Scott Derrickson: a three-dimensional view on good and evil

So, how do we present realistic, 3 dimensional views of the world in our stories, while not abandoning our convictions about what lies behind that reality?

That is the question we’ve been thinking about for the last while (you can catch the last two posts here and here). And we’ve been particularly thinking about good and evil. How do we permeate our stories with a sense that these values are real and significant while presenting characters who are neither all good or all bad?

We bounced into this question from the springboard of animated features, but apologies to lovers of My Neigbor Totoro or Snow White, today we’re hurtling into a whole different genre altogether.

Well, surely one option is simply to break the whole thing open and bring the spiritual powers to the forefront. This approach obviously has a venerable tradition in Christian literature (Paradise Lost anyone?) and has been continued, admittedly in less high brow fashion, in the modern fiction of the likes of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. I remember my church recommending Peretti’s This Present Darkness to me as an early teen. The basic set up is that there are human characters and there are also angelic and demonic characters. The humans do their thing  while angels and demons kind of pull the strings in the background and also have a massive scrap if I remember rightly.

But I don’t remember my church recommending The Exorcism of Emily Rose quite so passionately. Or Sinister. Or The Conjuring. However, in many ways, these movies are doing exactly the same. They’re written (and in the case of TEoER and Sinister, also directed) by Christians, with the express purpose of revealing the reality of the spiritual world to a cynical secular audience. And they really do have an audience – Emily Rose raked in $140 million worldwide! These are rare examples of self identifying Christians making self consciously Christian art and getting a significant audience outside of the church.

The head scratcher is, if you haven’t spotted it yet, these are all horror movies. You know, the ones with posters on the buses that you have to distract your kids from. There’s blood coming out of people’s eyes, scratchy violin soundtracks, possessed children talking in Latin – the whole works.

Whereas the Christian paperbacks of Peretti and Dekker often featured good and bad spiritual forces, Christian film makers Scott Derrickson and Chad and Carey Hayes simply dwell on the baddies in the heavenly realms. These are films that focus on demonic possession and haunting, and for that reason aren’t natural fodder for church youth group film nights. However, the film makers make no secret of their intentions to encourage people to think about the claims of Christianity and consider the foundations of the Christian worldview.

Derrickson seems to be the most thought through in how his faith relates to his films:

“I love the horror genre for how cinematic it is… I gravitated, I think, initially, toward the horror genre because, of all the genres, I think it is the genre that is most friendly to the subject matter of faith and belief in religion. The more frightening and sort of dark and oppressive a movie is, the more free you are to explore the supernatural and explore faith. The two just somehow go hand-in-hand really nicely. I became very interested in it for that reason, and The Screwtape Letters was the beacon.” (Full interview here)

Indeed, Derrickson cites not just CS Lewis, but another Sputnik favourite, Flannery O’Connor as a major influence on his practice:

She said to the deaf you have to shout and to the blind you have to draw large and startling pictures. That phrase itself is as good of an apologetic for horror as you’re ever going to speak. (Full interview)

Indeed, bringing it right back to our topic of good and evil, Derrickson is quite clear:

“If we’re not compelled to gain a deeper understanding of good and evil, how can we make the world a better place? How can we find ourselves at the end of our lives and know that our lives were significant? Those things would be impossibilities.” (From the same Christianity Today interview linked to above)

I must admit that when I first heard about this guy, I was pretty sceptical, but being intrigued (and quite impressed) with the interviews I’d seen, I decided to check out The Exorcism of Emily Rose on Netflix. What surprised me was how Derrickson really wears his heart on his sleeve in this film. The premise is simple. A very troubled girl dies and subsequently her priest is tried for criminal negligence, as he’d treated her as if she was demon possessed, whereas others had a more regular medical diagnosis of her condition. In essence then, it is an extended court case, pitting naturalism against supernaturalism. The main protagonist, an ambitious and agnostic lawyer defending the priest, never quite moves to Christian faith but certainly embraces some sort of spirituality as the film progresses. Another character, a doctor who witnessed a failed exorcism of the girl, admits that he’d started praying again since the experience. And just in case you were in any doubt about what Derrickson is up to, he lets Emily Rose herself explain it in a letter she’d given to the priest just before she died:

…In the end good will triumph over evil, through my experience people will know that demons are real. People say that God is dead but how can they think that if I show them the devil.

It’s certainly not a classic of modern cinema (although the Chicago Film Critics Association rates it as the 86th scariest movie of all time), but I think I’m growing to like this guy. Will people go to watch his films because of an unhealthy fascination with dark spiritual stuff? Yes. Is there a danger that by focusing on the more superstitious sides of Christianity, some people may see all Christian faith in this light? Possibly. But let’s face it, if Scott Derrickson had quit film school and become a plumber, people would still be fascinated with the occult and poo-poo Christianity as silly hokum.

Benjamin Harris once said that Christian art should ‘ask the questions implied in existence, to which Christ is the ultimate answer’, and this is exactly what Scott Derrickson is doing. I can’t speak for the rest of his body of work, but Emily Rose would certainly spark discussion about spiritual realities and could well lead people to Christ. It might cause some others not to want to be left alone in their homes after dark for a couple of months, but surely this is a reasonable trade off. And if this isn’t your thing, just don’t watch it! For those for whom this is their thing, I don’t think there are many other Christians in the world right now who are engaging them so effectively in conversation.

So to bring things back to our original question, if we want to set out stories in a world of moral absolutes and real spiritual good and evil, perhaps there are times when we can simply present those powers explicitly. Some artists, like Scott Derrickson, seem to be raising some very important questions in our culture in just this way. As I mentioned in the last post though, I think this is much easier to do with the devil and demons, than with God and angels, and I’d love to be able to fire off a load of examples of Christian artists who can present supernatural goodness in such a way that the world at large is willing to shell out $140 million to dwell on it. Unfortunately I can’t. If you can think of any, I’d love to hear of them though (Bruce Almighty and Paul Hogan’s Almost an Angel don’t count).

In fact, I’d love to hear any responses to this series of posts either on the comments section here, on Facebook or twitter. Please feel free to disagree as well. I think it’s really important that, while we create authentically and with freedom, we do pay attention to the  way our work influences others, and wherever you land on Disney, Ghibli, Flannery O’Connor or even Scott Derrickson, if this conversation helps you think that one through, it will have been well worth it.

One thing’s for sure though- I’m even more intrigued about the Doctor Strange film now!

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