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Rationalists ought to be very annoyed by exorcist movies

The American Gothic – from The Exorcist to Scooby Doo – deals with the shadows that have not been banished by the Enlightenment

By on Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Anthony Hopkins stars in The Rite (courtesy of New Line Cinema)

Anthony Hopkins stars in The Rite (courtesy of New Line Cinema)

I have been thinking Gothic thoughts of late, sparked off by a trip to see The Rite, the current exorcism movie.

My review of it appears in the April edition of Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral, on sale at the back of the cathedral, but not available online. Further to this I had a conversation with a leading expert on Gothic literature, Dr Maria Purves of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

We sat in warm sunshine on the banks of the Cam, which was most unGothic: I will try to crystallise my thoughts below. Incidentally, Dr Purves’s book on the Gothic and Catholicism is well worth a look:

What is the appeal of the Gothic today? It seems to me that the best Gothic movie of all time is The Exorcist, which fits into the category of the American Gothic; also in this tradition is The Blair Witch Project.

Both of these films deal with the shadows that have not been banished by the Enlightenment. The Exorcist is set in Georgetown, Washington, the very heartland of the American project, where reason is supposed to rule. Again, at one point in The Blair Witch Project, someone wonders how such events can happen in America today. The American Gothic’s stock in trade is the way that the supernatural remains unexplained. Of course, Hollywood films are harmless fun – or are they? I reckon that the rationalists of our day ought to be very annoyed about movies like The Exorcist, which suggest that there are some things that remain impervious to scientific explanation. They might also like to turn their attention to Scooby Doo, while they are at it – a topic that Dr Purves is interested in, and which I had better leave to her.

But what about Gothic architecture? Or more exactly neo-Gothic and Gothic Revival? The appeal of these lies in their reference to tradition. Neo-Gothic is about continuity with the past, not rupture; it is about feeling, not classical remoteness and coolness; and it summons up the idea of a building that is the product of a community of artists and craftsmen. It represents a protest against the industrial age and the age of mass production. Neo-Gothic architecture is out of sympathy with a centrally planned economy; it is rather an architecture with its own vision of humanity and society that is far from socialism. In religion it allies itself with Catholicism; and in politics…? Is the neo-Gothic the forerunner of what David Cameron calls the Big Society? Might the neo-Gothic be a good way into getting people to understand this otherwise rather amorphous concept?

  • Anonymous

    NO!!!!

    Because it isn’t…

    We are called by Christ to be the Salt of the Earth:NOT Chalk Dust in the Whitewash.

    Yes Catholicism is Radical; Revolutionary against the Earthly Powers by wielding Unearthly Spiritual Power and Authority: We are Gothic in our Romantic, Revolutionary Defiance to it all – we serve; we sacrifice; we fight; we defend and protect – we wage a war against our neighbour’s temporal adversaries on a physical, social, global, moral, political, intellectual and spiritual ground.

    Love Commands it: Love Demands it: We are Called to Love and ensure that others know they are Loved.

    Fr Alexander you fall into such trivial traps – as if hegelianism was ever a worthy consideration? It was the stoical metaphysical lie that there is no beyond except in what is here already – we are not cattle – we are not what either society or our nurturing or our interactions or our neurochemistry makes us – we are what God makes us!!!

    Socialism is only a lie because it was never enough – The Corporal works of Mercy demand more from us; for they expect us to do everything in, for and with Christ.

    …and now we are expected to fall into this mephistophelian trap?

    WE HAD CATHOLIC SOCIAL ACTION – IT WAS CALLED A PARISH – A SCHOOL – A HOSPITAL – AN ORPHANAGE – A UNIVERSITY – A CHARITY – A MISSION – A HOSTEL – A HOSPICE…..

    …and what did we do?
    We have reneged, dissociated, disenfranchised, disseminated, dispossessed and destroyed !!!

    NO-NO-NO-NO!!!!

    If we are to survive we MUST reclaim our Catholic Identity, Heritage, Tradition, Mandate & Mission!!!!

    …and we do that on our own ground to our own terms and in our own way.

    For now we have the unmitigated obscenity of the Archbishop of Westminster and his brother Bishops and the majority of their clergy and professional laity acolytes abrogating their entire Pastoral, Moral, Doctrinal and Spiritual duties and responsibilities and making the ludicrous, farcical, duplicitous call for ‘Catholic Social Action’…

    When their words, actions and thoughts are NOT CATHOLIC
    They alienate and disenfranchise, they isolate, comparmentalise and fracture; rather than being anything truly SOCIAL – They’ve forgotten the meaning…
    & the last thing on their minds – amidst all the committees, clades, quorums,mission statements, enabling junctures, facilitating commission and co-ordinating strategies for a new ‘common good’ paradigm….the last thing they will ever do is resort to real, true and authentic…ACTION!!!!!

    Hell mend us : God forgive us when we call for Catholic Social Action when the English Church’s entire policy for decade has to be destroy every last residual trace of it…..

    Ok +Vin : You want a corporate venture run by Ivereigh-clones in an Alinsky-nightmare with a Cameron/Blond sky-blue pink hue?
    Have it! Stay in your Ivory towers and hide from your God and your neighbour!!

    While the rest of us try and reclaim the Church and go about doing God’s work for you – and without you.

  • MP

    The novel (“The Exorcist”) by William Peter Blatty is extraordinary too, and completely overlooked as a work in the Gothic tradition. Your idea about its Washington setting is spot on.

  • Lyndon12

    paulpriest……….is there any chance you might contact me…..an ex catholic priest who is in agreement with your views. I enjoyed reading what you said. lyndon12@virginmedia.com is my address.

    Thanks…..Lyndon