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The Exorcist: Believer

Content Caution

The Exorcist Believer 2023


In Theaters


Home Release Date




Paul Asay

Movie Review

It’s not easy being a single dad. But Victor does his best.

He’s been doing his best for 13 years now—and for the most part, Angela’s made it easy on him. The father and daughter subsist on hectic breakfasts and quiet dinners, tender smiles and inside jokes. Angela never knew her mom, so that two-person home is all she’s ever known. All, it seems, she’s ever needed.

But Angela is 13. Sometimes the girl wants to hang out with friends, too. And while Victor’s not a fan of adolescent trips to the mall or sleepovers, he does like to be the cool dad every once in a while.

So when Angela says she’d like to go to her friend Katherine’s house to do a little homework, Victor—reluctantly—says yes. As long as she’s home for dinner.

Dinner comes and goes, and no Angela. Katherine’s missing, too. The parents search the nearby woods for signs of them. They find abandoned backpacks, one lone shoe.

Three days later, a farmer’s son finds both girls huddled in the family barn. They’re whisked to the hospital and—except for the sorts of injuries you’d expect from someone walking 30 miles in bare feet—they seem healthy. Safe. Katherine’s parents are overjoyed. Victor would thank God if he believed in one. And the community celebrates, for a change, a story with a happy ending.

But is it?

The girls don’t remember what happened—or say they don’t. They believe they were gone hours, not days. And honestly, the teens just seem … off.

Soon, parental relief and joy settle into anxious watchfulness. Certainly, some residual issues could be expected after their mysterious absence. But the soiled beds? The new wounds? The fingernails peeled from the skin?

This is more than residual trauma, more than adolescent angst. Victor knows that there’s something wrong with his little girl.

But he doesn’t know—he can’t know—that his daughter brought someone (some thing) back with her. And it plans on sticking around.

Positive Elements

Victor does do his best for his daughter. From the outset, we see how close the two of them are. And when Angela starts showing signs of trouble, Victor strives earnestly to help her—first by not overreacting; then pursuing scientific solutions; finally by listening to other, more spiritual, possibilities. He’s willing to do almost anything to save his child.

While we don’t see much of Katherine’s home life, it’s obvious that her parents would do most anything for her, too.

But while familial love is important in The Exorcist: Believer, just as important is the concept of community.

Victor eventually seeks out Chris MacNeil, whose daughter also underwent an exorcism. (Played by the 90-year-old Ellen Burstyn, Chris MacNeil was the mother in the original The Exorcist.) She tells Victor that people of faith, as much as the object of faith, are the key to rescuing Angela and Katherine from the force that possesses them.

And while I’ll have more to say about that in the section below, we can praise the people who gather to help the girls—knowing that the process could be dangerous and perhaps even deadly.

Spiritual Elements

Pull down the safety bar and buckle in. This is going to get interesting.

The movie opens 13 years before its main storyline, with Victor and his still-alive wife, Sorenne, visiting Haiti. While even then Victor seems to have spiritual doubts, Sorenne is a believer—potentially, it would seem, in a lot of things.

She compliments someone and says, “God bless you.” When she walks into a church that Victor is taking pictures of, she’s visibly moved. “Jesus, cover this place with Your love,” she says. But the very pregnant Sorenne is also ushered into a space where women engage in an elaborate ceremony meant to protect Sorenne’s unborn baby. While the ceremony isn’t explicitly pinned to another religion, the Haitian locale suggests perhaps voodoo underpinnings (voodoo being an amalgamation of Catholicism, pre-Christian African spiritualism and a hint of Native American beliefs). She calls the ceremony incredibly beautiful. And the movie suggests—even at the beginning—that it’s pretty effective, too.

That ritual doesn’t do anything to protect Mom, though. And Sorenne’s death pushes Victor into a deeper place of unbelief. He rails against faith at one point. But when all the evidence points to Angela and Katherine being possessed by something supernatural, he eventually seeks out Chris MacNeil.

