The Devil in Film

Over the last century, pious themes, tales, and symbols were a popular feature in the film. The religious underpinnings took on epic scopes, habitually ferrying colossal symbolic weight. However, films seldom have treated religion and the faith it precipitates on its own terms. They mostly have reconnoitered religious ideals and impetuses with heightened profundity and complexity. These films that touch on the supernatural and sag under the weight of symbolism, have lost the cause of providing a deeper meaning. Whatever thematic structure embodied in the film or the implied zeitgeist contexts are present in the film, they are lost in the Hollywood’s translation. Entertainment retains its insatiable character and a genre emerges as a result. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s baby fall into this category.

These films are soaked with contextual underpinnings, religious symbolism and themes, yet they fall prey to the genre trap. The genre obtains its name: horror. A blatantly vivid name, that provides its films’ prognosis. The triumph of horror as a popular art form is due to its aptitude to both appeal and repel. The genre contains an uncanny ability to enthrall, regale, and summon us into its realm. Alternately, it confronts us with its eerie, illicit, unfamiliar, bizarre, and petrifying scenes. Horror feasts on our susceptibilities, superstitions, phobias, and nightmares. Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are revered members of the genre of confrontation. Films, as any other form of art, are social constructions, a subject to their zeitgeist. This essay compares the two films, discussing their thematic features, their zeitgeist and some of the issues they help bring to the fore. For the purpose of this essay, the paper will discuss the issues of secularism and religion in America’s culture and the films’ views on the Catholic Church.

On the 25th of December, 1973, Warner Bros. produced a horror film that created new frontiers in scary. Reportedly, a significant number of American and global spectators fainted, retched and ran out of cinemas screaming. The urban legend ensued from graphic tales of miscarriages and ‘the-Devil-made-me-do-it’ blamed the film. Ambulances posted outside cinema halls throughout airings of the movie, became requisite. The United Kingdom banned the film for twenty-five years. It is a powerful psychological thriller, completely convincing and raw, flattered by one of the most veracious film-effects in cinematographic history. The film is The Exorcist.

The film artfully exploits the 1960s anxieties that featured American society. There were general feelings of over permissiveness, the fear of crumbling communal and household bonds. There was the waning role of binding institutions (marriage) and patriarchal controls (the birth of feminism) and the apparent upsurge of the conservative reaction. There is an absence of the customary love story in The Exorcist, which is an expressive omission. Further, the major male characters are necessarily sexless, which illuminates the social context of the time. As genres are social constructions and mirrors of their time, the 1970s cinema (prominently hallowed) was a masculine realm. Therefore, the social context of The Exorcist was characterized by deeply entrenched masculine and feminine roles.

The Exorcist appears to enjoy free-reign, carousing in transgressive behavior (a key feature of the time). The symbolism of this is brought forth in the film through displays of pissing on the carpet. Moreover, in the movie, there are episodes of cursing at authority figures, seizing the psychiatrist’s testicles. The starkest symbolism is delivered in the scenes of using a crucifix as a sex toy (symbolism for sexual exploration taking place at the time), and hurling green vomit on a priest. At the time, there was a massive rebellion against commonly held beliefs on a political and religious front. The generation of the time questioned puritan beliefs, sought knowledge on other fronts including Buddhism and maintained a healthy distrust of the government and its institutions. The Exorcist found an audience ready for its perception. Film creators capitalized on the fears and anxieties of most of the people instigated by war, social revolutions in the form of the civil rights movement, and political assassination.

Rosemary’s Baby is a typical film, the timeless and classic horror of the Devil. However, a glimpse at the film’s exact timing in American antiquity and the implausible sequences of events, following its release, the film became an essential labor in the performing arts. It symbolized a significant cultural change in the American way of life. Similar to how Rosemary discerns the mechanisms of a global witch coven American society uncovers a murkier side of its show business and domestic politics. The necessity to suppress the anti-war sentiments and anti-establishment activities of the 1960’s, pushed the bourgeois to permeate and upset the culture. The perfect distraction was the proliferation of secret societies and occultist groups.

Rosemary epitomizes the traditional and naive American society of the 1950s and 1960s that was soaked with optimism and expectation. Appalling events left permanent inscriptions on the minds of the public. For instance, the enigmatic deaths of JF Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Marilyn Monroe (attributed to ritualistic homicides enacted by MK-Ultra pawns such as Charles Manson), caused untold fear. The events forced America out of its ideals into an invisible, yet undeniable power manipulating culture and society. Disillusionment and skepticism caused the American fabric to consent or disregard the truth about its rulers (hence, the healthy distrust of government and its institutions). Symbolically, society was Rosemary who had learned of the evil essence of her baby. Nevertheless, she (Rosemary and America) acknowledged the responsibility of nurturing it.


