Northern Ireland

Horror at The Exorcist screening in former church

Interior of former church
Image caption The Holy Rosary church was deconsecrated and has been vacant for nearly 40 years

Belfast Film Festival has defended its plan to show two horror films - The Exorcist and The Omen - at a former Catholic church in the city.

It follows criticism from a priest who called it a "cheap stunt" and accused festival organisers of insensitivity.

The screenings are due to take place next month in the former Holy Rosary Church - a deconsecrated building on the Ormeau Road in south Belfast.

The derelict site has not been used as a place of worship for almost 40 years.

'Eerie atmosphere'

However, west Belfast priest Fr Patrick McCafferty said the organisers had shown a lack of "basic human respect" for its former parishioners, many of whom would have attended family funerals in the church.

Fr McCafferty told the Belfast Telegraph they should reconsider their plans and move the event to a "more appropriate venue".

"What is their motivation for showing those types of films in what was once a sacred building, that will have such special memories of spiritual occasions for lots of people?" he asked.

The priest added: "Should they not be sensitive to the fact that many people in that area have fond associations and is sacred to the memories of many people that were baptised or married or buried [from] there?"

However, a festival spokesperson defended the chosen setting, saying it would added to the "eerie atmosphere" for film-goers.

Image caption The abandoned church 'will make for a suitably chilling viewing experience', said a festival spokesperson

"Belfast Film Festival is well known for its site-specific special events," said the spokesperson, citing its 2015 screening of Jaws on Portrush beach as one example.

"The locations chosen add an extra dimension to the screening, and we think the stone cold surroundings of an abandoned church will make for a suitably chilling viewing experience for The Exorcist."

The Holy Rosary church opened in 1898 to cater for a growing Catholic population in the area, but by 1980 it was judged to be too small and parishioners moved across the road to the larger Good Shepherd church.

None of the clergy from the parish was available for comment.

The abandoned building, which fell into disrepair, is no longer owned by the Catholic Church.

Spinning pizza

It was recently acquired by Tullymore House Ltd, a Ballymena-based firm which also owns the Galgorm Resort and Spa.

The new owners plan to spend more than £1m to redevelop the former church as an Italian restaurant, so horror film scenes of spinning heads could soon be replaced by spinning pizza dough.

Tullymore House Ltd said the firm had granted permission for the screening "as a reflection of our continued support of the arts community in Northern Ireland".

Image copyright Google Maps
Image caption The new owners of the disused church plan to develop it as a restaurant

The listed building's brief foray as a pop-up cinema has proved to be an instant hit with horror film fans.

Tickets for the 180-seat screenings went on sale on Tuesday and about 100 tickets for The Exorcist have already been sold.

The festival spokesperson indicated this was brisk business compared to other events in the festival's line-up.

"Many people will have their own personal reasons for disliking The Exorcist, and we respect their right to that opinion, but the truth is that it was one of the most widely acclaimed films of the 1970s, nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture," said the spokesperson.

'Very immature'

The film won two of the 10 categories, taking the Oscar for Best Sound and Best Writing in 1974.

Fr McCafferty told BBC News NI he has watched neither The Exorcist nor The Omen, but "knew enough about them" to be aware of their content.

A woman who had been baptised at the church had also expressed her opposition to the screening, he said.

The priest said he had no objection to the building being turned into a restaurant or used for another "normal purpose", as many former churches had been redeveloped and the new owners had the right to do as they wished.

However, he said the film festival plan was "very immature" and "doesn't deserve the publicity" it has generated.

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