Would “The Last Exorcism” Have Been Better Titled “The Last Atheist”?

File:Oedipus at Colonus.jpg

I saw The Last Exorcism  this past weekend and, yes, it’s really good.

And scary.

And it’s also a bit of an ancient Greek morality play, which makes it philosophically interesting as well: what if a good-hearted cynic, an unbeliever of the Marjoe or Bill Maher variety, stumbled into a real encounter with a spirit being? What would become important to him? And what would happen to his atheism?

One of the reasons that this film works is because it’s tapping into this ancient theme: the hubris of mortals disrupted by an encounter with the divine.

I’m thinking, for example, of Euripides’s Bakkhai. Euripides’s play starts with an unbeliever mocking the divine: King Pentheus, a rational man with a good deal of control over his world, makes light of the claim that the father of Dionysus is a god, claiming instead that his earthly mother, on becoming pregnant by some random man, used her “divine father” line as a cover for her sexual promiscuity. 

Sound familiar? The Virgin Mary and Jesus come to mind, don’t they?

And Jesus, like Dionysus in the Bakkhai, in revenge for being dissed by unbelieving city dwellers, ultimately goes from lamb to lion.

The girl in The Last Exorcism  also starts out as a lamb-like innocent. And she just happens to be pregnant by a spirit being. And there is an exorcist—his name is Cotton Marcus—who is called into the situation. But he really doesn’t believe in demons; he just does exorcisms as a way to make a living. And he has invited a two-person film crew with him to show them how an exorcism is done.

That’s a formula for trouble. 

I regard the demon in this film and the possessed girl as stand-ins for Dionysus and his wild female maenads. Cotton Marcus even has to go into the wilderness (as King Pentheus does) to have his encounter with Dionysus this particular devil. Like Nature in the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill (which seemed to be reacting to the disrespect of “drill, baby, drill” with uncontrollable bleeding and death), the wild Dionysian sets out to teach a proud man a lesson in respect for cthonian nature and the ontological mystery.

At least that’s my route into this particular film.

And the philosophical questions thus become these: 

  • Should the atheist exorcist repent of his hubris and discover humility and love before the mystery of being?
  • Should he make some room in his moral universe for the spirit that he has encountered? In other words, should he arrive at some sort of oblation of respect for the offended spirit (as Oedipus does with the furies in the ancient Greek play, Oedipus at Colonus )?
  • Or, on the contrary, should he find himself eternally hostile to the devil that is driving its own life purposes through an innocent girl?

I have my opinion about these questions, but you’ll have to see the film and decide for yourself whether it addresses them in a satisfying manner. Here’s a scene:

One thing I like about this early scene is how the city folks arrive in the countryside: they are Apollonian armored in their SUV, but suddenly find the integrity of a space that they normally take for granted challenged by cthonic terror. Hurled mud slapping a car window is a perfect symbol of the tension between Apollo and Dionysus. I don’t know if Euripides would have liked this movie, but he would have understood its motifs.


The image at the top of this post is of Oedipus with Antigone in Colonus. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Would “The Last Exorcism” Have Been Better Titled “The Last Atheist”?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Now I’m intrigued enough to see this movie…

    • santitafarella says:

      Great! If you end up seeing it, let me know what you think of the ending. I’m still thinking about it.


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