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'The Exorcist Effect' shows how movies shape 'real' demonic possessions


‘The Exorcist Effect’ shows how movies shape ‘real’ demonic possessions

From ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ to ‘The Conjuring.’

In the late 1960s and ’70s, an unholy trinity of occult horror films were released in theaters, to both critical and commercial acclaim: Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976). Today these films are recognized as having forever altered the genre of horror fiction, but in their new book The Exorcist Effect: Horror, Religion, and Demonic Belief (Oxford University Press, 2024), Joseph P. Laycock and Eric Harrelson argue that these films should also be understood as having permanently altered reality itself, “at least as far as reality is socially constructed.”

Laycock and Harrelson are academics in the field of religious studies, with Harrelson also having a background in film studies. They use this expertise to make the case that these films ushered in a new 20th century occult mythology of demonic possession and Satanic conspiracies, which have since become a lived reality for millions of Americans.

Because claims that mass media has the capacity to influence the way people think and behave are always controversial, Laycock and Harrelson stress early on that they’re not arguing “that people are unable to distinguish between film and real life or that horror movies possess some nefarious power to program people with certain beliefs.” The Exorcist Effect proposes that popular fiction provides audiences with a template for how reality could be, and that audiences both knowingly and unknowingly adopt these templates as a working model.

Chapter 2 of The Exorcist Effect explores how this process happens in detail, with Laycock and Harrelson not only drawing on their own fields of religious studies and film studies, but also those of philosophy, narratology, and psychology. However, their most powerful set of ideas comes from American folklorist Bill Ellis and his work on the phenomenon of ostension.

"Exorcist Effect" cover

In folklore studies, ostension refers to the process in which folktales are transmitted not by word-of-mouth, but by embodied experience. Exorcist Effect cites historian Brian Levack’s argument that in acting out an exorcism, both the demoniac and exorcist are working off “scripts that are encoded in their religious cultures.” By bringing these scripts to life in an exorcism, the folklore of demonic possession can be continually transmitted.

But Ellis takes this argument further, by breaking ostension down into several subtypes. These include quasi-ostension, in which evidence is interpreted in light of folklore, and proto-ostension, in which an individual builds their identity based on a character found in folklore. Laycock and Harrelson’s contribution to this schema is to argue that ostension not only occurs with religious texts and traditional folklore but, with popular culture as well.

Chapter 3 of The Exorcist Effect looks at the influence of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen, but this is really just a jumping off point for Laycock and Harrelson. Their key case study here, constituting Chapter 4, is that of freelance demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who’ve become stars of The Conjuring cinematic universe of horror films.

The Warrens are a textbook example of proto-ostension having meticulously crafted their public image, in accordance with that of the heroic ghostbusters and demon slayers of popular-fiction. As Laycock and Harrelson reveal, there are plenty of reasons to believe that in real life, the Warrens were hardly the altruistic Catholic superheroes they’re depicted as in the movies, but that the myth of the Warrens has taken on such prominence as to make the truth practically irrelevant to their legions of adoring fans.

This is a recurring theme throughout The Exorcist Effect, as Laycock and Harrelson express frustration that in many of the cases they discuss, fact and fiction have become so irreparably intertwined that it’s nearly impossible to tell where one stops and the other starts. One gets the disconcerting impression this is because the people propagating these narratives never cared to make that distinction in the first place. For The Exorcist, author William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin were more concerned with what ideas and images would be the most entertaining and profitable, while the Jesuits who served as the film’s technical advisors (and received cameo roles) were interested in what would help bring lapsed Catholics back into the fold.

Though their primary focus is film, Laycock and Harrelson also address other forms of media. Chapter 8 looks at heavy metal – described as the musical equivalent of a horror film – as well as examples based on prose fiction, since Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were both originally novels. The Exorcist Effect continually brings up the writings of H.P. Lovecraft which, as prose alone, has proven powerful enough to convince people of the reality of surreptitious witch-cults, ancient aliens, and the existence of the completely fictional Necronomicon, a book of black magic which the Warrens claimed to own a copy of, and even arch-skeptic James Randi believed was real.

Defrocked Irish-Catholic priest Malachi Martin, whose life and work constitutes Chapter 5 of The Exorcist Effect, was a writer of “factional” conspiracy thrillers set inside the Vatican. None of Martin’s books have ever been adapted into film, but have provided the demonological vocabulary for numerous horror movies, as well as a new generation of real-life Catholic exorcists. Laycock and Harrelson also make a compelling argument that the 2003 occult thriller The Order, starring Heath Ledger, was an unofficial biopic of Martin.

A highly accessible and extremely formidable work of scholarship.

Overall, The Exorcist Effect represents a highly accessible and extremely formidable work of scholarship. Even for researchers not interested in cases of demonic possession or occult horror films, Laycock and Harrelson provide a powerful model for approaching similar topics. The type of fact-fiction reversals described as occurring among propagators of Satanic conspiracy theories can also be found among advocates of parapsychology, ufology, cryptozoology, and can even be traced back to Charles Fort himself, who wrote that he was constantly irritated by “the classification of books under ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction,’” as he didn’t believe such distinct categories of knowledge actually existed.

This last point should also make The Exorcist Effect a sobering read for skeptics. In his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argued that pseudoscientific and supernatural beliefs were the result of people’s inability to construct, understand, and recognize valid and invalid arguments grounded in logic and empiricism, but felt that with proper education such beliefs could be mitigated. But what good are reason and evidence in a world where people are knowingly choosing to reject reality in favor of overt fantasy?

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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