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In the "there-are-no-atheists-in-foxholes" department, I recently rewatched William Friedkin's The Exorcist for perhaps the 12th time. I once again had my judgement confirmed that it is a great movie, one of the greatest, true to its convictions and willing to go where no movie before or since has gone. I mean, a young girl stabbing herself in the groin with a crucifix and yelling "Fuck her, Fuck her" and then pulling her own mother's face between her legs and saying "Lick me." Robert Mapplethorpe would have killed for such extreme performance art.
But that's not my point. I'm not here to praise or evaluate the controversial shock nature of The Exorcist or any other work of art. I'm here to slyly point out that when popular entertainment takes religion seriously, people respond.
The fact that all the doctors and all the spinal taps and all the psychiatrists and all the Ritalin in the world could not bring Regan (Linda Blair) out of her possession is what makes The Exorcist work. Belief in the supernatural is what saves the day. Why do you think it was called "The Exorcist" instead of "Demon Child" or "The Devil Gonna Getcha"? Because Max Von Sydow's Father Merrin and Jason Miller's Damian Karras are the point of the story, even if they are not the "stars" or the center of the plot.
The Stars of Our Show
The entire first two-thirds of the film are geared to make non-believers – and let's face it, that means most of us – suspend our non-belief because the situation with the dear little girl and her mother is so dire, so horrible, and so incurable, that no amount of modern post-enlightenment scientific mumbling from white-coated doctors means squat. She's got the devil in her. Period. Send for the priests! Only holy water and special robes and ancient incantations and the repetition of "It is the Power of Christ that Compels You" has a chance of success. The entire strength of The Exorcist rests on wrestling the audience out of its modern complacency and into a mindset in which there IS a God, there IS A Devil, there is a fight between good and evil that we have a barely even chance of winning.
But let's not stop with the heaviest example. Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark – a popcorn chomping entertainment if ever there was one – is built around the belief, and eventual proof, that the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly containing the actual tablets written on by God and given to Moses and carried around the desert by the Israelites and kept in the Holy of Holies and stolen by the Romans from the Temple in Jerusalem thousands of years ago, really contains supernatural power. Hitler believes it. The Nazis chasing it believe it. Indiana Jones believes it...or at least thinks it might be true. And by God, when they finally open it in the cave, it does have supernatural powers. Strong enough to melt faces!
Raiders are Believers
All that digging and fighting and chasing and running and torture is justified not by some obvious earthly treasure, but by the truth inherent in ancient beliefs. And in the end that power gets locked away in a Charles Foster Kane style storage space, presumably never to be unleashed again.
There are tons more examples of this: Rosemary's Baby required the belief in the devil. The Omen had a demon child with 666 written on his neck. Even comedies like Bruce Almighty or Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade as Heaven Can Wait by Warren Beatty) and the modern TV show The Good Place accept as their foundation belief systems that millions have tacitly abandoned. They work hard to get a wayward audience back on a religious track. And the audience goes along! Maybe because they never really strayed very far in the first place. After all, don't we always say, when a loved one dies, that they're in a better place, looking down on us, and reunited with the mothers and fathers and grandfathers and even dogs that went before? Do we believe that? Really? Maybe we do. Maybe we're all believers at heart.