After the Blob

Cinematic Evil and the Real Thing

One weekend afternoon when I was a kid, the 1958 film The Blob came on TV. Maybe my mother shouldn’t have let me watch it. That scene where the terrified crush of young patrons spills from the movie theater, the murderous blob oozing after them, became one of my earliest movie memories.

The blob was so grisly and unstoppable. It made me very uneasy. What would people do if something like that really happened? How would we all get away?

I watched a lot of horror movies when I was young, saw hours of pretend evil. I absorbed the catalogue of cinematic monsters and all the different ways they did their victims in. There were the guys like Freddy and Jason, slashing and hacking and stabbing, and never really being dead.

There were Stephen King novels made into feature films, and assorted versions of vampires and haunted houses. What kid could forget Poltergeist and that nightmarish tree coming to life? All of these things frightened me, easily, never mind the sometimes-cheesy background music and acting that was very often bad.

Those scary movies gave me my first ideas of what evil was all about—bad people or people-like creatures chasing after you in the dark, wanting to kill you. They were the reason for the first nights I ever spent lying in bed certain there was something awful lurking in the closet. I actually prayed once for God to keep Freddy Krueger away from me.

Now I know how much better off we’d be if the only evil we had to put up with were the stuff of movie screens. Our real-world monsters are rarely so obvious and one-dimensional. If only all we needed to save ourselves was a splash of holy water or a steadfast town sheriff.

The Catholic Encyclopedia contains a lengthy, complicated discussion of evil that I won’t say I completely understand. Evil, it reads, is “the sum of the opposition, which experience shows to exist in the universe, to the desires and needs of individuals; whence arises, among humans beings…the sufferings in which life abounds.”

I sure never got that out of any movie. But I think I get the point. Evil is the root of human misery; it is everything that stops us from becoming the individuals, families, and communities God would have us be.

Evil is not like a movie monster, working a particular town, hunting a particular group of people. It is large scale and overwhelming, along the lines of six million children under five dying every year of hunger. It is in our hearts, that hopelessness we feel at the mention of statistics such as this. It is why I hate going out alone at night (I’ve watched those true crime shows; I know all about kidnappers and burglars and serial rapists).

It is why, said the pope last summer, “Man lives in fear of the future, of emptiness, of suffering and annihilation.” It is us waiting around futilely for a hero to save the day.

I still watch movies that scare me. More recently, keeping me up at night, were the latest Hannibal Lecter installment and the hovering spaceships from last summer’s Signs. In these movies the number of victims was kept minimal and the forces of bad reigned for only a while. In Signs all it took for the good guys to win were a few coincidences and a shaky little bit of faith. It would be nice if real-life happy endings were so easy to come by.

Not that they’re impossible or that the bad guys can’t be beaten. I like to think it would just take a bit more effort than we’re probably used to giving. It would mean each of us turning to whatever shaky bit of faith we have and each of us casting ourselves as the hero instead of pushing the job off on somebody else.

Fortunately there’s a top-notch producer running the show. God is there to give us the strength, wisdom, and helpful coincidences we need as we go about saving the world from space aliens (well…), mass hunger, and the not-to-be-ignored powers of our own fears and despair.