The Last Exorcism and Cotton Marcus' Crisis of Faith

The following article contains major spoilers for The Last Exorcism (2010)

Found footage is an oft-maligned horror subgenre that offers little in the way of three-dimensional characters or deep, thought-provoking conflict. The format is a model of simplicity, mostly wringing easy scares from threadbare material, but history has proven its ability to be effective. When handled with care for the craft and story, found footage can have all the unnerving tension of a normal horror movie while producing something that feels a bit closer to real life. Films such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield are evidence that found footage movies are capable of rising above the negative stereotypes we so commonly associate them with, and Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism is an undervalued example of just that.

Released in 2010 after an extensive internet marketing campaign, this Eli Roth-produced horror film is centered around the internal conflict of Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a successful evangelical minister that has been primed since boyhood to deliver the word of God to a desperate congregation. The difference between the fast-talking and charismatic Pastor Marcus and other preachers of his kind, however, is that, following the near-death of his ill son, Marcus suddenly realizes that he no longer believes in the book that he preaches. He is a reverend with no faith, preaching a sermon he doesn’t believe in and profiting from it.

Many would consider Pastor Marcus to be a fraud if they knew the truth - even the film crew suggests this upon meeting him - but Cotton Marcus, the nice-as-you-could-hope-to-meet family man doesn’t view his deeds as being wrong. He is, whether he believes in God or not, providing a service. If folks believe they need the word of God in their lives, he provides it for them. If they believe themselves to be possessed and he can fake an exorcism to bring them peace, he’s willing to do so.

Or was, rather.

The Last Exorcism finds Cotton Marcus at a crossroads; one where he must choose to either continue benefiting from the faith of others or expose his lies and make a real difference. The entire film centers around this. Since he nearly lost his son, Pastor Marcus has become fixated on the safety of children and the fact that so many of them are hurt or killed during real exorcisms. Exorcisms they don’t even need, as far as his beliefs are concerned. His theory is that, if he has a documentary crew tag along and film him performing a fake exorcism that successfully rids a person of their torment, it will begin a discussion powerful enough to do away with exorcisms for good and save hundreds of children each year.

Pastor Marcus and the crew wind up in the nowheres of Louisiana, faced with the case of a teenage girl, Nell (Ashley Bell), who is allegedly slaughtering her father’s livestock throughout the night and having no recollection of doing so. Nell, her brother and her father are having a tough time since Nell’s mom passed away, and her dad keeps them on the farm as often as possible, forcing them into an overbearingly religious lifestyle.

Marcus turns up the charm and works his magic on the family, but rather than believing the teen to be possessed by a demon, he suspects that Nell is suffering from the trauma and grief of losing her mother. To ease her father’s mind and fulfill his ulterior motives, however, Cotton appeases the request for an exorcism. He elaborately stages his show with props, trickery and his own masterful performance, but he does so with the best interest of Nell at heart, expecting all of their problems to disappear as he’s witnessed countless times with others.

With Nell and her father relieved to have the demon out of their life, Pastor Marcus and the crew leave with all of the footage they need to make a case for exorcisms being a sham. They crash at a cheap hotel for the night, but their sleep is interrupted by Nell, who has walked several miles to find them and is exhibiting bizarre behavior. This is the moment when the expectations of the audience clash with the beliefs of The Last Exorcism’s main character. Like her father, we believe Nell to be possessed by an actual demon. Cotton Marcus, though, will not give in to such a thought.

At every turn, Pastor Marcus is pitted against the faith that he’s running from. Even when Nell becomes a potentially violent threat, he refuses to give up on her and her survival. That desperation to keep her safe eventually brings him face to face with absolute evil; the type of terror that there is no surviving. If demons exist, however, so to must God. It is the sign that Marcus needs in order for his faith to be restored, and knowing this, he walks into a battle he knows he will not be walking away from, fueled by that newfound strength and prepared to give his own life to save a girl that he’s known for 48 hours.

The filmmaker’s willingness to make Cotton’s faith just as much of a crisis as the demon itself allows The Last Exorcism to stand a cut above other films within the subgenre. He’s a compelling, layered character with an arc that is typically missing from found footage. Revisit the film and give it a fair chance. Pastor Marcus and his last exorcism may hold a deep, lingering effect over you.