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T HE EXORCIST OPENED IN THEATERS the day after Christmas, 1973. Critics were divided. Vincent Canby, the longtime critic for the New York Times, called it “occultist claptrap.” Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic was skeptical at first but concluded that the point of the film was “to cut through everything we’ve learned and cultivated, to get down to the talent for fright that we are virtually born with.” An unsigned review in the Wall Street Journal warned that “lasting art is rarely designed to appeal to baser instincts and emotions.” The film was profane, gory, despairing—a sign, some more puritan critics worried, that Hollywood was ready to embrace the unspeakable.

Audiences couldn’t get enough. In Beverly Hills, lines spanned blocks for an eight a.m. showing—and hundreds had to be turned away. Crowds in New York City lit bonfires and scuffled in the streets. Tickets were being scalped. Security guards were bribed. One showing was canceled when the impatient crowd “stormed” the theater. “All kinds of people,” Time magazine reported, “have been infected by Exorcist fever”—including “Teenage girls on triple-tier” wedges, “pin-striped businessmen,” soldiers, old women, and immigrant Catholics. 

Kauffmann said those in the crowded theater with him were “entertained by horror; they giggled after most of the possession scenes (after, not during), a sure sign that they had been shaken and had to right themselves.” Others didn’t recover so easily. Some filmgoers worried that they were themselves possessed. The film triggered nightmares, paranoia, hallucinations, and depression. The manager of a Los Angeles theater said “each performance exacts an audience toll of four blackouts, half-a-dozen bouts of vomiting, and multiple spontaneous exits.” University of Connecticut psychiatrist James Bozzuto wrote a study for the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease about four cases he treated of “cinematic neurosis”—somatic responses to the film. 

The Exorcist helped to resurrect American cinema. It contributed to a twenty percent jump in ticket sales—it was an experience to be had live, with others, in a dark room. Those long lines were a pilgrimage. You had to see The Exorcist to believe; you had to believe in order to be afraid.

When The Exorcist was released, more than half of American Catholics still attended weekly mass. The numbers were declining from the mid-1950s, when three-quarters of Catholics went, but were still well above today’s thin attendance. The Exorcist played to an audience for whom God was real—or at least real as a memory, like the surge of nostalgia we feel on returning to our childhood home.

James Baldwin ends his seminal work of film criticism, The Devil Finds Work, with his take on the film. He saw it first with a friend, and then returned alone. Baldwin thought about his own lost faith after watching The Exorcist, the memory of his “adolescent holy-roller terrors,” a time that “marked me forever.” His words are prescient: “In some measure I encountered the abyss of my own soul, the labyrinth of my destiny: these could never be escaped, to challenge these imponderables being, precisely, the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.” 

Baldwin thought the devil we know—“in the eyes of the cop and the sheriff and the deputy, the landlord, the housewife, the football player, the eyes of some governors, presidents, wardens, in the eyes of some orphans, and in the eyes of my father, and in my mirror”—was more terrifying than cinematic evil. Yet the only way he could honestly receive the film was to consider it in the context of his spiritual markings. When he saw it for the second time, he wrote, “I was most concerned with the audience. I wondered what they were seeing, and what it meant to them.” For scores of people, The Exorcist was a subversive liturgy.

If we are to be entertained by horror, we must open ourselves up to being marked by that horror. Baldwin didn’t love the film—but he appreciated how The Exorcist shook him. For years, horror films have needed God. What does it look like, then, if God is absent from horror? The answer might be found by considering the genre’s route from a 1962 low-budget film, A Carnival of Souls, to Midsommar, a new release from a provocative director.

In the early 1960s, Herk Harvey made industrial and educational films for the Centron Corporation in Lawrence, Kansas. Following his service in the navy during World War II, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in film at the nearby University of Kansas. A skilled director, he helped devise a method to simplify and speed up special-effects production. Harvey punched well above his cinematic weight and longed to direct a feature film. After a few local investors created a modest fund, he released A Carnival of Souls in 1962.

Carnival of Souls. Directed by Herk Harvey, 1962.

The film was a financial bust because of mismanaged distribution. For years, it was relegated to late-night television, which Harvey actually thought was the right place for it: “there are a lot of people, at that particular time of night, who can relax and sort of let themselves get in the mood.” He called Carnival of Souls “a film that you have to go out to in order to get something from.” Its strangeness requires our openness; we must meet the story. Carnival of Souls is a story of grief, despair, and loneliness—a distant ancestor of Midsommar.

