If it does provoke a demonic possession scare, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (read my review ) would be following in the footsteps of Richard Donner's The Omen, the classic supernatural thriller which wrecked a solid year of my life. When this movie depicting the birth of a cuddly, handsome little Antichrist came out, it reportedly caused countless parents to rush home and check their children's scalps for birthmarks that spelled out "666." My guess is that those kids weren't demonic, but simply ADD; then again, I'm no theologian.
On a 13-year-old like me, the film had a slightly different effect. It sent me scrambling after every book I could find on the and the "," most of them written by Protestants—but that didn't stop me, because I didn't know what Protestants were, had never knowingly met one, and pretty much assumed that all "religious" books were the same. They quoted the Bible, didn't they? One time I brought a parish priest a pamphlet I'd ordered from television which called the papacy the Whore of Babylon, and asked him to explain it.
I was desperate to answer one of life’s great existential questions: Was I the Antichrist?
"Don't read this," he explained, and took it from my hands. But I never brought good Fr. Grisaitis my copy of The Late Great Planet Earth, or Satan in the Sanctuary, or any of the other books I picked up here and there, or the lurid exposes of demonology and witchcraft I'd checked out of the public library. Instead, I buried myself in them—desperate to answer one of life's great existential questions:
Was I the Antichrist?
Before you laugh this off, consider the evidence:
• I had never quite fit in with any of the children at my blue-collar parish school—quite unlike my well—behaved and much-beloved sisters, as the teachers liked to remind me. Nor would I do any of the work assigned, unless it happened to accord with my powerful inner promptings. Punishments and threats were useless. Once a nun squatted down to face my 2nd grade stature and scolded me at the end of the year: "You haven't done a lick of the work you were assigned this year. You deserve to be left back to repeat this grade." I stood there for a moment, running an icy calculus in my head, and replied: "But then you'd have me for an extra year. And I don't think either of us wants that." Just What Damien Would Do (WDWD).
• When I passed them in the schoolyard, laden down with encyclopedias I was reading for fun, my schoolmates would find themselves driven to chant my last name, like some infernal mantra. My appearance at a lunchroom table was enough to provoke an eerie, strained silence—just like Damien.
• I'd been born a surprise and remained an enduring shock to my almost home-bound, agoraphobic mother—who found me incomprehensible from the moment I learned to talk, and regularly swore that she had taken home "the wrong kid from the hospital." Damien's parents asked similar questions about their own little spawn of Satan.
• My poor sisters, charged with caring for me as a child, had despaired of disciplining me or influencing my behavior in any way—noting that punishments only provoked from me an escalating, incessant chant of "I won't, I won't, I won't, and you can't make me.... I won't, I won't, I won't...." They began to call me "Rosemary's baby."
• I hated the cheery, happy "folk Mass" my parents dragged me to in our grammar school gym, with its upbeat songs and smiling nuns in pink pantsuits. When we sang "Blowin' In The Wind" by some obscure church composer named "B. Dylan," I grimly read the flowery and impenetrable lyrics—and figured that they must be from the Old Testament. Then I'd sneak upstairs to the cavernous upper church to savor the darkness, the grim silence and the smoke which reminded me of my favorite TV show, The Addams Family. Draw your own conclusions....
• I was a 12 year-old sexual harasser. As I discovered the dawning curves of my school's young Margarets, Lisas, and Rosarias, I found I couldn't quite...keep my hands off them. Not even at the girls' earnest insistence. Warnings and retaliation had no effect on me whatever. (Or on Damien.) The teachers taught me a new vocabulary word: "incorrigible."
• Worst of all, I discovered early in 7th grade that I was suffused with thoughts of... evil. Or anyway, thoughts that were evil—as I knew because I'd looked them up. As sexual fantasies swarmed through my head despite every attempt to suppress them, I began to wonder about the nature of these thoughts, and dutifully went to my favorite source—a reference book. My parents had lying around an old moral manual from 1945, translated with dogged literality from the Latin, replete with detailed information about the gravely sinful nature of "impure thoughts," "self-abuse" and other forms of "," and a helpful little section on Hell. I looked in vain for mitigations or exceptions, or suggestions on how to stop up this font of evil. One Saturday in confession, an elderly Spanish priest, frustrated at having heard the same sins from me the week before, threatened to deny me absolution. I stumbled out of the confessional, stunned—and not long afterward went to see The Omen.
And suddenly, it all made sense.
In that film, young Damien is born as the incarnate child of Satan himself, born evil and unable to choose otherwise. Now, this is a piece of theological nonsense; the Antichrist discussed in the Apocalypse of St. John, when he comes, will be nothing more than a particularly wicked human being. Satan is utterly powerless to emulate the Incarnation nor can he compel us to sin. (The things done by a person possessed are not attributed to his soul.) But not every Catholic 13-year-old knows this.
