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‘Somewhere between science and superstition’: Religious Outrage, Horrific Science, and The Exorcist

Chambers, Amy (2020) ‘Somewhere between science and superstition’: Religious Outrage, Horrific Science, and The Exorcist. History of the Human Sciences. ISSN 0952-6951 (In Press)

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The Exorcist (1973) is entrenched in both science and religion. Recently released archival materials show the depth of research conducted by director William Friedkin in his commitment to presenting/exploring emerging scientific procedures and accurate Catholic ritual. Where clinical and at time barbaric science fails, faith and ritual saves Reagan from possession – the film is, as the tagline suggests, ‘somewhere between science and superstition’. The Exorcist created a media frenzy; there was an increase in reports of demon possessions, audience members convulsing and vomiting at screenings, and the film was framed as a sacrilegious work by the popular press who reported apparent Catholic outrage. But the official Catholic response to The Exorcist was not as reactionary as the press claimed. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Film and Broadcasting (USCCB-OFB) officially condemned the film as being unsuitable for a wide audience, but reviews produced for the office by priests and lay-Catholics, and correspondence between the Vatican and the USCCB show that the church at least notionally interpreted it as a positive response to the power of the church. Reports of Catholic outrage were a means of promoting The Exorcist rather an accurate reflection of the church’s response to the film and its scientific and religious content.

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