The new supernatural horror flick The Rite, opening Friday and starring Anthony Hopkins, is the latest in a long line of Hollywood films in the subgenre inaugurated by William Friedkin's 1973 landmark film The Exorcist. Movies had explored exorcism before 1973, but Friedkin's film spotlighted the phenomenon in an unprecedented way.

The Exorcist represents a pivotal link between the Catholic-inflected piety of Golden Age Hollywood and the demonic world of latter-day horror. It is also the source of much of our culture's awareness of and ideas about possession and exorcism. Real exorcisms in both Catholic and Protestant milieus proliferated in the film's wake, and its impact continues to be felt in recent films.

The form of exorcism used in The Exorcist is from the Roman Ritual of 1614, which remained unchanged until updates in 1999 and 2004. The film's depiction of the rite and phenomenon of possession, though sensationalized, is fairly authentic. Notable elements include the demon's resistance to exorcism and other ambiguities. For example, the victim writhes in pain when a priest sprinkles her with water—though it is not blessed holy water. Placebo effect? Or is the demon deliberately casting doubt on the reality of the possession, the effectiveness of the church's arsenal, or both?

Casting out demons goes back to the ministry of Jesus, and in cinema, back to the silent era. The 1912 film From the Manger to the Cross depicts Jesus healing a demoniac. Cecil B. DeMille's silent The King of Kings (1927) opens with Jesus dramatically delivering Mary Magdalene of seven demons.

Although the Devil and satanic cults surfaced in films prior to The Exorcist, possession and efforts to cast out demons were rare. But by the late 1960s, ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

July/August
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
Tags:
Read These Next
Current Issue3 Ways to Prevent Bible Study Dropouts
3 Ways to Prevent Bible Study Dropouts Subscriber Access Only
What really keeps us engaged with the discipline of studying Scripture.
Current IssueWhy Christians Are Abandoning the Orphanage
Why Christians Are Abandoning the Orphanage Subscriber Access Only
A new focus on the family is changing how Christians care for abandoned and neglected children.
RecommendedWhy We Need Wonder Woman
Why We Need Wonder Woman
Even when it falters, the new female-led film brings freshness to the superhero flick.
TrendingFinding My 'True Self' As a Same-Sex Attracted Woman
Finding My 'True Self' As a Same-Sex Attracted Woman
In my young-adult struggle with sexual identity, both legalistic condemnation and progressive license left me floundering.
Editor's PickA Walking Disaster
A Walking Disaster
How a hurricane helped me weather my battle with cancer.
Christianity Today
The Devil in Tinsel Town
hide thisAccess The Archives

In the Archives

January 2011

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.