‘The Exorcist’: this fall’s scariest new show might also be its most religious

Fox’s new series, The Exorcist” premiering tonight and based on the famous 1973 movie by the same name, is not a remake, but it still affirms that faith is real—and evil is, too.

Alfonso Herrera as Father Tomas Ortega in The Exorcist premiering Friday, September 23 on FOX.

I have a confession to make: even though I’m an entertainment critic—a guy who makes a living watching and writing about movies and television—I’ve never actually seen what many people consider to be the scariest movie ever: The Exorcist.

Oh, I’ve tried. Once. Back when I was in high school, a friend popped the movie into his VCR at about 2 a.m. As the movie got scarier and scarier, I feigned sleep—shutting my eyes to the whole horrific thing.

But I heard it. And that was plenty.

While I haven’t technically watched the movie, I did watch Fox’s new serialized take on The Exorcist, the pilot episode of which airs tonight (September 23). It’s not a remake of the original: the main characters are different, though many of the elements are the same (a possessed girl, an affluent family, a young priest who doubts aspects of his own faith). And, of course, the show isn’t as graphic or as psychologically horrific as the R-rated Exorcist movie from 1973.

But the television show does preserve what both so intrigued and disturbed me about the movie: Its religion.

The Exorcist, as terrifying and as wrong as it may feel, tells us that Christianity is right. And that’s just what William Peter Blatty, original author of the book The Exorcist, intended.”

Even back in high school, faith was an important part of my life, so The Exorcist hit me where I lived—it touched on what I valued (and value) most. The movie is both obscene and profane—so terrifying because much of what we see is so wrong.

But here’s the thing: For the movie and, now, the television show to work, it has to buy into a deeply powerful, deeply religious premise: It asks us to assume that there is real good and real evil in this world. That there are supernatural forces at work. It presupposes that our faith, and our Church, is rooted in powerful, spiritual realities—and those realities are bulwarks against frightening forces that mean us harm.

The Exorcist, as terrifying and as wrong as it may feel, tells us that Christianity is right. And that’s just what William Peter Blatty, original author of the book The Exorcist, intended.

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The Exorcist, 1973. Warner Bros | MoviestillsDB.com

Blatty is a lifelong Catholic. His devout mother instilled in him a great sense of faith. The Jesuit fathers who educated him gave him the intellectual wherewithal to defend that faith. In his acknowledgements in The Exorcist, he credits his English professor Bernard Wagner for “teaching me to write” and the Jesuits for “teaching me to think.” For him, The Exorcist is, essentially, a Christian book. He wrote the following for Fox News in 2011:

That I am regularly hauled out of my burrow every Halloween like some furless and demonic “Punxsatawney Phil” always brings a rueful smile of bemusement to my lips as I lower my gaze and shake my head, for the humiliating God’s-honest truth of the matter is that while I was working on The Exorcist, what I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story—in other words, a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through—and to this day I haven’t the faintest recollection of any intention to frighten the reader, which many will take, I suppose, as an admission of failure on an almost stupefying, scale.

A sermon that no one could possibly sleep through, he says. Pretty interesting, considering how many react to his “sermon.”

I know people for whom works like ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Omen’ actually sparked a healthy spiritual curiosity—people who took their first step toward Christianity because of those movies. And frankly, it’s sometimes nice to see God anywhere on screen.

There are many, many Christians who believe that horror movies and television shows don’t just sometimes portray the demonic: They are dark works in and of themselves. They look at a product like the movie The Exorcist—its grotesqueries, its profanities, its terrible often sacrilegious scenes—and they’d say that a Christian has no business watching such trash. And though Fox’s television show is comparatively toned down, I doubt the reaction would be much different. Horror, for many, is a non-starter.

There’s nothing wrong with that stance. I understand it completely. Like I say, I wasn’t particularly enamored with The Exorcist back in the day, and I’ve never had an urge to discover what I’ve been missing.

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But by the same token, I know people for whom works like The Exorcist and The Omen actually sparked a healthy spiritual curiosity—people who took their first step toward Christianity because of those movies. And frankly, it’s sometimes nice to see God anywhere on screen.

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The Exorcist, 1973. Warner Bros | MoviestillsDB.com

When I look at today’s television landscape, religion just isn’t there. Despite the fact that, according to an ABC News/Beliefnet poll, 83 percent of Americans claim to be Christian, and 22 percent say they’re Catholic, it’s like television believes that faith just doesn’t matter to us viewers at all. Sure, shows like Netflix’s Daredevil or CW’s Jane the Virgin feature characters for whom Catholicism is an important part of them—but those are the very rare exceptions, not the rule.

The Exorcist television series on Fox, for all the discomfort it rightfully causes, goes even one step farther than those other shows do. Not only is faith important to its characters, but that faith is absolutely, uncontrovertibly true. And while that’s not necessarily a reason to watch tonight, I find that underlying message encouraging. The Exorcist is a show where God is alive and active … even if His adversary is, too.

Read more about life on the corner of “Hollywood & Reality” from movie expert and reviewer Paul Asay every Friday. If you have an idea for a future topic, feel free to drop Paul a suggestion in the comments.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay
Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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