Better the devil you know…

20/11/08 | Posted by feihero

Leprous gay priest flayed alive in sauna (by demoniac). These are the kind of headlines even the Sunday Sport might hesitate to publish. So it is perhaps surprising to find them effectively summing up the conclusion of a new BBC Drama. Or, more chillingly, setting the tone at the beginning of one. Apparitions, which continues tonight, has managed to cause an unprecedented range of offence – with Catholics, Evangelicals, atheists on the Richard Dawkins Forum, and a host of newspaper reviewers, all stepping up to stone Martin Shaw et al. for sins ranging from dubious theology to ‘a silly plot’. But peel back the first impressions of this Buffy-meets-The-Exorcist thriller and you might find it possessed of something far older and more powerful than any of the critics have yet confronted.

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 Incorporating Monsters

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.” Luke 11 vv 24 NLT

These are the words, from the Gospel of Luke, quoted by Father Jacob, the reluctant exorcist at the centre of Joe Ahearne’s drama. It is a typically enigmatic statement from Jesus – unexplained, but likely to give you pause if you fancy doing battle with the forces of darkness. It also seems curiously appropriate in the context of a phenomenon that many imagined had been driven out of the psyche of ordinary English folk, around the time we stopped burning women for being…well, generally for being any kind of threat. Instead of ridding ourselves of the idea of demons and witches, we find that our attempts to brush under the carpet the very concept of ‘evil’ have created an empty space into which stream, not just innumerable programs like these, but news of child abuse in the guise of exorcism on one hand, and a growing affiliation with witchcraft on the other.

Humans need demons. And ways of exorcising them. Or rather, we need a vocabulary for evil. A way to identify the powers that compel people to act in ways that contradict their sense of what is right, or even simply of what they want. And we need to be able to distinguish between evildoers and evil itself, if we are ever to escape the cycles of harm perpetuated by demonizing others (however monstrous) without recognizing the seeds of their cruelty in ourselves. You cannot kill murderousness by killing a murderer, but neither do monsters disappear if you call them something nicer, or stop believing in them altogether – whatever your mum told you.

Worse off than before?

Father Jacob’s methods might be deeply destructive, you may have no truck with bell, book and candle - certainly there is no defending the persecution of people deemed witches or demoniacs in any culture. But, as the BBC’s other supernatural drama Merlin has been spelling out for weeks, fear of ‘magic’, loathing of the damage done in its name, and despair at superstition can leave you with an interesting dilemma. If we burn all the ancient scrolls, where we will we look for answers when our enemies turn out to something other than just flesh and blood?

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