Why ‘The Exorcist’ Haunts Us Still

I first saw “The Exorcist” when I was 13 and home alone. This, of course, was a mistake; by the time the iconic bars of Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” were running over the credits, I knew I’d never sleep that night, or possibly ever again. But it was not the circumstances of my viewing that made this film so abjectly terrifying. Forty-five years after its release, the adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 eponymous novel remains the most frightening movie ever made, and not just because it features a tween whose head spins backward.

At the time of the book’s publication, it seemed unlikely to ever achieve a mass audience, let alone be adapted into the ninth highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation. Until then, Blatty, who also authored the screenplay, had been best known as the comedy screenwriter who’d given us the Inspector Clouseau mystery, “A Shot in the Dark.” A devout Catholic, he’d fictionalized an account of a 1949 exorcism by a Jesuit priest, but even his fancy Hollywood credentials couldn’t save it from being sent back to the publisher in droves. Only when a mysterious set of flukes landed him on the Dick Cavett Show for a full 45 minutes did the “The Exorcist” catapult to the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for 57 weeks.

When it came to adapting the book to screen, all the bigwig directors of the time were approached, including Stanley Kubrick. But no one bit but Friedkin, who’d just nabbed a best-director Oscar for 1971’s “The French Connection.” This turned out to be the ideal match of director and material.

Though I’ve always admired horror as a film genre– it reveals more about our collective unconscious than any shrink or sociologist ever could– I’ve never found it especially scary. Violent, yes. Glamorously macabre, yes. But scary? No, I’m more frightened by the threat of unemployment or climate change — real life, in other words. But William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece frightens precisely because it channels cinéma vérité to feast upon everything fetid in our culture then and now: Freud, corrupt leadership, economic inequality, dysfunctional nuclear families, and misogyny, not to mention the Catholic Church. (Writer-director Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” strikes different but just as profound cultural chords.)

Ellen Burstyn plays Chris, a film actress who, with her red cap of hair and charming impatience, is loosely based upon Shirley MacLaine, Blatty’s neighbor at the time. Along with her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair), Chris is cozily ensconced in a townhouse in Washington, D.C., where she’s on location. The specter of Nixon looms, though he’s never mentioned by name.

At first Chris and Regan seem beset only by the sort of problems plaguing a wealthy single mother and her kid. A living American Girl doll, Regan has a nanny, butler, and cook and is the subject of magazine features, but evinces an arrested development that is amplified when her absentee dad doesn’t get in touch on her birthday. (In a scene straight out of 1978’s “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” a defeated-looking Regan eavesdrops on Chris screaming at an operator who can’t connect a call to her overseas father.) Snub-nosed and pony-tailed, Blair plays out her burden perfectly–wheedling for a horse, batting her curly lashes as her mother tucks her into bed, cooing in a much-younger child’s voice.

Then there’s “Captain Howdy,” Regan’s imaginary friend whom she accesses through a ouija board discovered in the basement. When I was growing up, my mother had only one rule: “Don’t mess with ouija boards.” She wasn’t kidding, and she wasn’t wrong. But not privy to my mom’s excellent advice, Chris gently accommodates her daughter’s flirtation with the occult, and strange disruptions soon begin: mysterious rustlings in the attic, shaking beds, flickering lights. Finally Regan hijacks a dinner party by peeing on an expensive rug and telling a visiting astronaut, “You’re gonna die up there,” and we know we’re in trouble.

Part of the genius of this film is how it contextualizes evil in the complacency of mid-twentieth century America. Alarmed by how her daughter is “acting out,” Chris consults Western medicine, which subjects the girl to a battery of painful tests and procedures. Though she’s now growling in a demonic hiss and engaging in full-on telekinesis, a doctor dismisses her symptoms as hyperactivity, the predecessor of today’s ADHD. “Would this cause the whole bed to shake?” Chris asks, and he nods, barely disguising his condescension. Only when bedroom bureaus hurtle in the air and Regan sexually assaults male examiners do they diagnose her with a brain lesion that doesn’t turn up on scans. Finally an exorcism is suggested — but only, doctors hasten to add, to disabuse the tween of the notion that she’s been possessed.

She’s never suggested she has been.

