Two years ago, Hollywood convinced us we wanted to see The Exorcist. This was a whole new direction, it said. The ads were understated: you saw the silhouette of a solitary man in a homburg, casting an ominous shadow. You did not know who he was. He looked very much like an approaching strangler or medium, and the darker side of your imagination stirred in anticipation. As it happened, he was a priest, and a saintly one at that. He was the exorcist.

Now, most cinema-goers had never, Hollywood knew, come across exorcism. So it all had to be explained. The film did an excellent job of corralling everyone into this dark and straitened defile, and by the time the action got round to the exorcism itself, you knew what was going on. You knew that this was something more thrilling than counseling or surgery or psychoanalysis. When you were up against the wall, and the situation defied all the craft of science, you turned to the Church and her ancient wisdom and powers.

The shrewd thing about The Exorcist was that it didn’t turn to witchcraft or necromancy or any other form of the occult for its thrills. It used rare stuffs that lie, not in the dens of the warlocks, but in the sacristies of the Church. It was not heterodoxy you saw but orthodoxy, all splayed out across the bloody screen.

The confusing and horrifying thing about the film to the orthodox imagination was, of course, that it was Hollywood that was doing this. The entertainment industry had reached its long hairy arm into the sacristy and had pulled out the most recondite things it could find. It had no more idea about the taboos that surround the use of these things than it had about the splendors of the City of God. It was like a baboon that had found communion wafers in the pyx, squeaking and gibbering and playing tiddly-winks and shove-ha’penny with the little discs. Even for Protestant Christians, who, if they believe in exorcism at all, would tend to try to accomplish it by prayer alone, the spectacle was obscene.

Hollywood is very astute. Its barometers still show The Violent and The Bizarre to be drifting about in the atmosphere. But another build-up of cloud has clearly showed up on the gauge. It is The Prophetic.

As far as the film-makers are concerned, this reading is just another subdivision of the bigger category Box Office. They have picked up exciting low-pressure indications like Planet Earth and Armageddon and Anti-Christ. “Now what’s all this?” they ask themselves. “What’s this that people are buying now? What? Prophecy? The Bible? Now wait—tell us more. Where’s a Bible? What page? Revelation? Where’s that? At the end? Oh. Right. Let’s see now [flip, flip, flip] … oh … is this it—this about the Beast, and battle, and signs in heaven and on earth? Hey, that’s pretty good. Now are you sure that this stuff is selling? I mean, is anyone beside Billy Graham talking about it?” And so forth.

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So they have made us a film about that now. Oh no—you won’t see St. Michael in armor flying on Pegasus through the air over Palestine, or the hosts of Gog and Magog and the Chief Prince of Meshech and Tubal surging towards Esdraelon. You will see Gregory Peck as the American ambassador to the Court of St. James, Lee Remick as his wife, and their five-year-old “son” (there was a hugger-mugger birth-exchange, actually), who turns out to be the agent through whom the Devil proposes to begin his End-time moves. (The producers have made a pretty muddle of prophecy, so do not imagine that you will need the theologians to help you sort it out: it is pre-Sunday-school stuff.) With this scenario, they can do almost anything, and they do. There is a black dog, example, with glittering eyes and red mouth, who growls menacingly when anything awful is about to happen, the way Peter Lorre whistled “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in the movie M just before he murdered his child-victims.

I had an odd experience with this nefarious dog as I sat in the nearly empty theater at the shopping mall in Manchester, New Hampshire, at a 3 P.M. showing. A menacing panting and snuffing began to sound just under a seat nearby. No one was near me; there were only about six people in the whole theater. I thought at first it was the stereophonic sound, arranged under our seats to frighten us. But it wasn’t. Then I thought perhaps it was someone who had fainted during the 1 P.M. showing and was now coming to life. But I could find no body. I thought of a stray dog skulking about, but there was none. Finally I tried out my own breathing: perhaps I was puffing asthmatically and the acoustics of the theater were bringing it back to me from a few feet away. But I could not get it to synchronize with the noises. So I did what you do when you find yourself alone with the unmanageable: I sought company. I moved back to where two boys and an old man were sitting. I thought that if some miserable and blackguardly ghost were going to use this tawdry scene for an entry (and for any Christian this is never completely ruled out), he’d have to cope with more than one person.

