The Exorcist and Frightening Faith

In honor of its 40th anniversary, The Exorcist was recently re-released on Blu-ray, complete with a director\’s cut and a special little book that has who-knows-what sorts of horrors in it. Grace Hill Media—an organization that helps market largely secular movies to Christian audiences—sent me a copy. It\’s sitting at home now, and I honestly don\’t know when—or if—I\’ll be able to watch it.
See, The Exorcist is the scariest movie I\’ve ever/never seen.
When I was about 16 or 17, I \”watched\” the film with my best friend. He and I would often watch horror flicks together, and the moment felt right (to my friend, at least) for us to watch of the most horrific, notorious flicks of all time. We popped in the tape at about 2 a.m. and, about 20 minutes into it, I decided the story of Regan\’s diabolical bodymate was going to be waaay too intense for me. I feigned sleep for the rest of the flick.
But it proved to be impossible to sleep—what with the sounds of retching and cursing and my friend saying, \”Dude! Did you see that?!\”
\”I\’m asleep!\” I kept saying. But I kept peeking, too. And while I didn\’t see all of The Exorcist, I saw enough to know that the other horror flicks I\’d seen before were mere child\’s play. And I\’ve never quite had the courage (even though I review horror flicks all the time) to re-screen it.
Some may wonder why Grace Hill was involved in marketing The Exorcist—an R-rated movie about a possessed, profane, upchucking pre-adolescent—in the first place. It\’s not the sort of film that most Christian audiences gravitate toward.
And yet, the film—as scary and as profane and as disturbing as it is—has some deeply faithful elements.
The Exorcist book, published in 1971, was based on the real-life exorcism of Roland Doe in 1949, and the book\’s author William Peter Blatty is a committed Catholic. In 2011, he wrote (for Fox News) that the book wasn\’t even supposed to be all that scary. He writes:

That I am regularly hauled out of my burrow every Halloween like some furless and demonic “Punxsatawney Phil” always brings a rueful smile of bemusement to my lips as I lower my gaze and shake my head, for the humiliating God’s-honest truth of the matter is that while I was working on \”The Exorcist,\” what I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story – in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through — and to this day I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale.

The Exorcist (like this year\’s The Conjuring) isn\’t just a goosebump generator: It\’s a film that insists to its skeptical audience that good and evil are real and tangible. That there is both a God and a devil. That there are powers beyond our comprehension, just as the Apostle Paul told us. \”For our struggle is not against flesh and blood,\” he writes to the Ephesians, \”but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.\”
These things are not often dealt with in your average romcom or Oscar-bait dramedy. Of the typical movie genre, only horror allows such an in-your-face examination of these sorts of themes and almost begs for spiritual soul-searching.
In a 2005 interview with Christianity Today, Scott Derrickson (director for the well-regarded The Exorcism of Emily Rose) said this:

To me, the horror genre is the genre of non-denial. It\’s about admitting that there is evil in the world, and recognizing that there is evil within us, and that we\’re not in control, and that the things that we are afraid of must be confronted in order for us to relinquish that fear. And I think that the horror genre serves a great purpose in bolstering our understanding of what is evil and therefore better defining what is good. And of course I\’m talking about, really, the potential of the horror genre, because there are a lot of horror films that don\’t do these things. It is a genre that\’s full of exploitation, but the better films in the genre certainly accomplish, I think, very noble things.

But many Christians, particularly in Evangelical circles, don\’t see horror as redemptive at all. In fact, many believe it\’s a bit of a black hole—leading viewers toward dark and demonic themes. And while Derrickson admits that a little bit of balance is in order, he\’s a little bit surprised that Christians don\’t cotton to horror more.
\”To me, this genre deals more overtly with the supernatural than any other genre, it tackles issues of good and evil more than any other genre, it distinguishes and articulates the essence of good and evil better than any other genre, and my feeling is that a lot of Christians are wary of this genre simply because it\’s unpleasant. The genre is not about making you feel good, it is about making you face your fears. And in my experience, that\’s something that a lot of Christians don\’t want to do.\”
Let me be honest: I agree more with Derrickson than some. And honestly, I like a good scare now and then. I\’m not nearly as apt to watch horror as I was in my younger days, but I still appreciate a well-crafted, creepy movie. I might even watch one tonight while handing out candy.

But The Exorcist? Sorry. Not tonight. There are some fears I\’m not quite ready to face.  

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