The identity of the titular, singular “exorcist” of The Exorcist has always been a little murky. In the 1973 original — which overcame studio skepticism to become one of the most successful and significant horror films of all time — there are a few exorcists, all priests trying to cast a demon out of a 12-year-old girl named Regan (Linda Blair). The movie’s true protagonist is Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest experiencing a serious crisis of faith, but there’s also a more seasoned exorcist in the mix, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow). So there are at least two exorcists (plus a third priest, a friend of Karras’s), and thus the movie’s tension and allure come from its plot ambiguity. You don’t really know what’s going to happen, or who’s going to survive this encounter with the pits of hell. It all ends pretty horribly.
There have been a bunch of Exorcist installments in the intervening 50 years, some more successful than others. The Exorcist: Believer, the newest film in the franchise, is meant to operate as a loose sequel to the 1973 original. Director David Gordon Green claims the rest of the films “fall into the acceptable mythology” of his new film (though their events aren’t mentioned in the movie). Should it be successful, Believer is planned as the start of a trilogy sequel-reboot of the series, much like the Halloween films that were released between 2018 and 2022. (Green helmed those too, along with writers Danny McBride and Scott Teems, who return for this film.)
As a film, it’s at best serviceable, stronger in its world-building than in its climactic exorcism and nowhere near as unnerving as the original. Yet Believer is a fascinating artifact of 2023. It highlights in myriad ways how much the world has changed since the original’s release. Hollywood isn’t the same, and neither is American religious culture.
That The Exorcist: Believer’s title still employs the singular case furnishes even more of a misnomer than it did in the original; these days there seem to be an awful lot of exorcists trotting around. Set (and released) 50 years after the events of The Exorcist, Believer centers on single dad Victor (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his young teen daughter Angela (Lidya Jewett) living in Georgia. (The names are more than lightly allegorical.) Angela’s mother died in an earthquake in Haiti, just after Angela was blessed, in utero, by a Haitian woman.
Angela disappears into the woods with her friend Katherine (Olivia Marcum) and the pair turn up three days later, 30 miles away, shoeless and seemingly disturbed. As their behavior grows more erratic, neighbors like Ann, a nurse who lives next door (Ann Dowd), Victor’s sparring partner from the boxing gym (Danny McCarthy), and Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) get drawn into desperately finding a solution. Ann leads Victor — who lost whatever faith he’d had after his wife died — toward someone who might know something about erratic behavior among young teen girls: Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, who starred in the 1973 film), mother of Regan.
Out here in the world you and I inhabit, The Exorcist’s original release sparked immense controversy among clergy and critics, with Catholics divided on whether the movie was vile, blasphemous, or a great recruiting tool for the church. Billy Graham — emphatically not Catholic, and extremely influential at the time — decried the film as having the devil in every frame. Requests for exorcisms (from Catholics and otherwise) rose sharply, a trend that’s ebbed and flowed in the years since. Beyond its religious implications, the film furnished a cultural touchpoint, especially since its sold-out showings and reports of fainting and possession-like behavior from inside the theater helped bolster it at the box office. You may never have seen The Exorcist, but you probably know the gist of it.
The Exorcist — in contrast to Believer, unfortunately — is indeed genuinely shocking, even if the scene in which Regan’s head literally spins is a little less viscerally terrifying to audiences brought up on slicker effects. (The special effects throughout the original movie are still extraordinary and would have seemed far more so in 1973.) Perhaps the most reflexively terrifying moment is when Regan (who is, we are meant to understand, in the early clutches of puberty) sticks a crucifix into her vulva repeatedly, an image that’s so distressing and painful and sacrilegious — it is the hell demon possessing the girl that’s violating her — that it is hard to speak of, even now.
At one point in Believer I thought we might be witnessing a repeat of that moment: a demon howls and a metal crucifix falls off the wall, and I thought, Oh no, I can’t handle watching this again. But it’s used for quite a different disgusting purpose, and while that’s plenty disturbing on its own, it pales in comparison to the vulva-stabbing. That was the most telling moment in the film, though: In the instant after the thought occurred, it vanished, because if there’s one thing I know about mainstream Hollywood productions, it’s that they’d never do that today. (For that kind of shock, you need to dive deep into independent productions unbothered by studio executive notes, or reach outside of American borders.)
