Category: Play

Texas Chili Recipes

Over a three week period I made three batches of chili, starting on what seemed to be on the right path based on researching online, and then tweaking a bit. If you’re looking for inspiration to cook, be sure to scroll down to recipe #3. It’s the best one. This whole odyssey began with my Texas Chili Project post a few weeks ago, so if you’re interested in the history and culture of Texas chili, start there.

Texas Chili Recipe #1

Texas Chili Recipe #1: the First Attempt.
Texas Chili Recipe #1: the First Attempt.


The Beef

3 pounds of sirloin steak, cut into small cubes (about ¼ to ⅓ of an inch cube)

The Chilies

3 oz package of dried New Mexico chilies, seeded and stemmed

2 oz. package of dried Ancho chilies, seeded and stemmed.

1 oz package of ground Pasilla Molido chili powder

1 T Ground Cayanne Pepper

The Remaining Ingredients

2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced medium fine

1 12 oz can of Campbell’s beef consomme

1 ½ t Kosher Salt

¼ t Ground Black Pepper

1 T Onion Powder

1 T Garlic Powder

1 T Ground Cumin

1 T Ground Coriander Seed

1 t Ground Cinnamon

½ C Apple Cider Vinegar


Boil the whole dried chilies in 1 quart of water for about 5 minutes to soften. Puree in a blender until very smooth (this is key, I discovered, or you get bits of unpalatable pepper skin in your chili).

Saute onion in the olive oil and a pinch of salt until translucent. Add the beef, black pepper, and the remaining salt. Cook until mostly browned. Add the onion and garlic powder, stir. Then add the chili puree, the ground chili powders. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour covered. Add water if it gets too thick.

After an hour, add the remaining powdered ingredients (I don’t know if it really matters, but I read a recipe in which cumin and coriander are added later because they can burn in the stew). Cook for about another hour. Keep adding water so you end up with a nice chili consistency–not too soupy but not too thick.


  1. This was an admirable first attempt, I think. Nice amount of heat (although I could go quite a bit hotter), and super flavorful. I gobbled it up in pretty short order.
  2. Apparently you can overcook chili until the meat gets mushy. My two hours seemed to work well. The sirloin was very tender but not mushy.

  3. Without the cayanne the chili isn’t very hot (it’s fairly sweet). I found that 1 T of cayanne gave it a nice heat without being really hot (for my taste–it would be too hot for some). I might even add a bit more next time if it was just for me, but this amount is probably good for ‘company’.

  4. Most recipes do not include the cider vinegar,but I found the chili was a bit bland and muddy tasting without it. It really needed some acid. Adding the vinegar was key in my view.

  5. I didn’t puree the chiles well enough, so I had some bits of New Mexico chili skin in the chili, which wasn’t a good texture. Need to be sure to puree those well.

For Next Time:

  1. A bit of ground clove?

  2. Try a Tri-Tip roast for the beef?

  3. Some recipes have a bit of brown sugar to sweeten the chili. This could be good.

  4. I’ve seen some deglazing with tequila (mabye a few ounces).

  5. Some Texas chili recipes have hasa flour in it.

  6. Some versions have tomato sauce and beef and chicken “granules” (buillion, I assume).

  7. Most “award winning” chili recipes have Goya Sazon in it (it’s a mix of MSG, Annato, gatlic, cumin, salt, and artificial coloring)..

  8. Bit of coffee?

  9. Toast the dried chilies before rehydrating them.

Texas Chili Recipe #2: Leaning in the ‘Contest Chili’ Direction.

I read a lot of award winning chili competition chili recipes and decided to make a batch that stirs in that direction. I decided to try the MSG (Goya Sazon) and some chicken bouillon (lots of contest chilis have it). Also, last time I didn’t puree my chilis enough and ended up with unpleasant bits of New Mexico chili skin in the final product. So I was careful to puree the chilis well. Most competition chilies seem to use powdered chili and chili mixes exclusively, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go a fully processed route. See my post about my Texas Chili Project for more on this.

The recipe is essentially the same as recipe #1 with the following differences:

  1. I replaced the 1 oz package of ground Pasilla Molido chili powder with a 1 oz package of ground Hot New Mexico chili powder.
  2. I added 1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube (all the cool kids are doing it).

