Why we like exorcist movies: They don't just showcase the Devil, they conjure up God too

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

Last weekend, when I went to see The Conjuring, I expected to be scared, and I also thought that I was walking into a haunted-house movie. It certainly starts off as a haunted-house movie, with director James Wan throwing in every goose-the-audience gothic scare tactic (alarming blasts of music, sinister Victorian clown faces, ghostly figures popping up in mirrors) but the rattling of the kitchen sink. The film is, of course, “based on a true story,” in much the same way that virtually every rattletrap ghost thriller since The Amityville Horror (1979) has been “based on a true story.” (It really happened, folks! Step right up!) In this case, though, the presence of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of legendary true-life paranormal investigators played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, really does lend the proceedings a creepy, homespun verisimilitude. Not because, as the film tells us, she’s a “clairvoyant” and he’s a “demonologist” (which is borderline hilarious, as if they were worked in different science departments of the same university). No, it’s because The Conjuring, after a while, turns into an exorcist movie, at which point you realize that that’s what it was all along. When the Warrens are setting up their primitive camera equipment to record ghosts on film, they seem to be fairly standard movie characters (though they do exude the soft interpersonal touch of Christian marriage counselors). But when Patrick Wilson starts spouting Latin and shouting into the bloody face of a woman possessed, you understand why The Conjuring has scared up the enthusiastic audience it has. As a culture, we’re right in the middle of an exorcist moment. And we have been ever since the very, very scary day of Sept. 9, 2005.

That’s the day that The Exorcism of Emily Rose opened during the deadest week of the fall, and got savaged by critics, and still managed to make everyone’s head swivel in Hollywood when it amassed an astonishing $30 million on that one quiet September weekend. Befuddled entertainment pundits asked: What the hell happened? The answer, of course, is that hell, along with its favorite resident, had just made a major movie comeback. The comeback was actually supposed to happen a year earlier, when Renny Harlin’s dusty desert Satan prequel Exorcist: The Beginning — a remake of Paul Schrader’s Dominion, which had initially been shelved — was released. But audiences didn’t care for it much. Exorcist: The Beginning was an impersonal piece of hackwork that scared up an indifferent box-office response.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose was different. It wasn’t a very good horror film, but it did have the queasy, writhing, stained-puritan sexual intimacy of those Thou casteth out the evil one! bedroom scenes the whole world remembered from The Exorcist. To top it off (and this, really, was the revolutionary novelty), the film was heavily targeted to the evangelical market. They’re not the first audience you think of when you talk about over-the-top horror films, but to evangelical audiences, The Exorcism of Emily Rose wasn’t just a horror bash — it was practically a documentary. And it opened the floodgates to a rash of exorcist films that have been playing out the primal clash of good and evil ever since. It wasn’t until I saw The Conjuring, though, with its heavy emphasis on families being torn apart (and coming back together), that I began to realize what the hidden appeal of this genre may be. It comes on as straight-up devil’s candy, but beneath the occult shock theater, it is also deep-dish sacramental corn. The fantasy that drives exorcist movies is that if the Devil is here, then God is going to have to reveal Himself to beat the Devil back.

That fantasy was baked right into The Exorcist when it came out 40 year ago, released just two days before Christmas Day of 1973. The movie, like William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, was in some way an unacknowledged sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the great Roman Polanski chiller — adapted with solemn Hitchcockian cunning from Ira Levin’s novel — that first called forth the Devil to slither into the nest of American domestic life. As the upheavals of the late 1960s kicked in, with so much of tradition and culture and society coming apart, there was much talk about how we were living in “godless” times, and a doctor’s-waiting-room scene in Rosemary’s Baby featured a shot of the famous April 8, 1966, cover of Time magazine that posed the question, “Is God Dead?” The movie seemed to be answering, “Yes He Is.” And that’s part of what made Rosemary’s Baby such a downbeat stunner. It channeled the fears of an increasingly secularized world that there was a hole where God once was, and that perhaps that vacuum would now be filled by Satan.

The Exorcist, of course, made that scenario explicit: The Devil was here, and he was getting down to business, possessing a pre-teenage girl and transforming her into an obscenity-spouting, pea-soup-vomiting, tongue-waggling sinner, and what could a parent do but stand by helplessly…or lay down to summon an act of God? The year that The Exorcist came out (and I still remember what an extraordinary event it was — people talked about it more feverishly than they would Jaws or Star Wars a few years later), the movie seemed to be the Devil’s baroque porno horror show, a world-gone-to-hell psychodrama. It marked the birth of Extreme Culture, and the fact that it was a “religious” horror film seemed like nothing so much as a pious excuse for the film to revel in roller-coaster orgies of obscenity and yuck. Yet it’s telling that in a movie where you would assume that the Devil gets all the good lines, the most famous line may be Max von Sydow yelling into the Devil’s face, “The power of Christ compels you!” Admit it: That’s a very fun line to say. And that’s because it’s embedded so deeply in what the movie is: the tale of a fundamentalist war, with the Devil casting spells through a distorted microphone but God hovering, with silent power, in the shadows.

As it played in theaters through much of 1974, The Exorcist turned into a kicky and scandalous New Hollywood touchstone, bridging the jaunty sadism of A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the death-trip abyss of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). At the time, there didn’t appear to be all that much cultural context for its appeals to the power of Christ. Yet two years later, the next presidential contest would see the election of America’s first evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, against a candidate, Gerald Ford, who was forced to fend off Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 would be swept to victory with the not inconsiderable boost of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. The first half of the ’70s was in many ways a wilderness zone in American life, creative but spiritually rudderless. That’s part of what gave rise to the American evangelical movement, though for a long time that rise wasn’t really talked about in any place that it wasn’t happening. (It barely penetrated the media.) Yet The Exorcist may well have been the key movie that marked God’s resurgence in the culture. The film served up Linda Blair’s Regan as a nightmare vision of the ultimate corrupt bad girl, and it made sexuality — made sexual license — look ghastly. But that’s why it was reassuring as well as terrifying. It said: Don’t give in to license! If you do, it will look like this! Fight it off! The power of Christ compels you!

Now, of course, evangelical Christianity has become one of the cornerstones of contemporary American life. And here we are, four decades after The Exorcist, still paying to get the bejesus scared out of us by watching a movie set in 1971 about a good woman “possessed” by her secret demon self. The Devil is here because, of course, he never left, and never will. In so many ways, he is old news. But the ritual of a horror film that reassures us by calling forth God to defeat him: That’s a conjuring we never get tired of.

So what do you think of my notion that exorcist movies are as much about God as they are about the Devil? And does a horror movie like The Conjuring speak to you on that level, or is it just a throwaway funhouse spook show?

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