Reviewed by: David Criswell, Ph.D.
Demon Possession and Influence—Can Christians be demon possessed? In what ways can Satan and his demons influence believers? Answer
THE OCCULT—What does the Bible say about it? Answer
What is the Occult? Answer
Is Satan a real person that influences our world today? Is he affecting you? Answer
|Featuring||Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek, James D’Arcy, Rachel Hurd-Wood|
|Producer||Christopher Milburn, Andr Rouleau|
|Distributor||Freestyle Releasing LLC|
“Possession knows no bounds?”
“An American Haunting” is based on the “true” story of the Bell Witch; the only recorded haunting in American history in which a person is believed to have died as a direct result of a spirit/demon. Of course, there have actually been nearly twenty books written on the subject; most of which advocate different theories on what really happened. The “true” account involves John Bell and his family in the early 1800s. He and his family allegedly experienced a haunting by a spirit called “Kate,” believed to be the spirit of a witch. In 1820, John Bell was found dead of poison, but his death was attributed to the spirit “Kate.” True or not, General Andrew Jackson (later President of the U.S.) visited the place of the famous haunting, and the site has since become a tourist trap in Tennessee.
The movie’s position is one of many theories behind the legends. However, the actual position the movie takes remains a mystery until the end. The first hour or so of the movie simply involves the appearance of the spirit which torments and physically assaults the daughter of John Bell. The local pastor is called in to help, but his help is only temporary. The demon often flees at the name of Jesus (though not always), but always reappears no matter what the pastor or the others do. In the end, a terrifying secret is learned, and the purpose for the spirit is made clear.
Unlike other movies of this genre, there is no nudity, only one instance of foul language (in which the pastor tells the demon, “d… you to Hell”), and only one scene of blood (when John Bell coughs up some blood on his handkerchief). There is also a scene where the young victim says she “used to believe in the Lord.” The idea is that she lost faith in God because of the spirit, although the movie’s explanation for the haunting (see below) may provide an alternate reason for her loss of faith. However, viewers should be aware that the movie does depict a large dose of violence against the daughter by the spirit itself. It drags her around, tosses her against walls, slaps her, and presumably rapes her, although this last scene is intentionally ambiguous to some extent (and not particularly graphic in nature). In a later flashback, you can see blood on her blouse, making clear that she was raped.
The major problem with the movie is its obvious incompatibility with the true nature of demonic oppression. Although the movie offers a possible explanation (which I will discuss below in a spoiler section), it appears as if spirits may simply haunt and assault innocents based on a simple curse. Although the pastor’s prayers appear to grant a temporary cessation, the demon reappears, and in one scene tears the Bible up. The appearance is given that the demon may act freely against whomever it has been called upon to haunt.
Of course, the true believer knows that demons cannot directly act upon the person of anyone without God’s permission. Those who trust in Jesus need not fear being haunted by demons. In reality, legitimate demonic oppression is always connected in some way to the occult. Use of Ouija boards, seances, and other popular forms of the occult sometimes lead to spiritual oppression, but even in most of these instances, the oppression is mild. A demon cannot physically assault a person except where the person invites that assault through some act or deed connected to occultic spiritualism. In this context the movie is inaccurate, although its “explanation” is worthy of explanation.
It is revealed near the end of the movie that the daughter was not actually raped by the demon at all, but by John Bell himself. The “demon” is revealed to be the spirit of John Bell’s daughter. Her hauntings were mere nightmares, but her spirit is seen leaving her body when she is asleep in order to haunt her oppressor, John Bell. The movie intentionally leaves some things ambiguous, such as who poisoned John Bell, but it is interesting to note that the movie attempts to offer a rational explanation even while depicting the actual literal spirit of the girl as being the force behind the haunting.
This explanation is one of many theories, and is, in some ways, satisfying from a theatrical point of view, but, of course, is completely detached from the Bible when it suggests that the spirit of a living person can leave their body to haunt someone. It also fails to explain why she haunts herself, save perhaps in some bad Freudian context of self persecution.
In any case, it is obvious that the spirit depicted in this movie is not one which fits in with a Biblical view of demonology. It is preferable to the overt blasphemy and gore of many of today’s haunted house stories, and, indeed, this movie hearkens back to the haunted ghost stories of the 50s, such as “The Uninvited” or the original “The Haunting”. Fans of those type of movies will doubtless enjoy this one. It is perhaps most reminiscent of the recent “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. While it lacks the overt mixture of mysticism and Catholicism found in that film, it falls far short of it in effectiveness.
From a cinematic viewpoint, the film is competent, although it contains a number of clichés, and the use of music is perhaps its worse cliché. Instead of the subtle approach, the music blares out in over dramatic fashion, reminding us of why haunted house stories lost popularity a few years back. Nevertheless, this is one of the better movies of its genre.
It is appropriate to close by noting that the presumably repentant father cries out toward the end of the movie that “God has forsaken me.” However, the true believer knows that God does not forsake anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21). It was Jesus who was forsaken for one brief moment in history (Matt. 27:46), because it was He who bore the punishment that we deserved. Demons need not torment the guilty on Earth, for the unrepentant will be tormented after Judgment Day, but the one who calls upon the name of Jesus will never be forsaken or forgotten (Hebrews 13:5).
Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Minor / Sex/Nudity: Mild
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.