When Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) is seen driving frantically through the woods at night trying to reach the mansion of Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) in Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), he does so out of the hope that Karswell can control the supernatural. This is a concession on behalf of Dr. Harrington, the psychologist, that perhaps there are realities in the universe that cannot easily be quantified. His fear is certainly strong enough that he tries to assuage it by whatever means possible. But Karswell, even though a devoted Satanist, surprises him with a confession of impotence.
Dr. Harrington rushes into Karswell’s home and demands: “Call it off Karswell. Stop this thing that you’ve started, and I’ll admit publicly that I was totally wrong and you were totally right.” But Karswell’s response is anything but reassuring: “That’s very gratifying to hear, but some things are easier started than stopped.” Once opened, the satanic contents of Karswell’s Pandora’s Box come to rule over its proprietor. Dr. Harrington continues: “I’ve seen it. I know it’s real.” Of course, at this point Karswell merely begins to humour him so that Dr. Harrington may leave him alone. Karswell looks up at the clock and realizes that it is 9:00 pm and immediately his countenance turns serious. He then tells Dr. Harrington that he will call it off and sends the man home much more subdued than when he first arrived. But the significance of this scene, in lieu of what is to occur later in the film, is that Karswell has inadvertently passed Harrington a “parchment”, a small piece of paper with runic symbols on it that marks one to die demonically. This is an important early sign that Karswell, too, is afraid of the demon, and does not want the man to die on his property because he does not want to confront the evil that he has cast.
But just what is the importance of the parchment? On one level, we can easily suggest that the parchment represents a kind of entailment between evil and those who venerate its existence. As such, this is an example of the black arts and how evil forces are used to perform evil acts. But, in a broader sense, the parchment can be seen as a form of magical thread that binds one to destiny. Consider how this notion plays out in classical mythology where Clotho is regarded as creating, or “spinning”, man’s fate, and Lachesis is the caretaker, or “weaver”, of man’s luck – and finally the snapping of the string by Atropos, at the time of death. (1) In Curse of the Demon, the parchment serves as the rite of passage of the devil into the affairs of man, a process that, as Karswell alludes to, cannot be stopped once it is begun. Evil is summoned, invited even, Karswell seems to suggest. But this is only one form that evil manifests itself to man, as we witness in the film.
Since its beginning in 600 BCE as the first discipline to use reason to discover the underlying principles of human reality, philosophers have sought to ground human existence in the interplay of reason and a rational universe. This essentially comes down to the discovery of form and logos as its implementation. Up to Thales’ time, Homeric mythological cosmogony served to explain the universe.
Throughout the ancient world, myth served as the epitome of such explanations. This aspect of human reality cannot be easily refuted. For this same reason, the value and raison d’être of myth has not totally disappeared. Myth has to do with the ability of supernatural beings and their power to affect man’s fate. Another way of conveying this is to suggest that myths are most effective when they specifically address human concerns.
The meaning of the ancient Greek word Mythos can be understood in several ways, including: fable, tale and talk. But myth also means that which cannot really exist. The latter meaning suggests a rather playful explanation that allowed the Greeks the luxury of believing in the Gods that made up the Greek pantheon tongue and cheek. Pre-Socratic thinkers differentiated philos-sophia from mythos by demonstrating that the former convincingly showcased man as an agent of reason – that is, as the recipient of universal form. Xenophanes, for instance, rejected all manner of man’s anthropomorphism. He argued that the Gods curiously always took the shape of man, if not man’s thought. Euhemerus, a thinker who lived in the 3rd century BCE, argued that the Gods were no more than ancient Kings that had been glorified through the bad memory and romanticism of subsequent civilizations. In addition, myth is centred on the notion of being and becoming as well as good and evil, eternal principles that have not been exhausted either through religion, philosophy or science. This is the historical point at which myth becomes scrutinized by reason. (2)
Dr. Harrington drives back home through the dark woods. Once he has reached his home, he drives the car into the garage. However, when he is about to close the garage doors, he sees a white cloud of mist rapidly approaching at which point he gets back in the car and backs up in a hurry. But in the process he knocks down a utility pole and is electrocuted. This is the first time that the demon makes an appearance in Curse of the Demon. The demon is briefly seen moving toward the Professor. The next time that the demon shows up is at the very end of the film.
