“You know the interesting thing about skeptics is that we’re always looking for proof. Question is: What on earth would we do if we found it?” — Father Lucas Trevant, The Rite, 2011
The Vatican Tapes, a movie about demonic possession, is going to be playing in theaters this weekend, which got me thinking about a very important, practical question:
If I were possessed by a demon, who is the person I’d want performing the exorcism?
I have never been possessed, and also do not know anyone who is currently, or was at some point, possessed. That means my experience in this particular field is limited only to things I have read in print and things I have seen in movies. So when answering this question I can only pick from people who I’ve seen perform exorcisms in movies.
When deciding whom to pick, the first thing that needs to be established is what makes for a successful exorcism and what makes for an unsuccessful exorcism. The answer here would be obvious: The exorcism that extinguishes evil, that banishes the demon back to where it came from, is a successful one, and the one that does not is not. That’s easy.1
I emailed, sent texts to, and spoke with a number of people while working on this. Let me say thanks to those who took time to answer my questions. Also, let me say thanks to horror novelist David Blackthorn, whom I spoke with on the phone for a reasonable amount of time and asked unreasonable questions to about exorcisms in movies.
But exorcism movies often end the same way: with evil gone. So, how do we determine which was MORE successful? An exorcism is a battle of biblical proportions and fallout. The casualties associated with a particular exorcism are negligible, so long as the demon is prevented from spreading evil. That’s what’s important. If a little girl or a priest has to die in order to limit the Devil’s reach, then so be it. In fact, we invite it. Self-sacrifice is an essential trope in these films.
And yet, deaths definitely matter when measuring exorcisms against each other. How can they not? If you have two exorcisms and they both end with the demon being exorcised but in Exorcism A two people die and in Exorcism B no people die, then Exorcism B was clearly the more successful exorcism. A single human life is minuscule when measured up against the fate of the entire planet, but I am a single human life, as is everyone I love and care about. So, I’m going to choose the exorcist who has a history of being able to do his or her job without letting Satan eat the spirit of anyone who happens to be around while it happens.
With that in mind:
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Keep These Morons Away From Me
Movie: The Devil Inside
Exorcists: Father Ben Rawlings and Father David Keane
These two dolts.
In The Devil Inside, a woman named Isabella is making a documentary about exorcisms. She’s particularly interested in them because her mother was said to have been possessed 20 years prior and killed three people during the exorcism they tried to perform on her. While filming, Isabella meets Father Ben and Father David. They allow her to tag along to an exorcism they’re performing on a separate person. They do so, and it seems successful, but turns out it super was not. A demon, presumably the same one, takes over Father David’s body. He tries to kill a baby during a baptism, and then later puts a gun in his mouth and shoots himself. The demon hops over to Isabella. Terrible things happen. Father Ben tries to get it out of her as they take off in a speeding car. The demon hops out of Isabella and inside of the driver of the vehicle, who spins into oncoming traffic. So that’s four people dead, a baby nearly drowned, and whoever happened to be in the car that they hit is probably dead, too.
So, no. Nope. No. Not these two. I don’t understand how anybody with any sort of training is as bad at anything as these two are at exorcisms. When I get possessed, keep these two all the way TF away from me. Let me just work that out by myself. Or send in LITERALLY ANYBODY ELSE. Send in a balloon on a string with a face drawn on it. It’s going to do a better job exorcising a demon from my corpus than Father Ben.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Send This Guy in If the Only Other Options are Father Ben and Father David
Movie: The Last Exorcism
Exorcist: Reverend Cotton Marcus
Reverend Marcus, a faithless minister who seems to specialize in performing exorcisms on people who aren’t really possessed, meets a farmer’s daughter who’s said to be possessed. He figures out that she’s not actually possessed when she offers him “a blowing job” instead of “a blow job,” a mistake a demon would never make because demons are very into fellatio, I guess. Turns out, the girl is just having a psychotic break because her mother died and also her brother joined a cult after their mother’s death and the leader of the cult (or perhaps someone or something else) got her pregnant (OR SOMETHING).
