My parents were pretty liberal about what media I was allowed to view when I was growing up. Heck, I remember watching In Living Color when I was about six with my dad. I was pretty much allowed to watch what I wanted to with two exceptions–MTV and The Exorcist (1973). My mom forbade me from seeing The Exorcist without reading the book first. So when I was fifteen I checked the book out from the library and read it so that I could see the movie. I think that my mom ended up regretting the book stipulation because I was an avid reader as a child and I never outgrew this. I think she expected me to become cool. We’re still waiting for this to happen. I don’t think that she actually expected me to pick up the book by William Peter Blatty, which, while loosely based on a so-called real case of possession, was also a weighty meditation on the nature of good and evil. And while everyone talks about the shocking scenes in the movie (Crossturbation, anyone?), the movie reflects the debate with its ponderous beginning set in Iraq.
While I admit that I’m an immature goon that wants the movie to hurry the damn hell up and get with the possession, I also admit that the narrative framework is necessary to the spirit of the movie. Without Father Merrin seeing the bad omens in Iraq (The black carriage that looks like a hearse, the dog-fight, and the broken clock) before literally facing off with the statue of Pazuzu, this would just be another possessed-girl movie from the seventies. (Stacie Ponder illustrates the point well but I would have replaced Angela Lansbury with Bea Arthur.) The would put this movie in the same category as Cathy’s Curse. I can’t let that happen. If these two movies were chocolate, then Cathy’s Curse would be the chocolate that you bought for charity that was stored in someone’s basement for six months and had those weird white flecks that old chocolate gets. The Exorcist is like five Jacques Torres curry truffles.
What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said? I thought that I would take a different approach than my usual review. As I watched the movie, I kept asking myself, “Self, is she really possessed?” Personally, I tend to side with Father Karras that she could use six months in the best psychiatric unit. So I decided to tally up the proof that Regan is possessed and the proof against Regan being possessed.
Proof that Regan isn’t Possessed
1. Regan starts to act out after witnessing disturbing incidents. Her bed shakes after she hears her mother yelling at the operator when Regan’s father fails to call her on her birthday. Regan wets herself at the party after Burke assaults their servant, Carl. This is the same party where the death of Father Karras’s mother is discussed. Is it really so far-fetched that Regan overheard this and then referenced it later when she actually met Father Karras?
2. The alleged demon is fallible. It doesn’t know Father Karras’s mother’s maiden name. When spoken to in Latin it responds in French. Also, in backwards English, which is unusual but not necessarily demonic.
3. The alleged demon claims to be THE devil. That’s a little grandiose, like a schizophrenic claiming to be Jesus. Why would the devil choose to possess a young girl? Aside from the general mayhem that this would cause, it just seems a little below the prince of darkness.
Proof that Regan is Possessed
1. Nothing shows up in her medical tests. There’s no temporal lobe lesion, which would have been my not professional at all diagnosis. I base this on two decades of reading about the weird shit that humans do. Stimulation of the temporal lobe, like in temporal lobe seizures, can trigger hallucinations of paranormal phenomena. Anyway, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
2. The family has no religious beliefs. If Regan were particularly religious, she might have learned about possession. But where would she learn about it if she weren’t religious? Unless she was like me and spent her youth in the Fucked-Up Shit section of the library.
3. The alleged demon does hae some knowledge that Regan couldn’t possibly have. How would she know and recognize Father Merrin?
4. What could explain Regan’s grotesque physical transformation? Is how she looks based on how those around her are perceiving her? Or is she really a monster demon girl who spews gallons of phlegm?
5. What could explain the physical manifestations of the demon’s power? I mean, how does her room get so cold? How does she fly off the bed? How does she create the whirlwind of objects in her room?
So, is Regan possessed? After reading my tally I have to say that she probably is. Maybe. I think. I like me some ambiguity in my horror, so that’s ok. I know that some people think that the movie reflects the turbulence of the seventies and the battle between religion and secularism. I’m not sure that I would count this as an overall victory for religion. Father Merrin has a heart attack in the course of the exorcism and Father Karras commits suicide, in a manner of speaking. They save the girl but the cost is really high.
Now, even after repeated viewing, this movie still scares the pants off of me and I sincerely regretted watching it before bed. It didn’t help that I finally noticed one of the subliminal demon faces hidden in it. Technically, they’re not subliminal if you notice them. Still, there are several quick glimpses of demon faces throughout the movie that William Friedkin, the director, admits to adding to create a dreamlike feeling. This movie manages to scare me and I don’t even believe in god or the devil. For me, the horror lies in the idea of losing myself. I know that what I call my personality are the manifestations of physical activity in my brain and the idea of that process going wrong–if I get dementia or schizophrenia–terrifies me. When I see The Exorcist I see that happening and that’s how this movie scares even a hard-nosed skeptic like myself.
- Scarina--the authoress and editrix of this site. I like scary movies and have dedicated my free time to cataloging horror--the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sometimes there are books too.
There's film criticism, literary criticism, and humor here. I can be highbrow but there's lots of pop culture too. And feminism.
I fervently love "Twin Peaks" and wish it were a real place so I could move there. I can't list my favorite scary movies because they change depending on my mood, the season, and how much coffee I've had.
I'm an artist looking for ways to blend creepy with cute. I try to channel my childhood nightmares, my love of horror, and my experiences with sleepy paralysis.
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