Jacques Tourneur (1904-1977), director of The Leopard Man (1943), Out of the Past (1947) and Berlin Express (1948), does not waste much time setting up the storyline in Curse of the Demon. The film’s plot revolves around a satanic cult, its leader Julian Karswell and an American positivist psychologist named Dr. Holden (Dana Andrews), who is in Britain attending an international conference on the topic of “International Reports from Paranormal Psychology”.
Dr. Harrington had been involved in an investigation of Karswell’s demon cult and had subsequently brought his finding to the press exposing Karswell and his followers. Some time during their meeting, Karswell passed the parchment with the runic symbols to Dr. Harrington. This takes place prior to Dr. Holden’s arrival in England. Dr. Holden is out to disprove the validity of any claims concerning the existence of the supernatural. But, much as this film has a superbly intelligent and engaging plot, more important still is the well-crafted regard that it has for its major themes: the nature of evil, supernatural forces beyond man’s control, scientific materialism and the expansion of reason into the non-rational.
Curse of the Demon was released in Britain under the alternate title, Night of the Demon. The latter version is twelve minutes longer and contains some plot development that was cut from Curse of the Demon. Having viewed both films many times, I will refer to the longer version.
The film opens with a shot of Stonehenge as the narrator is describing man’s timeless belief in a world framed by twilight. From the start, Curse of the Demon is wrought with symbols and symbolism. Stonehenge is seen as both, a physical monument that issues from another time and people, but also as a repository of the vital beliefs of people from long ago. But what exactly is the motivating factor behind these early renditions of man’s concern with his inner world? This seems a pertinent question if for no other reason than that symbols point to reality even though they may not be reality proper.
When Dr. Holden arrives in London, he is greeted by some members of the press who ask him questions about the nature of the supernatural. There he also meets Dr. Harrington’s secretary, who is the first to inform him of Dr. Harrington’s death. This is important because it involves Dr. Holden in Dr. Harrington’s investigation of Karswell’s sect directly. This also has the effect of removing Dr. Holden from his ivory tower and into trying to make sense of a concrete example of alleged evil, which he spends most of the film negating.
Once in his hotel room, Dr. Holden is greeted by two other scientists who will attend the conference: Professors O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and Kumar (Peter Eliott), both men cognizant of the Karswell investigation. At this point in the film, a fine conversation on the nature of the supernatural takes place. Tourneur’s direction is never heavy or pedantic, but neither is it superficial. The dialogue that makes up the conversations on the nature of the supernatural is never forced. These conversations take place in spontaneous ways that revolve around the action of any given scene. Thus, Tourneur does not create artificial situations to highlight a particular point.
The first of these exchanges occurs when Dr. Holden is coming out of the shower and the conversation at hand turns to Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde), one of Karswell’s followers, a clinical patient who is incarcerated for murder. When one of the scientist present supplies a picture of a demon drawn by Hobart, Dr. Holden suggests that what they really ought to be doing is compiling data on the psychological make-up of Karswell’s followers. The problem begins when someone mentions that Hobart is an “alleged” murderer, at which time Dr. Holden, taking up the picture says, “You don’t mean to suggest that that thing made him do it?” After Dr. Holden gives them a lecture on the value of scientific reason, Dr. O’Brien answers him: “I know the value of the cold light of reason, but I also know the dark shadows that that light can cast. The shadows that can blind men to truth.” Dr. Holden quickly rebuttals by saying: “What truth? Demonology and witchcraft have been discredited since the Middle Ages. I wrote a book about it. That’s why I am here.” This exchange further demonstrates how self-absorbed Dr. Holden is with scientific facts. This scene is indicative of Tourneur’s meticulous attention to detail, facts and language. At this point, an allusion is made to some historical manifestations of the devil. Dr. O’Brien remarks: “Explain how an uneducated farmer like Hobart can know anything about this creature whose legend has persisted from civilization to civilization.” It is at this juncture in the film that mention is made of the incarnations of evil as Asmodeus, Baal, Moloch and Seth-Typhon.
