Fox television recently introduced a new series based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel The Exorcist. The novel, published in 1971, inspired a film by the same name that became one of the highest grossing films of all time and earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. The novel and film launched a popular culture horror genre that has proved to have persistent staying power and continues to captivate the culture. William Friedkin, creator of the film, noted that it was not his intention to make a horror movie, but instead a story about what he termed “the mystery of faith.” Each of the characters in the film is tried and tested in an unrelenting crucible of faith, forced to contend with what they believe to be true about God and the world. Though the novel and film are often cited for their value to shock and frighten, the story of The Exorcist is not exclusively about the devil and demonic possession. It is, more importantly, about the Church, her Faith, her priests, and their particular mission. This is often overlooked, with the title character of the book The Exorcist overshadowed by our preoccupation with the devil whom he fights.
The new television series The Exorcist is an appropriation of the original story, with new characters and a new setting. Set within the backdrop of an impending papal visit to Chicago, a family beset with catastrophe comes to understand that the inexplicable behavior manifested by one of the children resists a merely natural explanation. The mother turns to her parish priest for help, and the family (and the priests who become involved), find themselves in an epic struggle against an inexplicable and malign spiritual power. Though the series has its moments of insight and terror, I think it struggles against the high expectations set by the novel and original film, opting at times for immediate displays of graphic and aggressive violence, rather than slow, subtle suggestion of evil that made the original film and novel so frightening.
The Church teaches that the devil is a malign spiritual entity of considerable power and influence who truly exists and acts to subvert the will and purposes of God. The devil is not, despite the protests of the Church’s cultured despisers, merely a literary or metaphorical construct. The primary object of the devil’s hate-filled interest are human beings, created in the image and likeness of God. The devil seeks to deface that image and distort that likeness by convincing humanity that God is not worthy of our love or our service. In some cases, a person might give their will over to the devil in such a way that the end result is what the Church identifies as possession. The Church maintains that a particular ritual be applied as a remedy in such cases, a ritual which invokes the power of Christ and petitions that He act, through His Church, to rescue a person so afflicted by evil that their own will has been overtaken by the devil.
The power the Church’s exorcist applies to the situation is not his own, but that of Christ. This is important to remember as an exorcist is not a superhero, or a shamen, but a means by which the will of the devil is countered and checked through someone whose own will belongs to Christ and is in sync with God’s purposes. The Rite of Exorcism is not a collection of incantations or a book of spells, but it is a lengthy petition to God in Christ for deliverance and for healing. The possibility of possession is frightening and off-putting, especially to the inhabitants of a culture that so privileges skepticism that it lacks the categories to comprehend the sheer possibility of such phenomena. Indeed, it was precisely this skepticism that was integral to the movement of the plot for both the novel and the original film. The Church applies skepticism herself to individuals who appeal for the Rite of Exorcism as a means of discernment and sets limitation on those priests who can minister to the faithful as exorcists. This protects those who are truly afflicted from exploitation.
Fear and fascination with possession can distract people from how the devil acts in the world, which is more often through subtle insinuation than through direct assault. The devil finds our refusals to love and to serve to be of more use to his purposes than anything else. Further, our fixation on wild manifestations of his power detracts perceptivity from the ways in which he manipulates our everyday desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors. More of the devil’s malice is manifested through our proclivity to surrender our will to his so as to attain wealth, pleasure, power and honors than it is through rare instances of possession. In each Christian there lurks a refusal of Christ that the devil can use to subvert the Church and nullify her resistance to his schemes. We don’t have to be possessed for this to happen.
Exorcism has become, not just an official Rite of the Church, but it is a kind of literary and cinematic genre. Unleashed from the Church’s doctrines, and muddled by a lack of metaphysical clarity, the idea of exorcism has drifted into the absurd, having as much to do with the reality referenced by the Church’s Rite, as when the devil is presented as a costumed character clothed in a red union suit brandishing a pitchfork. Whereas the original novel and film The Exorcist sought to reveal something about the nature of evil and the Church’s resistance to it, current popular attempts to portray exorcism obscure the nature of evil by relying on over the top special effects and the absence of an effective means of resistance. Contemporary presentations of exorcism in popular culture might do better if they heeded the words of the exorcist from the novel and original film, Father Merrin, who in response to the question as to why the devil acts against humanity, remarked “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.”
The exorcism genre, in its current pop culture construal, seems to intend precisely what Father Merrin identifies as the work of the devil — to make us despair. It magnifies the power of the devil beyond the power of God in Christ and in doing so renders the struggle against evil an exercise in futility. Too often the popular genre forgets Christ’s victory, and it seems that many times, this forgetting is intentional. It remains to be seen if the latest formulation of The Exorcist is on the side of the devil or that of the exorcist.