The Exorcist: Brilliance Beyond the Screams

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I began writing this post three days ago, and just received news this morning of the passing of the iconic genius performer Max von Sydow, whose performance as Father Lankaster Merrin will rank among many of my all-time favorites. I feel it is appropriate for me to dedicate this post to his memory, and thank him for his performances ranging from his collaborations with Ingmar Bergman to his cameo as Lor san Tekka in Star Wars- Episode VII: The Force Awakens. On his first day of filming with Linda Blair (who played Regan), who was left speechless after hearing her recite her profanity-riddled lines, attesting to his moral character. This is for you, Max.

If someone were to take a poll among cinephiles by asking what is the scariest movie ever made, the most popular answer would be The Exorcist, citing how it pushed boundaries and made people afraid of something that they had been exposed to throughout their lives via religious beliefs but had never considered a potential threat. What other description can we give to a film that required ushers to carry smelling salts on the job to attend to viewers who had fainted during the original screenings in the 1970’s? Or local towns banning the distribution of the film in their local cinemas, and arranging bus trips to the nearest town to where it faced no restrictions?

I discovered this movie when I was almost thirteen-years-old by walking in my parents bedroom while the Today Show was on and they had just started a story about the date (December 26, 2003) being the thirtieth anniversary of its release. I had no idea what it was, but I was horrified by the face of possessed Regan McNeil. Who was she? Better yet, WHAT was she? Was she a creature? I saw an IV tube near her, and I pondered if she was in an accident, or somehow transformed into this horrific thing? My memory is skewed on this, because while I saw her floating above her bed, I thought she was spinning things around while making noises similar to the orcs in The Lord of the Rings (the final installment had just been released, and I was still experiencing the high off of seeing that). I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I didn’t even know the name. I just knew it began with E-X, and I finally had the courage to ask my dad about the film. WHAT WAS IT ALL ABOUT?

“She was possessed by the Devil.”

What? What was this?

“How?” I asked.

“Uh, she played a Ouija board.”

I couldn’t get it off my mind, and was researching it online every chance I got, as well as inquiring with my friends and classmates if they were familiar with it. Many years later, I would be diagnosed with OCD, and suddenly I had an explanation for why I always thinking about this (and countless other subjects throughout life). I finally saw it eight months later but was not scared by it. People I grew up with in Lyme and Old Lyme will likely nod their heads if you ask them about me referencing this movie and will likely conclude it is my favorite in the horror genre. While I do hold it in high regard, I have a shock for them: it’s actually The Shining (see my previous post). Hail Stanley Kubrick (I must also share that Kubrick actually wanted to make the adaptation, and I can only imagine how it would have turned out. Alfred Hitchcock was also considered for the adaptation).

What is it about this movie that is so iconic? One reason can be summed up in a single word: BLASPHEMY. The film captures the Devil and demons for what they are, depicts their horrifying intrusion into our lives, as well as the willingness to depict such appalling suffering in a child. But there is something even more than the jumps and the misery of a suffering child being used for entertainment, and that is the TECHNICAL ACCURACY. Should any non-Catholic person or “seasonal” Catholic inquire about how the Church handles exorcisms and if the movie was accurate, there will not be any downplaying. The rigorous investigations to determine if someone needs a medical doctor over a priest, the necessity for episcopal approval, the prayers, and perhaps even what occurs during the ritual itself. Personally, I am not too sure whether EVERY detail depicted in the movie has ever happened, but being a person of faith, I am not opposed to the possibility. But this is something I never want to encounter. I have said time after time after time: I would rather go my entire life doubting God’s existence (often referred to as the “dark night of the soul”) than to have my faith confirmed by an encounter with the devil.

Years ago I had a conversation with a priest friend (who has since passed away and is hopefully partaking in the eternal ecstasy of Paradise) and the movie came up, and he shared that I would not believe how many people came to him and his fellow priests in early 1974 out of fear that the Devil was manifesting in their lives. I can imagine the conversations ultimately concluding like this:

“… there’s this banging that keeps happening behind my bedroom…”

“I’m gonna have to cut you off here and ask you something… Did you just see The Exorcist?”