Jacques Tourneur goes through great pains to offer a sophisticated script that raises the level of the film to much more than just a tale of spooks in the night. When Dr. O’Brien mentions four ancient representations of the devil, this is convincingly tied to the picture that Hobart drew of the demon. It is interesting that the film mentions the Persian devil Asmodeus, given that it is a spirit that represented storms, rage and revenge. This is equally conveyed by Karswell when, out of the outrage that he feels towards Dr. Holden’s incredulity; he conjures up a powerful and menacing windstorm. According to the Lemegeton, Asmodeus often shows itself riding a dragon and holding a spear. He is said to have three heads. Baal, too, is a god of rain and storm that makes its first appearance in ancient Palestine. The 16th-century demonologist John Wier argues that Baal also had three heads: that of a cat, man and toad. His central characteristic? Guile. None of this comes about as coincidence, for Jacques Tourneur was a serious student of the occult.
For the Egyptians, demons were viewed as the messengers of the Goddess Sekhmet. They were the embodiment of evil, always spreading disease. A fine example of this is the Egyptian creature known as the Eater of Hearts, who crouches besides the scales during the weighing of the heart ceremony. The Book of the Dead depicts this entity also as containing three heads: crocodile, lion and hippopotamus. He belongs in the Hall of Judgment. (3)
But reflection on demons and evil is equally a central concern of Zoroastrianism, a sophisticated ancient Persian faith that predates the Achaemenid dynasty in 550 BCE. The Zoroastrian’s viewed the universe as dualistic. The interesting factor in this notion of good and evil is that the Zoroastrian’s perceived both good and evil to exist as separate entities. Presiding over good is Ahura Mazda, and Ahriman over the forces of evil. Ahriman’s goal is one of creating dissention in man. His goal is that of fostering lies and the continuation of death and suffering for man. Ahriman has at its disposition a host of agents, evil spirits. The Zoroastrian’s conceived of six good spirits (Amesha Spenta) that do the work of Ahura Mazda, and six evil powers that are Ahriman’s aides. The main agent of evil in the terrestrial realm is Angra Mainyu. S. A. Nigosian explains in his book The Zoroastrian Faith:
Thus, the phenomenal world consists of pairs of conflicting opposites: light/dark, truth/falsehood, health/sickness, rain/drought, pure/impure, good creatures/noxious creatures, life/death, heaven/hell. (4)
Curse of the Demon is a subtle exploration of the terror conveyed by the supernatural on the imagination. Holden comes to the Karswell devil cult investigation armed with the tools of the hardened positivist: a regard for hard facts, the materialist affirmation that human reality is merely made up of matter, and a lack of genuine awe and curiosity that would allow him to confront the sublime on all its fronts. But the film does more than entertain, for it also begs the question of the relationship between good and evil. The balance and interaction between these two realms is today perhaps more than ever before in the history of man seen as a paradox, and as contradictory. Evil has seem paradoxical from time immemorial due to its origin, especially when the crux of human attention has been on positing the existence of God, whose distinguishing characteristics have almost always included: omniscience, benevolence and omnipotence. Hence, comes about the “problem of evil”.
This paradox is founded on the seeming incomparability of these two forces. Yet, the existence of evil, witnessed in the tragedies that occur to unsuspecting benevolent people, as well as the overbearing reality of existential suffering, cannot be denied. Of course, the problem of evil is a “local” concern of man, even though it rightfully takes on colossal metaphysical proportions. If one could afford to entertain a cosmic viewpoint, perhaps the realization that evil is the price to pay for self-consciousness would come to take centre-stage. Dr. Holden is oblivious to this concern. Pictures of Earth taken from Voyager’s I and II, as both of these sister satellites left the heliopause, reveal a chillingly cold, even though sublime, human condition. The problem, however, is that man cannot easily accommodate such a viewpoint emotionally.
When Dr. Holden goes to ask Karswell for a classic text on the supernatural, it is Karswell who instructs the calculating positivist. Karswell then asks, “How much do you know about this book you’re after?” Dr. Holden simply views the text as a book, a container of knowledge in the contemporary notion of research. But Karswell guards the book as a record, a testament to a more ample reality than the quantifiable and catalogued material reality. Dr. Holden answers, “Not very much, just what Professor Harrington referred to it in his notes.” In this scene, that serves as one of the greatest confrontations between positivism and the non-rational; the burden of proof is reversed, thus forcing Dr. Holden to broaden his scope or find adequate counterproofs. Of course, it would be incorrect to assume that this exchange is merely a clash of science and the supernatural. The problem merely involves aspects of the scientific method. Science has in fact proven to be willing to explore the unknown and offer as knowledge whatever seems pertinent. The problem is really the arrogance that subjugating reality to a given method presupposes.
