Rationalists ought to be very annoyed by exorcist movies

Anthony Hopkins stars in The Rite (courtesy of New Line Cinema)

I have been thinking Gothic thoughts of late, sparked off by a trip to see The Rite, the current exorcism movie.

My review of it appears in the April edition of Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral, on sale at the back of the cathedral, but not available online. Further to this I had a conversation with a leading expert on Gothic literature, Dr Maria Purves of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

We sat in warm sunshine on the banks of the Cam, which was most unGothic: I will try to crystallise my thoughts below. Incidentally, Dr Purves’s book on the Gothic and Catholicism is well worth a look:

What is the appeal of the Gothic today? It seems to me that the best Gothic movie of all time is The Exorcist, which fits into the category of the American Gothic; also in this tradition is The Blair Witch Project.

Both of these films deal with the shadows that have not been banished by the Enlightenment. The Exorcist is set in Georgetown, Washington, the very heartland of the American project, where reason is supposed to rule. Again, at one point in The Blair Witch Project, someone wonders how such events can happen in America today. The American Gothic’s stock in trade is the way that the supernatural remains unexplained. Of course, Hollywood films are harmless fun – or are they? I reckon that the rationalists of our day ought to be very annoyed about movies like The Exorcist, which suggest that there are some things that remain impervious to scientific explanation. They might also like to turn their attention to Scooby Doo, while they are at it – a topic that Dr Purves is interested in, and which I had better leave to her.

But what about Gothic architecture? Or more exactly neo-Gothic and Gothic Revival? The appeal of these lies in their reference to tradition. Neo-Gothic is about continuity with the past, not rupture; it is about feeling, not classical remoteness and coolness; and it summons up the idea of a building that is the product of a community of artists and craftsmen. It represents a protest against the industrial age and the age of mass production. Neo-Gothic architecture is out of sympathy with a centrally planned economy; it is rather an architecture with its own vision of humanity and society that is far from socialism. In religion it allies itself with Catholicism; and in politics…? Is the neo-Gothic the forerunner of what David Cameron calls the Big Society? Might the neo-Gothic be a good way into getting people to understand this otherwise rather amorphous concept?