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Devil movies — view at your own risk

Hollywood's obsession with the demonic and supernatural could have some diabolical consequences.


For months, movie marquees all over the country have been hawking a ghastly array of lurid motion pictures featuring Satan and his demonic cohorts. Films such as The Omen, House of Exorcism, The Devil Within Her, God Told Me To, and others have enjoyed immense popularity among the theater-going public.

And there's much more to come.

The motion picture industry is busily preparing a hideous assortment of devil movies to satisfy the demand — and cash in on the profits. Twentieth Century Fox plans three sequels to its recent hit The Omen. Warner Brothers is putting the final touches on The Heretic, its sequel to The Exorcist. Universal, MCA, American International Pictures, and other studios each have a number of devil flicks in the mill. Your neighborhood theater will soon be screening The Sentinel, Resurrection, The Car (about a demon-possessed automobile!) and other imitations of imitations for your "viewing pleasure."

The current rash of devil movies was triggered by the 1974 hit The Exorcist, though perhaps Rosemary's Baby (1968) was the first of the genre. Quick to spot a winning theme, the imitative motion picture studios — having beaten the "disaster" motif to death — jumped on the bandwagon and began churning out devil flicks as fast as scripts could be written and casts assembled. The more lurid and gruesome, the better.


Big Box Office

And who can blame the studios? The supernatural forces of evil are dynamite at the box office. Warner's The Exorcist — possibly the highest-grossing movie of all time — is expected to bring in, all told, over $120 million worldwide. Fox's The Omen, costing less than $3 million to make, has already grossed nearly $50 million at the box office in the United States alone, and that figure may double after the overseas receipts are raked in.

Clearly, there is demand.

Critics reprove the motion picture industry for its creative impoverishment and penchant for imitation, but in the end it's the movie-going public — flocking back to theaters in record numbers — which is ultimately to blame for the continuing outpouring of demonic celluloid.

But why are today's devil movies so popular, and so lucrative?

As with the old, not nearly as lucrative, vampire and werewolf films of decades past, there is still a desire on the part of moviegoers to be scared, to be held in suspense, to receive a jolt. And, as some psychologists have suggested, today's graphic devil flicks may appeal to people's voyeuristic impulses. Many come into the theater hoping for something gruesome or bloody to happen.

But there is still another, more significant factor contributing to the popularity of today's devil movies. Studies reveal that popular interest in mysticism, witchcraft, Satanism, psychic phenomena and the occult is greater now than ever before. Disenchanted with traditional religion, people of all ages are becoming increasingly curious about the mysteries of the supernatural. And Hollywood is capitalizing on that interest.


Devastating Effects

Frankenstein Meets Wolfman was never taken seriously. The Mummy, in many cases, triggered more laughs than shrieks. Viewers of these old monster flicks knew for certain that what they were seeing was not real, and sensed that the makers of the films were cranking their cameras with tongue in cheek.

But audience reaction to today's devil movies is markedly different. Viewers, in many cases, are taking them very seriously. Interviews with patrons leaving the theater leave little doubt about the films' impact. Some are literally terrified shivering with fright. A few are sick physically, some having actually fainted or thrown up in the theater. Many speak solemnly about the reinforcement of their belief in the supernatural, and demons in particular. Some say they want to study further into the mysteries of the occult and the spirit world. And some, of course, attempt to laugh it off, often unconvincingly.

Follow-up studies show that many viewers go home and can't sleep for days or weeks. Many are afraid to be in the dark. Some start hearing "creaky noises" at night. Many have traumatic nightmares. Some temporarily lose their appetites. One man who viewed The Exorcist lost 15 pounds, suffered a stiff neck, and experienced a recurring nightmare in which he attempted to intercede between a blood-lusting vampire and its female victim.

Moreover, viewers who may have been disoriented or emotionally unstable in the first place have on occasion totally "freaked out" after seeing one of these films. Some have suffered hallucinations and delusions. Some have begun thinking that they, their mates, or their children were possessed by demons. Some have become uncontrollably violent, morbidly preoccupied, or self-destructive.

Dr. James C. Bozzuto, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut (Farmington), has recently drawn attention to an illness he calls cinematic neurosis — "a traumatic shock to the ego produced by viewing a horrifying film." Dr. Bozzuto's first cinematically neurotic patients were provided by The Exorcist, which deals with the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl named Regan. The vividly brutal, hair-raising portrayal of her possession and subsequent exorcism was simply too much for them to take.

Ominously, Dr. Bozzuto expects the syndrome to become more prevalent across the country, given the continuing onslaught of devil movies. Quoted in a recent issue of Science Digest, Dr. Bozzuto warns that The Exorcist and similar films "can produce significant psychiatric impairment, and both the physician and the public should be aware."