This isn’t the only way in which Believer shows how seismic the cultural shift has been from 1973 to 2023. The themes of the original Exorcist film are threefold: faith tested and renewed in the face of supernatural evil; anxieties about parenting, particularly for single parents; and the threat, particularly to patriarchy, that surfaces when girls reach puberty. All three are illustrated vibrantly throughout that film, and all mapped strongly onto what was going on in the broader culture. A decade of sexual liberation and feminist activism had given women new freedoms, but also stirred new anxieties in a culture that demonized single, working mothers and sexually liberated women. These specific anxieties would be tied into fears of the demonic and the occult well into the 1990s via the Satanic panic.
More broadly, though, the mid-20th century into the 1970s was a time of tumult for belief, particularly in America, where a combination of postwar trauma, 1960s rebellions, new spiritual voices, and apocalyptic dread combined to send traditional religious hierarchy into a tailspin. Even Vatican II, which concluded in 1965, radically changed how the Catholic Church conducted its business and upended its long-defined order. In the ensuing upheaval, some Catholics found their faith strengthened, while others were threatened, leaving the church for other traditions, or none at all. Even beyond Catholicism, 1970s Christian America was gripped by a kind of apocalypticism that translated into phenomena like the rise of cults and the wild success of Hal Lindsey’s biblical-prophecy-as-conspiracy-theory book The Late Great Planet Earth. The Exorcist tapped into that specifically Catholic doubt and uncertainty, but was applicable far beyond the Pope’s reach, and it did not leave viewers with any firm answers to their searching questions.
In a similar way to the original, Believer (as perhaps befits the name) reflects the religious tenor of our times. To its credit, the film actually understands, with a literacy far beyond typical Hollywood fare, the kinds of practices that separate, say, Pentecostals from mainline Baptists from Catholics. Yet this is not a film that assumes Catholics have a handle on how to cast out demons; over and over, the characters state that religions all over the world have rites for exorcism, and ultimately opt for a (not very effective) nondenominational exorcism. (It’s still mostly Christian, though there’s some rootwork mixed in.)
That patchwork approach to religion, though — in which it’s assumed that no one tradition is the right one, and that we can draw from all kinds of traditions in creating whatever works best for us to connect with the divine — is a marker of 21st-century America. As sociological studies have noted, the fastest-growing religious group in America are the “nones,” who don’t identify with any particular religion, though they may take part in spiritual practice. In this way, Believer is an Exorcist for 2023, constructed around a world where God and evil are real, but the ways we reach the supernatural aren’t predominately guided by organized religion. It’s a thoroughly modern approach to the same themes.
Ultimately, Believer opts for a more optimistic ending than The Exorcist, which might be the most revealing choice of them all. Believer comes off almost like a Christian movie, if you toned down some of the horror and gore. It hews to a Christian movie dictum as well: The end of a movie has to be inspirational and uplifting. This film ends with a statement that feels designed to comfort the audience: that the only tool we truly have to ward off evil is one another. Our comfort doesn’t really come from faith in God, but faith in the people around us. They help us sustain our dreams in the face of grief and loss and the unknowable. Love is all you need, and so on.
In truth, it’s not just Christian films that require a happy ending; virtually every mainstream Hollywood production concludes with some kind of meditation on love, community, family, or friendship, and how even when the world is ending we can find our comfort in one another. So Believer is a product of today’s movie market as well as the religious marketplace.
None of this makes Believer good — but it does make it interesting, and its likely box office success is a reminder that exorcism stories remain fascinating to us. Even the most modern and secular among us are a little afraid of losing our children to a force beyond our control. We worry, somewhere deep down in our most ancient psyches, whether we actually have sovereignty over our own selves, or if we can be swept up by malign spirits we can’t even see. The world around us has shifted a great deal in the last 50 years. But some things, it seems, never change.
The Exorcist: Believer opens in theaters on October 6.