William Friedkin, the guy who directed the Exorcist movie, has written a rather unreliable account of the activities of an official Catholic exorcist, Gabriele Amorth. I say unreliable because, I’m afraid, he sounds rather confused.
I am an agnostic. I believe the power of God and the human soul are unknowable. I don’t associate the teachings of Jesus with the politics of the Roman Catholic Church. The authors of the New Testament—none of whom, it is now generally believed by historians, actually knew Jesus—were creating a religion, not writing history.
I had no particular interest in the spiritual or the supernatural when the writer Bill Blatty asked me to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.
More than any film I’ve directed, The Exorcist inspired me to the point of obsession each day as I made it. I rejected all constraints, creative and financial. The studio, Warner Bros., thought I had taken leave of my senses. I may have. I made the film believing in the reality of exorcism and never, to this day, thought of it as a horror film.
There is a video of a woman undergoing exorcism. She thrashes around violently, she growls and howls, she curses in Italian. There is absolutely nothing supernatural on display, although it is also illustrated with a still from The Exorcist of a possessed girl levitating. This woman does not levitate. Her head doesn’t spin around on her neck. It’s all sadly mundane and shows a person suffering from some kind of mental illness, nothing more.
So Friedkin takes the video to some real doctors. They are non-committal; this is a problem they wouldn’t know how to treat, they come right out and say “this isn’t demon possession”, they suggest that there isn’t necessarily anything they could do, they agree that religion may be a useful palliative, and they explain that they have a patient with similar symptoms, and “we’re treating her with medication, giving her psychotherapy, creating a safe environment. She gets better.” How does Friedkin interpret this? As an affirmation of the supernatural.
I went to these doctors to try to get a rational, scientific explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, “This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.” That’s not what I came away with. Forty-five years after I directed The Exorcist, there’s more acceptance of the possibility of possession than there was when I made the film.
No there isn’t. It’s astonishing how he imposes his own beliefs on a natural phenomenon. And then he has the confidence to say of Amorth that
He has performed thousands of exorcisms successfully. That makes no sense. Even the specific person he describes in this account he has to admit has been “exorcised” nine times, and at the end of the story is still having these seizure-like episodes. Is he going to call these nine successes?
I don’t believe in demons, but this account sure convinces me of the power of people to lie to themselves. There’s nothing heroic or noble in that, and in particular, there is nothing admirable about a man who uses religion to perpetuate damaging dishonesty about human behavior.