BBC Culture

Why are exorcisms so fascinating?

AF archive/Alamy

AF archive/Alamy

Each year, Hollywood releases at least one new film about demonic possession. Nicholas Barber explains why these movies are still so popular.

It’s the same old story. Someone starts gnashing their teeth and scratching the furniture. Someone else declares that they’ve been possessed by a demon. A third party scoffs at the idea, but a priest is soon brandishing a crucifix and shouting something in Latin. And eventually, about an hour later, the teeth-gnasher returns to normal. Horror films about exorcisms haven’t moved on since William Friedkin’s The Exorcist terrified audiences in 1973. Remarkably, the sub-genre may now be more popular than ever.

The latest example is Deliver Us from Evil, starring Eric Bana and Édgar Ramirez. But there has been at least one Hollywood exorcism movie every year for a decade. In 2013, there was The Conjuring and The Last Exorcism: Part 2. In 2012, there was The Devil Inside. In 2011 there was The Rite, and so on back to Exorcist: The Beginning in 2004. “There’s a reason why exorcism is now a staple of cinema,” says Mark Kermode, BBC Radio 5 Live’s film critic, and a long-time champion of The Exorcist. “It’s because it’s so theatrical. The exorcism ritual is basically people in costumes reading out quite florid prose.”

Exorcisms crop up in earlier films, notably Ken Russell’s The Devils – another of Kermode’s favourites – and Mother Joan of the Angels, a Cannes prizewinner from 1961. But it was The Exorcist that defined the sub-genre as it exists today. “Everyone knows that you cannot use the word ‘exorcist’ without thinking of that one film,” says Kermode. “It’s part of horror shorthand. You can’t say ‘chainsaw’ without referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you can’t say ‘psycho’ without referring to Psycho, and it’s the same with The Exorcist. It’s become a meme.”

Growing pains

In case you haven’t plucked up the courage to watch Friedkin’s original film, it gets going when an evil spirit named Pazuzu inhabits a 12-year-old girl (Linda Blair, who was Oscar-nominated for her performance). Pazuzu then turns the girl into a snarling, cursing, projectile-vomiting and sex-obsessed monster with a drastic case of acne. If that’s a scenario that rings a bell with the parents of teenage children, it’s no coincidence. According to Dr Tim Snelson, a lecturer in media history at the University of East Anglia, exorcism chillers have as much to do with hormones as they do with horror. “These films have often been read as metaphors for puberty,” says Snelson, “with the teen or pre-teen body being taken over by strange desires and drives, and with both the kids and their parents no longer recognising their behaviour and their feelings, or even their voices. For parents, exorcism films ask the questions they might be asking: ‘Who is this child? Should I be worried about her behaviour?’ And for the teens watching, there’s a real transgressive pleasure in seeing a kid puking in her mum’s face and swearing at her!”

The demon controlling its adolescent host doesn’t just represent raging teenage hormones, in Snelson’s view. It also stands in for every parent’s nightmare: the bad influence corrupting their precious child. “The Exorcist was a blockbuster in the early 1970s,” he says, “partly because parents were concerned about second-wave feminism and the counterculture. And the new batch of exorcism movies [today] is responding to fears that the internet could be leading our children astray in their very own bedrooms.”

If you’re not persuaded by this thesis, it’s worth remembering that the people being possessed in these films tend to be girls, while the priests conducting the exorcisms are father figures. It’s also worth remembering that the screenwriter of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty, was inspired by a real exorcism that occurred in 1949 – but when he wrote his novel and subsequent screenplay, he switched the victim’s gender from male to female. In other words, exorcism movies are about dads and daughters. “At the end of The Exorcist,” adds Snelson, “the priest takes the demon into his own body and then jumps out of a window. He’s the father figure sacrificing himself to get rid of a malign influence and reassert his authority in the home.”

More than 40 years later, this sequence has its echoes in Deliver Us from Evil. “There’s a lot of stuff in there about the lengths a father will go to protect his young daughter,” says Snelson. “And I noticed that one of the villains is played by Sean Harris, who is known for embodying social breakdown in ‘moral panic’ films like Harry Brown and Outlaw. Here he’s playing a satanic version of the thugs he’s already played in other films.”

Spirited away

But exorcism movies don’t depend solely on parental paranoia. Dr Peter Hutchings, the author of the Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema, believes that they’re also linked to our religious yearnings. “We turn to demonic possession films because they provide reassurance that there is some spiritual dimension out there, that there is something beyond the secular,” says Hutchings. “It’s striking how many of these films feature sceptical characters who need to be convinced of the value and power of exorcism rituals.”

It’s also striking that the sceptical characters invariably do become convinced. On every occasion, superstition triumphs where science has failed, which means that, for all their violence and swearing, Hollywood’s exorcism movies are ultimately pro-religion. It’s a shrewd line for them to take. In 2004, when Exorcist: The Beginning sparked the current exorcism boom, another film released then may have been just as influential: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Raking in $600m at the box office, it proved that Christian subject matter could be paired with extreme gore – to highly lucrative effect. No wonder exorcism movies suddenly seemed like a sound investment. They can pull in horror fans on a Friday night but also churchgoers on a Sunday afternoon. And it works both ways. If exorcism movies lure churchgoers to the cinema, they also lure cinemagoers to church.

“When The Exorcist came out, loads of people rushed straight out of the cinema and into the nearest church,” confirms Kermode. “I’ve spoken to people within the Catholic Church who said it was the best advert they’d ever had. Because when was the last film you saw in which priests were the heroes?”

That said, not every exorcism film is so generous towards organised religion. Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills, a Romanian Oscar nominee from 2012, dramatises the notorious Tanacu exorcism which took place in 2005. A young woman’s disruptiveness in a remote mountain convent prompts the nuns to chain her up and starve her. The nuns are sure that they’re casting out evil spirits, but the young woman dies – just as the real victim did. In this story, the only evil in evidence is the evil being perpetrated by the would-be exorcists. Don’t expect many Hollywood films to take a similar approach – not unless their producers are possessed by demons first.

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