Tag Archives: evil

The Exorcist: A Middle Way Interpretation

Spoiler Alert: This isn’t a synopsis or a review but I will reveal certain, important, plot points.  As such, if you haven’t yet seen it yet – and would like to – you may want to stop reading now. 

Cursed. Obscene. Scary. Nauseating.  Pea Soup.  These are just a selection of words associated with William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist (adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name).  The Exorcist tells the story of the Exorcism of 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, who has been possessed by a malevolent force.  It is set in affluent 1970’s Georgetown USA, where Regan lives with her atheist mother, who also happens to be a famous actress.

Even in the early 1990’s, when I was at school, this film had a reputation as being the most disgusting and frightening film ever made – which of course meant everybody wanted to see it.  This desire was only intensified by the fact that The Exorcist had been banned in the UK since 1984; a few friends and I even attempted to watch a pirated copy of it on VHS, but our excited anticipation was soon extinguished once we realised that the video quality was so bad as to render further viewing impossible.  In 1998 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) lifted the ban, and The Exorcist was released – with much fanfare – in cinemas across the country.  Many of my peers came back with reports of disappointment and boredom.  ‘It’s not scary at all.  I didn’t jump once’ they’d say, or ‘I don’t know what the fuss is about, nothing even happens for most of the film’.  I was worried.  I’d recently read the book and really enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure how it would be translated into the ‘Scariest Film Ever Made’.  Could this really be the same film that had caused people to faint and vomit while watching it?  I knew loads of people who’d seen it the first-time round and refused to even talk about it, let alone watch it again.  Perhaps it hadn’t aged well?

When I did eventually get to see it that I could understand why my peers were confused about the reputation it had achieved.  I’m not the kind of person that finds Horror films particularly scary anyway, but I had expected The Exorcist to be an exception.  It wasn’t.  In this respect, the length of time that had passed since its original release did seem to have had an impact.  Horror films throughout the 90’s had a tendency to reject the kind of subtle psychological techniques used in the 60’s and 70’s in favour of ‘jump scares’ and ‘gore effects’.  Therefore, that is what any teenager going to see a Horror movie at this time would be expecting.  That’s not what they got with The Exorcist.  There’s hardly any ‘gore’ and it is almost entirely void of ‘jump scares’.  In addition to this, much of imagery was much less shocking in the 90’s than I suspect it would have been to a 70’s audience.  With these considerations in mind I can understand many of my peer’s sense of disappointment – in this respect it had not lived up to the hype.  However, as much I wasn’t scared in the cinema, I loved it.  I found it absorbing in a way that few films had been and was surprised by the skilful way in which it created an atmosphere.  The deep layers of meaning hidden within the imagery and narrative demanded repeated viewing.  It is a deeply unsettling film and I found that it stayed with me (as the book had) long after I’d left the cinema; something that did not happen with contemporary horror films such as ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ (which is instantly forgettable).  While it wasn’t what the hype had lead me to believe it would be, The Exorcist, as a film, had aged very well indeed.

After a period of about 10 years, where I watched it quite a lot, I spent a further 10 years without seeing it at all.  That is, until a few months ago, when I heard Mark Kermode (film critic and Exorcist expert/ super-fanboy) discussing it on the radio.  With some trepidation – I feared that it really might have aged badly by now – I sought out a copy and sat down to watch it again.  I needn’t have worried, it stands up incredibly well & I enjoyed it just as much (if not more) than I had before.  More importantly for this blog however, I also realised that it related, both stylistically and narratively, to the Middle Way.

Watching The Exorcist is a physical experience.  I know that watching any film can be described as a physical experience, we are embodied beings after all, but The Exorcist goes further.  You can feel the cold of Regan’s bedroom.  You can smell her necrotic breath as she lies, unconscious on the bed.  I don’t understand what cinematic tricks are used to create this effect but I suspect that it has as much to do with the sound as it has with visuals.  The ambient sound is hypnotic and the groaning rasp that accompanies Regan’s breathing creates a powerful and absorbing effect.  There are other scenes where the combination of visuals and sound work together to create the experience of embodied physicality, such as when Regan is made to undergo a range of intimidating and painful medical tests.

