The Exorcist & The Fear Of The Lord

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When I was a student, there was a way of speaking as a Christian that nearly all of us took on board. If something was good – helpful to faith, orthodox, able to tick the doctrinal boxes – then it was referred to as ‘sound’. If it wasn’t helpful, if it seemed to be unorthodox or unhelpful or troubling in some way, then it was labelled ‘dodgy’. What started as a simple piece of conversational shorthand soon developed into a whole-sale dismissal of a way of living, a life’s work or, worst of all, a life itself. A person made in the image of God was simply either dodgy or sound.

Much of that language remains in circulation; it could be convincingly argued that much of the public Christian debate we see today works in these same terms. Sound is good, dodgy is bad. The Exorcist is a film that has long been subjected to this debate, and the verdict is clear. Even Billy Graham spoke of the film’s “genuine power of evil”. Obviously, given the title and subject matter, it must be dodgy.

Over the years, however, I had discovered a number of people I respect telling me the film could not be so easily dismissed. A couple of times I nearly rented the film and then decided against it – I doubted the store would provide a brown paper bag for the discreet carrying of such a film. The advent of online DVD rental was a relief here, though. The postal service carried all the guilt on my behalf, and all the films arrive in a brown padded envelope so nobody would know the difference. However, when I slid the disc into the player it was midmorning on my day off, and I pulled the curtain across my living room window. I told myself this was to stop sunlight reflecting on the screen, though I suspect that is not the whole truth.

So to the film. I’m not going to rehearse the plot in detail here; the essentials are a doubting Catholic priest, another priest who has struggled with demons in the past, and a young girl who appears to be either mad or possessed. Or possibly both. Their stories start off separately, and only come together as the film moves into its second half. If you want a detailed summary, there’s a stimulating and readable chapter on the film in Gareth Higgins’ book “How Movies Helped Save My Soul”.

The DVD starts with a brief introduction from director William Friedkin who points out that the film gives you whatever you take to it – if you believe the world is hopeless, then this is a film about the power of evil. If, he says, you believe that evil can be defeated, then this is a profoundly hopeful film. I was surprised to discover he is right.

It would be remiss not to point out that at times this is immensely disturbing and shocking – the possessed girl (around 13 years old) says and does things that stay with you; as you watch, you think no one should have to do these things, even if they are ‘only’ acting. I suspect that if I had children of my own I could not have finished watching the film. While I still hold to that, and to the fact that it would be plainly daft of you to watch the film if you are squeamish or prone to being frightened, I still stuck with the film. And I was glad I did so. In the end, I felt full of hope, and my faith affirmed in a way few films have ever done for me before. It’s not power religion that saves the girl – all though that helps and is compassionately as well as honestly portrayed. What does save her is an act of remarkable self-giving love, which couldn’t but remind me of Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. The doubting priest finds his peace in a way no right-minded person could commend – he tells the girl’s demons to come into him, and like the Gadarene pigs, he destroys the evil by letting them throw him out the window to his death. It may not be right-minded, but isn’t that the point of the cross too?

There’s so much to commend here. There’s the honest portrayal of the supernatural, achieving a documentary realism lacking in the slightly bizarre depictions of evil in The Passion of The Christ. There’s a willingness to let events and characters speak for themselves – this was based on a book inspired by real events (where fact stops and fiction starts in the source material, I don’t know). If the film feels occasionally clichéd, then it’s only because this is the film that popularised many of the clichés in the first place. There are also many layers of possible meaning, as the director’s introduction points out. Consider, for example, the interpretation (doubtless voiced many times before by film studies types) that this is a film about the fear of female sexuality. A young teenage girl is kept in an out of the way room upstairs as her body undergoes all sorts of frightening experiences  and changes, leading her to do or say things of which she has no control. In this respect the film recalls Victorian gothic fiction and its scarcely repressed sexual passions, portrayed as madness rather than a natural human experience.

The film remains disturbing and shocking. If we do watch it (and we must not feel obligated to do so), it should be approached carefully and with wise guidance. But there is an honesty here that we often lack. When we read of God appearing to His people, He often starts by telling them to “fear not”. This is a film that goes to the heart of fear and asks us to question who and what we fear, and why we do so. It asks us to choose to be either a slave to fear and doubt or to acknowledge that these are a reality but to serve sacrificially anyway. We all hold this treasure in jars cracked by fear and weakness. The choice a film like this leaves us with is whether to serve our fear and failure or depend on the mercy and grace that makes itself known through our own weakness and inability. We may all feel that we are slaves to fear but like the film’s doubting priest, we all still have that choice to make.


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