No discussion of Scary Movies can even get past the first page without at least a promise to talk about William Friedkin’s classic, The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty. For the purposes of this discussion, I am talking about the original, theatrical version released in 1973. In the nearly 40 years since its release, it has been reviewed, re-reviewed, analyzed, critiqued and evaluated over and over and over, and has consistently made just about every list of the top 5, 10, or 100 scariest movies of all time. As it turns out, there is a very good reason for this. This one seriously scary movie, on a whole lot of levels! There are very few films that I can recall from my childhood that actually hold up to repeat viewing as an adult. Not only does The Exorcist hold it’s own, but I believe that it has actually gained ground and become even more frightening as time has gone by.
The basic storyline, for those who have somehow missed seing it, involves a 12-year-old girl, played by a young Linda Blair, who is the daughter of a famous and successful actress, played by famous and successful actress Ellen Burstyn. The pair lives in a lovely apartment in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. A series of strange events begins to transpire, starting out as merely a little odd, and culminating with a full-on case of demonic possession. Physicians and psychiatrists are called in, with predictable Scary Movie results. After a complete failure to come up with anything useful, one of the doctors suggests that the girl might respond, simply through the power of suggestion, of course, to the Catholic rite of Exorcism, by which demons are driven from the afflicted (familiar to anyone who has seen an episode of Supernatural). So Mom goes in search of a Catholic priest. Being an Atheist, she has to ask around a bit, but she does eventually find Father Damien Karras, who happens to be both a psychiatrist and a priest. That’s enough description for now, suffice it to say that this is where the story really takes off.
My personal introduction to this horror classic was probably around 1982 or so, when I was about 12. Since then, I would be surprised to discover that I have seen this film less than 25 or thirty times. It still scares me, chilling me from the inside out, making me nervous when I’m alone at night in my basement, and making me want to sleep with the light on.
For me, the horror experience form this film really feels like it has paralleled my growth from a child, through adolescence, into adulthood. When I was twelve, the things that scared me were the things twelve year-olds find scary: the thought of opening a door and running into a possessed girl who would then proceed to do horrible things to me, perhaps involving projectile vomiting pea soup, or spitting a gigantic bright orange loogie in my eye. I always found that one to be particularly memorable. Or maybe it would happen just as I turned around, discovering that she had been standing behind me for a while, probably silently hawking a really good globule. In short, your basic twleve year-old, boogeyman type fears.
As I moved deeper into adolescence, and my reading of the film became a little more complex, the fear came from the idea of someone besides me occupying and controlling my body for malevolent purposes, and my being trapped helplessly and hopelessly inside (Of course, that’s pretty much adolescence, yes?). It was also about this time that I started to pick up on some of the elements of the story that were not explicitly shown, which imply some of the most horrifying parts of the film. For example, I think I was about 16 when I first picked up on the scene where Detective Kinderman, the old-school police detective played subtly by Lee J. Cobb is politely interviewing Chris MacNeil about the death of MacNeil’s director, Burke Dennings. Initially, everyone is treating the death like an accident, until Kinderman casually reveals some of the details of the condition of the body, and how strange it seems, under the circumstances. In this way, one of the most terrifying scenes of the story is told, terrifying not only in its violent execution, but in the implications for just what this possessed girl is capable of, and how little she lets on about it.
By the time I was in my twenties, the larger thematic conflicts came into focus. Clearly The Exorcist is largely about the battle between Good and Evil. The way the story plays out, though, is sort of one-sided as far as this goes. There is plenty of evidence for Evil, in the image of a girl who’s head spins around and projects all kinds of unpleasant liquids and gels. So the Devil is definitely represented. In the other corner, however, we don’t have God, or an angel, or even a particularly confident priest. We have Father Karras, who even on a good day would have to be described as “haunted”. He has clearly come to question his faith, and by the end of the exorcism ritual, when Father Merrin, the faithful and confident priest, has been dispatched, Karras seems to abandon all remaining vestiges of faith and the church, and takes matters (literally) into his own, all too human hands. So now the horror comes from the idea that evil has free reign over humanity, and there is nobody out there willing to stand up for us. Our only hope is ourselves and each other, and that is terrifying in its own right.
Now that I have a daughter of my own, the stakes have changed entirely. One of the scenes early in the film, in which Regan casually tells her mother about using a oiuja board to communicate with someone named “Captain Howdy”, was merely ominous foreshadowing before, but now brings the bitterness to the back of my throat. It is one thing to imagine losing oneself to a malevolent influence, or to imagine an encounter with pure Evil, but the terror of seeing this happen to your child? Something else entirely.
Something else that has become more clear to me as I have grown older, is the strength of the sense of redemption and affirmation that actually follows on the heels of the horror in this story. In the end, at least for the time being, the good guys do manage to win, although certainly at great cost. The atheist single mom has a lot more to think about, and Regan, the girl, appears to have survived the ordeal with the resilience of youth, and doesn’t remember a thing. One might also make the case that, regardless of the state of Father Karras’ faith at the end of his life, his final act was self-sacrifice in the protection of someone else. As he lay dying, and is given the last rites by his friend and colleague, his weak acknowledgement of each part does seem to suggest that he is at peace with the answers he either already has, or is about to.
I daresay it is impossible to give The Exorcist a real reading without considering the overarching questions of the existence of Good, Evil, God, The Devil, and general spirituality. Interestingly enough, I think this film will actually tend to reinforce whatever mode of thought the viewer brings in. For those who see the glass as half-full, and who believe everything will turn out okay, be that via natural or supernatural methods, there is plenty here to support that. After all, everything turns out okay in the end, doesn’t it? On the flip side, those who take the view that the glass is in fact half-empty and that it’s just a matter of time before something like this happens again, only without the happy ending, can easily take away that things worked out okay this time, for now.
As interesting and engaging as the on-screen story is the behind-the-scenes story of The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty, the author of the original novel as well as the screenplay, was known previously as primarily a writer of comedies, notable co-writing with Blake Edwards A Shot in the Dark, the film that brought Inspector Jacques Clouseau to the screen. Legend has it Blatty secluded himself in a cabin in the woods near Lake Tahoe to create what is generally considered his magnum opus.
Director William Friedkin’s commentary on the DVD release tells another story, in which the cast and crew must have felt very close indeed to the characters they were playing. From the problem of keeping Regan’s bedroom cold enough that all the actors’ breath could be seen (basically built the set in a freezer), to the treatment that poor Mercedes McCambrdge had to endure to get her voice just right for her demonic voice-overs (short version, lots of scotch and cigarettes), through the cruel wire rigs that made the shots of actors flying through the air so realistic, the set, just like the movie, must have felt like Hell on earth.
The days are starting to get shorter, and any day now the temperature will drop, and fall will be upon us. When that happens, Halloween will be close behind, and I am sure I will be once again watching The Exorcist, and once again experiencing something new and horrifying.