On the surface, The Exorcist is a fairly standard tale of good versus evil; light overcoming darkness.  During the first scene – where an elderly Jesuit priest, Father Merrin, is seen attending the archaeological excavation of an ancient Assyrian site in northern Iraq – the contrast between quiet contemplation and loud commotion is jarring.  While the scene is set within the suffocating glare of the desert sun, it is also pierced with dark imagery.  It’s within this context that we finally see an increasingly disturbed Merrin wearily, but defiantly, facing a statue of the Assyrian demon Pazuzu.  It is no coincidence that this scene brings vividly to mind the Temptation on the Mount, where Jesus overcame Satan’s attempts to divert him from his holy path to righteousness.  I’m sure that this premonition of the battle to come, is constructed and representative of several Jungian archetypes, but I’m not familiar enough to identify them all.  However, I’m confident that there’s the Hero, the Shadow, God and the Devil; the latter two also being representations of two metaphysical extremes: absolute good and absolute evil.  The key point however is that Father Merrin is not God (or even Jesus) and the statue is not the Devil (or even Pazuzu), they are both the imperfect embodiments each.

Understandably perturbed by her daughters increasingly disturbing behaviour, Regan’s mother seeks the help of neurologists and then physiatrists.  Both fail to identify a cause and both fail to succeed in their interventions.  Eventually, the perplexed psychiatrists suggest that Regan’s exasperated mother enlist the services of a priest, to which she reluctantly agrees.

The priest that she finds is a man called Father Damian Karras.  Karras is unlike Merrin, whose background is not really explored, in that he is clearly a conflicted and complex character.  We see him caring for his elderly mother, when no one else seems willing to, and we also see him, dressed in his Jesuit regalia, turn away from a homeless man who asks for his help.  Karras, then, is not a bad person, but neither is he that good.  The viewer is left to wonder the nature of this priest’s faith.  When we add to this the fact that he is a scientist (psychiatrist) as well as a priest, we start to see the depiction of a complex, multifaceted individual who struggles, in all aspects of his life, through the messy middle in which we all exist.

Karras, who is not qualified to perform the Exorcism ritual, convinces the Church of Regan’s need and Father Merrin is subsequently called upon.  The moment when he arrives at the house and looks up at the room which contains the possessed girl is inspired by The Empire of Light, a series of pictures painted by René Magritte in 1953-4.  As with the opening sequence, we are shown our archetypes juxtaposed in preparation for battle; this striking image was also used as the now famous promotional poster (which I used to have on my bedroom wall).  The clichéd battle between good and evil begins.  Except it doesn’t… not really.  Like the statue of Pazuzu, Regan is not an absolute representation of evil; she has been embodied by evil but is not the embodiment of it – she’s a 12-year-old girl.  Father Merrin is not the embodiment of good, he is just a representative of Christ (and therefore God).  This is made explicitly clear (if it wasn’t already) in an extended scene where the two priests desperately shout, ‘the power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you’ over and over while throwing Holy water on the levitating girl.  A lesser film would have Merrin eventually defeat the demon and save the girl, but this is not what happens.  The elderly Exorcist dies during the gruelling exchange and Karras is left facing the demon alone.  Again, a lesser film would have Karras take up the role of Exorcist and overcome the evil force against all odds.  This is not what happens.  Religion, like science before it has failed and Karras appears to be in a hopeless predicament.  In the heat of the moment he takes the only course of action that he feels is available to him; he grabs Regan and shouts at the demon, ‘take me, take me’.  The demon gladly obliges and, a now possessed, Karras – who already exists somewhere between good and evil – is able to throw himself out of Regan’s window, where upon hitting the ground he falls down a flight of steep stairs, where he dies, presumably taking the demon with him and leaving Regan to make a full recovery.

