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The Devil Inside: The One that Pissed Off People

A good found footage movie relies on its ability to trick you into thinking, just for a second, that maybe this could have been happening.  We all know it didn’t — the fact that we are seeing a “movie” is the largest proof against that idea — but we still like to trick ourselves in order to get the biggest scares, the most enjoyment out of the experience.

Now, one of the ways that a movie could trick us, or play this game of pretending to trick us, into believing it is all real is by how it replicates our everyday lives.  For example, a movie could feature actors who are not beautiful, locations that are unknown but familiar, and ways of talking and acting that seem identifiable to what we and our friends may do if in that situation.

Another tactic a movie and its marketing department could take is to utilize websites.  The Internet is full of websites for a variety of organizations and institutions we know and rely upon in our lives — from banks and restaurants to dating and storytelling.  The Internet is also full of websites from people who make documentaries and manifestos about the “real” nature of things happening around us.  We have all stumbled into these darker recesses of the Internet, where it is hard to tell where the line is between fact and fiction, between truth and rant.

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Nowadays, as part of their marketing strategies, many genre films — especially those that are released during the summer blockbuster season — will produce fake websites as a technique to advertise the film.  Well, fake in the sense that while they are real, functioning websites, replicating the structures we have all come to accept as normal, they are meant to be websites for fake organizations, institutions, and even documentaries that are featured in the film.  A.I., Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Prometheus, Elysium, even Monsters University all had these websites.  Even the one that started the trend of found footage horror movies, The Blair Witch Project (1999), used a fake website for a viral marketing campaign all the way back in the last century!  Sometimes the websites are front and central in the marketing campaign, and sometime they are the rewards for the completion of puzzles and alternate reality games.  Either way, the websites can be read as attempts to provide some level of realness, if not to the movie than to the experience of the content in the movie.

Which is why it is so interesting that when an exorcism cinema from 2012 tried to utilize these realistic websites, as others had been doing  for over a decade, the viewers turned on the movie for doing so.

Well, partly that was because The Devil Inside (2012) really did not know how to use this marketing technique.

The Devil Inside is the second exorcism cinema to rely upon the found footage technique to tell its story.  As with The Last Exorcism, it is not blatantly positioning itself as being based on a true story, and instead relies upon the documentary storytelling style to bring an air of realism to the narrative.  It does, interestingly, begin by saying that the Vatican does not endorse this film, which is important, given how predominantly the Vatican is featured in it.  Unlike The Last Exorcism, the impetus for this documentary is a young woman’s quest to uncover the truth of what happened to her mother, who apparently killed people when the woman was but a child.  The quest takes them to the Vatican to learn the truth about demonic possession and exorcism.

As always, what follows are my thoughts as we watched the movie.  It was the first time I had seen the film, but I remember my students telling me about the disappointing ending, which some online decry as one of the worst ever.  I had been interested in it given how it relates to work I do on convergent media, but I could understand how, in watching the movie, the general movie-going public would not be at all pleased with what transpired.  Here are my thoughts on the movie that led to such a reaction.

The movie even begins with what is essentially a found footage style police crime video that provides a walkthrough of the murder scene and then news footage covering the arrest of the mother.  Ah, they set this up in a documentary style! Protagonist is the daughter of the woman, Isabella, who became possessed, and she is seeking answers to understand what happened.  While the crime video gives us some sense that something odd occurred, the daughter seems convinced the mother was possessed.  Interesting how the women could be seen as Italian, given them more likelihood of being Catholic, and yet Isabella does not really appear to be one.  We also saw this representation in The Exorcist as well, as Chris appears to come from an Irish family, and yet is not a Catholic.  Almost like it is punishing these women for turning their backs on their people’s traditions.

The mother, Maria Rossi, has been in mental institution since the killings with numerous mental diagnoses applied to her case.  So again we get science versus religion set up in beginning, with the Vatican portrayed as keeping her possession and exorcism a secret, even moving her to Rome to be closer to the Vatican.  The patriarchal Church indicted for being secretive and trying to control the truth by controlling women.  But Isabella is determined to find the truth, hires a documentary crew to go to Rome with her.

Seems very odd that a lecture on exorcism and demonology would allow a documentary crew to film it. Especially given the Vatican’s saying there are no ordained exorcists. Why would the Vatican grant any of them access to film any of this? Big problem with suspension of disbelief here. Also, this actress playing the daughter is not good at her job. Pretty sure she was hired because she is “pretty.”  So that hurts the found footage aesthetic as well.

