The latest Exorcist installment consists of two girls disappearing into the woods after unknowingly communicating with the demonic realm. Olivia O’Neill’s character, Katherine, whose parents are Protestant, starts to experiment with the occult by speaking with ancient spirits.
The latest exorcist movie, The Exorcist: Believer (henceforward “The Believer”), hit theaters on Friday, October 6, 2023, close to the 50th anniversary of the classic film The Exorcist, which was directed by William Friedkin, written by William Blatty, and released on December 26, 1973. The Believer has a strong cast that includes actors from the original Exorcist movie, such as Ellen Burstyn, who plays Chris MacNeil, the mother, and Linda Blair, who plays Regan MacNeil, the daughter. In some sense, it is a direct sequel since it is the first appearance of Chris since The Exorcist and Regan’s since Exorcist II: The Heretic, and both together since the original. No movie has really followed up on the lives of Chris and Regan. However, there were other movies that further explored the characters of Fr. Damien Karras, SJ (Jason Miller), such as The Exorcist III: Legion and Fr. Lankester Merrin, SJ, in Exorcist: The Beginning and his encounters with the demon Pazuzu in East Africa. (Merrin’s character is loosely based on the Catholic evolutionary theologian and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.)
Setting the Stage
One cannot say that its release is untimely. Aside from its proximity to Halloween, demonic influence and symbolism are spreading more and more widely, in ways that may appear to some as benign, throughout our culture, politics, and educational institutions, including Catholic ones and even the Church itself, as envisioned by Pope Leo XIII. As the old saying goes, “the devil hides in plain sight.” One can easily dismiss the Satanic symbolism used by celebrities like Sam Smith as a mockery of “archaic” Judeo-Christian beliefs, but they are at the forefront of our culture, whether it be movies (Hollywood, Netflix, Disney+, etc.) or the music industry. Likewise, one can easily skirt the emphasis of ‘pride’ on the LGBTQ+ community, which is the first of all sins, and according to traditional Christianity, the one committed by the angel closest to God, Lucifer.
Lucifer (Satan) willed to be like God, and by implication, God himself (Isaiah 14:12-15), even though such a thing would be logically impossible, given that he is a creature and therefore contingent. He thus refused to recognize God as the Lord of all. As a consequence, what ensued was a war in heaven between Michael and Satan, where Satan and one third of the angels were flung to the earth (Revelation 12:4). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, their revolt is irreversible:
Satan or the devil and the other demons are fallen angels who have freely refused to serve God and his plan. Their choice against God is definitive. They try to associate man in their revolt against God (CCC 414).
To be sure, there are countless examples of sinfulness and satanic influence, but one in recent years has become very prevalent in Western society: transgender ideology. One of the prominent aspects of this ideology aside from the mutability between male and female (without ever giving a proper definition of either a man or woman) is the insistence of those who identify as non-binary (neither male nor female) to be referred to in the plural, that is, as “they” and “them” as gender-neutral pronouns. Theologically speaking, this is a blatant affront to God’s creation and the order of things. It is also a mockery of human biology, such as the fact that humans are sexually dimorphic and complementary creatures. Furthermore, it is no coincidence that one of the most prominent depictions of the demonic, Baphomet, which was drawn by the French occultist Éliphas Lévi, is a hermaphroditic (sexually ambiguous, non-binary-like creature with a female upper body and a male lower body) winged human-looking creature with the head and feet of a goat that is decorated with several esoteric symbols.
Unsurprisingly, given these trends, in recent years, there has been a resurging interest in the phenomenon of possession and in the rite of exorcism. Due to the increased demand for exorcisms throughout the world, the Vatican has held courses to train hundreds of priests. The exorcist of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis pointedly stated that “there is a war being waged between Good and Evil. Faith in God will lead us in one direction, lack of faith will lead us in another.”
Podcasts such as Capturing Christianity, Pints with Aquinas, and The Michael Knowles Show featuring guests such as exorcists such as Fr. Carlos Martins, Fr. Vincent Lampert, exorcist expert Adam Blai, and famed clinical psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gallagher, who recount horrifying while also riveting details of their experience with exorcisms and possession, have been indicative of this growing interest.