But guess what: Marcus realizes she WAS possessed after he and his crew stumble across her giving birth to a demon baby in the woods during a cult assembly (OR SOMETHING). It’s a goofy, confusing, clumsy ending. The two people Reverend Marcus was with definitely die and Marcus probably dies, too (we last see him running toward the cult holding his cross). The cult wins. The Devil wins. The demon baby gets thrown into a bonfire. It’s all bad. A common trope in these movies is that the person who ends up performing the exorcism is a person whose faith is wavering, and I get that. Reverend Marcus was just a little too skeptical for my liking. He’s the Reality Bites Ethan Hawke of religious figures. Keep him far from me.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Call This Guy, But Only Let It Ring Once or Twice Before You Try Someone Else
Movie: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
Exorcist: Father Richard Moore
The wild thing about The Exorcism of Emily Rose is that it’s (loosely) based on a real and true story, and that’s not to say that her being possessed by demons was true, but that an exorcism definitely took place.
It happened in Germany over a 10-month period from 1975 to 1976. The woman, Anneliese Michel, had a history of mental illness. Her parents contacted the Catholic Church and asked them to perform an exorcism on her because they believed she wasn’t suffering from mental illness, but from demons in her bones. Michel had exorcism rites performed on her one to two times a week, each one lasting hours and hours, for those 10 months. She eventually died from malnutrition and dehydration. Her parents and two priests were convicted of negligent homicide.
Emily Rose follows basically this exact plot, though it very much argues that she was, in fact, possessed (by SIX demons, no less, one of which was Lucifer himself). She dies in the movie, and I don’t want to die during my possession, but no babies get cooked, so I guess if I had to choose between this and that then you should call this guy before you call Reverend Marcus.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Get These Guys If It’s Looking Very Bleak and You’re Sure I’m Going to Die
Movie: Scary Movie 2
Exorcists: Father McFeely and Father Harris
The opening of Scary Movie 2 is a very doofy re-creation of the end of The Exorcist. The only thing sensible in it is Father McFeely’s first reaction when he walks in and sees the possessed girl (he says, “Oh, fuck this,” and then tries to leave). McFeely (played by James Woods) and Harris (Andy Richter) end up vomiting on each other and also on the girl, McFeely tries to have sex with the girl,2 and then it ends with McFeely getting frustrated with her saying bad things about his mother and so he shoots her and kills her. I’m not that excited about having sex with James Woods, but it’s followed by a quick death and that’s preferable to the way it turned out for the first three picks on this list.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Get Ahold of These Two People If We Can’t Get a Real Priest or Father or Reverend or Anyone Who’s Ever Been to Church Even One Time
Demons keep trying to get the exorcist to sleep with them. I don’t get it.
Movie: The Conjuring
Exorcists: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren
The Conjuring is about a family who moves into a house that once belonged to an accused witch who sacrificed her baby to the Devil, killed herself, and also cursed anyone who would ever move onto her land.
In the case of this exorcism, the family is at least a tiny amount to blame. Early in the movie the witch very clearly tells them “I want your family dead,” and I don’t understand how you hear that and are like, “It’s a good idea for us to still live here.”
Ed performs the exorcism, saves the woman the witch had possessed, and also manages to keep anyone else from dying. This despite not being a member of the clergy. I’m very disappointed in Fathers Ben, David, Richard, McFeely, and Harris and also Reverend Marcus. The only problem here is Ed maybe didn’t all the way erase the evil (the movie ends with an allusion to future bad things to come, which we now know definitely happened because they made a spinoff and also have a sequel planned, as well), so that’s how he ends up here. He’s ahead of everyone who let the person who was supposed to be saved die, but also below everyone else who saved the person they were supposed to be saving.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, I Wouldn’t Mind Having This Guy Show Up
Exorcist: Father Andrew Kiernan
He literally walked through literal fire, literally, to save his subject. That’s very clutch. He also stopped a guy from strangling her to death. That’s very clutch, too. She lived. He lived. Sunny days. I’m in. I’m in on Father Andrew. I’m in on anyone who puts foot to fire.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Find Father Michael
Movie: The Rite
Exorcist: Father Michael
Michael was actually only trying to game the system to get a college education when he entered the clergy, but ended up realizing that he held just the right amount of skepticism to make him an optimal exorcist. He gets paired up with Father Lucas, an expert exorcist, and so the two begin working together. On their first case, Father Lucas performs an exorcism on a pregnant girl in a hospital. She ends up dying, her baby ends up dying, and the demon ends up inside Father Lucas, which is the exact opposite of how I’d like for my exorcism to turn out. So I don’t want him. I definitely DO NOT want Father Lucas. He’s terrible for being such an expert. He’s an expert at exorcisms the way Kevin James is an expert at being funny. Instead, send Father Michael to rescue me. He steps in, saves Father Lucas, and doesn’t let anyone else die while doing so. No flash, no flurry, just results.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, and It Turns Out I Was Secretly in the Military, Get This Guy
Movie: Deliver Us From Evil
Exorcists: Father Mendoza
Here’s what you need to know about Mendoza, and it’s all you need to know: He exorcised a demon FROM A MARINE. Can you even imagine the kind of trouble a demon Marine could get into? I’m afraid of just regular human Marines. I want as little to do with a demon Marine as I can get. Father Mendoza is a good pick.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Get This Guy, and Also Get a News Crew Because We’re About to Up the Church Attendance Rate by 1,000 Percent
Exorcist: Father Jebedaiah Mayii
Repossessed is a parody of The Exorcist starring Leslie Nielsen. Father Mayii eventually uses rock and roll to defeat the Devil, and I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s sort of the point.
