Depending on your tastes, exorcism movies can be the most terrifying of all the horror subgenres. When done right, they combine the psychological chills of the unseen and unexplained with the visceral delights of jump scares (those scary images that jump out from nowhere) and genuinely gross and grotesque imagery and effects.
Trouble is, they’re often not done right or rely too much on formulas made successful in the best of the genre. Plus, the good ones often result in bad sequels (The Exorcist II: The Heretic, anyone?). So, with Halloween around the corner and the new The Exorcist Fox TV series getting solid reviews, now is the perfect time to celebrate the best we’ve ever seen from exorcism movies.
We hope there are no head-spinning, body-contorting horrors in your dreams after you read about the 15 Most Terrifying Exorcism Movies Of All Time.
Is Beetlejuice (1988) really terrifying? Not necessarily. But Tim Burton’s 1988 career-defining masterpiece is definitely an exorcism movie – after all, the title character (Michael Keaton) is a “bio-exorcist,” which is kind of the opposite of a traditional exorcist, a ghost procured to rid a home of people. It’s just a little quieter about being an exorcism movie than the rest of the films on this list. But on the more traditional front, there is the scene where interior designer Otho tries to perform a seance but accidentally exorcises Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara (Geena Davis, who happens to star in the new Exorcist TV series).
And, although it’s a dark comedy, it’s the “dark” part of that equation that lands it a spot on this list. There’s definitely a creep factor running throughout the film. There’s the scene where Adam elongates his face, pops his eyes out and sticks them on his fingers. Or when Betelgeuse turns into a giant, creepy rattlesnake and drops a man from a good 20 feet up. And how could we forget the classic “Banana Boat Song” scene, where you get a good jump scare when their food pops out of their bowls and grabs their faces?
14 THE DEVIL INSIDE
We cannot in good conscience come out and tell you that The Devil Inside (2012) is a great movie. The solidly spooky trailer teased a film that promised to be a lot better than it actually turned out to be, but it was a classic case of the trailer giving away some of the movie’s best moments.
In particular, the best thing about the film is the creepy work of actress Suzan Crowley, who, surprisingly, has done very little in the years since this movie's release. She plays Maria, the possessed and institutionalized mother of the main character, Isabella. Isabella teams up with a filmmaker making a documentary about exorcisms, and Maria was previously locked up after killing people during an exorcism performed on her. When Isabella visits her mother, she’s practically catatonic, and Crowley plays it with eyes that are a cross between dead and quietly evil, as she shows her daughter the cross-like scratches on her arm and inside her lip. The Devil Inside is a movie with a few nice, creepy moments of possession, but is otherwise lacking in engaging plot and characters.
13 THE RITE
Like The Devil Inside, The Rite (2011) is not a particularly great movie, but it still has some solidly creepy moments for fans of possession and exorcism movies. Plus, it stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as Father Lucas, and he’s just always a blast to watch. He displays a calm wisdom as a time-hardened exorcist that lays a solid foundation for the film. And, set at the Vatican, the movie offers all the Catholic mysticism you expect from an exorcism flick.
Inspired by a true story, the plot follows Michael (Colin O’Donoghue), a reluctant priest who is pushed into training to become an exorcist. Also like The Devil Inside, it’s a movie with more than one exorcism on more than one possessed person, and there is a bit of a twist buried in that statement that we’re not going to reveal, but it certainly gives Hopkins more room to shine. Creepy highlights include a possessed teenage girl upchucking huge nails, but overall, it depends more on atmosphere to give the audience its chills.
Loosely based on the DC comic book series Hellblazer, the 2005 film Constantine stars Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, a cynical sort who also happens to be able to see angels and demons on Earth and has the power to exorcise evil demons. He also knows he’s doomed to spend eternity in Hell thanks to a near-death experience he had as a teenager following a suicide attempt. It's not a particularly easy life for poor John.
It’s a different kind of exorcism movie, though, because rather than possessing humans (though that does happen), a lot of the demons (and angels) are seen in their actual form. Plus, it’s more action movie than a real horror story. Still, it’s a unique take on the exorcism subgenre and there’s some intriguing performances from Reeves and Tilda Swinton, who plays an androgynous angel named Gabriel. The big-budget film bombed in the U.S. but more than made back its budget thanks to the worldwide box office, and ultimately led to the NBC TV series of the same name that lasted just one season from 2014-15.
Most exorcism movies exist solely for the sake of being exorcism movies. And we love them for it. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Beloved (1998) aspired to be something more. It was Oprah Winfrey’s passion project, a film that aimed to be an Oscar contender (it was at least nominated for Best Costume Design), and Oprah has said that its colossal failure to reach audiences (making just $22.9 million on a massive $80 million budget) thrust her into a depression.
