As we get closer to Halloween, I feel I am morally obligated to talk about spooky religious things. So this week, we will be discussing exorcisms in pop culture.
Though other Christian denominations also perform exorcisms, for the purposes of this article I will largely be focusing on exorcisms in Catholicism because those seem to be the types of exorcisms most often portrayed in pop culture.
Ironically, I find horror movies about possession and the devil to be one of the most pro-Catholic type of movies, even if they are a bit misguided. In the real world, many people are uncomfortable when the Pope, or any religious figure, says something about evil, or, specifically, the devil. Yet they seem relatively comfortable with the idea that if there ever is a real need for an exorcism, the Catholic Church can handle it. Many people try to make a belief in demons or the devil out to be superstitious and silly. I personally know some Catholics who find it embarrassing that the church still believes in such things. But whether or not you believe in demons and the devil, I think all people fear a loss of control and the unknown. And so the idea of a religious institution that battles these fears can be pretty appealing, even to those people who don’t believe.
As a religious person, what most aggravates me is how wrong exorcism movies tend to be in their portrayal of the battle between good and evil.
Now, I’m going to disappoint everyone by saying I haven’t actually watch the most famous exorcism movie, The Exorcist—because that little girl’s makeup freaks me out–but I have watched several documentaries on the real story of The Exorcist. And that gets me to our first problem. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Devil Inside Me, just to name a few exorcism movies, are all based on true stories. Here’s the thing—you will never hear about most exorcisms performed by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is pretty strict about keeping these things private and the only reason these things make it out into the public is usually because someone else involved in the exorcism brought it to people’s attention.
If you watch any documentaries about exorcism—sure to be all over TV right now—chances are all or most of them will at some point say: “The Catholic Church declined to comment on the story.” The Catholic Church will always decline to comment, because they aren’t in the habit of releasing private information. Like going to confession, exorcisms are supposed to be kept private. I can’t imagine many people want it to be known that they were possessed, either because people will think they are crazy or that they did something really horrible to become possessed. So of course the Church, out of respect for these people, keeps things quiet. Not because they are hiding the truth from people or some such nonsense.
So, when you add Hollywood’s tendency to embellish on top of the fact that information about exorcisms rarely actually comes from the Catholic Church, it’s easy to understand why things in exorcism movies are rarely accurate. One of the biggest inaccuracies I’ve noticed is how often the priest/exorcist talks to the devil/demon possessing a person. The devil lies, demons lie, and they’re both good at manipulating humans. For this reason, real exorcists are told not to speak to them and to ignore anything they say. The priest is usually allowed to ask is the demon’s name, but that’s about it. But in these movies, the priests are almost always verbally sparring with the devil, which might make the movie more exciting, but is a dangerous move for any real exorcist.
But by far, my biggest problem with all exorcism movies is how powerful they make the devil seem. Despite the fact that the Catholic Church is portrayed as valiantly fighting the forces of darkness, God, if God is mentioned at all in the movie, usually comes out looking decidedly less powerful than the devil. Either because the devil wins and the person possessed dies, or merely because the devil is portrayed as equal to God. In Christianity, God is so far out of the devil’s league that any real spiritual warfare is almost nonexistent. In fact, some possessions don’t even require an exorcism, but can be simply taken care of with a blessing by laying hands on the person who is possessed and (if you’re Catholic) receiving the Eucharist. Almost every “true” exorcism story is exaggerated to the point where the devil seems like an insurmountable obstacle to any priest, when that is really not the case.
Yes, for those of us who believe in the devil, he can be a scary guy, but when compared to God, most of the devil’s strength is really just puffed up posturing. I suppose making the devil seem more powerful makes for an interesting movie, but it really doesn’t make much sense, theologically. So if you ever get scared after watching one of these exorcism movies, just remember what Veggie Tales taught you as a kid: God is bigger than the boogie man.