Fifty years after its release, “The Exorcist” remains the most iconic depiction of possession and exorcism in the popular imagination. (The film’s director, William Friedkin, died earlier this month.) Aside from its enduring success with critics and audiences, it is also the rare horror movie that has been acclaimed by members of the clergy. In a 1974 article for The New York Times, “‘Exorcist’ Adds Problems for Catholic Clergymen,” the Paulist priest Ellwood “Bud” Kieser admired the film for “show[ing] the divine in man and the demonic in man really fighting out,” and in 2011 Father Robert Barron commended the film as “ultimately…a meditation on the priesthood itself.”
It is understandable that many Catholics would appreciate a movie that takes church teaching seriously. Yet on the film’s 50th anniversary, and following Friedkin’s death, I can’t help wondering whether its outsized impact has in fact popularized a trivial, superficial picture of the Christian understanding of evil.
‘The Exorcist’ has popularized a trivial, superficial picture of the Christian understanding of evil.
The narrative template codified from “The Exorcist” goes something like this: an innocent, unassuming victim, usually female—a young girl, (“The Possession,”2012), a college student (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” 2005), a nun (“The Nun,”2018)—is possessed by an entity that causes them to inflict harm upon themselves and those around them. A priest is called to intervene and, after an affirmation of orthodox faith, usually hard-won, successfully casts out the demon and restores order.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this formula. But it overlooks certain quintessential aspects of the Christian idea of evil. In the Bible, the demonic tends to be uncomfortably normalized in a society, rather than alien or intrusive to it, and exorcism is something that tends to upset, rather than restore, the status quo.
In his book The Scapegoat, René Girard examines the story of the Gerasene demoniac, told in Matthew, Mark and Luke: Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes to find the people terrorized by a demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs, breaking his shackles no matter how many times they try to keep him chained. Girard observes that “[t]he repetitive character of these phenomena is somewhat ritualistic…It is difficult to believe that the Gerasenes cannot find chains and fetters strong enough to hold their prisoner.” This suspicion is validated by the fact that they “implore Jesus to leave the neighborhood” after he casts out the demons, restoring the man to sanity. Girard concludes that “their request is paradoxical, given that Jesus had just succeeded, without any violence, in obtaining the result which they professed to be aiming at…but which, in reality, they did not want at all: the complete cure of the possessed man.”
‘Soft and Quiet’ evokes a more Biblical understanding of evil—but with no supernatural element whatsoever.
But why would they want the man to remain possessed? Throughout The Scapegoat, Girard argues that in times of crisis and upheaval, societies tend to blame their problems on innocent groups or individuals that in some way defy easy categorization, accusing them of heinous crimes in order to justify persecuting them, with the goal of restoring order. In Girard’s view, the man in the tombs is one such scapegoat. He is marginalized by the Gerasenes, but also restrained by them and prevented from leaving their country because the social role he plays is so essential. He is a convenient monster on which they can blame the consequences of their own sins.
It is this scapegoating aspect of the demonic that Hollywood’s “Exorcist” copycats tend to overlook. So it is notable that, on the eve of the movie’s 50th anniversary, a new horror film was released that evokes this more Biblical understanding of evil with as much visceral impact—but no supernatural element whatsoever.
Beth de Araújo wrote her debut feature, “Soft & Quiet,” to process her grief over personal experiences of racism, her anger at the Central Park birdwatching incident and her alarm at the “tradwives” movement. It begins with Emily, a blonde, turtleneck-clad kindergarten teacher, meeting in a church room with a group of seemingly friendly fellow middle-class white women. The sinister nature of their gathering is made evident when she removes the tinfoil from a pie she’s brought to reveal a swastika carved in the crust. It is the first ever meeting of “Daughters for Aryan Unity,” headed by Emily, and as the women sit down with their baked desserts, they air their grievances toward all manner of minorities.
