The rea horror show

THE sequel to the movie The Exorcist was finally released in theatres in the US last week. Some 50 years after the original was released, the movie seeks to scare moviegoers in the same way that the last one did. In America, the release has been timed with Halloween which is supposed to be the season for everything ghostly and spooky including possession.

Those were the days it seems. In the 1970s, people looked to horror movies to get a scare and The Exorcist fulfilled the need — unlike other horror movies which often rely on zombies and monsters and may be seen as implausible. In most of them you can get immersed in the logic of the movie and be terrified by the marauding zombies in a fake village at the edge of a cornfield but you know it is all made up.

The old Exorcist was very clever. Instead of relying on monsters and zombies, it zeroed in on a grey area in our rational knowledge. Many people, across all faiths, have some concept of being ‘possessed’, having some demonic entity that somehow takes hold of an otherwise normal person and makes them evil too. This contrast was highlighted in the older Exorcist where the victim was an innocent young girl. Her transformation, brilliantly produced, would scare even the most stoic souls.

The new version is called Exorcist: The Believer and is set along the same lines. It is meant to be twice as scary with not one but two young girls that get possessed. It has all the ingredients that made the last one so scary that even my mother admitted to being terrified and being afraid to sleep the night after she had seen it.

This Exorcist, however, is being released in a very different world. In the past decade, human beings who own a cell phone or similar device have been witness to every manner of real pain and suffering because all pain and suffering is now captured on camera and roams around the world like a virus.

This means that we are almost constantly immersed in images that in our current moment of war and natural disaster feel as dystopian and manufactured as any horror movie. As I write this, the Israeli military is raining bombs on the people of Gaza with the literal intention of wiping them out. And of course, unlike previous cruelties that had to be imagined, we see exactly how utterly horrific it is to have bombs destroy every piece of your home, your neighbourhood and your life.

Our reality is a greater horror than something the most creative movie producer could ever invent.

War is not the only producer of mass carnage, Pakistan itself has entered a bizarre moment. If we are not getting battered by some climate-related disaster such as last year’s catastrophic floods, there are the depredations of inflation.

The cost of just about anything has doubled and tripled and people who could buy a couple of kilograms of, say, tomatoes or potatoes can now afford to just purchase one or two. Millions of children are sleeping unfed and millions of families are afraid of losing the roof they have over their head because some of the highest increases caused by wild inflation is perhaps in the cost of housing.

In this reality, where the bizarre is being normalised every single day, the scary may not be so scary after all. It is not surprising that the consensus on the new movie in which two little girls get possessed and are transformed into evil demons that hiss and walk into churches with bloody clothes are terrifying but not to the extent that one feels too scared to sleep at night. That is not to say that sleep isn’t elusive in our troubled times; it is just that our reality is a greater horror than something the most creative movie producer could ever invent.

Then there is the issue of demonic possession itself. Many people in Pakistan believe in it and stories about possible possession are always circulating on the gossip circuit. ‘Spiritual doctors’ still do brisk business and cases continue of ‘holy’ men demanding money from the poor to ‘treat’ their ‘possessed’ children.

One hopes that increased knowledge of mental illness such as schizophrenia would have lessened some of this. For some clarity, I ended up speaking to a psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Zakaria in the UK who said that every single case of alleged ‘possession’ that he has ever seen in his practice has actually been a schizophrenic.

The horror movie genre is alive and well, and people are not completely fed up of getting scared. At the same time, human interaction with visual media is undoubtedly changing, given the alarming rate at which we regularly consume extremely distressing images that are very real. When reality provides such a constant diet of the horrific, movies simply cannot shake us to the extent that they once did.

The best horror show is no longer on the silver screen but on the small screens that go everywhere with us. It is impossible not to wonder if there has ever been an age where being alive has meant being witness to a barrage of horrors, even when living in places far away from the actual events.

For those who are interested in still more, the sequel to The Exorcist is out there chockful of made-up horrors, two possessed girls, priests trying to exorcise the demons and so on.

If that is too much trouble and all you want is a good scare, just turn on your phone and look at what is happening in the world. It would be safe to say that human beings have entered an era where the horrors of the real world vastly outdo anything that can be made up in horror movies.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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