If you’re a fan of William Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, or the movie based on it by the same name, you’re probably curled up in front of your television screen these days watching the new Fox series, The Exorcist. Loosely based on the original story, the 10-part series follows the Rance family, the demonic possession of a young family member, and two very different priests who come together to try and save her.
While the series is meant to scare its viewers, as every horror show does, creator and executive producer, Jeremy Slater, says his team wants to do more than that with The Exorcist. Slater spoke to Aleteia’s Zoe Romanowsky about his intentions for the series, what he learned about exorcism from working on it, and what it means to be a tell a good story.
Zoe Romanowsky: What inspired you to create and produce this new television series?
Jeremy Slater: I’m a long time horror fan. I saw the original Exorcist at a very young age and it absolutely traumatized me and it’s still the scariest movie ever made in my book. My agent said they were looking for a writer to reboot the William Blatty novel and retell the story. I thought it was a tremendous mistake… because you were never going to do a better job than the film version… So I went into the room and met with the rights’ holders and argued that and said look I’m not interested in telling this version of the story, rehashing something that’s already been done, but if you want to tell something brand new, create a new story with new characters that’s respectful of the legacy that has come before it but not beholden to it, then I’d love to pitch you some ideas. So I told them about the Rance family, and Fr. Tomas, and they were really excited by it, and immediately saw the potential for it as an ongoing series. The idea of doing something serialized where we could follow these characters through different adventures and different seasons appealed to them. So it was really the right idea at the right time.
The series is based on the novel and original movie, but how will be different for audiences?
There are definitely disadvantages and challenges to telling a story as dark and complex as The Exorist on television, but there are also some really big advantages… We can spend 10 hours with a family instead of two, so you can get more invested in the characters [and what happens to them]. We’re approaching this first season as though we’re writing one long novel (…) which feels like you’re watching a 10-hour movie as opposed to a bunch of stand-alone episodes.
Was exorcism something you knew much about when you began?
Not at all. I watch a lot of horror movies and there have been a lot of terrible exorcism stories in the past 40 years, chasing the wake of the original film. But in terms of really diving in and trying to learn as much as I could, I didn’t even have a chance to do that until after the pilot episode because things came together so quickly. I basically got a phone call the day after Christmas saying, we just got the rights back and you need to start writing immediately because if we film this pilot it’s going to have to film in six weeks and every other pilot on network TV already has a head start on you guys. So we really had to hit the ground running and fake things in the beginning, but once the pilot was written and had a green light and I was in Chicago doing prep for the actual shoot, we had advisors come in — some of them Catholic priests and some paranormal experts. Different people came in to speak with us about the experiences they’ve had, and luckily we were able to incorporate some of their research and ideas into the pilot before we actually shot it.
Did anything you learned in your research surprise you?
I’m a skeptic at heart, a born cynic, so I tend to take every story about the supernatural and paranormal with a pretty healthy grain of salt. Sitting down with these men who were very smart, very rational, but also didn’t seem like they were exaggerating, or trying to sell me a narrative or convince me that something was real… they really described what they had experienced in practical terms, often using medical terminology. And it’s really chilling, no matter how skeptical you are, when you hear someone talk about coming into contact with these alien forces, it’s enough to give anyone second thoughts, I think.
So we definitely tried to ground [the story] in as much real world science as possible, really trying to describe what’s happening to a human body during a possession, tracking what is physically possible and what isn’t, what ways demons tend to manifest their powers, how demonic entities operate in terms of possessing their own intelligence or their own free will or desires. We tried to incorporate the elements that served our story whenever we found something fun, interesting, or creepy, without disrupting our larger story.
How does this series portray the Church and faith itself?