It is important to remember that Isaac Newton was the last of a long line of thinkers that were willing to embrace the limits of experimentation and quantification. Newton was one of the last of the alchemist/scientists. His discoveries, however, are not the worst off because of his ample curiosity. Pythagoras and Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus), too, were rationalists of the first degree, who did not close themselves off to what may exist beyond their scientific scope. Paracelsus (Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim), a thinker who is credited with the discovery of ether as an anæsthetic did so given his belief that body and spirit where dual components of man. He writes in his work Traite’ des trios essence premieres: “If the spirit suffers the body suffers also.” (5) Karswell’s answer to Dr. Holden is nothing less than interesting: “Do I believe in witchcraft?” Then he goes on to add: “Where does imagination and reality begin? What is this twilight? This half world of the mind that you professor know so much about? How can we differentiate the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?” Karswell’s point is pertinent to a neurotic age that professes both a staunchly arid philosophical materialism as well as the likes of psychoanalysis.
Of equal importance is Karswell’s suggestion that perhaps man has implemented a hyper-rationality – if this is a fitting word – that destroys any relevance that belief can have in ordinary life. What Karwsell seems to be admonishing begs the question of just what kind of vital understanding people possess when they take off their lab coat? The significance of this question is best exemplified by Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s distinction between ideas and beliefs, where an idea is something we possess, while beliefs are convictions that we embody. This is best in evidence during the scene when Karswell and Dr. Holden are seen walking outside Karswell’s house. Karwsell entertains the village children during his annual party for them. This scene is the second time that Dr. Holden encounters anything remotely strange, the first being the invisible writing that is found in the personal card that Karswell hands him in the British Museum. Dr. Holden cannot make sense of the dramatic and visually stunning windstorm that Karswell evokes. Karswell seems to be moved by the natural disposition that children have for understanding. He says: “If only we grownups could preserve their capacity for simple joys and beliefs.” Curse of the Demon confronts us with a greater and more profound notion of human experience than that offered by stale materialism.
What then is to be conceived as truth today, given that in many circles good or evil are no longer accepted as possible dual aspects of the human condition? The problem is multi-faceted, because there can be no effective separation of these two poles without boiling down to inane “theoretical”, psychobabble chatter. Good and evil are vital components of man’s lived experience. To negate either – even when their import is merely considered psychological – is to destroy the coherency of the other. This is Dr. Holden’s position and hence his dilemma. In the absence of conviction, as seemingly trivial as this may seem, only abstraction can save the day. This is the contradictory mindset that does not allow itself the sublime privilege of seeing the forest because the trees are always calling. Friedrich Nietzsche’s wilful irreverence captures this point best when he writes in Book V of The Gay Science:
How far we too are still pious. In science, convictions have no rights of citizenship, as is said with good reason. Only when they decide to descend to the modesty of a hypothesis, of a provisional experimental point of view, of a regulative fiction, may they be granted admission and even a certain value within the realm of knowledge – though always with the restriction that they remain under police supervision, under the police of mistrust. (6)
As a scientific investigator, the question for Dr. Holden remains one of securing a degree of understanding that is complimentary to man as a psychical and material being, and thus one that can be understood based on the power of the available scientific evidence. To this Nietzsche adds:
But does this not mean, more precisely considered, that a conviction may obtain admission to science only when it ceases to be a conviction? Would not the discipline of the scientific spirit begin with this, no longer to permit oneself any convictions? Probably that is how it is. (7)
Dr. Holden’s character proves to be so effective and believable precisely because of his being closed-off to any notion of the existence of the supernatural. When Dr. Holden walks to his hotel room through the long, tunnel-like hall, he stops for no apparent reason and looks around. At this point, there is eerie music heard and one has to wonder if this is in fact the demon taunting him or if this is merely part of the mood created by the film’s soundtrack. This scene is brilliantly shot, and thus the viewer is offered just enough suspense to keep the story moving along without necessitating shock value. The scene is interrupted when Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Kumar come out of a room and Dr. Holden invites them for a drink.