The latest Exorcist installment consists of two girls disappearing into the woods after unknowingly communicating with the demonic realm. Olivia O’Neill’s character, Katherine, whose parents are Protestant, starts to experiment with the occult by speaking with ancient spirits. She influences her friend Angela (Lidya Jewett) to explore this realm, since Angela is desperate to communicate with her deceased mother. Both girls return three days later with no recollection of what transpired throughout their disappearance. Katherine and Angela are both possessed by demons. Angela’s father, Victor Fielding, played by Leslie Odom Jr., a skeptic and non-believer (hence the sub-title of the movie) of Christianity and the spiritual, reaches out to Chris in a desperate attempt to help his daughter. Chris is now a famous author who wrote a best-selling memoir about her experience with her daughter’s possession fifty years prior. Regan has become estranged from her mother because she has brought her personal and traumatic story to the limelight.
The nostalgic aspect of bringing back characters from the original to the movie is one of its strengths, since it will appeal to those who have appreciated the quality and substance of the original. Although this latest installment emphasizes human unity and perseverance and brings to light the reality of the spiritual realm, it has numerous shortcomings and blind spots that distract the audience from the theological and spiritual substance of the original exorcist movie.
Overtones of Religious Relativism: A Dangerous Oversimplification of Exorcisms
One of the major weaknesses of this movie is its emphasis on religious relativism. This is the view that one religion may be true for a particular culture or person but not for another. Religious relativism counters the notion that one religion can be exclusively or universally true. Essentially, all religious beliefs are an accident of history and circumstance, and for this reason, they can only be subjectively true but not objectively. Under this view, your religion is connected to where you were born and/or the circumstances of your life, not to any objective evidence.
In this vein, the movie incorrectly and repeatedly asserts that exorcisms exist in all cultures throughout space and time and that anyone in any religion who engages in such practices is equally effective. This is a gross oversimplification that can have dangerous consequences.
The Catholic Church has the ministry of exorcism and a stronger history than other religions, including other Christian denominations, in this respect. The Church performs major (solemn) exorcisms, which are only applied in cases of genuine demonic possession, i.e., when a demon is able to exercise power over one’s body. (Minor exorcisms do not imply a state of possession and are prayers used to stop and prevent the influence of sin in one’s life; this may include preparation for baptism, confirmation, and confession.)
Furthermore, Christians carry out exorcisms in the name of Jesus Christ. No other religion can legitimately claim to perform exorcisms under the authority of God incarnate. It is not uncommon for non-believers, those of other faith traditions, and even Protestant denominations to seek guidance from a Catholic exorcist, given the history of Catholicism’s rite of exorcism. The Church considers an exorcism an act of charity and offers it to non-Catholics as well.
On Mocking Christ’s Authority
The movie turns the rite of exorcism upside-down and makes a mockery of the seriousness of genuine possession. First, there is a homogenization of different spiritual practices during the act of the exorcism, bringing people of various faith traditions together in an attempt to exorcise the two afflicted girls. This could be viewed as a type of “secular multi-faith exorcism” involving non-believers, new agers, a woman who is a Haitian spiritual healer (Okwui Okpokwasili), and Protestants. The priest, Father Maddox (E.J. Bonilla), is depicted as cowardly, uncertain, and nervous about participating in the exorcism. Instead, he strangely encourages Paula (Ann Dowd), a next-door neighbour of Victor and Angela, who years ago intended to enter the monastery as a nun but became pregnant and had an abortion (although the word is never used throughout the movie), to lead the multi-faith exorcism, a woman who is not (apparently) in a state of grace and has no preparation for taking such a spiritual endeavour. By doing so, the writers of The Believer depict Fr. Maddox as not just a coward but as incompetent and heterodox, further denigrating the Church and the seriousness of possession. To make things worse, Angela’s father, Victor, a self-professed skeptic, is the one who incites Maddox by saying “the fight is inside,” as opposed to cowering away. They depict a non-believer as having more courage than a priest in confronting evil.
In reality, it is the priest or bishop who determines who is to participate in the rite of exorcism, which is not free for all or an art gallery for people to observe. Not anyone is to be present for the rite, but solely faithful Catholics who will support the exorcist through prayers being recited privately or as instructed by the rite. The lay faithful support the work of the exorcist with their prayers, but it is strictly prohibited for the lay faithful to recite prayers that are reserved for the exorcist. In the exorcism scene of The Believer, everyone is chaotically participating simultaneously without direction. It is vital that the exorcist lead the rite, with everything is being done through the power and authority of Christ. The rite does not rely on the exorcist or anyone else, although they must be in a state of grace and truly have faith in Christ. This is how all can be protected from spiritual harm.
