Martin Shaw (r) in 'Apparitions'

As a phenomenon surrounded by mystery and controversy, demonic possession would seem to be made to order for dramatic treatments, especially in the horror realm. Yet except for the novel and film of The Exorcist, it’s a subject area that hasn’t received much prominent attention from writers of fiction. (An informative and rather chilling nonfiction book on the subject is Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans, by the late Fr. Malachi Martin).

The BBC miniseries Apparitions, now playing on the Chiller Network in the United States, is an interesting exception. The series finale will appear Sunday night at 8 EDT, and the prior five episodes will be shown beginning 7:30 that morning and replayed beginning 1:30 p.m. It’s worth watching for a sensationalistic but compelling look at this strange phenomenon.

The series, written by Joe Ahearne, benefits from a complex and generally praiseworthy protagonist. Father Jacob (Martin Shaw), a kindly but strong-willed, middle-aged Catholic priest in Britain who has a gift for exorcisms but has left that ministry, is drawn back into that service by the plight of a young girl—not a churchgoer—whose father is possessed by a demon. The girl’s father is a strongly committed atheist, hates all references to religion, and physically abuses his daughter when he catches her surreptitiously reading the Bible.

Initially Fr. Jacob Is appropriately skeptical toward the girl’s claim that her father is possessed, but when his brief investigation reveals the above-noted facts, he realizes that possession is a very strong possibility. This accords with the literature on the subject, and these early scenes in the first episode are impressive in their creation of strong drama and suspense without sensationalism.

After some interesting and well-dramatized argumentation between Fr. Jacob and the possessed man, the latter agrees to an exorcism. In the actual performance of the ritual by Fr. Jacob, the emphasis is strongly on faith, not any inherent power in the ritual itself. Fr Jacob performs the exorcism without relics or any assistants, other than a fellow priest participating by telephone from Rome.

This, of course, shows both great courage and faith on Fr. Jacob’s part, as formal exorcisms of this sort usually involve some necessary restraint of the person involved. In addition, Fr. Jacob instructs the girl and a priest and nun to pray in a nearby church while he performs the ritual.

The scene thus consists mainly of shots of the various participants in prayer, interspersed with the disturbed and increasingly angry reaction of the possessed man and then the possessing demon itself. The demon reveals that the demons’ real target is Fr Jacob himself.  They know that he is in line to become the Catholic Church’s chief exorcist, and the demonic attacks are an effort to stop him from taking the position. The demons’ real goal is thus to persuade him to renounce his faith.

In this regard and in the exorcism scene, individual choice is stressed. Fr. Jacob makes it clear that possession is typically based on the afflicted person doing something to allow the demon to come in, and (as Martin’s book stresses) a critical moment in the exorcism process is the person renouncing the devil. Thus the first episode of Apparitions shows a sound knowledge of church procedures and the historical, psychological, and religious insights into the phenomena associated with what the Christian church considers to be the demonic.

It also accurately portrays much of the Catholic Church hierarchy’s reluctance to speak about the phenomenon in the twentieth century, along with the insistence of many people (including many non-Catholics and non-Christians) that demonic possession does indeed happen. Ordered by his bishop to cease performing exorcisms and told he is seeing ordinary human failings as the work of the devil, Fr. Jacob says, “If you believe that Satan is a rare and exotic presence in our lives, then you are in the wrong religion.”

Unfortunately, the initially realistic and low-key but highly dramatic style is jettisoned at the end of the first episode and in subsequent installments, and the story incorporates increasing amounts of sensationalism, including a priest being skinned alive, levitation, and the like. Just as director William Friedkin marred the film version of The Exorcist by introducing the farcical element of a person’s head turning 360 degrees, the producers of Apparitions fail to have enough faith in the intrinsic interest of their subject matter to refrain from tarting it up with histrionics and sensationalistic, preternatural images.

What is worse is their lack of faith in Fr. Jacob’s character. Instead of consistently presenting him as being firm in his beliefs, Jacob is increasingly shown to be not only not dogmatic about Christian doctrine but in fact wildly heretical. In episode 3 he bizarrely claims that a person is possessed by a dead saint, and in episode 4 he is much more condemnatory toward abortion protesters than abortionists. In fact, he’s not a all critical of the latter.

And in episode 5 he trots out the old syncretist argument, “There are many paths to God,” when a Muslim denies Christ’s divinity. This reaches an extreme in that same episode, when Fr. Jacob performs a “reverse exorcism,” a perverted religious ceremony intended to release a demon from Hell, in order to save the life of a Muslim cleric. Try as they might, Shaw and the producers can’t make it ring true.

Such moments don’t appear ecumenical or make Fr. Jacob seem more complex, as they are apparently intended to do, but instead simply depict  him as inconsistent and unwilling to speak the truth and defend the faith. It seems evident that the producers were afraid that the audience would not care for a Catholic priest who actually believes church doctrine and defends it.

One might wish to interpret these lapses on Fr. Jacob’s part as being caused by the demonic attacks having undermined his faith, but that is not how they’re presented: no evidence is given to suggest that these attitudes are new to him (which would be quite easy to do by having another character remark on the change). On the contrary, the character is consistent in his inconsistency, alas.

Yet despite the sensationalism and inconsistencies, Apparitions is consistently interesting and includes some moments of serious drama. And if it should lead other dramatists to investigate the subject matter in a more realistic way, so much the better.