Angelic dread: Cinematic representations of terrible angels
Last December, in one of those minor seasonal news-cycle events that the sober and/or cynical among us have come to greet with a yawn, various mainstream media outlets reported that, according to a new poll (or, more accurately, yet another new poll), a majority of Americans believe in angels. “Angels don’t just sing at Christmastime,’ reported CBS News. “For most Americans, they’re a year-round presence. A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 77 percent of adults believe these ethereal beings are real. Belief is primarily tied to religion … But belief in angels is fairly widespread even among the less religious. A majority of non-Christians think angels exist, as do more than 4 in 10 of those who never attend religious services” (“Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels,” December 23, 2011).
With a bit more gravity behind it — more gravity, I mean, than that of a poll conducted at Christmastime for the specific purpose of feeding the seasonally inflected media maw — the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion famously found similar numbers in 2010. Time magazine quoted Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at New York’s Barnard College, who characterized the Baylor findings as “one in a periodic series of indications that ‘Americans live in an enchanted world,’ and engage in a kind of casual mysticism independent of established religious ritual, doctrine or theology. ‘There is,’ he says, a ‘much broader uncharted range of religious experience among the populace than we expect.'”
In thinking of this tantalizing “broader uncharted range of religious experience,” I have to wonder whether anybody in America’s angel-believing crowd ever gets down to the meat of things and really considers, or actually encounters, or otherwise comes up against angels in their more profound forms, angels of the ancient and terrible type, angels whose appearance entails more than glowing, feminine faces and fat, winged babies, and whose job description includes more than helping people avoid car wrecks and recover from heart surgery. I wonder, in short, whether that multitude of angelic believers is even aware that a more ancient and substantial figure lies behind and beneath the insipid cultural encrustations of 21st-century digital media culture.
In my essay on the iconic angel and demon of religion, folklore, and horror fiction and film — first published in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural and then appearing in much expanded form in my Dark Awakenings — I devote considerable space to discussing the terrifying and even horrifying nature of angels as they were traditionally conceived and portrayed throughout history, up until they were effectively neutered in the West, and especially in England and America, by Victorian sentimentalism and the rise of the 20th century’s culture of greeting cards and cutesy kitsch. I also recount how the original terrible angel, or horrible angel, or nightmare angel, made a fascinating return around the transition to the 21st century in several popular American novels and comic books, and also, notably, in several horror films and television shows.
Three of these instances leap out as, I think, especially memorable.
In Frailty, the directorial debut of actor Bill Paxton (who also plays a lead role in the film), we’re given a brief but significant glimpse of the nightmare angel’s equally terrible cousin: the warrior angel.
The plot revolves around a blue-collar workingman and father of two young boys who believes he has been chosen by God to slay demons that have disguised themselves as humans. He receives his first divine communication one night when a light begins to glow from an angel-shaped trophy in his bedroom. A few days later at his job, he receives a full-blown angelic vision or visitation in the form of a terrible warrior angel, complete with beard, armor, and flaming sword, that descends upon him from what looks like the ceiling of a Gothic cathedral.
In The Prophecy II: God’s Army, a middling movie with a fascinating metaphysical premise (drawn, of course, from the original Prophecy film), a young woman, played by Jennifer Beals, encounters a man who is actually an angel. In a key scene, she doubts him when he tells her of his true identity. The scene takes place in a cathedral, and the film depicts the angel’s self-unveiling through his shadow projected onto the wall and onto Beals herself. Enormous wings unfurl from his back, and his stature increases. Beals’ reaction is the quintessence of angelic dread: her eyes widen in an expression of mingled wonder and terror, her hand rises to her mouth, and her head drops as she falls to the floor sobbing, unable to bear the sight. It’s a fairly brilliant way of pulling the whole thing off, because we “see” the angel not directly but through her reaction — and it’s a performance for which she deserves considerable credit — and are told, not in words but in images, music, and ambient sound, that the sight of an angel in its true, undisguised reality is utterly overwhelming to the human mind and sensibility. Note especially the words he speaks to her at the end of the scene, which echo the words invariably spoken by angels in the bible whenever they appear to humans: “Don’t be afraid.” The obvious implication is that angels are very frightening indeed.
In the original Prophecy, writer-director Gregory Widen takes care to include several scenes like the following, where the ancient view of angels as terrible beings is conveyed through the protagonist’s research on the subject. Note the woodcut images in the clip, which show classically conceived medieval-esque scenes and representations of angelic beings, accompanied by descriptions of their roles and functions. Both the imagery and the text, as filtered through the responses and affect of the human protagonist, are designed to generate an unsettling sense of the unpleasantness lurking behind the conventionally comforting — to modern minds — idea of angels. If you care to watch the clip to the end, you’ll be treated to a scene featuring the angel Gabriel, played by Christopher Walken in a performance that’s exceptionally intense even by his lofty standards of intensity.
Finally, here’s another clip from The Prophecy in which Gabriel positively exudes an air of supernatural menace,and offers a fable-like explanation for a certain aspect of human facial anatomy that underscores the contrast between his ancient, cosmic nature and that of a pathetically weak and fragile human race.
These issues are brought to a head by two key portions of dialogue in The Prophecy. In one of them, the protagonist, a former candidate for Catholic priesthood, evokes the dreadful angel of real religious history in a rather brilliant bit of dialogue that has been widely quoted by the film’s fans:
Did you ever notice how in the Bible whenever God needed to punish someone or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?
Later in the film, Gabriel reinforces the point when he describes his true nature to a horrified human who has dared to question him:
I’m an angel. I kill firstborns while their mamas watch. I turn cities into salt. I even, when I feel like it, rip the souls from little girls. And from now till kingdom come, the only thing you can count on in your existence is never understanding why.
So the next time Baylor or the Associated Press conducts a poll about people’s supernatural beliefs, I wish they’d make a point of including these kinds of angels in their questions. I think the poll results might turn out quite differently if they did. It’s one thing to hope for and believe in a willowy supernatural presence that hovers over you like a celestial nursemaid. It’s another to believe in, let alone to encounter, a dreadful being with “one wing dipped in blood,” whose mission is to carry out the will of an omnipotent, inscrutable supreme deity. And yet that’s the angel that most people have believed in and, from time to time, encountered and experienced throughout Western and world history.