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Why Exorcism Films Still Fascinate

February 24, 2011


Why Exorcism Films Still Fascinate

By Rev. Robert Barron

The exorcism movie is now something like the gangster film or the cowboy movie or the romantic comedy, which is to say, a genre with fairly predictable characters, plot developments, and dialogue. In recent years, there has been a spate of exorcism films, including “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Last Exorcist.” Now gracing (is that the right word?) the theaters is “The Rite,” a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as a grizzled experienced exorcist and Irish newcomer Colin O’Donoghue as his youthful and doubt-plagued apprentice. One novel feature of this film is that we get to see some of the training program that prospective exorcists pass through in the Vatican. We also get to witness the rather extraordinary theatrical exertions of Hopkins, who leaves not one little piece of scenery unchewed by the end of the film.

But as I suggested, the exorcism genre is a little tired, and the signs of that exhaustion are everywhere in “The Rite.” And that is undoubtedly why, throughout the movie, my mind kept drifting back to the fons et origo of all such movies, the incomparable “The Exorcist” from 1973. When I first saw “The Exorcist” on TV, some years after its original release, I was terrified and couldn’t sleep for several nights thereafter. But when I saw it again, many years later, I was psychologically prepared for Linda Blair’s transformation from cute kid into vomit-spewing, head-spinning, cursing-like-a-sailor monster and so was ready to take in some of the deeper themes that were on offer. What became eminently clear to me on that second viewing was that “The Exorcist” wasn’t primarily about the possessed girl; it was, first and foremost, the story of two priests and ultimately a meditation on the priesthood itself.

You might recall that the younger priest, Fr. Damien Karras , played by Jason Miller, was a trained psychologist, educated at Harvard, and extremely skeptical of the supernatural claims of his Catholic faith. Guilt-ridden over the way he had neglected his aged mother and haunted by nagging doubts about his own priesthood, Fr. Karras is, as the film commences, a very unhappy man. To his attention comes the peculiar case of Regan, this little girl suffering from a malady so bizarre that no physician or psychiatrist had been able to diagnose it much less treat it. When it is suggested to him that she might be possessed by the devil, he rejects this assessment as so much medieval mumbo-jumbo. Some of the more comical scenes in “The Exorcist” show the priest’s rather pathetic attempts to deal with a clearly supernatural phenomenon using the hopelessly inadequate theoretical and practical tools he had picked up at Harvard.

At his wit’s end, Fr. Karras calls for Fr. Lankester Merrin, played by Max von Sydow, a Jesuit priest and archeologist who specializes in battling the devil. When the old priest arrives at the home of the possessed girl, she emits a harrowing animal scream: “Meeerrriiiin!” The younger priest, still clinging to his psychological training, informs his colleague that the presence seems to manifest a variety of personalities, but Merrin immediately cuts him off: “there is only one.” And then he commences to pray, something that the young priest, to that point, had never tried. The most frightening scenes in the movie unfold as the two priests enter Regan’s room and begin the rite of exorcism. This, we clearly see, is not an examination or a treatment or a diagnostic exercise; this is a battle—and not with flesh and blood. At the climax of the film, Fr. Merrin, worn out by the rigors of the struggle with the possessed girl, dies of a heart attack, and Fr. Karras invites the demon to leave the girl and take possession of him—at which point, he hurls himself out of the window to his death.

The film is meditating on two great truths. First, it shows how the young priest moved, slowly and painfully, from a cramped rationalism to a keen sense of a dimension that transcends our ordinary experience. It demonstrates how he came to appreciate the properly supernatural and to understand how his priesthood relates him precisely to that realm. I believe, by the way, that the persistent popularity of the genre of the exorcism film is largely a function of this clear communication of the reality of the transcendent realm, especially during our time when an ideological secularism holds sway. In our guts, we know that there is something “more,” and stories about demonic possession give that intuition vivid confirmation. Secondly, “The Exorcist” shows that the mission of a priest finds its fullest expression in the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the good of the other. Both priests died in battle, defending a little girl whom they barely knew but who had been entrusted to their care. The very last scene of the film is arresting. As Regan and her mother are pulling away in a car, happily leaving the place where they had endured so much suffering, the girl spots a priest in a Roman collar. She asks the driver to stop, and she runs out, throws her arms around the priest and kisses him. It was her tribute to the men who had saved her.

“The Rite” comes nowhere near the power and artistry of “The Exorcist,” but it does suggest the reality of the supernatural and even something of the heroic character of the priesthood. At a time when both the supernatural and the priesthood are viewed with a good deal of suspicion, I suppose that this is hardly a bad thing.