News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The obsession with demonic possession on screen

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

We saw a lot of demonic possession on our TVs and movie screens in 2023, from "Evil Dead Rise"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVIL DEAD RISE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Mom?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mommy's with the maggots now.

DETROW: ..."The Pope's Exorcist" and "Exorcist: Believer."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Wherever those girls went, they brought something back with them.

DETROW: But they all owe a debt to the original "Exorcist," which marks its 50th anniversary next week. The Oscar-winning film was a box office sensation that terrified audiences, and it spawned a fascination with demonic possession in cinema. NPR's Marc Rivers has more.

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: Today, many of us know the story - Linda Blair as the possessed 12-year-old girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCIST")

LINDA BLAIR: (As Regan) Make it stop.

MERCEDES MCCAMBRIDGE: (As Demon) Keep away. The sow is mine.

RIVERS: And the young priest, played by Jason Miller, who struggles with his faith on the path to exorcising the demon who's taken hold of her body.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCIST")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you.

RIVERS: Directed by the late William Friedkin, "The Exorcist" became Warner Bros.' highest-grossing film at the time and was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture. It also scared the hell out of people, like these moviegoers interviewed back in 1973.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's probably the grossest thing I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I fainted, like, 10 minutes after the beginning of the movie.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, where the bed was shaking and the beginning when her voice changed - my God, I've never seen anything like it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Did you see the part...

RIVERS: That's because there hadn't been anything quite like "The Exorcist" before, which not only pushed the boundaries of what could be shown and said in a mainstream film but almost single-handedly brought the idea of demonic possession into the public consciousness.

JOSEPH LAYCOCK: What people don't think about as much is how many true stories were inspired by "The Exorcist." So when that movie came out, it led to this huge demand for exorcism.

RIVERS: Joseph Laycock is an associate professor of religious studies at Texas State University, and he co-wrote "The Exorcist Effect: Religion, Horror And Demonic Belief" (ph). He says the film came out at a time when many people thought religious faith was dying.

LAYCOCK: There was a Gallup poll that asked, is religion gaining influence or losing influence? That poll peaked in 1970, with the most people saying religion is losing influence. And of course, there was this famous Time magazine cover asking, is God dead?

RIVERS: All of this added to the many reasons "The Exorcist" resonated with audiences.

LAYCOCK: And part of why it frightened people so badly was this idea of, well, what if we get rid of all the churches? What if demons are real?

RIVERS: Whether or not demons are real, when "The Exorcist" came out, real life certainly felt scarier.

JORDAN CRUCCHIOLA: The nation is reacting socially, politically to the Vietnam crisis. Like, this is a war that is on television, and there are images of horror and brutality coming in over the airwaves.

RIVERS: Jordan Crucchiola is a culture writer and podcaster.

CRUCCHIOLA: And then you have horror cinema that is responding to that with things that are more grisly than have ever been witnessed before.

RIVERS: She says there was a sense of moral and political corruption in the air. Why shouldn't souls also be corrupted? And so a practice many church higher-ups were once embarrassed by soon came back into high demand. Here's Joseph Laycock again.

LAYCOCK: Before that film came out, there were really only about two cases of exorcism in United States history that we have records of. Now there are exorcisms going on pretty much every week.

RIVERS: With real-world exorcisms more commonplace, filmmakers had a reservoir of stories to mine, like 2005's "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which, like "The Exorcist," was inspired by a real-life case.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) We are the ones who dwell within.

RIVERS: Or the "Conjuring" films, which follow the paranormal investigations of Ed and Lorraine Warren.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CONJURING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) What are you guys?

PATRICK WILSON: (As Ed Warren) Well, we've been called ghost hunters, paranormal researchers.

RIVERS: Or from this year, "The Pope's Exorcist," starring Russell Crowe as the chief exorcist for the Vatican. Here's Joseph Laycock again.

LAYCOCK: Father Gabriele Amorth was inspired by "The Exorcist." It was his favorite movie. He became a famous exorcist in Rome, and now he's played by Russell Crowe.

RIVERS: A cycle of life imitating art and vice versa. Michael Petroni is one of the writers of "The Pope's Exorcist," and he says the appeal of a good exorcist movie is elemental, a classic battle between good and evil.

MICHAEL PETRONI: An exorcism film also has the added advantage of the victim and the villain being embodied in the same person, and that's great for any storytelling.

RIVERS: Jordan Crucchiola says there's also often a gendered aspect to these stories. The possessed are often women.

CRUCCHIOLA: You have something coming inside of the body nonconsensually and violating it and inhabiting it and taking it over, and that person is never the same again once they have been penetrated by the evil.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE EXORCIST")

ELLEN BURSTYN: (As Chris MacNeil) I'm telling you that that thing upstairs isn't my daughter.

RIVERS: In researching some of his films, Petroni says he's come across stories and incidents that can't totally be explained. But he says you don't have to take exorcism films literally to find meaning in them.

PETRONI: I think the message in an exorcism film is to always be wary and always be aware that evil lurks somewhere where it doesn't want to be discovered. The idea of the hero or the priest is to unearth the demon, and to have the demon admit that it's there. And once you do that, then you have power over it.

RIVERS: Fifty years since The Exorcist first terrified audiences, the shock of demonic possession may have worn off, but the threat of it still holds power over the popular imagination. Hollywood keeps making exorcism movies, and we keep watching. (Imitating demonic voice) Marc Rivers - Marc Rivers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Marc Rivers