Faith is a fragile thing. So much so if we could actually hold it, we’d have to handle it with care like a carton of eggs. That fragility is much more tenuous when it comes to institutions we believe in. Whether it’s government, marriage, or religion.
The Exorcist is a lot of things. One of the scariest movies of all time? Of course. A horror classic? Most definitely. Possibly the most controversial piece of horror ever put on celluloid? Absolutely. But beyond the spinning heads and crab walks is a story about a man’s shattered belief system getting restored, one step at a time.
Religious leaders, parents, and anyone with enough pearls to clutch said the movie insulted everything they believed in. In reality, The Exorcist is a powerful statement about the nature of faith and one of the most pro-religious films in history.
Way back when in the ‘70s, William Friedkin’s horror film was decried by more than a few. Reverend Billy Graham said, “the Devil is in every frame” of the movie. It became more synonymous with reactions to the film rather than the movie itself. Critics were, shall we say, less than kind, with Pauline Kael taking the fight to the Catholic Church for even allowing the film to be made. The outrage blinded some to the movie’s depiction of true believers.
Father Karras and Father Merrin aren’t the perfect people we’re led to believe religious leaders are or should be. In particular, Karras is broken the minute he shows up on the screen, suffering a severe faith crisis. For some, doubting the existence of God is a big no-no, punishable by extreme shunning. That perspective misses the fact that believing in anything is a daily battle. Karras doubted the existence of God and lost faith in the Church as an institution. Karras isn’t portrayed as pristine because he’s human. And questioning one’s own beliefs is possibly the most human thing to do.
You’d think the person examining everything he learned and devoted his life to would absolutely be the wrong person to exorcise a demon. Much less exorcise the Devil. But Karras’ decision to invoke the power of Christ is based on his desire to see if Christ even exists. He has no idea why a just and merciful God would take away his sweet mother or allow Lucifer to enter into the body of an innocent child. Karras wants to know why bad things happen to good people. It’s something we’ve all asked ourselves, regardless of what God we pray to. If we even pray at all.
There is a fundamental belief in our society that good behavior begets good results. The Exorcist says while this is true in the end, it’s not a comfortable journey. Sure, the movie could make the same point using a “shining” example of the clergy. Still, the potency comes in watching Karras rebuild himself and his beliefs, one painful step at a time. And without witnessing that journey, everything that happens in Regan’s bedroom during the third act would lose its emotional context and thematic strength.
Christians are told to be willing to lay down their lives as Christ did. The priest-turned-doctor-turned-priest offers up his body for demonic hosting duties and leaps to his death. There’s no indication Karras regains his fuzzy feelings for the institution. Still, he does rediscover his belief in the reason said institution exists. Government buildings, office buildings, places of worship? They’re just another set of four walls in some part of your town. What truly makes those places unique is the reason people choose to keep coming back. Dr. Damian Karras found his reason to come back and die as Father Damian Karras. Yeah, it’s not as sexy as pea soup or spooky subliminal images, but then again, what is?
The Exorcist is as spiritually uplifting as it is terrifying, making it that much more an incredible work of art.