The Virtues of ‘The Exorcist’

 

I was in sixth grade when I first started having nightmares about demonic possession.

They began with a casual reference to the projectile vomit of pea soup in the 1973 film The Exorcist, made by a friend at my Catholic grade school. My friend couldn’t have known it, but he had introduced me to an entire world of fear about which I had remained blissfully ignorant until then. And that fear was best represented by William Friedkin’s horror classic about a demonically-possessed Regan (Linda Blair) and the priests who try to save her.

I spent the next decade of my life blocking out any demonic pop culture—especially The Exorcist—in the hope that the fear would vanish as I aged. But it did not. My Catholic upbringing and a primal anxiety about losing control of my own body are largely to blame. The nightmares subsided, but my fright lingered. Thus, at 23 years old, I finally decided to confront my fears. I would watch The Exorcist, which was filmed in Washington, D.C., the city in which I currently work and live, for Halloween. Perhaps it would end the nightmares forever, or perhaps it would continue them indefinitely. I did not know. But so resolved, I could not back down. What I found upon watching was some of what I expected, some of what I did not, and much that made confronting my fears worthwhile.

Few films of any kind, much less horror films, have left so great a mark on popular culture as The Exorcist. Even my anti-demonic blinders could not block out everything about the movie. Before the first frame, I knew much of what was coming: the aforementioned vomit; a Ouija board as the demonic entry point; the sexual sacrilege; the floating bed; the spinning head; the old priest and the young priest; the Georgetown setting; “the power of Christ compels you”; the guttural Latin. I even knew roughly how the film would end. The Exorcist has so thoroughly defined its genre, moreover, that what seem like clichés to a modern viewer are so because they came from this film. Today we’re also far less likely than those in 1973 to be shocked at the profane utterances of the demonic Regan; indeed, they increasingly resemble modern speech. I had also built up the film in my imagination as such a terrifying movie that the real thing could not have possibly lived up to it.

Yet much of The Exorcist still affected me profoundly. Though I knew much of what was going to happen, I did not know in what order, or when they would happen; even when one knows what is coming, the sequence can still surprise. And the most famous scenes of The Exorcist still ought to shock any viewers who still have a moral sense. Having no knowledge of certain more quotidian aspects of the film—its opening scene, its pacing, the specific relationships of the characters, their arcs—also generated more suspense. There is, for example, no unambiguous sign of the demonic until nearly halfway through the movie, and many of the film’s most iconic scenes appear only in its climactic final half-hour. These and other refined choices—notably, a lack of true jump scares or other such cheap scary-movie manipulations—elevate The Exorcist above the shock-above-all horror fare of its legion of successors.

My Catholic upbringing renders me not only uniquely susceptible to the film’s terror but to its main theme, one that commends it not only as a horror film but as a film generally: faith. Demonic evil reveals the higher, victorious reality of transcendent good. One sees it in the struggle of agnostic Chris (Ellen Burstyn) to accept the reality of what is happening to her daughter, and in the stoic example of Fr. Lankester Merrin (the great Max von Sydow). The doubtful Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) is the locus of this struggle in the film, but I fear popular interpretation misunderstands his end. His faith and film journey culminate in a frustrated physical confrontation with the demon in which he begs it to take him instead; when it obliges, he hurls himself out a window to his death, commonly understood as a noble, self-sacrificial act. Yet this is a sign of pride on his part, not faith; if he had the latter, he would have trusted God fully and completed the exorcism rite he and Merrin had begun instead of taking matters into his own hands.

So yes, I am glad I finally confronted my fears. I encountered some things I expected, some things I did not, and some things of value. I do not know if this will end the nightmares or merely prolong and intensify them (I did not sleep the first night after watching the movie). I do know one thing, however: I am staying far, far away from Ouija boards.

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