The Rite: A Window into the World of a Real-Life Exorcist
- Laura MacCorkle Crosswalk.com Senior Editor
- 2011 1 Jan
A little over five years ago, Matt Baglio was just another hardworking journalist who had spent time in the Rome bureau of the Associated Press. The California born and bred writer had moved to Italy years earlier, met and married his wife there and was going about his life doing freelance writing for various publications.
Until one day when he heard about a groundbreaking exorcism course being offered at a Vatican-affiliated University in Rome—"Exorcism and the Prayer of Liberation." Curiosity took over and Baglio decided to sign up for the study, which was also open to laypersons, thinking it would make for a good article about the teachings of the Catholic Church on the Devil and exorcism.
Back then, when he was what he calls a "cultural Catholic," Baglio knew little about exorcism and even admits to thinking of the famous 1973 film, The Exorcist, as a reference point as well as other Hollywood offerings that were reportedly "based" on true stories.
But then he met Father Gary Thomas, an American parish priest who had come to Rome on assignment from California in the summer of 2005 to take part in the same course and to also train as an exorcist. Baglio then knew that Father Gary's journey could provide an intriguing window into the world of exorcism, and so an article quickly became book material as Baglio chronicled Father Gary's progress and training with a senior Italian exorcist named Father Carmine. He also interviewed other trained priests and exorcists and talked with many victims, in addition to witnessing thirty exorcisms and conducting extensive research about the history of exorcism and what the Catholic Church teaches about demonic possession.
Of Baglio's book, which first released in 2009, Publisher's Weekly said, "For anyone seeking a serious and very human examination of this fascinating subject, one that surpasses the sensational, The Rite is absorbing and enlightening reading."
Rereleased in 2010, the updated edition of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist precedes the new New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. film of the same name, which is very loosely based on the book, releases in theaters on January 28, 2011 and stars Academy Award-winning actor Anthony Hopkins as a legendary priest who has performed thousands of exorcisms.
Baglio spoke with Crosswalk.com recently about his experience in taking a closer look into the world of a real-life Roman Catholic exorcist, how he reconnected with his faith and what it's like to see his book being turned into a major motion picture.
How did you hear about the exorcism course that was being offered by the Vatican-affiliated university in Rome?
I was in Rome, and I'd heard about the course just in the local media. I think my wife had seen something mentioned about it on the TV. There was a lot of interest in the launch of the course. When I went down there, there was just a ton of journalists … everyone was there, and I think most were interested in the novelty of the idea. And my editor at the time was right in line with that. I'm kind of a serious person, but I'm very curious. I wanted to know the reality, and I was always fascinated by the idea that the Church would still promote an idea like exorcism and then have a university-level course about it. How would that work? I thought maybe it might be a PR stunt.
I'd never met any exorcists. I was raised Catholic, but I wasn't practicing at the time. I wasn't facinated by exorcism in any way or one of these people who gravitates toward the macabre. I was thinking I'd probably write an article about it, and then I sat in on a few classes and I was really interested about the things that they were teaching. I was also fascinated by the people who I interviewed who didn't know anything about exorcism or demonic possession or any of that stuff—and these were priests. And I wondered how could priests not know this stuff? Shouldn't they be taught that in seminary?
And then of course I met Father Gary Thomas. He was very honest with me about his own experiences. At that time, he was looking for an exorcist to apprentice with. He didn't know what to expect. He was not completely convinced about the reality of the phenomena, but he was very honest and open about all of that and he allowed me to follow him. … So that began our sort of collaboration where I met with him almost on a weekly basis and interviewed him, looked at his notes and his journals and kept attending the course. And then when he went back to the U.S., I continued to research and talk to as many exorcists as I could, as many people as I could who were undergoing exorcism and then I saw exorcisms. I saw about 30 myself.
Would you say that witnessing these exorcisms helped you in the writing of your book?
[Father Gary] and I saw exorcisms together. And some of them were with—you know, I don't want to specifically say which exorcist it was—but were with some of the exorcists mentioned in the book. It was very hard to gain their trust in the beginning. I think in the beginning they were very cautious, and I sort of slowly kind of worked my way into being able to see exorcisms. They're not really supposed to allow outsiders in, but I was quite honest with them that I was trying to write the truth. I wanted to write an objective book on exorcism, and I wouldn't have been able to do that without actually going and seeing exorcisms and meeting these people and getting their stories.