It is as this point that the Church is finally called in. One emissary is Father Damien Karras, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist played by Jason Miller with a beautifully hunted melancholy. The father of Jason Patric and former son-in-law of Jackie Gleason, Miller had just won a Pulitzer Prize for his class-conscious play “The Championship Season” and never acted in a film before, but, ever a genius a casting, Friedkin saw his gritty gravitas as necessary for the conflicted priest, arguably the heart of the story. It’s no coincidence that the subliminal imagery of the demon, all high cheekbones and hollow eyes, looks an awful lot like Miller.

When Karras’ mother dies sick and alone in a crumbling New York tenement, he dreams she has descended into a NYC subway–leave it to the “French Connection” director to use the MTA to symbolize hell–and the priest realizes he has lost his faith. This is so true that he dismisses Chris’s request for an exorcism with the usual mental health jargon. “To do one, I’d have to send the girl back to the sixteenth century,” he says, explaining that medicine has replaced demons with paranoia and schizophrenia. Such a brush-off doesn’t sit well with a woman whose child has taken to masturbating with a giant crucifix while commanding her mother to perform cunnilingus on her bleeding, torn vagina. “That thing is not my daughter!” Chris screams. Even in the face of gas-lit patriarchy, a mother knows.

Above all a product of 1970s cinema, “The Exorcist” leans hard on natural light, chiaroscuro, and skepticism. More similar to “Deliverance” and “Serpico” than to other horror films, its unconcealed blemishes, wrinkles, and sagging jowls, its yellowing teeth and gallows humor, earns our faith in what we’re seeing as much as its male authority figures do when they stop rolling their eyes. Thus, the first time Regan’s completely possessed self fills the screen — sore-mottled green and yellow skin, matted hair darkened by grease and vomit, feeding tube attached to her nose, pupil-less eyes– the impact is profound. Even the girl’s once-lilting singsong, now supplanted by radio actress Mercedes McCambridge’s gravely bark, is powerfully unsettling. When Chris discovers the demon in her child has killed a man, it snarls: “You know what she did? Your cunting daughter?” Terrifying!

It’s almost inevitable that Max von Sydow would step in as Father Merrin, the older Jesuit exorcist. A veteran of Ingmar Bergman’s spiritual crisis dramas, the actor’s hulking pathos cuts right though all that Georgetown equivocating. Only 44 at the time, he was painted as a much older man by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith; even his hands, veiny and tremulous, read as ancient as the Devil himself. It’s a visual effect in keeping with how Chris’s high fashion morphs into babushkas and high-necked blouses: Regan’s possession has transformed her movie-star mom into an Old World refugee. An Underworld refugee.

The ending of “The Exorcist” may be too pat — the demon hurtles into Karras who hurtles to his death — but the satisfaction it denies us reads as a refusal to let audiences get too comfortable. In a scene included only in a director’s cut, the younger priest asks Merrin: “Why this girl?” His response is so crucial that it should have have been included in the original release: “The girl is not the target. The rest of us are. I think the point is to make us despair, to make us feel…God doesn’t love us.”

To say “The Exorcist” hits home would be a grand understatement. Its intimation of a spiritual void–an ancient chaos lurking right below modernity’s chirpy, glib surfaces–extends beyond the confines of the screen. There are the nine people who died during the making of the film, as well as the mysterious fire delaying production for six weeks. Upon the film’s Christmas release, viewers suffered seizures, violently threw up in aisles, reported mental disturbances. With its blood-soaked sexual and linguistic profanity, the R rather than X rating (which would prevented a widespread audience), also seems a dark miracle.

As much I like to focus on love and light, I’ve come to believe in possession, at least to the degree that darkness can subsume empty spaces. Nature abhors a vacuum, and evil — negative energy, in new-age parlance — has a tendency to fill narcissistic voids and neglected souls. This was true in 1973, when the nation was in the throes of an immoral war and under immoral leadership, and it applies today, with our current administration preying on Americans’ worst impulses and our environment and economy in tatters. Humanity always will need exorcisms, whether via witch doctors or films that shatter our unearned complacency. That’s why “The Exorcist” haunts us still.

This was originally published at Signature.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy