sadistic and barbaric punishment, the death penalty is justified because it is kinder to the murderer. This is an absurd argument just on the surface of it. It leaves the supporter of human sacrifice arguing for both punishment and mercy at the same time. But things get worse. There is a way to check if the person who makes this ‘argument’ actually means it. They should be asked if they would extend this ‘mercy’ to the terminally ill. Many Christians and Conservatives reject the idea of ‘mercy killing.’

Death is either a mercy or a punishment to be inflicted: if the former, then why don’t the terminally ill qualify? If the latter, then how can it be merciful to begin with? If the supporter claims that, yes, the terminally ill do qualify, are they not punishing the terminally ill if death is a punishment?

This nonsense argument is taken by supporters of human sacrifice because they are attempting to hide their real views under the veneer of intellectual compassion. They make themselves look extraordinarily stupid when they do this. This is what happens when paw-licking vanity and self-denial is valued more than intellectual honesty.

For most, the real motivation for their support of human sacrifice is no more than an emotional jerk of the knee. They imagine how they would feel if a person killed a member of their family. Then, feeling these unpleasant feelings, argue that human sacrifice is acceptable.

There are some, however, who support religious human sacrifice and who actually understand what they are talking about. I’ll mention these persons later.

For the moment I’ll just put my basic argument against the death penalty which seems to me to be quite hard to refute. (If this argument turns out to be rubbish, then the fault is mine.)

The argument goes like this:

Capital punishment is always wrong because we can never know if the victim lost anything of sufficient value to justify executing the killer.

It cannot be denied that value judgements underpin the crime / punishment question. If a person is convicted of stealing a packet of biscuits from a shop they would not be given the death penalty for this. That punishment wouldn’t ‘fit’ the crime. The value judgements we make about fitting punishments are mysterious in their origin, but we certainly make them. We tend only to hear arguments for religious human sacrifice for the crime of murder. I’ve never heard even the most reactionary, the most crusty and dusty conservative, argue for religious human sacrifice for anything other than murder. And, curiously, that creates a problem for their argument. When a person argues the death penalty should be imposed only for the crime of murder, they instantly grant that human life has a unique value or worth. Human life, on their account, has a special status and the only way justice ‘can be done’ is to take from the killer what they took from their victim. (The meme ‘a life for a life’ is popular, but the memes, ‘a rape for a rape,’ and ‘a punch in the face for a punch in the face’ haven’t caught on quite as well.)

Smarter supporters of human sacrifice will try to claim that value judgements have nothing to do with the calibration between crime and punishment or how we decide that x deserves y or doesn’t. I understand why the smarter supporters will try to avoid the concession that value judgements are what we use, because immediately they know that value judgements are subjective: there’s no over-arching objective standard we can all agree on. And it’s that fact which underpins my argument: how do we know the victim lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer?

Who says?

This is where the dead girl in the alley comes in.

If you think value judgements have nothing to do with deciding what punishment fits what crime, you are left with the conclusion that nothing ‘wrong’ has been done to the little girl in the alley. Until a trial has happened and evidence has been heard; until a jury has reached a verdict and ‘justice has been done,’ the girl in the alley, to you, is no more than rearranged organic material.

So value judgments can’t be denied (or avoided) and it’s that underpinning subjectivity which makes human sacrifice wrong because – and allow me to repeat it – who says the killer lost anything of sufficient worth to justify executing their killer? Who says?

There’s more to the opposition to religious human sacrifice than the inescapable impossibility of justifying it. Which supporter of human sacrifice doesn’t want to punish murderers? Those who argue in favour of capital punishment want murderers to be punished (except the ‘mercy merchants,’ that is.) It is odd, then, that they argue for the thing which makes punishment impossible: death.

A dead person cannot receive punishment for the same reason a dead person cannot receive justice. They are dead. They cannot receive anything.

The supporter is arguing for the incarcerated murderer’s punishment to come to an end. Why they do this I don’t know.

There is no escape for the supporter of human sacrifice by saying that, they know the dead person can’t receive punishment, that’s not the point, (and who ever said it was?) they want the murderer to feel the fear and stress as their execution date approaches, and then the fear and stress on the day itself and so on.

This makes some sense – but not much. If that’s the case then the murderer need only be subjected to mock-execution, but would the supporter of capital punishment want that?

I think not.

Once this point has been made then the supporter should see what they really are arguing for is a form of torture where the victim suffers not the ‘death penalty’ but the ‘punishment penalty’ and is punished to death.

You can make a person dead by punishing them, but you cannot punish them after making them dead.

As I said, there are persons who understand what they are arguing for: they understand that the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice require a belief in the afterlife to make even the slightest sense – and they really require a belief in God. As someone once said, this business of living for eternity contributes to capital punishment. What’s odd is that, on atheism, a belief in God is required for the arguments in favour of religious human sacrifice to make sense, but that means, to make sense to an atheist.

Assuming a Christian worldview for the sake of argument: what happens to the soul of the murder victim? Where does it go?

Let’s say the victim is the little girl in the alley.

The little ten year old girl, on the Christian worldview, is going to spend eternity with God in heaven. Let’s put it another way: on that Christian worldview, by murdering her, the killer has delivered his victim to the greatest possible bliss imaginable.

And for this he should be punished?

There’s a dizzying, circular paradox at the heart of the human sacrifice question.

It’s too easy to support the death penalty. When something is so easy to support a person should become immediately suspicious and begin questioning their motives, and asking questions about the motivations of others. It’s only when we begin to question our beliefs, and the motivations we have for them, does the conversation become interesting.

