More than a few of the films in my summer supernatural binge use the trope of “based on a true story.” Right now I’m finishing the British horror movie Hollow (2011). I picked it in part because it’s a spatially confined horror. As the précis says, “On holiday in the English countryside, two young couples uncover an ancient evil.” Before we meet the four protagonists, however, we already know their fate. The film opens with documentary style clips shot by the local police. [The film is told through hand-held character shot footage as in The Blair Witch Project.] As the story evolves, we learn that the spirit persuades couples to hang themselves from the tree. With the characters’ end looming, the film works methodically as it brings the mythos to life.
In spiritual warfare literature mental illness spiritual is routinely linked to evil spirits. This can be seen as one of the many moves made by the New Apostolic Reformation that embraced spiritual authority for secular problems. The link between oppressive spirits and mental distress didn’t start with these folks (in the early 1980s), but John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner‘s Power Evangelism certainly appealed to that assessment. In Churchquake! Wagner describes the differences between the old and new wineskins. Some are theological:
From Christ as Savior to Jesus as Lord
From Jesus the Lamb to Jesus the Lion
From justification to sanctification
Some evoke new meta-narratives and reconsiderations of Christian identity:
From living in the desert to crossing the Jordan
From saved from death to saved for life
From guilt for sins to victory over sins
Many suggest new worship styles:
From saying prayers to praying in the Spirit
From singing in the choir to singing in the Spirit
From pipe organ to keyboard
From hymns to praise and worship songs
From staff ministry to body ministry
From liturgy to spontaneity
But the most interesting (for me) are those make spiritual gifts more central:
From water baptism to Spirit baptism
From denying or fearing evil to doing spiritual warfare
From training to anointing
From predicting to prophesying
The decisive one, the one that I was reminded of as I was watching Hollow, was that from counseling to deliverance. There are oblique references to counseling and prior suicide attempts by one of the men. The hollow tree, as the legend goes, amplifies the darkness that resides in people. The bad blood can’t be defeated by counseling because the roots are demonic not psychological. When the couples fall apart you know that no coping mechanism will be enough. You can’t resolve your mental deficits–that is reserved for the power of the Spirit. Independence, especially of the type offered by secular social science, is illusory.
Interestingly, Hollow also argues that local religious authorities are complicit and powerless to deliver themselves. This may be an indictment of religion. Or it may be that the locals are unwilling to battle the evil. They may be powerless because they are weak or fearful. At any rate, the protagonists are utterly vulnerable and obviously incapable of battling the evil. (Or it wouldn’t be a proper horror film, right?) The mounting terror in the dark is told in flashes that are likely to make viewers both motion sick and as confused as the characters appear to be in their final moments.
In contrast to so many other horror films, you don’t know who the lone survivor will be or if there will even be one. The “scene of crime assessment” clips at the beginning of the film says “bodies” but doesn’t mention survivors. What is pretty clear, however, is that no character is worth saving. They use drugs, appear sexually promiscuous, and lack any of the horror tropes that so routinely save the hero. (For the best of this see The Cabin in the Woods, a highly self-aware deconstruction of a horror flick.) What could deliver them? The film has no answer stave the one they are first unwilling and then unable to take–leaving.
Horror films so often depend on a dynamic of presence and absence, attraction and repulsion that render protagonists trapped initially by their skepticism and then later by the surety of their belief. I’d say seeing is believing, but in these films that’s not generally how belief is fostered. Conviction is a product of the experience of terror. That’s the conceit of the genre.
If it were as sympathetic to salvation or redemption’s possibility as this summer’s hit horror film The Conjuring is, what would the characters have to do? They were never offered a come-to-Jesus moment. There is no opportunity to be anointed. It’s nothing but dead-ends (literally). That may be bleak and un-hollywood, but it isn’t unexpected. Like so many horror films, there’s little reason to root for the victims. Both God and Satan are equally cruel here. Without access to the tools to fight evil, death by the film’s end is inevitable. Perhaps for the filmmakers that was their own kind of kernel of truth.