That was honestly the single biggest appeal to me in doing this show in the first place… The Exorcist pedigree. Everyone remembers it being a great horror movie, but it’s a great movie period, a great reflection on spirituality and morality and faith and the nature of good and evil. It’s very hard to make any sort of compelling arguments about vampires, because they’re just fictional creatures — they don’t reflect our lives in any sort of tangible way. But when you get into faith and spirituality and the nature of good and evil, those are questions people wrestle with in their lives every single day and so the appeal of doing a show like this is, yes, on the surface level it’s a horror show and you’re trying to scare audiences on a weekly basic, but at the same time, it gives us a great framework to smuggle in these mature, weighty, interesting themes that you often don’t get to explore in network television.
Why do you think audiences are interested in stories about demonic possession?
I know for me, personally, when I turn on the news and look at the world, I don’t see a lot of hope staring back at me. I see a lot of hate and darkness and sometimes it feels like the bad guys are winning, so there’s something comforting, from a story-telling perspective, to be able to hold a mirror up to society and say look, maybe there’s a reason the world is a dark place, maybe there’s a reason why it feels sometimes like the bad guys are winning. The counterpoint to that is that it’s also reassuring to write characters who are just and moral and standing in the doorway trying to hold back the night, to get a little poetic.
So the idea that, yes, there are evil forces in our world that may be trying to control us, or manipulate us, or destroy us, or simply make us unhappy, feels very relevant to a lot of modern fears. But the idea that there are still good people fighting a good fight is comforting at the end of the day. Because I do want to posit a show that where there is darkness there is also light. If evil exists then good must also exist. And at the end of the day you want to tell a story about hope and redemption, as opposed to a story that is nihilistic or giving up on humanity.
Did making this series change your own beliefs or sensibilities towards spiritual matters?
Not necessarily. I was baptized Catholic, raised Protestant. I definitely have a spiritual background. In terms of telling a story like this, my goal has always been to not create a show that’s preaching or judgmental in a positive or negative way towards religion. It’s really to approach it like a mythology and to try and say, here’s a world just beyond our world and here’s a battle that’s raging right under our noses that we’re not even aware of. But in order to do this you have to be respectful of people’s religion and faith, you have to treat it seriously, you have to understand when you are telling stories in this area you are telling stories that resonate strongly with your audience. So you can’t be glib about spirituality; you can’t be glib about faith. You have to approach the subject matter with the weight and the power and the respect they deserve because these are integral parts of your audiences’ lives.
Your job as a story teller is first and foremost to entertain — to tell a story that will enrich people and make them exited and happy — but you also have to be really careful that you not being exploitative and that you are not treading lightly on what people hold dear. That’s a responsibility that I think we feel very strongly in our writers’ room every single day is to tell something that, at the end of the day, audiences will find inspiring and hopeful even if it’s scaring the hell out of them in the process.
So, when you’re writing something like this, does the process change you, or are you removed from it?
A little bit. In order to tell a show like this you have to have the ability to put yourself in your characters’ heads and in this show we have a number of characters who are approaching faith and spirituality from very different perspectives. So you look at Fr. Marcus who has a strong, unshakable bedrock of faith — his faith is his weapon, his armor, the one thing he hasn’t had any doubts about. And then you look at Fr. Tomas and he doesn’t share that same strength… he has questions about his purpose in the world and whether he’s doing the right thing. And you look at members of the Rance family and some are atheists and don’t believe in the idea of God to begin with, much less the idea of demonic possession. So I think it’s helpful to be intellectually flexible enough that you can hop from one perspective to the next and really tell stories that are true to those characters and their emotions, as opposed to shoe-horning your characters to fit your personal viewpoints and beliefs.
It’s a bit of struggle, but spending all day, every day, thinking about faith, about spirituality, about good and evil, at the very least it gives you a new appreciation for the struggles that a lot of people face every day and how difficult it can be to separate faith from your upbringing, and what you actually believe and why you believe it, and you know, it’s something we wrestle with in the show quite a bit… that look, it’s easy to believe in God when there’s a burning bush in front of you speaking in the voice of James Earl Jones; it’s much harder to believe when God is silent and you have to interpret his messages and figure out what he wants you to do. So I think the struggles our characters are facing are probably the same struggles our audience members are facing and definitely things that I wonder about in my own life.