Science, religion and the explicitly archetypal forces of good have not triumphed over evil and, in this muddled mess, appeals to authority do not always provide the promised solutions.  Instead our Middle Way hero, who’s able to hold onto his beliefs lightly, is left to address challenging conditions as they arise.  The solution he finds, I would like to suggest, seems remarkably like an extreme example of the ‘two donkeys’ analogy that is a favourite of this society.  By integrating competing desires, he is able to overcome conflict, albeit at great cost to himself.


Jung’s Red Book 3: The Tree of Life

He sees the tree of life, whose roots reach into Hell and whose top touches Heaven. He also no longer knows differences: who is right? What is holy? What is genuine? What is good? What is correct? He knows only one difference: the difference between above and below. For he sees that the tree of life grows from below to above, and that it has its crown at the top, clearly differentiated from the roots. To him this is unquestionable. Hence he knows the way to salvation.

To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction is part of your salvation. Hence you free yourself of the old curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Because you separated good from evil according to your best appraisal and aspired only to the good and denied the evil that you committed nevertheless and failed to accept, your roots no longer suckled the dark nourishment of the depths and your tree became sick and withered.  (p.359-360)

Here Jung gives what for me is a brilliant summary of the basis of Middle Way ethics. A frequent theme of the Red Book is that of recognising the depths and integrating what we take to be evil. In this sense we go ‘beyond good and evil’ (to use the phrase also used by Nietzsche in his book of that name). To go beyond good and evil sounds to many like relativism or nihilism, leaving us adrift without any justifiable values. But what is required instead is a recasting of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that takes into account our degree of ignorance, recognising that much of what we reject as ‘evil’ is bound interdependently with what we accept as ‘good’. Instead of rejecting good and evil altogether, we need to understand a more genuine or integrated form of ‘good’ as lying beyond our current understanding, and ‘evil’ only as that which prevents or disrupts integration.Jung Tree of Life Xabier CCBYSA 4-0

If we focus only on the uncertainty in our current understanding of good and evil, and take that uncertainty to be a negative thing, we will miss the positive implications that Jung brings out in his image of the Tree of Life. The crown of the tree, he tells us, is clearly differentiable from the roots. This would be the case only in terms of experience, not conceptual analysis, because the difference between the crown and the roots is incremental. Nevertheless integrative progress is part of our experience. There may be some adults who have got irredeemably stuck in one set of rigid beliefs and thus stopped growing, but this can hardly ever be the case for children: if we compare ourselves as toddlers and as adults, we have all made some sort of progress, addressing conditions better than we did then. The crown is thus differentiable from the roots, even though there is no absolute point of change in between.

It is also telling that Jung writes “To unlearn all distinctions save that concerning direction.” The new good is a direction, not an absolute, because we do not have full understanding of it and cannot pin it down just by intellectual analysis. Even God  as encountered in our experience (as discussed in the previous blog) is a symbol for a direction: the direction of integration in which we only get better, not ultimately good. That also implies that we cannot deduce that direction from any account of an ultimate goal, such as the Buddhist Nirvana. There can be no final goal, for such a goal would be irrelevant to us. As Jung writes in another place:

Not that I know anything about what my distant goal might be. I see blue horizons before me: they suffice as a goal. (p. 276-7)

The roots of the Tree of Life are nourished by every aspect of our organic experience, whether by ‘good’ or ‘evil’ as normally understood. This point is also put very graphically later in the text, where Jung shows his utter disgust with the devil at the same time as a reluctant recognition that the devil is necessary. He describes the devil as having a ‘golden seed’.

He emerged from the lump of manure in which the Gods had secured their eggs. I would like to kick the garbage away from me, if the golden seed were not in the vile heart of the misshapen form. (p.424)

This passage tells us something about how difficult it is in practice to face up to the integration of the Shadow. Think of everything you most loathe: paedophiles, Daesh, Donald Trump. Then try to get your head around the way that they have gained control of things that are necessary for you. To start with, your representations of such figures are yours – take responsibility for them. It’s your inner Donald Trump that you hate, not the one out there. The energy that you’re putting into hating your inner Donald Trump is your energy: don’t let him steal it from you. You need to reclaim it from Donald Trump and put it to better use.

