Number of the Beast
I’ve had it. While watching a movie I’m not at liberty to name, the digital clock ramped up speed – and landed on 6:66 o’clock. I began to roll my eyes but stopped when acid shot into the back of my throat as I endured another horror train wreck. When it comes to the “Number of the Beast,” the only thing I want to hear is Steve Harris and company knock it out as Iron Maiden.
Since The Exorcist, films using demonic possession as a foundation have copied many a scene from William Friedkin’s much feared horror classic. The genre is loaded with bitter or ex-communicated or faithless priests taking on a young girl or woman possessed by a demon. Of course, she must be tied down spread-eagle to a bed, she must speak in a Cookie Monster-like devilish voice, and when the priest asks the demon’s name, she must say, “We are Legion” with a grimace before a splash of Holy water burns her flesh and really sets her off.
I certainly don’t mind demonic possession in film, but as many a sub-genre in horror, the idea has become cliché, and every new low-budget disaster is an even worse copy of the copy before it. Besides the priest, we either get a virgin child or teen, or a hot young mental patient who has survived on the streets but really has a heart of gold. I can’t recall the last time I saw a boy or man possessed in a film (except for 2014’s The Possession of Michael King), but when a woman’s bound and has a priest coming at her, it’s an exploitation fantasy from a third-rate porn mag where misogyny reigns supreme – or maybe viewers hope she’ll grab the cross and use it like Reagan’s stabbing phallus from The Exorcist. Usually, especially if the priest is young and survives the ordeal along with the possessed female soul he rescued from the clutches of the Devil, his eyes will linger on the now demure survivor for a moment. Yes, he loves her, but dammit, he’s a changed man with a higher purpose, and loves God more because his faith’s been re-established – even in the face of Roman Catholic bureaucracy that never thought the girl/woman was possessed in the first place. Our priest now reborn must engage his new mission to save other souls, and our survivor’s left to find some semblance of normalcy in her world.
And why Roman Catholics with the Vatican, the papacy, and church politics all the time? Other religious holy men answer the call of the damned and expunge demons. In 2012’s The Possession, though ultimately a disappointing movie, we find Tzadok, a rabbi’s son played by Matisyahu, who battles a dybbuk before it completely possesses a little girl. In Vikram Bhatt’s 1920, after his wife Lisa (Adah Sharma) becomes possessed by the spirit of a former occupant, Arjun (Rajneesh Duggal) regains his faith in his Hindu God, which may be enough to save his spouse.
The whole Roman Catholic element and its clandestine hierarchy has become a bore.
Daniel Stamm attempted to do something different with 2010’s found footage film, The Last Exorcism, which introduced Ashley Bell and Caleb Landry Jones to many. Groovy Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, and Necronomicon beasties rocked possession in a different, comedic, and gory fashion with The Evil Dead franchise, and now with the phenomenal television series, “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” (Yes, Ash had become possessed and even lost his hand in the demonic process, but unlike female characters, he was able to break free from the clutches of evil.) One of John Carpenter’s most under-appreciated horrors is the heady and unsettling Prince of Darkness from 1987 where possession is embraced from a skeptical scientific point of view, ironically at the behest of a priest (Don Pleasance) no less. In 2006, Hans-Christian Schmid’s in-depth look into the true story of Anneliese Michel in Requiem rips one’s heart out, while The Taking of Deborah Logan pulls one straight down into Creep City thanks to the brilliant acting of Jill Larson. For a thriller, don’t pass up Denzel Washington on the hunt for a leap-frogging demon in the under-respected Tinseltown story, Fallen from 1998. And although the Roman Catholic factor exists, and regardless of the narrative’s imperfections, The Vatican Tapes brings viewers something new in the third act many didn’t see coming.
616 Becomes 666
666 is certainly one number that lives in infamy, especially in Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious culture. But where the hell did it come from, and how does it have so much damn power? This “Number of the Beast” is in Revelation (never “Revelations”) chapter 13, verse 18.
As a child, I took it to heart that 666 was the spawn of Satan’s number, and The Omen reaffirmed that for me, though the actual three-digit number appearing on a child born on 6/6/66 seemed downright silly. Even so, interpretations of the number and its origins have led to many an argument and have found their ways into many a book. What blew my mind many moons ago, however, is the discovery of Papyrus 115. Irenaeus, who’s responsible for the attacks on Gnosticism in the second century AD, decreed that the beastly number was indeed 666, when he knew of the original number as 616. This numerical difference found confirmation in 2005 when a 1,700-year-old fragment of Papyrus 115, which had been discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, turned up in Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum.
Now, if the number was originally 616, why the change? The answer can be found in Hebrew numerology, gematria to be precise, as well as Greek isopsephy where every letter in the alphabet has a matching number. In this case, 616 is the “numerical name” so to speak of Caligula, the whacked out Roman Emperor who declared that his horse was a senator (among other weirdness and genuine horror whether sponsored by Bob Guccione or not). After the assassination of “Little Boots,” Nero took the helm, and his name as number is 666. This would indicate that redactors (editors) altered the number to reflect the true beast to Jesus Christ and fledgling Christianity in general: The Roman Empire and its main man. The number code would protect the small group of Christians hunkering down for survival since Romans wouldn’t know what the numbers meant, and the horrific warnings from the Book of Revelation would prevent Christians from giving up this newborn religion out of fear. (Please conduct your due diligence and check all this out for yourself. It’s pretty wild.)
The Possession Sub-genre in Horror
With the aforementioned in mind, let’s keep 666 on the shelf, in a jar, locked in a box, and forgotten – unless you’re doing something with the number that we’ve never seen before. Storytellers have used 666 as a cheap device to strike fear into the hearts of audiences by letting them know the Devil is afoot – or ahoof. But this trope has been so overused and misused that it’s become comical. It’s just as bad as hearing that demonic voice state, “We are Legion” before her open sores leak and stain the bedsheets.
And the next time you have some young woman tied to a bed as she’s being exorcised, don’t do this: If she can move objects, imitate voices, make the bed rise, vomit pea soup, adjust room temperature, launch objects, and project hallucinations, I’m sure that bound demon has the power to untie its human host and run amok.
If Satan, Mephistopheles, Old Nick, Old Scratch, or whatever you want to call him – or her – come calling in your story, take a page from Al Pacino as the Prince of Lies in The Devil’s Advocate: make it so we never see him coming. Unleash the beast in a way that will surprise and rock audiences, but leave the overused numbers, rituals, and “The body of Christ compels you!” chanting out of it. Think of demonic possession in a new way, shape, and form to bring a different angle to horror audiences craving something different and shocking. Hell, it isn’t horror if you’re not making readers or audience members gasp.
Now run to the hills, blast some Iron Maiden, and don’t call me in the morning – especially at 6:66 AM.
Billy Crash (aka William D. Prystauk) loves great storytelling in horror, and likes to see heads roll, but if you kill a dog on screen he’ll cry like a baby. Billy co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, and his professional website.
(Photo of Al Pacino getting his Satan on in The Devil’s Advocate from AV Club.)