symbols

The Symbols Inside the Devil Inside

With all movies (barring documentary) we, as viewers, are aware that what we are seeing is not true. We know the “sender” is telling us an elaborate lie — a story — and we have to suspense our ability to disbelieve in order to fully immerse ourselves in a movie-watching experience. Horror is especially adept at crafting this lie: Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and a variety of other movies play on the idea of “found film” so make what we’re viewing so much more real. But it’s not enough to merely give the viewer these “recordings,” a viewer must be able to relate, to read all the signs, in order to feel the true impact of a horror film.

I wanted to look not at a concept of horror film for this entry, but at a film itself. I’ve previously discussed the fear of the unknown, the use of religious images, and the use of color in horror. The Devil Inside uses all of these concepts and far more in its story, and while neither the best nor my favorite film (I found it mostly middle-ground in terms of horror), I decided to look at how symbols and semiotic concepts are used, specifically, in this film.

The Devil Inside Movie

Also, it was available on Netflix.

The film begins with a purposeful attempt to blur the lines of reality. This is not just found footage: We are shown crime scene footage (quite dark, despite being in a house, where lights exist — but camera-flashlights add so much tension!), and a clip from a newscast before centering in on an interview with Isabella Rossi, the daughter of the woman who committed the murders from the crime scene footage. All fake, and all carefully crafted, the film wants us to believe we are watching a documentary, even when falling on some of the most commonly stereotypical horror tropes. (At the end of the crime scene footage there is an unknown sound before the camera cuts away. Spooooooky.) It wants to create that fear of the unknown, somethings expanded upon even farther as the film begins: We see a broken chair, a dead priest, and a woman clutching a cross before we hear the words “exorcism.” Even without seeing a preview, the film makes use of painfully obvious symbols to foreshadow the overall point of the movie. It does this far more subtly, a number of minutes in, as Isabella sits in on a class at the Vatican School of Exorcism (not a real school), and we conveniently hear mention of the transference of demons. Gee, I wonder what will happen later. It’s in these beginning scenes that the film sets the stage for it’s own mythos and intratextuality that we need to accept as viewers. Without our relation to these first moments of film, the rest of the movie would not work.

There are also times where the movie relies heavily on color — although these scenes are few. When Isabella goes to visit her mother in the mental hospital, we see camera footage of her mother. The film appears black-and-white, but for the dull color of a yellow chair. Incidental? Maybe, but also perhaps a moment of calm brightness to contrast the next color in the scene, which is the red of blood, standing out even brighter. The scenes in the hospital themselves are nothing special: The video is dull, normal “found footage”-style fair, which doesn’t seem the match the crisp realness of the other documentary camera moments, but does work to show the somber nature of a mental hospital.

Shortly after that first hospital visit, we are shown a mash-up, of sorts. Isabella voices over what it’s like to effectively lose both her parents. As she does this the video switches between Isabella walking by herself in crowds of people, religious imagery, statues that represent loneliness. These images are quick moments, the get us a feeling of loss and being lost. Even though she has a camera man/documentarian with her, Isabella is alone. She has no parents, no hint of a significant other, and it is earlier-hinted that she has had an abortion, which could be a symbol of literal emptiness insider her. A similar voice-over mash-up moment happens shortly after when a young priest discusses his background with exorcisms.

This film also falls back on the perversion of religion. “Inverted crosses, commonly used in Satanic rituals.” But we’ve already discussed the problem with that. Later we move on to a young girl possessed by a demon, containing some more apparent symbols: “She’s getting worse,” her mother warns, saying she moved her to the basement. She’s getting worse, so she is physically getting lower, getting put in a dark, dank space, and closer to Hell.

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It’s here we get to view our first “real,” brutal exorcism and demonic possession. And the demon shows in the young girl’s body: She is contorted and ugly, marked by bruises, blood, and dirt. The demon is not elegant, and neither is this girl. She wears her possession like a gown, so the characters and the viewers both can understand that even if the Devil can be subtle, smooth, and resort to trickery, demons are rough and obvious. They make a normally-pretty girl physically “wrong.”