Kim, a grocery store owner, blames her failing business on Black kids stealing and the impossibility of getting loans from “Jew banks.” A financially stressed young woman seethes that a coworker who started later than her has won a coveted promotion simply “because she’s brown.” One nice-looking lady claims to be a granddaughter of a KKK leader and assures the group that she isn’t hateful—“I’m not saying lynch them all.” She only wants a safe space where she can talk “common sense:” “The media says we’re monsters. But do I look like a monster?”
The contrast between the women’s rhetoric and their elaborately-performed femininity— bashfully trying not to speak over each other, constantly checking in with each other’s feelings—is at times blackly comic. Emily acknowledges the incongruity while discussing strategies for bringing their ideas to the mainstream: “We can’t come on too strong, okay? Soft on the outside, so that vigorous ideas can be digested more easily. We are the best secret weapon that no one checks at the door because we tread quietly.” The Daughters for Aryan Unity are possessed not by a demon, but by an ideology, horrifically concealed behind unassuming veneers. The image of a possessed Regan vomiting geysers of green bile speaks for itself, but you could mute the meeting scene in “Soft & Quiet’ and never guess at the toxicity being spewed by these nice-looking women as they sit together smiling over pie in a sunlit room.
When the church’s priest overhears the meeting and kicks them out, the women decide to stop at Kim’s grocery store for wine before heading to Emily’s house. There they cross paths with two Asian American sisters whom Kim angrily refuses business. This sparks a tense exchange in which the sisters insult Emily, prompting the group to break into the sisters’ house to steal their passports, a “prank” intended to “teach them a lesson.” But what starts as a jape culminates in murder, and a frantic attempt by the Daughters to destroy the evidence and cover their tracks.
The film is itself a sort of exorcism, leaving viewers—specifically white viewers—as perturbed as the Gerasenes.
In The Scapegoat, Girard argues that Jesus’ lamentation on the cross—“Forgive them, Father, they do not know what they are doing”—is not a “somewhat trifling excuse” motivated by a “desire to forgive unpardonable executors,” but a penetrating insight that “says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing” (emphasis Girard’s). The unconscious subtext of the women’s actions is revealed by the horrible disconnect between their rage and brutality and the clear innocence of their victims, making it painfully obvious that the two sisters have nothing to do with the true source of their persecutors’ anger.
But in keeping with John’s characterization of Satan as “a liar and the father of lies,” and the Hebrew meaning of the word Satan— “Accuser”—the women have deceived themselves, and helped to deceive each other, into truly believing that they are victims rather than persecutors. In blinding themselves to their true motives, they not only justify their violence; chillingly, they allow themselves to enjoy it. Having formulated plans and strategies for dispersing their ideas among the mainstream, in this scene and those that follow it is clear their ideology controls them, driving them to actions they don’t plan and consequences they aren’t prepared to face. Difficult though it is to watch, this sequence of events portrays the demonic more faithfully, in Christian terms, than any amount of levitating, head-spinning or spider-walking.
The movie ends with a possibility of justice being served for the two sisters, but it is far from assured. Whether or not the women will be able to manipulate the justice system with their canny performances of white femininity is an unsettling, open question. But in ending on a note of discomfort rather than of catharsis and order reestablished, “Soft & Quiet” is itself a sort of exorcism, leaving viewers—specifically white viewers—as perturbed as the Gerasenes, challenged to examine their complicity with toxic ideas on race and gender and to create, through their own action, the resolution that the film’s narrative denies.
On its 50th anniversary, those Christians who admire “The Exorcist” for its religious themes might celebrate the movie’s legacy not only by revisiting the film itself, but by giving attention to de Araújo, a powerful new voice in cinema, whose depiction of seemingly ordinary white women possessed by extraordinarily ugly ideas can help Christians examine their own ideas of evil and the demonic with fresh eyes.
“Soft & Quiet” is available to stream on Netflix and for rent on AppleTV+ and Amazon Prime.