'The Exorcist' Filmmaker Reflects On Filming 'Real' Exorcism In His New Doc

Kathleen Miles
William Friedkin and Father Amorth. (LD Entertainment)

VENICE — In 1974, when director William Friedkin released his famous horror film, “The Exorcist,” he knew very little about exorcism, by his own admission. Now, 43 years later, he has filmed an exorcism in Rome for his new documentary, “The Devil and Father Amorth.” The film focuses on the recently deceased Father Gabriele Amorth, a priest who was assigned as chief exorcist in Rome by the vicar there. Friedkin films Amorth exorcising ― for the ninth time ― Rosa (not her real name), a middle-aged Italian woman who says she is possessed by the devil.

The WorldPost sat down with Friedkin at the premiere of the documentary at the Venice Film Festival in Italy. Demand for exorcisms has reportedly been on the rise in Italy as well as in Spain, Mexico and the United States, to which Catholic dioceses have responded by training more clergy to conduct the ritual.

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WORLDPOST:

One might say that anyone who entertains the possibility of possession by the devil is enabling people like Rosa and perpetuating their suffering by preventing them from getting the medical treatment they need. What’s your response to that concern?

FRIEDKIN:

They’re not preventing her. Father Amorth, very simply, would not perform an exorcism on anyone who did not first see a physician that he knew and a psychiatrist.

WORLDPOST:

But the fact that the church, Rosa’s family and a community in Italy all believe it possible to be possessed by the devil could be mentally preventing her from seeking help outside of the church. She is surrounded by people who are enabling ― and some might say exploiting ― her belief.

FRIEDKIN:

Rosa sought outside help and didn’t get it. She went to psychiatrists and physicians but continued to have these fits, mostly during Christian holidays. She told me that the only thing giving her any peace was Father Amorth’s exorcisms.

Her family, coming from a very old religious town, believed that these fits had to do with possession. They knew that Father Amorth had liberated many, many people, like the other woman in my film who tells her story of how his exorcisms liberated her. 

She went to psychiatrists and physicians but continued to have these fits, mostly during Christian holidays.

WORLDPOST:

We never find out what happened to Rosa in the end. Did the exorcisms ultimately help her or hurt her?

FRIEDKIN:

As far as I know, she was not liberated. She was seeing another exorcist after Father Amorth passed away.

WORLDPOST:

You quote Rosa’s brother as saying to you about your film of her exorcism, “If you run this tape, it will ruin her life.” What do you think the impact of this documentary will be on her?

FRIEDKIN:

I felt tremendous empathy for the pain of this woman who I saw and photographed. I hoped, as Father Amorth did, that she would get help. From somewhere else. Possibly from either a psychiatrist in Italy or a neurologist. Or, she has seen other exorcists. I understand that she has not been liberated. And I believe that Father Amorth was there to try to help her and give her freedom from whatever ails her.

Her family told her she was possessed. If someone tells you for the greater part of your life that you are this or that ― that you’re stupid or that you don’t need to go to college because you should marry a rich guy ― you believe it.

Let me put it this way. I shot the film hoping I would see a liberation. Father Amorth was planning to continue until she was liberated. So was I, and so was she. But that is not what happened. He died, and she was cut loose. I have nothing but empathy for her. I feel pain seeing her suffering this way. And I’m hoping that this film will bring her help.  

I certainly believe that she believed she was possessed. And that her family and everyone around her believed that she was possessed. I believe that Father Amorth ― who says in the film, “She is possessed by the devil” — was there to help her. My film is more about his attempt to help her than about her life.  

She told me that the only thing giving her any peace was Father Amorth’s exorcisms.

WORLDPOST:

Before you filmed the exorcism, did you have her consent?

FRIEDKIN:

Of course! Father Amorth introduced me to her and the family. They knew who I was. She had never seen my film, “The Exorcist.” She told me that she was too scared to see it, but she knew about it. They asked for my autograph, and they could not have been nicer.

WORLDPOST:

Why do you think they changed their minds and ended up begging you not to run the tape of her exorcism?

