The Dynamics of Demonic Possession: A Q&A With Author Matt Baglio

The Rite, by journalist Matt Baglio, will be released as a film this month. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Colin O'Donoghue, it will delve into the fascinating world of exorcism. Baglio graciously agreed to talk to us about his own feelings on exorcism and what it was like having his book optioned as a film.

SIGNATURE: You mentioned in your Time interview that you approached this topic without an opinion for or against exorcism. Has your experience solidified your belief one way or the other?

MATT BAGLIO: I didn't see anything that convinced me that the problems these people were claiming to have were caused by demons; however, after the many interviews I did - with both believers and skeptics - I am more willing to accept the notion that in a few cases there is something real going on here that cannot be explained.

Most of the cases that people associate with demonic possession I would characterize as having a natural cause. Even exorcists admit that ninety percent of the people who come to see them don't need an exorcism. The book tries to delve deeply into that remaining ten percent. I am a very curious person by nature, and I wanted to understand what was going on. Perhaps one day science will be able to explain some of the paranormal phenomena associated with exorcisms, but until then it's a little premature to write it off completely.

SIG: When you first began writing The Rite did it occur to you that a film was a possibility?

MB: I knew that there was interest fairly early on, but I was so focused on getting the book done that I didn't worry too much about it. I think it's every writer's dream to see their book made into a movie, but a lot of it is out of your hands, and so you can't really let it affect you too much.

However, things moved quickly once the word got out (thanks to my wonderful agents Christy Fletcher and Howard Sanders), and before I had even handed in the manuscript New Line Cinema had optioned the book and hired a screenwriter, Michael Petroni, to write the first draft of the movie. I think most of this had to do with the narrative nature of the story itself - a Catholic priest being trained as an exorcist - which was something that hasn't been seen before.

SIG: The Rite strikes a wonderful balance between informative and suspenseful and can be read by both the religious and secular worlds. Is there anything in particular, the tone, mood, feeling, etc., that you're worried the movie won't convey?

MB: The book tries to present the reality of exorcism as it is taught today, and the film is no different. There is nothing in the movie that isn't theologically posited in the book, so the filmmakers have tried to be very faithful to the theology of the Church with respect to the dynamics of demonic possession. Also, one of the book's central themes is also reflected in the movie: the idea that evil tries to stay hidden, and it is only through faith and belief that it's able to be unmasked and defeated. That said, they took certain liberties with the characters and time lines to make it work as a movie.

SIG: Creative license is often used in book-to-movie adaptations. Are you concerned that the movie will take on an "Exorcist" feel?

MB: The movie has different goals than the book, and because life doesn't adhere to a narrative arc watching it will be a different experience than reading the book. However, the film's creators were very adamant that they wanted the film to be based in the reality of the world that I report on in my book. I am happy that in their approach the filmmakers have tried to keep the movie grounded. Having a film compared to "The Exorcist" isn't necessarily a bad thing since that movie was so iconic. But this is a very different film. My hope is that it will reintroduce people to exorcism in a way that they have never seen it before.

SIG: What are your thoughts on the process of turning your book into a movie? Is there anything that surprised you?

MB: I was very pleased by the process. For one, I was surprised at how fast things got moving. Second, I felt privileged to be involved. As an author you never know what to expect, but I felt really welcomed by everyone working on this film. I think a lot of this speaks to the professionalism of the filmmakers themselves who wanted this film to be as accurate as possible. I was also very impressed with the level of dedication shown by the actors.

SIG: If given the opportunity to do another movie, would you approach the project differently?

MB: Honestly, I was very thrilled by how the process worked out. One thing I learned is that there is so much that is out of your hands that all you can really do is surround yourself with people you trust and let things follow their natural course. If given the chance, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

SIG: Are you planning any other books on the topic in the future? If not, what's next?

MB: I have decided to step back from exorcism at the moment. I really feel like I gave my all to the topic and left no stone unturned, and so I'll leave the door open for others to step in. At the moment I am working on a variety of projects, including a graphic novel that deals with some of the themes addressed in my book such as the fallen angels and the ongoing war between good and evil, but it transposes them onto a much bigger, and historical canvas.

MATT BAGLIO, a reporter living in Rome, has written for the Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune.

Read an excerpt from Matt Baglio's nonfiction book, The Rite. Image above courtesy New Line Cinema.