I used to be an ESL teacher and I’ll never forget having a chat with my students about ill health and medicine. A Nepalese woman told the class she once caught a life-threatening fever and was immeasurably grateful to her husband for beating her up.
It was one of those blink-a-few-times sort of moment as everybody silently tried to grasp what she’d just said. After all, she was speaking English as a second language and it’s pretty damn easy to be misunderstood. So I got her to repeat her story with the same result.
Her husband had kicked the shit out of her.
Why? I meekly enquired.
Because her Hinduism explained such sickness as being the result of demonic possession. Hence, the need to physically drive the evil spirits out.
Years later, I always trot this story out as the perfect example of how religion slows the world down. Of course, some people insist the root of all evil is money, but I’m happy to wager it’s actually religion. Here are five case studies from the movies to show how it damages us all.
Case Study 1: The Wicker Man’s Sergeant Neil Howie and how religion turns you into a prig.
That’s a good word, isn’t it?
You don’t really hear it said much these days, but it’s just perfect for Sgt Howie of Scotland’s West Highland Police. Upright and uptight, his colleagues continually make jokes behind his ramrod-like back, especially about his non-existent sex life.
“The only woman he’s interested in is the Virgin Mary,” says one before mentioning that when it comes to his intended wife he “hasn’t so much as tickled her fancy” in the two years they’ve been courting.
Howie is obviously living a devout life. We see him singing in church after which he delivers a sermon that focuses on the perfectly sane belief that scoffing a bit of bread and wine literally represents eating the body of Christ and drinking the old boy’s blood.
Howie’s journey into the heart of darkness gets underway when he receives an anonymous letter about a missing child on the remote Summer Isle.
Although aware of its ‘odd’ reputation, such as (gasp!) allowing singing and dancing on Sundays, he’s unprepared for what he finds. Walking into a pub, he quickly becomes uncomfortable when the locals launch into a bawdy song about the landlord’s gorgeous daughter, only to step outside and find groups of people fucking in the darkness.
Still, coming into contact with this free spirited, bohemian lifestyle is not so much a test of faith as an affront to his Christian ideals. In his cloistered world, sex is seen as only necessary for procreation, whereas the pagan islanders joyously celebrate it. Now these people are most definitely whacky, but their lifestyle appears infinitely more fun than what a dour Christian like Howie gets up to.
However, it’s also clear they’re barking up the wrong tree if they want to convert their visitor, especially as a prime Britt Ekland doing her best nudey siren call can’t put a dent in his cast-iron resolve.
Everywhere Howie goes he finds decadence, whether it’s the corner pharmacy selling foreskins, young schoolgirls being taught that a Maypole is a symbol of the penis, or a grave protected by reptilian ejaculate. Like many a pious believer, contact with a different way of doing things quickly fosters a mushrooming intolerance. Before long he’s calling the islanders “raving mad” and “bloody heathens”, convinced his faith is not only preferable to their “fake religion” but undeniably right. Howie feels he must make a stand and fight for God, which is why he places a makeshift cross in Summer Isle’s deconsecrated churchyard.
It is perhaps the most futile gesture this earnest, misled virgin makes in the entire movie.
Case Study 2: The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle. To do something mad, you firstly have to believe something mad.
At first glance, Lord Summerisle appears to be the polar opposite of a humorless prig like Howie. His hair is fashionably longish, he actively encourages pre-marital sex, and he finds the sight of naked girls jumping through a fire refreshing. He’s no stern Christian, encased in that faith’s joyless chains. Indeed, in a nocturnal speech that’s intercut with shots of copulating snails and Howie praying on his knees his take on things becomes perfectly clear.
“I think I could turn and live with the animals,” he says. “They’re so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to its own kind that lived thousands of years ago.”
During a key meeting with Howie at his mansion, he effortlessly swats aside heated objections to paganism’s absurdities before pointing out Jesus was the son of a virgin impregnated by a ghost.
But Howie can’t get out of this idiotic and quite unnecessary duel. “And what of the true God?” he cries.
Summerisle pretty much shrugs. “He’s dead. He can’t complain. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.”
Like Howie, Summerisle believes his creed is not only self-evidently superior but also gives its followers a solid moral foundation. He is adamant the missing girl hasn’t been killed by any of the islanders.
“We don’t commit murder up here,” he blithely says. “We’re a deeply religious people.”
But although the urbane Summerisle appears to have the intellectual upper hand, his thinking is just as ridiculous. The naked girls jumping through flames that they can see through the window are doing so because it makes them ‘fruitful’. He also insists it was the removal of ‘Christian apathy’ and the reintroduction of the old gods (rather than decades of hard work) that turned the barren island into an abundant fruit-producing place. Instead of fearing God, he fears Nature and speaks of the need to appease her. So now he worships the sun, the orchards and the sea, believing they are conscious entities capable of responding to human requests.
It’s simply madness of a different stripe.
But there is one crucial difference between this deluded pair. Howie might be a killjoy, he might be nowhere near as cool as Summerisle, but he’s definitely the better man.
Because Summerisle is already plotting to put his bonkers beliefs about ‘holy sacrifice’ into action.