The film starts with an impromptu drag race—first on roads, then continuing onto the shaky and narrow Lecompton Bridge. A car containing three women crashes through the railing and into the Kansas River. One of the passengers was Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), a church organist who didn’t want any part of the chase. She was merely a passenger, silent and not in control. The film’s quick beginning—with no establishing characterization or set-up—is disorienting. 

Disorienting, but not amateurish. Harvey’s film is many things—melancholic, odd, full of cardboard characters with expressions that range from exaggerated to deadpan—but it is effective. Carnival of Souls feels like falling asleep; we’ve entered some other world mid-moment.

Miraculously, Mary climbs out of the water and onto the sand. As she stumbles forward, her rebirth is watched by townspeople looking down from the bridge. Dizzy and dirty, she looks like a phantom. In fact, Mary never quite looks right in the film; she’s always lost in her thoughts, or tired, or paranoid. Hilligoss never makes Mary pathetic—she’s a talented organist who has accepted work at a church in Utah. Yet she’s agnostic, describing her church work as simply a job. “I’m not taking the vows,” she says. “I’m only going to play the organ.”

On her drive out West, Mary sees a mysterious, pale man. He haunts her throughout the film, as does an abandoned pavilion that she passes in Salt Lake City. Years earlier, Harvey, returning from making a Centron film in California, saw the Saltair building at sunset, describing it as “Russian, Arabesque.” Constructed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1893, the resort was rebuilt in 1925 but struggled to stay open. Over the years, the Great Salt Lake has both flooded and receded from the site—leaving it like an abandoned desert warehouse. For Mary, though, the pavilion is her secular church.

Her new job is at one of the few non-Mormon churches in the area, an Episcopalian parish whose minister is initially impressed with her talent: “We have an organist capable of stirring the soul.” After Mary finishes playing, the minister notices that she is staring at one of the stained-glass windows. He asks her what she sees, and she appropriately says, “Oh, nothing, nothing at all.” 

She doesn’t last long at the church. During a later practice, she becomes ecstatic, descending into a cacophonous performance. Wind rustles vestments hanging in the other room. Flashes of the strange man and errant corpses interrupt the scene. The minister stops her. “I feel sorry for you,” he says, “and your lack of soul.”

Mary will never find comfort in the church because she doesn’t believe. Her soul belongs to the pavilion—a dry place bereft of the living. In one scene, when the minister drives her to the abandoned property but refuses to go inside with her, we see the apparition looking at Mary with a longing gaze, and then look down. Mary does the same.

Like him, she is in purgatory—trapped in this world but not truly here. Mary’s gestures toward God—her music, the pavilion, her mixture of longing and fear for the apparition—are ultimately empty because she cannot conceive that God could be real. Carnival of Souls relies on the possibility of belief to create its horror; Mary is surrounded by those with faith, and yet they cannot comfort her.

Comfort is what Rosemary Woodhouse seeks in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)—a film as aesthetically different from Carnival of Souls as one could imagine, but sharing its existential fear of an absent God. Nebraska-born and raised, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is unsure of New York City. 

She and her husband Guy (John Cassavetes) are shown an apartment whose previous tenant had died just a few days earlier. Their current landlord informs them that the building has a bad reputation—cannibalism, devil conjuring—but they get the place anyway. They eat on the floor their first night, the room lit by a lamp in the center. It is September 1965. Pope Paul VI is set to visit the city in a few weeks—the first time a pope would visit America.

The Woodhouses hear late-night chanting from the adjoining apartment. They don’t seem very concerned. Guy is a television and theater actor and does his best to take nothing else seriously—and it has rubbed off on quiet Rosemary. Later they meet Roman and Minnie Castavet, an old couple whose houseguest—a woman they’d picked up off the street—jumped from their apartment window to her death. 

Much like Mary, Rosemary is prone to strange dreams. Catholic-schooled in Omaha, she feels out of place among Guy’s secular crowd. She dreams of Sister Agnes, the nun from her grade school. The nun is first speaking in Minnie Castavet’s distinctive, sharp voice—and saying her words: “I told you not to tell her in advance; I told you that she wouldn’t be open-minded.” Terry, the young suicide, appears to have been Catholic like Rosemary, and suspicious of the Castavets’ cultic ways. 

The next day, Rosemary and Guy have dinner with the Castavets. Roman says “no pope ever visits a city where the newspapers are on strike,” referencing the Newspaper Guild strike that sidelined the New York Times and other city papers. Minnie says that she hears he’s going to postpone until the strike is over. Guy quips: “That’s showbiz.” The Castavets laugh. Rosemary smiles, then looks back down at her food. 

