I am woken at dawn by the noise. A piercing, diabolical howl possesses me. Some other-dimensional spirit-being crying for its lost life. A demonic scourge from the nether realm. In a semi-conscious dread, I open my eyes and behold the source – a far more rational terror, not so much spawned of el diablo than of a Dyson: my girlfriend is using her hairdryer not two metres from my head. She is still annoyed that I made her watch the new Spanish horror flick Verónica the night before, and now is the hour of her retribution.
Directed by Paco Plaza, Verónica has been described as ‘the scariest film ever on Netflix’ and even ‘the scariest horror film ever made’. Based on a ‘true story’ of demonic possession, it’s pretty scary. The stuff of sleepless nights, I suppose, and sleepless mornings. When the hair-drying is done, I plead with my sleep saboteur. ‘Demons aren’t real,’ I say. She shoots me a death glare. ‘The film is based on Spanish police reports, Sam [emphasis hers]. How do you explain that, Sam?’ She claps her hands with the words to send them home. ‘How (clap)… do you (clap)… explain that (clap clap)?’ Sceptic that she is, she wants answers. In a desperate attempt to restore sanity to the situation, I roll my eyes back in my head, fake a seizure, and start ranting in Latin. She’s unimpressed.
But this is no time for jokes. There is something sinister about Verónica’s assertion that the film is based on reality. It seems it was inspired by events that occurred in Madrid in 1991 – its major claim to truth is that it uses an actual police report from the incident, in which an officer reports something to the effect that ‘inexplicable phenomena’ occurred at the house where events occurred. Apparently, residents of the house were equally convinced of the supernatural. A Google search brings up a growing number of articles scrambling to reveal the ‘true story’ of the haunting. They all cite each other, or cite the film, or cite hearsay, or cite nothing. My Spanish is patchy, and everything becomes confusing.
Obviously, a Spanish family went through something difficult in 1991. That won’t be denied here. But one does have to make the obvious point: there are no such things as ghosts. Odd and unusual circumstances can be found surrounding any phenomenon if looked for closely enough. All sorts of events in the world are ‘inexplicable’. But not once, ever, has there been a scientifically documented case of ghosts, or spirits, or demons, or anything like it. Sceptical societies in countries around the world offer huge sums of money each year to anyone who can provide evidence of the paranormal, demons included. But it has never happened.
So how do these films – these terrifying horror films in the vein of our worst nightmares – get away with claiming that they’re based on real events?
As in the case of Verónica, it seems that the best horror film is the one that can be marketed as being based on truth. On the topic of demonic possession alone, the practice is rampant – Verónica is one of many films to be marketed as portraying a ‘true’ account of the subject. Others include The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting in Connecticut, The Rite, The Possession, The Conjuring, Deliver Us from Evil and The Conjuring 2. All are touted as based on reality. All of the ‘true stories’ behind them have been debunked, discounted, discredited and exposed as anything but true. And let us come again to the pith: there are no such things as demons.
But each one of these films actively promotes as ‘true’ the events that it portrays. True is always scarier, and scarier tends to sell.
Another film currently in cinemas is Winchester, based on the widowed heir to the Winchester rifle fortune and her mansion. In the film’s official trailer, scenes of people levitating cut to images of horrifying monsters, to a child with no eyeballs, to words in bold text that read ‘Inspired by Actual Events’, and back to someone being levitated across a room.
You might say: well maybe these things are true from the perspective of the people who experienced them. But the films aren’t promoted as being exercises in theories of truth. There is nothing subtle about their representation of fantasy as fact. And this seems to pass without issue.
Occasionally, a particularly bad apple creates a sour taste. The 2009 alien-horror film, The Fourth Kind, opens with a direct address to the audience by actress Mila Jovovich, who portrays the protagonist:
I am actress Mila Jovovich, and I will be portraying Dr. Abigail Tyler in The Fourth Kind. This film is a dramatisation of events that occurred October 1st through the 9th of 2000 in the Northern Alaskan town of Nome. To better explain the events of the story, the directors included actual archival footage throughout the film. This footage was provided from Nome psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler who has personally documented over sixty-five hours of video and audio material …
What follows is a film in which aliens abduct people from their beds, experiment on them, torture them and harass them from the windows of their flying saucers. Of course, none of these events actually occurred, none of the ‘archival footage’ was real, and Dr. Abigail Taylor has never existed. So keen had Universal Pictures been to present the film as a ‘true story’ that it created a fake website, ran fake newspaper articles and other reports of alien abductions in Nome, and basically embarked on a sophisticated campaign to possess the public mind. Universal was sued by Alaskan news media for misrepresenting them, and residents of Nome were outraged that the film had used the tragic deaths and disappearances of their friends and family members to sell a movie.
Of the millions of people who may have viewed The Fourth Kind, and who may still view it, it is impossible to estimate how many are left believing its lies. As one psychologist put it, ‘The reason I found this film so “disturbing” was because experience shows that no matter how obvious a hoax may be to those capable of critical thinking, there will always be many who will accept at face value the film’s claim to be based on true events.’
There are indications that he was dead right. A recurring theme in the film is that characters abducted by aliens see a ‘white owl’ in their dreams. Since the film, numerous articles have been written about the (suddenly legitimate) link between owls and aliens. A book has been written about owls and aliens. Described as ‘a classic by one of the most exciting new authors in the UFO field today’, The Messengers: Owls, Synchronicity, and the UFO Abductee (2015) is based on ‘a wealth of first-hand accounts.’ ‘As strange as this might seem,’ reads a synopsis, ‘owls are showing up in conjunction with the UFO experience’. No doubt they are. Scattered reports suggest that more people than ever before might believe that extraterrestrials have visited the earth – as many as forty-five percent of Americans.