In other words, to do something mad, you firstly have to believe something mad.
Case Study 3: The violent misogyny of The Dirty Dozen’s AJ Maggott.
Religion has long fucked over women and is still doing so today. Now although I’m not entirely free of sexism, I’ll grudgingly admit women are equal, barring their annoying tendency to talk too much, their odd obsession with shoes, and their pronounced difficulty in reversing a car.
Oh, and some could do with bigger tits.
Saying that (and call me a softie), but I do draw the line at killing them.
In fact, I like to think I’m a lot more enlightened than all those religious fucks through the ages who’ve committed one atrocity after another against the fairer sex. Hindus used to set widows on fire because… well, I don’t know. Bride burning is still practiced on the Indian subcontinent because… well, I don’t know. Some hardcore Muslims are into honor killings, acid attacks and cutting off clits because… aah, you get my point. Perhaps their patriarchal, women-hating religions simply expect such stuff. In short, all the major faiths have been a disaster for women, proving oppressive at best and actively murderous at worst.
The aptly named AJ Maggott in the gritty war drama The Dirty Dozen brings a Christian flavor to proceedings. Languishing in a prison cell awaiting execution for a sex-killing, he does at least have a perfectly valid explanation.
“I never raped that evil slut,” he says while clutching a bible. “The Lord gave me that woman and told me to chastise her. I only do what I’m called on to do. I was in a state of grace, then that woman, she tried to soil my spirit.”
You see, he ‘chastised’ her because her feminine wiles were responsible for lowering him from a higher spiritual plane.
And somehow the judge didn’t buy such a defense.
OK, now Maggott is clearly insane, spending his time dementedly chuckling or wishing for eternal damnation upon the rest of the squad who (amazingly) appear to enjoy and value the company of women.
However, it’s not uncommon for the most brutal misogynists to claim divine blessing for their actions. It’s almost as if their holy books were cobbled together by a bunch of sexist old men.
As for the ever lovely Maggott, it’s no surprise he ends up jeopardizing the mission by fatally stabbing a woman. At least an exasperated colleague has the good grace to shoot the fucker dead.
Case Number 4: Religion makes you thick and diddles you out of your hard-earned cash.
I once lived in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most religious place on the planet. For five years I soaked up that wonderful country’s enlightenment and progressiveness. Here I met fatalistic locals who spoke favorably of Hitler and Saddam Hussein, who saw earthquakes as a sign of divine displeasure, and who believed dinosaurs and man had simultaneously lived together. Oh yeah, they also chop heads off in public.
In Elmer Gantry the rural folk embracing the sermons of revivalist Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) are repeatedly shown to be simpleminded and gullible. Dressed as a milkmaid carrying a pail of milk, she hails them as the ‘carefree children of a happy God.’ She promises they will laugh, sing and rejoice together. But within two minutes she points to the bucket of milk as proof of God’s existence and starts handing out others to be filled with money.
How do people fall for such shit?
Into this mix comes the titular Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster. Gantry’s a passionate, charismatic bullshitter full of contradictions. Seamlessly fitting in whether he’s attending a speakeasy or a gospel church, he drinks, gambles and fights, one moment lying to his mum, the next being painfully honest about his miserable existence as a failed itinerant salesman.
Smitten by the apparently wholesome Falconer, he obviously senses an opportunity and it’s not long before he’s exercising his evangelical chops at the traveling shows.
“What is religion?” he asks the cheering crowd. “Religion is love. And where does love come from? It comes from God.” No one seems able to recognize this isn’t an argument so much as a few nice-sounding words strung together. “And how do I know there’s a merciful God?” he continues. “Because I’ve seen the devil plenty of times!” Again, mate, flimsy as fuck.
However, Gantry certainly knows how to entertain. He slides around the stage, encourages sinners to howl like dogs, and takes the piss out of evolution by incorporating a monkey into his routine. “He might be Darwin’s uncle,” he tells the wildly applauding listeners, “but he certainly ain’t yours or mine!” Then we’re treated to the extraordinary shot of a chimpanzee on a pedestal holding a bible above its head.
This is theatre, pure and simple, but it most definitely does the trick. Attendee numbers start swelling and bigger venues come calling, especially when Gantry’s message darkens. Falconer’s dignified, intelligent manager can’t hide his unease, though, as he watches from the sidelines. He compares Gantry and Falconer to two cops working over a criminal.
“One minute you’re preaching a happy, perfumed heaven,” he tells her, “the next minute Gantry’s damning everyone to a scalding, stinking hell. Gantry scares them with the electric chair, you save him if he confesses. It’s preposterous and obvious to everyone, even dangerous, and that’s why it can’t go on.”
And yet, more than sixty years after Elmer Gantry first hit cinemas, the dismal pantomime we call religion does just that.
Case Study 5: Disgust at women’s bodies and sex.
If there’s another movie character who struggles more with female bodily functions than Margaret White, I’ve yet to encounter her. Or as she puts it to her sixteen-year-old daughter in a moment of sinister understatement: “Eve was weak.”
