Driving in to Baton Rouge for my son’s tutorial this morning, we listened to an NPR promo for an interview with director William Friedkin about his film The Exorcist. 

“Dad, what’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?” he asked me.

“Oh, The Exorcist. No question,” I said, and a chill passed over me, as it passed over me just now, typing those words.

“Scarier than Alien?”

“Yeah, definitely,” I said. “As scary as Alien was, you knew that it was fiction. The Exorcist really happened. It happens. That stuff is real.”

I do believe that. Longtime readers will know that I was friends with a Catholic priest and exorcist, who died in the year 2000. Here is the 1992 story I wrote about my encounter with him and his prayer team in a haunted house across the lake from New Orleans. Excerpt:

Halloween is the most dangerous time of the year when it comes to spiritual warfare, Father Termini says, because the ancient pagan festival is the night when Satan and his minions are most active – as are Satan worshipers.

“It’s the time when Satanists practice human sacrifice, especially of children,” the priest says. “We have satanic cells around here. They exist in all big cities.”

That’s the truth, says Sgt. C.P. Wilson of the Baton Rouge City Police intelligence division. He refuses to discuss investigations in detail, but does confirm that Father Termini’s observations square with his experiences.

“This is difficult to talk about and deal with from a law enforcement standpoint,” the police officer says. “Some of the stuff is so far-fetched, it’s very difficult to convince people that it’s really going on.”

Says Father Termini: “Nobody wants to believe there’s witchcraft being practiced and animals and children sacrificed in their own neighborhoods. It’s too much to think about. But it’s happening.”

I reported what the priest said, and I don’t mind telling you today that the Baton Rouge police sergeant did give me some detailed information about particular cases, but he didn’t want to speak in detail on the record. I recall that he was concerned that readers would think he was nuts. Today, I am very, very skeptical of the claim that there is human sacrifice — okay, I just don’t believe it at all — though I am certain that Fr. Termini believed what he was telling me. (Then again, how do I know? Fr. T. was deeply involved in this stuff, and a quiet, nondramatic man). Certainly I am far more skeptical today of Malachi Martin’s book Hostage To The Devil than I was when I wrote the 1992 piece. I wouldn’t cite that book today, and I would be a lot more circumspect about reporting the claims of Fr. T. and the police sergeant than I was then. On the other hand, it was a Halloween story that appeared in the feature section of the paper — and the main part of the story are things I saw and heard.

But I do believe, generally, that there are occult things that go on that would unnerve most people if they knew about it. I’ve had friends who were involved in this stuff on the fringe, and got very frightened. An old friend who is not a religious believer once told me about interning in a psychiatric rehab facility when she was in college, and saying that the teenagers they dealt with who had been involved with the occult were by far the worst head cases. She said that the only way any of them found any solid ground on which to reclaim their sanity was by committing themselves to a strong and uncompromising form of Christianity. This was something that my friend, an unbeliever and a political liberal, didn’t like, but she said that’s what she observed.

I recall also a long, extremely creepy visit I had with a psychologist who treats multiple personality disorder, and who told me about an instance in which she treated a woman who had been raised in a Satanic cult, and ritually abused. I sat in this therapist’s plush office across the street from a hospital and heard her talk about the bizarre, Exorcist-type things that happened, and that she was not prepared for in her experience, or her religious background.

I have been told over the years by Protestants and Catholics who have confronted this phenomenon that if you ever have to deal with it, you will become a believer, because you see and hear and feel things that cannot be explained materially. I once asked a Baptist man who dealt with these things how he knew he wasn’t imagining them. He looked at me and calmly, and evenly, said something close to, “When you are lying in your bed and the temperature drops 50 degrees instantly, and your things start hovering in the air, and you hear a voice calling out your secret sins, you know that’s not your imagination.”

So, yes, I believe this stuff does happen, though by saying that I don’t believe that every instance in which someone claims that it happened is genuine. The Exorcist, I think, retains so much power because most of us, even if we won’t openly admit it, believe that the events it dramatizes (based on a real case in suburban Washington from the 1940s) have basis in fact — I mean, that possession and exorcism is a real phenomenon. Here’s something from a 2012 interview with director Friedkin:

Do you believe that the film was, in part, responsible for the resurgence of Christianity in the US?

‘I know it was. I can give you specific incidents. I remember meeting James Cagney when we were both on a TV show. He said to me, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you, young man! For 35 years I had the same barber. He’s the greatest barber I’ve ever had. He saw your movie and he stopped being a barber, he entered the priesthood!”.’

So even as an agnostic, you’re okay with the idea of promoting religion?

‘Even those of us who call ourselves atheists, or think that the whole thing is rubbish, are curious about the mystery of faith. Is there anything to this stuff? “The Exorcist” offers one possible position. While I’m not Catholic, I’m overwhelmed by the idea that a 32-year-old man in a very small part of the world, who never left one word written in his own hand, has affected the lives of trillions of people. I look at the Catholic Church and I see these guys in these far-out costumes with all this gold, and I wonder what it has to do with this young man who went among the people, wore a simple robe and sandals, and healed the sick. But I also wonder how millions of people were willing to give their lives for their belief. And because I wonder, I’m curious about something like “The Exorcist”, which attributes that power to a true belief.’

The thing to remember about the movie is that evil does not win. The reality of evil’s power — that the demonic is not simply a metaphor — galvanizes the exorcist’s waning faith, and he offers himself as a sacrifice to save the possessed child. Still, I wish I had never seen the film, and wouldn’t watch it again. Too scary. It has a lot to do with why I don’t like Halloween.

What did you think of the film when you saw it? Have you ever had experiences with the occult, or with evil spirit? With ghosts? Open thread.