Directed by Jonathan Demme, who knows something about turning scares into Oscars thanks to The Silence of the Lambs, Beloved is really much better than its box office numbers would have you believe, though it is overly-long, running nearly three hours. It’s a period piece that tells the tale of Sethe, a former slave, played by Oprah. The film is terrifying in different ways than other exorcism films because there’s a lot of living-on-living horror, as well as the supernatural sort. It flashes back to Sethe’s slave days, being whipped and raped, and eventually, Sethe is compelled to kill her daughter rather than have her endure a life of slavery. Years later, released from slavery, Sethe takes in a mentally challenged girl named Beloved (Thandie Newton), who she learns is the reincarnation of her dead daughter. Sethe had been plagued by supernatural phenomena in the past, which drove her sons out of the house, but things only get worse from there, resulting in an attempted exorcism.
10 DELIVER US FROM EVIL
Another film purported to be based on a true story, Deliver Us From Evil (2014) has a solid pedigree thanks to director Scott Derrickson. He also helmed the solid horror flick Sinister, and he previously contributed to exorcism movie lore with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (more on that one later), not to mention his upcoming stint behind the camera on Doctor Strange.
This film differs from a lot of other exorcism fare in that it largely takes the form of a cop drama with decidedly creepy elements, as a cop named Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), investigates strange events. But things get stranger as he meets a hip, young, shaggy-haired priest/exorcist named Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) and we finally get our long-awaited exorcism toward the end. Overall, you get some solid jump scares, intense family drama, atmospheric creepiness and the requisite preternatural intensity of possession. Oh, and let’s not forget the creepy owl stuffy.
9 THE POSSESSION
2012’s The Possession takes a little from the tried-and-true column and a little from the haven’t-seen-that-before column. Along that first column, we have the story of a girl from a broken home who becomes possessed getting checked out for medical issues before the exorcism route is taken. Sounds a lot like The Exorcist, doesn't it? The difference here, though, is that it all stems from Jewish mysticism rather than the traditional Christian mysticism.
The young girl finds a dybbuk box, which is inspired by an urban myth perpetuated by the real-life sale of such a box on eBay a few years ago, along with the spooky story the seller added to the post. The box is said to be a wine cabinet haunted by an evil spirit called a dybbuk. In the movie, when the girl opens it, all kinds of horror befalls her and her family, not the least of which being that she seems to be possessed by the spirit. The medical tests show disturbing images of the dybbuk inside her, and ultimately we get a Hasidic Jewish take on the exorcism ritual, which is a nice change of pace for the genre. Plus, there’s a solid cast, featuring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick as the girl’s parents, not to mention Sam Raimi producing.
8 THE PRIESTS
Next, we head over to South Korea for the 2015 film The Priests. Clearly, based on the title, we’re back to the Catholic sphere, but the Korean culture switch is refreshing. For example, we see something of a camaraderie between the Catholic priest exorcist and a traditional Korean shaman exorcist, and the Korean importance of dates and years also plays a role.
As is often the case, the possessed in this movie is a young girl, but in this film, she’s initially in a coma as a result of an accident. And the movie doesn’t even focus as much as you’d expect from an exorcism movie on her, the possessed. Through the first two thirds of the flick, we get a lot of fascinating research and preparation by the older priest/exorcist and his younger, more skeptical assistant. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of creepiness and jarring possession scenes to keep exorcism fans more than entertained in this solid first feature from writer/director Jang Jae-hyun.
7 THE EXORCIST 3
Like we mentioned in the intro, The Exorcist was followed by The Exorcist II: The Heretic -- which saw the return of Linda Blair as Regan and Max von Sydow as Father Merrin four years after the original -- but was a truly horrible mess of a film by just about any measure. Finally, the franchise returned 16 years later with The Exorcist 3, which featured only one actor from the original cast, but it more than had the original writer of the novel, William Peter Blatty’s, blessing. It was based on a story by Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film.
It’s by no means a perfect film and not nearly on par with the original, but it’s still a quality horror movie with some really solid scares. The plot is a little on the complicated side, but essentially, the demon that was exorcised from Regan’s body in the '70s was so angry at Father Karras (Jason Miller reprising the role) that it put the soul of a serial killer in his body, and that soul was used to commit murders by jumping into other people at night. And there’s also a nice cynical cop portrayal from George C. Scott, for what it's worth.
6 KEEPER OF DARKNESS
We go back to the Far East for the 2015 horror Keeper of Darkness, directed by and starring Hong Kong born, award-winning actor Nick Cheung. It spent its first two weeks at the number one spot at Hong Kong's box office and was nominated for six Hong Kong film awards. And Cheung gives us another new take on the exorcism tale, one mostly devoid of religion.
Cheung’s character, Fatt, is just a civilian who happens to be able to talk to spirits, and he exorcises them simply by having a good chat, convincing them to leave people alone. As you can imagine, this works fairly easily when he’s dealing with more benevolent spirits, but he eventually comes across a father-daughter ghost team that’s not so easily convinced, and that’s when things get good. It’s a movie with some slick, spooky effects for good scares, but there’s also a healthy dose of humor to balance things out.