That daughter is Carrie, a poor menstruating wretch who’s just returned home after enduring one of the worst humiliations in a high school locker room imaginable.
“You’re a woman now,” Margaret tells her, perhaps as a lead-in for a much-needed, long overdue discussion about the facts of life.
But such a simple observation proves to be very much the calm before the storm. Instead of offering comfort, she whacks Carrie across the head with a religious book and proceeds to read aloud from a chapter called The Sins of Women as her traumatized offspring cowers at her feet.
It’s at this moment we first appreciate the extreme depths of Margaret’s repression when it comes to the female body and sex. She believes the first sin was intercourse, resulting in the curse of blood, while the second was childbearing. (It’s curious how Adam escaped without the slightest blame, given it takes two to tango.) Breasts are ‘dirty pillows’, boys are ‘sniffing dogs’, and beautiful, handmade prom dresses that enhance a young woman’s beauty need to be burnt.
Margaret begs her increasingly defiant daughter to renounce her telekinetic power, calling her a witch while insisting it’s the work of Satan. However, she might as well be asking Carrie to abandon her blossoming journey toward womanhood. Aghast, and unable to find a way to return to more ignorant times in which she exercised full control, Margaret can only watch as Carrie paints her face in the mirror before the fateful prom. “I might’ve known it would be red,” she murmurs in reference to the lipstick.
I have to admit Piper Laurie’s wonderfully unhinged turn as Margaret White is a personal favorite, especially the way her voice somehow seems at times to fill with light. Justifiably Oscar-nominated, it’s a full-blooded, thunderous performance that brings to mind a masochistic harpy constantly in a flap. It’s never anything other than compelling, as well as oddly heartbreaking.
“I should’ve killed myself when he put it in me,” she confesses to her shell-shocked daughter after the catastrophic prom. That’s not a bad start to any speech, but this is one of the best ones you’ll ever hear from a religious fanatic as she reveals her fierce battle against the temptations of the flesh with Carrie’s never seen and long departed father. “And then that night I saw him looking down at me that way. We got down on our knees to pray for strength. I smelled the whiskey on his breath and I liked it. I liked it! All that dirty touching of his hands all over me. I should’ve given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding. And now the devil has come home. We’ll pray, we’ll pray for the last time.”
It’s here we finally understand Margaret’s intense familial contempt: her daughter is a relentless physical reminder of her own weakness, sin and hypocrisy. All that’s left for her on this endlessly tormenting Earth is to endure some telekinetic trickery with a drawer load of kitchen implements and a near-orgasmic embrace of death.
Case Study 6: Religion can turn you into a pedo.
The Catholic Church has long wreaked violent havoc on our world by launching the crusades, burning witches and unleashing the Spanish Inquisition’s torturers. Such nauseating events are well-documented, but its guilt in underpinning a quietly sinister epidemic of child abuse has long been obscured, even though it undoubtedly predates all three.
And no, I’m not talking about the way those dog-collared vampires called priests sink their fangs into our young to inject the twin concepts of sin and guilt, but the full-on kiddy fiddling stuff.
Spotlight is a church-hater’s wet dream of a movie, centering on The Boston Globe’s initial true-life investigation of a repeat offender who simply got moved from parish to parish. From there it becomes clear this nonce is just a tiny part of a systemic problem involving bishops and cardinals persistently hushing things up, a trail of shame that goes all the way up to the Vatican.
The Globe’s reporters find that the Church will do anything to protect itself, its tentacles reaching out in a near-Orwellian way to remove public legal records while shyster lawyers (who specialize in privately settling claims) not only get things swept under the rug but profit by turning child abuse into a cottage industry.
“Most of these folk want some acknowledgment of what happened,” one such attorney says. “We get them a sit down with the bishop and a little dough and that’s the best they can hope for.”
Meanwhile, survivors strong enough to reject suicide often become junkies and self-loathing wrecks.
This is a methodical, low-key film that piles up a mountain of dirt against the Church. It frustratingly avoids crowd-pleasing showdowns, but we do get one priest admitting his guilt to a door-knocking reporter. “Sure, I fooled around,” he says, coolly rationalizing and downplaying the abuse. “But I never felt gratified myself. I never raped anyone and there is a difference.”
Best of all is a psychotherapist, who’s been treating abusive priests for three decades. He calmly discloses that his studies indicate six percent of all priests are pedos.
In Boston alone that would mean about ninety priests.
“Many of the priests I treated were psycho-sexually stunted, on the emotional level of a twelve or thirteen year old,” he says, arguing that the Church’s rigid demand of celibacy is at the root of the problem. “The church wants us to believe it’s just a few bad apples, but it’s much bigger than that. I would classify it as a recognizable psychiatric phenomenon.”
Amen to that.
For a real-life example of a pedo priest, catch the excellent doco, Deliver Us from Evil (2006). Reviewed by Ruthless’s own Matt Cale.
*Said by the principal of Carrie White’s high school.
Dave Franklin once wrote a sensitive portrayal of a latent homosexual in the nuanced, achingly sincere novel, The Muslim Zombies. And he really means that.