[Beliefnet, September 25, 2000]
With the re-release of the movie "The Exorcist," talk of scary things like demonic possession and spinning heads is in the air again. Though none of us could avoid having seen some of the film’s images over the years, there are a few of us who have never sat through the film, and never intend to. I’m one of them.
I know my limits. I don’t like being scared, I don’t go on roller-coasters, and don’t throw me a surprise party. Tension is not my idea of a good time. Frankly, I don’t even like suspense all that much. Yes, I confess: I sometimes skip ahead to read the last page of a mystery. I’ll notice that my stomach is in knots and think, Why go through this? If I know what’s coming, I’ll better be able to savor the writer’s skill in building the plot.
Personal preferences aside, I could make a general case that artificially induced emotion is one of the subtle poisons of our age. Too many swooping highs and lows make us ill-tuned to the nuances of daily life and normal interaction. We presume our lives should be like those on TV, where people are having rapturous or furious or exhilarated exchanges and experiences all day long. But real life is more evenly modulated than that, with long stretches of sheer normalcy. For people who seek peace, or even seek monastic quietness, the thrills of mass entertainment can be disruptive to our spiritual goal.
But that’s not a blanket condemnation. The world’s great literature and art won the title by being powerfully affecting, able to change lives and minds. In reasonable doses, strong medicine can revive.
So what kind of medicine is "The Exorcist"? Among my friends, there is a very sharp division of opinion. Some agree with the book’s author, William Peter Blatty, who said, in an interview included on the 25th anniversary special-edition DVD of the movie, that viewers who see the depth and power of evil will be sobered to consider eternal things. As Flannery O’Connor said, to a deafened culture you have to shout, and to reach the blind you must draw large and startling pictures. So for this camp, the graphic extremes of a movie like "The Exorcist" is a powerful tool to bring people to faith.
But on the other hand, some say that the degree of horror necessary to depict such evil inevitably takes over the entire experience, and the viewer is likely to miss the theological point, leaving only with a sense of having had a good, scary time. For this camp, the movie contributes to the sensationalizing of things that should only be handled with care and maturity, and thus glamorizes evil.
This is a classic dilemma about any work of art or entertainment, that what the artist intends cannot control what the viewer takes away. In fact, every viewer will have a slightly different experience, and a single viewer may find the impact on him of the artwork subtly changing over time. What kind of calculation could be made, anyway? Imagine that 10 people go see "The Exorcist." One goes home and falls to his knees in an urgent quest for God, while another one says, "That evil power was neat—how can I get some?" The other eight file it under "Man, that was scary!" and move on to the next thing. Does the movie have any spiritual value? The question is unanswerable.
But we can answer this: What do I, individually, need in order to grow spiritually? How much time do I have, after all? If I have two hours to spend, will I get more eternal benefit from watching "The Exorcist" or from reading the Desert Fathers? Well, let’s say this. I’ll read the Desert Fathers first, then watch a video about the Holy Land, then visit someone painting an icon. Then I’ll read the Bible again, then read some Charles Dickens, then watch "It’s A Wonderful Life," then maybe read a Western saint like St. Terese of Lisieux. And if I have time left over at the end of my life, I’ll watch "The Exorcist." Works for me.