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Fox’s “The Exorcist”: Can it bring back Catholic storytelling?


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Matthew Becklo - published on 10/07/16

The new miniseries includes all bone-chilling horror of the original movie, and the spiritual elements as well

In “The Exorcist and the Lost Art of Catholic Storytelling,” Nick Ripatrazone of The Atlantic evaluates Fox’s TV reboot of the classic horror film against a backdrop of classic novels written by Catholics in the mid-20th century.

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel – the inspiration for the 1973 film – was, as Ripatrazone explains, “the newest entry in a lineage of critically acclaimed, popular works from Catholic storytellers during the 1960s and early ’70s that transcended genres and styles. They included the comedic and grotesque fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the philosophical novels of Walker Percy, the beat-Catholic rhythms of Jack Kerouac, the flawless short fiction of Katherine Anne Porter, the terse but complex writing of the convert Ernest Hemingway, the parish stories of J.F. Powers, and the farcical storytelling of John Kennedy Toole, whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces would not appear until after his death. Not to mention the affecting novels from international shores by the likes of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Shūsaku Endō, and Anthony Burgess.”

That’s about as high a bar as anyone could set for a TV show. After all, no one flips to Fox on Friday nights expecting to see material on par with classical novels, Catholic or otherwise.

Still, Ripatrazone’s argument is a compelling one. The tradition of Catholic storytelling has since become “barely recognizable”; audiences are increasingly “more skeptical of religion and God”; and pop culture has routinely recycled the “creepy iconography” and “tropes” of Catholicism while leaving “deeper ideas” of suffering and redemption behind. The implication seems to be that this remake of The Exorcist is not only not as meaningful for Catholics – it’s not really that meaningful for anyone.

READ MORE: Screenwriter and professor, Barbara Nicolosi, shares what she’s learned about teaching young storytellers in Hollywood

So is Fox’s The Exorcist an exercise in futility?

Based on the first two episodes, the answer is decidedly no. The show can’t match the movie – I don’t think anyone expected that – and there are a few moments that would’ve looked better on the cutting room floor. But overall, this is a compelling watch that remains true to the original formula.

Alfonso Herrara is perfectly cast as Father Tomas, a young, subdued priest who’s approached by one of his parishioners, Angela Rance (Geena Davis), about what she suspects is an evil force invading her family’s home. Their initial conversation – as well as a later one about the existence of God – is tailor-made for an audience of skeptics and fallen-away Catholics.“Demons aren’t real,” Father Tomas gently explains to her. “They’re an invention of the Church to explain addiction or mental illness… demons are metaphors.” Rance’s response is powerfully Kierkegaardian. “Do you think I don’t know that? Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to sit here and sound like this? But there is a presence. I feel it.” The writers falter in connecting Father Tomas with a renegade exorcist named Father Marcus, but the latter priest’s journey, powered by a strong performance from Ben Daniels, keeps things moving in the right direction. Then the truly bone-chilling stuff begins. There have already been a few moments in the Rance home that are every bit as horrifying as the movie.

Like the original, the show is also respectful of, and immersed in, Catholic spirituality. “When you get into faith and spirituality and the nature of good and evil,” the show’s creator explains in an exclusive interview with Aleteia, “those are questions people wrestle with in their lives every single day…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.” Prayer, preaching, the Bible, crucifixes, and holy water all play an integral part in the first two episodes. In fact, it’s hard to imagine watching two men solemnly reciting the Prayer of St. Francis to combat their own personal demons on any other prime time show.

Despite everything The Exorcist gets right, Ripatrazone is right too: The timing of the show ultimately works against it. What made the 1973 film so scary and shocking was that it represented a limit case for that tradition of Catholic storytelling and its rich understanding of God, the human person, and the spiritual realm. As that tradition and those assumptions faded, the culture nevertheless retained the husk of the exorcism genre. We turned it over again and again for 40 years with The Exorcist II, The Exorcist III, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, The Possession, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and on and on, making it look like the essence of – and not an exception in – Catholic spirituality. (One Chicago priest explained to the show’s writers that this rising demand for exorcism movies has curiously paralleled a rising demand for exorcists – but that’s another story.)

The upshot is an audience that’s really only looking to this genre for scares, not substance, and the creators have set themselves the Herculean task of bringing those elements back together and ramping up the horror element without flattening it.

Whether they succeed remains to be seen – but they’re off to a great start.

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