5 THE LAST EXORCISM
With a modest $1.8-million budget, 2010’s The Last Exorcism is one of those little horror movies that could, raking in $67.7 million domestically. And, unlike a film like The Devil Inside, which was an even bigger box office success, this one made good money because it was actually good. The documentary-style film follows an affable, but faithless exorcist named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) who’s called to a farmhouse to perform an exorcism on the farmer’s daughter, Nell (Ashley Bell).
A bit of a hustler, Marcus is used to performing fake exorcisms just to appease his clientele, but he’s in for a surprise. The film’s intensity ramps up gradually as the spirit controlling Nell gains more and more control over her body. Bell, in her first major film role, is a revelation, displaying leering evil and a wonderfully disturbing ability to contort her body. And then there’s the wild, unexpected ending. If only it could have been left at that, but it was followed by a vastly inferior sequel.
4 THE CONJURING
We’re going to call it a tie between 2013’s The Conjuring and its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2, but we’re going to show the sequel as one notch higher on the list, just for ease of our own storytelling purposes. Both star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life husband-and-wife team of paranormal investigators.
In the first film, the Warrens investigate paranormal activity at a house -- after a new family moves in -- once owned by an accused witch who had cursed her land back in the 19th century. The history of the house ever since the curse is littered with death. Eventually, the mother becomes possessed by the witch. Ed chooses to try to perform an exorcism on his own, since a priest is unavailable, which is a pretty risky move, and he’s at first met with some pretty terrifying resistance before finally finding some success.
3 THE CONJURING 2
This is a truly rare case of a horror movie, let alone an exorcism movie, having a sequel that’s just as good as the original. In the sequel, the Warrens head to England for their latest investigation. Lorraine has been plagued by horrifying visions of Ed’s death by decapitation, and when they get to London, she realizes the same demon giving her the visions (in the form of a disturbing white-faced nun) is also plaguing the family they’re investigating, possessing one of the family’s daughters.
Again, the Warrens don’t rely on the Catholic church for their exorcism in this one, as its Lorraine that takes care of business. Like its predecessor, The Conjuring 2 is filled with truly unsettling imagery and great performances by Wilson and Farmiga. The series has spawned a spinoff in Annabelle (revolving around the creepy doll seen in the first film), plus there’s an Annabelle 2 set for release May 19, 2017. A film based on The Conjuring 2’s demon nun is also in the works.
2 THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE
Like many exorcism films, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) is another that attempts to add spooky legitimacy by claiming to be based on a true story. And there are definitely elements of this film that you can imagine may have actually occurred as you see them on the screen, because it’s very much about showing both sides to the story. Was Emily Rose (Dexter star Jennifer Carpenter, killing it in her first major film role) really possessed by an evil demon? Or was she mentally ill?
It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Emily dies following exorcisms performed by a Catholic priest named Father Moore (Colin Wilkinson), because the film jumps back and forth between Moore’s trial for negligent homicide and the events that took place at the Rose family’s farm that led to her death. And those events are downright horrifying. Emily suffers from terrifying visions, she eats bugs, and she’s pinned to her bed and choked by an invisible hand. She contorts herself in unnatural ways, most of which, like Bell in The Last Exorcism, are actually performed by Carpenter, making them all the more grotesque. And that’s just in the early days of the “possession.” You’ll have to watch to see the rest.
Incidentally, two other films have been made based on the real-life events that led to the death of German teenager Anneliese Michel in 1976. Due to her strange behavior, the Catholic church granted the rare approval to perform an exorcism on the girl. But it wasn’t just one exorcism, it was 67, performed over the course of almost a year. Eventually, she was so malnourished and dehydrated that she died, resulting in her parents and two priests being charged with negligent homicide. Requiem (2006), was a German film that focused less on scares and more on the drama, while Anneliese: The Exorcist Tapes (2011) was a direct-to-DVD film that went the opposite route, focusing on horror. Neither had the balance we enjoyed in Emily Rose.
1 THE EXORCIST
Yes, we know, we’re not fooling anyone by placing the granddaddy of all exorcism movies, 1973’s The Exorcist, at number one. But what can we say? It’s simply the best, and it laid the groundwork for all exorcism movies that followed. In many cases, other exorcism movies are merely faded copies of the pure dramatic horror and grotesque visuals of the original. It ranks at the top of many lists of the best horror movies of all time, and it ranked highly on our own list earlier this year.
It, too, is based on a true story, and was infamously plagued by strange happenings to cast and crew on and off the set. But it’s what we see on screen that makes it the best, most terrifying exorcism movie of all time. It’s the psychological nightmare of a mother who doesn’t know what to do about her daughter’s strange behavior, and the terrifying things that happen to her. But most famously, it’s the blaspheming, head-spinning, upside-down-walking, projectile-vomiting performance of Linda Blair as Regan -- along with the special effects that made her possession appear so nightmarishly realistic -- that make this classic so damn good.
What do you think is the scariest exorcism movie ever made? Let us know in the comments.