“The Exorcist,” as a work of art, fostered an understanding of Catholic theology.
When I was 13 years old, I watched William Friedkins’ “The Exorcist,” the 1973 film based on the novel by William Blatty. It was 1995, and I sat on the couch and watched as Fathers Lankester Merrin and Damien Karras performed the formal exorcism rites on 12-year-old Regan MacNeil. Eighteen years later, I converted from a non-practicing Anglican to a practicing Catholic. “The Exorcist,” as a work of art, fostered an understanding of Catholic theology and kindled a flame in my heart for the Catholic Church. Quite literally, “The Exorcist” scared the hell out of me.
“The Exorcist” is a compelling illustration of spiritual warfare. It depicts Catholicism as a compass for truth, directing believers into God’s armory, equipping them with spiritual weapons to combat arguments rather than inflict physical harm. The film sits atop a subgenre of philosophical horror. The dialogue is fueled by inquiry, mimicking Plato’s Socratic dialogues, dialectically volleying back and forth toward truth. For example, Father Karras grapples with the existence of supernatural identities when he interrogates the demon Pazuzu; simultaneously, Karras struggles with his own faith. “The Exorcist” uses horror fiction to communicate Catholic theological truths. “The Exorcist” also offers an unapologetic Catholic stance from a Catholic writer educated at Georgetown University: William Blatty.
Many other popular horror films about the Catholic Church do not maintain Blatty’s theological sophistication. Unsurprisingly, some directors and writers take liberties with Catholicism. For example, Jeffery Konvitz’s “The Sentinel” pays more attention to John Milton’s Paradise Lost than Catholic texts or doctrine. Additionally, James Wan under-represents the formal exorcism rite in “The Conjuring.” Generally, in these possession films, and many others like them, Catholic characters are used as plot vehicles or hackneyed tropes; audiences expect these characters to play a particular role in these films, and consequently, filmmakers grant these expectations.
Popular exorcism films may exhibit a lack of Catholic depth, however, the visibility of Catholic spiritual warfare can still inspire and persuade audiences to adhere to Catholic truth. Even without the theological sophistication and style of “The Exorcist,” horror films like “The Sentinel” and “The Conjuring” bring Catholic rites and doctrines into popular culture and expose diverse audiences to Catholic ideas. Despite sensationalizing Catholicism or not fully capturing Catholic teaching, these films can still be appreciated for gesturing to the church.
Many Catholics often face a dilemma when pondering if they should watch these films. After all, the Catholic Catechism states, “we have a responsibility of the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them,” specifically “by participating directly and voluntarily in them.” If a horror film does not aim toward the summum bonum, or the highest good, the Catholic viewer becomes ensnared in a web of unbridled evil, violence and nudity. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have all also condemned today’s “culture of death.”
Yet can there be a silver lining to a death-centered genre like horror? Is it worth corrupting one’s soul? John Henry Newman describes “the power of assimilation” in The Development of Christian Doctrine. Newman discusses the development of ideas in respect to the nature of truth: “The stronger and more living is an idea, that is, the more powerful hold it exercises on the minds of men, the more able is it to dispense with safeguards, and trust to itself against the danger of corruption.” Strong systems of ideas can adapt to a culture and environment while maintaining a reliance to anything that may assimilate freely without having to erect limiting firewalls. This remains the case with Catholic truths within horror fiction. Catholics should have confidence in the strength, resilience and vitality of Catholic ideas.
Horror versus Fantasy
However, why assimilate via horror film, especially when there are other less terrifying genres, like science fiction or fantasy? Through possession narratives, horror can distinctively serve the Catholic Church in ways that these genres cannot. Horror rhetorically communicates the existence of diabolic activity in respect to Catholic spiritual warfare. It is the only acceptable genre of fiction in which demonic activity is accepted as normative. While engaging with horror, audiences do not judge diabolic activity as outlandish because the genre often calls for supernatural elements; they expect evil, devils or demons within these stories. Instead, viewers adhere to the fictional vision, suspending their disbelief in the manifestations of spiritual warfare between evil and the Roman Catholic Church. This momentary belief may spark understanding of the truths and power of the Roman Catholic Church.
