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Miss Conduct Watches: "The Last Exorcism"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 4, 2013 11:38 AM

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Buzz around "The Last Exorcism Part II" led me to check out the, er, first last exorcism on Netflix this weekend. Mr. Improbable is out of town, and the traditional "first night" of his absence is always marked with pizza and a scary movie. "The Last Exorcism" is the first one that I'm bookmarking to watch with him again when he gets home. 

I was expecting a generic mashup of "The Exorcist" and "Blair Witch Project": Indie filmmaker decides to make a documentary about a Southern evangelical preacher who "casts out demons," accompanying him on his last demon-outcasting before he leaves the ministerial ranks to become a real-estate agent. I wasn't expecting Reverend Cotton Marcus would take over my imagination and heart like a possessive demon.


  fabian.jpg Outstandingly portrayed by Patrick Fabian, who looks like what would have happened if "Cheers" took place in one of "Fringe's" alternaBostons in which both gay marriage and reproductive technology were much further advanced and Sam and Woody had a child, Cotton Marcus is a gifted preacher and faith healer. A man of great intelligence, humor, and goodwill, he was born into an intellectual backwater and trained up in the preaching business from the time he was a child. 

At the beginning of the movie, he has lost his faith and is planning to perform one final exorcism, show the filmmaker how he accomplishes his effects (complete with ash-spouting trick crucifixes and palmed 9-volt batteries), and go into a respectable career as a salesman. 

 Cotton isn't a cynical Elmer Gantry, nor is he an exploited wunderkind. He struggles with the nature of what he does, knowing that demons and hocus-pocus aren't real, but knowing also that the rituals he performs do, in fact, make a difference. He can push families to reveal their toxic secrets and heal. He can traumatize an addict into sobriety, at least for a while. He can create a space for people to upchuck their traumas and move past them. He can exorcise demons, in the way any great artist or therapist can, and he knows this. The people who come to him for help couldn't be helped as effectively by Prozac or therapy, even if they could get it which they probably can't. He knows that too.

And he gets his jollies off the job, no question, wearing a nice suit and spouting Latin and hallelujahs. (There's a scene in the first 10 minutes that made me laugh so hard I re-watched it several times. If you're even the slightest bit inclined, watch the movie on Netflix up to the "banana bread" sequence. The faux-documentary style here owes less to "Paranormal Activity" than it does to "The Office.") It's difficult to imagine any career Cotton could go into that would allow him the creative range enjoyed by a truly talented preacherman. He's a scholar, a counselor, an actor, a community organizer, a magician, a therapist, a standup comic, a teacher, a ringmaster, a guru. 

Now he's going to go sell real estate. Because it's the right thing to do. After this one last exorcism, of course. 

It's less a movie about the supernatural, or the booga-booga, than it is a sociological character study. We are all born with certain talents and capacities. Over time we develop a sense of mission--a desire to teach, or serve, or organize, or create, or explore--that will inform how we use those capabilities. And then we have to figure out how to squeeze that into the work and life roles that the world hands us. Some people get a lot of options to choose. Some don't get any. 

What moved me about "Exorcism,"* and why I want everyone who grew up in the middle-class Northeast to see it, is how brilliantly it portrayed the scope of what evangelical Christianity can offer to people who may not have other outlets for their abilities. As I wrote in Mind Over Manners

Religion offers unparalleled "one-stop shopping" for a variety of human needs. Joining a worship community gives you an instant family of people who speak the same language, know the same stories, hold the same values, and will help you when you need it. ... Churches and other religious organizations can provide leadership opportunities to people who might not get such opportunities in their professional lives--maybe you're just a receptionist at work, but at church you can be a teacher, an organizer, a mentor, a counselor. If you are inclined toward mystical experiences, your tradition can help you learn to pray or meditate. If you are more interested in the outside world than in the inner landscape, you can work on a social justice, charity, or political initiative. If you are moved by art or literature, you can study the great works of your tradition and even try your hand at creating your own--poetry, painting, fiber arts, music, calligraphy. You can study the original language of your faith, or teach it.

I was raised in a fundamentalist sect, though not one that encouraged supernatural practices. In the secular, knowledge-worker world I live in now, many people see fundamentalist Christianity as a force of intellectual darkness, and only that. And on those grounds, those creationism-teaching, abstinence-promoting, science-denying grounds, they're right. But what's missing from that perspective is an understanding of the creative and social and, yes, intellectual opportunities that these churches offer to people who may not get the scope to exercise their talents elsewhere. 

"The Last Exorcism" is a remarkable look at what fundamentalism offers to a brilliant and charismatic man, and what it will cost him to walk away from it. Watch it. It isn't what you think. 

*A word that, for what it's worth, I am still misspelling upon every attempt. That and "niece," I can never get right. An article called "The Niece's Exorcism" would be my personal "Rural Juror."
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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