The Director of ‘The Exorcist’ Saw a Real Exorcism—and It’s Far More Terrifying Than the Movie
William Friedkin had never witnessed an exorcism other than the fake ones in his film. Here, he recounts his experience watching the late Father Amorth, the Roman Catholic Church’s chief exorcist, at work.
May 1, 2016, a Sunday, was Father Amorth’s 91st birthday, but he had no plans to celebrate. He awoke just after dawn and said his usual morning prayers. His cell-like room on the third floor of the Paulist Fathers residence in Rome had a tall window, a hospital bed, two chairs, and a wooden desk cluttered with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Padre Pio, a priest-mystic who experienced stigmata—bleeding wounds corresponding to those inflicted on Jesus Christ on the cross. For the next six hours, Father Amorth reviewed and answered mail requesting his services from around the world. At 2 p.m., he knelt again to pray, then arose with difficulty, took up his walking aid, and made his way to the first floor, where the small room dedicated to his work was located. Whispering voices and footsteps could be heard, as if from a tomb. His old adversary was waiting.
At 3 p.m., he began to conduct the ritual of exorcism. The possessed woman, Rosa,* was in her late 30s, tall and slender with raven-black hair. She had a college degree but couldn’t work because of the fits and behavioral changes that would come over her. This was her ninth exorcism with Father Amorth. As with traditional psychiatry, the patient is usually not “cured” after the first session. Father Amorth had been exorcising one man for 16 years.
Rosa arrived with her mother and father, both in their 50s, and her boyfriend, Giuliano.* Giuliano was over six feet, with the build of a heavyweight boxer and close-cropped hair. With them was Roberto,* about 50, an insurance agent in Rome. In 2012, his own sister had been suffering from depression. One day, Roberto saw her on the floor, convulsively twisting her body and growling like a wolf. When this continued for several days, Roberto took her to a psychiatrist, who was unable to help her and suggested she see Father Amorth. She’d required four exorcisms before she was healed.
It was Roberto who had noticed Rosa at Mass, acting disturbed and disoriented the way his sister had. He brought her to Father Amorth in August of 2015.
Now, for Rosa’s ninth exorcism, Father Amorth shuffled into the room with five burly men. Four were priests. The fifth, Alessandro, stocky and strong, was Father Amorth’s assistant. For this exorcism, Father Amorth had granted me permission to film.
WARNERBROS./KOBAL/SHUTTERSTOCK, Courtesy William Friedkin
Father Amorth insisted that anyone who came to him first seek the help of traditional medicine and psychiatry. “Out of a hundred people who seek my help,” he explained, “one or two at the most may be possessed.” Rosa had no apparent medical symptoms. It was Father Amorth’s belief that her affliction stemmed from a curse brought against her by her brother’s girlfriend, said to be a witch. The brother and his girlfriend were members of a powerful demonic cult, Father Amorth believed.
Father Amorth invited everyone to join him in saying the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. Rosa’s head began to nod involuntarily. Her eyes rolled back, and she fell into a deep trance. Father Amorth spoke in Latin in a loud, clear voice: “Exorcizo deo immundissimus spiritus.” (“I exorcise, O God, this unclean spirit.”)
Rosa’s body began to throb, and she cried out before falling back into a trance. Father Amorth placed his right hand over her heart. “Set yourself free.”
She lost consciousness. “Be afraid of Satan and the enemies of faith!”
Without warning, Rosa began to thrash violently. The five male helpers did all they could to hold her down. A foam formed at her lips.
“Leave in the name of the Father!” Father Amorth continued in Latin. Rosa’s features slowly altered into a mask of despair as her body continued to writhe. She was trying to rise and, clearly, to attack.
“Let him go, O God Almighty!”
Rosa did not speak or understand Latin, but she thrust forward and screamed in Father Amorth’s face, “MAI!” (“Never!”)
A low buzzing sound began, like a swarm of bees, as the others in the room prayed quietly.
