Reflections on "The Devil's Rejects" Part 2
—About this Film
So there you have it, in my previous post I gave a nearly 2,000-word response to one question: Why I chose to watch this film. The fact that I took so much time to justify my actions should tell you something about the world in which I live. It may also help explain why Rob Zombie had such a difficult time bringing his dark vision to the screen. After all, viewed on a symbolic level, the killers in The Devil’s Rejects could be taken to represent Rob Zombie, himself. Think about it: All the Fireflies want is to be free—free to kill, torture, and otherwise terrorize their community. Rob Zombie also wants to be free, free to terrorize people on screen, pushing the limits of good taste and cinematic decorum as far as they can go. In the case of the Fireflies though, obviously such absolute freedom cannot be tolerated. Thus, a character like Sheriff Wydell arises to stop them. What about Rob Zombie’s situation? Can any freedom—particularly artistic freedom—be absolute? That certainly hasn’t been his experience. In striving to get his first film released, Zombie had to overcome an army of people just like Sheriff Wydell; people who sought to stop him on moral, economic, religious, and artistic grounds.
As is often the case, though, Wydell’s pursuit of justice turns into a quest for revenge once he realizes the Fireflies are responsible for his brother’s death. Eventually, Wydell becomes a serial killer, himself, glorying in every blood-soaked minute as he hunts down, tortures, and kills members of the Firefly clan. Interestingly, Wydell starts out believing he is working in the service of the Lord. He prays on several occasions, calling himself the Lord’s “arm of justice,” and he continues to believe he is doing God’s work even as he is doing things like nailing Otis Firefly’s hands to a chair. Could Zombie be saying something here about the Religious Right’s desire to clamp down on artistic and religious freedoms? Could this movie be trying to warn us that mingling Church and State can easily turn a quest for justice into a vengeful witch-hunt? I certainly think so. The prognosis Zombie offers for such a situation isn’t good, seeing as Wydell not only becomes the very thing he hates, the transformation process also leads to his demise.
Despite his bold statement in favor of freedom, even Zombie seems to recognize that every freedom has its limits. Otherwise, like the Fireflies, our pursuit of freedom will lead inevitably to our own doom. Then again, he could be saying that that the inevitable fate of every artist or visionary is self-immolation in the face of an unyielding society. “Beware all ye who would fight the law, because the law will win.” But surely the mere existence of The Devil’s Rejects is a fitting rebuttal to such an argument. Obviously, Rob Zombie hasn’t given up, and he has certainly learned a thing or two since his last time out. I’m not just talking about the limits of artistic freedom, either. No matter how you feel about the subject matter of The Devil’s Rejects, you have to admit it isn’t a bad little film. The story is reasonably well structured, the acting is memorable, the characters are likeable (yes, even the Fireflies), and the dialogue is often clever. From a cinematic standpoint, the film isn’t too bad either, exuding a cool, retro feel.
However, it is what I would call “over-edited.” Just check out the opening scene where the police vehicles arrive on the Firefly farm, for example. After an ominous crane shot that shows the vehicles passing under a pig’s head nailed to the top of a ranch-style archway (nice symbolism, by the way), Zombie cuts to at least three other perspectives on the scene, all showing virtually the same thing, and the cuts don’t completely match, either. Zombie’s inexperience as a director shows through in these and other scenes, but they also give you the sense of someone who is still feeling out the medium, still experimenting rather than limiting himself to a rigid aesthetic. In this sense, I really appreciate Zombie and his work. Not only is he the poster boy for persistence, he also reminds me that sometimes enthusiasm can be just as powerful as perfection, if not more. That frees me up to pursue my own endeavors without worrying if I get it right the first time. Zombie certainly didn’t, but he has taken a giant leap forward with this film. His experience helps me believe that I can do the same with my own creative endeavors.
So you are probably beginning to see that my experience viewing The Devil’s Rejects was not completely negative. On one level, I actually found the film inspiring, at least in terms of how it came to be. But was there any negative fallout from watching it? Surely viewing 108 minutes of homicidal mayhem must have some sort of downside.
The most immediate effect I can think of is the sense of paranoia I felt walking out of the theatre. At that point, it was about 12:30 a.m. Most of the other movies had already let out. As soon as I opened the door to exit the theatre, three young guys ran toward me yelling. I jumped involuntarily, and then relaxed when they said they had been waiting for someone to come out so they could go in and use the bathroom (the theatre was already locked). Nevertheless, before I got into my car, I made sure nobody was crouching in the back seat.
Being a red-blooded male, the nudity in this film also posed somewhat of a challenge for me. I felt particularly conflicted, seeing as the nudity was always paired with violence. I didn’t want to be aroused by such scenes, but I have to admit that some of them stuck in my head all weekend. That made me wonder: Is it the fault of filmmakers like Rob Zombie that men in our society find nudity—even non-sexualized nudity—so titillating? Or is it merely a reflection of how much we have missed the boat in terms of appreciating the human body as one of the Creator’s finest works? Is it even possible for men in our society to view female nudity without resorting to lust? Is such a stance possible in any society?
