Sep 12, 2012

The exorcist in the American imagination

What does an exorcist look like?

A Roman Catholic priest, if you believe the movies.

There are exceptions. The very recent Sam Raimi film Possession makes the unusual move of having the demons and exorcists be Jewish. In The Last Exorcism, from 2010, the exorcist was a white-suit wearing Southern evangelical. There are also demon films like the Keanu Reeves vehicle Constantine and the Denzel Washington vehicle Fallen where the hero isn't a cleric at all.

For the most part, though, exorcist movies depict exorcists as what sociologist Michael W. Cuneo calls "hero priests."

Pretty much the entire list of "best exorcism films" has Catholic exorcists. From The Exorcist and it's sequels and prequels to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, from The Amityville Horror to [Rec]2 and The Rite, the exorcists of the American imagination are Roman priests.

But why?

Max von Sydow, as the priest in The Exorcist.
It's not because there are, as a matter of fact, more Catholic exorcists than Protestant. A recent study of the practices of Christian exorcists surveyed 170 who are active, of which only 2.3 percent were Catholic.

Though the sample of the study may not be representative, it still offers evidence of wide variety of Christian traditions involved in what's sometimes called "deliverance ministry." The study found a wide array of Protestants involved in this activity that, when it's on film, is almost exclusively Catholic. There were various sorts of pentecostals and charismatics, but also evangelicals, and representatives from the Reformed churches, the anabaptist tradition, and even the normally liberal Mainline churches. That's not even taking into consideration the various non-orthodox and non-Christian sorts of exorcists.

As Cuneo writes in American Exorcism, there seems to be an across-the-board media bias in favor of Catholic exorcists. Protestant clergy engaged in spiritual combat with demons just, for some reason, doesn't do it for the American imagination. Speaking of the 1980s, Cuneo writes,
"While evangelicals and cahrismatics were expelling demons by the busload without attracting much more than passing notice, the slightest mention of an officially sanctioned Roman Catholic exorcism was all it took to bring the media scrambling to full attention. By almost universal consensus this was the genuine article, the truly epic struggle between the supernatural good and evil. Everything else was pale imitation."
There doesn't seem to be a clear answer as to why this is so. Four possible answers:

1) Catholic imagery is inherently cinematic. 
The material objects of the Catholic faith and the Catholic liturgy simply film well. Crucifixes and icons of saints and the Virgin Mary, chalices and wafers, collars and stoles: these objects immediately convey certain ideas. A concept of "righteous," "religious," or "holy" can be communicated without dialogue, merely by showing one of these objects in a scene.

Contrast a crucifix with a child in a nightgown and grotesque or creepy make-up, and one has, in a single frame, the entire possession-exorcism story.

By contrast, Protestant exorcists are less likely to use religious paraphernalia. There could, perhaps, be a big floppy Bible, or a bit of oil, but the "tools" of exorcism aren't, for the most part, visual but verbal. Kenneth D. Royal found, in his study, that most Christian exorcists use "the name of Jesus" as their primary tool, which would make sense given that 97.7 percent of them were Protestant. A man dressed in normal clothes, juxtaposed with a demonic-looking child, giving commands "in the name of Jesus," is not as cinematically powerful.

There's a point of comparison that can be made here to zombie movies. Garlic, which doesn't give one a power image on the screen, is much less likely to be significant to a zombie film than, say, sunlight, which involves an essential ingredient of film and lends itself to dramatic images.

One bit of evidence to support this interpretation of the predominance of Catholics among the exorcists of movies: in the one notable exception, The Last Exorcism, where the exorcist is an evangelical, there is prominent use of a crucifix in the trailer.

2) Catholicism appears pre- or anti-modern. 
As much as these movies are about battles between good and evil, they are also about a struggle between the modern and the pre- or anti-modern. The struggle between materialist culture (in both senses of "materialist") and the inherent distrust of materialism internal to that culture. Exorcism films specifically speak to the conflict within American culture between science and it's undergirding assumption that this is "all there is," consumer capitalism and its billboard proclamations of everything being for sale, and the enduring suspicion that there's something missing, something lacking, something, as it were, lurking underneath.