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A lot of shaky camera work to scream “hey, look, it’s a documentary, all of this is real!”

Was the mother possessed after becoming a mother? Would indicate a lack of sexual innocence – could she still be considered innocent in some way?  Like it was not her choice to get pregnant?  How will they handle the cause of her possession?

Could be a suppression of female sexuality so that they do not leave their family – especially with the daughter saying that was your husband and she loved her husband very much.  Possession could be read as a metaphor for independence, for developing agency and self-reliance. Arguing that patriarchy has to come in and put them back in their place.

Again, somehow and for some reason, the supposedly secretive Vatican allows for a documentary crew to film Isabella when she visits Maria.  Disbelief, you are hard to suspend here.

“You shouldn’t have killed your child. It’s against God’s will you know.” And then she freaks out and screams. Was she possessed for having an abortion? The daughter terminated her pregnancy, and the mother knew it.  Abortion as a reason for possession would definitely be in keeping with Church doctrine and with the conservative and patriarchal idea of punishing women for having choice.

The documentary filmmaker is more interested in what he is creating, the documentary, than the feelings of the daughter. “That’s great stuff” he extols after Maria starts screaming.

Isabella doesn’t like that possession and exorcism of her mother defines who she, Isabella, is. Does she want to be normal, to go along with the patriarchy?  Is she embarrassed by her mother?

Isabella meets up with some young priests who she first met at the lecture.  These young priests, Father Rawlings and Father Keane, are rogue exorcists, performing exorcisms without Church authorization. They blame the bureaucracy, hypocrisy, and changed rules for the Vatican no longer performing exorcisms.  According to them (and heard repeatedly throughout these films), there are four factors to determining possession: unnatural strength, aversion to religious objects, speaking in languages and knowing things she doesn’t know, and preternatural movement.

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Rawlings and Keane use technology, science to determine when people are possessed. This approach was also discussed in The Exorcist book – how Karras used audio engineering and linguistics to determine if Regan is possessed. Which demonstrates how much all of these movies come back to The Exorcist as a template.  And, perhaps, how they have been influenced by other supernatural documentaries, like Ghost Hunters and Monster Hunters.

The rogue exorcists take Isabella out to experience a “real exorcism” so that she can understand it and learn to help her mother. The possessed is a girl, teen, tied up in the basement – no reason given for why she is in the basement, or what led to her being possessed. Emergent sexuality with this girl, as her behavior toward Isabella indicates a lesbian tendency, then blood comes out of her vagina. Almost rape imagery as they hold her down and perform the exorcism on her on the floor. “Give way to Christ” and “Bow down before God.” Submit yourself to God and you will be fine. And then she is at rest.

But I have to wonder, after watching so many of these recent movies, on the fascination with the spectacle of a woman’s contorted body.  Is it in the fascination with the ability for a real body to move in such ways, without the assistance of — or at least too much assistance of — computer effects?  But there are men who can do this as well, and yet they are not shown…so what is it really that fascinates us with seeing women able to warp their bodies into these inhuman knots and angles?  Does it harken to the idea of the otherness of the female body?

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The rogue exorcists really believe in their work, challenging the modern Vatican by going even more old school: “What we are doing in the eyes of the Church is very wrong.” “That is how we know what we are doing is right.”  Father Rawlings seems to not care much about the Church, as he seems very unhappy with how they run exorcisms. “I feel the Church needs to change.” “I am going to have to do what I believe.”  Seriously, he wants to out-do the Church at their own traditions, which positions him as the most regressive person in the film, although he is also positioned as heroic.

He is similar to the other priests in exorcism cinema who were questioning their faith and then that that faith restored because of the exorcism.  Only here, Father Rawlings never is seen questioning his faith, only the institution of his faith, because of their lack of belief in demonic possession.  It goes from being a personal journey to a rebellious one.  Father Keane is worried about being arrested and deported but he also sees problems with the institutions but he wants to help the mother.  It’s like the movie is saying that there isn’t anything wrong with the individual, it is the institution that is corrupt and must be taken down.

Flies again. What is it with flies? A fly is on Maria just before she wakes up and screams.

Screaming as an expression of Maria’s voice – her real voice. Questioning masculinity of Father Keane by calling him a faggot — again a throwback and an apparent genre convention for this subgenre.