The movie is very dumb, but it accidentally brings up an interesting point. As part of the plot, some people want to televise the exorcism because they see it as a good way to generate a lot of advertising money. That’s a goofy idea, but if we concede to the far-fetched notion that exorcisms are real, why wouldn’t the church decide to feature them prominently? Wouldn’t a televised exorcism be basically the best proof of all that the afterlife exists, that heaven and hell exist, that the Devil is real and so, too, must God be? If you show an exorcism on TV at 5:30 p.m. today, by 5:45 I’ll have PayPal-ed all my money to Joel Osteen and will have thrown away any and all sinful things in my life, I promise you that.
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Absolutely I Will Take Either One of These Two, but Especially Father Karras
Movie: The Exorcist
Exorcists: Father Merrin and Father Karras
This is the most famous exorcism movie (and arguably the best, as well). It ends with Father Merrin and Father Karras trying to exorcise the demon Pazuzu out of little adorable Regan. Pazuzu ends up killing Merrin, and then, at the request of Karras, leaves Regan and enters him. Pazuzu tries to get Karras to attack Regan, but Karras fights him off long enough to throw himself out of her second-story window, killing himself and (presumably) quarantining Pazuzu to Karras’s lifeless corpse, where Pazuzu will (presumably) wither away into nothingness.
I respect Karras’s dedication here. If I’m trying to save someone’s soul and while I’m doing that my soul gets overtaken with the demon, well, then we’re just all going to die now. That’s just a thing that has to happen. Karras is a good man, a righteous man. He saved Regan and banished the evil and that’s wonderful. But he also let his friend die and also killed himself in the process, and so those are marks against his otherwise very successful exorcism. He beats out every exorcist except one.3
If I’m Possessed by a Demon, Call This Guy FIRST
Let it be known that technically Merrin and Karras didn’t defeat Pazuzu for good, as he returns in Exorcist II: The Heretic. That movie is absolute garbage and did not factor into this evaluation. As far as I’m concerned, Exorcist II does not exist. The Exorcist III, though, contains cameos from Patrick Ewing, Fabio, Larry King, C. Everett Koop, and Samuel L. Jackson. I’ll allow it.
Movie: The Possession
My A1 pick. My main guy. The unstoppable force. The LeBron of exorcisms. Give me Tzadok.
Nearly all possession movies exist inside the Catholic Movie Universe. In The Possession, though, we’re outside that, with a Hasidic Jew named Tzadok battling against Abyzou, a demon who is fond of taking children.
Abyzou possesses a little girl named Em, Tzadok stands off against him, and Abyzou jumps inside of her dad, Clyde, at Clyde’s request, which — quick sidebar — I’m fairly confident is a thing he asked for 100 percent not thinking it could actually happen. I mean, I love my kids very much, as most dads do, as Clyde did Em. But if a demon hops inside one … it’s just … look, I have three sons. If one of them becomes good friends with the Devil, I have two more left. That’s fair. That’s a fair trade. It’s not a great thing, but it’s a fair thing, and an honest thing.
At any rate, Tzadok exorcises the demon out of Em, then after it jumps into Clyde, Tzadok hits him with a fury-hammer of prayers so hard that Abyzou literally crawls out of Clyde’s mouth and back into the box he’d come from. Nobody dies from the exorcisms. Evil is eradicated. Clyde and Em are closer than ever before.
Tzadok is that dude. If I get possessed, you send me Tzadok.