Then Father Amorth called out the satanic cults, the superstition, the black magic that had possessed her. She reacted, growling, and screamed, “MAAAAAAIIIIII!” Another voice from deep within her shouted in his face, “DON’T TOUCH HER! DON’T EVER TOUCH HER!” Her eyes were still closed. Father Amorth yelled, “Surrender! Surrender!”
She reacted violently: “IO SONO SATANA.” (“I am Satan.”)
Courtesy William Friedkin
The buzzing continued. Rosa grew more defiant. The room was cold, but everyone was sweating. Except Rosa.
“Leave her now!”
“NO! SATANA! SATANA!”
“How many demons are you?”
“In the name of God, when are you leaving?”
“MAAAAAAI!” And then, “SHE IS MINE! SHE BELONGS TO ME!”
“She belongs to Jesus Christ!”
“WE ARE AN ARMY!”
“Rest, creature of God,” Father Amorth said quietly.
Rosa slowly awoke. She was disheveled and had no memory of what had happened. As a priest led her into a corner, Rosa suddenly began to rage again, cursing and screaming, while one man held her firmly by the neck and another held her legs. Gradually she returned to a normal state and, in fact, seemed beatific.
Father Amorth smiled as the mood in the room changed. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to him in Italian. Everyone but Rosa.
Afterward, I asked Rosa if she felt better after the exorcism. “Each time, it feels like I’m becoming free,” she said. “I can feel the devil suffering inside me.”
Tatiana Ayazo /Rd.com
Father Amorth was born Gabriele Amorth, the son of a lawyer, in the town of Modena in the north of Italy. In his teens, during World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance. After the war, in 1951, he was ordained. In 1986, he was assigned to assist Father Candido Amantini, then the chief exorcist in Rome. When Father Amantini died, in 1992, Father Amorth was named his successor. He claims to have performed thousands of exorcisms successfully.
The first time we’d met was the previous year. I was in Lucca, Italy, and e-mailed a friend in Rome, a religious scholar, asking if Father Amorth might meet with me. When I directed The Exorcist, I had not witnessed an exorcism. This would be an opportunity to see how close we had come to reality. Father Amorth agreed to the meeting because, I’d learn later, he admired my movie.
Father Amorth was short, bald, and frail. His voice and movements were weak, but his mind was sharp and his manner jovial. As we shook hands warmly, he said, “The devil has made me famous all over the world.”
“Father, you write of dialogues you’ve had with Satan,” I asked later. “Have you ever seen him?”
“Satan is pure spirit. He often appears as something else, to mislead. He appeared to Padre Pio as Jesus, to frighten him. He sometimes appears as a raging animal. The ritual of exorcism is not practiced by an ordinary priest. An exorcist requires specific training and must be thought to have a personal sanctity. He can be exposed to dangerous behavior and personal threat. His prayers often cause a violent response as he attempts to shine a beam of light into the darkness.”
I wanted to get a scientific opinion about what I’d witnessed. I showed my video of Rosa’s exorcism to Neil Martin, MD, chairman of the Geisinger Neuroscience Institute in Pennsylvania, and asked if this was a brain disorder.
“It doesn’t look like schizophrenia or epilepsy,” he said. “It could be delirium, an agitated disconnection from normal behavior. But the powerful verbalization we’re hearing, that’s not what you get with delirium. With delirium you see the struggling, maybe the yelling, but this guttural voice seems like it’s coming from someplace else. I’ve done thousands of surgeries, on brain tumors, traumatic brain injuries, infections affecting the brain, and I haven’t seen this kind of consequence.”
Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, chair of the department of psychiatry at Columbia University and former president of the American Psychological Association, told me, “I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I had a case that really gave me pause. This was a girl in her 20s, from a Catholic family. She was referred to me with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and had psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, and hallucinations, but she responded to nothing. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening to me—accidents, objects falling, strange sounds. I wasn’t thinking anything of it. Then one night after I saw her, I conferred with a colleague.
Afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and suddenly I had this piercing pain in my head. I called my colleague, and she described the same thing. The girl’s family may have mentioned demon possession, but I obviously didn’t believe it. But when this happened, I freaked out. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.”