Catholicism, with its connection to the Middle Ages, serve as representative symbols of the anti-materialist position. Contemporary evangelicals, being linked more strongly in the American imagination to very recent history and being apparently much more at home with the logic of markets, and much more comfortable with an anthropology that imagines humans as most essentially consumers, don't mark as strong of a contrast with the contemporary cultural order.

Priests, on film, in the American imagination, are something like living dinosaurs, lumbering along in testament to the continued existence of a former, spiritual age.

Seeming in this way foreign, the Catholic priest may also carry the necessary exoticism for a believable exorcist. As religious studies professor John-Charles Duffy wrote, the
"problem with making a 'true story' movie based on exorcism among charismatic evangelicals is that it would be a movie about charismatic evangelicals. It would be a movie about people like those you see in televangelism. It wouldn't be about sophisticated Northeasterners or Europeans. For that reason, I hypothesize, producers would worry that they couldn't sell the story to audiences: audiences wouldn't be able to ... achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to immerse themselves enjoyably in the story. The premise would just seem absurd, as televangelism seems absurd."
The contrast offered here is between a phrase uttered in Latin and one uttered in a Texas accent.

The fact that the Jewish exorcists in Raimi's film seem from the trailer to be Ultra-Orthodox Jews would lend support to this idea that exorcists must, to seem right to us, have some air of pre- or anti-modernism to them, to seem to be hold outs from another world against the movie-goers own familiar reality.

3) Catholicism carries an authoritative weight.
A Protestant -- and, particularly, evangelical -- exorcist would appear to be acting without institutional backing. Fundamentally individualistic, the exorcist would seem to be "out there," and essentially alone. He wouldn't have credentials, wouldn't be taken as having undergone extensive training or have inherited thousands of years of secret tradition.

He would have to vouch for his authority on his own authority.

The way many of the exorcist movies not only involve a priest but also make key references to "the Vatican" points to this. The Devil Inside, for example, is set in Rome. The Rite begins with a seminary student traveling to Italy to take a course on exorcism. They are, then, presented as part of a larger, deeper, broader thing, and thus markedly different from the standard paranoiac.

This relates, in a number of ways, to 2). The Catholic exorcist appears as a participant in an alternative way of life, and thus as offering an alternative to contemporary life, and so when he is also attuned of an alternative reality, he's seen as this representative of another lebenswelt, rather than just as himself mentally ill.

But where 2) could also be achieved in other ways -- a mysterious, Illuminati-like order of exorcists, say -- the institutional backing of a Catholic exorcists does other things as well. The institutional nature of the priesthood means that, importantly, in some sense, Catholic clergy have been vetted.

Whether one is a journalist or a movie-goer, this relieves a bit of the burden of credulity.

4) There's a tradition of Catholic exorcists in cinema.
It is possible that there's a very, very simple explanation for the Catholicism of our movie exorcists. Simple lack of creativity shouldn't be discounted as a real possibility, here. In Hollywood, the tradition of exorcist movies goes back to The Exorcist, in which the exorcist happened to be Catholic.

It's also the case that that movie borrowed a visual style from the Gothic horror genre, which extensively made use of Catholic imagery and visual references.

So maybe exorcists were imagined as Catholic because just exorcists had been imagined as Catholic.

But maybe there's a better, clearer answer? It seems that this is a fixed thing in the American imagination, where exorcists are almost always specifically Catholic exorcists. It's clearly not related to the reality of exorcism, or the experience of exorcisms, but to the cinematic and popular imagination. An answer, for that reason, would tell us little about exorcisms per se, but something that could be quite interesting about the relative cultural positions of Catholics and various Protestant groups, and about how Americans commonly imagine "religion," and what how they imagine an alternative, non-materialist reality would look, if it were possible.

Even in films with evangelical exorcists, such as The Last Exorcist, Catholic imagery is prominent.