“Yeah,” they probably answered in a confused tone. “Why?”

“Go on home.”

Compare that to The Omen, released a few years later. When they make reference to eschatology (end of time theology), I took it for granted for a few years, but when I finally started reading the Book of Revelation, I discovered that these “prophecies” were re-organized into another narrative or were just made up. And an interesting side note is that while we have grown up with the assumption that this book in the Bible is about fire and brimstone and fear, it is actually a book about hope. And that actually brings me to another observation: sometimes technical accuracy does not matter in a movie. I have always thought that what would prove that the movie is good is if you are screening it with Neil deGrasse Tyson, noticing something and saying “Neil, that doesn’t seem possible, don’t you…” and he eagerly shushes you.

I think there is something beyond the supernatural horror that provides scares in this movie, and it is misery in family life. We see the misery of poor Regan McNeil and her mother, Chris, while they are seeking answers for the strange things that have been happening in their home. There are a few scenes that depict the medical tests that are performed on Regan and the pain that she is enduring, and we cannot help but grimace at the sight of it, while Chris watches from a distance and is probably enduring the equivalent form of suffering in a psychological sense, desperate to make everything right for her little girl. This only adds to the stress she already encounters as a famous actress as she deals with the numerous demands of being a public person. And we should also throw in Father Karras, a priest who has lost faith in the God who gave him his vocation (brilliantly depicted in a scene where he celebrates a mass and is barely able to utter the Words of Institution, which transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ). On top of losing his faith, he is guilt-ridden by the death of his mother that he was unable to care for due to his vow of poverty.

That is ultimately makes a good horror movie: characters. Anybody can make a movie that has jump scenes and screams (this is usually boot camp for upcoming actors and filmmakers). But they need to treat it like a regular story, and that includes creating characters whose actions and reactions are believable to the viewer.

I should also point out the personal limits that were pushed by director William Friedkin. Friedkin always wanted genuine reactions from his performers, always going to extreme lengths to get the right scare. Stories include slapping actor Father William O’Malley (who was actually my father’s teacher and grandfather’s classmate) and firing off a gun near Jason Miller (Father Karras) who proceeded to verbally tear into him and explain that actors do not need to take such approaches (save for other method performers). The set for Regan’s bedroom was built inside of a freezer, and she would only be covered in a simple nightgown, which traumatized her to aversion to cold temperatures beyond your average person. The cold climate goes on top of the numerous injuries that she and many other cast-mates endured due to shoddy safety mistakes by the stunt teams. If The Exorcist was to be made today with full knowledge of the events that would transpire, no parent would allow their daughter to be cast as Regan.

Then there are also the spooky occurrences that took place throughout production. One of the sets burned down due to an intrusive bird, including the deaths of several crew, as well as the performers who portrayed Burke Dennings and Father Karras’s mother after they completed their scenes. Evangelist Billy Graham even asserted that there was a demon in the film reel.

Its legacy endures. It seems to be always topping the endless lists of scariest movies ever made. It has been endlessly parodied, references even appear in family-friendly media. It is always a Halloween favorite, and during the weekends of October 2018 it was appeared as after-midnight-showings at the legendary Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, which I was unable to attend but so desperately hope to experience at some point in the future. While I am excited for the arrival of warm weather, I also am anxious for the arrival of fall to get in the spirit of Halloween, and having an excuse to watch a horror movie over any classic of any other genre. And it’s when I contemplate movies like The Exorcist that I am anxious for the appealing weather to pass through as quick as possible. Until then, I can just keep dreaming about being in the midst of Halloween.

Until then, when it comes to Ouija boards, remember to pray your rosary, and recall the words of Nancy Reagan: JUST SAY NO.

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