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Copyright 2000 Boston Globe

  From the Sunday, October 29 Boston Globe, West Weekly section

From Nietzsche to Buffy

BC professor teaches nature of evil

By Erica Noonan, Globe Staff Correspondent

NEWTON - It's not clear which is scarier - green goo spurting from Linda Blair's mouth in "The Exorcist," or how blase a roomful of college students are about the notion of the devil taking over a little girl's body.

In his new philosophy course, Nihilism and Popular Culture, Boston College professor Thomas Hibbs asks students to look at both issues through an intellectual magnifying glass - how evil is portrayed on TV and in the movies, as well as how graphic scenes of blood, gore, and guts desensitize viewers.

His 80 students are off to a running start with some hefty reading selections from Nietzsche and Hannah Arendt, as well as viewings of "The Exorcist," the 1962 and 1991 versions of "Cape Fear," "Scream," "The Ice Storm," and others. Later on in the semester, they'll watch TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek" to explore the roles of sex and violence in teen culture.

The eclectic outside reading (and viewing), Hibbs said, is designed to help students start reflecting on the existence and nature of evil. Putting the issue into a pop-culture context allows students who have not read dense theological and philosophical texts to contribute. Most of the young people in his class, Hibbs said, didn't walk in the door with clear ideas on exactly what evil is, only on how it manifests itself.

Students tell him they can identify behaviors and scenarios they consider evil - such as the massacre of students at Columbine High School - but say they have often not thought much deeper than that, Hibbs said.

"The point in exploring evil is to better understand goodness, otherwise [it] would be morally bankrupt," said Hibbs, who earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and is an expert on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. "We hope that studying evil and nihilism will give us the insight on how to live and understand goodness."

Another goal of the class is to penetrate the passive, "vegetative" state through which many young people watch very violent scenes on TV and on the big screen.

"Evil gradually ceases to terrify," Hibbs said. "I want it to be harder for them to watch these things without really thinking about things."

Last week, nearly 400 people attended a public lecture by Hibbs titled "Everything You Wanted to Know About `The Exorcist' But Were too Terrified to Ask." Among other topics, Hibbs spoke about the effect the legendary movie about demonic possession has had on the portrayal of evil in more recent films such as "The Silence of the Lambs."

The talk produced lively audience discussion, he said, including a somewhat hesitant question from one woman about whether exorcisms are still performed in the modern church. (Some news agencies have reported that in September, Pope John Paul II attempted an exorcism on a disturbed Italian teenager who "yelled obscenities in an agitated and cavernous voice clearly not her own." Vatican officials have said the pontiff simply prayed over the girl.)

Hibbs said he referred the question about exorcism to a Jesuit colleague in the audience, who explained that the church does occasionally use the ancient rite.

Some people might be surprised to hear that a school so dedicated to classical education and Catholic values would wrestle with the work of William Peter Blatty alongside the works of John Paul II. After all, this is Boston College, not Boston University.

College spokesman Jack Dunn said Boston College doesn't shy away from intellectually adventurous subjects, even when religion is involved.

"This is popular culture examined through a very intellectual frame of reference," Dunn said. "Only a professor this smart could do something like this."

The assumption that BC wouldn't accept a movie like "The Exorcist" as part of an academic syllabus is unfair, he said.

"I always take offense that a Jesuit Catholic school and academic excellence is mutually exclusive. So many of the greatest minds were educated by the Jesuits," he said.

"The Jesuits have always sought to address the most intriguing and intellectual issues," he said. "We can't prepare students for the world by hiding difficult subjects. Besides, the movie is about a Jesuit priest, who himself must face evil, and the result was: Jesuits, one, and the devil, zero."

Hibbs said his students, who range from nonreligious to devout, are quite open to the subject because pop culture is examined in such a thoughtful way.

"Even the most orthodox of them are out in the world every day, and they can clearly articulate their values and beliefs, even if they disagree [with a film scene]," he said.

Hibbs's hope is that as the semester progresses, the students will seize on more popular culture artifacts as examples of how society's views on both evil and goodness have developed over the centuries.

"I want them to reflect on the stories that act as themes in their lives," he said. "Traditionally, that's the beginning of philosophy, the examination of stories that explain who we are."

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