TCS Daily

Exorcising the Alien Predators

By Kenneth Silber - August 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Having recently seen the film Alien vs. Predator, I felt there was little left to lose in seeing Exorcist: The Beginning. As it happens, both movies, although undeniably bad, are thought-provoking. Humans have a longstanding fascination with powerful, malevolent entities, whether extraterrestrial or supernatural, and the existence of such entities, however farfetched in its cinematic presentation, is a fair topic for inquiry and speculation.

Scientist Seth Shostak, in a recent article at evaluated the respective plausibility of the Aliens and Predators. He finds the Aliens more improbable, since they use humans to incubate their young, a strange evolutionary strategy for beings from a world without humans. Perhaps, one might counter, the Aliens can exploit various species, and yet it is hard to imagine such flexibility extending across multiple planets with presumably highly divergent evolutionary histories and biochemistries.

Shostak also takes issue with the Predators, partly for their "oddball, anthropomorphic appearance," but also because they are, indeed, predators. He writes that "for an intelligent species with technology capable of interstellar travel, predation is oh-so Stone Age." Humans, he notes, have become increasingly less reliant on hunting for food. Moreover, he argues: "Killing just for the fun of it, as the Predators do, is no longer considered socially acceptable in most circles. Real Predators, who must be many thousands of years ahead of us, have presumably moved beyond this."

But this is presuming too much. Shostak is applying human standards to extraterrestrials whose biology, culture and history may be radically different. Moreover, he is applying a particular standard -- an abhorrence of hunting -- that is far from universal among humans. Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, which scans the skies for radio signals from extraterrestrials. It would not take too long to drive from there to various California hunting sites.

Within the scientific mainstream, the possibility of alien life is acknowledged albeit generally treated with caution, while the possibility that the aliens are here among us is viewed with intense skepticism. Demonic possession is similarly regarded with skepticism, and largely ignored as a religious matter of scant scientific interest. Past or present episodes of claimed possession are typically attributed to mental or physical illness or to fraud.

However, both alien visitations and demonic possessions receive credence among significant segments of the public. The 1973 movie The Exorcist and the 1971 novel, both written by William Peter Blatty, resurrected public interest in the subject of exorcism, which had been slipping into obscurity. The novel and screenplay were, moreover, based on reports of an exorcism reportedly conducted on a teenage boy in the Washington, D.C. area in 1949.

In recent years, the murky circumstances of that exorcism have been investigated, notably by Mark Opsasnick, a Maryland writer who published in Strange Magazine and Joe Nickell, a columnist and investigator for Skeptical Inquirer. Their accounts give little basis for a belief that a demonic possession occurred. Phenomena attributed to the event -- furniture moving, strange noises, speaking "in tongues" -- appear to have been exaggerated and indeed capable of being produced by a teenage boy, albeit one who seems to have been emotionally disturbed.

Exorcist: The Beginning also takes place in 1949, but abandons even a tenuous linkage to the reported event. Rather, it depicts the 1970s-era exorcist Lankester Merrin as a younger man, a former priest disillusioned by his experience of wartime atrocities, now participating in the archaeological excavation of a mysterious church in East Africa. There Merrin confronts an evil force, which readers of the original novel will understand to be the demon Pazuzu. (The distinction between Pazuzu and Satan is less clear in the films.)

It is tempting at this point to analyze who would win in a battle between Pazuzu and an Alien or Predator. While Pazuzu holds the advantage of being a supernatural entity exempt from various physical and biological principles, he also has vulnerabilities, such as to holy water, that are presumably not shared by the extraterrestrial entities. In addition, the demon's capacity to induce evil behavior may have only a limited effect on the normal behavior patterns of Predators or, perhaps especially, Aliens.

Granted, the idea of such a match-up is absurd, although if Hollywood producers determined that a market for it exists, I have little doubt that a movie would follow. It may be, moreover, that drawing a sharp conceptual line between advanced aliens and supernatural beings is unfounded. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's "third law" holds that "any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic." Planetary scientist David Grinspoon, in his book Lonely Planets, sketched out some implications of this:

"Once we consider the possible technical capabilities of civilizations hundreds of millions of years older than ours, nothing is too magical to be possible. We are forced to admit that those who believe in angels, spirits, and creatures from other dimensions living among us are not really advocating ideas inconsistent with science, only unverifiable by science."

Then again, maybe the paucity of evidence for demons or aliens reflects an actual fact that they don't exist, or that they are so far removed from our time and place as to be effectively irrelevant. Perhaps demons are a mythic vestige of the past. Perhaps intelligent aliens are so rare or remotely located that we will find them, if at all, in the extremely distant future.

Perhaps the problems of our world, in other words, arise from human actions and from such natural processes as diseases and storms. Actually, that's kind of scary.


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