  3. I added 1 packet of Sazón Goya con Culantro y Achiote (a fairly ubiquitous ingredient in competition chili).

  4. I added 1/4 cup of brown sugar.


  1. Not nearly as good as the first batch in my opinion. It had an odd, I don’t know, chemical like flavor. I think it must have been the Sazón Goya.
  2. It was a bit too sweet for my taste. I think the brown sugar addition was fine, but I’d back off on the amount next time. Maybe just a big tablespoonful. 
  3. I decided to go the other direction for the next batch (rustic homestyle rather than competition powdered concoction).

Texas Chili Recipe #3: The Best of the Bunch.

Texas Chili Recipe #3 is a winner.
Texas Chili Recipe #3 is a winner.

This final recipe was the best. I’m pretty satisfied to use it as a master recipe. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the Homesick Texan, who argues it’s perfectly acceptable to experiment a bit with chili, and that you needn’t be so anal retentive about it. You can mix it up every time, using different chilis, and varying the spices. He also puts coffee in his chili, which I’ll likely try next, and Mexican chocholate (which is a no-no to some because it reads like Mexican mole). I think what I like best about his approach is simply that it embraces my own instincts about a dish like chili. He’s got what looks like an awesome recipe here.

I ground my own spices where possible, but one noteworthy point is that I forgot to toast my chilies before soaking them. I’ll do that next time. I also tried a chuck roast rather than sirloin this time. The chuck is fattier, so it’s probably not as texturally uniform for competition chili, but I like it better. Here’s the recipe:


The Beef

3 pounds of chuck roast, cut into small cubes (about ¼ to ⅓ of an inch cube)

The Chilies

3 oz package of dried New Mexico chilies, seeded and stemmed

2 oz. package of dried Ancho chilies, seeded and stemmed.

2 oz package of Chil Negro Entero (chil pods), seeded and stemmed.

1 T Ground Cayanne Pepper

The Remaining Ingredients

2 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced medium fine

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1 12 oz can of Campbell’s beef consomme

First Dump (with the chilis)

1 ½ t Kosher Salt

¼ t Ground Black Pepper

1 T Onion Powder

1 T Garlic Powder

Second Dump (after one hour)

1 T Ground Cumin

1 T Ground Coriander Seed

1 t Ground Cinnamon

1 t Ground Allspice

½ C Apple Cider Vinegar

1 T Brown Sugar


Boil the whole dried chilies in 1 quart of water for about 5 minutes to soften. Puree in a blender until very smooth (this is key or you get bits of unpalatable pepper skin in your chili).

Saute onion in the olive oil and a pinch of salt until translucent. Add minced garlic for a few minutes. Add the beef, black pepper, and the remaining salt. Cook until mostly browned. Add the onion and garlic powder, stir. Then add the chili puree. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 hour covered. Add water if it gets too thick.

After an hour, add the remaining powdered ingredients and the sugar and cider vinegar.. Cook for about another hour, or until the meat is very tender. Keep adding water so you end up with a nice chili consistency–not too soupy but not too thick.


  1. I don’t care for the sweet gravy, but a bit of sugar takes out a slight bitter edge I detect. A tablespoon was just about right.

  2. I cut the chuck roast into slightly larger cubes because of the grain of that cut (tiny cubes don’t come out so well). The chuck has a bit more fat than the sirloin, which I think is a no-no for chili competitions, but I don’t care. The original Chili Queens recipe has ¼ C of Suet and ¼ of Lard.

  3. Added raw garlic due to preference for scratch cooking. I contemplated leaving out the onion and garlic powders as a result, but decided against it last minute. They’ve got a different flavor than the raw stuff.

  4. This shit is da bomb.


Texas Chili Project

Texas style chili is the stuff of legend. Some people refer to it as chili con carne, but in Texas it’s just called ‘chili’. The ‘con carne’ part is a given, and there is no need for the “Texas style” qualifier because Texans proudly refuse to entertain the idea that there are other styles.

An entire culture and ethos exists around chili that is in many ways similar to barbecue culture. There are rules, methods, arguments about what makes it great, and closely guarded recipe secrets. Chili masters compete fiercely in chili contests for #1 bragging rights in much the same way that barbecue pit masters compete in barbecue competitions. 

