DEUS EX MACHINA is one of those literary terms that remain useful for criticism of fiction through any era, and is perhaps even more applicable to fiction today than ever before, with formulaic storylines becoming ever more prevalent in the mass-production of films and TV-shows. Deus Ex Machina can loosely be defined as the literary device where writers get their heroes out of peril through some incredible stroke of good fortune, so implausible, in fact, as to best be described as a divine intervention.
For a more elaborate definition of the term, from other sources, it originates from Greek and Roman drama, where it was used to refer to “a person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” When applied to modern-day fiction, the term is usually used in a derogatory sense towards the writing, as “the writer’s sudden resort to random, insupportable and unbelievable twists for the purpose of procuring an ending highlights the inherent deficiencies of the plot.”
With repeated use of Deus Ex Machina having been identified in such universally beloved book and film series as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings it can be assumed that readers and audiences are generally forgiving towards this tendency of writers. For an intriguing use of the concept within the story itself, on the big screen, go back to Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction, and see how Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) interprets an incident where he comes out unscathed from an attempt on his life, having been fired at rapidly at point blank range, as a divine intervention (a.k.a. Deus Ex Machina), thus making the concept something real in the world of the fictional characters.
The concept of Diabolus Ex Machina has then emerged as the evil, or cursed, counterpart of Deus, though it doesn’t seem to come from Greek or Roman times. Its relevance to modern-day fiction is also debatable if all it’s meant to be is an agent of a randomly negative outcome for the protagonist of a story (something like the first ending to Wayne’s World, where everything suddenly goes the worst possible way for our heroes).
In an attempt to make Diabolus Ex Machina more relevant to popular fiction, I would propose that it should be defined as serving basically the same function as Deus Ex Machina, except that while Deus causes good fortune to descend on our heroes, Diabolus instead comes crashing down on the villains (therefore reflecting the model of modern-day Christianity, where the wicket get punished in Hell without God ever getting his hands dirty with it). Diabolus, just like Deus, is practically the reader’s creation – only we, as readers, aren’t made aware of the presence of Diabolus (him being so closely related to Deus), except in those cases where the devil spirals out of control and starts handing out retribution indiscriminately, instead of serving as an agent of our poetic justice – which is pretty much what happens in horror. In the case of horror cinema we’re even made aware of Diabolus’s origins in some moral compass, as the first victims are traditionally promiscuous teenagers in need of punishment, but then we observe in horror as our Diabolus starts tearing down its artificial world before our eyes, going after whoever is sharing that same universe with it.
Basing on this analysis, it stands to reason that viewers and readers who are easily put off by the overuse of Deus Ex Machina should therefore have a soft spot for horror. Furthermore, a wave of popular fiction that is riddled with Deus Ex Machina should then lead to a rise in demand for horror. That may in fact be the most appropriate use of these terms, in times when literary analysis are the most relevant when they can be used to predict consumer trends in fiction.