Chris sizes up Victor as a skeptic. “That’s good, but it’ll only get you so far,” she tells him. “After that, you’ll need real answers.” But for Chris, those answers don’t lie exclusively in her Catholic Christian convictions (despite their role in saving her own daughter’s life), but rather in a sort of universalism. She says she’s studied exorcisms in every possible faith tradition. She suggests the power of faith is not in the object of that faith, but in faith itself—and the community gathered to worship that object. And while she doesn’t dismiss the possibility and power of God, she seems to be casting a wider, more syncretistic net.

The exorcism itself might not be universalist, but it does boast an extreme form of ecumenicalism. There is, of course, a Catholic presence. But the pastor of Katherine’s Baptist church also participates, as does Victor’s charismatic neighbor, Stuart.

Most interestingly, they’re joined by a Dr. Beehibe, a ritualistic healer. When Angela disappeared, Stuart invited Beehibe and some of her followers into Victor’s home (without Victor’s permission) to conduct some sort of ceremony involving chanting and incense and the like. Later, she explains to Victor that she makes use of roots and herbs—healing agents from Africa. She burns candles, draws chalk symbols on the floor (inside which the girls are placed for the exorcism) and uses the home’s fireplace to counter demonic forces. She tells Victor that these ancient elements are effective: “Sometimes to go forward, you must go back.”

The vibe she gives off is pretty shamanistic or New Age-y, but she also knows her Scripture and prays sincerely to Jesus: The movie seems to suggest that, just as the Baptist preacher is just as Christian as the Catholic priest, so Dr. Beehibe is also just as Christian.

Catholicism still holds pride of place here—but it’s a different sort of Catholicism, too. The Catholic Church itself refuses to involve itself in the exorcism, so the heavy lifting is performed by Ann—a medical nurse who almost became a nun. For much of the exorcism she officiates (which one could interpret as a rebuke to the Catholic Church for not allowing female priests). And Ann uses the exorcism formula of Benedict throughout, making plenty of references to God, Jesus and “the dragon.”

Prayers are offered. Scriptures are read. Crosses are brandished, and Dr. Beehibe seems to create a bowl of holy water using her own untraditional (or perhaps very traditional?) methods. Most of the participants in the exorcism take off their shoes, perhaps indicating that the ground they stand on is holy.

The evil entity that these folks are trying to expel seems to possess both girls simultaneously. We should note that the girls essentially invite it in, using a spooky, childish rite to “talk” to Angela’s mother.

Sometimes it seems as though this spiritual entity comes from a Christian worldview—referencing hell repeatedly and responding to the very Christian rituals it’s subjected to. But it doesn’t always respond. One possessed girl voraciously reads the Bible and uses a cross as a weapon. We see flashes of the demon, as well as where it apparently came from.

During a Sunday worship service—one acknowledging Katherine’s “safe” return—Katherine visibly falls under the spell of darker forces. She sneaks away and apparently either defiles or devours communion elements, then staggers into the church shouting, “The body and the blood!”

As much as I’ve written about the movie’s spiritual elements, we could go on—but let’s just move forward. Naturally, we see tons of Christian touchstones, from stained glass windows to crucifixes to priestly garments. Katherine’s father laments that Katherine’s possession is a punishment for his own sins. Someone levitates. We hear loads of Scripture references and lots, lots more.

Sexual Content

Victor questions some vagrants who frequent the woods where Angela and Katherine disappeared. One talks about how girls sometimes go there … and he makes an obscene suggestion about what happens there by thrusting a breadstick through the circle he makes with his thumb and forefinger.

We see a few pictures of Sorenne, including one of her in a fairly gauzy outfit that reveals some of the body underneath. Under the influence of her possessor, Katherine may masturbate in a church pew.

We learn that a character—studying to be a nun—decided not to and became pregnant shortly thereafter. And what happened to that pregnancy, you ask? Well …

Violent Content

… though the word “abortion” is never used, it’s pretty clear that that’s what happened. The would-be mom continues to feel tremendous guilt, and the demon-possessed girls goad her repeatedly for destroying the unborn child. (All of this gives the film a surprisingly pro-life twist.)

