Night of the Demon: A Fortean film for Friday 13th

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For you horror fans, we take a look at a supernatural horror classic you should be watching this Friday 13th.

Today is Friday 13th and, traditionally, many of us like to go to the cinema or curl up on the couch and watch a horror movie. Whether it’s Freddy or Jason carving up some hapless co-ed, Jigsaw revelling in the poetic justice of the latest talking meat-sack he is putting through the grinder or Linda Blair spewing pea soup into the wrinkly crevices of Max von Sydow’s face, we all love a good scare to shock us out of our daily routine.

The Fortean film eschews cheap scares, and instead embraces mystery, uncertainty and more than a little creeping dread

Over the last six years, horror movies have seen a return to the more traditional trappings of the supernatural, as opposed to the torture porn sub-genre made so popular in the early 00s. Like the literature of the Victorian era, popular horror narratives have once again been attracted to ghostly hauntings, psychic phenomena and demon possession, but with a more modern paint job – see Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister, to name a few.

However, these films offer up a variation on the same old trope of the supernatural villain who, while thought to be only make-believe by the film’s protagonists, turns out to be real and therefore must be challenged or destroyed. There is another type of supernatural narrative though, one that eschews cheap scares and disappointing CGI finales, but instead embraces mystery, uncertainty and more than a little creeping dread: the Fortean film.

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A Fortean is someone who subscribes to the ideas and philosophy of Charles Fort, an analyst of unusual phenomena. More specifically, a Fortean neither accepts nor discounts the paranormal outright, but keeps an open mind about the utter strangeness of the universe. A Fortean imagines there is more to this world than first meets the eye and that we are only fooling ourselves if we think we have all the answers. As a Fortean film, Jacques Tourneur’s 1957 masterpiece Night of the Demon explores this idea to chilling effect.

What Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon does so well is put into doubt the kind of film the audience is watching

Night of the Demon follows Dr John Holden, an academic who specialises in debunking the paranormal. He arrives in England to expose a cult leader who claims to have mastered the dark arts, Julian Karswell, as a fraud. The previous investigator, Dr Harrington, mysteriously perished, either as the victim of a soul-devouring demon summoned by Karswell or by his own misadventure. As Holden, aided by Harrington’s daughter, investigates Karswell and his abilities, the lines between fact and faith become blurred, and the power of scientific inquiry is revealed to be just as deadly as superstition.

What Night of the Demon does so well is put into doubt the kind of film the audience is watching. At first, we are positioned to accept this film as a full blown supernatural monster picture, complete with an enormous flying demon. Then Holden and his colleagues discount any and all characters who believe in the supernatural and dismiss Karswell as a charlatan. Then that creeping dread sets in, as Holden’s position is challenged at almost every turn. Everyone he encounters, mainly Karswell’s mother and his cult members, are so utterly certain that Karswell is the genuine article that Holden himself begins to see things that just might challenge his academic rigour.

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Tourneur and the film’s screenwriters position Holden, our hero, as somewhat of a demon himself. Trying to get to the heart of Karswell’s hold over his subjects, Holden hypnotises one of the cult members, with tragic consequences. This scene showcases the very Fortean idea of how scientific enquiry can be extremely limited when all possibilities are not considered, and that – when abused – science and superstition can be just as dangerous as each other. The scientists underestimate the power of Karswell – whether his power is through the use of dark magic or mental conditioning, the scientists fail to see it until it is too late.

Night of the Demon has the power to expose you to the infinitely dark possibilities of a vast and ultimately unknowable universe

Seeing and believing as two perceptions that are not always mutually inclusive is at the heart of Night of the Demon. Has Karswell unleashed dark forces that he is unable to control, or has he merely succumbed to his own hype? But Holden does learn – to paraphrase Shakespeare – that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy. Is that the existence of an actual malevolent supernatural force, or is it that a belief in the supernatural is powerful enough to kill? Maybe we’ll never know.

This ambiguity is what makes Night of the Demon the perfect Fortean film to watch tonight. Rather than get a cheap jump scare by what goes bump in the night in the latest instalment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, experience a cinematic delight that has the power to expose you to the infinitely dark possibilities of a vast and ultimately unknowable universe. Now there’s a scary thought.


All images: Columbia

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