Apparently Father Rawlings has done something bad and has fallen from God’s good graces. Something about his uncle.  Which then seems to suggest he is overcompensating?  Instead of self-reflection to fix himself, he is lashing out at the Vatican.

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The way that Maria acts towards Isabella when possessed in this scene is sexually suggesting lesbian nature and incest between mother and daughter.

And then Isabella intervenes to stop the exorcism and is told she will burn eternal. The love of a daughter cannot save her mother. Breaking the bonds of sisterhood — which, technically, were also broken in The Exorcist in this same way, and then also in The Last Exorcism Part II.  In a sense, then, the majority of these movies indicate that women cannot save women — only men can save women.

Is Father Keane possessed? Must be, since he tried to drown the baby he baptizes.  Guessing Isabella is too, may be displaying signs of knowing things she should not know. Father Keane being possessed and not Father Rawlings makes sense, if Father Rawlings is seen as not innocent given what he did to fall out of God’s graces. But, then, neither should Isabella be possessed if she had an abortion, unless the possession is a punishment for doing so.

If women gain independence and voice, then the patriarchy cannot survive. Father Keane cannot fight the possession and dies. He is weak, he cannot fight against the liberation. And Isabella’s ability to have an abortion is a sign of her independence. If Isabella is possessed, then it might be seen as a punishment for her seeking independence – but that hurts the theory that being possessed can be seen as a way to gain independence from the patriarchy.

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Maybe she is the next generation, following in the liberation of previous generation – she is following in her mother’s footsteps. Long line of liberation, from mother to daughter, and the Church will have to come in to suppress it – that would mean having to do an exorcism on Isabella.  Now that Isabella is possessed, she is gaining her voice, her independence, following in her mother’s footsteps, who was also a liberated woman, now they have to repress that. “We need to end this.” “I need to fix this” says Father Rawlings, who sees himself as responsible.

It ends without exorcism for Isabella.  They are in the car, with Father Rawlings attempting an exorcism on Isabella, but then apparently the driver, who was the film-maker, gets possessed and purposefully drives the car into oncoming traffic, where it is hit by a truck.

The end title says the case remains unresolved. It says to go to the website www.therossifiles.com to learn more, but the site is disabled. And, well, according to Devin Faraci at Bad Ass Digest, there was no real point in going to the website.  As he noted:

As it stands, though, the text reads like Paramount is directing you to a website to see the end of the film. That isn’t the case – the website is really just some immensely boring viral marketing crap that you usually see BEFORE a movie, not after.The movie’s ending is the ending, and there isn’t some secret reel of footage to be discovered. But by the time anyone discovers that it’s far too late – they already hate the film.

So we are left with two possessed people of the four – both men – who kill themselves and never really exhibit the same type of possession that Isabella had. Both represent different patriarchal institutions – Church and Media – and they recognize that they cannot stop it. Whereas Father Rawlings does not see that – he sees problems with the Church and thus patriarchy – and because of this he is killed, he is killed for his beliefs. He is silenced in the same way as Isabella is – his independence and the threat he poses to the patriarchy.  And yet, it was the modern patriarchy, the one less inclined toward supernatural beliefs, that he poses a threat to, with his desire to return to an even older form of patriarchy, which did belief in and act upon such beliefs.

I can understand why the people were upset by the title card with the website, thinking they had to go somewhere else now to find out what truly happened as the conclusion to this story.  For me, the movie is not that good, but the complex handling of patriarchy and Church requires further review.

On Transgressing Audiencehood: Web 2.0, Interactivity, and Becoming What We’ve Always Been

I think I have now determined what my main research trajectory will be, and I wanted to take the opportunity to organize these thoughts to provide the beginning of a structure for how to organize my research, past, present and future.

For awhile now, I’ve been convinced that how the new media has affected our understanding of “audience” is by highlighting certain behaviors that have always been a part of being an audience, or “audiencehood”, but were not due to the media technologies they engaged with and the sociocultural formations that influenced how they could behave.  We’ve heard of how the audience was characterized as being passive, as required to consume and not talk back.  This conceptualization was found in the early days of media studies, with the heightened concern about media effects on vulnerable populations.  This conceptualization was found in the traditional approaches to US broadcasting, positioning the “audience-as-consumer”, to be packaged and sold to advertisers.  While there was acknowledgement that people had the agency to choose, that agency was often thought to be lessened when in an era of restricted choices in media output.