How did you prepare yourself the first time you were going to witness an exorcism?
I was like, you know, with holy water like dousing myself and wearing garlic around my neck. [Laughs.] No, I didn't. I think, like you—and I'm glad that you said that your fear kind of diminished after you read my book because that was sort of one my goals to writing the book—was to talk about this topic in a way that people could put it into theological context. For me, I had the same journey. At the very, very beginning, I was much more freaked out about this whole concept. My wife was freaked out about it. We had, I guess you could say, the traditional misconceptions. If I look into this will an evil spirit come after me? Will I open myself up to something? All of that, when I started researching, sort of went away. Again, whether or not you're Catholic or if you believe in one doctrine versus another, I think I was just going off of the confidence that the individuals had who were doing this for many years and they were able to help relax me.
Father Carmine, especially, when I interviewed him several times. Just telling me, setting me straight, that [demonic possession] is something that's not a disease. You can't catch it. Once I had interviewed people as well, I think if you're a human being with any kind of empathy you immediately want to help these people and you see them struggling in some way. They're definitely going through a lot of pain in their lives—whether it's natural or supernatural, I couldn't say. But either way, they're suffering and they need someone to listen to them, to help them. … I very much wanted to help these people. I wanted to see them get better, and Father Gary was the same way. For him, the suffering that he saw really touched him. So it was very late in the process with my research, I'd interviewed people and I'd seen some people screaming enough to prepare myself. But still I was a little nervous. I got down there, and I saw what was going on. I wasn't scared in that way. But again, I didn't see any stories that you hear about. Someone whose eyes were rolling up and all.
Was there any point in time in working on this book or even consulting on the movie that you felt like you were being spiritually attacked or did anything bizarre ever happen to you?
No. I mean that's the quickest way to answer that. I don't think so. I was able to see that you've got to be very careful. It would have been very easy for me to have said, "Oh, that could be a spiritual attack; that could be something that is beyond a coincidence." But I was pleased with the approach that the course was putting forward about exorcism and also with these individuals that I interviewed that I would consider to be the most knowledgable in the field. They would exclude all the natural things first and if you can explain it in a natural way, then that's really probably the explanation that is all you need. … I don't want to add to the drama if it doesn't need to already be there and that's also the style that I wanted to write the book in. I didn't want to over-dramatize something, and I had read a couple of books in the past that were written by writers who I could see where they took moments and they obviously embellished the inner thoughts of a person and made them into an event that could have just as easily been explained as someone feeling he was just really tempted to do something. Inversely, I had a very positive spiritual experience in this moment [in the book] in my car smelling flowers. So I think that to me was interesting. And again, I wasn't reading too much into things and that's certainly what the exorcists themselves do as well.
As a result of going through all of this, how would you describe your personal beliefs or faith today?
It's definitely made me a more spiritual person. I went into this process very objective. I was equivocating, and think that I would say that it definitely made me a more spiritual person and made me understand the value of faith. I have more respect for people who have strong religious beliefs. I am respectful of other faiths as well, the concept of trying to be a good person, all those things kind of came together for me. And I think it was a journey as well, because I went and saw exorcisms. In fact, it was more to do with reading about faith and theology behind my church and the Church and these kind of things. And again, the book isn't trying to promote one view over the other. But for me, because I was raised Catholic, you know that's my fallback position. It made me a more spiritual person and it made me more respectful of those who have strong beliefs and the value of faith. I read articles and talked to scientists who were able to confirm that prayers can help, and I met a lot of people who were really just very edifying, including needy people who admitted that there was something there in their minds and they couldn't explain it.
What's interesting to note is that your book wasn't even written when the movie studio was considering it to option for film. You just sent in a proposal of what you were planning on writing in your book. That seems a little risky, especially for the studio. So how in the world did all of that work out?
I feel very lucky as far as how things came together because really when you're standing where I am as the author of the book—and you're talking about a Hollywood movie—you're very disconnected. Hollywood and writing books are completely different. A lot of it is out of your control. So you kind of have to lock it away and hope that the people who want to do the movie are professional and committed to making a good movie. There was a lot of interest right away in the idea, and I think that's really what it was was the idea, because exorcism is a topic that many people are fascinated by. Most of us are. And yet we have never really seen it before about this concept: a guy going to school to learn to become an exorcist. And being the fact that it was a real story based on truth, the proposal wasn't short, but it wasn't too long. I think it gave them a good handle on the research.
