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The Ultimate Horror Movie Is Really About Heaven and Hell

It is one of those strange accidents of history that the best film ever made about the Roman Catholic Church was directed by a Jewish agnostic. The career of William Friedkin, who died on Monday at 87, spanned seven decades, but to the end of his life, his best-known picture remained “The Exorcist,” a horror movie from 1973 about a demonically possessed girl whose mother enlists two Catholic priests to save her.

Despite the fact that Mr. Friedkin repeatedly acknowledged the essentially religious nature of the film, “The Exorcist” continues to be regarded, like his other signature movie, “The French Connection,” as a genre picture — a very well-crafted one, to be sure — rather than what it really is: an art film premised on the idea that the claims the Catholic Church makes for itself are true — not in some loose metaphorical sense but literally.

When it came out, “The Exorcist” didn’t just shock audiences with lurid scenes of projectile vomiting and spinning heads. It also forced them to acknowledge a tension, most acutely felt in the Catholic Church but omnipresent in Western society, that had grown between two rival conceptions of religion. Is religion an expression of a transcendent moral and metaphysical order? Or is it just another way of pursuing ideals of compassion and social justice, which is how many liberal theologians have popularly conceived it since at least the mid-1960s?

“The Exorcist” came down on the side of tradition. After the conclusion in 1965 of the Second Vatican Council, from which the vernacularization of the liturgy and other changes in Catholic discipline emerged, the church experienced a deepening crisis: a decline in its moral authority, a collapse in vocations and Mass attendance, and a widespread rejection of the supernatural, even by clergy, in favor of a more sociological understanding of the faith.

That crisis was, in a sense, the subject of “The Exorcist.” The film, adapted from a novel by William Peter Blatty, depicted a world in which the modernizing element of the Catholic Church was a source of spiritual weakness, while the old guard sustained the power of the true faith. That Mr. Friedkin compelled modern-day viewers to reckon with a more traditional conception of religion, in all its otherworldly dimensions, is the source of the film’s enduring importance.

In an interview about “The Exorcist” in 1973, Mr. Friedkin was explicit about his intentions. “The film,” he stressed, “is primarily about the mystery of faith.” This was not an ad hoc characterization. The phrase “mystery of faith” is said at every Mass, including the one celebrated near the end of the movie. It is a mystical formula that refers to Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. The phrase also lent itself to the title of an encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI in 1965 in an attempt to assuage anxieties about the status of traditional Catholic teachings in the wake of the Second Vatican Council.

Such anxieties were hardly limited to Catholics — many observers have attributed the demographic collapse of mainline Protestant denominations to their doctrinal liberalization — but their effects were especially pronounced in the Catholic Church. By the early 1970s, when “The Exorcist” came out, the figure of the radical priest, for whom protesting nuclear weapons or the Nixon administration was more important than saying the Divine Office or hearing confessions, was almost a cliché, immortalized in pop songs like “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and films such as “The Poseidon Adventure.”

In “The Exorcist,” the opposition of modernity and tradition is dramatized through the two main priest characters, Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin. Father Karras is a typical clergyman of the modern era, a young liberal Jesuit disillusioned with the priesthood for whom secular learning and even physical exercise have usurped the role of dogma. When the mother of the possessed girl asks him how someone obtains permission for an exorcism, he replies, “I’d have to get them into a time machine and get them back to the 16th century.”

By contrast, Father Merrin is an older, traditionally minded scholar-priest, an expert in ancient Near Eastern cultures who accepts the reality of the demonic and fears it. He is an embodiment of what Pope Benedict XVI once called the “hermeneutic of continuity,” a refusal to regard the 1960s as the beginning of a new divine dispensation.

The movie suggests that Father Karras’s ambivalence about the church has morally compromised the way he sees the world. When he encounters a homeless man who asks him for change (“Could you help an old altar boy?”), he exhibits visceral disgust. He sees not a human being made in God’s image but an object of hopelessness for whom he feels neither love nor responsibility.

The contrast between the two priests is central to the film’s climax. When Father Merrin arrives to assist Father Karras with the exorcism, he instructs the younger priest to bring sacerdotal vestments, holy water and a copy of “Rituale Romanum,” a pre-Vatican II liturgical book that contains the formula used for exorcism.

When Father Karras asks Father Merrin whether he would like to read the facts of the case first, he replies, tersely: “Why?” For Father Merrin, the girl is not a psychiatric patient to be analyzed, her symptoms ticked off as with any other diagnosis, just as the devil is not a mere symbol of the possibility of evil that lurks in every human heart. The girl is actually possessed, and the devil is an actual being, the prince of the fallen angels who “prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls” (in the words of a prayer that before Vatican II had been recited at the end of Low Masses throughout the world).

Father Karras’s reluctance to accept the possibility of supernatural evil is intimately bound up in his inability to see God in the face of the poor. It is only by finally acknowledging the reality of supernatural evil — and the all-pervading goodness of God, of which evil is merely a privation — that Father Karras is ultimately able to sacrifice his own life to save the girl.

In “The Exorcist,” neither the plot nor the characters can be understood from a nonreligious vantage point. That is not true of beloved costume dramas such as “Becket” (1964) and “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), whose Catholic heroes exhibit virtues that can be easily understood in secular terms — courage in the face of tyranny, love of country, devotion to conscience. Nor it is true of more experimental films such as “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) and “The Seventh Seal” (1957), which reduce Christianity to a kind of existentialism, an abstract reckoning with the meaning of human life.

In the world of “The Exorcist,” Father Merrin is a good character because he is a faithful and orthodox priest who accepts that what the church teaches is true: that we live in a moral universe in which the stakes are not life and death — as they end up being in many conventional religious dramas — but heaven and hell.

In the interview in 1973, Mr. Friedkin discussed his views about demonic possession. He said that based on his own reading and research, if the men and women whom the church believed to be possessed were not in thrall to demons, they were suffering from “diseases for which there is no name and no cure.” Pressed about the possibility that science would one day arrive at a naturalistic account of this disease, he expressed skepticism.

It appears that throughout his life Mr. Friedkin remained interested in demonic possession. In his old age he befriended Father Gabriele Amorth, a priest who served for many years as an exorcist in the Diocese of Rome and who allowed Mr. Friedkin to film an actual exorcism. In an interview in 2018, Mr. Friedkin was asked about his own religious beliefs. “I don’t know anything,” he said, “but neither does anyone else. No one knows anything about the eternal mysteries, how we got here, why we’re here, is there an afterlife. Is there a heaven and a hell? Who knows?”

One imagines now that he does.

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