I went to church this past Sunday afternoon for the baptism of a good friend’s recently born little girl. I’ve witnessed this particular ceremony a number of times, more often these days, it seems, as friends are having children for the first time. Growing up Catholic, I’m not what you’d call a regular churchgoer but it’s a beautiful and ancient event, full of proud and loving parents, family members and, generally, wailing children.
The baptism ceremony can have different meanings for different faiths, but for Roman Catholics, it’s a sacrament that initiates an individual as a child of God. Parents speak for their children, who will later speak for themselves, at Confirmation, when older. At the various baptisms I’ve attended, the presiding priest tends to follow a set template, sometimes adding their own biblical or philosophical interests into the sermon when addressing the congregation. On Sunday, I heard something that I hadn’t heard before – certainly not at a baptismal event.
The conducting priest went to some lengths, talking about the nature of sin and evil. He mentioned the word “exorcism” and, perhaps reading the crowd, reaffirmed that it is a practice that indeed exists. “There are two things we know,” he told us. “First, that there is evil in the world and second, that it is very powerful.”
And, while sitting quietly in the pew, my mind was immediately drawn to the most frightening film I have ever had the enjoyment of watching.
Who hasn’t seen The Exorcist?
It’s hard to believe that there might actually be a whole generation (or even two!) of teenagers and young adults that have only been startled and upset by The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series of films. They were the ones, I know, where word of mouth got people lining up outside theatres, where night-vision cameras eerily caught fear on the faces of film-goers, where movie fans walked out midway through showings, disturbed and sick to their stomachs. Maybe that was even you.
But The Exorcist did all of this, first, back in 1973.
So what is it about The Exorcist that, nearly forty years after its first release, still makes it, arguably, the most frightening of films ever produced? I think that first and foremost, The Exorcist shouldn’t necessarily be categorized as a horror-genre film.
For those that haven’t seen the film based on writer William Peter Blatty’s novel of the same name, The Exorcist details the possession of a young girl by a malevolent spirit, and the desperate attempts by her mother to engage the scientific community and then the religious community in order to help her daughter.
Director William Friedkin, who had just won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture with his previous effort, The French Connection, had proved himself to have a talent for crime noir and action-packed chase films after having directed a series of art-house films. Although The Exorcist dealt with heavy religious themes as well as the sexual awakening of youth, it’s still essentially a story about belief, shot in a surprising noir style. It doesn’t immediately feel like a horror movie. It feels like a drama, certainly one that terrifies. That might just be the first element of The Exorcist that makes viewers uncomfortable: it doesn’t conform to genre. It tricks you, lures you into an uneasy feeling of it being something it might not be. The Silence of the Lambs is another film in recent memory that also accomplishes this feat. The Exorcist exists in two worlds, like the demon possessing the young girl, Regan: the ethereal and, more importantly, our own world.
Friedkin raises the sense of foreboding within the first fifteen minutes of the film to extreme heights, featuring the brilliant Max Von Sydow as archaeologist Father Lankester Merrin, unearthing an ancient stone sculpture of Pazuzu, the Babylonian king of the demons of the wind. Amid baying dogs and dry desert landscapes, it’s a frightening image, especially when juxtaposed against Regan’s burgeoning sexuality: an entity with the body of a man, the head of a dog, giant wings and taloned feet, scorpions tail and a serpentine penis. And Friedkin, utilizing his artistry to great effect, reminds us of Pazuzu in both overt and subliminal imagery throughout The Exorcist. The figure of the sculpture, or its demonic persona, can be seen in many instances, including at least nine that flash before our eyes for only a few frames of film. The viewer, whether knowingly or not, is directly disturbed by this imagery and what it represents: the existence and exertion of evil in our real world.
Imagery is important, but so is atmosphere and gravitas in The Exorcist. Once seen, one can’t forget the iconic poster showing Father Merrin under the street lamp, enveloped by a rising fog as he stares forlornly up at the home in front of him with the one lit room. Whether obvious, as seen in the demonic Pazuzu, or subtle, as witnessed in the underlying bigotry between an eccentric family friend and the family caretaker of German decent, there is evil here, and it will test even the strongest of faiths.
Of course, the performances by the actors are strong, memorable ones. Whether it’s the anxiety of Ellen Burstyn playing Chris MacNeil, the stoicism of Sydow’s Father Merrin, the insistent Lee J. Cobb as Lieutenant William F. Kinderman, or the nuanced searching of the remarkable Jason Miller as Father Damian Karras, each performance completely envelops the viewer. You can find yourself in one of these characters. Linda Blair, as Regan, is the lynchpin behind everyone else. It’s her ability to portray an entirely believable innocence, completely corrupted, that truly brings fear to hearts and minds, all the while completely shocking an audience – even in this day and age – by one scene’s vicious and disrespectful use of a crucifix on the young girl’s body. Stories state that Freidkin was tough on set and drew the ire of more than one of his principal actors in order to get the performances he wanted. That friction is evident in the film and unsettling to the viewer.
Music by composer Jack Nitzsche is only heard minimally throughout the film – it’s there, but only as a servant to the visuals. The theme song, Tubular Bells by British progressive rock and new age composer, Mike Oldfield, is what everyone remembers from The Exorcist. It’s the pop cultural mnemonic for the film. On it’s own, it’s a magical, if haunting piece of orchestration, but mixed with the story and scenes from the movie, it becomes something entirely malevolent. It’s a strange and powerful thing, what music and image can do in unison.
The greatest element of horror in The Exorcist, a horror more frightening than anything already listed in this piece of writing, is the horror that viewers brings to the film themselves. Ask a mother with a daughter, sick with an ailment that doctors can’t heal. Ask a father, worried over his little girl, now entering puberty and beginning to exhibit her own sense of sexuality. Ask a son, who guiltily thinks he could have cared more for his elderly mother. Ask a police detective if they’ve ever thought about the nature of true evil. Ask yourself any other sort of question that deals with human relationships, faith and the unknown. When watching The Exorcist, you’ll bring that baggage with you – and both within its running time and afterwards, the film will force you to ponder answers.
The Exorcist is not a film I can watch often. It’s a heavy viewing that weighs on the mind and the spirit. But it’s a worthy film; perhaps one of the greatest in the art form’s relatively short history. Within its cruel and menacing story and imagery is a final, philosophical belief: that despite the existence and power of evil in our world, goodness will prevail.
“There are no experts,” warns Father Karras in the film. But it’s this credence that sustains us through all of the real world horrors we must unfortunately witness.