On screen exorcists

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.




14 Responses to On screen exorcists

  1. Prince Shabalabadingdong says:

    I like that you stated the Agnostic was more open to the possibilities of God than the Mormon who is a devout believer. I have come to learn in my own experiences and my class studies that those who do not believe in God are more inclined to be influenced by miraculous acts than those of us that already believe in God. This is because believers expect a certain picture of God and what He does. When something else happens that could be spiritual in nature we tend to dismiss it because of that predetermined experienced. While those that have no spiritual background are more inclined to believe it because they have no expected experience. It is because of this that I believe that those of us that are not spiritual in nature have more potential to be spiritual than those of us that already have faith. This applies directly back to your other point about high school freshmen who discuss supernatural things more openly than adults because as young adults we do not have a solid mindset yet.
    I do however, have a question about your article. Earlier, you said, “God, evil and the supernatural”. God is obviously good and evil is evil. Since these are the two ends of the spectrum, does that mean that supernatural lies somewhere in the middle? If so, is it because we cannot explain what exactly it is or because we refuse to categorize it under either.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Prince S., Good question. By “supernatural” I don’t mean something between evil and good. “Supernatural” just means something that can’t be understood using a “natural” material explanation, something beyond the material universe.

      So supernatural could be good, like a miracle, or evil, like demonic possession.

  2. El Pensador says:

    I very much agree that people should keep an open mind about the world. God Himself seems to some like a pretty abstract concept, but nevertheless, He is all around. Recently, I’ve been opened up to the concept of freedom from a more theological perspective, so I found what you said about high schoolers being more open in their questions than adults very interesting. Social pressure really does make it hard to be free and keep an open mind.
    Still, I also think that some things are not so debatable, and that media such as horror movies should not be taken so seriously. Even though they might bring up new questions, they are still entertainment, whose purpose is to entertain, not to give the right impressions about a subject. Also, I would argue that there is room in some situations separating facts from faith is not necessarily evil. Science has taught us much about the universe, although not from a religious perspective. Also, separation of Church and state, protected by the Constitution, keeps religion out of public schools. This creates a more tolerant learning environment. Both facts and faith are important, it seems a stretch to suggest that facts are of the devil.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      El Pensador, Right about the entertainment value of movies. I’d say they’re sometimes (but not always) good for raising questions, but rarely good for answering questions. In fact, sometimes people are gullible and believe what they see on screen (such as the “Da Vinici Code”) and end up believing all kinds of absurd things as a result.

      The examples of separating “fact” from “faith” are very interesting and probably more complex than you realize. Even a scientist who doesn’t believe in God brings with him a certain amount of faith — for example, faith that the universe is knowable and can be understood. Faith in these ideas can’t be proven, but it must be understood if one is to do science.

      Science studies only material phenomena, which is an entirely reasonable thing to do, a way of limiting the field of inquiry in order to be more precise. It would be a bit like a geographer studying only the state of Wisconsin; he can learn more about his field of Wisconsin than if he tried to study every place in the world. But he can’t conclude from his studies that Wisconsin is the only place in the world that exists, nor that it’s the only place worth studying. If he tried to do that, he’d be not a very good geographer. And if a scientist tried to conclude from the fact that he studied only material phenomena that nothing beyond material phenomena exists, he’d be not a very good scientist. And, yes, I think that would be a type of evil.

      Your other example is also very interesting. Do you know where the phrase “separation of Church and state” is found in the Constitution? I’ll give you $100 if you can tell me. (It’s not.) The Constitution says that Congress can’t establish a religion as our state religion and it can’t prohibit people from practicing their religion. Sometimes the phrase “separation of Church and state” is used to prevent people from freely expressing their religion in public, for example by prohibiting them from wearing religious items (a cross or a head scarf) in school or preventing them through social pressure or even punishment from expressing religious opinions in the classroom. And, yes, I think that too is a form of evil.

      Thanks for raising these excellent questions.

  3. Frank Narrarnolie says:

    This article has brought back many memories from biblical literature, including many freshmen asking extensively about exorcisms. As you mentioned, I like the fact that kids ask questions. In his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” Pope Benedict states that we must know the whole truth. In this same way I believe people should not be ashamed to ask about the unknown. What are your (and other Jesuits’) beliefs about exorcism? Do you (and other Jesuits) believe in the “supernatural” aspect of possession, or is it just seen as a sort of mental condition or phase of disorder within a person?

