The ‘True’ Story Behind “The Pope’s Exorcist” and Father Gabriele Amorth

Going back to The Exorcist in 1973, the horror genre has had an obsession with demonic possession and the rite of exorcism that is used to treat it.  And while that novel and movie were only loosely inspired by in the 1940s that William Peter Blatty had researched, there have been countless exorcism horror films that were directly based on specific events and people.

Movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Possessed, The Rite, The Possession, The Conjuring trilogy, and many others all advertised as “based on a true story”.  The latest of which is The Pope’s Exorcist, starring Russell Crowe and Franco Nero.  Crowe plays the real life priest and exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016) who was the chief exorcist at the Vatican for decades.

So with the new movie coming out, and likely taking a lot of creative liberties (which they often do), we wanted to take a look at Father Amorth, as well as the “true” stories surrounding him and his exploits as an exorcist.

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As the title suggests, Father Amorth was very highly regarded among exorcists, which was why he practiced right in Rome itself.

Oh and if the name Gabriele Amorth sounds familiar, it may be because he was prominently featured in a documentary directed by Exorcist director William Friedkin.  The Devil and Father Amorth was released in 2017 (following his death) and featured Amorth performing his final exorcism.

Biography of an Exorcist
Born in 1925 in what was then known as the Kingdom of Italy, Gabriele Amorth first came to prominence when in 1943 (at age 18), he joined the Italian Resistance against Benito Mussolini and Nazi Germany.  Nine years later he was ordained a Catholic priest and eventually was appointed exorcist for the Diocese of Rome in 1986.

The late 80s/early 90s was a time in which the Catholic Church in Italy was largely embracing exorcism (possibly a counter response to the Satanic Panic of the 1980’s).  In 1990 Amorth founded the International Association of Exorcists, which had only six members at the time, but grew to over 200 members by the year 2000.

Around the same time as this organization’s founding, the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum was also founded (in 1993) in Rome.  This university of sorts would provide education to priests and lay people alike, but was famous for its course on exorcism.  This was the same school featured in the book “The Rite” and the 2011 movie of the same name.

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It was also featured in the 2022 exorcism horror film Prey for the Devil. Although that movie never claimed to be based on any true story.

While revered among the Catholic Church as being incredibly spiritual and pious (the William Friedkin documentary also praises him greatly), Father Amorth held certain views that some would find extreme.

Being a devout Catholic and exorcist, he believed that all evil in the world was attributed to the devil himself, even claiming that the devil was behind Mehmet Ali Ağca’s attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.

To no one’s surprise, he was against things like ouija boards, mysticism, and anything involving superstition or magic.  But he also took issue with yoga, Freemasons, and of course Harry Potter, claiming them to be Satanic in nature.  Essentially everything that wasn’t devout Catholic was Satanic in nature.

He also spoke on the infamous disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi.  In 1983 at the age of 15, Emanuela disappeared in Rome and has never been found since.  While theories run amok for years, Amorth claimed in 2012 that she had been abducted by Vatican police for a sex party, and then killed and her body disposed of.

However, he didn’t offer why he didn’t come forward with this before, especially if he was aware what was going on.  As of 2023, Pope Francis I has reopened the investigation into her disappearance.

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If what Amorth said is true, and if he truly was aware, then it definitely brings him down substantially in terms of righteousness and piety.

Exorcism in Italy
Up until his death in 2016, Amorth had claimed to have performed over 70,000 exorcisms in his decades-long career as an exorcist.  In his documentary, William Friedkin claimed that a staggering 500,000 see an exorcist in Italy every year.  Given that Italy is one of the most Catholic countries in the world and that Vatican City itself sits within their borders, this shouldn’t be too surprising.

Although it suggests that demonic possession is something of an epidemic in Italy, or at least there’s an epidemic of people who think they are.  Granted, real life exorcisms are far less flashy and over the top than what they show in movies.  And while witnesses to these events often claim that the victim is doing superhuman feats, when you watch the footage, it doesn’t look like anything that person couldn’t do.

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In Friedkin’s documentary, we see an exorcism performed on an Italian woman. She makes very strange growling sounds that don’t seem human at all. Friedkin swears up and down that he didn’t alter the footage at all and that it was the original audio.

In his book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist” (which again was the basis of 2011’s The Rite), Michael Petroni alleged that for many Italians going to an exorcist is like going to the doctor.  For Italians who are particularly religious in nature (again, massive Catholic nation), they opt to go to a priest and be exorcised rather than go to a therapist when they’re feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed.

And if you attribute all of these problems to demons, then an exorcism will certainly make you feel better due to a placebo effect.  Friedkin’s classic The Exorcist even features a line in which a doctor alleges that an exorcism might work because the patient’s belief in demonic possession would naturally lead them to believe in the power of exorcism.

It also explains why in the wake of The Exorcist and as the world seemed to get more chaotic, people in Italy felt like demons were around more than ever, thus prompting the Vatican to add countless more exorcists, like Amorth.

Are Exorcism Movies Propaganda?
All of this begs the larger question of whether or not movies like The Pope’s Exorcist are a form of Christian propaganda.   For those who believe in demons, it can certainly serve as a reaffirmation of their faith.  However, most horror fans probably just watch these movies out of enjoyment.

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But even in the beginning, The Exorcist had the full collaboration and cooperation of the Jesuits. Father Dyer was even played by real life Jesuit priest William O’Malley (who in 2019 was sued for sexually assaulting a student decades earlier).

That said, there are more than a few fans of horror who won’t go near possession movies because they believe in it for real and these movies hit too close to home.  There has certainly never been a horror movie where it turned out that demons weren’t responsible and the person wasn’t possessed.  But that’s more so because supernatural threats are simply more interesting if you’re making a horror film.

There’s no denying that the real Father Amorth held views that many would deem controversial.  But it’s also likely that he was someone who always meant well and helped others in the only way that he knew how.

It’s possible for both to be simultaneously true.  And that when it comes to exorcism movies, especially ones based on a true story, we can simply enjoy the movie for what it is: just a movie.  Because let’s be honest, Hollywood throws around the phrase “based on a true story” pretty liberally and loosely.

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Even Amorth’s organization, the International Association of Exorcists has denounced the movie as “unreliable splatter”.

What are some of your favorite horror movies based on “true” stories?  Do you believe in exorcism and demonic possession?  Let us know in the comments!

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