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**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Pope’s Exorcist (2023), Nefarious (2023), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and The Exorcist (1973).**
In his preface to The Screwtape Letters (1941), C. S. Lewis playfully suggests that some correspondence between two devils has fallen into his hands by means he will not explain. He must prevent “ill-disposed or excitable people” from trying to lay their hands on similar communication. It’s a trick, Lewis suggests, that can be done by anyone who has “learned the knack.”
The danger, as the fictionalized Lewis waxes, is that “there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” If he disclosed his secrets, excitable people would quickly fall into the latter danger of excessive interest in devils.
Looking at the spate of recent movies about possession and exorcism, it would seem that Hollywood has acquired “the knack,” in a manner of speaking. There are dozens of exorcism movies from just the last ten years available to rent on Amazon Prime and at least three films released or slated to release in 2023: The Pope’s Exorcist, Nefarious, and The Exorcist: Believer. Of these latter three, the first two did well financially, and it’s not hard to imagine the forthcoming sequel to the hallmark possession movie — The Exorcist (1973) — terrorizing millions.
Given the rise of Hollywood movies about exorcism and possession movies, it might be easy to assume that we’ve fallen into the danger of unhealthy interest Lewis warned about. But with the rise of the “nones” and a widespread disenchanted worldview, one could just as easily argue that we are far too disbelieving. So, which is it? Are we too materialistic, detached from the reality of the spiritual realm, or overly obsessed with the unseen world?
Charles Taylor, the Catholic Canadian philosopher, in his mammoth tome, A Secular Age, points out that a shift has happened in the West. Where once we viewed ourselves as “porous,” open to influence from the spiritual realm, we now have a “buffered” identity. Being closed off to the possibility of uncanny and supernatural forces, we are no longer terrified by unseen evils like our ancestors, and so only experience “an agreeable frisson” when we encounter “horror movies about witches and possession.”1 Taylor writes:
Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia. As though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.2
For Taylor, then, our default buffered individualism — which, if it makes room for the supernatural, sees it as very remote and removed — explains why we seek out exorcism movies. They provide a nostalgic tingle of an older worldview. Thus, the two opposite errors Lewis describes combine to create a market: we are excessively interested in possession movies because we disbelieve in the devil’s existence.
But maybe there’s a little more to the story. Perhaps our buffer is not quite as strong as we like to think. I’ve heard more than one horror fan say that of all scary movies, films about the supernatural scare them the most. A friend’s father, after seeing The Exorcist in the 70s, turned his life around and returned to church. Maybe possession movies still have sharp and pointy teeth to puncture our buffers?
A Marvel Exorcist. Among the recent releases in exorcism movies stands the rotund figure of The Pope’s Exorcist. A low-budget production for a Hollywood release, the film made 73 million dollars worldwide.3 It’s based loosely on the real-life stories of Father Gabriele Amorth, the titular exorcist appointed by the Vatican. Played in a jolly and earthy manner by Russell Crowe, the film tracks the adventures of the liquor-sipping and vespa-riding priest as he battles against modern skeptics in the Vatican and wrestles with demons. Aided by his good friend the Pope, Amorth is dispatched to a ruined abbey in Spain where a young boy is possessed by an ancient spirit.
Like many exorcism movies, the conflict is fought on two fronts. Father Amorth is told that his skills are no longer needed in the “modern” church, while doctors attempt to solve the boy’s strange behavior with modern medicine. The battle between modernity and ancient faith, however, is resolved quickly as we see soon that the demonic is very real. Aided by a young priest, Father Amorth struggles to overcome a powerful demon, Asmodeus, who the film reveals is responsible for the Spanish Inquisition.
As in The Exorcist, Father Amorth overcomes the demonic possession by inviting the spirit to enter him instead. In the 1973 masterpiece, Father Karras throws himself out of a window. Dying, he receives last rights in a touching scene that suggests how his self-sacrifice is Christlike. In The Pope’s Exorcist, we see, rather, a possessed Crowe rampage hammily before fighting off the possession with the help of others. The final confrontation resolves a bit more like a Marvel movie than an intimate exploration of the power of evil.
Though a somewhat trashy and sometimes silly exorcism film, The Pope’s Exorcist is notable for its warm and human portrayal of Father Amorth, his sidekick, and his helpful research assistant, the Bishop of Rome. That it also suggests one of the church’s darker periods, the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, is due to the overpowering influence of a demon, marks the film as an unusual (if unserious) exception to Hollywood’s negative portrayals of the Roman Catholic Church. The movie concludes with the suggestion that other adventures await Father Amorth, aided by a Mission-Impossible-like support team of ecclesiastical heroes.
Echoing Lewis. A quite different possession film, also released this year, is the Christian micro-budget Nefarious. Based on a novel by Steve Deace,4 the story is set in a prison, where a psychiatrist, Dr. James Martin, is sent to evaluate the sanity of a death-row inmate set for execution at 11 pm. The serial-killer inmate, Edward Wayne Brady, seems to suffer from dissociative-identity disorder. The prisoner often speaks in the voice of a demon named Nefarious. The standout performance at the core of the film is Brady/Nefarious, played by Sean Patrick Flannery, who is alternatingly pathetic and chilling.
