The Pop of King

The Passion of Alicia

Stephen King on the ''Passion'' phenomenon -- The master of horror dissects popular culture in his monthly column

Stephen King on the ''Passion'' phenomenon

I write about pop culture here, but I had no more intention of writing about The Passion of the Christ than I had of writing about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl booby prize. It takes me weeks instead of days to get my mutterings into print, and that means every talking (and writing) head in America will have had his or her say on this film and What It Means by the time this issue of EW reaches your hands. So my idea was to write something a bit fresher, thank you very much.

That was before I met -- sort of -- Alicia.

But before I explain, I need to say sure, I was interested in The Passion phenomenon; fascinated, even. When I dropped by a movie theater on a sleepy Monday afternoon to see Miracle two days before Gibson's film opened, one of the employees suggested that I might want to leave by the rear door after my show. ''It's gonna be a zoo out here,'' the employee said. It seemed that 7 of the theater's 20 auditoriums had been bought out by church groups for advance screenings of The Passion.

I didn't leave by the rear door. I was too curious. For one thing, I wanted to find out if Christians eat popcorn with their crucifixion (turns out they do, usually in the big tubs). In some ways, you could tell this was no ordinary afternoon crowd; there was a fair selection of Christian wear (my favorite T-shirt read JESUS IS THE BIG ONE), and absolutely nobody was giving anyone else hell for cutting the refreshment line. These are people who take hell seriously.

The folks I talked to didn't seem concerned about the movie's purported level of violence. One elderly woman said, ''If Jesus suffered it for me, the least I can do is watch it.'' She spoke as if we were discussing the Zapruder film.

I went on Sunday, the fifth day of the film's release, ordering tickets ahead from Fandango for the first time in my life. The theater was nearly packed, with only a few empty seats scattered way down front.

I thought The Passion was a pretty terrific film, full of emotion and commitment. Is it uneven, sometimes going way, way over the top? You better believe it. It's easy to imagine Mel Gibson deciding it would be worth $25 million just to show people the crucifixion The Way It Was, down to the last broken bone, gaping wound, and buzzing fly. He's delivering the very painful truth of a particular form of execution. And his enthusiasm -- or religious fervor -- for the task takes him again and again into a world of hyper-violence: Sam Peckinpah does Good Friday.

Which brings us, finally, to the sweet little girl of this column. To Alicia.

The Passion is rated R: children under 17 not admitted without a parent or guardian. The unstated corollary is that if they are so accompanied, they will be admitted. I saw no kids in the mob scene at the multiple advance screenings, but there were plenty at the show I attended on Sunday afternoon, most still dressed for church and clearly under 12 (Gibson himself has said the film is probably not suitable for children under 12).

About 10 minutes before the movie started, a well-dressed woman of about 30 entered the rapidly filling theater with a girl and two boys in tow. The boys looked about 6 years old. I didn't get a chance to observe them; I was on the wrong side of Mom for that. The little girl I've chosen to call Alicia, however, sat on my side. Cute little thing, you bet. Blue dress; spandy clean kneesocks; matching white ribbons in her dark hair. I'd say she was no more than 10, and probably only 8.

Mom, meanwhile, had whipped out her cell phone and was calling a friend. Mom wasn't happy. The theater manager, she told her friend, had had the nerve to suggest to her that the level of violence in The Passion wouldn't be good for children as young as hers. ''I told him,'' Mom said, ''that if it gets too bloody, they can just close their eyes.''

I kept sneaking glances at Alicia as the movie played. She did okay until the scourging of Christ. Then she did indeed close her eyes, and buried her face against her mother's side. The little body inside the blue dress was all angles, an exclamation mark of horror. Gibson's version of the scourging seems to go on forever as the Roman punishment detail uses first a whip and then a spiked lash to literally peel the flesh from Jesus' body, spattering the cobbles around him with gore.

Alicia hid her face for 15 minutes...but that left another 50 minutes of punishment, torture, cruelty, and death still to go. And was I ashamed to be in that theater, even though the film Gibson has made is, if taken on its own artistic and religious terms, good -- perhaps even great? I was. I feel that shame heating my skin even now, days later. Because 50 minutes is a long time to hide your eyes when you're only 8. So after a while, you see, our sweet little girl stopped doing it.

The child I've chosen to call Alicia looked. And looked. And looked. I think she'll be looking for a long time to come. In her dreams.

In those dreams there will likely be no redemption, no victory over sin, no scripture, no eternal life. I think in Alicia's dreams there will only be a skinless nightmare Christ with one eye swollen shut.

Originally posted Mar 19, 2004 Published in issue #756 Mar 19, 2004 Order article reprints