The fact that both films emanate from strong contextual influences means that they have a few thing in common. For starters, as articulated, there was a change in zeitgeist. People were rebelling. The rose-petal lenses were off. America was asking questions and demanding answers. The movies appeared at a moment of optimum spiritual chaos in American life. Rosemary’s Baby is an integral memory of a zeitgeist when all appeared possible (even the birth of the Anti-Christ). There was a well of optimism, and the thirst for something new. These films capitalized on the change in tide, instigated vulnerabilities and fears. The change in thought process also granted the creators in the film industry new horizons to explore. They had an audience that could embrace fantasy more than ever. Genres are social constructions. The social, political, sexual, cultural contexts, constructed the ‘horror’ genre. The articulated films abided in the hall of fame of this genre because of their unparalleled ability to instigate terror and provoke thought.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there air reverberated with revolution. The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, Women’s Liberation, Sexual Revolution and new religions such as transcendental meditation, Buddhism, yoga, and Hinduism all challenged the traditional church and its dictum, its deacons and their actions. Religion still maintained positive approval. However, the young adults of the 1960s rejected ‘institutionalized Christianity’ due to its perceived materialism, power schemes, arrogant complacency, and self-interest. The 1960s, thanks to the changes in society, made secularism percolate into American culture.

Both films portray the weakening power of the Catholic Church. The Exorcist demonstrated it through lurid nuances (such as masturbation with the crucifix and the vomiting on the cleric). Rosemary’s Baby portrays a world infiltrated by evil, propagated by an elite group, apparently unstoppable and beyond reproach (reproach from an institution with equal or greater power, to meet this evil with good.)

From George Méliès’ film La Manoir Du Diable, to relatively new creations such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Ninth Gate, diabolism is a momentous basis for films, which explore religious issues. In religious movies, the devil, or the incarnation of evil, is often a popular persona. The abysmal and time-honored history in Western faith (Christianity), Satan (the Devil) provides the ultimate antagonist. The film industry gives a medium for the exploration of the character of the Devil, while his role or existence remains a cause of disagreement for most faiths.

As outlined earlier, stories are at their optimum at certain points in human history because they are the kind of stories the audience yearns for. The films and popular culture plots and storylines align with the dreams, phobias, and values of their audiences. Consequently, stories shift according to their zeitgeist. The characters change in line with their time. That is the case, especially if one was to consider the portrayal of the Devil over the last half-century in pop culture artifacts, music, and films.

The devil, over the years, finds himself portrayed as sociable, laughable and even harmless. Alternately, the devil looms menacingly and bares a terrifying visage. The depictions of him give a glimpse of that time. In times of amplified positivity, the Devil becomes curtailed, flung into nonchalance and harmlessness. In eras of economic, political or cultural unrest, the depiction of the Devil becomes austere. Evidence is in the late 1960s narratives of the devil (Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist are classic examples) that were blatantly ominous and terrifying.

The portrayal of the devil in light terms in times of happiness turns into dark and terrifying in times of strife. The Clinton epoch of economic revival and nationwide optimism, reproduced the portrayal of the devil in the film Hellboy. In the movie the devil appears to be an out-of-luck, cigar-eating prince, who is more likely to party than steal one’s soul. In the same time, we find the creators of South Park depicting an emotional and heartbroken devil. After the September 9, 2011 bombing, the devil’s portrayal evokes fear. For instance, in Constantine and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The devil portraying appears petrifying. After 1967, the period of Annus Horribilis ensued. It was a period marred by heinous cultural and political crisis, unprecedented prior to 1968. Mass riots became commonplace after the fallacy of victory in Vietnam fell off and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In essence, the period was apocalyptic.  In 1967, the year the film Bedazzled appeared, most of the devil’s performance is punctuated by a comedic portrayal that depicts the devil as cheeky and borderline foolish one. In 1968, Rosemary’s Baby becomes a glaring contrast in the portrayal of the devil. The differences and similarities emanated from a change in zeitgeist.

In today’s zeitgeist, characterized by economic instability, stiffened costs of living and proliferation of extra judicial killings, it would be expected that the devil would be depicted at his optimal terrifying self.