Making a film takes a long time. I've been told that this is relatively quick. Because the book came out in 2009, but they optioned the rights in 2006 or 2007. And then they hired Michael Petroni [screenwriter for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader] who was really excited about it. I knew [Michael] had this real awareness and interest in the idea of the spiritual world and so … he began working on the script and I began collaborating with him in ways that I could. Obviously I was writing the book and concentrating on that, and this is my first book and it was just enough for me to try to get that right. … I had to go in and really reread a lot of the theology behind and history behind the concept of demonic possession and exorcism. So I was really concentrating on that while he was developing the idea for the film. They were still working on the script when I was finishing the book, and I was able to give [Michael] chapters and interviews, but it definitely was kind of disconnected.
So how did you actually get started with Michael Petroni, though? Did you just send him some of the best interviews you had done or stories you had gathered so far for your book and that was it? Or did you have regular conference calls or just what?
He kind of interviewed me. We sort of sat down and talked and he had my proposal which had some of the stories in it and then I sent him just my interviews. Most interviews I did were in Italian, and my wonderful wife translated them into English so I could more easily reference them. And I was able to share with him these interviews I had done with these exorcists and with victims, and then he came here at one point to Rome and I was able to take him to see some exorcisms. Again, very early on I think I was very pleased when I had found out that Beau Flynn [The Guardian, The Exorcism of Emily Rose] was going to be the producer because I have a lot of respect for him and again Michael Petroni—I have a lot of respect for him as a writer. And I kind of wanted to distance myself a little as well, because I'm the author of the book and I knew that I wanted it to be as factual as possible and just having seen movies in the past I knew that a movie is something very different than a book and they were going to have to make subtle changes with the finished book. I kind of wanted to keep myself distant but at the same time give [Michael] any kind of material he could use to hopefully ground the overall movie in the reality of the world that I was reporting on in the book.
What were your official duties as a consultant on the film?
I basically was there to answer any questions that the actors or the costumers or the set designers or anyone had about the world of the Church and exorcism, and if it was something I couldn't answer because I'm not a priest then I would ask the contacts I have now through my own research. How would an exorcist behave? What would he do? And again, it wasn't doing anything beyond, "This is the world" and "This is the reality of that world." "To me, these are the things they may do." And of course it was up to the actors and the director to take those suggestions and make them their own. I took some of the actors to see exorcisms. I took Colin O'Donoghue to see some exorcisms and interview some people undergoing exorcisms. And I took another actor, Marta Gastini, who plays Rosaria, the young girl in the movie, and does an amazing job. I was there to see her performances. I took her to see some exorcisms, and she may have asked me some questions during the project. You know, "What are some things that I could say in addition to whatever else written in the script?" But it was mostly just being there for [the actors] to give them the confidence that the movie and that their performances would be believable. I wasn't telling them what to do, by any means. I certainly wasn't writing the script or adding dialogue to the film. I was just maintinaining the reality of the world of exorcism as much as the director and producers wanted it.
What was it like being on set and seeing what had been inspired by your book come to life in a different medium?
It's very surreal. In fact I'm still getting used to it, I'd have to say. I'm very disconnected here in Rome. I've heard there's lots of promotions and commercials and trailers. But I don't know if it's an advantage I have, but I have this quality of being able to dissassociate myself to looking at something from a very practical standpoint, and so I wanted this to be a good movie. I wanted to do my part. I didn't want to get caught up in "Wow, this is a Hollywood movie." But there were definitely a few times when I took a little stroll. For example, there was the set for the [exorcism] course. And that was really cool. It was a neat experience to be there in the classroom thinking that that's kind of how the whole book started. … It was also kind of a humbling experience as well because here you are on the set of a movie, and you see how many people it takes to make a movie and everyone's working to do something. It was really neat and very satisfying to see, I have to say, because everyone was so professional about going about it, and I really have nothing but good things to say about it and everyone I worked with on the movie.
Prior to filming, back when you turned in your book proposal to the studio and you were going back and forth with them, did you ever have a particular actor in mind who you thought would be perfect to play someone in your book?
You know, I've learned that with the book when I sold the book—and I mean just the fact I was going to have a published book—that was enough for me. The movie coming out was icing on the cake. I've kind of learned in the past not to get ahead of myself and that when it comes to film when people say, "Oh, so and so is interested." That's great, but it doesn't really mean anything. I didn't necessarily have anyone in mind.
