George Zervos never expected to play an exorcist on the silver screen or really any screen, for that matter.
Twenty years ago, he play a mobster in the TV series “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
But in The Conjuring, a James Wan film set for release on Friday (July 19), the University of North Carolina Wilmington religion professor was tapped to play an exorcist in two brief scenes.
“The Conjuring” depicts the true story of 1971 case of a Harrisville, RI., family who were terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, founders of the Connecticut-based New England Society for Psychic Research and the Occult Museum, worked to help the family .
Zervos, a former priest, used some of his priests robes during the movie. He jokes that he looked the part.
“I look like a grizzled old bull dog of an exorcist priest,” he said, with a chuckle. “They didn't want anybody pretty to play the part.” What the filmmakers also wanted was someone who could read Latin and chant an exorcism. Zervos could do that easily, having studied Latin and Greek religious texts for years.
Though Ed Warren died in 2006, Lorraine, now in her late 80s, still promotes their work. The Warrens have their own YouTube channel where they recorded histories of some of their ghostly encounters and even “What to do when you see a ghost.”
“If you're, say, a Christian; you're lying in bed and something wakes you up. You look out in the darkness and maybe you see a ghostly figure there, a man or woman, you make the sign of the cross and say in the name of God is there something I can help you with,” said Ed Warren in the YouTube video dated to . “You shouldn't really hold a lot of communication with spirits. . .I would suggest that you simply say in the name of God is there some way I can help you. If it's an evil spirit it will disappear immediately. If it's a positive spirit, some spirit that's just been drawn to you, then you might get some communication.”
But the online chronicle doesn't include the Harrisville case. In one of the movie trailers, the Perron family spoke about the spirits they saw in the house. “We waited 30 years to tell our story because 30 years ago the world was not prepared for this,” one of the Perron daughters said.
To prepare for the role, Zervos read through the Catholic church's modern day Rite of Exorcism, but when he arrived at the shoot, at an abandoned motel in Wilmington, the directors handed him the much more extensive 1868 Roman missal.
“And I'm thinking number one I can't read this without my reading glasses. So this guy comes out with this huge box of period 1930s, 1940s reading glasses,” he said. “Call it God or luck or whatever, but one of the first pairs I picked out was the perfect prescription for me.”
Popularity of exorcisms has surged in recent years with the Milan diocese setting up an exorcism hotline in 2012 and doubling the number of priests qualified to perform the rite. In 2010, U.S. bishops held a two day exorcism training conference for priests. A Catholic Herald article then said signs of demonic possession might include: “Signs of demonic possession might include: speaking in a language the individual does not know, scratching, cutting, biting of the skin, profound display of strength, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, aversion to anything holy, such as mentioning the name of Jesus or Mary, or the act of praying, strong or violent reaction to holy water.”
In North Carolina, the diocese of Raleigh does not have a priest assigned to perform exorcisms, said spokesman Frank Morock.
Though Zervos had been consulted in the case of an exorcism during his previous life as a priest, he said he was never part of the actual event.
In the movie, Zervos had one false start as the exorcism began. Beginner's mistake, he said.
But once Zervos began his droning Latin chant, he realized he wasn't quite prepared for the emotion of that exorcism scene, which became physical right at his feet.
“Acting is not easy. I'm still reading the prayer book, and they're fighting on the ground. It was intense,” he said. “I have nothing but respect for these professional actors and actresses. That, to me, is the first time I've seen what it takes to really get into the scene.”