But if we are to integrate ‘evil’ without falling into relativism, there also still needs to be a genuine evil that we recognise. Such evil consists in whatever stops the Tree of Life from growing, whatever interferes with the integrative process. That’s where I would draw conclusions that go beyond Jung, but to me seem to be implied by Jung’s insights. That is that what blocks the integrative process is absolutisation. Absolutisation is found in our rigid beliefs, whether positive or negative, which prevents us from responding to new experience and benefitting from it. A given belief is only a part of us, so no person is wholly evil, nor is any tradition or organisation. However, metaphysical beliefs poison the Tree of Life.

This new account of evil is not wholly distinct from the old evil. I think it can be shown how existing common conceptions of evil show the features of absolutisation, and I have explored this in a previous blog as well as in my book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief’ (section 3.n). Evil is associated with power, despotism, egoism, greed, cruelty, obsession, manipulativeness, defensiveness, rigidity, impatience, pride, short-termism, literalism, despair, emotional impoverishment, and false emotion. Some of these qualities are found in Jung’s experience of evil as found in the Red Book, such as Jung’s encounter with the mocking and sardonic ‘Red One’. All of these kinds of qualities can also be associated with narrow over-dominance of the left hemisphere of the brain when we make judgements.

So it’s not that we have been wrong in our instincts about what sorts of qualities are evil – the problem is only in how we apply those instincts. We have assumed evil to be something external to us, consisting in whole people, objects or institutions, when instead it is to be found in the beliefs that poison the Tree of Life. We need to learn to separate the beliefs from the people: to stop projecting the Shadow onto others, or onto external supernatural forces, and recognise it as an archetype in ourselves.

Another implication of the image of the Tree of Life is that its growth will happen regardless (as a result of life) if it is not interfered with. As long as the roots can get their nutriment without hindrance, we do not have to make the tree grow towards good. However, preventing the hindrance to the roots may take much more deliberate action. If someone were to try to pour poison on the roots we would have to actively stop them. That’s why I think we can’t take the process of integration for granted, but rather need to be on the alert and using our critical faculties to detect and avoid absolutisations. That’s why the practice of the Middle Way, the avoidance of absolutisations on both sides, is not just a matter of innocent effort. It also takes a degree of educated cunning. We cannot just tell those who want to absolutise that they are entitled to their opinion and leave it at that, but whenever we can do so fruitfully we need to contest, not them, but their opinion. Even if we fail to convince others, we need to free ourselves of the shackles of intrinsically rigid ways of thinking.

You should be able to cast everything from you, otherwise you are a slave, even if you are the slave of a God. Life is free and choose its own way. It is limited enough, so do not pile up more limitation. Hence I cut away everything confining. I stood here, and there lay the riddlesome multifariousness of the world. (p.378)


Previous blogs in this series:

Jung’s Red Book 1: The Jungian Middle Way

Jung’s Red Book 2: The God of experience


Picture: from Jung’s Red Book (Xabier CCSABY 4.0)

What is evil?

This is a re-blog (with a few minor improvements) of a post on my old Middle Way Philosophy blog in September 2012.

Let’s start with a compilation of evil laughs. You’ll probably only need to watch the first minute or so to get the point. What I’d like you to note is certain features of what we imagine to be evil. Note the falseness, the association with a separate universe constructed in one’s own mind, the alienation from others, and the group mentality. All of these are part of our experience of ‘evil’ – but they are not an indication of a supernatural force. Rather they are the features of metaphysics: of fixed beliefs and goals in a super-dominant left brain.