Roman continues his diatribe: “That’s exactly what it is. All the costumes, the rituals, all religions.” “Costumes” is a telling choice here; a Catholic, believer or not, wouldn’t use such a word, but Roman is clearly focusing on the style and sensibility of Catholic belief. Minnie notices that Rosemary is uncomfortable and quiet. “You’re not religious, my dear, are you?” Roman asks. 

“I was brought up a Catholic. Now I don’t know,” she responds. “He is the pope,” she adds. Though Rosemary demurs, she affirms her cultural Catholic identity. Her faith remains her moral compass, and that from which she pivots—here she is quite different from Mary Henry, for whom faith was ornamentation and artifice. Rosemary’s defense of the church is institutional and nostalgic.

Her Catholicism is most acute when her identity is questioned or challenged, or during her dream states. Later, she becomes lightheaded after eating Minnie’s chocolate mousse, which had a “chalky undertaste.” While she swoons in the kitchen, Guy sits in front of the TV, watching the pope at Yankee Stadium. “Christ, what a mob,” Guy says of the audience, before adding, “That’s a great spot for my Yamaha commercial.” 

Rosemary faints. Guy carries her to bed, where she dreams she is floating on a mattress in an ocean, and then on a yacht with a wealthy crowd and President John F. Kennedy in his navy uniform. The scene switches between her apartment, where Guy is taking off her dress, and the yacht, where the skipper won’t let her former landlord on the boat: “Catholics only. I wish we weren’t bound by these prejudices, but unfortunately.”

The sequence descends into one of the most infamous scenes in cinema: Rosemary is raped by the devil himself. Brushed with blood, she is powerless as a group of nude men and women—including Guy and Minnie—surround her in cultic devotion. Afterward, she sees Pope Paul VI walk toward her, and she asks to be forgiven for not seeing him at the stadium. 

Rosemary has several sources of pain in the film, but its main genesis is her separation from the Catholic comfort of her youth—a world in which she was loved, however sternly. Here in the city, among Guy and the others without God, she feels terribly alone. 

In The Exorcist, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is alone. An agnostic actress, she frantically seeks the answer to her daughter Regan’s sickness. James Baldwin wrote, “Satan also plays on the guilt of Regan’s mother—her guilt concerning her failed marriage, her star status, her ambition, her relation to her daughter, her essentially empty and hypocritical and totally unanchored life; in a word, her emancipation.”

For many contemporary viewers of the film, Chris is a paradox. She is vulnerable as a mother, and as an unbeliever—she is spiritually unprepared for the evil that has come to her home. Save for an introductory scene in Iraq and a few sequences at nearby Georgetown, most of the film takes place in the MacNeil home—and in the claustrophobia of Regan’s bedroom. Despite Chris’s unbelief in God, her only hope rests in the exorcists Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max Von Sydow).

Late in the film, Karras and Merrin sit on opposing sections of a staircase in the home. “Why this girl?” Karras asks. “It makes no sense.” He’s exhausted—his face blanched by a wavering faith. An ex-boxer and now Jesuit psychiatrist, he’s wracked by guilt over not taking care of his infirm mother and the worry that his spiritual life is a lie.

Karras and Merrin are not looking at each other. We see them between the staircase rungs. Merrin shakes his head. “I think that the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.” 

For all of its visceral terror, that idea is the center of The Exorcist: by possessing a child, the devil defiles our innocence. He extinguishes our sense of hope. 

The Exorcist depends on a tenuous thread of faith—its protagonists are all hurt and skeptical—yet the foundation of the exorcism rite gives the film an ironclad ritual. Since its release, the film has been a curious Catholic rite of passage. In immigrant Catholic homes like my own, The Exorcist was less a warning and more of a story to be appreciated: the purest mainstream Hollywood distillation of Jesuit Catholic ethos. The abstraction of the devil making its most vulgar announcement: the perversion of a young girl. This perversion did not happen on some other plane of existence, or in hell; it happened here. And this grotesque spectacle of power leaves those in the audience wondering why God has not protected us.

I use the collective pronoun when talking about these films because their directors—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish, respectively—could assume certain traits of their general audience. The audience was comprised of believers, and those who were lapsed. Even ardent atheist viewers often had a distant memory of belief. These assumptions matter because horror is a genre of borders: good and evil, real and unreal, faith and doubt. Without the tension between these borders, horror can become flimsy and hokey. 

Midsommar, the new film from Ari Aster, arrives without any such assumption of religious belief or practice. As with his previous film, the disturbing Hereditary, Aster builds his spiritual base from the ground up—and leaves his characters particularly vulnerable to despair and loneliness. Early in the film, Aster delivers the type of scene he has already become famous for—the onrush toward terror. We are in a suburban Minnesota home. The film slows. Music blares. A young woman, Terri, has killed herself and her parents by running garden hoses from the cars’ exhaust pipes into the house upstairs—into the bedroom where her parents are sleeping, and into her own mouth. It is a macabre scene, unfolded meticulously by Aster. 

Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster, 2019. Photo: Csaba Aknay. Courtesy A24.

The deaths leave Terri’s sister Dani (Florence Pugh) miserable and alone. Her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), holds her while she sprawls on a couch. The pitch of her continuous wailing is unsettling. She is empty. Unlike Mary, Rosemary, and Chris, Dani has no God—or absent God—for solace. In such a world, the ultimate fear is utter loneliness. 

At least, we think, she has Christian—but he is selfish and narrow-minded. Broken by the death of her sister and parents, Dani unfortunately clings to Christian even more, tagging along with him and his graduate-school friends to Hälsingland, Sweden. They arrive at the family farm of one friend, Pelle, for a summer festival. Folk music greets them as they walk through a sun-like structure into a clearing. A few dozen people move and frolic about. They are overjoyed to see Pelle.

A maypole, covered with shrubbery, could at first be mistaken for a cross. Men are dressed in frocks. Young girls in white dresses hold garland crowns of mugwort and vervain and sprigs of larkspur. The scene is pleasantly eccentric. Minor ceremonies and dances follow; during one, Christian joins a train of dancers, leaving Dani and Pelle alone. Pelle gives Dani a portrait sketch of her that he’s drawn for her birthday—a birthday he’s remembered, though Christian has not. Pelle is the only one who provides any measure of comfort to Dani, but she remains committed to her boyfriend.

Midsommar’s most recurring visual theme is disorientation. We are often given wide visual berth, but that allows Aster more latitude for disruption. The clearing is flat and open, and that allows us to see its different sections. The group walks past a caged bear, and Pelle blandly acknowledges its presence. The friends sleep in a two-story barn house, the walls covered with occasionally obscene murals. All of this unfolds in front of a contemporary audience that is confused on several levels: Is this a cult? Are they dangerous? Both are true. What at first seem like pagan eccentricities become violent.

The spirituality of Midsommar is foreign because religion itself is now foreign to horror audiences. Carnival of Souls, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Exorcist—for all their perversions and subversions—unfold in worlds where God and, by extension, religious practice exist. 

There is no God in Midsommar

The traditional horror film tension between belief and unbelief, between God and the devil, is disturbed in Midsommar because none of the characters has faith. Blank spiritual slates, they drift into the Swedish forest without any compass. Dani especially, fresh from her trauma, needs a source of meaning.

Dani is soon recruited into the festival’s dancing competition. Women surround the maypole. Musicians are at their side. Dani has just drunk some spring water with mashed-up flowers. Drugged, she dances with fervor—whirling around the maypole forward and backward. Her mood swings from joy to confusion, but she seems determined to survive on her feet. She wins the competition and is named the May Queen and given an elaborate garland crown. Pelle kisses her. Dani is led to a sun-shaped wooden plank with handles and is carried above a crowd. She is brought to a long line of tables, where she sits at the head. She is still tripping—the flowers on her crown open like eyes or mouths—but Dani also realizes that now she is the one with power.

The final quarter of Midsommar descends into gore and fire. The bear makes an unlikely return. A prolonged sex scene straight out of Rosemary’s Baby nearly fractures Aster’s tone. And Dani undergoes a curious, but not surprising, transformation. Her tragic arc was inevitable: Dani’s family is gone, but she now has a new family.

Contemporary horror films like Midsommar are not tied to any specific denomination or theology, and yet they ubiquitously explore religious belief—thus suggesting a link between the ecstatic and the ominous. In earlier horror, domestic religious touches offered viewers a normalizing contrast. The sight of a rosary or a priest’s collar gestured toward the domesticity of faith—a wild thing itself. Midsommar, however devilish, has no actual devil. It is darkly spiritual, and it feels so painfully empty. 

What is more frightening: that God does not exist, or that God offers us no comfort? 

Films like Midsommar offer a third option—the same one voiced on a Time magazine cover that Rosemary Woodhouse held in a doctor’s office nearly fifty years earlier: is God dead? It is one thing for characters in horror films—and their audiences—to doubt God while others retain belief. It is something else, something more horrifying, to consider what it means to be alone in a world without God. There are no comforts for that—especially after the films end.

Nick Ripatrazone is Image’s culture editor and author of the forthcoming Longing for an Absent God (Fortress), a collection of essays on lapsed Catholic writers. 

Read more of Nick Ripatrazone’s work online.

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