 Capital Punishment: an actual obscenity.

 In his book, ‘The Abolition of Britain,’ Peter Hitchens begins chapter five with this simple claim.

Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done away with.10

It’s interesting to look at the idea of religious human sacrifice and the attitudes to it from the supporters of today as compared to the actual practice from history. Consider these words from Lord Gardiner, spoken in the House of Lords in December 1969:

In 1908 there was a big advance: we abolished capital punishment for children under 16. When my grandfather was 21 a boy of nine who had set fire to a house was hanged at Chelmsford. In a previous year a little way back, a boy of 7 and his sister of 11 were hanged at Lyme. In 1922 we abolished capital punishment for infanticide. In 1929 a Resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Select Committee. In 1930 the Select Committee reported. In their Report they said: Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society. And they recommended its abolition for five years. In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. In 1932 the Children Act abolished capital punishment for those under 18.11

I like the one where we abolished the death penalty for expectant mothers. Since these internal abolitions have happened, have those freed from the prospect of being hanged become troublesome? Are children under sixteen, boys of nine and seven, girls of eleven and women with-child now an out-of-control menace to society? This sort of incremental abolition smacks of a State which wants to retain the practice, and isn’t willing to let go completely. Remember the State is simply a collection of humans with interests which conflict with those of the majority. Please think about this specific question: what sort of State would want to hang small children or women with-child?

It’s remarks like those from Lord Gardiner which put the death penalty into its correct context and allow it to be seen for what it is: one way in which the State could tyrannise the ordinary people. Contrast the ‘arguments’ from somebody who wants human sacrifice for murder only, against this brief summary from the National Archive:

In the years after 1660 the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously, from about 50, to 160 by 1750 and to 288 by 1815. You could be hanged for stealing goods worth 5 shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a Naval Dockyard, damaging Westminster Bridge, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or cutting down a young tree. This series of laws was called (later) “The Bloody Code.” Why was the Bloody Code passed? After the turmoil of the 17th century, the landowning class emerged as supreme rulers of Britain. They based their power on property-ownership, and saw the law’s main purpose as protecting property. They were ruling a country of 6.5 million, most of whom had no political rights whatsoever. The crime rate was not high, actually, but they feared that it was, as towns grew in size and the old village community crumbled. There was also no police force. The Bloody Code was therefore a threat: severe retribution would happen to those thinking of breaking the law by infringing property rights.12

When we think of capital punishment do we forget (did we even know?) that the State used to be able to kill us for minor offences such as cutting down a young tree? Perhaps not knowing the list of things we could be killed for by the State prevents us from seeing what the death penalty actually is: the missing list is the giver of context. Put it another way: imagine a person who opposed the enslavement of blacks, but also argued that blacks should be whipped for one particular crime only, and you might begin to see those who support the totalitarian, absolutist practice of human sacrifice for the Darth Vader Darksiders they are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/deathrows
2. http://www.gallup.com/poll/1606/death-penalty.aspx
3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/moral-confusion-in-the-na_b_517710.html
4. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/DonohueDeter.pdf
5. http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/NatResCouncil-Deterr.pdf
6. http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2012/04/reflections-on-how-to-punish-mass-murderers.html
7. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1983/jul/13/death-penalty
8. http://redlemona.de/albert-camus/reflections-on-the-guillotine/reflections-on-the-guillotine
9. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2362695/PETER-HITCHENS-Would-surprised-learn-I-fund-Labour-Well-I–you.html
10. Hitchens, Peter (1999) The Abolition of Britain, Quartet, London, p107.
11. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1969/dec/17/murder-abolition-of-death-penalty-act
12. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/candp/punishment/g06/g06cs1.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genuine Atheism

Believing in Marx is just as religious as believing in God: the same thing is going on in the brain. The object of the worship might be very different, but that’s irrelevant. Both positions have their respective ‘higher powers’ or ‘authorities’ to which / whom the worshipper turns for advice, guidance, rulings, and all the rest.

Genuine Atheism is the rejection of authorities of this type: the positive assertion that such authorities do not exist anywhere other than in the imagination of the believer or believers, and therefore the authority is illegitimate. Like the guys says in The Wolf of Wall Street, ‘It is no matter, it is not on the elemental chart..’

The Genuine Atheist, following his logic downwards, rejects the Hobbesian idea of Political Obligation. It’s this rejection that non-genuine atheists dislike. Many of these (so-called) atheists are actually religious state-worshippers, who see the state as a cross between God and big-daddy-the-protector, but just don’t realise it.

There is an obvious difference between the state’s power and its authority. The state certainly has power. The state has no authority. It does not exercise authority, it exercises power. Its power is its ability to do things to you, and to make you do things. Its authority would be its right to do these things and its right to get you to do things.

The state’s power can be seen in the military, the police, local councils and what not; it’s backed up by bailiffs, court officials and other enemies of the working man. If asked ‘where is the state’s power?’ one could answer that it is in these institutions and individuals.

But if one were asked ‘where is the states authority?’ it is harder to answer, for where IS the state’s authority? In a drawer? Under a rock?

The state could be described as evil. This is because its power is actually its desire made manifest. The state actively wants to do things to you. Through the recognition of its power, one can see the state’s desire and behind that, its true face.

It is a gargoyle.

 

I’m Not Having a Pop…

Sentimental thinking has the effect of smoothing the edges of whatever is being thought about: it’s a way of thinking in ‘soft-focus’ and as such is a type of euphemism in that it makes something seem less unattractive than it actually is.