I don’t believe in Hell anymore.
Supposedly I didn’t believe in it for decades; I’ve been an atheist and an agnostic since I was a teenager, so you’d think there would be no room for Hell in that worldview. But when you’re raised Catholic – even as lightly Catholic as I was – Hell and Satan are overwhelming concepts that become the cornerstones of your cosmology. It wasn’t that I intellectually believed in Hell but rather that I had an emotional fear about what might happen after I die.
It took gaining spirituality to lose my fear of Hell. My (limited) understanding of the universe and the spirit makes me realize the whole concept is kind of foolish. The idea of eternal punishment is insane to me now – first, the idea of a punishment directed by outside forces is crazy, but secondly the idea of anything being eternal is insane. Nothing is eternal. Everything ends! It all begins again, but it ends first. That which has the nature of arising has the nature of ending, at least according to some dude who hung around 2500 years ago, and so far I haven’t seen anything to prove him wrong.
So returning to The Exorcist in a post-Hell mindset was interesting. In the past The Exorcist had worked on me in an existential way; my childhood Catholicism (and maybe my Italian-American superstition) had made all of the devil/possession/eternal damnation stuff slightly real. What was scary about The Exorcist to me was that it took all of the shit that I told myself I didn’t believe in and made it seem present and possible.
I walked into this recent revisit of The Exorcist convinced I no longer believed in Evil. I was past judgment and duality, and the idea of there being Good and Evil was silly to me. There was suffering and non-suffering, and that was it. The lion that eats the antelope isn’t evil, despite the antelope’s rather strong opinions on the subject. All bad stuff was explainable by confusion and suffering – people who believed that hurting others would, in some way, lift their own suffering even if for a moment.
And yet The Exorcist shook me again. Revisiting the film (the director’s cut, unfortunately. I’m a release cut man myself) at Beyond Fest last week was just as existentially terrifying as it had been when the incense of Catholic mass was still fresh in my nose. But that terror had changed, and it had become even realer. Not that I believe in Hell or demons (although, let’s be honest, who knows. Maybe what we call Hell is simply another dimension of existence, and the beings we call demons simply the people who live there. I subscribe to Jacques Vallee’s Magonia theory of UFOs being transdimensional visitors, and I think that could be extended to include demonic entities) but rather that the film’s central thesis about the nature of Evil has become more clearly true to me.
This thesis comes late in the film; Fathers Merrin and Karras (the original Hot Priest, my girlfriend whispered to me during the screening) sit exhausted on the stairs after a grueling session with Regan. Karras, his faith already fragile, seems to have all but had it broken, especially because of the horrible randomness of the possession.
“Why this girl?” he asks. “It makes no sense.”
Merrin, who has fought demons before (in either Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist or Exorcist: The Beginning, depending on your choice. This is the first franchise to implement a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure storytelling style where you can pick canon), understands that making no sense is the entire rationale.
“I think the point is to make us despair,” he says. “To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.”
This isn’t the first time this scene got me. It’s the key to the movie, after all. But this time, in 2019, in my current personal state, in the world’s current state, it hit very, very hard.
Because this scene explains the entirety of our current situation.
When I first got sober and discovered spirituality I had a couple of experiences that convinced me that there is Love. I mean that in exactly the big, sweeping, hippie way that the use of a capital L indicates. I had experiences of comfort and grace and synchronicity that opened my eyes to a more positive perspective. Writing about this is hard, because it’s hard to put it into words that accurately capture the nuance of the feeling. Language is clunky, and I don’t think there’s a sentence to write about it; rather you’d have to capture it in a song or a movie or a long novel. But if forced to put it in a sentence, I’d say that I realized the universe cares for me because I’m part of the universe; that my understanding of myself as a separate entity was flawed and limited and that I’m actually part of a bigger thing, from both the physical (the material building blocks of my body have been part of the universe for millions of years) to the spiritual.
So if Love is a force in the universe, does that mean there’s Hate as a counterforce? While I am suspicious of all claimed dualities, it does make sense to me that Hate could exist as a force in response to Love. These aren’t beings or consciousnesses or gods or whatever. They’re no more sentient than the Strong Nuclear Force or the Gravitational Force, but they’re no less permeating and important. While the Four Fundamental Forces of Nature apply to material reality, I believe there are Fundamental Forces to apply to non-material reality.
The idea that Evil (a word I’m trying to move past, but we’ll use it in deference to the nature of this movie) is not about making you do bad things but rather about making you feel bad makes a lot of sense to me. And it makes sense to me that this Evil – or Hate, maybe – isn’t ideological. It’s not about killing Jews in concentration camps or lynching black men for driving in cars with white women. It doesn’t have a political philosophy. It just makes us feel bad. It ‘wants’ to keep us away from Love (in the same way Gravity ‘wants’ to brings things with mass together).