Bowl of Red
Bowl of Red: This is the Stuff

Conceptually it’s a pretty simple dish: a kind of thick stew-like concoction made from dried chili peppers (ground into a powder, or reconstituted in hot water and pureed) and beef, slow simmered until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. That’s the essence of it. Surely it also has a few other herbs and spices (amounts and types varying recipe to recipe), and probably some onion and garlic, maybe an acid (vinegar) or a sweetener (brown sugar), and perhaps (although not necessarily) even a bit of tomato product and/or a pinch of masa as a thickening agent. That’s pretty much it. Of course it’s the infinite variability of these ingredients that complicates the game.

Notice that beans are conspicuously missing from the list. This is actually kind a of big deal, which brings to mind a favorite Texas pastime: when they aren’t remembering the Alamo, or talking about how much bigger stuff is where they live, Texans absolutely love to act horrified by the suggestion that it’s somehow acceptable to put beans in chili. Now I have to confess that I’ve sampled a lot of chili with beans in it throughout the country in my day. Heck, I even made vegetarian three bean chili for a vegetarian girlfriend once and thought that it was quite good (allspice and apple cider vinegar put it over the top). But that shit don’t fly in Texas. In Texas there are rules to making chili, and while you can get away with taking some license with ingredients here and there, there simply are no damn beans in chili! End of discussion. It’s a specific rule unto itself at most chili cook offs–just to be crystal clear about the matter. And while we’re at it, you don’t eat chili over spaghetti with cheddar cheese and raw onions like those damn Yankees up in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati Style Chili, or to Texans "Some kinda Yankee spaghetti dish."
Cincinnati Style Chili, or to Texans, “I don’t care what you call  that Yankee spaghetti mess, it ain’t chili.”

This chili ethos is well reflected in a 1976 song “If You Know Beans About Chili, You Know That Chili Has No Beans,” written by Ken Finley and adopted as the official anthem of the International Chili Society:

You burn some mesquite / And when the coals get hot
You bunk up some meat / And you throw it on a pot
With some chile pods and garlic / And comino and stuff.
Then you add a little salt / Till there’s just enough
You can throw in some onions / To make it smell good.
You can even add tomatoes / If you feel like you should
But if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.

If you know beans about chili / You know it didn’t come from Mexico
Chili was God’s gift to Texas / (Or maybe it came from down below)
And chili doesn’t go with macaroni / And damned Yankees don’t go with chili queens;
And if you know beans about chili / You know that chili has no beans.

At any rate, I’ve sampled chili here and there over the years and found the quality to vary from disgusting (that runny, greasy ground beef and chili powder flavored glop they slather on ‘chili dogs’ is technically chili con carne), to mediocre (bad Tex-Mex restaurants), to absolutely sublime (made by proud chili snobs). Recently I decided I probably ought to figure out how to make it. And thus the Texas Chili Project was born.

Caveat Emptor: I’m Not from Texas

Louisiana has its gumbo, Maine has its lobster rolls, and Florida has its key lime pie. But in Texas chili is the official state dish! It’s a big deal, and like its brethren, barbecued brisket, it’s definitely a point of state pride. Consequently, Texas chili is one of those specialized regional dishes that one is lead to believe that only a native can cook properly. I am not from Texas, nor have I ever lived in Texas, and I fully understand that to Texans this admission immediately makes me suspect. However, I don’t think that this means that I can’t make a batch of kick-ass “Texas rules” chili. Making great food isn’t a matter of being born in a certain place. It’s a matter of being a good cook. So if my chili is off in some way, it’s likely because there is some subtle indigenous rule I’ve unwittingly broken. And if I have, people from Texas, I welcome you to enlighten me as to the error of my ways. I’m here to learn.

The History of Chili

Yeah, that’s right. The history of chili. Let no one say I’m not serious about my cooking.

Cooking with chilies, meat, and herbs was certainly not unknown to Inca, Aztec, and Mayan culture. However, from what I’ve been able to discover, the dish we know as chili con carne originates with the “chili queens”  who served it food cart style to working men in San Antonio’s Military Plaza as early as the 1860s. If you want to go back to roots, here is an original chili queens chili recipe (containing both pork and beef, and heavy on the suet) from back in the day, courtesy of the Institute of Texan Cultures. Eventually chili caught on as a popular cattle trail food, and cowboys spread the chili gospel until ‘chili joints’ serving up a “bowl of red” popped up all over the American Southwest.