I went to these doctors seeking an explanation for what I had experienced. I thought they’d say, “This is some sort of psychosomatic disorder having nothing to do with possession.” That’s not what I came away with.
Tatiana Ayazo /Rd.com
Rosa’s tenth exorcism was set for the Fourth of July. I was determined to record it, but Rosa canceled her appointment with Father Amorth. She did, however, agree to meet with me. Rosa canceled that meeting, too, only to call back sounding angry and frustrated. Then in the evening she called to apologize. She asked my assistant, Francesco, if we could meet her in Alatri, a small town close to where she lived, 90 miles southeast of Rome, at 1:30 in the park in front of the basilica.
Alatri dates from the second millennium BC and is perched on a hill, overlooking red-tiled rooftops. We walked to the front of the basilica and waited. Our appointed time came and went. At 2 p.m., Francesco called Rosa. “Where are you?” she screamed.
“We’re at the park,” Francesco answered. “Where are you?”
“I’m where I told you I’d be, at Santa Maria Maggiore, the church in the town square.”
Drenched in sweat, we walked back down the steep road a quarter of a mile and entered the empty church.
For the next 15 minutes, we were trapped in a living nightmare. Just within the entrance, Rosa and her mother were sitting on plastic chairs. Her mother was crying. Giuliano stood over Rosa, holding her tightly to her chair, one hand around her neck and shoulders, the other around her waist. She was growling and screaming, struggling to break free. But this was not Rosa. It was a monstrous, ugly, despairing creature with a gravelly voice filled with anger and anguish. It was the voice of the damned. She was far worse than during the exorcism, but there was no priest to control her behavior.
Francesco and I watched in stunned silence as Rosa slid around the floor, pulling Giuliano and the chair with her. For a moment, she stared at me with a malevolent grin. Then came a sad, painful moan as she collapsed into a trance. Then a terrifying roar that burst from her whole body. “RAAAAARRRRGGGGGHHH!”
Her mother yelled at me, in Italian, “Give us back the film!”
To which Rosa shouted, “NO! NO! I don’t want it!” She collapsed again, with a tearful, exhausted expression.
Giuliano (clutching her tightly): “Your film must never be seen!”
Francesco, riveted, translated everything quickly.
Rosa: “Yes! I want it seen!”
Mother: “What will happen to my son if the film is shown?”
Shockingly, she was concerned more about her son than about her daughter, who was under this curse.
Giuliano: “I know why you want to show this. To make a famous film about Satan. You don’t care if showing it will ruin Rosa’s life!”
Rosa’s attempts to break free from Giuliano were directed toward her mother, not me. Her leaps and thrusts became more violent.
I tried to appear calm, but I was terrified. “I’ll never give you the video. I made it to show the work of Father Amorth.”
Rosa: “I am Satan!”
Giuliano: “She is possessed by Satan. If you show it, it will be used by Satan’s followers.”
Rosa: “NO! NO! I WANT IT TO BE SEEN. I WANT IT TO BE SEEN.”
Giuliano: “If you don’t give it back to us, we will kill you! We will find your family, and we will kill you all!”
I looked directly at the mother and Giuliano: “I’m not going to lie to you. I will never give you the video.” I walked out of the church and into the scorching white heat. I could hear the screaming inside before the heavy wooden door slammed shut.
Rosa disappeared from Father Amorth’s radar. She didn’t return calls or schedule another exorcism with him. It was believed that Giuliano and her brother now had control over her.
In July of 2016, Father Amorth was diagnosed with a pulmonary condition and pneumonia. On Friday, September 16, 2016, he died. I was devastated. But I thought he’d be OK. I remembered something he had said to me: “Do you know why the devil is afraid of me? Because I’m uglier than he is.”
Venafro is another hillside town in southeastern Italy. There, according to Roberto, a clergyman recently performed an exorcism on Rosa. At one point, the clergyman called on the spirit of Father Amorth for intercession. Rosa began to writhe and screamed, “DON’T! DON’T CALL HIM!”
Father Amorth’s work is not yet finished.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy