It’s October, which means that people all across the country are carving their jack-o-lanterns and preparing themselves for the scariest holiday of them all, Halloween. This is traditionally a day when people celebrate ghosts, ghouls, and everything that goes bump in the night. But many Catholics would like to “baptize” this holiday and celebrate it in a much more Christian manner, like dressing up their kids as saints rather than monsters or movie characters. However, there is one popular Halloween tradition that can be difficult to Christianize: watching horror movies.
Most films in this genre either ignore God completely or take a very superficial view of our faith, presenting it simply as a tool to rescue people from their demonic tormentors, but there are some exceptions. For example Deliver Us from Evil, a 2014 possession movie loosely based on the ministry of real-life NYPD officer and Catholic demonologist Ralph Sarchie, is one of the best cinematic depictions of Catholicism I’ve ever seen.
While the film does take a few artistic liberties with some of the details of demonology and exorcism, it understands that our faith is not just a tool to rescue us from scary things. Rather, all deliverance and exorcism ministry, in fact all spiritual activity of any kind, is ultimately meant to bolster our relationship with God and bring us closer to him.
A Faithful Priest
The spiritual heart of this movie is Fr. Joe Mendoza, a Jesuit exorcist played brilliantly by Edgar Ramirez. He is one of my all-time favorite onscreen priests, as he shatters the preconceived notions that most people today have of the clergy. When we first meet him, he is engaged in an intense physical workout, and then he stops off at a bar for a quick drink. This is a very brief introduction to the character, but it demonstrates an important truth about priests: they’re real human beings with normal human lives, something that even many Catholics often forget.
Along similar lines, Fr. Mendoza is also very open about his sinful past. He willingly acknowledges the countless ways he has failed to love God throughout his life, including several grave sins he committed after his ordination, and he makes no pretense of being perfect. He knows that he needs God’s mercy just as much as anybody else, and this humble honesty prepares viewers for the film’s message and softens their hearts and minds to receive it.
That message centers on Officer Ralph Sarchie, a lapsed Catholic who begins working with Fr. Mendoza after a series of bizarre incidents that initially seem to involve mental illness or drugs. Throughout the film, Sarchie is haunted by an undisclosed sin from his past, and at one point during his work with Fr. Mendoza, the priest firmly but lovingly invites him to confess it. After a harrowing experience with the power of both God and the devil, Sarchie finally accepts that invitation, and he receives the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time since he was a child.
That alone makes the film remarkable in a culture that is not very interested in God or authentic Catholicism, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. The movie uses the example of Officer Sarchie to make a larger point: we cannot successfully battle the devil and his minions if our souls are burdened by sin and we are separated from God. We must first divest ourselves of that weight and get right with our heavenly Father before we can even have a chance of defeating our demonic foes.
Exorcism Is Not Magic
In this way, the film teaches us two essential truths about exorcism that most movies of its kind forget. First, exorcism is not magic. Demons don’t leave people automatically just because a priest says certain words. No, exorcism works by the power of God, and as with any other spiritual ministry, its effectiveness depends on the faith and sanctity of the one performing it (Matthew 17:14-21). As Fr. Gabriele Amorth, probably the most famous exorcist of modern times, says in his book An Exorcist Explains the Demonic:
“Faith matters a great deal in the exorcist’s work…a priest who has been appointed by the Church to the ministry of exorcism reduces his effectiveness if he does not adequately cultivate his life of faith…Therefore, the exorcist is called to a life of particular sanctity; it is essential to his ministry.”Gabriele Amorth, An Exorcist Explains the Demonic: The Antics of Satan and His Army of Fallen Angels, 107.
The Real Purpose of Exorcism
Secondly, this theme of confession and repentance also shows that exorcism isn’t an end in itself; rather, it is ultimately a means to bring us closer to God. Most possession movies end with the characters all going their own way and continuing to live just like they did before, but that is not how it works in real life. As Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” (Matthew 12:43-45)
In this little parable, Jesus tells us that when someone is successfully exorcised, their body (the demon’s former “house”) becomes empty, and if it remains that way, it will be susceptible to the same or even greater evil once again. As a result, when a person is liberated from the devil’s grasp, they must fill themselves with the grace and love of God, and only then will they be truly free.
And that is exactly what Deliver Us from Evil tells us, albeit in an indirect way. We don’t find out what happens to the possessed man after his exorcism, but the story is not really about him. It is about Officer Sarchie, and his experience in the film brings him from a life of sin back to the Catholic faith. Even though he is not the possession victim, he is the one who is truly freed from the power of Satan. His journey from unbelief back to faith takes center stage, showing us that this kind of healing is greater than healing from possession. The most important thing is to be made right with God and to liberate our souls, not just our bodies, from Satan’s grasp.
A Truly Catholic Horror Movie
So if you’re looking for a good horror movie to watch this October, check out Deliver Us from Evil. It is a gripping film that combines likeable characters (including an amazing priest) with a compelling story, and it captures important truths about faith, exorcism, and sin in a way that I have not seen in any other movie.
Unlike most films of its type, this one understands that exorcism is not just magic and that liberation from demonic possession is supposed to lead us back to God and to a life of grace. This is a truly Catholic horror movie, so if you want something that will entertain you while also nourishing your faith, this is a great option for your Halloween celebration.