For fifty years, the world has been haunted by the stories of Regan MacNeil, her mother Chris, and Fathers Karras and Merrin in the Exorcist franchise. Spanning five films and a short-lived TV series, Ellen Burstyn returns with a new cast and new possessions in The Exorcist: Believer. What has compelled audiences to keep coming back so long after the first, most-iconic installment? The power of Christ? Or has Pazuzu been more persuasive? Join us as we take a look at the series’ defining traits. Don’t worry, none of them are in Latin.
Part of what makes possession films so scary is the idea that they could happen to anyone, anywhere. We see that in this franchise, with most films taking place either in Georgetown, the small town of Derati in Kenya, or the fictional Percy, Georgia, with the second film splitting its time across multiple locations. Being religious-themed stories, it’s understandable that they delve into intellectual themes such as faltering faith and morality. Half of the series has women in leading roles, and a majority of films also highlight courageous and loveable characters. However, only two films, The Exorcist and Dominion, have a villain as a lead, personified in Pazuzu possessing a character. In addition to combating demons in other people, The Exorcist III, Beginning, and Dominion all feature leads also facing demons of their own.
As with most stories of horror and exorcism, the Exorcist franchise is rife with mishap and misfortune, while half also incorporate violent crime, particularly murder. Though only Believer reintroduces the original’s themes of family problems and the single parent-child dynamic, all films in between explore tales of psychological distress plus the paranormal battle of good and evil permeating the entire series. With elaborate costumes, makeup, and special effects in at least half of all films, the franchise has created an iconic tone and look, especially for victims of possession, that has been both emulated and lampooned for decades.
In addition to the religious themes and a now-iconic musical motif, the series’ tense, dark, and often disturbing mood, combined with instances of harsh violence in III, Beginning, and Dominion and jump-scares throughout (the best perhaps being in III) make this franchise one of the long-standing pillars of horror. With two more sequels reportedly on the way, it seems no amount of Latin will keep these demons at bay, at least for now.