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Issue 19


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.

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About the author

Joseph Koczera

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