The new movie The Pope’s Exorcist is a swashbuckling tale of a heroic Italian priest lured into a battle with an ancient demon who has possessed an innocent child in a Spanish abbey. Based loosely on the real writings of the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, a prolific and media-friendly exorcist for the Diocese of Rome who worked for nearly three decades starting in the 1980s, the movie stars a daring priest played by a charismatic Russell Crowe, who cracks jokes in the face of violent threats and wields his unwavering faith in God like a superpower.
So it was a little strange when the International Association of Exorcists, the organization co-founded by the real-life Amorth (who died in 2016), released a statement condemning the film upon the trailer’s release. The movie played on “anxiety, restlessness, and fear” a press release from the organization contended, with unrealistic “striking physical and verbal manifestations” of the demon.
Those assertions are undoubtedly true—it’s a horror movie, after all. But given Amorth’s portrayal by an Oscar-winning actor who is swigging whiskey, dropping cool one-liners, and fearlessly plunging into eerie, sulfuric catacombs (“We are getting closer to hell,” he informs his priest sidekick), it’s curious that the humanizing, heroic portrayal of a real-life exorcist wouldn’t get a more favorable response from his spiritual descendants.
The real Amorth wasn’t opposed to a little drama. His favorite movie, he often said, was The Exorcist, another film that draws loosely from real-life events. So why wouldn’t these modern exorcists simply chuckle at—or even embrace—the Indiana Jones treatment? Why scoff at a little flattering exaggeration?
It may have something to do with the way exorcisms are seen, today, inside the Catholic Church.
The real Gabriele Amorth was born in Italy in 1925, at a time when the age of exorcisms seemed in the distant past. Exorcisms peaked, historically speaking, during the European wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 1700s, with the Enlightenment, Christians came to see demons as superstitious or even pagan elements of the faith; some Christians began to push for the ouster of the devil from the religion altogether.
“There were several dictionaries of Christianity in the 1700s that had no mention of Satan,” said Joseph Laycock, the author of The Penguin Book of Exorcisms, in a recent interview.
Exorcism experienced a minor resurgence in the 1890s, when Pope Leo XIII became “rather paranoid about spiritual threats to the Church coming from Freemasons and others and believed the Church was under demonic attack,” Francis Young, the author of A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity, wrote in an email. At a time when popes ruled no land and felt powerless in Europe, Leo XIII’s church promoted a new formula for authorized clergymen to combat the influence of the devil (and assume a different kind of powerful role).
But exorcism’s really big moment came in the 1960s and ’70s, when two major things happened. First, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal: In the ’60s, a faction of the Catholic Church became heavily influenced by Pentecostalism, which emphasized the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues. “A key aspect of charismatic Christianity is a heightened awareness of the spiritual realm, both good and evil,” Young wrote to me. “So charismatic Catholics began normalising exorcism in a way it had not been done before.”
Second, in 1973, The Exorcist was released. A massively influential film, it triggered a spate of cases of supposed demonic possession around the U.S. and Europe, Laycock told me.
He pointed to the 1980 book Michelle Remembers, in which a woman recalled false “repressed memories” of satanic abuse from her childhood. In the book, which is considered a key contributor to the decade’s satanic panic, some of the conjured memories involved details such as demonic head-spinning. “This is The Exorcist, not memories,” he said.
Amorth, at the time, was not yet an exorcist. After fighting for the Italian resistance in World War II (the movie got this right), Amorth was ordained as a priest in the 1950s and worked for the Diocese of Rome and as a prison chaplain. It wouldn’t be until 1986, when he was asked to assist the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, that his real career took off.
He wasn’t, by his own admission, battling powerful demonic incarnations or beset by harrowing visions. Most exorcisms as practiced by Catholic clergy consist of an exorcist and his assistants sprinkling holy water on a person, reciting a litany of Catholic saints, reading several passages of Scripture, commanding the demon to give their name and reveal themselves when ordered, praying some more, and commanding the demon out. This practice can be repeated for those who continue to suffer.
Technically, there is no “Vatican exorcist,” or exorcist for the pope—past or present. Exorcists are locally designated among clergy, and are not sent off on gallant assignments, as The Pope’s Exorcist suggests. But Amorth became something of a celebrity by being in Rome and covering the Vatican’s territory. He claimed to conduct some 160,000 exorcisms over 14 years. (No one believes this figure, because it would be logistically impossible.)
