‘The Exorcist: Believer’ and the Rise of Real Possessions

The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t just bring back the demonic possession experience in all its horror; it goes deeper and is more disturbing than the original Exorcist.

In The Exorcist: Believer (2023), two little girls become demonically possessed.

Whether you speak to devout religious people of faith or ardent atheists, or anyone in between for that matter, the topic of demonic possession is bound to evoke an intense response from most.

Demonic or spirit possession has been prevalent since antiquity and can be found in every corner of the world. In addition to being an intrinsic part of almost all religions and spiritual belief systems, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and of course Christianity, it can also be found in the majority of ancient cultures around the world that predate these religions including Greece, China, Babylon (now modern-day Iraq), Egypt, Australia, Africa and all throughout Mesoamerica.  

Even in the 20th century, though the concept had typically repelled people in fear, modern society embraced the phenomena in mainstream culture with the classic 1973 horror film, The Exorcist. Directed by the late William Friedkin, who recently passed away at an age of 87, the film portrays the story of a desperate mother named Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) trying to save her teenage daughter named Reagan (Linda Blair), who is possessed by an ancient evil spirit. 

Two priests fight for Reagan MacNeil’s life in The Exorcist (1973).

The Exorcist successfully combined elements of drama, suspense, the supernatural, religion and horror to become a classic; it is known today as not only a genre defining cinematic masterpiece, but also one of the best horror films of all time. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture of the Year, which is still rare for horror films. It is now part of the nomenclature when it comes to demonology, horror films and pop culture. It has spawned several sequels and remakes since 1977, even a TV series in 2016, none of which have even come close to leaving the impact on the world of film and TV, or culture itself, than the original.

Among the genre of horror films, The Exorcist redefined the entire genre of horror. Considered by many at the time as a taboo subject, the movie brought demonic possession to the forefront of mainstream society by dramatizing, rather than simply sensationalizing it, leaving the realistic possibility the scariest element. With its vivid and raw depictions of an exorcism to purge a satanic spirit, The Exorcist left behind a legacy in horror films that continues to this day. Even the music used in the film still leaves a mark on fans. The instantly recognizable ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield automatically reminds viewers of the chilling movie. The Exorcist was a film way ahead of its time, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers and became one of most financially successful horror films ever made. 

The Exorcist screenplay is an adaptation of the 1971 novel by the same name from the late William Blatty. The novel’s original premise was reportedly based on a true incident of possession in 1949 involving a little boy in St. Louis. With its riveting scenes of levitation, projectile vomiting, inverted crab-crawling, demonic growls, and a human head turned backwards; just how accurate are the depictions in The Exorcist, or for that matter other horror movies and TV series that deal with the supernatural? Among the handful of experts that could answer this compelling question, is a leading authority on demonic possession and exorcism and the supernatural/occult, preeminent Parapsychologist/Anomalist Christopher Chacon. 

Christopher Chacon is an expert on the occult and a leading authority on demonic possession.

Chacon is regarded as one of the world’s top authorities on supernatural/occult and paranormal phenomena, with over 40 years of experience having dealt with thousands of cases of hauntings, poltergeists, possessions and all manner of supernatural phenomena from around the world. He is regularly brought in by law enforcement, scientific and academia groups, government agencies and religious institutions to confidentially consult and assess reported phenomena. The Catholic Church is among the most frequented religious institutions utilizing Chacon on countless occasions to deal with all types of phenomena; from reports of divine miracles to violent possessions. Chacon’s unique multidisciplinary method of dealing with phenomena in a concise and confidential manner explains why he is in such high demand.

In a 2014 interview with the late Father Gabriele Amorth, Vatican’s appointed Exorcist in Chief prior to his passing, spoke of Chacon; “Mr. Chacon is one of the few we would consult to deal with on only the most extraordinary of circumstances. He has been utilized on countless cases around the world, dealing with possessions, infestations, stigmata and all types of situations that are too extreme, some phenomena that is yet unknown.”