  4. Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

    Ask Mr. Shelton and Mr. Krall! Just kidding. I can’t speak for all Jesuits. I know of some who think that the exorcism stories from the Gospels can be explained as stories of mental illness. I know of others who have participated in exorcisms themselves.

    As for myself, it doesn’t seem to me that mental illness accounts for the stories of exorcism from the Bible. So, yes, I do believe in the possibility of possession, though I’ve never had any experience with it myself (that I know of) and hope I never do. And I certainly do believe in the devil, an evil spirit who opposes our human happiness.

  5. Sleeping Snorlax says:

    You make a great point stating that younger minds ask more probing questions that would seem innapropriate to most adults because they are still naive. But that is true, most children say whats on their mind freely without concern of what it could mean to others. Like when a child hears their parent say something at home and then one day at the super market the child out of nowhere blurts out,”Whats herpes?”

    But the one point I can not get on the same boat on is that an agnostic is more open to God’s intervention. To me this does not seem right because they do not know what to believe in, so how can they believe in this one instance. Is he finally humbling himself before God and accepting his will? Has he finally found the faith that comes from praising God’s name? I don’t know, but an agnostic cannot hope for a miracle until he chooses to believe in God.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Sleeping, Yes, I see your point. I don’t think that agnostics are always more open to believing in the truth than believers. In fact, usually the opposite is true. My point was just that that’s what happens in this particular movie.

      What is really needed to discover the truth is humility. In this particular movie, the agnostic happened to have more humility than the self-satisfied Methodist.

  6. John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt says:

    I liked your connection to last week’s gospel. It put this topic into a whole new perspective. Through personal experience I have found that many times those who need the most help are more faithful. Do you think that would be a possible reason that people who have exorcists performed on them are willing to give up their body in order to cast off the devil?

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      JJJS, I’m not sure how to answer your question since that particular detail — giving up one’s body to cast out the devil in the exorcism — might just be a fictional device the movie uses. Even though both the Exorcist and The Exorcism of Emily Rose are based on actual events, they’re still just movies and include lots of made-up details.

      I think usually, if they are really following Jesus, people of faith realize that they need God’s help. We all need it, whether we’re believers or not, but having the humility to ask for God’s help is what separates the believer from the non-believer.

  7. Qualis Rex says:

    First, I don’t think I’ve seen such daring nomenclature of posters since the “rate my pet’s outfit” website of 2002.

    Regarding the caliber and range of theological questions of highschoolers, I’d definitely concur. But I think the key here is that when such questions which range from the “cute” to the “provocative” are asked, it is extremely important to provide the structure and guidance to allow them to arrive at the correct train of thought if the answer itself is absent. When I was in Marianist (who are actually one of the few orders whos liberal tendencies would make the most radical of Jesuits blush, IMHO) Catholic HS, our squat, mustachio’d lay “religious” instructor (think “Welcome Back Kotter”) was fond of acting “cool” by saying scurrilous and heretical. After class, we’d have the odd discussions which often followed with “maybe he’s right. I mean…it could have been like that. How do we really know?” And at the time, while I knew what this instructor was saying was wrong, I just didn’t have the theological armaments to respond or protest (such was the value of a Marianist “religious” education).

    I guess my point is that it is of course natural that kids of all ages ask the theological questions that we as adults wouldn’t ask. But maybe it’s not because we as adults lack the courage or openess to ask them, but rather if we are lucky, we have been set on a path where we can now distinguish what is possible from what is just absurd. For instance, if I was walking down the street and saw a blue, multi-armed figure of Shiva hovering in front of me, it simply would be beyond the realm of my mind to grasp that this were really a deity appearing before me. Most likely, I’d think I’d eaten a halucenogenic pickle from the last deli sandwich (no pun intended) I’d eaten, or at worst that this were some demonic vision. But I sincerely would not be able to grasp this vision of a Hindu deity was a reality.

    Whether that makes me “open” or “closed” is of course a matter of opinion.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:

      Qualis, Right… just being “open” in and of itself is no particular virtue. As St. Ignatius would remind us, there are two spirits which act on us, good and evil.

      The process of growing in wisdom is learning to distinguish between the two and being open to the first, not the second.

      • Qualis Rex says:

        Antuneddu, that’s just soooOOOO like you! Qualifying and supporting your statements with actual facta snd quotes. You take all the fun out of arguing emotionally when you bring reason into this!

        : P

        Buona festa dei morti.

  8. […] Exorcist movies.  Hollywood may get most things wrong, but at least it understands that when confronting the […]

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