“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
Released in 1973, The Exorcist is arguably the most hotly-debated film in the history of Christendom. That’s a tall claim certainly but I can’t think of another film with this much acrimony thrown at it by Christians. The Last Temptation of Christ and Passion of the Christ are the only ones that come close.
Billy Graham famously rejected Christians watching The Exorcist because he feared that there was no benefit to viewing a depiction of evil. The pastor even went as far as to accuse the movie’s film print of being possessed. As a result, the movie has maintained a very negative reputation amongst traditional Christian communities in much the same method as Dungeons and Dragons was a decade later when it was accused of being a vehicle for satanism.
Granted, merely depicting evil for its own sake was never the goal of The Exorcist. The director William Friedkin has gone on record saying that his goal in portraying the supernatural was to encourage his audience to consider the nature of the supernatural. Granted, he isn’t a man whose filmography necessarily reflects the inner life of a Christian. His films often depict acts of gratuitous sexuality and cruelty. That said, God expresses himself to the world through imperfect vessels all the time.
The Exorcist is fundamentally a story about the role of pre-modern superstitions in a modern world. In the beginning, nobody believes in demons. Even the main character, a priest named Dr. Damien Karras, is so worldly that he has lost his beliefs in anything but science and psychology. As such, the appearance of a demonic entity is meaded out consistently with disbelief.
Half of the movie is entirely dedicated to these characters coming to grips with the fact that a young girl named Regan has become possessed by a demon in the first place. We see the clear effect that this possession has on Regan’s body, mind, and the lives of the love ones who watch in horror as she loses control of her body, mutilates herself, and curses foully at them. Her family puts her through psych evaluations, brain scans, and every level of physiological evaluation humanly possible. The last place Regan’s mother thinks to ask for help is the church that doesn’t even believe in the possbility of possession. It’s a long journey for these characters to get to the point where they stand against the demonic force corrupting Regan.
What kind of audience is The Exorcist specifically trying to poke at? In 1973, religion was still at the center of American culture. However, the primary audience was growingly secular modernist adults who had a deep connection to their parent’s religion. These people were losing touch with Christianity but they still understood the religious elements of the story.
The Exorcist, despite its controversial content and its depiction of the demonic, ultimately speaks on behalf of the Christian faith. After all, the movie is just as much about curing the affliction of the demonic as it is about diagnosing it. It ends on a bittersweet note with Regan freed and Father Karras embracing his faith to the fullest in a moment of Christlike sacrifice. This story affirms that not only are the forces of Hell real and dangerous but that the forces of Heaven and goodness are too and that they inevitably win out in the end.
This stands in stark contrast to Martin, a 1978 George Romero film and an antithesis to the The Exorcist. Romero is a well-known director of classic zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead but his works expand farther than these core six films in the franchise. He’s made horror anthologies like Creepshow and all sorts of offbeat horror/action films like Knightriders, Monkey Shines, and Bruiser. Of his entire repetoir I’m most partial to the lesser-known Martin.
Given the former’s obscurity many don’t consider the parallels between Martin and The Exorcist. Both deal with supernatural scenarios, (demons and vampires respectively). Both have significant themes of religion and superstition. Both have young lead characters afflicted with a supernatural condition. Both are set in the modern world (circa 1970s). Finally, both are deeply concerned about the metaphysical consequences of their stories. If these points didn’t hammer the comparison home, at one point in Martin, a priest (played by the director himself) comments negatively about The Exorcist and laughs off the film’s story.
Despite these similarities, the plot comparison stops at two young people having an undesired supernatural affliction. The film’s titular character Martin believes he’s a vampire in modern times, but it’s all a lie. Vampires aren’t real. Martin frontloads this theme in the first ten minutes with a simple quote, “There is no magic in the world.” Martin is about the consequences of a false belief.
Martin has been told for his entire life that he’s a descendent of a family of Eastern European vampires. Thus he’s dedicated his life to drugging and sexually assaulting women before drinking their blood and leaving them for dead. In contrast to the protagonist is his cousin Tateh Cuda, a religious fundamentalist who wants to cure Martin of his vampirism before killing him. Tateh believes in the affliction just as dogmatically as Martin does and he’s determined to purge it from the Earth.