According to Chacon, there are indeed parts of The Exorcist that are realistically depicted. “For the most part, the majority of depictions in the movie are actually quite accurate compared to the most extreme cases of possession and exorcism, both regarding the phenomena itself and in many of the aspects of the Rituale Romanum,” Chacon said. “Even the exhaustive steps depicted in the film for trying to find a rational explanation were portrayed quite accurately.” But Chacon reminds us that the first priority of most movies and TV programs are not to depict events realistically, but rather to create gripping drama. “When making comparisons between phenomena depicted in entertainment and in real-life, it should be kept in mind that films/TV are entirely driven by the narrative, with the objective to entertain; so, any evaluation or investigative methods depicted, as well as aspects of the expulsion ritual, are typically streamlined, if not entirely changed and/or omitted. In most real-life cases of authentic possession, there is not always a clear-cut cause and effect; plus, many never know the origin, identity, and intent of the intruding entity/being or a definitive conclusion of the phenomenon, it can last anywhere from multiple days to months, and yes, even years. Most films not only quickly investigate and resolve the possession phenomenon, but also convey a logical cause and effect of the phenomenon to give the story some manner of closure or at least some understanding to wrap-up the narrative.”

And now, just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Exorcist in October 2023, comes The Exorcist: Believer, a direct sequel to the original 1973 film. Although there have already been four previous sequels, this new film takes you on a journey that’s scarier, involving the simultaneous possession of two young girls, and the return of Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), the mother in the original film, who helps the parents of the little girls try to exorcise the demonic spirit.

The highly anticipated horror film has been creating huge buzz among horror aficionados and fans that have been eagerly waiting for another installment from The Exorcist franchise. The heart-pounding film is visually reminiscent of the original installment, but significantly more unsettling, highlighting the hopelessness and raw emotional turmoil occurring as a result of the pure evil they are up against; sure to send chills down your spine and nightmares abound. Produced by Jason Blum, who has brought us some of the most terrifying memorable films in recent years, including Paranormal Activity and Insidious movie franchises, and Directed by David Gordon Green, who most recently brought us the re-imagined Halloween movies; the film stars Leslie Odom Jr. as the father of one of the girls that becomes possessed. Seeking to give the story a unique perspective and make it as distinctive, authentic and realistic as possible, Green and Blum brought Chacon onboard as the Technical Advisor and Creative Consultant. 

The possessed girls in The Exorcist: Believer.

The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t just bring back the demonic possession experience in all its horror; it goes deeper and is more disturbing than the original Exorcist. The insidious evil possessing two innocent girls witnessed by all who are helpless to stop it, making the agony, fear and despair felt by the parents of these children very tangible. Shocking, terrifying, gut-wrenching; the experience in this story is much more intimate; emphasizing the visceral reactions to these unimaginable events, as well as the extraordinary jaw-dropping phenomena. 

With The Exorcist: Believer revisiting the enigmatic phenomenon that continues to plague victims in real-life, for decades now multiple sources around the world have been reporting huge increases in requests for exorcisms; begging the question is there indeed more cases of demonic possession taking place? According to Chacon, the answer is a cautious but resounding yes. “Based on reports of possession and the request for expulsion rituals dealing with such phenomenon around the world, it is indeed true that there have been more reports of possession and more requests to deal with them, not only by Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations, but with all religions and spiritual faiths,” Chacon has dealt with thousands of cases of possession, involving just about every religion or spiritual belief system in the world. 

 Chacon said that a properly conducted scientific investigation of demonic possession should include proven methods of evaluation to rule-out other explanations and determine validity of the phenomena. “There are several models, techniques and procedures that can be used to first rule-out explainable causes for each case of reported possession, many of them evidence-based,” Chacon said. “While these can certainly help in determining the authenticity of any type of phenomena, unfortunately, many who deal with these reports do not utilize these methods. Personally, every case/client I deal with must first go through multiple thorough examinations, including psychological and physiological assessments and background checks. I have found that 70% to 80% of all cases are not supernatural, but rather have explainable causes, such as psychological, physiological, circumstantial and environmental, and or a combination of more than one; because of this fact, it is imperative to first and foremost rule out these explainable conditions.” Even with that majority of reported cases being explainable, that still leaves some 20% to 30% of cases that are documented as real phenomena! 

When dealing with authentic possession, the proper investigation and research is much more complex than most people would think, Chacon pointing out how even some authentic cases of real phenomena have been entirely misinterpreted. “I have dealt with countless cases where the phenomenon was reportedly demonic or evil and turned out to be quite benevolent or an entirely different phenomenon all together; and in other cases where the phenomenon was interpreted as being benign and harmless and was extremely volatile,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why it is imperative to conduct any assessment of phenomena with an objective perspective, being sure to collect all data and not rushing to conclusions to avoid any type of confirmation bias. How one approaches, investigates and interprets these phenomena is pivotal to better understanding it.”

