The Exorcist (1973)
Written by William Peter Blatty
Directed by William Friedkin
There will never be another horror film like The Exorcist, which is in the context of it becoming a cultural phenomenon. I was born eight years after it was released, and I can remember hearing stories about how people passed out in the theater or ran screaming out of the building. I’d glanced at quick clips of the film during shows like Entertainment Tonight when they talked about the movie in retrospect. I think that hype has died down because of the decentralized nature of media in the digital age. There have been much more extreme horror films released since in regards to gore and the depiction of demon possession. However, The Exorcist is a Horror Masterwork, not because it’s unrelenting scary in any capacity, but because it balances both terror and humanity.
Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives in Georgetown while filming a movie directed by her good friend Burke Dennings. She’s brought along her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) while Chris’s marriage to her husband has fallen apart weeks prior. Chris and Regan take up residence in a brownstone two-story home attended to by the husband-wife housekeepers. Everything is cozy and typical until Regan begins exhibiting strange behaviors. They are subtle at first and pawned off as hormonal issues or possibly ADHD. Things grow more sinister until it becomes utterly unavoidable that an evil presence has taken hold of Reagan’s body and is tormenting her.
Meanwhile, we follow the parallel story of Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest who is struggling with his faith while caring for his aging and ailing Greek immigrant mother. We learn through artifacts around her home that Damien was a prizefighter once, and at some point, he abandoned that sport to pursue a degree in psychology. Now he works as a psychiatrist for the church, helping both the congregation and his fellow clergymen. His destiny crosses paths with Chris and Regan and a veteran priest, Father Merrin, who is well-studied on matters of demon possession. This all leads to one dark night where the forces of light confront the monsters that dwell in darkness.
Now that the media hype has died down, decades later, The Exorcist is not a nailbiting jumpscare fest but rather a well-thought-out grounded tragedy with a very optimistic ending. William Friedkin has always played with heightened and grounded senses of reality. His more recent work has been more overtly stylized, but in the 1970s, with pictures like The French Connection, he went for a more documentary filmmaking style. He was interested in the process and the steps a person took in doing their job.
Friedkin approaches Regan’s condition and the exorcism in the same manner. For most of the picture, the young girl is undergoing blood tests, getting brain scans, etc. It’s only the last 30 minutes that we actually watch the exorcism. Even that ritual is seen as a series of neutral, emotionally disconnected steps that purge the demon from the girl’s body. Merrin approaches the task like a plumber would clear out a pipe while Karras has his emotions betray him but ultimately save the day. As the demon taunts the priests, they leave the room to collect their thoughts and Fr. Merrin explains that the devil wants them “to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.” In turn, this implies that adherence to ritual and procedure is what elevates humanity above the beasts. To become possessed is to fall into a place of pure emotion and illogical thinking.
There’s a rich air of mystery throughout The Exorcist, with so many unexplained components left for the audience to contemplate. The entire opening in Iraq, following Fr. Merrin as he leads an archaeological dig and confronts the statue of a demon he seems to recognize, seems disconnected from the rest of the film until Merrin resurfaces at the end of the second act. Regan’s possession is never logically explained. We get hints about it through her use of the ouija board and Chris’s discovery of a stone demon’s head. There’s the crucifix discovered under Regan’s pillow that no adult in the house will admit they gave to her, and they seem honest in their answers. The biggest question in the whole picture is, “Why did the demon possess Regan?” She’s a child who doesn’t even show signs of malice or evil. That is what makes this such an unsettlingly story ultimately, that someone who seems the least like to become a conduit of evil so easily could. Fr. Karras’s crisis of faith coincides with this discovery, how could God create a world where something so evil could exist?
Friedkin refuses to take the easy way out and answer your questions. Sadly, many of the sequels that were to come decided to explicitly try to explain things, which is why they are so terrible. The perfection of the first film is that it just acts as a recordkeeper, showing us what happened without allowing us to understand. In turn, the audience is forced to grapple with the great existential questions these events imply. Is innocence a non-existent concept, a fantasy invented so that we can believe our children are safe from the evils of the world?
There is heavy subtext about the sexual maturation of women present throughout The Exorcist. Regan is a girl just at the age when she might begin menstruation. She violates herself with a crucifix, producing blood and taunting her carers with sexual obscenities. Before things become so ostentatious, she’s just a cranky girl getting a check-up at the doctor, letting a profanity slip when she doesn’t want to be poked or prodded anymore. In many ways, what we see is an adult nightmare of female adolescence played out, particularly in how American Christians perceive sexual maturation. You need only look to the fundamentalist fervor over abortion to see the bizarre relationship between these religious people and sexuality. The unborn, voiceless & powerless are the most precious of all and so innocent, while the minute after they are born, filled with the potential of having a different set of opinions than the conservative Christians, they become unimportant and not worth the time. Regan’s experience is a direct confrontation with this mindset, mocking their Puritanical mores for being naive and intolerant.
There is so much happening in The Exorcist, much more than relegating it to a cultural novelty that spooked audience members in the 1970s. It is an enigmatic film that wants you to actively engage in the ideas it presents. There is no pipe smoking expert, a la Psycho, who will exposit for the audience’s benefit in the final ten minutes to explain to us what just happened. Regan is saved, she and her mom are leaving, and the people who live in Georgetown are left to contemplate what just happened with no easy answers coming any time soon.