The Rite is jumping out onto Blu-ray and DVD in a few days and we’ve managed to tie down Matt Baglio,the author of the original book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcism, and ask him about his involvement with the film and his experiences with the exorcism class which inspired the project.
Baglio attended the class whilst working as a journalist in Rome and the experience was compounded by his relationship with Californian parish priest Father Gary Thomas whom Baglio shadowed as he went through the course and the result was The Rite – an examiniation of exorcism and religion in the 21st Century.
Here’s the interview,
Was it a journalistic instinct to attend the Exorcism class? Or were there any spiritual questions you hoped to address?
In the beginning it was strictly journalistic. I heard about this course being offered at a university that purported to train exorcists and I was instantly hooked. As an outsider I thought this could be a great opportunity to get a glimpse into a world that for many years had remained hidden, and I was right. Then, once I began attending the lectures and witnessing exorcisms the material opened me up to the broader questions about the existence of a spiritual world and the implications what that might mean. Just like anybody I wanted to find the truth, and I kept digging. In the end I wasn’t able to answer every question, but I think that the book as a whole really presents the reality of the world of exorcism in a way that it hasn’t been presented before. Certainly there has never been a book this in depth about what it is like to be an exorcist.
There is a central theme to the story of the acceptance of faith and the acceptance of fate – was there anything in the class you took that gave you the impression that faith was more important than intuition or reason?
Well from a religious point of view intuition and reason are gifts that can get you only so far. Reason is basically saying that through deduction I will be able to find truth. For a religious believer, ultimate truth, i.e. the ability to understand the fullness of life, isn’t something that we as humans are equipped to understand through our own abilities. And so we admit that there is something greater than us who knows the plan and how we fit into it, which is essentially faith (at least that’s how I look at it).
For an exorcist, having a strong faith life is like putting on a suit of armor, and many have told me that they just wouldn’t be able to do what they do without their faith. However that doesn’t mean that they don’t also value reason and intuition. Exorcists screen people through psychiatrists and other medical professionals before they ever begin praying the Ritual. So there is obviously a level of deduction that is important to the process.
Exorcists are typically incredibly humble, (requirement for their ministry) and something they attribute to having strong faith. As one exorcist told me: “The second you start looking at yourself as having some kind of power you can get into real trouble.”
When you were writing the novel did you consider it being a story that could be told cinematically?
Well it’s important to say that the book is Non-fiction. It’s not a novel. I basically followed an American priest, Father Gary Thomas, who underwent a year of training here in Rome. He allowed me to interview him and have access to his journals and notes. My goal was to write a realistic and accurate book. And in hindsight I have to say that the stories I heard from interviewing exorcists were way more bizarre than anything I could have made up. Some of those stories made it into the film, such as the spitting up of nails, etc., others did not.
When I wrote it I obviously wanted it to be a story that people could follow and enjoy, but I was more concerned about being accurate than cinematic. Real life doesn’t always follow a cinematic arc, but there were certainly elements in Father Thomas’ journey that lent themselves to a three-act structure. It’s just that it wasn’t my goal to artificially create this when I wrote the book, which would have felt too contrived.
Do you think that the people who read the book and those who will see the film are attracted to the possibility of finding an absolute truth, i.e. If we know the devil exists then God must also exist? And did that strike you as a possibility before you started the class?
My hope is that people will read the book and watch the movie because they like good stories about normal people being thrown into abnormal situations and then overcoming adversity to win out in the end.
People read stories about the paranormal for a variety of reasons. My goal in writing this book was to give readers the most accurate picture possible of the reality of the world of exorcism as it exists today. These are not cases that happened fifty years ago; some are still going on.
Many people are curious about the existence of spirits and I think all of us have had a moment in our lives at some point where we question the possibility that maybe something unexplainable just happened.
Personally I believe that it is a fallacy that one has to approach God through the devil, but I understand the dynamic, especially how it was presented in the film. For some people it might work that way, but not for me. I never set out to prove that the devil existed to get people to believe in God. But I do hope that people will read my book and think twice about some of the decisions they make and really try to live a moral and good life, regardless of whether they believe the devil exists or not.
The film of The Rite will obviously be compared to the 1973 classic The Exorcist, consciously or otherwise, did the writing of the book or the filming fall under the shadow of William Friedkin’s film, or did you deliberately strive to avoid it?
I understand why The Exorcist is a benchmark for the genre, but I think it’s kind of unfair to compare it to The Rite. In many ways, my book was an attempt to reframe the whole concept of exorcism and take it away from the silly horror genre that has come to dominate it. I was very happy with the film (The Rite) because I think it presented the topic in a serious way and resisted easy answers. It was definitely accurate. I have had many exorcists who have seen the film tell me how much it mirrors their own experiences.
Another thing I appreciated about the film was how it dealt with the concept of evil. In other exorcist films it’s really out in the open, and is obviously effective for that reason. But in The Rite it’s more hidden, and in many ways reflects the deviousness associated to the concept of the devil as it was presented to me in the exorcism course I took.
When you approached your story knowing religion and faith would be the prominent aspect, did you ever feel under pressure to be fair to both sides, or to put it another way: can we have a discussion about faith through the medium of film?
I hope we can have a discussion like that. Obviously faith is a hugely important thing to a lot of people in the world. I think it is also why the topic of exorcism touches us so deeply. When I set out to write the book I really tried to stay objective and just write it like a journalist would cover any topic. I didn’t want to take sides and say this person was silly for doing this or that, but just report it as it happened and then let the reader judge. I tried to get both sides of the story and I feel I was able to really put exorcism under a microscope in a way that hasn’t happened before. Perhaps it’s because I am a curious person by nature, but I didn’t stand on pat answers and so in the end the book is a real exploration of the topic from all sides.
It is funny because most people would assume that the topic of exorcism is extremely ‘fundamentalist’ in nature, but it’s not. Instead you have exorcists who work with psychiatrists and psychiatrists who believe in demonic possession.
The most interesting thing I found out was that most skeptics really didn’t know what goes on during a real exorcism. They just take the most obviously fake cases, or those involving mental illness, and hold them up as the norm, when those would be the first cases that an exorcist would have ruled out himself. My hope is that my book has changed the discourse in such a way that more serious-minded scientists will turn their attention toward this world.
How were your feelings towards religion challenged and changed by the experience of the class and the writing The Rite?
Writing the book was a real journey for me. I started out objective, but in the end you have to follow the research where it leads you. In this case it definitely increased my spirituality and made me understand the value of prayer. That is not to say that I still don’t have questions and some problems with organized religion. The book is not really about me anyway, but Father Gary Thomas’ training. It’s also not a book that is trying to convert people to one religion or another.
Exorcism can be found in just about every major religion. There are even some psychologists who admit that exorcism can have psychotherapeutic benefits if it’s done in the right way. The one thing that resonated the most with me, and something I really tried to hit on in my book, is that in the end it all comes down to our own actions. Whether you believe in evil spirits or not, we are all responsible for the choices we make.
The Rite arrives onto Triple Play Blu-ray™, DVD on 20th June and digital download on 17th June 2011.