You know you never hope because you don't want to get your hopes dashed, but certainly Anthony Hopkins is at the top of probably everybody's list. I was incredibly impressed by him when I met him and when I saw him work—the way he works. He came really prepared, learning Latin, studying on his own; he really wanted to do a good job. And you know I was amazed and certainly he's reached the point in his career where he doesn't have to do those kind of things, but he is very dedicated to the role. So I didn't have anybody in mind is the short way to answer that, but I was hoping that, you know, they could get a good actor because I hadn't read the script either. Eventually I did read a script, and you don know I think this material could go either way. It can be kind of "B material" very quickly, and I think that getting talented people and trying to write the book in such a way … well, it's amazing. You get an actor like [Anthony Hopkins] and you can do so much more.
In the film Anthony Hopkins plays the character that is based on Father Carmine in the book. But the character that's based on Father Gary (who is 52 in the book) is played by Colin O'Donoghue, an up-and-coming actor who is right on the edge of 30. What did you think about that type of change from book to film?
I don't think that there was any change where I said I wish they hadn't done that. I think I'm waiting to see the final film. I think that knowing that books and movies are so different, I really learned a lot, I have to say. I learned a ton about this whole process and again I was so very lucky that I was treated so kindly. The director, the producer, Michael Petroni, everyone was so kind with me and allowing me to participate in a way that I felt like I could contribute.
I think in reference to Colin's character they wanted to make the protagonist a little bit younger, and that raises the stakes a little bit more because he's younger in his life and he hasn't yet made up his mind [about what he believes]. And audiences who are going to see the movie are very different than people who will read the book. I wasn't really disappointed in anything. … I didn't see the whole movie as it was shot … there were some scenes that perhaps I may have done differently myself and again that's why I was glad to distance myself away from it because the book and movie have to be kind of different in a certain light.
Father Gary's character is portrayed as more of a skeptic in the film than Father Gary was in your book. Why do you think that is?
Well, in the book you have me as I can play the Doubting Thomas and ask the hard questions that a journalist would ask. So you know they have the character of Angeline [an investigative reporter] in the film, but I think the character of the priest asking those questions is the right choice. Father Gary wasn't an out and out skeptic, but he wasn't 100 percent convinced. And I think that there's a difference. If you believe in the reality of the Devil but you're never really focused on it, then you're never thinking about how it works. It doesn't really enter into our lives and influence us in some way. So it does really heighten the stakes. But again I think the audience needs a window into understanding that, you know, there is doubt. Even the exorcists that I talked with have doubt, even after twenty-five years.
I thought it was interesting, in the book, how some of the priests you interviewed admitted that exorcism is not an exact science and that they each approached it in a different way.
I really found that really refreshing: the fact that a person is still unsure and not 100 percent. I mean there are days they wake up and think, "Hey this can't be real." And I think it's a normal process. That's what all people go through. And they are no different. And it was refreshing to hear them say that there is a lot of mystery. I'm always suspicious of those people who are 100 percent sure about this stuff, and they put it in terms that just seems too structured and too neat and ordered. I was expecting them to do that and instead they were quite honest with me and said, "Hey, I'm just a guy and I hope that I know what God is doing. But I have to rely on my faith and this is all up to him."
It was also refreshing to read in the book when Father Gary is done with his exorcism training and is getting ready to head back to the States and he echoes one of the other priests who said now that he knew the reality of the spirit world, he felt a responsbility to help people. Would you say that you came to a similar conclusion in the writing of this book?
Well, of course. I would like people to take a positive message away from my book. I think it was in the informing that I was trying to get people to look at this topic and in a way that it hadn't been seen before because I think with exorcism, and in the mainstream media especially, most people tend to ridicule it. And it is very easy to ridicule, because you can find those people on the fringes of any religion that are doing these kooky things and it's very easy to follow that. But then again if you hold that up as the example, then you do a disservice just like with any topic.
The vast majority of people who are having these experiences don't know what they are, they are unsure about them and many of them perhaps have gone away from [demonic possession] because of how it's been portrayed in the past. Having said that, I think too many people are also enamored with this topic and really seem to just gravitate to it and they really they like the idea that they could be attacked by something bigger than themselves. All of us look for meaning in our own lives and what better way to do that than to be a participant in this war that's been going on since the dawn of man, you know with these creatures that are vastly superior to ourselves. And here you are you're a participant in it; you're a major player because a demon's attacking you. I think there has to be a lot of caution. And what I really hope, too, is that people take a step back and look at this with a fresh set of eyes and again how it is connected.
