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

Chambers, AC (2017) ‘Somewhere between science and superstition’: Religious Outrage, Horrific Science, and The Exorcist. In: International Congress for the History of Science, 23 July 2017 - 29 July 2017, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Abstract

Science and religion pervade the 1973 horror The Exorcist (1973) and the film exists, as the movie’s tagline suggests, ‘somewhere between science and superstition’. Recently released archival materials show the depth of research conducted by writer/director William Friedkin in his commitment to presenting and exploring emerging scientific procedures and accurate Catholic ritual. Where clinical and at times seemingly barbaric science fails, faith and ritual save the possessed child, Reagan MacNeil (Linda Blair) from her demons. The Exorcist created media frenzy in 1973 with increased reports in the popular press of demon possessions, audience members convulsing and vomiting at screenings, and apparent religious and specifically Catholic moral outrage. However, 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 and publically 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-OFB show that the church at least notionally interpreted it as a positive response to the power of faith. Warner Bros. Studios were however keen to promote stories of religious outrage to boost sales and news coverage – a marketing strategy that actively contradicted Friedkin’s respectful and collaborative approach to working with both religious communities and medical professionals. Reports of Catholic outrage were a means of promoting The Exorcist rather an accurate reflection of the Catholic Church’s nuanced response to the film and its scientific and religious content.

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