Some people see evil as a supernatural force, whilst others deny its existence or seek to ignore it. I want to avoid either of these approaches and to account for evil, with all its power, in human experience. Just as God can be supremely meaningful without being an object of belief so can evil. The meaning and seriousness of evil seems to be undermined and trivialised in modern culture (illustrated most strongly by the slang use of the terms ‘wicked’ and ‘evil’ to mean conventionally good), but at the same time it is easy to see why this has happened. It demands an absurd level of fraught anxiety to regard ordinary human desire as the work of Satan, when our experience of desire is that it is largely both unavoidable and – up to a point – beneficial. If we have let go of that anxiety and accepted our desires as human, then that is a starting point, but we then need to start taking seriously the need for moral awareness and moral effort. We can only do that with an awareness of what we are avoiding – of ‘evil’ in a broad sense, neither supernatural nor naturalised into nothing.

So what is evil, if it is not Satan outside us, or human desires within us? My thesis is that evil is not a person or a set of feelings or desires, but a type of belief: that is, metaphysics. The integration model explains how we do not have ‘good’ desires and ‘evil’ desires, but rather desires that can be more or less effective as they get more or less integrated. Desires that I may experience as ‘evil’ (say, the desire to be insulting in an argument) are just unintegrated: they are in conflict with my other desires. However, if I then ask what prevents the integration of ‘evil’ (i.e. currently rejected) desires with ‘good’ (i.e. currently accepted) desires, the answer is fixed beliefs. Those beliefs may, on the surface, be about ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but they rigidify and simplify what I understand as good so I can idealise and hold onto it regardless of challenges, and rigidify and simplify what I understand as evil so that I can reject it, regardless of what it may have to tell me. My thesis is that such rigidification tends to occur around metaphysical beliefs – i.e. ones that cannot be incrementally addressed in experience but merely asserted or denied.

So, what is evil, in the broader and more helpful sense, includes metaphysical beliefs about good as well as metaphysical beliefs about evil – along with other metaphysical beliefs such as those about self, fate, freewill, God or nature. It may run against the mental habits of a lifetime to start thinking about the belief in an ultimate good as evil: but we only have to consider the amount of alienation and conflict created by sincerely held ideas of ultimate good to begin to appreciate why this is so. This doesn’t imply that those who hold such beliefs are ‘evil’ or even that they are mainly motivated by evil: only that the impact of such metaphysical beliefs on them is evil, within the context of wider moral development gained by experience. Great saints and religious leaders with strong metaphysical beliefs may often have had a largely good impact – but my thesis is that they were handicapped, not aided, by those beliefs. Their moral objectivity came not from those beliefs, but from the degree of integration created by the other conditions working in their lives, often including the meaningfulness of the symbols (such as God) that they also had metaphysical beliefs about. Similarly, great figures widely regarded as evil (such as Hitler) had a variety of conditions working on them. They were not evil as people, but their rigid metaphysical beliefs dominated their lives to such an extent that their actions strike others as evil. In the case of Hitler it is not only Nazi ideology, but also his beliefs about himself and about the destiny of himself and the Germans, that could be identified as the metaphysical source of this evil.Devil_Goat

But what does this have to do with Satan or with evil as traditionally conceived? The picture here, in Jungian terminology, is a picture of the Shadow: the rejected energies in ourselves that we project outwards onto Dark Lords, villains, evil spirits, unfaithful spouses, bad bosses, evil capitalists etc. The features we normally give to ‘evil’ are associated with narrow left-brain dominance rather than with integration: empire-building, scheming, ruthlessness, and false emotion (as in the evil laughs above). Psychologically, then, it appears that what evil means to us is unintegrated desire.

We allow evil itself to dominate, however, if we project that unintegrated desire outwards and treat people or things as themselves evil. An appreciation of complexity, or of humanity, is an antidote to this. We also allow evil to dominate if we even treat our desires themselves as evil – for they are part of us. Evil instead works primarily at the level of belief. It is the belief in the ultimate truth and completeness of his schemes, and the ultimate justification of his ruthlessness through the idealisation of current egoistic desires, that makes the Dark Lord evil.


Devil picture by Rex Diablo (Wikimedia Commons). Picture can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons licence if attributed