I’ve Been Watching ‘The Exorcist’ Wrong

I was home with a cold Friday night, surfing through TV channels looking for something entertaining to watch, when I came across William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist. It’s an exceptionally good horror film. And inasmuch as adding “horror” as a qualifier to “film” often indicates a lowering of standards, I should emphasize that the The Exorcist is an excellent film, period. I’ve probably seen it four or five times in my life. But on this Friday night viewing, in my NyQuil fog, I suddenly had an epiphany. I’d always understood this film to be a story about an innocent little girl who gets possessed by a demon in the middle of modern middle class America and, to the befuddlement of modern medicine, can only be saved by undergoing the archaic Roman Catholic rite of exorcism. But on Friday night I realized that that’s wrong. That’s not what the film is about. I’d been watching The Exorcist wrong.

Regan, the poor little possessed girl.
Regan, the poor little possessed girl.

Oh and by the way, I’m assuming I don’t have to issue a spoiler alert for a film that came out 40 years ago, but suffice it to say this thing is chock full of spoilers.

A Few Caveats

Before I make my case for what The Exorcist is really about, let me first reassure you that I’m not going to go all “cultural criticism” on you. I fully acknowledge that the film is a product of the time and world in which it was produced, and in that regard it mirrors many of the hopes, dreams, fears, and neuroses of that time and that world. I’m sure you can dig up a few dozen old masters theses that defend the claim that The Exorcist is a conservative morality play nervously reacting to 1970s second wave feminism. A divorced career woman (actress Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn) has the audacity to think she can raise her daughter without a man. When the horrific trials and tribulations of teenage rebellion begin to present themselves  (12-year-old Regan, played by Linda Blair, becomes a powerful, violent, highly sexualized demon), Chris MacNeil cannot cope. Order returns only when paternal authority is restored to the institution of the family  (in the form of Jason Miller’s Father Damien Karras, and Max Von Sydow’s Father Lankester Merrin). Yeah, yeah, I get it. I even agree that this reading actually works. And I also bet we can come up with some very interesting readings by employing the toolkits of the dead Frenchmen (Derrida, Foucault, Deluze, et. al). But you have to understand that my grad school days were years ago and I just don’t have a dog in the fight anymore. I have a much more straightforward and embarrassingly obvious narrative interpretation in mind.

I should also note, by way of caveat, that I was far too young to see this film when it came out in 1973. I didn’t watch it for the first time until I was in college. By then The Exorcist already had a legendary status, which clearly colored my expectations. But these expectations surely were different than those shared by the original 1973 moviegoers. Early 1970s horror films simply weren’t that scary. Granted, Roman Polansky’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and George Ramero’s Night of the Living Dead (also 1968) were already part of the horror film landscape, and both were effectively creepy. But those were the exceptions. 1973 was still solidly of the era of Vincent Price and that long chain of Hammer horror flicks from the UK. They were heavy on mad scientists, mummy curses, and Count Dracula. Even when they tried to be frightening, they were about as scary as Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Consequently, when The Exorcist came out people lost their freakin’ minds. Some moviegoers couldn’t stand it and fled the theater, or fainted, or became hysterical. No shit!  They simply weren’t prepared for a film like this. This was no playful retelling of a monster tale borrowed from 19th century literary fiction. This was a highly realistic depiction of Biblical evil visiting a modern American family. And rather than screaming “BOO!” or howling like a wolf, like a proper fictional horror creature, the demon Pazuzu (aka “Captain Howdy”) filled viewers with deeply sacrilegious, taboo-transgressing dread by uttering shockingly blasphemous speech, by making poor little Regan MacNeil masturbate with a crucifix, and by taunting Father Damien Karras with a rather sexually explicit “yo mamma” put down.  It was lauded as the scariest film ever made, and people were warned not to see it, lest they be psychologically scarred for life. To the religious faithful–especially practicing Roman Catholics–The Exorcist is almost plausible as a work of non-fiction. In fact, William Peter Blatty’s novel was inspired by a true story of demonic possession and exorcism from 1949, which Blatty heard about when he was a student at Georgetown University.

Pazuzu has impressive range of motion.
Pazuzu has impressive range of motion.

How I, and People Like Me, Came to Misread The Exorcist

By the time I saw The Exorcist I was well aware that suffering severe psychological trauma was highly unlikely. Instead, American collective pop cultural consciousness had armed me with a full set of well received expectations, premised primarily on the film’s most sensational scenes: Regan projectile vomits pea soup, Regan spins her head 360 degrees, Regan crawls down the stairs on her hands and legs upside down like a spider, Regan hovers over the bed, Regan’s bed bounces violently while furniture flies around the room, Regan utters a lot of foul, sexually explicit, blasphemous language. It’s really well done. You’ll love it! Is it any wonder I expected to see a film about a demonically possessed little girl?  Even Roger Ebert’s original 1973 review of the film describes it in these terms. Ebert wrote, “Friedkin’s film is about a twelve-year-old girl who either is suffering from a severe neurological disorder or perhaps has been possessed by an evil spirit.”