San Antonio Chili Queen Street Vendor (Photo from The Whitte Museum)
A San Antonio Chili Queen serves her customers in the 1920s (Photo from The Whitte Museum)

It’s also a big deal to Texans to insist that chili is not Mexican in origin. It’s bad enough that Santa Anna’s troops killed Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie at the Battle of the Alamo. Texas won’t allow Mexico to claim chili, and as it turns out, Mexico doesn’t want to make that claim. This is, in fact, how Texans who have a dog in this fight make their case that chili isn’t Mexican. They point to various Mexicans, like this guy, who proudly disown this dish as a “northern concoction” that they’d rather not be associated with. Now as far as arguments go, that’s pretty weak. In the end it really doesn’t matter as it’s largely a facile debate about modern nation states and patriotism. You’ve got some native people (Payaya Indians) living in Yanaguana, right? Then in 1691 some Spaniards show up and, being hardcore Roman Catholic colonial imperialists, they set up a mission and rename the place after St. Anthony of Padua. Suddenly Yanaguana is San Antonio, a town in Nueva España. But wait, by 1821 it’s a town in Mexico (¡Viva México!). Wait, by 1836 it’s a town in the Republic of Texas (Remember the Alamo!). Wait, in 1845 the Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States of America (Bob Wills is still the king!). All of these outside influences have an impact on regional cuisine, and chili is from San Antonio. The end. But I digress…

At the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago (i.e., The World’s Fair), Texas operated a San Antonio Chili Stand, which helped introduce chili to other parts of the United States. Soon people were putting it on Hot Dogs, hamburgers, french fries, omelettes, and spaghetti, substituting tomatoes for the chilies, and yes, some times even adding beans and elbow macaroni (chili mac).  And there you have it. Chili took on all of the weird regional variations we know today, most of which is dog food, and most of which causes Texans to cringe in horror. 

1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced Chili to the World.
1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced Chili to the World.

But enough about history and macaroni. Let’s get to the chili recipes.

Some Observations About Chili Recipes

In my quest to develop a decent, authentic chili recipe I’ve noticed a few things about chili recipes–things that are…disappointing. This is the section where I probably stick my foot in my mouth and get in trouble with certain Texan chili aficionados.

Hamburger? Really?

I was curious to find out what cut of beef was popular in chili. I really didn’t know. It could have been brisket for all I knew (some folks do use brisket). Most recipes I see, however, are made with sirloin or chuck roast or tri-tip roast, or a roast I’ve never even heard of called a ‘blade’ roast. But here is where it get’s strange (to me).

While some chili recipes council cutting the meat into small cubes (the size varying according to the preferences and logic of the author), I’ve noticed that a lot of chili recipes begin with ground beef. Granted, they stipulate “chili grind“, which differentiates itself from hamburger by being a courser grind. Maybe this is a Texas chili faux pas, but this just seems wrong to me. I don’t care if it’s ‘chili grind’, you’re making hamburger soup. It makes me think of that greasy chili people put on chili dogs. I’d rather have a chili with a slightly more stew-like texture. Granted, it’s more labor intensive to dice three pounds of beef with a knife, but I’m betting it’s worth it. I wonder if simple laziness is the primary reason for grinding it instead. At any rate, I don’t want this for my chili. I’ll dice my beef by hand, thank you.

Packaged Processed Ingredients?

I’ve noticed that some award winning chili recipes are made from various packets of purchased and prepared chili powders and spices mixed into a pile of hamburger. I’m thinking here primarily of CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) competition chilies.  The recipe ingredients lists look something like this:

2 tsp Mild Bills Onion Granules

¼ tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper

2 tsp Wylers Beef Granules

1/8 tsp Mild Bills Cayenne Pepper

1 Tbsp Mild Bills San Antonio Original Chili Powder

1 Tbsp Mild Bills Cowtown Light Chili Powder

With all due respect for the good folks at Mild Bill’s, who probably make top notch product (it certainly wins a lot of chili contests), I just don’t think dumping a mixture of powders from store bought packages into a pot is cooking. Where’s the mortar and pestle? Where’s the knife and cutting board? Where are the dried chilies? I can appreciate that this is largely a complex chemistry experiment, and getting the blend and amount of packet ingredients takes a lot of patient and meticulous trial and error. But just like the ‘chili grind’ hamburger, this just seems wrong. It seems more akin to preparing a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, except instead of adding the packet of cheese sauce you add many packets of subtly different cheese sauces.

