In 1799, Étienne-Gaspard Robertson premiered the phantasmagoria, a moving magic lantern projection hidden behind a screen, to a crowded audience gathered at a Parisian convent. Though he tried to present himself as a scientist exposing the tricks of the trade (of both magicians and the Church) to foster superstitious belief, the wildly spectacular nature of his performance, with its ghoulishly materializing and receding figures, only confirmed his status as supernatural conjurer. Robertson’s entertainment was like all horror stories that begin in skepticism: thrill and fright trump our sense of knowing better. Time and again we see teenagers challenging each other to spend a night in a haunted house, sociologists investigating urban legends, or film students setting out into the forest to prove there isn’t anything out there. In these narratives of dare and debunking, science always loses, its certainty shaken in the presence of the unknown.
Though visual appeals to realism have long been used in horror, The Blair Witch Project was a breakthrough in its bringing a documentary aesthetic to mainstream horror, raising the stakes by introducing the witnessing presence of a camera. However savvy we may be in understanding the manipulability of images, docu-horror trades on our persistent belief in the photograph’s objectivity, distorting its truth claims to terrifying extremes. The Last Exorcism, like Diary of the Dead and Paranormal Activity, follows this premise: as the Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) candidly admits to the documentary film crew interviewing him, “I want to expose exorcism for the scam that it is.” This isn’t a real documentary, of course, and it’s not even the TV show Ghost Hunters, which suspends judgment either in favor of or against the otherworldy. It’s a horror film, and by speaking those words, Marcus effectively seals his fate. Read the rest of Genevieve Yue’s review of The Last Exorcism.