Hostage to the Devil (2016)

There is always more than one side to a story. Marty Stalker’s documentary Hostage to the Devil shows interviewees asserting that Father Malachi Martin‘s death from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1999 was due to interventions either from agents of his political enemies in Rome, or from Satan himself. The fact that he was 78 at the time, and fell from a stool while reaching for a book in his Manhattan apartment, points to an altogether more banal explanation of his demise, but conspiracy and diabolism are so much sexier, so much more fun to believe.

This is the paradox at the heart of any feature film, whether factual or fictional, that deals with possession and exorcism. Rational scepticism risks sounding dull and flat, whereas the devil always gets the best tunes, and so these films tend to fall into a grey area between the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief and the zealot’s leap of faith. Even if, like Scott Derrickson’s courtoom chiller The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), they claim to be subjecting their supernatural stories to forensic examination, they are also preaching to an audience that they know wants ultimately to be dazzled and terrified. The true story on which Derrickson’s film purports (with a profound dishonesty) to have been based was the case of Anneliese Michel, a devout young German woman suffering temporal lobe epilepsy and depression who ruptured her knees during ten torturous months of exorcism, eventually dying of starvation and pneumonia. Even the investigating Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference conceded that she had never been possessed in the first place – and yet this discredited story gets cited in Hostage to the Devil in a section arguing, ironically enough, for the reality of possessions. Both sides of Michel’s story are briefly presented, but it is clear where the bias lies.

Irish-born Martin was a Jesuit priest, one of the original translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Vatican insider – but, unhappy with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in 1964 he renounced his vows of Obedience and Poverty (while maintaining his vow of Chastity) in order to leave the Jesuits, and moved to New York. There he became a celebrated author of books on Catholic politics and practice, including his best-selling Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Americans (1976), which was both corrective and cash-in to the recent success of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and William Friedkin’s 1973 film adaptation. Martin was keen to distinguish his own work from Blatty’s, and in one of many archival interviews that Stalker has collated for Hostage to the Devil, Martin says of The Exorcist: “That was a truly fictional account, based on no fact. I’ve never seen a head turn around 180º.” Stalker’s documentary, however, tries to have it both ways, as it shows Father Edward McNamara asserting that everything that happens in The Exorcist (expressly including levitation) can and does happen in actual exorcisms, just not usually all at once in a single case.

There are other film connections here. File footage shows Martin working alongside the (frequently debunked) paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren, whose exploits formed the basis of James Wan’s fictional features The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2 (2016). Meanwhile, one of the film’s interviewees is New York cop turned ‘demonologist’ Ralph Sarchie, for whom Martin served as friend and mentor, and whose own book Beware the Night (2001) ‘inspired’ Derrickson’s daft Catholic sh(l)ocker Deliver Us From Evil (2014).

“If you don’t have faith and you don’t have spirituality, you’re not going to see it,” says Sarchie to camera. “Open your eyes and find God, and you’ll see.” It is true that Hostage to the Devil is mostly preoccupied with insider perspectives from the faithful – primarily friends and colleagues of Martin himself. The one voice of sustained scepticism comes from (the now late) Robert Blair Kaiser, Catholic journalist and author of Clerical Error: A True Story (2002), who calls Martin out in the most forceful terms as a charismatic con artist, liar and adulterer – although even Kaiser comes with an ex-Jesuit background. Viewers attracted by Martin’s apocalyptic view of the world should be aware of what comes with it: for included in his traditionalist Catholic perspective is a fundamental belief that the capital-e Evil currently afflicting the world is caused “chiefly by legalised abortion, by contraception…”. So by all means believe, and find God, and see what Martin, Sarchie and others see – or perhaps instead regard the tenets of Martin and co. as not only highly questionable, but also blindly ideological.

Near the end of Hostage to the Devil, Catholic author Suzanne Pearson says of what she regards as Martin’s Christ-like self-sacrifice: “People would be inclined to think that the hostage is the person possessed, but actually no, it’s the priest who does the exorcism.” Perhaps, though, in Stalker’s tendentious documentary, the real hostage to the devil is truth.

© Anton Bitel