I’d like to suggest that it’s the film’s sensationalistic scenes–the harsh, visceral, perverse, blasphemous, cinematic spectacle of Regan’s demonic possession–that caused The Exorcist’s original audience to fixate on the possessed little girl narrative and transmit it into the pop cultural imagination. And once this suggestive narrative was let loose in the world, it colored the expectation of what this film was about for subsequent generations of moviegoers, who only reinforce this reading when they are similarly blown away by the visceral cinematic spectacle. I think that’s why it wasn’t until the fourth or fifth viewing of the film, after I’d become familiar with and gotten over the demonic possession spectacle, that I was able to finally pay better attention to the narrative structure of the story. And this is why it suddenly hit me on Friday night, as I reflected on the film’s closing scene, that I’d misread the story all of these years.

“Hey! This movie isn’t about a demonically  possessed little girl.” I suddenly though to myself. “This movie is about a Catholic priest who loses his faith in God.”

Perhaps this isn’t news to you. Perhaps you’ve read William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel, which I have not. Perhaps you’re thinking “That’s it? That’s your stupid epiphany?” If this was obvious to you all along, I apologize. It wasn’t obvious to me, for the reasons I just stated. I will say, however, that I am absolutely delighted by my stupid epiphany, because it makes the film so much more rich and interesting. It leaves you with much more to think about than the pathetic fear that a demon might take possession of your body.

Watching The Exorcist the Right Way

Consider the film in the proper light for a moment. Imagine you’re a smart, handsome, modern, Jesuit priest. Your order sends you to medical school for years (“Harvard, Bellevue, Johns Hopkins, places like that”). You become a psychiatrist, well schooled in the ways of modern science and secular humanism. Somewhere along the line you start to question your faith in God. You’re a modern person now. Demonic possession and other religious phenomenon just don’t make sense now that we know about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia. Before you know it you’re talking to your Jesuit University president, saying, “I need out. I’m unfit. I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.” and things like that.

While you’re in this unsettled state your demented Greek mother dies. The one all your fancy medical school education couldn’t fix. The one you left to die in some nursing home. You’re Father Damien Karras, SJ, and you feel a lot of guilt. And as if things weren’t bad enough, you suddenly find yourself battling a malevolent demon who has possessed the body of a 12-year-old girl in Georgetown. Now that’s quite a pickle!

Why you do this to me Dimmy?
Why you do this to me Dimmy?

But wait, you’re a modern man of medicine, remember? There’s nothing about Regan’s odd behavior that can’t be explained by science, right? Superhuman strength? There are plenty of documented cases of psychotic patients displaying feats of amazing strength. Levitating five feet above the bed? Um….yeah…sure…some forms of psychosis can…um… Hurl furniture and other objects around the room telekenetically and spin your head around 360 degrees? We’ll that’s…that’s… Okay fine! Let’s take off our psychiatrist hat and rethink that whole exorcism thing.

This is where the crisis of faith of Father Damien Karras, SJ really starts to get interesting. Unable to medically explain Regan’s outrageous behavior, Damien has to confront the possibility that she’s actually possessed by a demon. His crisis of faith is turned on its head. He’s not struggling to believe in God here. He’s struggling to believe in demons. But if demons exist, then why not God?

Imagine you’re contemplating performing the Catholic rite of Exorcism to drive Pazuzu, the ancient Assyrian king of the demons, from the body of a 12-year-old girl, at a time when your faith is at its weakest and, in fact, you fear you kinda might be an atheist. Oops! You can’t appeal to Regan MacNeil or her mom Chris. They’re atheists too! Or at least they don’t have religion in their lives. And did I mention that Pazuzu already killed one of Regan’s doctors by hurling him through a window and down a steep flight of concrete steps?

Enter Father Max Von Sydow, SJ, who just got home from hunting demonic archaeological ruins in Northern Iraq, where he discovered an amulet with the likeness of the ancient Assyrian demon Pazuzu! Coincidence? Hmmm.

Okay, sure, the character’s name is actually Father Lankester Merrin, SJ. But the fact that this character is played by Max Von Sydow is significant and reassuring. When he’s not battling demons this tall, imposing Swede entertains himself by playing chess with death! The guy is a total bad ass, a moral giant, and a veritable black hole of gravitas.  When he screams “The Power of Christ compels You!” at Pazuzu in Regan’s bedroom, Pazuzu tries to play it off like he’s not impressed. But deep down inside I think Pazuzu is scared of Father Max Von Sydow, SJ.

The Power of Christ compels you!
The Power of Christ compels you!

Unfortunately Father Max Von Sydow, SJ dies under the physical strain of performing the rite of exorcism. Bad ticker. Now Father Damien has to battle Pazuzu all by himself. Ouch.