I wouldn’t think of making Thai food with a purchased jar of prepared curry paste–not for company anyway. I’d make that curry paste from scratch. I also concoct from scratch the various masalas when I cook Indian food. And if quality gumbo requires stirring flour and fat constantly for an hour until you have a chocolaty brown roux, then that’s what I do. I’m a “from scratch” kind of guy, because I think the artistry, care, and attention to detail are reflected in the quality of the end product. You can taste the love. Cooking from scratch is what distinguishes cooking as an art form from “throwing something together for dinner”. With all due respect to Sandra Lee’s Famous Kwanzaa Cake, any monkey can pour a jar of processed glop into a pan or open a packet of seasoning mix.

This being the case, while I’m not opposed to using some ground spices, I’d prefer to roast and grind my own spices when I can. And instead of chili powders, I prefer to buy whole dried chili pods, stem and seed them, re-hydrate them, and grind them into a paste. This is cooking, right?

Goya Sazón

I’ve noticed a lot of chili recipes have Goya Sazón in them, which is a seasoning bouillon cube that reputedly imparts a “Latin American” quality to foods. It consists mainly of MSG, and also has Coriander, Annatto, garlic, salt, and tricalcium phosphate. Is this somehow essential? It pops up in recipe after recipe. While some people claim to be sensitive to monosodium glutimate, I have no serious qualms about it. It imparts an umami flavor, and umami is good.

The Matter of “Dumps”

I’ve also noticed that the timing of adding certain ingredients appears to be significant, at least to the competition chili cook. All of those spice mixes and chili powders are divided into “dumps”, which are added at various stages of the cooking. I read one explanation stating that things like coriander or cinnamon can burn, so you want to add them later. That makes a certain amount of sense I guess, so I’ll keep this in mind. But some of these dump divisions seemed like alchemy to me, like something a Shakespearean witch would find important when adding eye of newt and Wolf’s Bane to a cauldron of witch’s brew. For my initial batches I’ve decided not to dwell on ‘dumps’ too much.

The Recipes

In the end, maybe ‘competition chili’ recipes with their packaged powders just don’t fit my scratch cooking ethos. So the chili I make will be a more rustic style. I’ve experimented with two batches of chili thus far, and to my taste I’m thinking I need to go even more “from scratch’. I’m even considering making that original chili queens chili recipe from the Institute of Texan Cultures.

Click here for the recipes.

Steven Heikkila,  November 2013

Stay Thirsty My Friends

I was The Most Interesting Man in the World for a Halloween party this year. The downsides were having to buy (and eventually drink) an entire sixpack of Dos Equis beer, and having to carry around a disgusting grape flavored “cigarillo” all night. Not to fear on the XX though. After finishing the first prop beer at the party, I simply refilled the bottle with Hub IPA from the keg.

I don't always drink beer out of a Dos Equis bottle, but when I do, I prefer to fill it with IPA.
I don’t always drink beer out of a Dos Equis bottle, but when I do, I prefer to fill it with IPA.

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?

Leather Belt Anchor

Scary to even think about.

Jive-Ass Anchors

Desperation some times causes us to do strange things. I ran across this climbing anchor (hand hold?) two weeks ago while climbing the summit block of Mt. Thielsen in the Southern Oregon Cascades. Some poor bastard attached his belt to the rock by wedging the belt buckle into a crack, sort of like a tricam. And it was in there pretty securely. Each of us tried to wiggle it out to no avail. I don’t think it was even real leather. How many kN is imitation leather good for I wonder?

The summit block of Thielsen is about 30 meters of 4th class climbing (with perhaps a very low 5th class move near the top). Some people just free solo it, although down-climbing it without a rope would be a bit unnerving. We protected the summit and rappelled from the top.

I’m no forensic expert, mind you, but I think…

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