The conversation quickly turns to the clash between reason and the supernatural. Dr. Holden asks: “O’Brien, don’t you think that scepticism is the proper scientific attitude?” O’Brien concedes by answering: “Sometimes.” To this, Dr. Holden, pouring a drink, answers: “I say show me.” This begs the question of just how much “seeing” is sufficient evidence. And is “seeing” without a proper all-encompassing explanation enough to quench the doubt of the sceptic? Dr. Kumar seems to realize this and asks Dr. Holden: “And if you are shown?” Dr. Holden answers, “Then look twice.” Dr. Holden concludes this statement by adding: “The reality of the seeable and the touchable. That’s what convinces me.”
William James critiques this austere and stubborn intellectualizing in The Varieties of Religious Experience by arguing against the limitations of both institutionalized religion and positivistic science. Of course, as a matter of artistic convention, Dr. Holden’s turnaround can only take place due to his scientific obstinacy. Yet, the film does not conclude with a total abandoning of his previous mindset or with a new acceptance of belief in the supernatural. The film brings Dr. Holden to a neutral ground where he might be further predisposed to consider the realm of the non-rational in human existence. James offers a corrective:
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry, but he secretly knows hollowness and irrelevancy. His formulas are like stereoscopic or kinetoscopic photographs seen outside the instrument; they lack the depth, the motion, the vitality. (8)
The subtlety and suspense employed by Curse of the Demon cannot fully be appreciated in an insipid epoch, when lack of imagination rules the age. Dr. Holden’s facial expression in the hotel, his awakening to some possible presence around him, suggests a great deal. But for this to take place, there must be a readiness to accept the film’s conventions as indicative of a more diffused ontological reality than empiricism may indicate. Thus, art seems to meet the observer on his or her own ground. Depending on our sensibility and temperament, the work of art will convey itself to us accordingly. Who attends the opera? How many can see existential themes and logos in Hieronymus Bosch’s canvasses? If audiences today find it entertaining or sensually gratifying to have films as detailers of a catalogue of visual horrors, it is due to an inability to contemplate the formal, or conceptual, in its purity. This is exemplified in the way that language, sex, imagination, the sublime and vulgarity are construed in contemporary cinema. Perhaps Jacques Barzun is vindicated in arguing that we have the culture that we deserve. The horror film genre has evolved from the naïve and juvenile to the well-crafted, storytelling of Curse of the Demon, Carnival of Souls, The Haunting (Jan de Bont, 1999) and The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976), for instance. But it was really not until the excesses of The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), in the early 1970s, that audiences were first served rollercoaster rides at the expense of the power of suggestion. Unfortunately, today the sophomoric and unsophisticated latter is the rule – no genre has been spared.
How embracing is Dr. Holden of the supernatural halfway through the film? The answer to this is clear when he storms out of a séance that Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), Dr. Harrington’s niece, has taken him to. But Dr. Holden becomes disoriented again when he is caught by Karwsell in the latter’s study sifting through the older man’s papers. Perhaps few scenes can equal the sheer sense of anticipation that Tourneur conveys when Dr. Holden is seen walking alone at night through the woods adjacent Karswell’s house. The quality of the black-and-white contrast with the shadows in the woods creates an unusually long suspense scene that continues with his search in Karswell’s study and culminates with his return to Joanna who waits for him in the car.
Perhaps the most chilling but subdued example of suggestion in the film takes place in the scene when the camera is angled from the top of the staircase. Dr. Holden is searching through Karswell’s study when a hand is seen holding on to the banister. This scene only lasts a few seconds, and yet the viewer is left guessing if it is Karswell’s hand or that of some more sinister entity. The answer is never given away by anything that occurs prior to this scene. Even when Karswell does come into the room, one cannot be sure that it was he who looks down from the top of the stairs. This portion of the film conveys the idea that Karswell is always protected or aided in his activities by an evil force.
Another masterful example of Tourneur’s sense of horror takes place when Dr. Holden is attacked by a black panther while searching through Karswell’s study. When the lights are turned on by Karswell, Dr. Holden asks what kind of animal it was that attacked him. Karswell simply smiles and tells him that it was the black cat that is seen sitting nearby. But the height of Dr. Holden’s fright comes when he is followed by a series of lights and mist as he walks back from Karswell’s home through the woods. Dr. Holden, who is a purveyor of conventional realism, has his calm nature shattered by the disorienting experience. The next scene takes place in a Scotland Yard office. This is effective counterpoint. This is an important scene because it symbolizes a clash between the supernatural and the tangible reality that is required of any criminal investigation. What was it that followed him? Even though the detectives are patient and tolerant of his claim, Scotland Yard has very little to go on. Dr. Holden seems to make a turn toward acceptance of the supernatural when he finds himself telling three members of the police that he was followed in the woods. What is important in this scene is his perception of how the police investigators now view him.
