“… though all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience. For, on the contrary, it is quite possible that our empirical knowledge is a compound of that which we receive through impressions…It is, therefore, a question which requires close investigation, and not to be answered at first sight, whether there exists a knowledge altogether independent of experience…”
Blessed be the day when a truncated quote from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is an apt characterization of a horror film, named Demons, of all titles. Miles Doleac’s wonderfully thoughtful film does not require one to be an authority on Kant (I certainly am not) to understand how Demons’ conceit serves as a metaphor to the philosopher’s basic premise: Does humanity gain knowledge through reason and investigation? “Empirical knowledge,” comprised of rationalizing…well…anything through facts, reason, and evidence seems rare in a world of Fake News, but perhaps a better way of understanding Kant’s quote is to ask a simpler, albeit oversimplified question: How does one explain the impossible?
Such is one of the goals of Demons, a tale attempting to rationalize the irrational. The story revolves around Colin Hampstead, a former priest-turned-successful-fiction writer (played by Doleac), who alongside wife Kayleigh (Lindsay Anne Williams), is being haunted by the ghost of Kayleigh’s sister Jewel, who as a young teen was possessed then succumbed to the throes of a demon (or does she?). Colin, who was a celibate priest at the time, was reluctant to exorcise Jewel despite stern commands from her pious father, a man Colin believed to be abusive. But whether or not Jewel is possessed or abused is part of the mystery, with only crumbs of flashbacks serving as one side to a dual narrative.
The other side of this narrative jumps 8 years, examining present day Colin and Kayleigh – now parents – living quite lavishly in Savannah, Georgia. Colin’s new book ‘Demons’ is receiving much fanfare and praise, and Kayleigh enjoys her career as a professor of philosophy, teaching – who else? – Kant, of course. The two are planning to host a wedding for Colin’s libertine-ish friend and business partner Eddie (Steven Brand) and his fianceé, a much younger and seemingly superficial, but certainly sexually-free Lara (Kristina Emerson). Alongside other out-of-town guests and friends Marcus and Emmie, the three couples prepare for a celebratory preamble with skinny dips, drinks, and cheeky dialogue.
All is well until Kayleigh’s sister appears more frequently, frightening not only Kayleigh but their guests, who are growing concerned over their hostess’s strange behavior. Lara reveals herself to be a clairvoyant, and attempts to lead Kayleigh into a path of rationalizing her affliction. Is Jewel sending some cryptic message from the afterlife, or is she seeking revenge on those who failed to save her?
Such answers are slowly but methodically revealed as the plot pushes forward, anchored with convincing performances by Doleac and Williams. What is far more interesting about Demons is Colin’s fallout with religion after failing to “save” Jewel. This unusual turn away from God brings him closer to Kayley, but this fall from grace and rise to real-world popularity has Kant written all over it. Not simply a plot device for Kayley’s lesson plans, the philosopher’s ties to atheism (although he was never officially deemed one) has been a subject of scholars far smarter than you and I, an argument that stems from an atheistic/agnostic position questioning whether religion and “otherworldly phenomena” are indeed rational constructs when no empirical evidence exists. Simply put: How does God exists if there is no proof of God?
Without dwelling on a religious argument, one only needs to keep this idea in mind when questioning the character of Colin, who is looking to understand the true evil that exists within Jewel. Is she possessed by a demon when no empirical evidence exits, or is she being abused by her father, a far more rational explanation with plenty of empirical evidence to support this claim? (A lovely performance by John Schneider as Jewel’s doctor provides the necessary credibility to convince Colin that something of this world is the problem).
The answer, although revealed concretely, is a far more philosophical question about the notion of demons – the literal and the figurative demons that haunt us all. What Doleac’s film achieves is an entertaining spectacle that asks its viewers to reconsider evil, regardless if that evil is rational or not. After all, the only empirical evidence of evil is when something horrifying, like murder, is committed. It is the moment before the action – the evil within, with or without the obvious signs – that “requires close investigation,” but never always reveals the truth.
Eric Dinsmore | Twitter: @dinsmorality