In The Believer, after a period of inner struggle, Father Maddox musters enough courage to come into the house to participate in the spiritually chaotic multi-faith exorcism and, at first, seems to take control of the demons, only for the demons to take control of him and kill him by snapping his neck. This is a mockery of the authority of Christ and the Church. Jesus is not a bystander but the main actor. It’s all done through Christ’s power and authority (Mk 5:1–20). The faith of those participating in the exorcism is the most important aspect. Christ acts through the faith of the Church, the exorcist involved, and the faithful who are present. This scene suggests that it is the demons who are in ultimate control.
Aside from this blatant mockery of the Church and the authority of Christ, the movie panders to political correctness and identity politics. One example is when Chris MacNeil quips that she was not allowed to participate in the exorcism of her daughter because of the patriarchy. Obviously, this demonstrates confusion since the original movie was faithful to the rite of exorcism. Another example is the insistence on not only denigrating clergymen but also making white men like Katherine’s father, Tony (Norbert Leo Butz), appear as selfish, naïve, incompetent, and weak when he falls into the demons’ trap by believing the deception spewed by the demon that only one of the two girls can be rescued from the possession and that they have to choose between the two. In the end, Katherine’s father yells that he chose his daughter, therefore making Angela (a black girl) dispensable. In contrast, Angela’s father, a non-believing black man, is depicted as morally upright, courageous, prudent, and compassionate. Now, this could very well be the case, but it’s a bit suspicious when certain groups in our cultural and political climate are constantly elevated over others for the sake of pandering to political correctness.
What Are We Left With?
The Believer does not live up to its predecessor in any way. It is nowhere in the vicinity of coming close to the suspense, mystery, cinematography, and fear induced by the original. The Believer, unlike the original, will not cause you to lose any sleep or inspire belief out of fear, nor will it incite deep metaphysical and theological reflection. It is an utter theological failure. MacNeil’s character attempts to provide justification for a strange universal faith. It is as if she is a spokesperson for a one-world religion. The solution proposed to possession and evil is to collaborate with whoever, whenever, and wherever without any real direction or object of faith. In the end, The Believer relativizes and attempts to ‘universalize’ faith, evil, and God so much that they are left without meaning. What the movie does successfully is trivialize the seriousness of good and evil, God, and the demonic realm. Christ is rendered impotent and God irrelevant. Belief in other humans is elevated above faith in God’s power and action.
If anything, The Believer shows how much the world has changed over the past fifty years. The movie is symptomatic of the times we live in. The Catholic Church is presented as being in retreat; that is one inescapable truth the movie upholds. However, it’s unsurprising that a movie like this has been released, given the state of the Catholic Church. There is so much division within the Church: cardinals, bishops, and priests who do not follow the truth, and a Pope who permits heterodoxy and fosters corruption. We live in a time where the Church comes down on priests and archbishops, such as Joseph Strickland, who follow their moral conscience and exhibit bravery. The Believer, whether intentionally or not, convincingly shows that the Catholic Church needs to be uprooted from within. We live in a time where many clergymen, including the Pope, either lack the courage, knowledge, or moral fortitude to expose the lies and absurdities leaking from the secular world into the Church. Friedkin’s original movie so brilliantly captured the reality of evil that it functioned as an argument for truth, God, and the Church if one so chose to see it. The Believer acts as a distraction from the truth and God.
Perhaps one of the few redeeming aspects of the movie is the beautiful and heartwarming scene when Regan makes an appearance at the end of the film to comfort her ailing mother. Due to a demon-inflicted wound, Chris is blind. One interpretation of this reconciliation could be that Regan can serve as her guiding light and as a messenger from God to forgive and console her, since Chris has failed in understanding truth, God, and the power and forgiveness of Christ. I am reminded of one of the concluding scenes of the original, which ends with Regan hugging one of Damien Karras’s priest friends after seeing his Roman collar. This action tells us that she was aware at a subconscious level of her deliverance from possession by one of Christ’s representatives, i.e., Father Karras and Father Merrin.
We must steadfastly follow God’s path. In the face of a culture that ventures away from truth and God, we must pray for the Church and all of humanity to steer away from the deception of the enemy.