Envy and “The Prophecy”

I am not usually a fan of horror movies; I don’t delight in depictions of gore and mayhem—quite possibly because I used to work in a hospital, but also because I much prefer movies and books that leave things up to my imagination instead of shoving them in my face. No monster, no matter how toothy or slimy, how insectoid or reptilian, is as scary to me as the ones you only catch a glimpse of out of the corner of one eye (why “Alien” is still the best of the genre).

But I adore “The Prophecy” and rewatch it every time it runs on television. The horror in this case is understated; when violence and gore happen, it’s not gratuitous, it’s right. It’s right because this movie understands that the greatest horrors result when we fall prey to envy.

Anyone who has ever watched two or more dogs playing together knows that the dogs will all seek to possess the same ball or stick or toy, no matter how many others might be lying around. Only one toy is the good toy, and it’s the one the other dog has. Therefore, the goal is to take possession of that one good toy. Sometimes, if a dog succeeds in stealing the toy, but another dog picks up a second toy instead of trying to steal the good toy, often the rest of the dogs will now see that new toy as the one to go after.

Ann and Barry Ulanov, authors of Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying, describe envy as “a displacement of . . . our own relation to the good.” Behavior such as that shown by dogs indicates that envy has an instinctual basis, which means that good is archetypal—and as such,  cannot be limited to a single definition or image. The good is in the eye of the beholder. Instinctively, perhaps, we also fear that the good is limited, that there’s not enough to go around. If someone else has something good, we may feel deprived. It’s a short step from feeling deprived to blaming someone else for “taking” what we have now decided we are lacking. And if there is an inner voice telling us that “I cannot have that, I cannot be that,” then envy turns poisonous.

The Ulanovs, who understand about archetypes, never define “the good,” but it is made clear that “the good” can stand for anything that we perceive as better than what we have or what we are. A healthy response is to strive to achieve that good, become that better person, and so the first step of envy is, in fact, positive: it helps us focus on the good and may spur us towards achieving it. Competition is a positive form of envy.

Envy becomes a problem, however, when instead of being inspired to look for the good ourselves–to work on creating a better relationship with “good”–we focus on the person who has what we think we cannot have. When we envy, we never see the other as a real, unique individual. “Envy generalizes,” say the Ulanovs; “it blanks out persons . . . the envied one is reduced to the envier’s projections.” Anyone who has ever been told “you think you’re so wonderful, you think you’re so great” or similar expressions of envy has experienced this kind of projection. When one is reduced to a projected image, nothing one says or does will get through to the other person. A generous and compassionate response to envy, any attempt to share the good, will be seen as condescending if not cruelly taunting. Even if the envied one gives away all their good to an envier, the envier will only think it worthless, or why would the envied one let go of it? The envied person is still perceived as hoarding the good because it is in them. Thus the envied one is helpless to change the situation.

The envier has all the power to change, to stop blaming others for their lack and start going after it themselves. But because of that inner denial, instead the envier does all they can to destroy the good or the person whom they perceive as owning the good. Envy drives the man who kills the woman he desires but cannot have, so that no one else can have her either; envy drives the terrorist who destroys the buildings and works of art that represent prosperity or achievement. The envier’s inner landscape, lacking all good, is a horror, and he or she destroys in an effort to make the outer landscape match it, so that others know the same horror.

In “The Prophecy,” the angels have gone to war with each other because one faction of angels, led by Gabriel (Christopher Walken), envies humans their special relationship with God. Never mind that both angels and humans are beloved creations of God; to the envying angels, humans have the better relationship, are more favored by the creator, and therefore, must be destroyed—as must the angels who have remained loyal to God because they, too, have a better relationship. “God,” of course, is the good, the highest form of good, the most desirable good. And like all envied ones, God is helpless to change the situation. In fact, Heaven is now in a state of limbo—the dead cannot get in, cannot reach God at all. This is exactly what the rebel angels want. Even though they have been told that God will welcome them home at any time, they have lost the ability to believe in an achievable good; instead, all their efforts are bent on denying God/the good to the envied humans.

The stalemate is broken by Lucifer himself (chillingly played by Viggo Mortensen). Lucifer, once “the first angel,” was also the first to fall prey to envy. Knowing he could never be as good as God, he decided it was “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and so created his own domain of evil, the opposite of good. He foresees that the angels’ war will lead only to another landscape of horror, another Hell, and he will not permit competition for his own throne.

Lucifer is the ultimate avatar of evil because he is conscious of what he does and why. He is fully aware of the wrongness of his actions and knows that he too could go “home” any time, turn to the good again. He knows that it is his own sins of pride and envy that separated him from God.

He also knows that if the good were totally destroyed, he himself would lose his reason for being. As long as humans also have free will, have the ability to choose between good and evil, those who let envy rule them will choose as Lucifer did, will choose to come to him/evil instead of to God/good. He tells Gabriel that Gabriel has acted out of arrogance, which is evil and therefore “my territory,” before destroying him and opening the gates of Heaven once more, restoring the balance between good and evil.

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