How faith-inspired movies starring the ultimate villain are transforming the horror industry

The exorcism performed by Father Gabriele Amorth on a young woman May 1, 2016 — his 91st birthday — was nothing he hadn’t seen before. As the Church’s leading authority on the ancient rite, he’d performed thousands over the decades and written several books about combatting demonic possession.

Except that this time, William Friedkin, director of the acclaimed 1973 horror movie “The Exorcist,” was allowed into the room with a camera. The result was real-life footage of the type of situation that films like “The Exorcist” (allegedly based on a real case of demonic possession) claim to portray. 

Friedkin, who had never witnessed an exorcism before he shot his movie, turned this experience into a documentary titled “The Devil and Father Amorth,” streaming now on Netflix.

The release of Friedkin’s documentary fits nicely with a recent trend in the horror movie industry, where faith-based stories are becoming increasingly more popular.

The success of “The Exorcist” started a tradition that has been recently revived by “The Conjuring” universe, a series of interconnected films surrounding the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren, controversial Catholic demonologists whose job is to investigate suspected cases of possession.

The series’ latest installment, “The Nun” (now in theaters), a prequel to the Warren’s investigation in “The Conjuring 2,” deploys the same narrative pattern by focusing on a couple of Church investigators. 

A novitiate and a priest are tasked by the Vatican to investigate the suspicious suicide of a nun in a remote abbey in Romania. (Spoiler alert: The death turns out to be connected to the work of the same demon in “The Conjuring 2” faced by the Warrens.)

“The Conjuring” series brings a Christian perspective to the horror universe. This has to do with the real characters on whom the movies are based (the Warrens were believers), and with some of the authors involved in the series.

An initial scene in “The Conjuring” (the second-highest grossing genre film of all time) sets the rule of the games. Two women are concerned that the spirit of a dead girl might be possessing a doll they own. There are no spirits, explains Lorraine Warren. The dead do not come to haunt the living. Abnormal activities should be traced back to the action of the devil only.

Gary Dauberman, who penned some of the scripts in the “Conjuring” universe, makes no mystery of his Christian faith. “The Warrens were true believers and they were strong of faith,” he said in a recent interview. “I think if people can come away thinking there is this energy out there or someone greater than us out there and we need to hold on to our faith, I’d be happy with that.”

Not everything in these movies is compatible with Catholic views of the devil and his undertakings (mediums, revenants, and other stock genre absurdities abound). But in an increasingly secular culture, why are films portraying the devil from a Catholic perspective making such a comeback?  

The uncanny, magical, and irrational (a major ingredient of fear) have always been the stuff of horror movies. What is the advantage of a faith-based setting over more traditional horror stories? What makes the devil and his fighters more appealing — and terrifying — than chainsaw wielding villains or sewer-fed monsters?

An answer would probably have to take into account certain aspects of modern culture. The belief in magic, demons, and the irrational has always existed — Greek and Romans believed in witches, ghosts, and even demonic possessions — it is a part of many cultures.

Catholic doctrine radically dispensed with these ideas by promoting the view of a reality that can be known through reason and of an orderly cosmos where every supernatural power is ultimately subordinated to the rational and loving power of god.

The Catholic position on the supernatural strikes a middle course between two extremes. Yes, there are many things we do not understand. But the invisible world is not a realm of chaos where everything is possible.

This outlook, though often distorted and confused, grants the stories in the “Conjuring” universe some of their attractiveness. It reflects a position whereby the presence of the unknown is considered possible but where a rational approach to reality is not totally abandoned. 

The Catholic perspective adapted by some of these movies offers a corrective to the stubborn scientism of our times, according to which only what can be empirically measured is real and rational, without (entirely) throwing audiences back into the world of ghosts, witches, and fairy tales.

What would Amorth have thought about “The Nun”? On horror movies, he had mixed feelings. He reacted positively to “The Exorcist.” He thought that the movie helped show the devil for what he was: a real, individual actor. 

Such a depiction was a welcome contrast to a dangerous line of thought in modern Catholic theology that conceived of the devil as an abstract concept, a literary device meant to signal the presence of evil in the world.

But Amorth was opposed to the basic assumption on which horror stories revolve: the idea of regarding the devil with terror.

A major difference between horror movies like “The Nun” and the Netflix portrayal of Amorth’s exorcism is his total lack of terror in the latter.

The elderly priest talks to the devil calmly and condescendingly, as if he were addressing a stubborn, rebellious animal. He’s not afraid in the least, and not because he underestimates the devil’s power, but because he’s totally confident and trusting in God’s absolute lordship over the world.

Possession is an extreme case of diabolic action. But there are other, perhaps subtler yet just as concerning effects of the devil’s action in the world.

Pope Francis asked Catholics to pray the rosary every day for the salvation of the Church, concluding with the invocation to St. Michael. The St. Michael Prayer was supposedly introduced by Pope Leo XIII in response to a vision in which he saw the Church attacked by the devil.

Horror movies may help remind people that the devil is a real, individual entity and not a concept. But unlike most of them, “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a real-life reminder to pray with confidence, for that evil power can be conquered.


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