However, this conceptualization has been repeatedly challenged since the 1970s.  In the academic realm, this challenge came from critical-cultural theories and uses-and-gratifications models that sought to empower the audience as meaning-makers in their media engagings.  With increases in media output, due to cable and satellite technologies, nichecasting began to replace broadcasting business models.  New technologies gave more control to the audience for deciding what to watch and when.  These “new media” helped to drive academic and public discourse on “audience activity”, moving away from passivity models and into physical and interpretive activity as moderating and mediating variables in media effects.

The focus on audience activity increased with the digital revolution, especially as it involved the evolution of the Internet into the central communication network for distributing and exhibiting media output.  Because the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, allowed for people to connect to one another and form communities, they were able to build fan communities online across time and space in ways that they could not in the physical, pre-Internet world.  Academics, and the industry, turned their attention to the Internet and other digital media technologies, such as DVR, for empowering the people by requiring them to be active in order to gain content from their media technologies.  Fan-scholars in particular began to celebrate the ability for people to organize and vocalize their affection and activities online.

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The paradigmatic shift into Web 2.0 has, on the one hand, heightened this discourse of empowering people by turning them into produsers or prosumers, but on the other hand it has also been met with increased calls for reducing the celebratory approach and a sometimes implicit technological deterministic approach.  The idea of the Internet spawning these activities has been challenged by media historians conducting research into how fans of film, television, radio, and comics have always been engaged in the types of activities for which the online fan communities are lauded.  The historical approach has helped us to understand that fan activities have always existed as they currently do — they may only be modified in how they are presented due to the technology through which they are produced, distributed, and exhibited.

Now, I am not saying that there are no differences between media technologies.  Obviously they are.  Each has a unique interface and a specific combination of communication channels that impact how the content is produced and engaged with for that technology.  However, I do not agree that the “new media”, which has been code for digital media technologies, produce as different of engaging situations as some new media scholars may assert.  While there are going to be differences, such differences should not be assumed to be primary and always there.  Similarities should be sought for as much as differences.

I make this assertion because of the historical research into media technologies that asserts that every medium was a “new medium” at the time of its introduction; that each new media technology underwent a period of revolution-evolution that, in some ways, show similar patterns for how people, individually and collectively, come to engage with it.  Being a new medium indicates that these technologies are undergoing a period of flux as societies and cultures determine how to “manage” them through developing rituals and conventions of use, and integrating the technology into the delicate, malleable and fluctuating fabric of societies and cultures.  As people develop practices and arrangements for using the new technology, it becomes more accepted into the people’s daily lives.

Now the main thing here is that people learn how to engage with the media, either through their own personal experiences or via instruction that comes formally or informally, such as through popular cultural portrayals of the technologies.  Each technology has a learning curve — and the newer the technology, the more unfamiliar the person is with it, then the steeper that learning curve may be if there are no analogs that the person can draw upon to help them engage with it.  But regardless of what type of media technology, whether it is “old media” or “new media”, we should be able to discern this learning, or sense-making, by investigating the sense-making within situations of engaging with that technology and its content.  I believe that by conducting such investigations would help us to understand the similarities as well as the differences in how people engage with and are affected by media technologies.

I believe that the Web 2.0 paradigm and the concern about interactivity as a dividing line between “old media” and “new media” has provided the opportunity to explore how people engage with all media to understand just what separates the new from the old.  I believe that we will find more similarities than we had expected by conducting such investigations into how people make sense of the media they engage with.  I believe that the notion of transgressing audiencehood, which some will claim has happened because of the Internet and more recently Web 2.0, because of empowerment through interactivity, happens with other media as well, drawing us back to the 1970s critical and cultural models of people interpretively interacting with media content.

Overall, I want to understand how the interactivity of the digital media and the Web 2.0 paradigm shift has changed: how the industry responds to the audience, how audience activity is defined and understood, and how people have actually always been engaging with the media, through their sense-making and appropriating, as we celebrate them for now.  I have started this trajectory with work: on gameplay marketing and experiments in interactive television to understand what the industry is doing; on virtual world television production, online fan identities, and gender negotiation in fandom to understand what is now audience activity; and on sense-making in a range of media technologies, from films to virtual worlds.

I hope to do more to strengthen this trajectory and this central idea: that we have always been active audience, interpretively and physically, regardless of the media technology we engage with to reach the content, but that the technology does certain impact the parameters of that activity for how we are active.  I hope to understand these parameters and how they impact what we are supposed to do, what we can do, and what we have to do to do what we want to do.

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