Exorcism is in the news again. Last week, the US bishops’ conference released the first official English-language translation of the ritual textbook Exorcisms and Related Supplications. This comes after numerous reports that requests for exorcisms are on the rise. The growth in exorcism requests was described as “astonishing” in a recent report by a Christian think tank, while over the past decade the number of official exorcists in America has risen from 12 to 50.
This increase in demand is reflected on our cinema screens, too, following the release this week of Deliver Us, a documentary by Federica di Giacomo. The film, which I reviewed in these pages last week, chronicles the struggles of a Sicilian diocese to cope with the vast numbers of people coming to them in the belief that they have been possessed by a demonic spirit. It features footage of a number of exorcisms and is a tense, unsettling and thought-provoking viewing experience.
A similar documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth, will also, I hope, soon get a British cinema release. It’s a film that was screened at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year and piques the interest not only because of its timely subject matter, but also because it’s directed by William Friedkin, the man responsible for the greatest exorcism movie of them all.
The Exorcist, Friedkin’s seminal horror, which tells the story of the possession of a young girl and the attempts by a pair of Catholic priests to rid her of that malign spirit, was released in cinemas in 1973. After its resounding success at the box office, it’s no great surprise that plenty of other possession stories followed it to the big screen, from hokey knock-offs such as The Amityville Horror to more recent “found footage” efforts like REC and Paranormal Activity.
Despite these imitators it is The Exorcist that remains the classic by which all other films of this sub-genre should be judged. It endures because it does more than just provide schlocky horror thrills, although it does this particularly well. For all of the movie’s shock tactics – Linda Blair’s headspinning, levitating and green vomit-spewing (pea soup was famously used for that effect) – The Exorcist is also a masterclass in psychological horror, underpinned by sincere spiritual enquiry. The editor of this magazine, himself a fan of the film, told me that he had a Buddhist friend who watched The Exorcist and exclaimed afterwards: “I never realised that the Catholic Church had power over evil.”
There are also admirers of the The Exorcist in Rome. Fr Gabriele Amorth, who died last September having reportedly carried out tens of thousands of exorcisms, and who is name-checked in the title of Friedkin’s new documentary, is said to have been a fan.
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