Don't Make the Devil the Fall Guy

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Don't Make the Devil the Fall Guy


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


The devil is the world's most notorious scapegoat, taking the blame for humankind's worst sins. Playing the devil's advocate, Patrick McCormick pins the pointed tail on the real culprits of evil deeds -- guess who?

The Devil made me do it. -- comedian Flip Wilson

In spite of the fact that Christmas is traditionally a time for movies about angels, my personal favorite of last holiday season was a film about the devil. The local theaters were filled with stories about fallen angels.

In "The Preacher's Wife" Denzel Washington plummets to earth in response to a prayer for help and falls a little further when he comes under Whitney Houston's romantic spell. And in "Michael" John Travolta is a beer-guzzling brawler with molting wings who falls far below Andie MacDowell's expectations of what an angel should be. ("I'm not that kind of an angel," Travolta tells her.)

But it's in "The Crucible," a film based on Arthur Miller's play, that we are treated to ringside seats at a courtroom drama about the biggest fall guy of them all, the devil, otherwise known as Satan, Lucifer, Mephistopheles, and Beelzebub.

Not that this is the devil's first dramatic appearance. In fact, down through the ages the Prince of Lies has played so many parts that a critic might well describe him as "the angel with a thousand (admittedly dirty) faces." One of his most famous roles, of course, has been that of the great tempter or seducer -- a part he first played to perfection in The Fall of Man, Genesis 3 (if that was Satanin a serpent"s guise) and later reprised with much less success in the early chapters of Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- where Jesus turned the old boy down flat.

Still, it would seem that you can't keep a bad angel down, and so over the years Lucifer has continued to pop up in literature and drama, trying to get all sorts of folks to sell their soul in exchange for such treasures as youth and brilliance (1968's "Dr. Faustus"), a little wealth (1941's "The Devil and Daniel Webster"), or even a baseball pennant (1958's "Damn Yankees"). At the same time Satan has also often been cast as the proverbial rebel without a cause. In both the Book of Revelation and Milton's Paradise Lost, the devil (or the Anchrist) is not just a fallen angel, but the leader of an armed rebellion against God, threatening heaven and earth with the sort of apocalyptic Armageddon that would make a nuclear war look like a video game.

Most recently this brooding and violent warrior and his minions have appeared in our local theaters and video outlets in the "Omen" trilogy ( "The Omen," "Damien: Omen II," and "The Final Conflict"), Stephen King's "The Stand," and a number of even more forgettable imitators. No doubt we will be seeing more of these bad boys as our calendars approach the next millennium.

In "The Crucible," however, the devil is not cast as either a seducer or archfiend, but as something more frightening -- a child's lie run amok. In Miller's drama about the Salem witch-trials, Satan is not an alienpresence come to tempt or disrupt, but a self-serving fiction made up by children -- and accepted by their self-righteous elders. It's a fable about hobgoblins and demons invented to shift blame away from one's self to gain a terrible advantage over others.

To paraphrase Martin Luther, it is not the devil who is riding these children and their parents, but the "good and righteous" citizens of Salem who are riding the devil like a toy horse that has been made to do their bidding.

In the film version of "The Crucible," young Abigail Williams (Winona Ryder) and her friends find they can get out of a little adolescent mischief by crying "Satan!" in a crowded church. And soon they are emboldened to make all sorts of false accusations against anyone they dislike, and are egged on in this witch hunt by a host of parents and clergy with their own mixed motives.

It isn't long before ascorned Abigail claims to have seen the devil walking with her former lover's wife and accuses Goody Proctor of witchcraft.

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