FRIEDKIN:

There are other factors involved in her life that I’m aware of that I just don’t feel comfortable speaking about and didn’t include in my film. But Father Amorth told everyone what I was doing, and I sat this close to them, two feet away, with a camera, and they knew exactly what was happening. And they were hopeful, too, that what would happen in that film was a liberation.

WORLDPOST:

In the film, one of your interviewees warned you to stay away from getting too close to the devil or studying the “darkness” too closely. Similarly, Rosa’s boyfriend said, “If you show [the tape of Rosa’s exorcism], it will be used by Satan’s followers.” Do you think there are some things that are so destructive that it’s better to not highlight them, lest it create a following?

FRIEDKIN:

Should the stories of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson not be told? On what grounds does a journalist who has access to these horrors abstain from sharing them? Because of the fear?

She was told by her family that she was possessed. If someone tells you for the greater part of your life that you are this or that … you believe it.

WORLDPOST:

Now that you’ve seen an exorcism, if you were to make “The Exorcist” today, would you do it differently?

FRIEDKIN:

Totally! I would not have included those special effects — head spinning, levitation, bed-rattling. Those are all part of the mythology of exorcism that William Peter Blatty — writer of “The Exorcist” screenplay and 1971 novel behind it — made world-famous. Blatty wanted to do, as he says in this documentary, a nonfiction story about the 1949 case, which was on the front page of The Washington Post when he was an undergraduate. But no one would tell him anything about it. The exorcist he spoke to was under instructions by his bishop to not divulge anything.

“The Exorcist” movie — it’s just a great story. When I was making the film in the 1970s, I had no further interest in the subject. I was only aware of Father Amorth through his books. I was always curious about him and skeptical that this man had performed 30-40,000 exorcisms. I thought, this is ridiculous. Then I met him last year and became very interested.

A still image from “The Devil and Father Amorth." (LD Entertainment)

WORLDPOST:

You say in the documentary that this was the first-ever filming of an official Catholic exorcism. Did the request to film it go up to the Vatican?

FRIEDKIN:

No, the Vatican doesn’t allow it.

WORLDPOST:

So it was just Father Amorth who approved it?

FRIEDKIN:

Exactly. He was on his own.

WORLDPOST:

Was he risking getting in trouble with Pope Francis?

FRIEDKIN:

No, he did his own thing. In his books, articles and interviews, he denounced the Vatican. He said that Satan is in the Vatican. And the Vatican never responded. 

Exorcism is not entertainment. It’s not a perfect science. It does resemble psychiatry in the sense that if you go to a psychiatrist, you’re not healed after one visit. And Rosa was not healed. When I met Father Amorth, he had been exorcising one man for 16 years. The Vatican doesn’t want it known that there are people out there who believe they are possessed and are not liberated. They will probably have no comment on this film. 

WORLDPOST:

In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council implemented modernizing reforms on the Catholic Church. Some clergymen felt it removed the notion of the supernatural and the devil. Now there are clergymen trying to bring that back, including Pope Francis, who has surprised many by talking about the devil and sin. Did you experience that sort of revival in the making of your documentary?

FRIEDKIN:

Father Amorth was against the Second Vatican Council. He felt that it weakened the ritual of exorcism. He felt that they modified it too much. And he was at odds with the Vatican over that. The ritual that Father Amorth used was not the ritual that is recommended by the Second Vatican Council. He used the Roman ritual of 1614. 

People are seeking help today from wherever they can get it. The world is mad, as we sit here.

WORLDPOST:

There are numerous television shows now that purport to portray “paranormal activity.” How do you think these shows and other cultural representations of exorcisms have affected exorcisms in the real world?

FRIEDKIN:

They’re all lies. There’s a television series called “The Exorcist,” which I haven’t seen. That would, to me, account for a possible rise in exorcisms in the U.S. I have nothing to do with that.

WORLDPOST:

Why do you think people are looking for help from, as you say, “lies”?

FRIEDKIN:

That comes under the heading of the mystery of faith. Why do people believe in anything? There are all sorts of strange new religions and cults. I know people who claim to have been really helped by Scientology ― I mean, normal people. People are seeking help today from wherever they can get it. The world is mad, as we sit here.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.