Nightmares with the Bible
The Good Book and Cinematic Demons
- ISBN: 9781978703186
- Published By: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
- Published: November 2020
Steve A. Wiggins’ Nightmares with the Bible begins with the question, “What does Christianity teach about demons?” Given that, according to the Pew Research Center, approximately 70% of people in the United States identify as Christian, it is natural that many people would look to the Christian faith when asked to explain what a demon is. Thus, this book explores popular-culture Christian answers to “What is a demon?”
In the introduction, Wiggins presents a disconnect between popular American culture and Christian academia, with popular culture accepting the presence of demons at face value, while scholars explain them away as psychological phenomena, illness, or metaphor (1). The author explains that answering the question “What is a demon?” will require an examination of the Bible as well as an examination of popular films that feature demons. Near the end of the introductory discussion of demons, the author notes that many modern demon narratives feature young women and states that the book will consider why this is.
The content that follows is split into two parts: the biblical and postbiblical Christian sources for demons, and the modern film narratives featuring demons. The discussion on the biblical sources is solid. Wiggins shows that biblical sources, both Christian and Hebrew, did not create the concept of demons. The author provides a basic summary of attitudes toward possession by spiritual entities in the non-Jewish ancient world and shows that many of these beliefs were simply imported directly into the biblical narrative. The discussion of postbiblical Christian sources focuses on the medieval era, especially on the development of beliefs in witchcraft and magic. The book examines the rise of magical texts such as grimoires and demonstrates that, again, these works originated in oral traditions outside Christianity.
The book passes directly from the discussion of the medieval era into examining modern films. This part is the most satisfying and also the most problematic. It is satisfying because this is where Wiggins’ passion shows most, and because it convincingly shows the presence of a vital and active modern Christian oral tradition. The real-life exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren are the source for two of the film franchises discussed (Amityville Horror and the Conjuring). The author’s discussion of the distance between their real lives and their portrayal in film is powerful and effective.
The film discussion is problematic, though, because the Wiggins does not adequately explore or explain the greater American context. In fact, he does not state that he is examining only American films. The author does briefly mention that The Exorcist and all subsequent films appeared at the end of the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution. But the author does not offer even a modest exploration of the dominant Christian culture of that time. One would expect an examination of the reaction to President John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism or to the anti-Catholic attitudes inherent in the House Un-American Activities Committee. One would also expect a discussion of the Protestant mores and values established in the 19th-century Great Awakening and demonstrated in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne (especially “Young Goodman Brown”) and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards (especially “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). The book provides none of these but rather presents extensive summaries of the films, interspersed with commentary.
Further, Wiggins indicates that the book will offer an analysis of why modern films such as The Exorcist focus on young women, but it does not offer any sustained discussion of feminist theory. Instead, the author cites Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” and the “poetic topic” of “the death of a beautiful woman” (13). Without a corresponding presentation of feminist or anthropological explanations for the focus on women in the modern narrative, the appeal to Poe falls flat.
Nightmares with the Bible provides a solid review of how demons were incorporated into ancient Judaism and early Christianity, but does not adequately show how any of this connects with the modern American film narrative.
Michael Bertrand is an independent scholar.Michael BertrandDate Of Review:December 24, 2021