Nathaniel Hawthorne had an ambivalent regard for his once-prominent Puritan ancestors. His great-grandfather was a judge who presided over the trial and execution of witches in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts. “The remote past has to be recovered with considerable effort for there ‘the Actual and the Imaginary may meet,’’’ the political theorist Judith Shklar writes, quoting Hawthorne. “It is because it is so different from the present that it enlightens us about our actual selves, here and now, about our possibilities, our beliefs, and our conduct. It is an education for the present moment.”
I was reminded of Shklar’s comments on Hawthorne and the conundrums of understanding the past when reading Carlos Eire’s terrific piece in the September issue of Commonweal on the Church’s traditional acceptance of the seeming impossibility of acts of levitation and bilocation, especially in the lives of saints. As Eire writes, “What kind of nonsense is this?” That, at least, is our usual reaction to testimonies regarding such phenomena. Yet such “wild facts,” Eire reminds us, were common and widely believed in the Church’s past. How should we make sense of those claims now? To be sure, such “extremely rare events are seldom taken seriously outside certain belief systems,” Eire writes, but “they most certainly do have a broader context into which they fit.” Understanding that context is key to understanding not only our Catholic ancestors but also, as Shklar notes, ourselves. Quoting the historian Lucien Febvre, Eire goes further. We must accept “the strangeness of the past as an essential rational feature of the past, not as something irrational.” As Febvre argues, “To comprehend is not to clarify, simplify, or to reduce things to a perfectly clear logical scheme. To comprehend is to complicate, to augment in depth. It is to widen on all sides. It is to vivify.”
Which brings me to the recent celebration, by some conservative Catholics, of the fiftieth anniversary of the Academy Award–winning horror movie The Exorcist. Improbably, they see that fright film as an evangelical tool to correct a contemporary Church that has abandoned its supernatural beliefs. This nostalgia regarding 1970s schlock coincided with the recent death of William Friedkin, the film’s director, who himself professed a belief in the kind of demonic possession flamboyantly depicted in the movie. “I made the film as a believer, not as a skeptic,” Friedkin claimed.
The film was based on the best-selling novel by William Peter Blatty, a Catholic graduate of Georgetown University. Blatty wrote the movie’s screenplay and produced the film as well. He was a known quantity in Hollywood, having written a number of screenplays for successful film comedies, including the Pink Panther sequel A Shot in The Dark. Aspiring to something more serious, he said he wrote the book “quite frankly as an apostolic work.” He subsequently claimed that the enormous popularity of the film brought many people back to the Church.
Critical reception of the movie was mostly negative at the time. “The crushing blunt-wittedness of the movie version…tends to bear out Blatty’s apostolic claims,” wrote the legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. “Whatever Blatty’s claims, if The Exorcist scares people that’s probably all it has to do, in box-office terms, and that’s all the whole unpleasant movie is designed to do,” she wrote. “It is the religious people who should be most offended by this movie. Others can laugh it off as garbage, but are American Catholics willing to see their faith turned into a horror show? Are they willing to accept anything just as long as their Church comes out in a good light?”
I hope not, and yet I was surprised to see the usually sober-minded Brad Miner praising both The Exorcist and a recently released spinoff, The Exorcist: Believer, at The Catholic Thing. In doing so, he notes Believer is “not as well made and acted as the original,” but as consolation “there’s a jump-scare that’s good as can be.” His main complaint is that the new movie takes a predictably boring ecumenical approach to exorcism. “You’ll excuse me if I point out that we Catholics are the ones who actually cast out those damn demons!” Miner writes. If I read him correctly, Miner is being both coy and serious.
Less coy and much more serious, was Matthew Walther’s encomium to The Exorcist in the New York Times. Walther is the editor of the Lamp, a conservative Catholic literary journal. He argues that The Exorcist is “the best film ever made about the Roman Catholic Church.” Why? Because it eschews the secular, worldly complications of Catholic lives dramatized in movies like A Man for All Seasons and Becket. Instead, it unreservedly embraces “a transcendent moral and metaphysical order” that is “premised on the idea that the claims of the Catholic Church makes for itself are true—not in some loose metaphorical sense but literally.”