Other films have been less concerned with generating mass lies as they have been with feeding existing ones. Consider the film 2012 (released in 2009), in which, in fulfilment of an alleged Mayan prophecy, the world ends in a fiery cataclysm on 21 December 2012. To promote the film, producers established a phoney website, complete with phoney news reports and science, all promoting the idea that world would end in December of 2012. The film’s original trailer carried the words: ‘Find out the truth. Google 2012’, and anyone who did found screeds of articles, books, journals, interviews, and video rants devoted to the theory that the world would end in that year. National Geographic reported that, ‘Survival kits, documentaries, and nearly 200 books presenting the “real” 2012 story are all on offer. And you could probably surf the Web from now until Armageddon – tentatively slated for December 21, 2012 – and still see just a fraction of the Web sites and products devoted to the topic.’ Such was the hysteria that NASA warned against scaremongering, believing that fears of impending doom were elevating the risk of suicide. Not only this, but Mayan representatives in Guatemala roundly rejected any notion that their ancestors had ever prophesied the end of the world in 2012. Few listened to them. 2012 went on to be the fourth-highest grossing disaster film of all time.
Films like Verónica may seem like a bit of harmless fun. It is tempting to agree with one review of The Conjuring series: ‘There is some doubt about the truth of these case files, but really, as long as the movies are scary, who cares?’ The social impact of marketed-as-true-but-actually-completely-fake films remains mostly in the realm of speculation. But consider the present context. There has been a drastic increase in the demand for exorcisms in the US and elsewhere over the last two decades. Between 2000 and 2014, the number of US-based exorcists increased by a factor of seven. The Vatican now recognises an ‘International Association of Exorcists’, and 250 priests attended its convention last year. Private contractors are making good money performing exorcisms in France. Recently The Guardian ran an article with the headline, ‘Exorcists are back – and people are getting hurt’. It reported that 1500 child abuses cases a year in the UK are linked to cases of alleged witchcraft and demonic possession, and that half a million demonic possessions are reported to Italian priests annually. Half a million. Around the world, people involved in exorcisms are being beaten, maimed, starved and poisoned in these rituals.
There has also been a distinct popular turn (return?) to occultist practices across the West in recent decades. Like Verónica and her ouija board, people are practicing necromancy, consulting crystals, reading tarot, conversing with invisible entities and, of course, exorcising demons. The Guardian interviews a popular YouTuber who ‘has been practising the Wicca religion for about four years and has been sharing her beliefs with her 300,000-plus subscribers for just over a year. […] In one video, Nice explains how she uses tarot cards. In another she presents samples from her crystal collection. She’s also covered Wiccan altars, rune stones’, and so on. The Financial Times reports on ‘a wave of entrepreneurs who have swapped clothes for metaphysical geology’ and seized on ‘the belief that crystals have therapeutic powers – fairly mainstream in LA’. Ironically (and perhaps sickeningly given the Church’s historic treatment of pagans), an Italian exorcist recently blamed this resurgent occultism for ‘opening the door to the Devil’, thus necessitating the training of more exorcists.
There is a darker side to all this still. At a gravely serious time for our species, fantasy is making a comeback. David Harvey notes in his Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005):
Stripped of the protective cover of lively democratic institutions and threatened with all manner of social dislocations, a disposable workforce inevitably turns to other institutional forms […] Secular cults and religious sects proliferate. […] The marked turn to religion is in this regard of interest.
Deron Boyles makes a similar point in The Corporate Assault on Youth (2008):
The surging culture of religious right-wing populism, irrational new age mysticism, and endless conspiracy theorizing appear to symptomatize a cultural climate in which neoliberal market fundamentalism has come into crisis as both economic doctrine and ideology. Within this climate, private for-profit knowledge-making institutions including schools and media are institutionally incapable of providing a language and criticism that would enable rational interpretation necessary for political intervention. Irrationalism is the consequence.
The world is heading in dark directions. Unprecedented levels of wealth inequality, war, the threat of nuclear annihilation and catastrophic global warming – I won’t bore the reader. This is not to say that everyone who goes to a medium is nursing a subconscious fear of carbon emissions. But there has been a definite trend towards these individualised, mysticised systems of belief in the past thirty years, simultaneous to the ascendance of neoliberalism.
Like many challenges that confront humanity in the digital age, it is difficult to find clear solutions. Verónica is a good film. Nobody wants to be the grouch who boycotts fiction because it’s fake. But perhaps companies that go out of their way to promote paranormal films as ‘true’ should be held accountable in some way. Disclaimers reminding audiences that content is false might go too far – and yet, they may not be out of the question. In the UK, psychic mediums have for the last decade been required to advertise their services as ‘for entertainment purposes only’. Why are films about them not held similarly accountable? In the 1990s, sceptics and scientists lobbied the producers of The X-Files to introduce disclaimers before each episode of their television series after belief in earth-dwelling aliens surged among the show’s audience. Consider Richard Dawkins’ 1996 response to the controversy:
Soap operas, cop series and the like are justly criticised if, week after week, they ram home the same prejudice or bias. Each week The X-Files poses a mystery and offers two kinds of explanation, the rational theory and the paranormal theory. And, week after week, the rational explanation loses.
Maybe Dawkins was being a fun-hating stiff, or maybe he was onto something. What is clear is that the entertainment industry has moved far beyond The X-Files in its attempts to portray the paranormal as real. What it was once asked to disclaim, it now actively proclaims, embraces, endorses, and gleefully exploits. At this point, it’s a free-for-all, and all sorts of hocus is being fed to the public as ‘true’. At such a pivotal moment, we need to develop a strong intellectual self defence in response to it all, and we might have to interrogate our own beliefs in the process.