Ever since director William Friedkin terrorized audiences with his 1973 classic The Exorcist, films about demonic possession have become a horror staple. So it was only a matter of time before the story of Father Gabriele Amorth, who claimed to have performed tens of thousands of exorcisms prior to his death in 2016, hit the big screen.

The Pope’s Exorcist, which is loosely based on Amorth’s case files, is now in theaters, with Academy Award–winner Russell Crowe playing the eccentric priest. The title reflects Amorth’s tenure as the appointed exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, which started with an apprenticeship in 1986 and continued through his death in 2016.

Amorth’s decades of demon-hunting offers a fascinating look at a centuries-old practice.

Becoming “The Pope’s Exorcist”

Amorth was born May 1, 1925, in Modena, Italy. His family were devout Catholics, though Amorth admitted he would often fall asleep under the pews during mass as a child.

According to Amorth’s obituary in The Telegraph, his father and grandfather were both lawyers. After fighting for the Italian resistance movement in World War II, he studied law, too, and served as deputy to future Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in the Young Christian Democrats.

According to The Boston Pilot, Amorth entered into the Congregation of the Society of St. Paul in August 1947 and was ordained a priest less than four years later on January 24, 1951.

Surprisingly, Amorth didn’t practice exorcism until 1986, when the vicar of Rome named him an apprentice to longtime Vatican exorcist Rev. Candido Amantini. He succeeded Amantini following his death in 1992, marking the start of his true tenure as the Pope’s exorcist.

In the meantime, Amorth had co-founded the International Association of Exorcists in 1990 to help inspire and train other priests. Headquartered in Rome, its first international conference took place in 1994 and became a biannual event. The Vatican formally recognized the group in July 2014.

However, members probably won’t be rushing to the box office later this month. The organization condemned the special effects–laden trailer of Crowe’s new film, saying in a March 7 statement it “distorts and falsifies what is truly lived and experienced during the exorcism of truly possessed people.”

Amorth’s Exorcism Accounts

According to a 2013 HuffPost article, Amorth said he performed as many as 20 exorcisms a day at his peak. He detailed the process in Marcello Stanzione’s 2020 book The Devil Is Afraid of Me: The Life and Work of the World’s Most Famous Exorcist. Amorth claimed exorcisms lasted about 30 minutes on average, and it made little difference if they were performed over the phone, via Skype, or in person. For the latter, Amorth had the assistance of four laymen who escorted patients to a room away from the Roman streets—so that passersby couldn’t hear the screaming.

closeup of hands holding and pointing out small metal and plastic items
Father Gabriele Amorth shows the keys, batteries, plastic toys, and other items he claimed possession victims spit out during exorcisms.
Getty Images

Despite performing an absurdly high number of exorcisms—once claiming as many as 160,000—Amorth said fewer than 100 involved true demonic possession. In such instances, Amorth said the possessed would spit out shards of glass, pieces of metal, rose petals, and other items. He kept a collection of plastic figurines, nails, and keys as proof. He also said he witnessed feats of superhuman strength, like an 11-year-old boy hurling away three police officers with ease.

However, Amorth approached his job with a healthy amount of skepticism and humor. Crowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while researching for the role, he learned the priest rejected many patients seeking his help and referred them for treatment with conventional medicine.

“He’s dealing with the afflicted all the time… I was just very attracted to that, you know,” Crowe said, “because like, it’s such a serious gig. But at the same time, he was so goofy. I really liked that combination.”

Although Amorth was clearly passionate about his craft, it led to a few bizarre claims about world events and popular culture. For example, Amorth told Vatican Radio in 2006 he believed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were both possessed by the devil. Then, in 2015, he said the same about ISIS.

At a conference in 2011, he denounced yoga as “the devil’s work” because it leads people to Hinduism and other religions based on what he saw as the false idea of reincarnation. He also said the devil is in the Harry Potter book series by J.K. Rowling, because its plot centered around magic.

Books and Documentary

Amorth wasn’t shy about discussing his experiences and wrote his own books, including 1999’s An Exorcist Tells His Story and 2002’s An Exorcist: More Stories which Sony Pictures says helped inspire the new film.

And he wasn’t opposed to being on camera, either. You can even watch him performing an exorcism. In 2016, Vanity Fair asked film director Friedkin to travel to Italy to write a story about Amorth. He became the first person to film the priest performing an exorcism and used the footage he gathered to make the 2017 documentary The Devil and Father Amorth.

The film contains a roughly 15-minute sequence of footage from the ninth exorcism session for a woman named Cristina. Amorth, who was 91 at the time, is seen chanting Latin phrases in an attempt to cast out evil spirits. In the climax, Cristina is shown writhing in a chair and yelling phrases such as “She is mine! She belongs to me!” in a demonic voice that might or might not be digitally altered.

But the only thing that seemed to spook viewers was the film’s poor production value. It holds a 22 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics also took aim at Friedkin, with NPR’s Andrew Lapin saying the film “seems to have been made by someone who’s never seen a movie before.”

Amorth’s Death and Legacy

priest holding a vial of holy water in front of a crucifix statue
Father Gabriele Amorth helped create the International Association of Exorcists, which has grown to 400 members.
Getty Images

Amorth died at age 91 on September 16, 2016, after battling pulmonary illness, according to the New York Post.

Almost seven years later, the 400-member International Association of Exorcists is thriving amid growing demand around the world. A 2018 article from The Guardian said the number of Italians claiming to be possessed had tripled to 500,000 per year and that exorcism was a “booming industry” in the United Kingdom.

According to The National Desk, there were only 12 specialized Catholic priests qualified to perform the rite in the United States in 2005. As of February 2023, that number had risen to somewhere between 125 and 150.

Dr. Richard Gallagher, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and Columbia University, told Esquire in 2020 the collapse of traditional religious institutions and growing influence of the paranormal in pop culture might be factors in the rise of supposed cases of possession. Amorth helped legitimize the conversation around such spiritual topics, and these trends suggest his influence will survive far beyond his Hollywood fictionalization.

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Tyler Piccotti
Associate News Editor, Biography.com

Tyler Piccotti joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had worked almost eight years as a newspaper reporter and copy editor. He is a graduate of Syracuse University, an avid sports fan, a frequent moviegoer, and trivia buff.