(Based on the Supernatural as Depicted in Novels & Films)
I originally wrote this article for The Write Room blog. Please read it here but add your comments to the diverse reactions at this link: http://www.thewriteroomblog.com/?p=1209#comments
A while back I reviewed an author’s novel with the understanding that he would reciprocate. When I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, I asked if he had finished mine. His answer: “No, I can’t read it—there is an angel in your story and I’m an atheist.” I was shocked. In the last few years so many movies and books have supernatural characters that I couldn’t believe one angel would be that disconcerting. Since demons, ghosts, witches, vampires or other spirits deemed evil are the subjects of a great many box office hits (have you seen movie previews lately?), what could possibly make a grown man squeamish about one supernatural being on the good side of the list?
We’ve certainly had an abundance of authors writing about the supernatural—both good and evil. When I searched Amazon for “angels in books,” the result was 90,088 books (although some of these are “fallen angels”). The key word demon yielded 22,170; witches, 28,110; vampires, 37,698; and ghosts, 89,786 for a total of 177,764 on the malevolent side of the spirit world.
There was a time when angelic beings were more popular than the demonic—or at least more acceptable in movie theaters. The 1947 Academy Award winner was about a man who had given up his dreams in order to help others and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brought about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody. That same year, Angel on My Shoulder, a film about a deal between the Devil and a dead man did something unique for the times—it depicted hell—and it didn’t do nearly as well financially. In those days, angels had the higher approval ratings. Now, while society may not be exactly rooting for the dark side, people are fascinated by tales of the demonic. Consider, for example, the popularity of The DeVinci Code, The Blair Witch Project, and most of Stephen King’s books and movies.
These examples of book topics and changing movie popularities are insufficient for a statistical conclusion, but they do support my perception that modern Americans find the evil side of the supernatural more interesting, even more believable, than the good. If you believe in demons, as does the novelist who couldn’t read my book; wouldn’t you have to believe there are good spirits, too? Everywhere we look in our world we find opposites. It is the related concepts which are opposite in meaning, (e.g., up and down, right and left, good and evil) that allow us to use language to distinguish people, places, ideas, and things.
I believe in the existence of good and evil and research proves I’m not in the minority. Most people, like me, seem to accept its representation in angels and demons. I ‘ve just never paid much attention to angels, thinking they live apart from my world, in an unreachable place. And since in my youth I was terrified of evil spirits, I chose to ignore the possibility of their presence.
I still tend to ignore the angelic, even though I made one a character in my novel. But I can no longer ignore the demonic; stories and images are everywhere. In the first two decades following It’s a Wonderful World, moviegoers’ tastes favored drama but not horror, but then came Rosemary’s Baby in 1968 and the Exorcist in 1973. And the horror has never stopped, only gotten more sensational (a list of movies for rent last Halloween proves this point).
The question I wrestle with is why the demonic side currently seems more interesting or at least more popular than its opposite. If angels really can intervene in our lives as Clarence Odbody did in It’s a Wonderful Life—and there are written accounts of such interventions—why would we not embrace the angelic realm and seek out angelic help and protection? And why are there only half as many books on angels for sale on Amazon? Could it be that those of us who write about angelic beings are reluctant to describe them as having super powers? That sizeable portion of the public who claim to be religious have certainly read about angels; they play some major roles in Bible stories. Yet authors downgrade them to benevolent but nondescript creatures. Think of City of Angels (a story I love, by the way): the angel, Seth, wanted the joys of being human more than the powers of being divine.
Demonic beings, on the other hand, are made into super powers (if not super heroes), maybe because they’re like the bogymen of our childhood; we are only temporarily under the spell. The thing that goes bump in the night is deposed by daylight, the off switch for its power. As long as we audiences/readers are sure there is no such thing, we clamor for the thrill of the chill.
Law professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong who doesn’t believe that spirits exist has a different theory. His explanation is that people’s false belief in angels and demons noted in many disparate human cultures comes from “people’s proclivity to use demons as scapegoats.” Sinnott-Armstrong asserts we don’t want to blame ourselves or those we know for evil acts so we conjure up demons to be the cause of much of the horror in the world.
That seems plausible. Blaming others is a very human trait. But if they’re only figments of our imagination or made up by creative storytellers, why would seemingly sane humans believe they have had encounters with demons and angels? Many professionals who’ve researched the subject also believe. University of Notre Dame philosopher Thomas Flint is one. Flint defines a demon as “a nonphysical finite person who has decided against God to rebel against God.” (He defines angels as the opposite.)
Whether or not people endorse the concept of the demonic, the evil side of the supernatural does sell more books and movie tickets in the 21st century. Maybe it’s because more people are rebelling against God and therefore siding with the demonic. Or is it because worldwide, the multitude of horrendous acts seem to be growing and we need something other than ourselves to blame? It is feasible that stories of demonic behavior and possession are just more exciting. If that is the predominant reason, could it be that the stories we tell are misleading, even causing us to be desensitized to the powers of the supernatural?