Beyond “The Exorcist”: Demons reinvented

Sunday morning, January 28, 2018

You’re using a Ouija board or taking part in a séance. Something goes horribly wrong. Things in the house start moving of their own accord. Someone gets possessed. They start levitating and muttering in ancient languages. A brave exorcist arrives, and after a struggle, sends the demonic entity back to Hell and saves the day. Sound familiar? Most noteworthy demon-centric horror films have followed this basic outline, and most, if not all, have had strong elements of, or ties to, Christianity. My previous blog post talked about changing things up and doing different types of films and stories, and this post is very much in a similar vein. Also, at the time of writing, it’s almost Sunday, so I thought it adorably ironic to delve into the occult.

The concept of demons has existed since time immemorial. In Jewish folklore, you’ve got the shedim and the dybbuk. In Christian Biblical apocrypha, you have Azazel, Lilith, Mammon, and Abalam, to name a few. The Central Africans fear a demon named Mbwiri, while the Slavs and Poles have Czort. The Egyptians despised a snake deity named Apophis, while the Persians dreaded the demonic Azhi Dahak. Even modern folkloric creatures have demonic elements and attributes, including Slender Man and Zozo, both of which are often associated with Ouija boards. Point is, there is no one way in which to do a demon series or movie, and there is no one, single culture or lore that one must pull from in order to do it.
Why, then, do we get the same story rehashed a thousand and one times? It’s almost always about possession and exorcism, with the victim usually being an attractive young woman, and the savior almost always being an old, white, male priest. I mean, talk about a lack of representation. You might as well have Donald Trump playing the exorcist and Paris Hilton playing the possessee. *holds up hand in the form of an ‘OK’ sign* “I did not fail to exorcise the demon – that’s fake news. Fake news, folks! I had to pull the demon out of her, you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever. These demons are very bad! They’re bringing crime, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing rapists . . . ”

But I digress. Anyway, how about shaking things up a little? What if the exorcism fails, right at the beginning of the film, and the priest is brutally killed? Where do things go from there? That would be interesting. What if the possessed victim seeks help, only to discover that there is no God? How about a horrific mass possession that takes place in ancient Persia? What about a western film, where a deputy is possessed and a former outlaw has to save the town? What about a film where a guy or girl is inducted into a demonic cult? Speaking of cults, how about a film that actually explores the ludicrous idea of the Illuminati, in which our politicians are actually inhabited by malevolent spirits from Hell? That would be fun to explore. Here are a few more ideas for how you can reinvent demons in a series or movie:

Aliens are demons

Some people who believe demonic spirits to be real, also believe that they and aliens are one and the same. This is a rather intriguing line of thinking. After all, in most mythology, lore, and religion, demons are, by definition, extraterrestrial. The idea that UFOs are demonic, and that we must fear not what is beneath us under the earth but rather, what is up, in the sky above, is something that is potentially terrifying, and takes the idea of alien abduction out of the realm of sci-fi and into the realm of horror. And think about it. There’s some evidence to support the idea that the ancient Egyptians believed in aliens yet worshipped them as gods, and in the Bible, it’s said that demons, like Baal, saw themselves as just that – gods and idols to be worshipped. Don’t believe me? Read about the Midianites and Baal-Peor (Belphegor). According to scripture, God was so freaked out by the demon-worship that he ordered Moses to collect an army and completely wipe out Midian.

You could take this sort of Biblical material and use it as a backstory for a demonic, alien abduction or invasion. And there is something inherently similar about aliens and demons in popular culture – see, for example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which essentially had people being possessed by extraterrestrials, sans the religious and occult elements. Even H. P. Lovecraft toyed with the idea of aliens-as-demons: see the byakhee, of the Cthulhu Mythos. There’s no reason why we can’t bring the concept into the modern era.

Demonic mass conspiracy

This is actually an idea I’ve had for my own book series (aside from the fantasy series I’m working on). Basically The X-Files but with demons, this would use the idea of a mass intergovernmental conspiracy as the main narrative jumping off point. We certainly have enough real-world, batshit crazy conspiracy theories to pull from, so I’m rather surprised that no one has examined this idea already. You could have the Vatican be in on it, too, if you want to include religious aspects. What if the Illuminati exists and has demonic origins? What about those theories of tunnels and underground cities beneath the Ozarks? That kind of dark, isolated area has the perfect potential to be a breeding ground for all sorts of nasty Hellish entities. What if the Big Banks and capitalist politicians are demonic? Suddenly, Mike Pence’s leering grin takes on an even more sinister presence, and you also have the opportunity to make social or political commentary.

Have you heard about targeted individuals and electronic harrassment? It’s yet another nutty conspiracy theory that has tons of support online, especially among certain members of the YouTube community. Basically, it’s the idea that the government is perpetually spying on, controlling, drugging, psychologically manipulating, and electronically assaulting everyday people. Some supposed T.I.’s (targeted individuals) even believe that demons are behind it, and simply using governments and corporations to get this done. Well, there you go! Sometimes it takes a lunatic to birth a really exciting and creative idea! After all, something rooted in a real-world delusions or folklore always has more potential to be truly unsettling or horrific, if you ask me.

Do Robotic Demons Dream of Electric Goats?

Some 10 years ago (or more), I saw a movie called Pulse, which was about evil spirits that used technology and electronics in order to torment people, taking their souls and pulling them into this Hell-like kind of cyberspace. The movie itself was kinda lame, but the concept was fantastic, and even after watching the film and kind of sighing at the lackluster acting and the PG-13 “safe” feeling it had, I was mildly unsettled at the mere idea that there would be something evil or inhuman watching or contacting you through the computers, phones, and electrical systems upon which you depend. I also saw a story once, on one of those Unsolved Mysteries-type dramas, in which a woman claimed that demons were traveling along electrical wires and manifesting in the form of lightning bolts, and that there were more of them around, and they were stronger, during a storm. Either of these two ideas can form the basis of a really disturbing movie or series.

Think about it. Someone puts in their earbuds and listens to a distorted sound in a video online, and it scrambles their brain and lets a demon into their body. A possessed stalker torments a young woman by appearing to her using the camera in her smartphone, and can turn that phone on to find and track her location, or just to listen in (wait, doesn’t the NSA already do this? They’re demons!!!). How about an interesting twist, where demons appear beneath streetlights or whenever you shine a flashlight or turn on a computer screen, and the only way to get away from them is to be in total darkness? What about robots or androids? What if someone thinks it’s artificial intelligence, but really, it’s an evil, inhuman intelligence controlling them?

There is so much more you can do with this, and I think that because technology today moves at such a rapid pace and many people don’t fully understand it, there’s so much room there to do something that scares the shit out of people. These are just a few ideas to get someone started, but come on. How is something like this not worth exploring? There are so many horror fans out there, and so many of them rightly complain that horror movies have gotten stale, boring, and predictable. When’s the last time a demonic film made someone feel really nerve-wracked or ill after seeing it? Maybe it’s time for demons to get born again.

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