From The Exorcist (1973) to the newly released The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It, the Catholic horror movie is one of my favorite genres. And, in the many years before I came back to the Church, it reminded me of one thing — when facing the devil and his minions, you go get a Catholic priest.
Bless Me, Father …
Sure, it’s a movie convention, but it also happens in life. In the 1949 events that inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel and film The Exorcist, the family of the possessed boy was Lutheran, and it was the family’s minister that suggested reaching out to a Catholic priest.
One could debate his reasons for that, but I like to think there’s a recognition that, when it comes to fighting ultimate supernatural evil, the Church brings the big spiritual guns.
We have the physical things: vestments, rituals, Latin, crucifixes, holy water, etc. But, over its two-plus millennia, the Church has also retained a strong connection to the supernatural world.
Of course, Catholicism is about Scripture, philosophy, theology, intellectual debates and so on — we have all that in abundance — but it’s never lost its link to the miraculous, even if it’s just in the ordinary and yet extraordinary transubstantiation of the Eucharist at every Mass.
No philosophical argument can get you to believe that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ are really present under the appearance of bread and wine, or that only a properly ordained priest can channel the power of God to make it so. That’s a leap of faith and a recognition that there is more to the world than what we see, hear or read.
So, when you’re dealing with evil powers beyond human comprehension, the ability to make that leap comes in handy.
The Warrens and More: The Importance of Priests in ‘The Conjuring Universe’
As you can see from the photo at top, which echoes the original poster art for The Exorcist, The Conjuring franchise knows from whence its lineage springs (and not just because the Exorcist and Conjuring films are all from Warner Bros. Pictures).
For its central characters, The Conjuring films have laypeople Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), who investigate paranormal phenomena, hauntings and demonic possession. But, they always need a priest to help them, along with sacramentals blessed by a priest, like rosaries, crucifixes and holy water.
The Warrens don’t go into battle alone.
In this latest film, a loopy thrill ride very loosely based on a 1981 case from the Warrens’ files, they’re called in (along with a priest), to help a boy believed to be possessed. In the course of the exorcism, the demon leaps from the boy into his older sister’s boyfriend, who has offered himself up as a substitute host.
When the boyfriend then commits a violent act, he needs the Warrens’ help to prove that he was under a demonic influence at the time. Yes, it really happened (but probably not exactly like in the movie).
Shrieks and scares and satanic rituals ensue.
Where the Real Power Lies
The real Warrens were indeed devout Catholics, although Lorraine’s claims to be a clairvoyant edge toward the New Age (but she did submit herself for testing). Nevertheless, even when their cases are given a dramatic boost for the movies, it’s always the power of Christ and prayer that ultimately prevail.
The same was true in 2018’s The Nun, part of the larger Conjuring Universe films, overseen by filmmaker James Wan. Reviewing it at the time, I said,
On the other hand, in its own ridiculous, shambling, haphazard way, “The Nun” is a testament to the power of prayer and the power of Christ. Prayers and holy water battle the demons, and the Blood of Christ dispatches it for good. Father Burke and Sister Irene don’t have superpowers, it’s Christ working through them.
To Deal With the Devil, You Gotta Believe
Whether it’s The Exorcist (or Possessed, the TV movie based on the real story) and its sequels, or the Omen films, or the better films dealing with demonic possession — like The Exorcism of Emily Rose or The Rite — it comes down to a priest. He may be flawed, afraid, desperate or doubting, but he’s what stands between the innocent and the abyss.
It’s also worth remembering that, unlike many things priests do, the success of an exorcism has everything to do with the power of the exorcist’s personal faith. As in all priestly functions, Christ works through him, but while even a faithless priest can consecrate the Eucharist, baptize, marry and bury someone, he can’t manage an exorcism.
To do that, you gotta believe.
Or, as The Conjuring 3 shows, a priest who loses his way personally and in his faith life can cause terrible harm — all the more reason to be grateful for the good and steady priests among us (and, that’s the overwhelming majority of them).
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures
Subscribe to all that I write at Authory.com/KateOHare