How Hollywood’s obsession with the horror sub-genre continues with The Pope's Exorcist

50 years later, the genre is still going strong

By Yasser Usman

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A still from The Pope's Exorcist
A still from The Pope's Exorcist

Published: Thu 13 Apr 2023, 9:49 PM

Exorcism is back in Hollywood. The Pope’s Exorcist is the new big-budget, Russell Crowe-led supernatural horror film in town. Crowe plays Father Gabriele Amorth who served as the Vatican's chief exorcist for years and documented thousands of real-life cases of exorcism. The Pope's Exorcist follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy's terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden.

Yet it’s fascinating that this horror sub-genre of cinema that ‘possessed’ the viewers fifty years ago with the blockbuster The Exorcist (1973, nominated for 10 Oscars) is still going strong. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist remains one of the most successful horror film in the history of cinema. Such was the impact of the movie that several people in the seventies had started claiming that they were possessed and needed exorcism. There were reports of viewers having intense reactions while watching the film and several sought spiritual comfort in church. The film was a phenomenon and became a sort of cultural reference point.

But that was five decades ago. Why do people still love watching ‘exorcism movies’? Nothing has really changed in the basic plot of these movies. The Pope’s Exorcist has the same storyline that you have already seen in multiple exorcism movies — a demon possessing an innocent child, faces grimacing, bodies contorting, demonic voices, blood stained eyes and a priest as the hero saving the day with faith.

Perhaps something that seems to threaten our own existence fascinates us, be it horror, apocalyptic or disaster movies. But apart from the sheer entertainment value, one major reason behind the sustained success of exorcism films is that unlike other genres of horror, exorcist movies come with a banner of realism. More than forty movies (since The Exorcist) were promoted as ‘inspired by real events’ or ‘from the diaries of the priests’. And of course, the Roman Catholic Church still performs exorcisms giving such films a hint of legitimacy. In a way they also work as superhero stories with a superhero (the priest) who saves us from the unknown supernatural entities beyond our control.

The box office success of The Exorcist (1973) had made the subject a money-minting ‘franchise’ spawning a number of movies over the years including Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Legion (1983) and The Exorcist III (1990). Even the current exorcism boom in Hollywood began again with Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005).

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) mixed the exorcism story with compelling courtroom drama. It was about an attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) defending a priest Richard Moore (Tom Wilkinson) after an exorcism resulted in the death of Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter). The film was a major success. The Last Exorcism (2010), a ‘found-footage’ film about a possessed girl, grossed more than $67 million against a $1.8 million budget. Then the triumphs of Anthony Hopkins' The Rite (2011), The Devil Inside (2012) and The Conjuring (2013) further proved the exorcism movies are here to stay. The formula has also been used for a few chuckles. There was a comedy film Abby (1973) about a girl possessed by a demon and Repossessed (1990) parodying the The Exorcist. Though there have been some really trashy movies, too.

But serious questions have been raised about the depiction of satanic possession and exorcism rituals in almost all the popular religious horror movies. While audiences seem to believe the proceedings onscreen, many priests and exorcists disagree with the exaggerated portrayal. A few years ago, Fr Francesco Bamonte, president of the International Association of Exorcists, had said, “The way in which evil, demonic possession, the prayer of exorcism and liberation” are presented in the film and television was “disappointing and unacceptable”. His main criticism was that fictional portrayals of exorcism tend to exaggerate human and satanic power over God. The priests also emphasise that there are specific protocols for the rituals. For instance, most of the events in such movies take place in a room in some haunted house while in reality, an exorcism ritual is supposed to be in a sacred space, like a church or chapel.

In this age of mental-health awareness, the debates about science versus religion take a new meaning regarding these movies. What does the behaviour of ‘possessed’ people indicate? Could it actually be a manifestation of a deep-rooted trauma? The argument that ‘demonic possession’ could actually be signs of an underlying mental illness or psychotic disorder has to be considered. One has to distinguish physical and medical disorders from spiritual ones. The Pope's Exorcist points to this aspect in the trailer itself where a priest says of Father Amorth (Russel Crowe), "Ninety-eight per cent are recommended, by him, to doctors and psychiatrists." Father Amorth then says, "The other two per cent, I call it evil." Ironically, in all the exorcism movies the narrative is about that "other two per cent".

Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) in The Rite warns, “Choosing not to believe in the devil won’t protect you from him.” It is intriguing to note that a 2009 CBS poll had revealed that 59 per cent of Americans believe in demonic possession, with the numbers rising every year. Perhaps, just one of the reasons for the success of the exorcism franchise. So, we have Russell Crowe’s The Pope's Exorcist this month and then another big release The Exorcist (a sequel to the 1973 classic) releasing in October 2023. Ellen Burstyn will return to her role from the 1973 original as a new family seeks her help to deal with an evil possession.

Like Father Amorth says in The Pope's Exorcist, “The Church has fought against this demon before.” The audiences have also seen the onscreen exorcism before. Yet, Hollywood’s obsession with possession goes on.

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