Philosophy Magazine

Review: The Exorcist: Believer

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk
Review: The Exorcist: Believer

by Stuart Gray

(Some spoilers)

I am wondering whether David Gordon Green and Peter Sattler understood the subject matter before sitting down to write “The Exorcist: Believer.” 

They clearly have a great understanding of the original William Friedkin movie. It’s referred to powerfully from their first to their final frame. They have story elements that resonate for those who remember the original. Green, who directs the picture, executes familiar moments of dread early on that were quite effective on the audience. People freaked out a few times. Green even has at least one actor from the original movie in it. This film is a well-made horror film, even though it sometimes seems a bit ponderous.

On a positive note, I appreciated some ways they raised the subject of unexpected evil and suffering. They mention these in a careful way that will relate to people. They also attempt to give a perspective on evil and suffering that (while it is inadequate – more in a moment) at least is thoughtful and seems well intentioned. This has distant echoes of William Peter Blatty, writer of 1973’s “The Exorcist” and devout Catholic. I also like the fact that Christianity is represented in this film. Now – I would argue the church is shown to be wholly inadequate, impotent, and lacking in any agency here. But at least it is there, and Christian people are active and part of the resolution to the crisis that unfolds.

There is also encouraging evidence that Green and Sattler researched demonic possession. At least one element in this story has been lifted straight from accounts I’ve read from experienced medical doctor, and psychologist Richard Gallagher.[1]

But here’s where I come to a fundamental and serious misunderstanding at the center of “The Exorcist: Believer.”

I worry that it could potentially have dangerous implications for the audience were they to take its dumb message seriously. On the one hand, Green and Sattler want us to know that the demonic realm is a real one. Demons exist whether or not we believe in them, and they hate people. I think Green and Sattler are right to say that. But on the other hand, their stated solution to the problem of demonic possession seems to be – the love of a parent for their child. This is a big problem for me. Why?

1 – In the original movie, part of the dread and the horror related to Chris MacNeil’s powerlessness to help her daughter Regan in their shared situation. Chris loved Regan, but this made no difference to the demon, or to her daughter’s plight. A parent unable to help a suffering child is a terrible thing to see. Green and Sattler’s tale lacks this central dilemma.

2 – If demons exist (I think they do based on scripture + contemporary professional accounts) and if demons hate people (I think they do based on the same evidence) then why would they be defeated by a parent’s love for their child? Human love isn’t a weapon against the demonic. Rather, it’s one weapon the demons use against us. They hate us, and so they use everything at their disposal to make us suffer. We see this in the New Testament, in Richard Gallagher’s work, and even in Blatty’s original “The Exorcist”. Because Green and Sattler’s demon is vulnerable to human love, it is clearly the dumbest demon on the block. But I don’t think real demons are dumb. They have existed for thousands of years, and they know just were to get us and how. This movie paints a real threat as an idiot. That’s unwise.

3 – But there is worse to come. Green and Sattler have unwittingly set up possible conditions that could lead to demonic influence in gullible people’s lives. At best, that’s irresponsible. How have they done this? They’ve told us that our love for the living and the dead is powerful, and solves all problems. This would be dangerous if it led unwise audience members to attempt to contact dead loved ones who they love. Why dangerous?

The evidence would suggest that demons are real – and they don’t give a hoot what we think and feel about anyone. In the past, people turned to spiritualism and Ouija boards as a way to make contact with dead relatives. They did that because they loved these people and missed them. There was a resurgence of this practice during the First World War, and it has been on the rise again more recently. Reportedly, there’s sometimes an initial sense of connection to the deceased. Yet this is followed by destructive and harmful events in the life of the grieving and budding spiritualist. I would argue that this suggests if we go looking to speak to the dead, we will only encounter demons who pose as our loved ones, and want to mislead and harm us. Green and Sattler’s message – human love conquers all – is like sending you into battle without any defence or weapon at all. On the one hand – demons are real – on the other, we can take ’em guys! I’m wondering why they would send such unwise and mixed messages in this movie?

Finally, while I found parts of the movie’s climax touching, I also found it deeply unsatisfying. Green and Sattler want us to believe that human love conquers all, and all God can expect of us is to do our best to keep going in our lives and keep loving people. That’s all God can expect of us when it comes to us being good enough for heaven after we die. Right? Loving people is good, but the God bit here is exactly wrong. 

Blatty was closer to the truth of the matter in the original “The Exorcist”. Demons want us to think we’re not good enough to receive God’s love. That’s why he said the child was possessed – to make us think we are animals. But the demon is wrong. God loves all people, we are precious, made in his image. He wants us to know him. Life is not about being good enough for God. It’s not human love that conquers all. Rather, it’s Jesus Christ’s love that defeats the power of man’s freely chosen rebellion against God. For those who decide to put their trust and belief in Christ, a future in heaven is assured. Human love is not the solution, it’s an important signpost towards the powerful love that God has for people. That’s where the true eternal hope lies. “The Exorcist: Believer” mistakes the signpost for the true thing. And it underestimates the threat of the demonic in people’s lives. I would argue – William Peter Blatty made neither of these mistakes.

“There is more than enough room in my father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you…I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the father except through me.”

John 14:2, 6, NLT

“You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.”

James 2:19, NLT

[1] Richard Gallagher, Demonic Foes: My Twenty Five Years as a Psychiatrist Investigating Posessions, Diabolic Attacks, and the Paranormal, (2020).

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