Today, Father Steve takes a closer look at the Media's unhealthy obsession with (and sensationalism of) negative forms the supernatural, especially apparent in the frenzy of new television and cinema releases on the subject.
This past week, Entertainment Weekly reported that the Discovery Channel was teaming up with the Vatican for a new series called The Exorcist Files. The series would present dramatic re-enactments and commentary on cases of actual demonic possession that had until now been sealed in the secret files of the Vatican. This story was picked up by the media and reported by numerous other news sources. My first reaction upon hearing this story was exasperation. I thought to myself that Word on Fire has produced over ten hours of documentary footage highlighting the faith, practices and culture of the Church. All this has been created at a production quality that is equal to, if not a rival to what the Discovery Channel currently produces. If the Discovery channel wanted to feature an inside look at the Catholic Church- why the hell (pun intended) are they fooling around with this sensationalized exorcism stuff? And further, if the Vatican was involved, might they have a better angle to present and more important issues to consider than helping the Discovery Channel produce a show about exorcisms? This was my initial reaction. Once that visceral response abated, I mused- it is likely not true. With the imminent release of the Anthony Hopkins vehicle, The Rite, a film based on the book by Matt Baglio, the media is likely pumping up stories about exorcism to both create and capture a pop culture buzz. Wait a few hours, I thought, and the truth will be revealed.
And of course it was.
The Catholic News Agency reported that the director of the Vatican Press Office denied any alleged collaboration between the Vatican and the Discovery Channel. What was admitted was that while the Discovery Channel might have been in contact with individual experts, the precise association between the Vatican and the Discovery Channel had been "inexact." Interpreting the meaning of "inexact" is important as it likely indicates that someone associated with the Church had been talking to the Discovery Channel, but whoever that was, they were not representing the Vatican in general or the Holy Father in particular. This distinction, it seems, was not of much interest to those who had reported the earlier story. Besides, there seems to be a great deal of confusion in the media and in the culture (and in the Vatican) about who precisely speaks for the Vatican. Frequently, at least the media gives the impression, anyone who works for the Church fulfills the qualifications for a Vatican spokesperson, no matter how tangential their actual relationship with the Holy See is. In matters of religion, and in many other areas, facts seem to matter less and less to our culture than do impressions.
Why all the fuss anyway? Is it really a secret that the Church performs exorcisms? All this calls to mind an experience a few years ago when Father Barron was asked to comment on the film The Exorcist for a documentary produced by American Movie Classics entitled "Ten Films that Shook the World." In my estimation, and that of the producers, Father Barron aced that interview and his quality insights were prominently featured in the final cut of the piece. AMC occasionally will air this documentary, usually around Halloween when it seems as traditional for television to feature The Exorcist in the same manner that Frosty the Snowman is featured for Christmas (oops! I mean "Winter Season"). Unfortunately, many who saw Father's interview could not make the leap that he was talking about a movie and that he wasn't himself an exorcist or some kind of expert on the occult. I spent many hours after the show aired clarifying with people via telephone, letters and email that Father Barron knew a lot about a movie called The Exorcist, but that he had no insights as to whether or not their house was haunted by the former (now deceased) owners, or that their pets (or surly teenagers) were possibly possessed by evil spirits. That experience confirmed for me an insight that I had learned years ago in the seminary that if you are losing the attention of the your congregation while preaching, mention the devil, and that will cause everyone's ears to prick up and listen. The media in general, and the Discovery Channel in particular, have figured out this principle as well.
The perennial fascination with devils, ghosts, and other nightmarish realities is clearly evident in the lineup of the cable networks (I am not by necessity referring here to The Jersey Shore). Shows about hauntings and demonic possessions abound, and even Animal Planet has an offering in this regard. The flagship show in this genre seems to be the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures which features three young men, led by Zak Bagans, who each week will, according to the Travel Channel, investigate the "scariest, most notorious, haunted places in the world." The premise that is supposed to make the show even more watchable is that Bagans, along with his supernaturally large biceps, and his friends are locked into these locations at night and spend the entire evening threatening and cajoling wraiths and spectral entities to reveal themselves. The recorded antics allow Bagans and his Ghost Adventure buddies to make the most extraordinary assertions about events that in the light of day would likely be dismissed as mere banalities. The lesson learned from the show might be that the dark plays games with our minds and imaginations, leading us to conceive of and perceive realities that the daylight reveals as mere shadows lacking any real substance. The show also reveals much about Bagans, his friends, and the paranormal experts who appear and inevitably utter dire warnings to the team. As for the ghosts, so far they remain elusive. Bagans claimed in one episode to have been possessed by an evil spirit, the evidence for which was the ornery manner in which he treated his friends while they stumbled about in the dark. His experience might be true, but he seems none the worse for wear. What I really find mysterious is why this show is featured on the Travel Channel. Is there a market for vacations in which one spends the night in abandoned buildings? This must be a trend that I have missed. Further, if I made a reservation at an allegedly haunted locale- would I receive a discount if I showed up but the ghosts didn't?
I am not trying to trivialize the experience of the supernatural, the ghostly, or the demonic. In fact, it is my fear that the popular culture is doing precisely this when it markets such experiences as something to be desired. The only supernatural reality that we should desire is communion with the Lord, his angels and the saints (and if anyone at the Discovery Channel is listening, how about making a show about that experience?). Any other supernatural reality would prove itself to be an enemy and possessed of powers that we could neither control nor conquer. Further, the reality of our fascination with dark powers is itself indicative of our total inability to fully appreciate just how vulnerable we are before them. It is best that in this respect that we come to terms with the insight of Karl Barth that the evil one is not all that interesting and it is part of his subversive plotting to convince us that he is. The most any of us should want to know about an exorcism is that anyone who would be so afflicted can be safely delivered and restored. Voyeurism in regards to the specifics of what must be a terrifying experience is not only unseemly, but sinful. I think that we also have to remember that the evil one tends to be lazy and prefers to allow our concupiscence to be our undoing, rather than having to exert himself too much with direct action. But if we keep on knocking at his door, I can promise you that we will regret the day when he obliges our persistence by opening his door and letting us in.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.