Now we’re getting to the Trump stuff. It’s been a long walk, I know, and we hit some real cosmic out-there shit along the way. But Merrin’s line – man, it just sounded like a pretty good description of the world today. And I don’t think that’s a mistake; The Exorcist is very much a product of its time, a movie that was made in the miserable last years of the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration. It was a movie that came only a few years after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. It was a movie birthed after the burnout of the Free Love and hippie movements, after Altamont and Manson.
We’re living in an America not all that dissimilar to early 1970s America. All of the hope of the anti-war and hippie movements had been drained out and what was left was radical groups setting off bombs. Over 18 months in 1971 and 1972 there were TWO THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED bombings in the United States of America. They were small, but they were omnipresent.
It was a time that felt hopeless, and it wasn’t some kind of inflection point. Shit would get worse – the gas crisis and the Iran hostage crisis and other various crises including the financial disaster that would befall New York City were still on the horizon. In 1973 things felt broken and grimy and hard. You see it even in the fashion, as the color of the 60s faded out of the clothing. When Father Merrin is talking about the despair, he’s speaking to the American people. In a few years President Jimmy Carter would deliver his “Great Malaise” speech, saying that a “crisis of confidence” had hit “the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”
We’re there again, and Merrin’s words ring true to us. The world is not just in a bad place, it’s in a place so fucked up that it seems to test our very faith in humanity; the climate crisis threatens to make the Earth uninhabitable for our species and sometimes the only sane response seems to be to say ‘Well earned’ to a planet trying to buck us from her back. We all feel low-grade agitated and angry all the time. We’re all hyper-sensitive and ready to snap.
This is where Evil (or Hate) operates best. This is the perfect environment for it. When it has made us feel this bad, when we are this on edge, even the best of us turn away from any feeling of Love and embrace only the Hate. We see this happening all the time; just go on Twitter and you’ll see people furious at injustice and hatred fighting those things with anger, verbal violence, and even more hatred.
Remember, there’s no ideology behind Evil. Is Donald Trump working in a way that services the goals of Evil? For sure, but that larger force has no interest in racism or tax cuts for the rich or hotels in Turkey – it only cares to make people feel bad, and specifically to feel like there could never be Love. Trump is an excellent tool for this, because he makes the people who are already greedy and hateful double down and he makes those who would, in better times, be in the service of Love get right into the camp of Hate.
This is the ultimate triumph of Evil – not the kids in cages at the border, but the way that the kids in cages at the border wears us down, makes us hopeless and mad, makes us coarse and cruel. Evil doesn’t give a shit about billionaires, but it really likes the way economic injustice and inequality makes us feel shitty and exhausted and more and more interested in things like guillotines. Evil is tricky, because it can make us feel like what we’re doing is in the service of Love, but it’s actually motivated by Hate – there’s a difference between slapping a kid’s hand away from an open flame and slapping a kid because he’s annoying you. The slap is the same, but everything else is very, very different.
Father Merrin’s words hit me hard because it’s so easy to fall into that despair, to give in to that Hate. Especially for me; my default state is seething anger and venomous rage. In the past I channeled that “righteously,” attacking GamerGaters and trolls and also anyone I could define as “bad” by my own dumb standards, but it eventually became clear to me that there’s no good way to use that kind of anger and hate. I was a shitty human being on the internet to other shitty human beings*, but in the end I was still being a shitty human being. It was still destroying me on the inside.
*They were not actually shitty. They were confused, deluded and believing they could alleviate their suffering by making others suffer more.
By being hateful, by being cruel, by being assholes we’re essentially letting Trump/Evil win. Even as it seems that he’s falling (please please please) there’s still so much danger of giving in to our worst impulses, indulging in negative behavior in ways that don’t serve Love. This is what the priests have to fight in Regan’s room – not only the power of Pazuzu but also their own desire to just give in to the worst of their own nature. Karras actually does, choking Regan, but what happens next only proves that engaging in Evil to defeat Evil defeats you – he is taken by the demon and has to kill himself in order to win the day. Karras ends up in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, twitching his way through his last rites.
That’s not how I want to go out. So I have to keep in mind that no matter the provocation, no matter the terrible shit I see in the world, no matter how bad it all seems, that there is something positive out there. I’ve experienced it in a big way. I hope to experience it in a big way again. In the meantime I can only remember that the number one thing Evil wants me to do is despair. And so the best way for me to fight Evil, the most current and available way, is to never give in to that despair. To always remember that there is Love.