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A priest explains what 'The Exorcist' tells us about evil

Priests, played by Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, try to help a possessed child in <em>The Exorcist,</em> from 1973.
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Priests, played by Max von Sydow and Jason Miller, try to help a possessed child in The Exorcist, from 1973.

Not much power has leached from The Exorcist since its first release in 1973. The horror film's upcoming 50th anniversary has unleashed an inevitable new version out in theaters now, as well as countless other tributes, including articles, special screenings and podcasts.

Among the latter, the podcast Taking on the Devil is notable for its heady, intellectual interrogation of The Exorcist's theological implications. The host is horror movie scholar Gina Brandolino, who teaches at the University of Michigan. (Full disclosure, I became friends with Brandolino while on a fellowship there.) Her partner in the podcast is Gabrielle Thomas, an ordained priest and Emory University professor of early Christianity, who has written about representations of the devil. The two debate questions such as how The Exorcist helps us think about evil in the world.

<em>The Exorcist</em> on the marquee at the Warner Rendezvous cinema in London in March 1974.
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The Exorcist on the marquee at the Warner Rendezvous cinema in London in March 1974.

The film has had an ongoing impact on pop culture and contemporary Christianity, Thomas told NPR. "I mean, the Church of England I'm ordained in," she said, "we actually had to go back and look at liturgies for exorcism and deliverance and that kind of thing as a result of that movie."

Long ago in early Christianity, she said, exorcisms were a completely normal ritual that took place before baptism. "Everybody was exorcised because there was an assumption that everyone would be experiencing some kind of demonic oppression, because that's where the church was at that time," she said.

"How humans have thought about the devil has evolved" over centuries and across faiths, she added. For example, the devil was once usually presented as being blue in the Christian contexts Thomas studies. He was seen as being like the sea, wild and inexplicable. "We understand that there's chaos in the sea," she said. "And it's relatively recently that we ended up with this red thing with horns and the trident that slightly comical... There's been a sort of 'nice-ification' of the devil."

In this era of grinning purple devil emojis, cute cartoon characters like Hot Stuff and sexy demon antiheros on popular shows like Lucifer and Good Omens, the devil in The Exorcist punches with medieval-era power, Thomas says. This demon, Pazuzu, is not palatable. He is grotesque, primal and scary, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.

Despite sub-freezing temperatures and rain, a crowd waits in line outside the Paramount Theater in New York City for a showing of The Exorcist in February 1974.
Ron Frehm / AP
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AP
Despite sub-freezing temperatures and rain, a crowd waits in line outside the Paramount Theater in New York City for a showing of The Exorcist in February 1974.

But ultimately, Thomas said, The Exorcist is not really concerned with the devil. It's about the people who observe his possession of a 12-year-old girl named Regan who did nothing worse than play with a Ouija board. Which raises the question: why Regan? And that in turn, Thomas notes, raises an even older question: "Why hasn't God stepped in and solved all of this? Which is a question that lots of people are asking all the time."

Why do bad things happen to good people? Thomas says this is not an inquiry for God. This is a question for humans.

"What I loved about The Exorcist is that it gives us a [sense of] how to respond, in the sense of these two priests," she said, referring to the characters Father Karras and Father Merrin, who perform the film's dramatic exorcism. "They're not perfect. They're completely messed up, just as many people on the street would be. But they respond with love," she said. "They're absolutely not the most successful in the way that they approach it ... but they're present in it. So Regan is not alone ultimately."

And right at a moment when the world feels caught in something profoundly, cosmically terrible, maybe The Exorcist still carries a message.

"It doesn't leave us with a sense of 'there's just nothing we can do'," Thomas said. "It leaves us with a sense of: I can be present. I can be present with the person who's experiencing evil. I can stand with them. If I'm a priest, I might pray some particular prayers. If I'm not a priest, I might not pray these prayers, but I can be with that person or with that group of people... For me, it was the message of presence."

The director of The Exorcist always insisted his movie was not a horror movie. It was a movie about faith. And it reminds us that when we feel helpless and hopeless, there is power in being present.

Edited for the web by Rose Friedman. Produced for the web by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.