By Max Johnson

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a (perhaps somewhat unhealthy) love of all kinds of movies and television shows, often gleaming from them various philosophical and /or theological insights I can share with my students. I usually find at least something of interest even in “bad” or poorly reviewed films.

In that light, I’d like to say a few words in defense of a much maligned little “horror” film from 2012, The Devil Inside. The film (directed by William Brent Bell) is one of those so-called “found footage” horror films made so popular these days by films like The Blair Witch Project, The Last Exorcism, and, of course, theParanormal Activity series.  The idea behind this style of filmmaking is as follows. Documentaries are “real.” “Real” events are scarier than “make-believe” ones.  Thus, the more “documentary-like” a scary movie is, the scarier it will be.  At least that’s the theory.

In practice, these films have had mixed results.  Too much shaky camerawork, some complain. Too little attention to plot and storytelling, others say. The criticisms of The Devil Inside were many: It was too slow, too serious, too talky, and (ironically) perhaps a little TOO much like actually documentary “raw” footage. In other words, horror fans complained that the film was simply not scary enough.

But not so fast. I wonder if perhaps we’ve grown so accustomed to “cheap” audio/visual scares (while at the same time becoming increasingly desensitized by the very real horrors that assault us on the evening news every night) that we’ve gotten away from pure old fashioned “empathetic” horror, something we may find horrific if we imaginatively placed ourselves in a character’s shoes.

Well, whether one finds The Devil Inside “scary” or not will probably depend on how much you actually believein this stuff (demons, demonic possession, exorcisms, etc.). In any event, I would argue that it is at the very least an interesting psychological /spiritual exploration of identity, evil, and theodicy.

[Spoilers!] The plot of the film is basic enough. It revolves around Isabella Rossi, a twenty-something “lapsed” Catholic, who desperately is looking for answers about the abrupt shift in her mother’s personality, a shift that culminated in her mother brutally murdering three clergy members during what appears to be an exorcism.

The film explores (via the differing opinions of students at the Vatican’s exorcism training school) the usual panoply of interpretations of what might be REALLY going on during supposed “possession events,” including both psychological (schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, multiple personality disorder) and physiological (epilepsy, brain tumors, drugs) explanations.

Interestingly, the makers of the film want us to reject these mundane explanations in favor of a more horrific and unsettling realization: demons are real, and you better take them seriously. (We even meet two “rouge” priests who perform exorcisms without official Church sanction, believing the Church has become too bureaucratic and too secular.  And at one point late in the film, the protagonist herself seems to be suffering from demonic influence, her fear of “catching her mother’s disease” disturbingly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Space forbids a more through exegesis, but the overarching “message” of the film (and the reason I think it deserves another look) is clear: not only do
“dark powers” really exist, but one should never attempt to confront them without proper “faith,” mental preparation and “spiritual protection.”

Talk about your provocative conversation starters.