The demon, meanwhile, tortures the children under its own “care.” One has an upside-down cross carved in her forehead, and both are covered in self-made scars. Fingernails and toenails either fall off or get peeled off, and the words “HELP ME” are carved on a girl’s  stomach. One smashes her head against windows; one attacks someone with a scarf. One laughs as blood from her pelvic region rapidly soaks through her hospital gown.

A possessed girl stabs someone’s eyes, and the wounds look horrific. In what might be a grotesque homage to the original, the entity twists the head of someone—snapping the neck and obviously causing death. (We see bones bulge beneath the skin as the attack takes place.)

Sorenne, along with several others, is killed in an earthquake. We see her near lifeless body lying on a broken stairway; she’s holding Victor’s hand and asking him to “protect her” (meaning their daughter, of course). The girls thrash against the bonds that hold them. In a supernatural sequence, we see one pulled down and dragged away. Both of their bodies contort in what looks like very painful, disturbing ways.

A dead horse lies in a field. Dogs fight. The girls are subjected to tests to see if they were sexually assaulted during their absence. (They weren’t.)

Crude or Profane Language

Five uses of the f-word and one use of the c-word. We also hear one or two uses each of “b–ch” and “h—.” God’s name is used inappropriately once.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Drug, alcohol, and/or tobacco use shown or referenced during the movie.

Other Negative Elements

Under the influence of the demon, Angela wets her bed. When Victor tells her to clean herself up and begins running some bathwater for her, he returns to find the tub filled with either blood or mud or other vile substances. When the exorcism’s participants file in, they’re shocked by how bad it smells.

As you might expect, the demon lies in order to shock or disturb those trying to expel it. And it’s tricksy, too—convincing someone to make a very selfish and tragic decision.

The girls expel gas and vomit blood (and boy, a lot of the latter).


In 1973, The Exorcist was released to a shocked and enthralled world. It was nominated for 10 Oscars and won one (for original author William Peter Blatty’s screenplay), an unprecedented achievement for a horror film. According to a poll from Rotten Tomatoes, it’s still considered the scariest movie of all.

And all this was for a film that was a true exercise (exorcise?) in faith. The Catholic Blatty wrote it as “a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through.”

Times have changed in the 50 years since. America is more secular now, more cynical, more desensitized to onscreen shocks. And it seems as though the makers of The Exorcist: Believer took all that change into account.

The result: a more muddled, less frightening movie.

While The Exorcist: Believer doesn’t jettison its Christian roots wholesale, it seems to hedge its bets. It makes a poke or two at what it perceives as Catholicism’s antifeminism. While it gratifyingly gives us some well-meaning evangelical and charismatic characters (as rare in mainstream entertainment as blue unicorns), they’re still largely one-dimensional caricatures—thrown in there as if the filmmakers were checking boxes.

And when it comes down to faith itself, the story wants to keep its options open. Is God real and powerful and involved? Maybe. Is it the power of our belief in that God that’s more at work? Possibly. When Victor asks Chris if all this exorcism stuff is real, she says, in essence, that placebos are real. Are exorcisms spiritually beneficial, as aspirin might be to a headache? Or are they merely placebos? The movie says … yes?

Pollsters today find that substantially more Americans believe in God than the devil. And while this film makes what appear to be well-meaning feints toward faith, it likewise seems to believe in the devil more than God. Rather ironic, given the film’s name. Like a priest who holds a shaky cross in front of a vampire, wondering whether it’ll work or not, this film lacks the courage of conviction. It refuses to examine its supernatural underpinnings and really grasp what it all would—what it all must—mean.

Add to that the film’s inescapable violence, sporadic language concerns and some rather ooky sexual elements, and you’ve got plenty of problems to weigh before trundling through this mire of a movie.

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Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.