While the representation of spiritual warfare in works of fantasy fiction, like J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia is possible, horror roots this representation in reality. For example, in “The Exorcist,” the spiritual conflict exists in Regan MacNeil, an everyday girl living in Washington, D.C. In The Chronicles Lewis trades the earthly realm for a fantasy realm, Narnia, where children must step through a wardrobe portal to externally fight the White Witch. Additionally, Tolkien does not even indulge in trading worlds—the entire trilogy takes place in Middle Earth, a separate simulative reality. Ultimately, spiritual warfare is externalized in the fantasy genre, whereas it is internalized in the horror genre. Horror immerses supernatural entities within everyday situations and settings. This immersion more fully represents real world spiritual battles, like Karras’ struggles with faith in “The Exorcist, and thus, more fully resonates with audiences.
Although fantasy revolves around heroism—that is, good protagonists fighting evil antagonists—horror also hinges on heroism, specifically focusing on the fearful elements of courage. In his Lesebuch (Anthology), Josef Pieper discusses the nature of Christian courage, proclaiming that “Christian theology is far from denying the fearful element in human existence […] No heroism whatsoever is able to conquer this dimension, this fear; on the contrary: such fear is the premise for true heroism.” The fantasy genre carries an element of fear; but again, in fantasy, the fear is only indirectly associated with a Christian’s fear within the real world. Horror, on the other hand, directly associates fear-fueled heroism with the real world, the world in which the audience itself lives. Moreover, exorcists and priests are often the heroes in these films. They are themselves appropriately fearful authorities that defend beauty, goodness and truth.
Demons and Spiritual War
Why is it so important that viewers understand Catholic spiritual warfare? Spiritual warfare remains crucial to Roman Catholic teaching. Since the Second Vatican Council, Catholics have often ignored the existence of diabolic activity, resisting “unenlightened” discussions about the devil or demonic activity. However, if the devil is outdated, why have the two most recent popes maintained the devil as a reference within their discourse? In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI stated that the “lack of sincerity” in one’s Catholic faith is “the mark of the Devil”—explaining that Judas Iscariot continued to follow Jesus even though Judas had stopped believing in Him. Pope Francis mentioned the devil in his very first homily as pope in 2013, stating, “whoever does not pray to God, prays to the Devil.”
Horror narratives that involve demonic possession and spiritual warfare invigorate this type of discourse—a discourse that is often forgotten since the Vatican II Council. The discussion of spiritual warfare is a powerful rhetoric for Christian conversion and invigorated Catholic faith. The approach helped me convert at the age of 31—but it has also led to other more significant conversion stories. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, became inspired to convert to Catholicism when he embraced its spiritual warfare angle. Between the years 1521 to 1522, Ignatius read a 1511 edition of Flos Sanctorum (Flowers of the Saints) that contains a prologue by Cistercian Gualberto Fabricio Vagad. In this prologue, Vagad describes the saints as “knights for God” who served the “ever victorious banner” of the “eternal prince, Jesus Christ.” George E. Ganss, S.J., an Ignatius scholar, recognizes that Vagad’s prologue helped propel Ignatius’s ultimate conversion since Ignatius was a soldier who was quite taken with chivalric literature. A second, more contemporary example of Catholic conversion can be seen with Dr. Paul Thigpen. Dr. Thigpen is the author of the successful Manual for Spiritual Warfare and closely identifies with the Catholic spiritual battlefield. In a 2015 interview on Relevant Radio, Thigpen admitted that he personally battled demonic forces as an adult, which led him to convert from atheism to Catholicism.
The entire horror genre does not align with the goals and truths of the Catholic faith. Many horror films promote anger, discord and violence. However, all horror films are not intrinsically evil or gratuitously sinful. The genre offers occasional “diamonds in the rough” that gesture to Catholicism and help evangelize audiences through an appeal to the reality of spiritual warfare. Recently, Pope Francis has increased the number of trained exorcists—so now may be the time to interrogate popular representations of spiritual warfare. Fictional exorcism narratives may be sensationalist and fantastic but they represent a Catholic correspondence to reality that cannot be ignored.