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Hollywood’s fascination with exorcism

Fr Cataldo Migliazzo, who appears in the film Deliver Us, performs an exorcism

In 2016, Fr Francesco Bamonte, president of the International Association of Exorcists, said that “the way in which evil, demonic possession, the prayer of exorcism and liberation” are presented in film and television was “disappointing and unacceptable”. His main criticism was that fictional portrayals of exorcism tend to exaggerate human and satanic power over God.

The slew of films depicting demonic possession that have appeared over the decades can, of course, be traced back to William Friedkin’s classic, The Exorcist. The influence of that movie, released in 1973, can be seen throughout the horror genre, from Rosemary’s Baby to Paranormal Activity. The current headline-grabber Bird Box, with its story of mass suicide triggered by the sighting of a malignant spirit, is the latest to owe a debt to it.

Of course, the films influenced by The Exorcist vary considerably in quality, and I’m sure that Fr Bamonte has a point about many of them, particularly The Exorcist’s own dire sequels. Yet I do hope he didn’t have Friedkin’s original masterpiece in mind when voicing his disapproval. Almost half a century after its release, The Exorcist remains an exceedingly powerful film. It brings William Peter Blatty’s novel about a possessed girl and the Catholic priest who tries to rid her of the Devil to the screen with a huge amount of style as well as substance. It was not the first picture to portray demonic possession, but it remains the most important cinematic depiction of it, and is possibly the greatest horror film of all time, achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim, winning Oscars for best adapted screenplay and best sound, plus a nomination in the best picture category. Not only is it a consummate exercise in psychological horror, but it is also founded on serious theological ground, dealing sincerely with the spiritual battle between good and evil.

As Kate Kingsbury and Andrew Chesnut point out on these pages, the demand for exorcisms is on the rise, so it’s not surprising that documentaries on the subject have started popping up. Notably, Friedkin has himself returned to the subject with The Devil and Father Amorth, which has just been released on Netflix. The film follows Fr Gabriele Amorth, who served as the Diocese of Rome’s exorcist for more than 30 years, and includes an extended scene in which he attempts to expel Satan from a young woman who believes herself to be possessed.

Another recent documentary, which has garnered less attention, is Federica Di Giacomo’s harrowing and melancholy Deliver Us, which was released in 2017. Di Giacomo embedded herself in a small Sicilian parish whose priests were dealing with huge numbers of people demanding to be exorcised.

Revisiting The Exorcist is always a worthwhile exercise, but Deliver Us is the film to seek out if you want insight into what is an increasingly disturbing modern phenomenon.