If I were Damien Karras I would have run like hell when Father Max died–and not down that steep-ass staircase under Regan’s window either. I would have found an alternative exit. Father Agnostic-at-Best isn’t likely to fare well with God’s enemies.

But Damien Karras doesn’t do this. Realizing he’s probably not so good at this exorcism game, when he finds Father Max Von Sydow dead he improvises a quick Plan B: beat the living shit out of Pazuzu with your fists whist screaming “Come into me! Goddamn you. Take me! Take me!” And of course Pazuzu willingly obliges and jumps ship from Regan to Damien. Ah, but it’s a trick, because at the last moment Damien snuffs it by hurling himself out the window and down that steep flight of concrete stairs I warned you about a few paragraphs ago. And viola! Pazuzu exits this mortal plane, as does Father Damien Karras. One of Damien’s priest buddies happens upon his broken body and reads him his last rights. Roll the credits.

Pazuzu takes possession of Damien Karras, and Damien snuffs it.
Plan B: Pazuzu takes possession of Damien, then Damien snuffs it.

A Lot of Great Unanswered Questions

This ending leaves me with a lot of interesting theological and metaphysical questions. I realize there are several sequels to The Exorcist that might shed some light on these questions, but they’re on par with The Godfather, Part III, which means they’re for shit. I prefer to consider The Exorcist on its own merits as a stand alone masterpiece. Here are a few of the major questions that popped to mind when the closing credits appeared Friday night:

  1. What  is the status of Damien Karras’ soul? Is he saved or is he damned? The first several times I saw the film–back when I though it was a film about a demonically possessed little girl–I assumed Damien was damned. I assumed so because of all of that “Take me! Take me!” business. I took this to mean that Damien made a deal with the Pazuzu: I’ll trade you my immortal soul for Regan MacNeil’s. Granted that’s an incredibly morally heroic sacrifice to make, and deserving of reward rather than punishment. It makes the thought of Damien’s damnation morally unsatisfactory, but a deal is a deal, right? The devil is reputed to be a stickler about contracts. And besides, Christianity is full of moral paradoxes like this. Bad things happen to good people all the time. This is the kind of shit that throws people into crises of faith to begin with. But now that I view the film as a story about Damien’s crisis of faith, I’m not so sure that he’s damned. Look at Damien’s face just before he hurls himself out the window. It turns from demonic to normal. Is this supposed to tell me something? Maybe he tricked Pazuzu and squeaked his way into heaven. I just don’t think the audience can know for sure.
  2. What is the status of Damien’s faith at the moment of his death? It’s not entirely clear. Earlier in the film Damien claims that he thinks he’s lost his faith. But when he and Max Von Sydow are spashing holy water about, screaming “The power of Christ compels you!” you get the impression that Damien isn’t just play acting. You get the impression that he believes Regan is possessed by a demon. And certainly when he’s beating Regan, screaming “Take me!”, he believes he’s negotiating with a malevolent entity, right?And if he believes in demons, does he not by implication also believe in God again? This question of faith is pertinent to question 1 above. If he lacks faith he’s in hell, right? Heroic sacrifice or not.
  3. What is the moral status of Damien’s final acts? When he asks the demon, “Take me!” what is he offering? Is he offering only his body, his physical vessel? Or is he offering himself body and soul? If the latter, what does Jesus think about that? And when he tricks Pazuzu into entering his body and then hurls himself out the window, what is the moral status of that act? Is it a suicide?  Suicide is a grave sin in the Christian tradition. Or rather, is it a heroic act, like the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his compatriots? Or better yet, is it an example of Imitatio Christi, a mimicking of Jesus sacrificing his life to atone for the sins of humanity? I think a case can be made for this latter understanding. Regan and Chris MacNeil don’t go to church. They’re both guilty of the one great unforgivable sin, not having faith in Jesus Christ. Two men of God are dead and these two secular atheists get to go on with their lives (although given what they’ve been through I’d be surprised if Chris and Regan failed to “find Jesus” if you know what I mean).

From the point of view of the moviegoer, dead Damien Karras seems to live in some Schrodinger’s Cat-like state of salvation indeterminacy. Perhaps it’s left to the viewer to decide according to his or her favorite religious prejudices. The one thing I do know is that it’s a good thing that Regan’s frustrated, dumbfounded, and battered physicians eventually referred Chris MacNeil to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is one of the few Christian denominations that actually believe in demonic possession and exorcism. Had Chris been sent to Lutherans or Calvinist protestants , for instance, it would have been a pretty short movie. Regan’s possession would stand as proof that she is irredeemably damned to hell, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. If she wasn’t damned to hell she wouldn’t be thrashing about in her bedroom like some demonic slut. She’d be making a killing on the stock market with the rest of God’s elect.  Haven’t you people read Max Weber?

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