These themes continue throughout the movie, mimicked in obvious and more subtle ways–generally the more obvious. This is not a movie with symbols twined in like a delicate thread, but it is still not a movie without its symbols. It is also a movie who keeps to one solid plot, and the later hospital scene and later exorcism are so similar to the one we see in the first half there is no need to reiterate. A choice that perhaps does not make for the most frightening of films, but does at least hold true to it’s own setting, and is a good example of common symbols and semiotics in horror film.

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When we think of literary symbols, the “signified” meaning of a symbol is often taken from very specific sources: Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, Faust or the Bible. Especially the Bible.

Which brings in the concept of water: In most writing, water is refreshing, it brings in the concept of birth, life, and baptism. In horror, very rarely does water reflect this concept. Water signifies many things in horror, but mostly it represents the symbol of the unknown and unknowable.

Look to H. P. Lovecraft and his “Cthulhu Mythos” which respect to many of his Elder Gods–although there are Elder Gods for each element, most of the ones Lovecraft writes about are his gods of water, living deep within the sea. There is his Dagon, Cthuhlu, and Mother Hydra, references in various stories, most notably one of Lovecraft’s few novellas The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which heavily plays on the concept of water, not just because of the gods that dwell there, and the ocean-side locale, but because (spoiler alert) the people themselves are of the sea: They are strange, and unknown to the world around them, just like the deeps of the ocean itself.

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To put this in the perspective of film: We have JawsGodzillaThe Abyss and even Sharknado. All the evils in these films come of the water–some even reflecting upon real threats (after all, Jaws was based real shark attacks). The idea of unknowable water plays off truths we all know: The ocean is vast, it is scary, and there is much of it we still don’t know, and because of this it becomes a natural symbol in these films and novels.

Sean Hall, in This Means This, This Means That, expands on this point: He states that there are two ways symbols can arise, natural and cultural, and while there are plenty of movies that play on cultural fear (The Exorcist, and other movies based on religious concepts), movies involving water are often purely natural in how they encourage emotions in their viewers, especially “creature” films, like many of the aforementioned movies (and even Lovecraft stories) are. In a cultural context, water in clean, pure, and baptismal, but once there is enough of it, the fear of what lurks calls to our most basic of instincts.

Which goes back to an overall theme of horror: Whether it be woods or water, abandoned hospitals or lost islands, the idea that were is some unconquered unknown appeals to our fears, and becomes a symbol for it.

Every Spooky Thing is Phallic

When you watch a slasher film, someone is going to get penetrated.

With a knife, yes, but I think we all know the real implications here: Knives, chainsaws, and the like are often used against (women) victims, and even vampire fangs, which penetrate the skin can be phallic in nature. Vampire kings often have castle towers, and victims in these films are more often than not young, sexual women.

After all, that’s why you never have sex in a horror film.

Unless the horror movie is Cherry Falls. Then you can have all the sex.

Unless the horror movie is Cherry Falls. Then you can have all the sex.

This is especially true of slasher films, which gave us the concept of the “Final Girl”–a pure female character who survives until the end because she upholds some form of “correct” behavior. In Halloween, she’s a sweet girl who works hard and isn’t a dirty loudmouth like her friend. In Friday the 13th she’s kind little Alice. In Wishmaster, she’s an innocent woman wracked with guilt over her parent’s death and who refused to succumb to the greed of wishes.

Which plays upon the “virgin/whore” dichotomy: Either a character is a raucous slut who deserves to get (excuse my language) metaphorically “fucked” by the overtly masculine (but apparently incapable of sex) bad guy, or she’s pure enough to make it to the end.

But masculine/feminine symbols don’t end with slasher films, or even the concept of the Final Girl. Bruce “Don’t Call Me Ash” Campbell’s character, Ash, in Evil Dead is not a woman, but he is the only survivor. Thrice. That doesn’t stop director Sam Raimi from making the most overt phallic symbol in a horror movie ever when he has a character who is literally raped by trees and thus turns into a Candarian Demon.

 

And so a woman becomes violated, and thus turns evil–despite being the only non-raucous person heading to the woods that day.

The problem with this concept being that it was not left in the 80s and early 90s: And is still played upon in films like All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, The Collection, The House of the Devil, and most obnoxiously the impending film Final Girl.

In fact, the concept of masculine sexual actions being represented in horror film as a way to kill women is so prevalent they even wrote a book about it, which is worth a read for anyone interested in film, horror, or feminism.

So next time you watch a horror film pay attention, because everything is phallic.