In the 1990s, he embraced the fervor of the satanic panic, warning against the dangers of Ouija boards and astrology and Harry Potter and even yoga, all of which made people vulnerable to demonic forces, he argued. (The movie nods to this but doesn’t fully commit; the boy who gets possessed becomes that way immediately after listening to loud rock music.) And in 1990, Amorth co-founded the International Association of Exorcists.
In 2014 the Vatican formally recognized Amorth’s IAE, granting it some legitimacy and taking on some small degree of oversight of the organization. In a symbiotic dance, as Amorth promoted the rite from within the church, horror movies kept exorcism culturally relevant. The Pope’s Exorcist, which opened this month, arrives in a saturated environment, where nothing exorcism-related seems particularly new or thrilling.
Indeed, even the exorcists snubbed it. The movie, the IAE wrote in March, serves only “to instill the conviction that exorcism is an abnormal, monstrous and frightening phenomenon, whose only protagonist is the devil.” That, the statement continued, is “the exact opposite of what occurs in the context of exorcism celebrated in the Catholic Church in obedience to the directives imparted by it.”
In 2013, after a Pentecost Mass in St. Peter’s Square, the newly elected Pope Francis approached a Mexican man in a wheelchair. As seen in a video captured by an Italian Catholic TV station, Francis placed his hands on the man’s head and held them there for almost 10 seconds. The man’s mouth dropped open, his body spasmed, and he slumped back in his chair. Later, someone claiming to be that man said he had been possessed and had traveled to Rome for help after being inspired by one of Amorth’s books.
The Vatican released a statement saying the pope “simply intended to pray for a suffering person.” Today Francis maintains he has never performed an exorcism as pope.
But Amorth, by then the church’s best-known exorcist, told Italian media that it “was an exorcism, all right.” (He added, in a line that could easily have been said by Crowe’s version of him in The Pope’s Exorcist: “We live in an age in which God has been forgotten. And wherever God is not present, the devil reigns.”)
If Francis had indeed conducted the Catholic rite of exorcism, it wouldn’t have been out of character. He has spoken positively of calling upon exorcists when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. He has told other bishops not to hesitate to call upon exorcists. And he also frequently talks of Satan and demons and hell in a literal way that his predecessors, who preferred more abstract understandings, did not. It’s somewhat unusual for someone as relatively theologically progressive to speak so often of the devil, said Andrew Chesnut, the chair of Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. But it fits with Francis’ theological background in Latin America, where belief in these evil forces is much stronger.
Alternatively, Francis could have intentionally created confusion about whether he had performed an exorcism—which would have been, Laycock said, a pretty savvy move. “The liberal Catholics don’t really care, and conservative Catholics are like, ‘At least he understands the demons,’ ” he said.
Because the truth is, exorcism has only grown more popular since the ’70s. The Vatican has begun schooling greater numbers of new priests in exorcist methods. Priests have noted in articles that they’re seeing an uptick in requests. And the Milan Archdiocese started its own hotline to handle an overwhelming increase in requests.
One of the biggest hints that exorcism has broken through into Catholicism’s mainstream is in its diversifying political usage. In recent years, priests have conducted exorcisms on the concept of gay marriage (after Illinois legalized it); on the “evil of social unrest” in Portland, Oregon (after the Black Lives Matter protests); on all of Mexico (after the country legalized abortion); on the evils of destroying statues (after a statue of St. Junípero Serra, a violent colonizer, was torn down in California by anti-racist protesters); and on the presidential election (for it being rigged against Trump). In 2021 Catholics in support of a workers strike at a Catholic hospital in Massachusetts conducted a public exorcism against “the demon of corporate greed.”
“Now that the church has warmed up to exorcism, it’s become nakedly political,” Laycock said. “We’re seeing this done more and more: it being done as a political weapon instead of what it’s supposed to be, which is a form of healing.”
