Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Monsterology: The Devil (666th post!)

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

Please allow me to introduce myself...

Dracula? The Wolf Man? Freddy Kruger? The Mummy? They’re a bunch of petty criminals. Even a whole army of drooling, shuffling zombies just don’t measure up. This cat isn’t capable of evil; he is evil. He is the very embodiment of the thing without which there would be no monster movies, no nasty ghost stories, no Frankenberry, and no Bible, which is where the Devil made his debut in Christian culture. Depending on your interpretation of that story, he may not have starred in as many scenes as is often thought. Was the snake that tempted Eve to eat the apple supposed to be the Devil? Or was he just one of those talking snakes that live in apple trees? One thing is for sure: the result of his temptation was way direr than anything Jason Voorhees ever did. That guy just killed some horny teenagers. The snake turned paradise on Earth into Earth on Earth, a craphole congested with war, pestilence, the NRA, and iPhones. Of course, we shouldn’t absolve Eve of all blame, because as the Bible teaches us, women are very bad. 
Some have also interpreted the character of Lucifer as the Devil. An angel or man, depending on your interpretation of the King James edition, Lucifer got too big for his britches and aspired to raise his “throne above the stars of God.” God hates that kind of shit, and he kicked Lucifer, the “morning star,” out of heaven to become the concierge of Hell.

                                                             Lucifer incarnate.
The Devil has also been identified as the guy who tempted Jesus during his forty-day fast with the sweet ability to make bread out of rocks, free himself from a pinnacle, and gain control of all the kingdoms in the world. That last one doesn’t sound like much of a prize. What kind of idiot would want all that responsibility? The Devil may also be the dragon of Revelations, a big snake with sheep horns who will rise out of the sea to help get the apocalypse started. The dragon is not named Lucifer or Satan. In fact, the Bible plays coy about who this giant sheep-dragon is, only cluing us in that his name corresponds with the number 666. 
The Bible is one of those books that everyone thinks they’ve read but haven’t. Kind of like Moby Dick. So the assumptions about who the Devil is in that book have taken precedence over the fact that many editions of The Bible are reluctant to finger him. Consequently, it’s basically assumed that all the bad shit that goes down in that book of wall-to-wall bad shit is the Devil’s doing. It’s all tremendously hard to swallow, of course, but what a villain! Naturally, the Devil has found his way into many, many other works of fiction, and the depiction of him, and sometimes her, is even more varied than it is in the Bible.

The most popular portrayal of Old Scratch is the most endearing. The baddest guy in the universe is regularly portrayed as a fellow in red pajamas with horns and a pointy tail. According to Jim Steinmeyer in his upcoming book Who Was Dracula? (more about that here on Psychobabble soon), the red Devil can be traced to actor Henry Irving’s portrayal of Mephistopheles in a lavish production of Faust at the Lyceum Theater in 1885. Before then he usually wore black. The horns and tail stem from the devil’s association with sheep and goats and other horrid beasties found in petting zoos. This is the tongue-wagging Devil of Häxan and the one on vintage jars of Red Hots candy and in episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “The Simpsons.” He is the Devil it’s OK to dress up as on Halloween.

In more legitimately terrifying versions of this Devil, the horns become more antelope or bull-like, he grows to giant proportions, and his muscles get bigger than Glenn Danzig’s. This is the title terror of Night of the Demon, the massive Satan of Fantasia, and the Lord of Darkness of Legend. Scarier still are the devils who bridge the human and the bizarre, the hooded, hairless creatures of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Mel Gibson’s belligerent, torture-porn odyssey, The Passion of the Christ, in which the devil and its devil baby take in the floor show that is Jesus getting the bloody shit beaten out of him for eighteen hours.

                                                              Official candy of Hell.

In this form, how tempting can the Devil be? How can you concentrate enough to decide whether or not to sell your soul when you’re busy crapping your pants? The more insidious Devil is the one who takes on pleasing, or at least non-monstrous, shapes. These more human Devils tends to take such stock shapes as the unthreatening elderly gentlemen of All That Money Can Buy and the “Printer’s Devil” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” or more in keeping with The Bible’s very healthy view of female sexuality, the temptresses of Bedazzled 1967 and 2000. Movies such as The Witches of Eastwick, Angel Heart, and The Devil’s Advocate have given the big-marquee names Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino opportunities to chew scenery as the biggest evil of them all.

                                       Al Pacino in one of his more restrained moments.

Most unlikely of all is the Devil as he appears in The Exorcist, both because he controls the body of a nice little girl and because his urbane, seductive persona has devolved to straight-up crassness. This devil pukes, pulls faces, belches, and unleashes a string of expletives and toilet insults that Andrew “Dice” Clay might agree push the limits of good taste. This is a Devil smacking of desperation, one that may have read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which the author admitted, “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.”

In truth, The Exorcist manages to terrify, horrify, and gross us out, though it is at its most terrifying when The Devil is off screen, when we hear bumps in the attic or weird tape recordings of his backwards legion of babblers. When he steps into frame to make Regan MacNeil puke and stab herself in the crotch with a crucifix and spin her head and tell a priest that his “mother sucks cocks in Hell,” the Devil has been reduced to a less fearful creation, a purveyor of gross-out shtick. In this most famous and often-believed terrifying of Devil movies, he merely menaces one mother and daughter, their friends, and a couple of Van Helsing-wannabe priests. In a modern world with greater concerns than fictions such as him, the Devil has become just another movie monster.
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