Hello Reverend. Please introduce yourself.
REV. PETER LAWS: Hello my name’s Peter Laws. I am an ordained Reverend in the UK, but I’ve been a horror fan way longer than I’ve been a Christian. I write a horror column in Fortean Times magazine and run my own site called The Flicks The Church Forgot. My love of horror gene kicked in pretty young. I remember my teacher in junior school getting concerned. Because at 7yrs old I went to Glockenspiel class I taught myself how to play Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Exorcist. Actually, the echoes of that last tune, Tubular Bells, may well be ringing in your ears whenever you prepare to watch a new exorcism film, like The Vatican Tapes.
This type of horror is all about The Exorcist right?
REV. PETER LAWS: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist wasn’t the first to explore possession. Though most films before it were about being possessed by spirits or ghosts. The Exorcist was the film that exploded interest into a particular flavour of it. That being, religiously defined demonic possession. It wasn’t the first film to do that, but it was the most popular. So regarding The Vatican Tapes, we could easily say it’s another film influenced by The Exorcist but we have to remember that The Exorcist itself was influenced by the exorcism ritual. That’s a key point; exorcism films can have a similar vibe, and we can think they’re all ripping off one movie, but they’re presenting a particular religious phenomenon so there will be inevitable similarities.
The Vatican Tapes takes a left-field approach to the subject and has some interesting ideas in it including a moment which looks like a horror movie version of the egg scene from Airplane. And it also has a unique and intriguing ending.
Which are your favourites of this type of horror?
REV. PETER LAWS: I have a soft spot for Amityville II: The Possession (but mainly the bit before the actual exorcism). And I really liked the creepily ambiguous Lovely Molly from 2011. What’s interesting is that the church versus demon movie has made something of a resurgence in recent years. These films keep getting made at the moment.
Why has there been this resurgence do you think?
REV. PETER LAWS: Being cynical, maybe you could blame the economic crisis. Making a demon possession movie is a great credit crunch choice. You don’t that many characters, or big stars. You don’t need a full werewolf suit or giant CGI Cthulhu creature. You just need someone with a bit of heavy eye liner who’s willing to writhe, puke and swear a bit. Plus, you don’t need some giant gothic castle or extravagant set. They can conceivably be shot in mostly one location like a bedroom, perhaps. Though The Vatican Tapes does mix up its locations, which is nice.
Of course, finance isn’t the only reason these films keep getting made at the moment. They seem to press an interesting fear button in current society. We live in a world where many are turning away from the church and organized religion. And I can understand why people would want to do that. But horror movies have a habit of playing on the fears of what we’ve embraced.
In the ’70s and ’80s we celebrated materialism and directors like Bryan Yuzna and George Romero made films which said “What if that’s dangerous?” In the ’50s we embraced science and (quite rightly). But the big bug horror movies said… “What if that’s risky?” Now, in a world where we’re drawn to pure rationalism, demonic movies, and supernatural movies in general say…”What if we’re missing something?” What if ghosts or spirits or demons might have been real all along? We may or may not actually believe that. But most horror audiences, say let’s at least pretend it’s real for two hours. Because the idea of it seems to thrill us in some way.
So is demonic possession real?
REV. PETER LAWS: Well… Exorcisms are certainly happening. More and more apparently. And sometimes they have lead to tragic outcomes. From the German student Anneliese Michel who died from exorcism injuries, to the horrifying story of eight year old Victoria Climbié. Whose parents seemingly hit her with hammers, bike chines and wires in a supposed exorcism that eventually killed her. It’s cases like these that explain why the church can be so reluctant to grant exorcisms when asked. You see this scene in horror movies all the time where the family pleads with church for help and the clergy are like….”Nah. Not for us!” They seem reluctant, and stubborn about saying no. But this reticence reflects a very real worry of misdiagnosis. Because it is incredible easy for some to misdiagnose someone as ‘possessed’. Epilepsy and Tourette’s were at one time seen as demonic behaviour. And there’s a rare neurological condition called Alien Hand Syndrome where your hand takes on a life of its own. Think Evil Dead 2, only a lot more depressing because its real.
There’s an acute form of encephalitis where the human brain swells and causes behaviour that looks really demonic.
Can we ever know if something IS a real possession?
REV. PETER LAWS: We should always be aware of the socio-cognitive element of possession. Social Cognitive Theory says that we learn how to think and behave by observing the actions and patterns of others. We learn through society and the media. So for example, films like The Exorcist, The Devil Inside, The Vatican Tapes and others have taught us as a culture what it ‘looks like’ to be possessed. That’s another reason why these films can look similar – because we think we know what possession looks like… screaming and hiding from the religious symbols, using sexually aggressive language and writhing on a bed covered in sweat.
This can help explain why some people can actually appear cured by an exorcism even if they’re not demonically possessed. For whatever reason, they act in a way that makes them and others say they’re demonic and the church or family whip out a ritual that we all know ’sorts that out’. And so even if the supernatural isn’t involved, an exorcism ritual can be like a subconscious bit of theatre for both parties.
Does this happen a lot?
REV. PETER LAWS: Well I’ve heard of cases where people have actively wanted to be possessed. Like some Malaysian Factory workers, who acted possessed to act wilder than normal. And the great thing about possession is that you can be exorcised and at the end, you are cleansed and back to normal. You can say, “Well, that wasn’t me… that was Pazuzu. That was his bad, not mine!” So there’s a possible attraction in being a demon for a bit.
As a minister do you believe in demonic possession yourself?
REV. PETER LAWS: Well, I am extremely cautious about labelling someone possessed. I mean I know people who think I’m possessed because I’m a Christian who loves Halloween and horror! So I’m very cautious about pointing the demonic finger. And examples of some communities calling family members witches or demons are scary and have to be avoided. Plus, so much demonic possession can be faked. Swearing, screaming, having an aversion to religious symbols can just be an average Friday night for some people! The more dramatic manifestations…eyes whiting over, levitation, heads spinning. Maybe there’s documentary or video evidence out there of that in some real Vatican vault…? But I haven’t seen convincing examples of that yet. However, I’m sceptically cautious. I’m not willing to say that demonic possession doesn’t exist at all – largely because I believe in God – a belief that opens the door to peace but also a wild world of potential real horror.
Now God might not exist of course and this world might be purely rational, natural. But I suspect that God may well exist and therefore that opens the door to his counterpoint, the devil. And yes, once or twice I’ve been to houses where strange things are happening. And yes I’ve been called to a house where a woman showed signs of demonic possession. I got her GP involved straight away. But I prayed for her too. Because you never know…
So as you sit and watch The Vatican Tapes. Be aware that people exorcisms certainly do happen. It might even be happening right now as we speak. Whether or not there’s any supernatural power at work is up to you to decide. I like to keep an open mind…which I find makes life quite interesting. And horror movies, a little more thrilling.
Signature Entertainment Presents The Vatican Tapes on DVD & Blu-ray from 4th January, 2015