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How Religion Makes “The Exorcist”

Max-Von-SydowI have postulated elsewhere why a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are essential to good storytelling. I was reminded of that idea while reading this interview with William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who ventures a similar  idea by suggesting that the film worked because he was a believer. Via The Hollywood Reporter:

1973’s The Exorcist, the first horror film nominated for best picture, earned $441 million because its creator believed in God, said director William Friedkin.

“I made that film as a believer,” he said March 26, speaking to students at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television. “The reason that all the sequels to The Exorcist are rotten chunks of excrement [is] because they are made by non-believers. And what they all attempt to do is to defrock the story and to send the thing up.”

According to Friedkin, one reason that the sequels sucked (which is much kinder than calling them “rotten chunks of excrement”) was because their makers sought to “defrock the story.” I’m assuming he means stripping them of genuine religious content or a biblical worldview.

The story’s author, William Peter Blatty, made a similar connection a while back. In his interview with Huffington Post, Blatty responded thus to the following question:

Why do you think the story of “The Exorcist,” in its many forms, has resonated so much for so many people?

BLATTY: I can only guess based on what has been written by others.

Obviously, of course, a popular novel has to be a page-turning read. Second, everyone likes a good scare, so long as we know we’re not really threatened.

And third – and most importantly, I think – because this novel is an affirmation that there is a final justice in the universe; that man is something more than a neuron net; that there is a high degree of probability – let’s not beat around the bush – that there is an intelligence, a creator whom C.S. Lewis famously alluded to as “the love that made the worlds.” (emphasis mine)

So the author of The Exorcist unloads the ultimate spoiler. All that snarling, churning, head-spinning, projectile-vomiting, was about…  “an intelligence, a creator”… “the love that made the worlds.”

Is it a coincidence that both the writer and director of one of the scariest stories ever written / filmed were professing believers? I don’t think so.

Leave it to an atheist to almost muck up the works.

In his interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Friedkin reveals this fascinating account of acting legend Max Von Sydow and how his atheism became a monkey wrench in the project.

During one scene, when his character, Father Merrin, is conducting the exorcism, “He says at the top of his voice, ‘I cast you out, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.’ When we came to that moment, Max froze up. We had this false ceiling that had to crack. We had six ceilings made and we went through six takes that day and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t get those words out. I stood there, kind of paralyzed. I ordered six more ceilings and we came back a day later. Same result. On the third day, I called Bill Blatty, who wrote the novel and the script. I said, ‘Please look at these [takes].’ He sat down in a room and he looked at them and he said, ‘You’re right. They’re awful. He doesn’t believe what he’s doing.’ We were going to re-write the script and have von Sydow die in that moment. We went in to see von Sydow, who was a very simple man. I said, ‘I’ll bring Ingmar Bergman in here to direct this scene with you.’ He said, ‘No it’s not a matter of Bergman. I just don’t believe in God.’ ”

Von Sydow’s atheism prevented him from convincingly renouncing an evil spirit “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The film worked only when Von Sydow believed what he was saying.

It’s an interesting window, I think, into perhaps the greatest horror film of all time. It may also be a reminder how a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are essential parts to a good horror story.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Jill April 2, 2014, 8:03 AM

    An atheist who doesn’t want to call on the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit even while acting? That sounds like a man who is either superstitious, or willing to stick to his religious principles.

  • D.M. Dutcher April 2, 2014, 8:35 AM

    Yeah, I think the problem is that atheists either try to engage you with intellectual horror, or they rely too much on gore and shock. Both of these you can quickly develop a tolerance for, but a religious believer gets the sense of dread and the numinous that makes for long-lasting fright.

    I think the intellectual horror aspect is why I find so little of modern horror frightening. “Oh, everything is meaningless, the skies are empty of any God that cares, etc…” Even as a nonbeliever, you had to make your peace with this early on, and you build reasons why you can still function in spite of it. You get a tolerance fast, but it’s harder to get that for the quasi-religious ideas of corruption, possession, or dread of defiling a holy/unholy place. They are surprisingly powerful.

  • John W. Morehead April 2, 2014, 8:59 AM

    Thanks for addressing what many Evangelicals stay far away from. Billy Graham even went so far as to say that evil was in the celluloid of the film itself. For another perspective on what contributed to the success of the film due to the culture of the time see http://www.theofantastique.com/2009/10/27/joseph-laycock-the-exorcist-secularization-and-folk-piety/.

  • jed April 2, 2014, 9:27 AM


    I have often been struck that gothic/horror/vampire genre is one of the only types of Hollywood film that allows a visible part of Christianity to intrude and to be an integral part of the story where it is NOT being type-cast as the fool or the villain, but rather, the hero. We get priest, cross, cathedral, calling upon the Name of God, and a strong juxtaposition against the forces of darkness.

  • JD Norvell October 24, 2016, 5:40 AM

    Max Von Sydow is my favorite actor, he is in the same league as Olivier and Burton. I was deeply moved by his portrayal of Christ in the Greatest Story Ever Told which I saw when I was 12 in 1965. The next year he played Rev. Hale in the epic Hawaii in which he did a magnificent job as a fanatic minister who was torn in faith and fyare1954@d1954ound his true calling in the end as a servant of a loving God. He was not afraid to say the Trinitarian formula when he baptized the Ali Nui, Malama beautifully played by the late Jocelyn La Garde. I was shocked to hear that he was an atheist. He played a Catholic priest in a film called Hiroshima and all those spiritual films of Ingmar Burden. He has also played a priest in a new film about blessed Mother Theresa. He even played the devil in Needful Things. Your anecdote about the Exorcist and his reciting of the Trinitarian formula was very revealing. Did he finally find faith in that dramatic fight of faith against the devil?
    He is too spiritual in his portrayals to be a true atheist. Rather he reminds me of the great spiritual which I will attempt to paraphrase :
    “Over my head I hear music in the air
    Beyond mine eyes I see emoting on the screen
    Over my head I hear music in the air
    Ear hath not heard, eye may not have seen
    But there must be a God within somewhere
    Not merely just a dream.”
    The kingdom of God is within you. The struggle for faith is hard. When the cloud of battle lifts, the kingdom is still there unshakeable in spite of all. I would like to believe that is the case for Mr. Sydow, In any case he made an indelible impression on me with his portrayal of Christ, I will never forget that and that great acting gift is a blessed gift from God nevertheless.
    Max Von Sydow remains my favorite actor. God bless him. God save him.

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