According to numerous research polls and surveys over the past few years, there is a growing increase in the number of Americans who report having a paranormal experience and/or a paranormal belief with everything from alien beings to angels, with about half of the U.S. population in 2023 believing in demons. These growing numbers are exponentially greater when looking at data from countries and cultures from around the world. 

The girls in The Exorcist: Believer unfortunately follow in Regan MacNeil’s footsteps.

Since it opened in theaters 50 years ago, The Exorcist is considered one of Warner Brothers Studios’ highest grossing movies of all time, making over $420 million dollars that year, which would be about $2.9 billion dollars today if you account for inflation. Dozens of other horror movies franchises have since followed in its wake, and while many have had huge box office success, many spawning sequels and even remakes, none of which can equal the cinematic brilliance and grandiose of The Exorcist. Similarly, The Exorcist: Believer now brings back to the big screen this perfect story-telling combination, plunging audiences into this supernatural world, with a horrifically new story that grips and terrifies you in a similar way as the original.

As The Exorcist: Believer pushes the boundaries of realistic horror to new levels, it reaffirms that horror films are a staple of Hollywood; supernatural and paranormal topics permeating the entertainment and media landscape to meet the voracious demand for them. “Entertainment media’s love of scary supernatural narratives in movies, TV and literature is primarily the result of proven profits; the scary content supplies the ever-growing demand for supernatural horror stories that terrify fans,” Chacon said. He continues, “But the psychology that goes into why the demand is there and why people love to be scared is a bit more involved. Horror films, TV shows and all forms of entertainment that are scary allow audiences to experience fear in a controlled, enjoyable, and safe manner. The experience of coming face-to-face with evil without any real threat is gripping and exhilarating at the same time; an experience to many that can be somewhat addictive.” 

Chacon said there are an infinite number of reasons why people would subject themselves to an experience of terrifying imagery. “Scary supernatural content taps into our primal instincts; the fear of death, the unknown, losing what means most to us, and allows audiences to confront these fears in a controlled safe setting, thereby embracing fears and allowing ourselves to cope with them in the real world. While most people hate to experience fear, a significant number also love to be scared by this type of entertainment and experience the psychological and physiological stimulation that it triggers. The scares produced in horror movies not only trigger the natural defenses of fight or flight (also called hyperarousal or acute stress response), but also the calming feeling following this biological process commonly known as rest and digest. The process can produce an addictively calming state that makes you feel better. And if the idea of a sociopathic killer is scary, just imagine how much more terrifying that an elusive, evil intangible entity that cannot be killed or stopped would have.”

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn, right) returns for The Exorcist: Believer.

Like the 1973 film, The Exorcist: Believer sequel is sure to throw fuel on the already blazing fire of fascination and curiosity with demonic possession and the rituals used to expel insidious demons. The story is about two young girls who disappear in a forest for 3 days and return violently ill and eventually possessed by malevolent demonic spirits. The film stars Leslie Odom Jr. as one of the parents of the possessed little girls. Also featured are Leslie Nettles and Ann Dowd, along with the reprisal of Chris MacNeil from the 1973 film, played by Ellen Burstyn. Which begs the question about Linda Blair who played the possessed teenager Reagan in the original movie. Not to reveal any spoilers; but lets just say that for this to be a sequel to the original and in consideration of the future, there is certainly an eye-opening moment. 

The Exorcist: Believer is the first installment of a trilogy of new sequels; the next film, The Exorcist: Deceiver, presently due to be released in 2025, promises to be even more terrifying. In the meantime, Chacon will continue to deal with real cases of demonic possession around the world that are beyond anything that can be depicted in a movie. And if the current data collected over the past decades holds true, by the time the next sequel is released, the number of possession cases would have risen significantly. 

Further reading:

Meet The Author

Alex Distefano is an accomplished, award-winning Journalist with over two decades of experience as a freelance writer, specializing in heavy metal music, punk rock, cannabis, culture, art, tattoos, comedy, and food. He is based out of the Los Angeles area. He also works as a professional transcriptionist and ghostwriter.