On the Exorcist Blu-ray, Father Gallagher backs up those who want to see the film as reality-based. Describing the case that inspired Blatty—a 1949 exorcism that was better-documented than most—Gallagher says, “I don’t think it was anything unusual,” adding that the only thing special was that word of it leaked out to the newspapers. But Gallagher also resists the sensationalist view of possession, viewing it more as a medical condition that he wishes doctors took more seriously. “It’s a physical evil,” he says. “Like being mugged or raped.” And to Gallagher’s mind, priests should be more concerned with helping people heal spiritually, not physically.
At first, The Exorcist adopts Gallagher’s perspective. For much of its first hour, it’s part medical mystery and part social drama, following divorced, well-to-do actress Christine MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair), the latter of whom has been suffering unexplained spasms and Tourette’s-like eruptions of vulgarity. Chris puts Regan through painful medical procedures and tedious consultations with psychiatrists, before taking her problems to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest suffering a crisis of faith. Some of the tensest moments in The Exorcist are the plainest: a scene where Chris rages into a phone (with Regan eavesdropping nearby) because her ex-husband didn’t call Regan on her birthday; or a scene where an addled Regan urinates on the carpet in front of her mother’s party guests. The Exorcist has flashes of horror in the early going, but they can all be read as emblematic of deeper issues: the anxiety of a single parent, a sweet young girl’s uncontrollable hormonal surges, and a general loss of purpose. When a green-faced Regan starts stabbing at her genitals with a crucifix, growling, “Let Jesus fuck you!” it isn’t just the possibility that there’s a demon inside her that’s disturbing, but rather that this charming little kid who was gushing about horses at the start of the movie is suddenly spewing the foulest, most sexualized blasphemies.
But let’s not kid ourselves: It’s also unsettling to hear those exact words (“Jesus” and “fuck”) in such close proximity, and to imagine a cross being used as a blood-soaked dildo. Father Gallagher gives it a pass, and my evangelical friends see it as in service to a more important message—like one of those Jack Chick tracts that lustily describes wanton youth in order to show how their sin leads directly to hell. But these same friends filled my head with so many notions of the taboo that first reading and then watching The Exorcist made me soul-sick. And I wasn’t even that religious.
The Exorcist resolves into a more straightforward good-vs.-evil clash in its last half-hour, as “What’s happening to Regan?” becomes “Can’t someone get that evil creature out of Regan?” In the end, Father Karras comes through, when he coaxes the demon to leave Regan and enter him, just before he kills himself. It’s a symbolic gesture: the doubt-filled, depressed Karras reconnecting with his spiritual beliefs in a very real way. But while it’s a powerful ending, it’s disappointingly blunt in comparison with what came before. What’s at the root of the MacNeils’ problems? The demon Pazuzu, now cast out. The end. Blame absolved.
The popularity of The Exorcist had the effect of popularizing exorcism itself—or at least that was what I heard around my school, where there were rumors of parents setting their children on fire because they thought their kids were possessed. Give some credit (or blame) for this to Blatty’s studiousness, and Friedkin’s gifts for documentarylike realism, which lend The Exorcist plausibility. Even though the demon in The Exorcist isn’t Satan—and isn’t even part of Christian mythology—the film does reinforce the idea that there are dark forces at work, requiring the righteous to remain vigilant. Dinosaurs are stupid, but beware Beelzebub.
I’ve identified this mentality with the South, because that’s the part of the world I know best (and love, honestly). But The Exorcist is set mostly in Washington, D.C., and is heavily Catholic. The Catholic strain of devil paranoia differs from Southern Baptist devil paranoia. (Wine-drinking vs. teetotaling may have something to do with that.) Some religious people see The Exorcist as merely metaphorical, capturing the spiritual rootlessness of the 1970s, while others see it as much more black-and-white, and love it for that. Down here, we’ve worked “wariness of Satanic influence” into a way of life far removed from the more academic approaches of the fictional Father Karras and the real Father Gallagher. Down here, we stew in it.
The kids I grew up with were so confident that Satan is “a defeated foe” that they could watch every exorcism movie and walk away feeling like informed soldiers in the war against perdition. The Exorcist has always messed with my head, though, because it depicts with uncanny matter-of-factness what so many of the people around me believe to be true. Their whispers in my ear still produce an involuntary response. The juju seeps into the brain, and convulses the body.
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