At various times a black and white fantasy version of the events play out concurrently in the style of Universal Picture’s adaptation of Dracula from 1931. These visions come from the perspectives of both Martin and Cuda who imagine themselves living out the archetypes of Dracula and Van Hellsing while cutting back and forth to what is happening in the real world. These sequences support the themes of the illusory nature of belief and the disturbing reality that those beliefs bring about in the real world.
Martin ends up being a fascinating exploration of the consequences of what religion and superstition mean in a world where there is no metaphysical truth to draw these things from. The ideas that Martin and Cuda are fed create a massive burden on their lives that they have to carry with them forever. They spiral down a path of delusion and physical harm that results in people dying to support their beliefs.
For us, where does the truth lie between these two radically different versions of religion and superstition? In one we see characters incapable of grappling with truth beyond the physical and suffering for it and in the other we see characters reaching for a reality that doesn’t exist and destroying the lives of everyone they touch.
How do we know religion is true? If it’s true is it even valuable? If it’s not true is it still valuable? In a world where the existence of God is still up for debate, how do we proceed? Do we pursue a path of religiosity and tradition knowing that we could be wrong and that there may be consequences if we’re wrong?
Christianity has always been at war with itself about superstition and mysticism. Magic and witchcraft are widely rejected but different branches of the faith interact with God in different ritual ways. The Catholic and Orthodox Church are both mired in ritual ceremony, such as the Eucharist, that are considered essential parts of the Christian life. Protestantism is conversely extremely resistant to any form of mysticism and embraces austerity. Many on the Protestant side consider superstitions and mysticisms within the church to be Pagan holdovers from Pre-Christian Europe or fictions metastasized within the complex theology of the Medieval church. These internal differences in the church run so deeply that we’ve fought wars over them.
With all honesty, I can’t say what the right answer is. It’s not clear in the Bible just how much we as Christians ought to entertain the notion of superstition or which ones we ought to.
Certainly the church as a whole is a great deal more worldly. Prior to The Exorcist’s release in 1973, the concept of exorcism was a mostly forgotten concept outside of the deep rungs of the Catholic Church. It was something rarely deployed in modern society. The movie created a massive public scare about the notion of satanic influence and the number of self proclaimed cases of possession skyrocketed. Most of this is clearly paranoia.
The Catholic Church ihas gone on record stating that the vast majority of exorcism cases are misidentified and can be fixed with medical solutions. That said, there do seem to be extreme cases where professional exorcists step in and try to exorcise demons. We do know that demonic possession happened in the Bible, as Christ himself cast demons from the possessed.
When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. -Matthew 8:28-32 NIV
Modernity makes it very easy to look past the seriousness of these concepts. We see a world around us that doesn’t visibly have a war ongoing between the forces of the demonic and the heavenly. We’re merely souls living lives of banality. Yet if you believe in God you understand that this war does exist beyond the curtain. What are we to believe about the supernatural/mystical nature of this work?
Maybe the answer can be found in C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters. This book is comprised of a series of fictionalized letters depicting a one-sided conversation between a bureaucratic demon named Uncle Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. This young demon is attempting to ensnare the soul of a working class man living in England just prior to World War II. The story is told in the form of an instruction manual as the elder demon explains to his inexperienced nephew how one goes about slowly dragging a soul to “our father’s house” where it can be rescued from the clutches of “the enemy”.
At one point in the exchange, Wormwood considers making his physical appearance known to the human which is quickly rebuked by Screwtape. He understands the nature of modernity and its appeal. He knows how to tempt souls out of their salvation simply by making his patients petty, bored, and irritable until they walk away from faith. Thus when Wormwood writes to him with this plan to terrorize “the patient,” Screwtape flatly gives this reply:
“My dear Wormwood,
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of our struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. when humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics…
I do not think you will have much difficulty in keeping the patient in the dark. The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suggestion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you.”
As the saying goes, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
In our modern world, the enemy of Heaven hides his presence to lead us down a path of banality, boredom, and vice. He wants us to be unhappy, frustrated, and alone. The exact nature of the world beyond the veil is unclear to us beyond what the Bible teaches. Yet we must be creatures in this world and not of it. If we believe God exists then the world as we know it is surrounded in chaos and conflict. We live in the enemy’s territory and he doesn’t want us to reflect on that. He wants us to believe there is no magic in this world. We must do our best to look past the veil, pray, and reflect on our place in this strange world.