I was a 12 year-old sexual harasser. Warnings and retaliation had no effect on me whatever. (Or on Damien.)
I sure didn't. As far as I could see, the fact of being overwhelmed with unquenchable desires, impossible to resist, to commit mortal sins, was a pretty compelling piece of evidence that I... had been born the spawn of Satan, and was doomed to spread evil throughout the world and persecute the Church until I was finally crushed by the Second Coming.
This put quite a damper on 7th grade. Even then, I was preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation; one kid in my school, with similar obsessions, argued with the nuns that "Lucifer" should be an acceptable Confirmation name because "Dude, he was angel, right? Right?"
But I embraced my demonic destiny with no such enthusiasm. I knew enough to realize that mine was the losing side, that some day I'd end up with a Woman Clothed By the Sun crushing my head beneath her heel. And I didn't look forward to it one bit. Nor to the Lake of Fire, the Second Death, or the weeping and gnashing of teeth amidst the fire that does not die with the worm that does not sleep. I'd put on a scapular sometimes, and wonder why it didn't catch on fire.
I pondered my eternal destiny in Hell all through Confirmation class, which focused, naturally enough, on penmanship. Seriously. Each of us had to write a letter to Brooklyn bishop Francis Mugavero explaining why he wished to be confirmed. This being an old-fashioned Catholic school, the most important thing was neatness. Since I had terrible handwriting, I was kept after school every day for weeks, retracing the same exact words, over and over—all the while, pondering St. Thomas' promise that the damned would receive back their flesh at the Resurrection, "to ." I imagined a hot dentist drill applied to the eyes....
Surely the spawn of Satan himself could not sit through an entire Confirmation service without blaspheming it?
And that is when I came up with a way out—or at least a means of finding the answer. Since I had a major sacrament coming up, it could serve as an empirical test of my hypothesis. Surely the spawn of Satan himself could not sit through an entire Confirmation service without blaspheming it. The incarnate spirit of evil could not receive the Holy Ghost called down upon him by the descendant of the Apostles without reacting like a vampire at the sight of a crucifix. If the promptings of primal evil which filled my mind with thoughts of cleavage, stockinged calves, and secret crevices most waking hours every day were truly invincible, a sign of my destiny and nature, then nothing could stop them—not even the Holy Ghost, since Satan (as I had read) is beyond redemption. He is too fixed in evil to repent. The question, then: Was I?
So I made myself an experiment. If I could sit through the entire 2 hour Confirmation service without once thinking of sex, or feeling a...stirring...of the flesh, it would prove that my nature was not, in fact, demonic. If I couldn't, well that would prove the contrary. As the Jesuits used to say, quod erat demonstratum.
As the after-school penmanship lessons drew to a close—the nun despaired, and sent my diabolical chicken scratch off to the bishop—and the great experiment approached, I had trouble getting to sleep at night. Something about the embrace of limitless darkness left me feeling too vulnerable. I awaited the day as I imagine the scientists of the Manhattan project did their first tests at Los Alamos—though of course the evil power they unleashed was nothing compared to the monstrosities I would be driven by my nature to commit, should it happen I failed the test. I thought grimly of the mass murders, wars, and persecutions I would have to unleash, and wondered idly if I could spare Astoria, Queens, from the general wrack—particularly the rain of with which I would be compelled to poison the seas. Could I at least save my dog?
When the big day arrived, and I donned the red polyester robes we'd been loaned, and the stole we would get to keep, I marched into the Church as if to my own murder trial—for millions of murders, really, except that they lay in the future. But God, I had read, is not bound by time.... In a sense, I might already be guilty of them. I sat in the pew among my classmates, and tried to ignore the girls—the flouncing hair, the bright make up of the Italian girls, the rosy skin of the Irish. I sang the hymns in a breaking voice, and strained every nerve below the waist for a hint of arousal, of the rising gavel which would mean a guilty verdict.
I strained every nerve below the waist for a hint of the rising gavel which would mean a guilty verdict.
And nothing happened. Chalk it up to performance anxiety, but I made it through unscathed. For the first time in over a year, I managed to keep my thoughts pure for a solid 90 minutes. The girls might have been bodiless spirits, for all I cared. They looked even—angelic. The sweaty, gum-chewing guys were not future victims of genocides for which I would be responsible, but just a pack of future cops and firemen. The bishop, I knew for a fact, would not die in prison because of me. My stony heart was once again a heart of flesh, and the Spirit was in me the same as everybody else, no more and no less. I let my parents take me for ice cream.
So I like to tell people that Confirmation meant more to me than it did to anyone else I know. But I don't tell them why.