Serious questions lurk in our understanding films that dwell in the reality of realms that depart from our everyday world. If Curse of the Demon is to effectively engage us, we too must be willing to accept its artistic conventions. It is not far-fetched to claim that the same holds true for human existence overall. Our demands on life and reality, and our often forcefully conceived notions of how the natural order must operate, are usually one and the same. Dr. Holden’s world, to use the positivist’s self-prescribed jargon, has been conditioned by a self-limiting regard for reality. While the other three paranormal investigators are doing just that – investigating – Dr. Holden is merely out to debunk any such claims. This is also an indicative example of the clash between culture and science. Because Dr. Holden has closed off all but the staunchest materially quantifiable experiences, his level of cultural engagement becomes limited by his chosen method. Thus, confronted with what would naturally seem an opportunity for further exploration and knowledge, Dr. Holden instead opts for the easy security of negation. Ortega y Gasset, in his book Man and Crisis, readily recognized this. Ortega writes in a chapter titled “On Extremism as a Form of Life”:
The withdrawal by man into a corner of the world is an accurate symbol of the first stage of desperation. It means that man, in effect, reduces life and the world to a corner, to a single fragment of what it was formerly. This is simplification in the face of desperation, in the face of feeling lost in an excessive richness of life – all that knowledge and none of it enough; all those appetites and possible pleasures, but none of them full and complete; that too great piling up of necessary occupations, but no one of them with meaning which is absolute or satisfactory. (9)
What seems to be missing in Dr. Holden’s investigation is genuine awe-inspired curiosity. His method is that of a hard-boiled positivist: a stringent and narrow conception of human reality, and an overemphasis on proof. The question can be posed as to what exactly would constitute proof in the field of the paranormal? Even in the field of parapsychology, one is open to the charge that, if the phenomena under investigation are non-physical, what instrument, regardless of its sensitivity, can measure it? And then there is also the charge that, just because some “energy” has been detected, this does not ensure the existence of paranormal activity. What is called for, then, is not a blind, fanatical and irresponsible adherence to sensual autosuggestion or a narrowly, self-defined scientific method. Instead, it is the responsible vision of the wise investigator to uncover how and when paranormal phenomena take place.
Dr. Holden wants nothing to do with the mindset of the paranormal investigator. He is tricked into attending a séance, only to storm out when the medium begins relating messages from Dr. Harrington.
One of the many reasons that make Curse of the Demon an interesting and enjoyable film is its varied and brilliantly paced sense of drama. A lot takes place from the time that Dr. Holden arrives in London, to the final scenes when he encounters Karswell on the train. But the action is neither gratuitous nor purely physical. Some of the action of the film takes place when Hobart is placed in a hypnotic trance in front of the scientists attending the convention, after he is awakened from a catatonic sleep. Dr. O’Brien asks him: “What is the order of the true believer?” Hobart answers: “That evil is good.” Then Dr. O’Brien follows through by asking him to remember the night of the demon. Hobart replies: “I see it in the trees. The light, the fire.” At this point, he tells Dr. O’Brien that he passed back the parchment to the one who gave it to him and “the demon took him.” This is the entailment of the alleged murder. At this point, he shocks those present and jumps out of a window.
Hobart is a central character, even though he remains in the periphery of the on-screen action. Hobart stands at the symbolic crossroads between what is deemed mental illness and diabolical influence. The scene where Hobart is surrounded by medical doctors and is given medicine creates the illusion that the men of science present are totally in control. This scene is similar to the one in The Exorcist when the doctors can longer explain what is happening to Regan (Linda Blair) in strictly medical terms. Hobart’s rash decision or impulse to jump out of the window is decidedly an example of man’s ignorance regarding human consciousness. This holds true in spite of how, or because, we take a purely positivistic attitude towards questions of the human mind. Frankly, Dr. Holden and the other doctors fail to offer a convincing explanation of Hobart’s mental condition. This is confirmed when Dr. Holden runs to take the 9:45 p.m. train to South Hampton to find Karswell. This is a decisive moment in the film, not solely because it launches the film into its dénouement, but also because Dr. Holden reverts to a genuine concern for the “passing of the parchment”. The finality of Hobart’s death and Dr. Holden’s return to grappling with Karswell’s notion of a realm of twilight seems to suggest a broadening of Dr. Holden’s perspective.
Curse of the Demon is not so much a film about a particular kind of supernatural phenomena – i.e., devil worship and the power of evil – but rather an exploration of the possibility of such a realm. Dr. Holden’s resistance is not indicative of a particular scientist and his own brand of scepticism, but that of a world that has lost the ability for imagination and a sense of wonder. If it is true that ancient cultures turned to the supernatural to assuage their daily fears, then the opposite too seems very reasonable: material complacency and moral nihilism rob man of his capacity for imagination. The question arises whether man can violate the natural balance between volition and reason, vital life and self-conscious existence, and continue to exist as a rational being? C. J. Jung’s insight serves to illustrate this point:
Rationalism and superstition are complementary. It is a psychological rule that the brighter the light, the blacker the shadow; in other words, the more rationalistic we are in our conscious minds, the more alive becomes the spectral world of the unconscious. And it is indeed obvious that rationality is in large measure an apotropaic defence against superstition, which is ever present and unavoidable. (10)
Dr. Holden finds Karswell on the train along with Joanna, who is in a quasi-hypnotized state. The film’s thematic climax is reached when Dr. Holden tells Karswell: “I want to thank you for convincing me of the existence of a world I never thought possible.” But this is the end of any further such discussions given Karswell’s need to get away. At this point, the two men begin a cat-and-mouse game that culminates in Dr. Holden’s passing of the parchment to Karswell, when he hands him his coat. Surprisingly, Karswell is apprehended by two policemen who have been tailing him, but before they can whisk him away the parchment flies from Karswell’s hands. He follows it desperately through the train and out onto the tracks.
What transpires next is a genuine example of the sophisticated suspense that Jacques Tourneur has accomplished in Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), in addition to Curse of the Demon. The film’s ending is scripted in such a way that Karswell finds himself running after the parchment on one side of the tracks, while Dr. Holden, Joanna and the two Scotland Yard officers remain on the other. What is so significant about this scene is that the film does not give away its secrets at the end. When the demon comes running through the tracks preceded by mist and fire, Karswell initially does not take notice. But soon thereafter he does acknowledge it, given that he has no choice. While the demon tramples on him, none of the others directly witness this. To add to the suspense, an oncoming train passes them speeding by on the adjacent track. Karswell is found on the tracks. The policemen go up to him, but Dr. Holden and Joanna stay behind. Dr. Holden tells her that there are some things that are better left unknown. This awe-inspired pathos, of course, is the main point of the film. This is a significant turn of events for Dr. Holden, the positivist. Most important is the acceptance that perhaps the realm of evil and demons is not fully understood by man. Belief and rational thought do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Man is a holistic being that cannot be easily compartmentalized into rational and emotive components. Jung is correct in arguing that man’s natural dispositions cannot readily be turned on and off with a toggle switch. He explains:
One of the most fatal of the sociological and psychological errors in which our time is so fruitful is the supposition that something can become entirely different all in a moment; for instance, that man can radically change his nature, or that some formula or truth might be found which would represent an entirely new beginning. (11)
Curse of the Demon takes us a long way toward a more humanistic understanding of the human condition.
- See John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1935), British Pre-Raphaelite painter. “The Golden Thread” (1885) captures in oil the pathos of this metaphysical rendition of fate.
- Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, translated by John W. Harvey (New York: A Galaxy Book, 1958).
- The Book of the Dead, introduction by E. A. Wallis Budge (New York: Gramercy Books, 1960).
- S. A. Nigosian, The Zoroastrian Faith: Tradition & Modern Research (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).
- Andre Natof, The Occult (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1991), p. 161.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufman (New York: Penguin Press, 1982), p. 448.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Collier Books, 1961), p. 356.
- Jose Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962), p. 139.
- C. G. Jung, Psychology and the Occult (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 144.
- Ibid, p. 137.