Exorcism in the Movies


Over 40 years after The Exorcist, the subgenre of exorcism films pioneered by William Friedkin’s 1973 landmark film is still going strong. Not that exorcism was unknown in movies prior to The Exorcist. But The Exorcist spotlighted the phenomenon of possession and deliverance in an unprecedented way. In a way, The Exorcist is a pivotal film — the indispensable link between the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the demonic world of latter-day horror. More than this, it is the source or channel of much of our culture’s awareness of and ideas about possession and exorcism. Real-world exorcisms in both Catholic and Protestant milieus proliferated in the film’s wake, and its impact continues to be felt in recent films.

The form of exorcism familiar from The Exorcist is that of the Roman Ritual of 1614, which remained unchanged until it was updated in 1999 and again in 2004. The film’s depiction both of the rite and of the phenomenon of possession, though sensationalized and exaggerated, is fairly authentic. Notable elements include the demon’s resistance to being exorcised and other ambiguities. For example, the young victim writhes in pain when a priest sprinkles her with water — though it is not blessed holy water. Placebo effect? Or is the demon deliberately casting doubt on the reality of the possession, the effectiveness of the Church’s arsenal, or both?

Exorcism, of course, didn’t begin with the 1614 ritual — and movie exorcism didn’t begin with The Exorcist. Casting out demons goes back to the ministry of Jesus, and in the movies it goes back to the Jesus films of cinema’s silent origins. The 1912 film From The Manger to the Cross depicts Jesus healing a demoniac. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 silent The King of Kings opens with Jesus dramatically delivering Mary Magdalene of her seven demons, here representing the seven deadly sins. Although the Devil and satanic cults surfaced in films prior to The Exorcist, possession and efforts to cast out demons were rare. Edward Dmytryk’s 1962 biopic The Reluctant Saint climaxes with a dramatic extended exorcism scene featuring Ricardo Montalban as a Franciscan friar — an exorcism that fails because the exorcee, St. Joseph of Cupertino, isn’t possessed!

By the late 1960s, the pious certainties of Golden Age Hollywood had crumbled, and a jaded, sophisticated ennui prevailed. Mia Farrow, carrying the devil’s child in Rosemary’s Baby, flips through the Easter 1966 issue of Time magazine with the cover question “Is God Dead?” … and by the end neither God nor his agents has intervened, and the Devil is victorious. The Omen, made after The Exorcist, likewise ends with heaven essentially defaulting while hell triumphs. Even when the slews of Exorcist imitators embraced the war of good and evil, they seldom approached their inspiration for authenticity or quality. A 1972 Italian horror film, Lisa and the Devil, was liberally reworked for its 1975 US release with added scenes of pea-soup vomiting and clerical chanting (and retitled House of Exorcism). The 1974 blaxsploitation flick Abby brought a syncretistic bent, blending Christian and West African Yoruban religious elements. Amityville II: The Possession added a possession/exorcism twist to its predecessor’s tale of demonic terrorism — directly ripping off the climactic twist of Friedkin’s film.

Like these knockoffs, the Exorcist sequels failed theologically as well as artistically to match the original. Exorcist II: The Heretic floated a number of bizarre ideas: The Catholic Church’s leadership distances itself from belief in the existence of Satan, while the late Fr. Merrin seems to have been posthumously transformed into a New Age disciple of the censured Jesuit mystic Teilhard de Chardin. In The Exorcist III, the demon of the first two films takes further revenge against Fr. Merrin by reanimating his body with the soul of a murderer! Even when these post-Exorcist possession films retained the Catholic trappings of Friedkin’s film, the religious vision of the original was largely lost. Rather than spiritual warfare, exorcism was depicted in essentially magical terms.

Only Dominion: Prequel To the Exorcist even attempts to match the spirit of the original. Directed by Paul Schrader (a Calvin College alum who wrote the screenplay for The Last Temptation of Christ), it recounts Fr. Merrin’s first encounter with the demon in Kenya, where archaeologists unearth a fifth-century Byzantine church built as a prison for the demon. Schrader’s pensive, theological approach didn’t match studio expectations, though, and the film was reworked by Renny Harlin as a more typical horror show called Exorcist: The Beginning. Both versions were eventually released, Reny’s in 2005; Shrader’s in 2006.

In those same two years, two films were released based on one real-life case (that of a young Bavarian woman named Anneliese Michel): Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem (2006). What distinguishes both of these sober, restrained films is their ambiguity: Is it demonic possession or mental illness? Derrickson takes a forensic approach, while Schmid uses a quasi-documentary style. Taking the documentary angle further still, the 2010 mockumentary The Last Exorcism offered a Blair Witch / Paranormal Activity style spin on the material, with a disillusioned non-denominational pastor who no longer believes in God and agrees to participate in a documentary in order to expose exorcism as a sham. Unusual only for its non-Catholic milieu, it’s no more religiously curious than most films in the genre.

The 2011 film The Rite, starring Anthony Hopkins, and The Conjuring are among The Exorcist’s few heirs to take spiritual themes and a Catholic milieu as seriously as The Exorcist. It’s a testament to the power of the original, and perhaps a lingering awareness of spiritual hunger in our society, that the genre remains vital 40 years later.

Diabolical, Horror, Priestly