You might assume the Roman Catholic Church would be viscerally opposed to seeing one of its more arcane rituals turned into fodder for a horror movie, but Friedkin says many church officials supported The Exorcist at the time.
Not only did Georgetown’s president, Father Henle, give them documents pertaining to the case, but the role of Father Dyer – the friend and confidante of faith-challenged Damian Karras (Jason Miller) – was played by a real priest, Father William O’Malley, in his one and only screen role.
“Most of the people at the highest levels of the church accepted it totally because the Roman Ritual of Exorcism is still in the New Testament,” said Friedkin. The director claims church officials later told him they credited the film for inspiring new applicants to be priests and nuns.
After all, the priests are the heroes of the story. And the message of the film is that there are some matters of the soul that science and medicine can’t fix.
“The Cardinal in New York preached about it from the pulpit and said great things about it,” Friedkin recalled. “The guy who was the head of the Jesuit order at the time, Father Pedro Arrupe, who was headquartered in Milan, he had his own print of it and would show it to his fellow priests and bishops and cardinals.”
Of course, not every cleric was a fan. “The cardinal in Boston loathed it and wanted it banned,” Friedkin said. “Billy Graham, who was not Catholic, denounced it from the pulpit and said ‘The Devil is in every frame of this film.’ Now, how he examined every frame, I don’t know.”