"Passion Tickets Bear Mark of Beast!" Otherworldly Realism, Religious Authority and Popular Film

Article excerpt

Diana Walsh-Pasulka

Assistant Professor Department of Philosophy and Religion

University of North Carolina, Wilmington

Abstract

Much of the scholarship that examines the connections between film and religion is based on the assumption that there is a clear distinction between film reality and the reality of everyday life. In other words, viewers suspend their belief structures while enjoying a film about the supernatural, but they always maintain a conscious separation between the film and reality. This assumption is complicated when considering the urban legends and stories surrounding films like The Exorcist and The Passion of the Christ. The discourse that surrounds these films, the urban legends, tales and folklore, reveal a realism with respect to the supernatural and religion that defies the assumption of the film's status as fantasy. They literally bring the supernatural to life. In this way, they blur the assumed boundary between film reality and ordinary reality. In this sense they function much like a religious icon as used in popular devotional practices.

The Power of Popular Religious Movies

[1] The Passion of the Christ quickly rose to the top of the list of the most financially successful movies of all time, sharing the honour with other notable films such as The Sixth Sense and The Exorcist. A cursory review of this list reveals that if financial success is any indication of widespread popularity, then the viewing public is fascinated with movies involving supernatural and religious themes. Although the popular representation of religion is widely addressed by scholars, one aspect of this phenomenon has been paid relatively little attention-the urban legends surrounding these popular movies. An examination of these legends, stories and folktales reveals a dimension of these films that is a potent social force-the belief that the sacred or supernatural is at work in the lives of those whom produce, star in, and view the movies. The belief in the realism of the religious aspects of thematically religious films is well illustrated by a few popular examples. The Exorcist is widely regarded as the scariest movie of all time. The film became infamous due to the trauma and visceral reactions produced in its audience, and it was associated with a curse that supposedly caused several deaths. The fact that the movie was based on a "real" life case of demon possession added to the realism of the movie's effects. More currently, a similar discourse of realism is attributed to The Passion of the Christ. Lead actor James Caviezel (Jesus) was hit by lightning during the making of the film. Mel Gibson (writer and produce of The Passion of the Christ), in an interview on national radio, reflected on the metaphysical implications of the lightening incident: "you can't deny it-how many times does lightening strike people anyway, and on the same movie set?" 1 The dominant interpretation given to these real events (the "real" story of The Exorcist and its curse, the fact that Caviezel was hit by lightening) is that the supernatural is at work in the production and release of these films. This interpretation is even supported by the film writers/directors. William Blatty (writer and producer of The Exorcist) acknowledges that The Exorcist is a fictional narrative modeled on non-fictional accounts of exorcisms, and hopes that his movie will cause people to consider the real existence of the devil.

[2] This essay examines how thematically religious movies produce beliefs regarding the supernatural, as illustrated in the popular legends and tales surrounding them. If, as other scholars have argued, certain films perform a religious function in our society, then this aspect of film, its ability to reveal the supernatural in ordinary existence, is an important phenomenon that has yet to be explored. These stories and legends reveal that audiences believe that these films instigate real effects, from miraculous cures to curses that kill. …