As with The Pope’s Exorcist, there is a dual struggle. On the one hand, Nefarious devises to capture the soul of his assigned psychiatrist in order to escape execution by hopping bodies. On the other, the psychiatrist’s default happy-go-lucky atheism has no space for spiritual evil or any concept of his own moral corruption. The film and Nefarious slowly destroy the psychiatrist’s enculturated apathy.
If The Exorcist is the template for The Pope’s Exorcist, Lewis’s Screwtape Letters seems to be the reference text for Nefarious. Functioning as a modern morality play, Nefarious praises the moral callousness of our own age with its comfortable acceptance of euthanasia, abortion, and sex slavery. Like Screwtape, Nefarious schemes against “the Enemy.” If he can possess Dr. Martin, he can launch his next attack by publishing his infernal manuscript. The film concludes with the execution by electric chair of Brady. Nefarious then leaps into the body of Martin, who escapes death only by calling on the miraculous power of a God he did not believe in that morning.
One thing that is notable about both films is how they originate from a genuine Christian faith: from the journals of Father Amorth on one hand and the intent of the makers of Nefarious on the other. The hallmark possession movie, The Exorcist, likewise began with an earnest intention. The writer of the source novel, William Peter Blatty, was a Roman Catholic who wanted to scare readers back into belief in the spiritual. In 1974 Blatty wrote, “On its crudest level [The Exorcist] would argue for transcendence by presenting supernatural forces as real.”5 Though the director, William Friedkin, was an agnostic from a Jewish family, the force of Blatty’s intention comes through. Struggling to help her possessed daughter, the film’s mother exhausts every modern option available to her. Finally, she turns to an ancient solution to an ancient problem. Jeffrey Overstreet, writing about horror movies, puts this well: “[Horror] films exploit our notion that our own human resources are not enough to save us.”6
The Question. This struggle between faith and doubt, between modernity and Christendom, pervades the exorcism subgenre. It is present in all the films discussed here, though often as a secondary theme. Another somewhat-recent entry makes this tension the primary focus. 2005’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose focuses on the trial of a priest whose patient dies after a long attempted exorcism. Defended by an agnostic attorney, the court aims to address the question of whether exorcism is ever a legitimate treatment. Thus, it raises the question that burns in the minds of many audience members, “Is any of this real?”
Directed by Biola-grad Scott Derrickson, The Exorcism of Emily Rose shares Blatty’s desire to shake people out of their comfortable secularity. As the film’s priest reads a letter from the departed Emily, we hear echoes of Blatty: “People say that God is dead, but how can they think that if I show them the Devil?”7 Through clever storytelling, Derrickson re-enchants the world of the agnostic defense attorney, as strange occurrences bewitch her during the trial. Often occurring at 3 am, a sort of new “witching hour” when the world is asleep, we see her digital alarm clock act up from supernatural interference. As the film concludes, the trial over, our main character goes to bed, turning her clock to the wall. The particular cinematic genius of Derrickson here does not end with the movie but carries on as audiences no doubt went home to bed, the last thing they look upon being their alarm clock. The film functions explicitly as a performative challenge to the kind of disbelief Lewis warns about. If you are still afraid before sleep, perhaps there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your secular philosophy. Blatty would say “amen” to Derrickson’s film.
As with horror more broadly, stories about possession and exorcism are a mixed bag. They can be trashy and exploitative or thoughtful and illuminating. Or they can be both at the same time. When done well, a horror movie can be a bit like Dante’s Inferno, giving shape and weight to the abstract reality of evil. It is easy to see, from a production side, why possession movies are popular. All you need is a good actor who can summon a sense of the infernal and a few effects. It is more interesting to think about why these stories have such a grip on our imagination. Perhaps they are little more than a haunted theme park ride that will scare us and deliver us safely out again into the light. Or, when done well, they might just scare the hell out of us.
Philip Tallon is an Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Christian University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil: Toward an Aesthetic Theodicy (Oxford University Press, 2011). He’s on X (formerly Twitter) under the handle @oldhundreth.
- Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 337–38.
- Taylor, A Secular Age, 38.
- “The Pope’s Exorcist (2023),” The Numbers, accessed July 25, 2023, https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Popes-Exorcist-The-(2023)#tab=summary.
- Steve Deace, A Nefarious Plot (Brentwood, TN: Post Hill Press, 2017).
- William Peter Blatty, “William Peter Blatty on Why There Is Good in ‘The Exorcist,’” America, April 5, 2019, https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2019/04/05/william-peter-blatty-why-there-good-exorcist.
- Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2007), 272.
- The Exorcism of Emily Rose, directed by Scott Derrickson, written by Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson (Beverley Hills, CA: Lakeshore Entertainment, 2005).