I think for me personally it is how it was connected to the greater picture of the sacrements and the Catholic tradition. But it's really about making this connection with God and the individual doing that. And, of course, as a Catholic it's sacrements and as a Protestant you do it through different means. The connection you're trying to make is still what's really important and fundamentally … it's about the choices you make. Make good choices. Be a kind person. Try to be understanding and forgiving and all those kind of things that maybe some people have taken for granted.
For me personally the most important thing I'm trying to stress in the book is this idea of personal responsibility. It is up to us to make the right choices in our lives, and we're in control and that's the free will that we have. So you can't just completely ignore the concept of evil, but you definitely don't have to let it consume you and become obsessed by it.
Why do some people seem to be obsessed with the concept of evil and with demonic possession?
In America it's like that. In Italy as well. There's a lot of superstition over here. But people in America have an easier time believing in the extreme. And yet, then you are lazy and you're not practicing your faith and you're not listening to your spouse and you're not being a responsible adult, etc. It's very hard for people to hear. ... They don't want to hear that. They want the magic pill and it'll all go away. … That's kind of the whole form of the fundamental struggle that these priests are having because people come to see them and again, this is another topic that I'm trying to stress is that most people think that if it wasn't for these priests we wouldn't have exoricisms or people in Hollywood trying to make these movies. But that's not true. People have, since the dawn of time in every religion, people have believed about this. And in America, people aren't going to church anymore, but they're still believing in this topic. So, you need priests or pastors who can say "Hey, don't get so worried or freaked out about that. Are you praying? Are you being a good Christian?" And all those kind of things that help people to focus on those little things again rather than "Yeah, you've got a spirit in you and I'm going to hit you on the head with this Bible and you'll be free." … I'm not trying to say that the Catholic Church is the only faith that people should be believing in. [The book] is just a story about a Catholic priest, but exorcism and prayers of deliverance are pretty much standard in every religion.
So what's next for you? Are you working on another book?
I'm taking a step back from exorcism … and I'm doing something very different which is a graphic novel that kind of takes some of the themes of the theology of the ongoing war between good angels and fallen angels, and transposes it onto a historical tapestry.
Will you be at the premiere of the film in the States?
Yes, I'll see the film at the premiere. I guess I'll be the only person in the theater who hasn't seen the movie. It's very surreal, but I'm big enough to know that the movie's something different than the book. So … I mean, it'll be very surreal.
American filmgoers certainly love their scary movies, but how do you think Italian filmgoers will receive the film?
I think the performance of Anthony Hopkins automatically draws interest. People, I've learned in the modern age, they have their own biases they often bring to any topic. I'm hoping that people will go into this with an open mind. Obviously they'll come to see it here in Italy. The book's been doing well here in Italy. The topic itself isn't quite as sensational as it is in the States. Exorcists go on TV, they talk a lot, they have priests who are working with the cops over here in trying to stop the occult … so it's much more mainstream. But I have high hopes [for the film].
As someone who has already screened the film, let me just say that I'm glad I read your book before I saw the movie. It really helped to prepare me and just ground me, I think. Would you agree that that's a good thing?
Yes. I would recommend that everybody read the book before seeing the movie. [Laughs]. No … but in all honesty, that is sort of my hope is that people will see the movie and they will want to learn the reality behind that as it is taught by the Catholic Church. The theology has a context, and I think it's important. I know it's hard to do in a film, because the first thing you want to do is entertain people whereas in a book you can put in all the Bible verses and references and things like that. So, yes it would be great if people read the book. It is a topic that has oftentimes been written about it in one way or the other, whether ridiculed or by a group of believers who are so 100 percent sure about everything. And I think the people in the middle kind of get left out, and so I was really trying to address those people. And again, I hope that the Protestants and mainstream Christians as well will understand and be open to the book in a way that this is not saying this is the only way or the only right way to go about this type of thing.
For more information about Matt Baglio or his book, The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, please visit www.mattbaglio.com. To learn more about the New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. major motion picture, The Rite, which is loosely based on this book and stars Anthony Hopkins, please visit the Crosswalk.com Movies Channel. A full review of the film will be available upon release on January 28, 2011.
**This interview first published on January 25, 2011.