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The Exorcist

On the great film of Georgetown.


As a Jesuit and as a Georgetown alumnus, I am pleased to claim a double connection to The Exorcist. Fifty years after its initial theatrical release, William Friedkin’s film remains one of the best and most credible cinematic depictions of the Society of Jesus, with Jason Miller’s angst-ridden Jesuit psychiatrist Damien Karras and Max von Sydow’s veteran exorcist Lankester Merrin representing two of the most perfectly realized clerical characters in the history of cinema. Set and filmed on the campus of Georgetown University and in the surrounding neighborhood, The Exorcist also enjoys a unique place in the hearts of many students and alumni. In order to honor and perpetuate this bond, the film has long benefited from an annual campus screening on the night of Halloween, introducing new generations of Hoyas to a now-august Hilltop tradition.

A product of the tumultuous years following the Second Vatican Council, The Exorcist also reflects some of the tensions of postconciliar Catholicism. Father Karras represents the stereotype of the “new” Jesuit priest formed in the 1960s, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who discounts the reality of the supernatural and sees exorcism as an archaic ritual rendered obsolete by modern science. By contrast, Father Merrin represents the “old” Jesuits and the old Church, at once courtly and austere, always unflinchingly certain that the Enemy he faces is very real. The differences between the two Jesuits cannot be reduced to a simple conflict between tradition and modernity: Merrin, like Karras, is a man of science, who first appears while taking part in an archaeological dig in Iraq, where the elderly priest receives a premonition of the confrontation that awaits him on the other side of the world. But whereas Karras places his faith in technological progress, trusting in the promises of psychiatry, Merrin recognizes that unaided human reason cannot solve all of the problems of the soul.

The Exorcist is a quintessentially Catholic film that takes a sober look at the reality of evil and offers a challenging representation of sacrificial love. The heart of the film’s message comes in a quiet scene between the two exorcists, one that was cut from the film’s theatrical release in 1973 but restored in the director’s cut released in 2000. While resting during their efforts to exorcise the demon from the young Regan MacNeil, Fathers Karras and Merrin sit in silence outside the girl’s room. Having struggled throughout the film with his own crisis of faith, Father Karras breaks the silence to pose a question that serves as an eloquent summation of the mysterium iniquitatis: “Why this girl? It makes no sense.” To this, Father Merrin sagely replies, “I think the point is to make us despair—to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.” Faced with the reality of evil, we are tempted to deny the essential truth about ourselves—that we are made in the image and likeness of a loving God who desires eternal union with us. As Father Merrin recognizes, the true response to existential despair is to reaffirm our faith in God and to follow the example of self-sacrificing love offered by Jesus Christ; the film’s two exorcists ultimately do this in a striking and even shocking way, giving up their own lives to save Regan’s.

Cut from the film and then restored, the “why this girl” scene also reveals something of director William Friedkin’s own ruminations regarding the questions at the heart of The Exorcist. Friedkin eliminated the scene despite the protests of the screenwriter William Peter Blatty, upon whose novel the film was based. Blatty considered the brief exchange between the two priests “the moral center of the film” and wanted it in the final cut. Its didactic tone was apparently too on the nose for Friedkin, who justified his decision to cut it by telling Blatty that “I’m not making a commercial for the Catholic Church.” Later statements by the director suggest that Friedkin’s decision to restore the scene for the film’s rerelease was in part the fruit of his own spiritual reflection. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Friedkin abandoned his ancestral faith as a young man and for many years identified as an agnostic. Nevertheless, in interviews given in the last decade of his life Friedkin made somewhat equivocal statements regarding Christian belief (“I strongly believe in the teachings of Jesus”) and expressed an appreciation for Catholic ritual that included praise for the “moving” and “powerful” experience of attending Mass. Friedkin also insisted that The Exorcist was not a horror film but “a story about the power of Christ and the mystery of faith,” going as far as to claim, in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano in 2019, that “I made that film, as [William Peter Blatty] did, to spread the Gospel.” Though Friedkin’s rapprochement with Catholicism stopped short of formal conversion, the director clearly embraced the inescapably Catholic dimension of his greatest film.

For my part, I cannot think about The Exorcist without also thinking of Father Tom King, a Jesuit who taught theology at Georgetown from 1968 until his death in 2009. Father King’s influence on generations of students was such that, in 1999, the student newspaper The Hoya would anoint him “Georgetown’s Man of the Century.” Father King’s impact was felt not only in the classroom but also—indeed perhaps foremostly—in the late-night Mass that he celebrated six nights a week, by candlelight and with great reverence, for nearly all of his four decades at Georgetown. Father King helped to inspire many priestly and religious vocations, including my own; he was also connected to The Exorcist, having been asked to bless the set during filming and having enjoyed long conversations with Friedkin and Blatty.

Father King’s involvement with the production of The Exorcist would become a part of Georgetown lore, even giving rise to certain legends. Father King sometimes recounted how, in the 1970s, students would ask him whether he had inspired the character of Father Karras; a quarter century later, students sometimes asked him whether he had been the inspiration for Father Merrin. This anecdote says more about recent history than Father King may have intended: a bit like Joseph Ratzinger, in the space of a couple of decades he went from being judged as a putative radical to being seen as a prototypical conservative, without at all compromising his essential commitments.

Though I have always appreciated the film, I cannot say that The Exorcist had any real impact on my decision to become a Jesuit. Nevertheless, I cannot help but see in the film’s core message and in the witness of its priest protagonists an echo of the values of faith and fidelity that I saw lived out in the person of Father Tom King, whose good example served as a model for emulation. Now William Peter Blatty, William Friedkin, and Thomas King all stand before the just judge. May their efforts to spread the Gospel be credited to them as righteousness.

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Father Joseph Koczera, S. J., teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.