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This Is Why Horror Movie Exorcisms Are So Scary

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With the release of The Pope’s Exorcist, exorcisms have risen to the forefront again. Exorcisms tend to be the ultimate climax of a paranormal horror film; we spend an hour establishing the possession, collecting evidence and researching the entity, until the all-too-familiar but nonetheless frightening ritual. But the portrayal of exorcisms themselves are difficult to do, especially with extraordinary predecessors like The Exorcist (1973) and the more recent The Conjuring franchise. Aside from the anticipation, violence and effects, what truly makes an exorcism terrifying is its basis in reality. Despite the divide between people who believe in the supernatural and people who do not, there is no contest about the practice of exorcism existing. Although they are often inaccurately represented, there are elements retained from historical exorcism reports that undoubtedly make us uneasy.. The Real History of Exorcisms. Image via Sony. Exorcists have existed (and still do) in the majority of cultures and religions, but the Western imagination is preoccupied with those from Catholicism. In 2004, the Vatican reintroduced an old code that made it mandatory for each diocese to have an appointed exorcist, and provided specialized training that was exhibited in a 2011 film, The Rite. The practice’s roots in reality allow filmmakers to use the ever present clickbait “based on a true story,” drawing on prior cases like the notorious careers of Edward and Lorraine Warren. Each installment of The Conjuring universe concludes with side-by-side photographs from the film and from the unsettling events they were inspired by. It’s even more unnerving hearing about more recent cases like a 3-year-old girl that was tragically killed during an exorcism in September 2021, where she died from asphyxiation due to her mother holding her down.. Unfortunately, exorcisms haven’t been restricted to individuals that have been possessed by a dark entity. Decades ago, exorcisms were performed on people who had mental health conditions like schizophrenia or severe depression, with their symptoms being mistaken for possessed behavior. Even people who experience epileptic seizures or personality alterations from brain damage will undergo exorcisms in particularly devout communities. The procedure itself is extremely intense and can include administering drugs or forced fasting, causing immense mental stress that can produce exorcism-like responses. There would also be a subconscious bias to act a certain way during the ritual, similar to the placebo effect. Even Russell Crowe’s character in The Pope’s Exorcist addresses the practice’s past as he claims “the majority of the cases to which I have been assigned do not need exorcism,” and previously he had sent one of his clients to seek out a psychiatric professional instead.. RELATED: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist’: Here’s What Made Russell Crowe Believe Father Amorth’s Accounts. Image via Warner Bros.. The Vatican and qualified exorcists in the Catholic Church have responded to the representation of exorcisms onscreen and the general consensus is that they are dramatized and warped. We all know that Hollywood has a penchant to depart from realism, but with subjects as extreme as exorcisms, it’s hard to give it a second thought. Exorcists have confirmed exorcism tropes like speaking in unknown languages fluently, knowing things they shouldn’t know and the aversion to holy objects are accurate. But exorcist assistant Mary Chasteen discusses in an interview with Inverse, that the entire basis of exorcisms are on faith, love and prayer. In reality, exorcists first confer with mental health professionals and work together to determine if a person needs an exorcism or not. Exorcisms are a last resort and are approached gently with minimal harm to the patient, at least until the procedure in under way. She also questions the Warrens’ decision to encase the original Annabelle doll, claiming that entities that possess objects can always be removed. The idea certainly subverts the recurring theme in paranormal films, where the malevolent entity tends to linger past the conclusion.. Based on the files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican, The Pope’s Exorcist features an almost conspiratorial storyline that concludes with a spiritual clash against a possessed young boy. The Pope’s Exorcists’s trailer was met with hostility by the International Association of Exorcists (IAE), who declared it as “splatter cinema” and condemned any doubt it could spread against the Vatican and religious beliefs. Since films that contain exorcisms directly involve religious practitioners, the community generally criticizes its blatant inaccuracies and inconsistencies. In contrast, Father Amorth himself enjoyed a friendship with William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist (1973), and was a big fan of the film itself. Although the film was a distorted version of his Church’s beliefs, he was excited that discussions of the occult and the antichrist was on the rise, garnering more attention and pleas of help to exorcists.. Why We Are Morbidly Drawn to Exorcisms. We can all agree that most horror fans seek out gory or scary films to enjoy a rush of adrenaline in the safety of our own homes. We can also agree that pain and death gruesomely fascinates us, whether it be the gladiator fights millennia ago, public executions centuries ago or contemporary horror films. Although exorcisms certainly tick these boxes, the elements of reality and strangeness also captivates us. Unless you are an exorcist or have had an exorcism performed on you, the practice almost lives on an alternate reality: a horribly alien concept we cannot fathom but also cannot question. It’s paralleled to cannibalism or serial killers; we know these situations exist, but they are distant. As such, film seems to be the only way to connect to, or experience, them in all their horrifying glory. Good exorcism scenes are also difficult to execute since it generally involves several people standing in a room while yelling at each other. If the balance of intensity, vulnerability and retaliation isn’t effectively maintained, it often comes off as laughable; whereas in the cases it is, they can become some more the more haunting scenes that remain with us long after the film.. Exorcisms have been a hallmark of paranormal films, often becoming the critical moment that determines the success of the film. Although films don’t maintain fidelity to the actual practice, the dramatization and violence onscreen certainly manages to unnerve an unexperienced audience. But what makes exorcisms truly terrifying is that you don’t even have to be possessed by a malevolent entity to be mistakenly eligible for one 

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