Still from the set of “The Exorcist: Believer.”

Courtesy: Universal Studios

Take it on faith. The new “Exorcist” movie will draw big Hispanic audiences.

Universal is seeing stronger-than-average Hispanic interest for “The Exorcist: Believer” as the movie heads into its opening weekend, according to people familiar with the matter. This fits a pattern among recent religious-horror releases such as “The Nun II” and “The Pope’s Exorcist.”

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“They like the emotions. They like the scary aspect of it. It’s something that’s unique in our culture,” Rolando Rodriguez, the Cuban-born chairman of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said of Hispanic and Latino crowds. “We expect big things out of ‘The Exorcist.'”

“The Exorcist: Believer,” a sequel to the classic 1973 original, tells the story of two girls who disappear for three days in present-day Georgia and end up possessed by a demon, or demons, traumatizing their families and resuming an old battle that is rooted in the first movie. It stars Leslie Odom Jr. of “Hamilton” fame.

The new film is slated to open in more than 3,600 theaters Friday, including Imax and other premium formats. It’s expected to pull in up to $30 million in its first weekend. While that should be enough to send it to No. 1 at the domestic box office for the weekend, it remains to be seen whether the film and the next two entries in a planned trilogy will pay off for NBCUniversal. The company’s movie studio and streaming service, Peacock, shelled out $400 million for the movies.

“The Exorcist: Believer” also faces a formidable foe in its second weekend: Taylor Swift, who’s releasing the concert film version of her megahit Eras Tour. “Believer” is also entering a crowded horror movie marketplace. Hollywood and indie studios are releasing scary flicks just about every week as Halloween approaches.

“The horror genre is as popular and plentiful as ever, with a consistent demand from audiences driving studios to keep the pipeline flowing with scary movies big and small, with both major and independent studios supplying the seemingly insatiable demand from an adoring fanbase of thrill-seeking moviegoers,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

Hispanic and Latino viewers will have a big say in how “The Exorcist: Believer” does at the box office, no matter what. They tend to represent 26% of horror movie audiences, compared with 20% for other genres, according to the Comscore/Screen Engine PostTrak Audience Survey.

“Horror films are a communal experience for Latinos, especially in big cities with multiple cinemas located within blocks of one another,” said R.C. Jara, a film writer who has been published on sites such as Hear Us Scream and Dread Central.

Religious roots

Actor Max von Sydow plays a priest performing an exorcism in a scene from the film “The Exorcist.” Linda Blair plays the possessed girl.

Bettmann | Bettmann | Getty Images

Hispanic audiences’ taste for horror goes back a long way in Hollywood.

In 1931, Universal released a Spanish-language version of the Bela Lugosi film “Dracula,” made with a different cast and crew, that has become a cult classic in its own right. The Oscar-winning career of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) is full of macabre and fantastical tales. Hispanic viewers made up a whopping 44% of the audience during the opening weekend for the new “Saw X.”

Beyond the movies, creepy folk tales about bogeyman El Cucuy and weeping ghost La Llorona go back even further.

“We are a unique blend of ‘the old ways’ and modern Christianity, with a large portion of our members practicing Catholicism specifically,” Angel Melanson, an editor at horror publication Fangoria, told CNBC in an email. “These horror stories aren’t saved for once we come of age and ‘can handle’ them. Instead, they’re freely shared right from the start.”

Religion is at the core of much of the fervor for spooky stuff among the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the United States. As of last year, Catholics accounted for the biggest religious bloc among Latinos, according to Pew Research Center.

The original film “The Exorcist” and its source novel — both written by the late William Peter Blatty, a devout Catholic — are set within the dogma and rituals of Roman Catholicism. They tell the story of a preteen girl (played by Linda Blair in the movie) whose possession by a demon leaves her mother (Ellen Burstyn, who returns in the new film) with no choice but to petition priests (Jason Miller and Max von Sydow) to perform an exorcism.

Some of the story’s most shocking moments come when the demon says blasphemous things and performs profane acts, particularly during a notorious scene involving a crucifix.

“Religious horror is flirting with danger. Something maybe your abuela would yell at you for watching, but doesn’t that make it all the more appealing? Forbidden fruit. A horror story based on things we grow up learning are true and possible,” Melanson said.

Possession unbound

Ellen Burstyn, pictured in a still from the set of 2023’s “The Exorcist: Believer,” reprises her role from the original 1973 film. Also pictured: director David Gordon Green.

Courtesy: Universal Studios

Religious horror films resonate deeply with Latino moviegoers in large part because of the emphasis on rituals, experts say.

“Even for modern Latinos who don’t practice Brujeria or cleansings, Catholicism is rife with ritual. So there’s this concept of being able to defeat the demon with ritual, a how-to-survive guidebook of sorts,” Melanson said.

But it’s not unusual to hear atheistic or agnostic horror fans say “The Exorcist” made them believe, if only for two hours. The original movie, released the day after Christmas in 1973, was the kind of must-see event that resulted in lines of moviegoers of all faiths wrapping around blocks to wait for a screening. Hollywood hadn’t released anything like it before, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s classic slasher “Psycho” or the similarly satanic “Rosemary’s Baby,” in terms of shock value.

“The Exorcist” grossed more than $193 million, according to Comscore data. That would still be a big haul for a movie released these days, especially one as explicitly graphic as “The Exorcist.” At its heart, though, the movie is a tense, confrontational theological drama.

“I believe very strongly in God and the power of the human soul,” the late William Friedkin, who directed “The Exorcist,” once said in an interview. “I also believe that they are unknowable. But the film, ‘The Exorcist,’ is primarily about the mystery of faith, the mystery of goodness, that mystery which is inexplicable, but it’s there.”

The new movie’s director, David Gordon Green, is looking to tap into similar ground.

“Whatever faith you subscribe to, there’s always that curiosity, always that interest in the unknown,” Green, who also co-wrote “The Exorcist: Believer” and is set to helm its sequels, told CNBC.

Indeed, Green, who grew up Presbyterian and helps steer HBO’s evangelical comedy “The Righteous Gemstones,” took a small-c catholic approach to the story of the new “Exorcist.” The film opens up the religious sandbox beyond Jesuit priests, also embracing voodoo and evangelical rituals. Catholics don’t have a monopoly on the subject, after all. Possession, Green said, comprises a “huge world” of myths and ideas, from various cultures.

Leslie Odom Jr., seen in a still from the set, stars in “The Exorcist: Believer.”

Courtesy: Universal Studios

“We may have doubt, we may have certainty, but until we experience something, we don’t really know. There’s something beautiful about that,” he said.

The franchise’s branching out from its Catholic roots mirrors what’s happening among Latinos in the U.S. According to Pew, while Catholicism remains the largest faith among the group, the share of the population who identify as Catholic has fallen dramatically in recent years. Meanwhile, the number of Latinos who aren’t affiliated with any religion is surging. In fact, those ages 18 to 29 are more likely to be unaffiliated than Catholic, according to the study.

“Speaking on behalf of my profoundly Catholic family members, films about serial killers, monsters and especially demonic possession are a means of facing evil vicariously through fiction,” said Jara, reflecting on the genre. “But those of us, like myself, who are agnostic towards the existence of a higher power have found a primary home in horror.”

Still, even as beliefs shift, it’s not “The Exorcist” without religion. The next entry in the planned trilogy is scheduled for release on April 18, 2025 — Good Friday.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC and Universal Pictures, the distributor of “The Exorcist: Believer.”


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