One thing I noticed about my viewing experience in this regard was that the audience was composed exclusively of men in their early twenties, some accompanied by their girlfriends. I think this is a good reflection of those who are drawn to the horror genre as a whole. Seeing as so many recent horror films make such a strong connection between sex and violence—featuring beautiful women victimized by violent men—I couldn’t help but wonder if this reflects some sort of latent misogyny in our society, particularly in this age group. Perhaps young men are drawn to these types of films, because they fear women—especially beautiful women—and they get a vicarious thrill out of watching other men subdue them. Then again, perhaps it isn’t wise to write down every stray thought that happens to pass through my brain, either…
Moving on to other spiritual connections, I have already reflected somewhat one what this film says about God in my discussion of Sheriff Wydell. But I wanted to add something more here: At one point in the film, Otis challenges one of his victims to cry out to God for help, to ask him to send a bolt of lightning down from the sky to destroy him. As the victim prays, Otis begins ranting about having been filled by the Holy Spirit, about how he’s been saved. In the end, however, it is all a ruse, and he kills his victim anyway. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but wonder why God tends not to intervene at such moments. Is he too weak to respond? Or is he just plain unwilling? Where is he in such situations, anyways? As I thought about it, I began to suspect that perhaps the answer was right in front of me.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46), Jesus describes a terrifying scene in which the righteous are separated from the unrighteous at the end of time. The determining factor was how they had treated Jesus during their lifetime.
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'” (Matthew 25:34–36)
Following this discourse, the righteous are stunned. They don’t remember ever doing anything like this for Jesus. That’s when he delivers the clincher: “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In other words, every time the righteous helped someone in need, they were actually helping Jesus. As I reflected on this story, I thought, couldn’t the opposite be true—every time we harm someone in need, we are also harming Jesus? If so, could the answer to, “Where is God in such situations?” be “In the victim, begging and pleading for the killer to stop”?
Perhaps, but that still doesn’t answer the question of the missing lightning bolt. We have established that God cares, but why doesn’t he take more drastic action to end the situation? To answer that question, we have to go back to the crucifixion. When Jesus first came to public attention, his fellow Jews assumed he would be just the sort of messiah or savior they wanted: someone who would unite them in their struggle to drive out the Roman oppressors. But Jesus proved to be a much different kind of savior, one who overcame his enemies not by killing them, but by dying on their behalf. Even while up on the cross, Christ, the ultimate murder victim, asked not for a lightning bolt to fry his executioners, but for mercy. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). So what gives? Is God just too weak to stop evil men at work, or is something else going on here?
If you think about it, Jesus was up on the cross for one reason: free will. By giving human beings free will, God created truly autonomous creatures, capable of accepting or rejecting him as they wished. But in granting humans free will, he also created the potential for evil; a life lived apart from the wisdom, beauty, and power of God. While the potential for disaster in such a situation is great, if God were to contravene our free will, he would commit an even greater evil by violating the very quality that makes us human. So, even in the most extreme situations where we are using our will to do the terrible things the Fireflies do in this film, God may not intervene by striking the killers down. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t present in the situation, seeking to woo, cajole, and otherwise convince the erring individual to reconsider his or her decision. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be eternal consequences for both the victim and the victimizer as a result.
With freedom as the highest value in The Devil's Rejects, we should probably ask what the Bible has to say about the topic. On this level at lest, I think Scripture pretty much agrees with Rob Zombie. (I’ll bet even Rob would be amazed to hear that.) The Apostle Paul puts it best when he says, “Everything is permissible for me—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). As Zombie has had to learn, every freedom has its limit. But even while such limits may look like enemies in the beginning, often, they wind up looking more like a friend.
Let us turn now to the topic of fear: Most people assume that serial killer/slasher films like The Devil’s Rejects play on our fear of death. However, these films actually play on our fear of a particular kind of death, namely, a violent, painful death at the hands of another human being. As West Point professor Daniel Grossman sees it, our greatest fear is not death itself but “intentional, overt human hostility and aggression that assaults the self-image, sense of control and ultimately, the mental and physical health of human beings.” Where does this fear come from? According to Grossman’s study of soldiers in combat situations, it isn’t like other phobias, such as a fear of snakes, which vary according to each individual. Fear of a violent death at the hands of another human is an automatic, universal human response. It seems to be hard-wired into our psyche.
How do we deal with such fears when we aren’t watching horror films? Generally, we don’t have to, because rarely are our lives threatened to this degree. But on some level, we must sense this fear at work. Otherwise we wouldn’t have any interest in films like The Devil’s Rejects. When we do watch such films, we are metaphorically brought to the brink of death and then yanked back again, with all the euphoria such an experience entails. When we walk out of the theatre, we feel like survivors, not victims. Perhaps we even gain a measure of bravery rather than fear, confident that no matter what happens in our lives, it couldn’t be nearly as bad as what we just witnessed on film.
