This Halloween I thought I’d watch a few exorcist movies. Their popularity in our increasingly secular culture strikes me as an intriguing anomaly. When I taught freshmen at Marquette High School, the exorcism stories from the Gospels inevitably provoked a barrage of questions.
Exorcist movies intrigue in a way other stories don’t because—in addition to the thrill of being frightened—they provide a backdoor into questions of the supernatural. I watched The Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose last week, both based loosely on actual events, and I was struck by the certitude of the unbelievers in both films: the roomful of psychologists in lab coats who tell The Exorcist’s Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn), whose daughter is possessed, that exorcisms sometimes work, just not for the reasons “the Catholics” think they do; and the prosecutor in Emily Rose, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), who pronounces the word “miraculous” with scorn.
The confident rejection of the supernatural these skeptics show represents the conventional wisdom of our culture, just as the acceptance of a world filled with spirits represented—and in most parts of the world still represents—the accepted belief in other cultures. In an interview, Jennifer Carpenter, who plays the possessed girl Emily Rose, said that the movie aimed to send viewers away with “fistfuls of questions.”
The questions movies such as The Exorcist or Emily Rose raise—about the nature and existence of God, evil, and the supernatural—are ones we humans can’t avoid, and yet I think the force of conventional wisdom often makes us reluctant to discuss them for fear of sounding silly. Sometimes, I’ve found, high school freshmen ask more probing and profound questions than adults precisely because they haven’t yet been trained to be ashamed of asking what’s really on their mind. Because exorcist movies belong to a genre—horror films—in which fear of looking silly really isn’t an issue, they can raise questions that would only provoke uneasy laughter in polite company.
And even though they might not be talked about much, I think the questions such movies raise are important. The Exorcism of Emily Rose is structured around the negligent homicide trial of the priest who attended the possessed Emily; the priest’s defense attorney is an agnostic who’s beginning to have doubts, while the prosecutor, Ethan Thomas, is a good Methodist who sings in his church choir and—he tells us—reads Scripture every day. In his closing statement Thomas sketches a dichotomy between “faith” and “facts,” and tells the jury that the courtroom must be a realm of facts—and, therefore, not a place of faith.
If the philosophical tradition of Augustine, Thomas, and others is correct and evil is the absence of good—the absence of God—then such a realm of “facts” divorced from faith looks like a very evil place indeed. (And a realm of “faith” divorced from reason will end up as nothing more than a pantheon of idols.) I’m reminded of a place in The Screwtape Letters where the senior devil says that the “Low Command” has made a strategic decision to remain out of sight in places that consider themselves enlightened; the devils’ work in such places is best served by hiding evidence of the supernatural.
Last week’s Gospel reading—the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14)—provides an interesting lens through which to view Emily Rose’s pious prosecutor and doubting defense attorney. The troubled agnostic turns out to be more open to the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention in this world. Perhaps, in the same sort of paradoxical way, the spooky genre of exorcist movies helps to muck up the strategy of the Low Command.