Director William Friedkin Revisits "The Exorcist," Cuts Through The BS

William Peter Blatty, who wrote the screenplay for The Exorcist based on his novel of the same name, was originally inspired by the 1949 exorcism of a boy in Cottage City, Md. "He thought if this was true, it was religious nirvana," William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist and newly released documentary The Devil and Father Amorth (our review), told Newsweek. After failing to get the Catholic Church to help him with a nonfiction account, Blatty decided to affirm the faithful with fiction instead. But for Friedkin The Exorcist wasn't motivated by a desire to proselytize. "I thought it was a great story," Friedkin said, "but it was fiction."

"Bill Blatty basically invented what we think of as exorcism and possession," Friedkin said. "What is it that inspires people to still consider it and think about it: Blatty's novel and the movie! There's nothing else worth a damn written about it. 99.9999 percent of what's written about it is all bullshit, made up by people who have an agenda."

Dispelling bullshit could describe Friedkin's entire rhetorical style, but where he actually stands on demonic possession and exorcism proves a little harder to pin down. Friedkin also balked at being characterized as a skeptic, preferring humility in the face of the mysterious.

"I don't know a goddamn thing. Nobody knows," he said. "We don't know if there's a Heaven or a Hell. We don't know if there's an afterlife. We don't know. We don't know any of the eternal mysteries. We don't know why we're here. People write about it all the time and have interesting ideas, but they don't know. I certainly don't."

In his new movie, Friedkin not only revisits The Exorcist, dropping in on both shooting locations and the site of the novel's real-life inspiration, but sits in on a real exorcism conducted by Father Gabriele Amorth, chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome. In the exorcism, recorded on a small video camera with no additional equipment or crew, Father Amorth prays over an Italian woman, Cristina, as her loved ones and Amorth's assistants hold her down. She thrashes and rages, her voice guttural.

"I shot the exorcism, didn't know what I was going to do with it. It was a home movie to me," Friedkin said. "Then it came to me: let me take this to a psychiatrist and neurosurgeons and see what they say about it. If they said, 'well all of this is a bunch of bullshit,' I would have put that in the film."

Consulting with experts, Friedkin found that the scientific establishment didn't dismiss demonic possession as the work of cranks or frauds, but as a rare and culturally contextual psychological and sociological phenomena. Citing psychiatric research into possessions and its inclusion in the two most recent editions of the DSM, or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which sets the diagnostic standards for the American Psychiatric Association and lists possession as a potential indicator of Dissociative Identity Disorder, Friedkin describes possession as a "religious-based disease," leaving the spiritual corollaries up to the philosophers. "Psychiatry uses medication and ritual as well: therapy. It's not called 'ritual,' it's call 'therapy.' And exorcism uses a therapy that's called 'exorcism.'"

Director William Friedkin and Gabriele Amorth, an Italian exorcist who died in 2016. The Orchard / William Friedkin

Though his new documentary flirts with the supernatural, Friedkin emphasized that his interest in the subject was more journalistic than spiritual, a story prompted by Father Amorth. "I did that film because I could and he would allow me to. But I don't have any interest in pursuing the demonic," Friedkin said. "I believed in him. I didn't think he was doing a show for me or bullshitting me."

Even with his no-bullshit outlook, Friedkin admitted Amorth's exorcism brought up in him the same reaction people have to the fictionalized version depicted in The Exorcist. Was there any part of this that scared you? "Yes, the whole thing."

Director William Friedkin Revisits "The Exorcist," Cuts Through The BS | Gaming