But is viewing grisly, violent, and terrifying films necessarily the best therapy for helping us deal with our fears? Isn’t that sort of like the now laughable "Primal Scream Therapy," which encouraged people to scream or punch a pillow when they felt angry as a way of getting the feelings out? The theory seemed to hold water until researchers discovered that such responses to anger merely compounded and intensified an individual’s angry feelings rather than reducing them. Could the same thing be true with fear? Could watching horror films actually make us more fearful rather than less? I’m still not sure. As I recounted, my immediate response after viewing The Devil’s Rejects was one of elevated fear. But that feeling had dissipated by the time I reached home. Then again, my fear of deep, dark water curtailed my swimming activities for years after viewing Jaws, and it still gets to me from time to time. In that case, confronting my fear of the unknown made it worse, not better.
So if watching horror movies isn’t the best way to deal with our fears, is there alternate solution? Last year, I edited a book by my pastor Brad Jersak called Fear No Evil: Overcoming the Culture of Fear. In that book, Brad argues that fear is simply not an option if we truly understand who God is. Brad begins his argument by stating that behind every fear is a lie. In this sense, our true source of fear is not the pain or death someone like the Firefly family might inflict but the lies we believe about that pain or death. What lies might be ruling us in such a situation? Something along the lines of how we are beyond God’s help, that if we die, we will cease to exist, that there is no afterlife where wrongs will be made right.
The second stage of Brad’s argument is this: Fear is not your friend… Ever!
"Contrary to popular belief, 'healthy fear' is an oxymoron. Fear should never be confused with wisdom. While wisdom tells you to step back from a precarious cliff, fear gives you vertigo. Thus, fear of heights actually increases the danger of falling. Wisdom guides someone who is lost in the woods or avoiding a predator into safety. Fear just paralyzes them or causes them to panic. They may run deeper into the wilderness or begin to act like prey. People who are terrified of predators—including human predators—are more vulnerable to becoming victims."
Brad goes on to argue that our primal fears or phobias stem from our core needs, which may have been threatened at a young age. Thus, if our need to be known and loved was threatened by the fact that we were abandoned or neglected as children, we may grow up with a fear of rejection or isolation. We come to believe that nobody cares about us, that we are unlovable and worthless. These lies are so powerful that we cling to them even in the face of people who clearly love and value us. They also tend to establish a pattern for our life decisions that lead us away from God. In this way, the lies about other people “I am unlovable” or “no one cares about me” become lies about God “God does not love me” and “God does not care about me.”
If every fear is based on a lie, Brad sees only one way out of the situation: through an encounter with the Living Truth, a.k.a. God. “To know him—not as you know a historical figure like Winston Churchill but as you know your best friend or spouse—is to be alive to truth and dead to fear.” Therefore, if we struggle with fears similar to the ones that lurk at the heart of The Devil’s Rejects, Brad is saying the best solution is not to confront them through such films but to bring those fears before God instead, to ask him to reveal the lies behind them, to replace those lies with the truth.
So where does that leave me, a Christian screenwriter with a horror film about to hit theaters sometime in 2006? Does Brad’s book render much of what Scott Derrickson and others have said about the redeeming qualities of horror movies into nothing more than a puddle of self-justifying spiritual gobbledy gook? Should I start repenting now? And what about my own fascination with the genre? Am I really violating a spiritual taboo every time I watch such a film, even a fairly tame horror flick like the 1932 classic White Zombie, from which Rob Zombie takes his name? Or could there still be a place for such movies, even ones as graphic as The Devil’s Rejects?
All I can say in response is this: The older I get, the less confidence I have in any sort of hard and fast moral prescriptions. The minute you say horror movies are bad, ten people will pop up with ten reasons why horror movies are actually good for you, and vice versa. In addition, horror films exist on a spectrum. On one end are those that are merely frightening (like my film). On the other end are those that are little more than immoral exploitations of blood, sex, and gore. (The Devil’s Rejects teeters on the brink of such a definition.) Consequently, what may be true for one type of horror film may not be true for another.
So I’m going to stick with the Apostle Paul and ride the fence on this one. All things—even horror movies—are permissible, but are they beneficial? That is a matter best left between you and God. I think it all comes down to the type of horror films you choose to watch and why you choose to watch them. Are you merely looking for a thrill, much like people seek from riding a roller coaster or skydiving? Are you looking for a diversion that feeds your spiritual impulses as well as your desire to be entertained? Are you, like me, seeking to understand what our fascination with such films says about us as a culture or yourself as an individual? Or is your attraction to the dark side a symptom of something more ominous, an appetite or desire that is eating away at your soul rather than building it up? Only you can answer such questions, and only you and God will know if you are telling the truth when you do.
As for me, despite some of its more gruesome moments, I am very thankful to have seen The Devil’s Rejects, if only for the opportunity it afforded me to work through these issues. I hope my own attempt at honest self-evaluation will help you work through these issues as well.
 Brad Jersak. Fear No Evil: Overcoming the Culture of Fear (Abbotsford: Fresh Wind Press, 2005), p. 70.
 Ibid, p. 74.
—About this Film