My family wasn’t overly religious growing up. I didn’t have the fear of God in me, but I wasn’t some heathen. We took the approach that the Ten Commandments was a decent playbook to live life by. We believed that treating everyone with dignity and respect was a decent way to handle your business. If judgement needed to be handed out, there would be a time and place for that person, but it wasn’t our place to do so. I imagine this was a similar upbringing to most folks. That being said, you don’t have to be religious to have the crap scared out of you by a story of possession.
For me, the scariest movie ever made will always be The Exorcist.
My parents would not allow me to watch The Exorcist until I was 18 and even then, I don’t know that I was emotionally prepared for what was to come. It was the first psychological horror movie that really got me. I grew up watching Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers slash their way across the screen, but you could dismiss those as fiction. Prior to watching The Exorcist I knew the premise: Young girl gets possessed, weird things happen, the church gets involved and an exorcism is performed to banish the demon back to the depths from which it came. Should be a straightforward exercise in the triumph of good vs evil. This was not the case with William Friedkin’s masterpiece.
The Exorcist took my relaxed religious upbringing and for the first time ever, made me question if being a good person was enough to save my soul. Where slasher movies were all about jump scares and gore, The Exorcist was about one little girl’s painful existence. There was no quick release from the pain and anguish, only long periods of discomfort. With each new demonic encounter, I found myself being pulled more and more into a place of despair. There is little to no humour in the movie. There’s no levity that makes you remember that you’re only watching a work of fiction. The movie removes all forms of hope and leaves you stranded. Your only salvation is quite literally a come to Jesus meeting.
The imagery has become iconic. Whether it’s the rotating head, the projectile vomiting, the Spider Walk down the stairs, the crucifix scene, or Father Karras throwing himself down those infamous Georgetown stairs, they’ve all been lifted or parodied by this point. There’s a good chance that even if you’ve never seen The Exorcist, you’ve seen parts of it.
The image that still haunts me to this day is the black and white-faced demon that the filmmakers spliced into a dream sequence. Each night when I turn out the lights and head to my bedroom, that ghoulish visage will creep to the forefront of my mind. It forces me to quicken my pace for fear that the darkness will consume me. The Exorcist is two hours, but that one frame of film is what still consumes me with fear. Pair that image with the demonic voice telling you what your mother is doing in hell and it’s enough to keep you up at night. It’s what nightmares are made of.
If you have never watched The Exorcist, I would encourage you to do so. It’s a classic and should be treated as such. I would suggest a nice Sunday afternoon matinee. This way if you feel the need to find Jesus yourself, you can still make an evening mass.