There are a few theories as to why, exactly, this moment is so exorcism-friendly. Chesnut argues that it’s a matter of competition and cross-pollination: Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian religious movement in the world and a major influence on—and threat to—Catholicism’s hold in Latin America and Africa. There’s the official approval and even promotion of the rite from the church itself. But there’s also the argument that a more secular society pushes many people to long for the mysterious.
In The Pope’s Exorcist, the demon hurls a parish priest against a wall and bites off a chunk of his ear. It forces members of the clergy to see horrific visions, manifestations of their darkest secrets and most painful guilt. (The movie’s Amorth is so virtuous his great sin is that he referred a woman to a psychiatrist instead of helping her through her psychoses personally.)
By the end of the film, a severely beat-up Amorth, fighting off possession himself, is not strong enough to defeat this demon without the other priest’s help. (The movie has a number of buddy cop elements, which allow for such lines as “You don’t get to stay handsome in this profession for long.”)
The rite of exorcism as practiced by Catholic priests is, by most everyone’s accounting, much, much less dangerous. In fact, the real-life Amorth said the only danger an exorcist faces is of becoming a braggart. As most priests would describe the ritual, it’s generally a lot of praying, just with a specific exorcism prayer specified by the Vatican. And the process can involve many, many sessions. Some exorcisms take years. Because a demon is powerless compared with God, an exorcism cannot fail. Many exorcists will try to present an exorcism not as a dramatic battle with the devil but as a boring task—and a simple prayer of healing.
But the real Amorth was very prone to drama. In his books, he recalled that he was once mocked by a demon. He spoke of possessed people exhibiting superhuman strength, of speaking in languages they couldn’t possibly know, of threatening him with violence, of spewing out rose petals, and even of levitating into the air. He carried around a pouch that held the nails and shards of glass that he said the possessed would sometimes vomit up.
Amorth was also not opposed to conspiratorial thinking—he took a side in the Catholic controversy over the consecration of Russia, for example—but some parts of the movie are unexpectedly pragmatic. In one scene, Amorth approaches a home in Italy where a teenage boy is tied down, snarling, claiming to be Satan. Amorth goads Satan into taking possession of a pig, and when the boy falls limp, an assistant immediately shoots the pig. It’s a rogue approach, the audience thinks, but not such an original idea. Later, when he’s being grilled by a panel of clergy at the Vatican, we learn that Amorth never thought that the boy was possessed. He just needed, Amorth says, “a little theater.”
This clarification lends validity to Amorth in the movie—he’s skeptical!—and to exorcisms in real life. Catholic exorcists today claim that only a tiny percentage of reported possessions end up being true cases. Even fewer require “major exorcisms”—the dramatic rite audiences commonly associate with the term—and the Vatican insists that those can be performed only after a barrage of psychological and medical examinations, and then only with the bishop’s permission. The real Amorth said only around 100 of his exorcisms involved full-blown demonic possessions.
So it remains odd that the exorcists would be so opposed to seeing a charming, swaggering, and sometimes reasonable-seeming exorcist depicted on the screen.
Yes, the movie presents a rather silly version of the church. (The mysterious “librarians” look more like Star Wars characters than monks.) Yes, it has nonsensical Dan Brown elements that attempt to give it world-ending stakes. And yes, it shows demons as more powerful than Amorth, even as he calls upon his faith.
But it does not paint the entire Catholic Church as corrupt; in fact, it gives the church an excuse, literally, for mass murder during the Spanish Inquisition. (This fits somewhat with the real Amorth’s belief that Hitler and Stalin were demonically possessed.) All in all, it makes for a simple and reassuring message for traditionalist Catholics operating in what they see as increasingly confused times: The world is still, today, just a matter of the forces of God against the forces of Satan. Good vs. evil. Light vs. dark.
Why wouldn’t the International Association of Exorcists take its flattering portrait? It is the group’s job, after all, to advocate for exorcists and exorcisms in the church. It may be that the association issued the statement prematurely, before seeing the movie—but it seems that the main factor in this particular moment is power.
Exorcism has more cultural clout than ever before. Exorcists themselves no longer have to beg for attention or fight for legitimacy within the Catholic church. They can afford to reject good PR, positioning themselves as respectably boring, much like the rest of the church’s bureaucracy. In other words, exorcists don’t need Hollywood fighting their battles anymore. They can do it themselves.