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In any event, there is a black dog, and there are prophecies (all higgledy-piggledy), and strange people who know things, and then a sequence of increasingly sinister events that takes you from London to Rome to the excavations at Megiddo, and that finally leads to the violent death of every single character in the film.

I do not think I am spoiling a good story for you by letting the cat (the dog?) out of the bag like this. The first thing to be said about the film is that it is not worth anyone’s two hours or two dollars. For a start, Hollywood and its actors have no resources, emotional, dramatic, or intellectual, to draw on for this sort of subject matter, and hence have to draw on their usual bag of melodrama, sentimentalism, and sham-horror, evoked for the audience by stuttering, brimming eyes, jutting jaws, gritted teeth, and mad dashes up and down stairs. Gregory Peck may have talent, but he is miscast here.

Besides this, the “special effects” are not nearly so stunning as they were in The Exorcist. (If it is objected that I am spending too much time in comparison with that film, the rejoinder is that the makers of this film have invited, nay forced, such comparisons, by patently trying to cash in on the Exorcist market. They will have to live with the comparisons they have purchased.) In The Omen, you have people dangling from ropes and crashing through high windows to the street below, and one man’s head being sheared neatly off by a huge pane of glass that slips from a truck, and a priest impaled with a toppling lightning rod at the door of a church, and so forth. The unnerving thing about all this is that the producers are apparently correct in supposing that you can mix biblical prophecy and this sort of jejune carrying-on, and get the public to buy it. It is like trying to dramatize the Ascension by using the Pink Panther: it is bad enough to find it done at all, but infinitely more dismaying to discover that it is selling.

But there is more than film criticism to be done here. Two points need to be made. First, a film like this is, alas, a yardstick. You can tell something about a civilization from its artifacts. If they are made of enameled gold, that indicates something. If they are made of polystyrene foam, that suggests something else. If you find copies of Sophocles buried in the rubble, you can make some guesses about what the people liked. If you find cans full of celluloid strips with spectacles like The Omen recorded on them, you can guess what they liked.

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When a civilization has jettisoned the platitudes of plain, ancient, moral truth that are the very guardians and guarantors of its people’s real freedom and joy, then it sets itself on the feverish quest for excitements to replace that moral truth. This quest leads with depressing predictability straight through from the diverting to the odd to the bizarre to the grotesque to the bestial to the demonic. With increasing stimulus, boredom sets in, and at the same time the threshold of people’s capacity for being aroused goes up and up. This is why pornography, orgies, violence, gladiatorial combats, and jiggery-pokery crop up in rotting civilizations: people are bored with ordinariness and don’t know what to do, and it takes more and more to rouse them from their ennui. I was amazed, for example, at the sheer force of the sounds and colors used for the screen announcements that told us we could smoke only in the rest rooms, could rent the theater auditorium, and so on. These items were accompanied by crashing Sousa-type fanfares over the PA system and whirling kaleidoscopic and stroboscopic effects on the screen. Clearly we are a people who need to be assaulted if we are to be budged at all. The Omen was made for the likes of us.

Secondly, the film is a disquieting reflection of the vocabulary and preoccupations of contemporary pop Christianity, and the evangelical church is not without guilt here. Biblical hucksters in the last seventy-five years have made Daniel, the Gospels, and Revelation their toys, giving us wild and vivid pictures and graphs as to what it was all about. Evangelicalism bought a great deal of this trinketry and helped to bruit it abroad, and Hollywood has heard the sound thereof. In so doing, this wing of the Church departed from the ancient stream of catholic orthodoxy that has always affirmed, “We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge,” but has at the same time been reluctant to nail a given prophetic text down to a given historic event of either the past or the future. Dragons and phials and bowls and horsemen and falling stars and splitting mountains—what do they all mean? They mean something, surely, but it is something infinitely more dread and real than what our charts depict for us. And it will all be recognizable when the time comes. The recognition will not come from alchemists and grizzled hermits with their retorts and their cabala, or even from shouting stump-preachers with their flapping Bibles. It will come, rather, from holy souls who have lived faithfully in obedience to those ancient platitudes of moral truth found, not by picking the Scriptures to bits and Scotch-taping them back together into a scrapbook, but by submitting their entire imagination to the whole counsel of God.

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