I was seven years old when The Exorcist
came out. I remember the grown-ups talking about it. I remember one grown-up saying she had to sleep with the light on for months after seeing it. I remember another saying he had to go on pills for his nerves after he saw it.
I still remembered it when I was 20 years old and heard that the film was showing late night at a cinema in Glasgow. I had never seen it. The video was banned, and I didn’t know any bootleggers in those days. It appeared in the cinemas fairly frequently, but I’d never made a special effort to go and see it. I remembered the terror of the grown-ups, but I didn’t believe it any more. It was hype, I thought. Mass hysteria. There had been the same kind of talk about The Evil Dead
- people fainting, needing counseling, the same story - and it had turned out to be a Carry On
film with added gore. I had always maintained that the effect a film had on you depended on your attitude when you went to see it. If you bought your ticket expecting to freak out, you’d freak out; if you were laughing when you bought your ticket, you’d just be entertained.
I was laughing when I bought my ticket to see The Exorcist
. But I didn’t laugh for long.
I had watched Rosemary’s Baby
while tripping out of my skull on L.S.D., and laughed. I was fond of reading Stephen King late at night, by candlelight, then sleeping soundly. The dark held no terrors for me.
But The Exorcist
had me damn near hiding behind my seat. At one point I needed to go to the bathroom, but was afraid to go on my own. You’ll appreciate the extent of my terror when I tell you my date for the evening was a woman I’d been hopelessly in lust with for a long time. She’d finally agreed to go out with me. She was so scared by the film that she went home with me afterward because she didn’t want to be alone. But we were too badly spooked to do anything but lie in bed holding each other, each of us hoping that the other wouldn’t suddenly become possessed.
My first experience of The Exorcist
was, in fact, like my first experience of sex. I’d been hearing about it since I was a kid, but when I finally got there myself it was better (or, in the case of the film, worse) than even the most hysterical accounts of it had ever suggested.
“There’s no way you can sit through that film without receiving some lasting negative or disturbing effects,” said a Chicago psychiatrist when the film was first shown.
It’s now 39 years since The Exorcist
, the satanic child of writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin first appeared on cinema screens, causing members of the audience to faint or throw up. The film made an impact that no horror film - and few films of any kind - had made before or have made since. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won for Best Screenplay (Blatty adapted it from his own novel) and Best Sound. It also won four Golden Globe awards, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair) and Best Screenplay. It inspired sequels and parodies, and its influence is such that it has resonated through many of the horror films made since then. More importantly, it brought the horror genre a legitimacy it had never known before.
Partly because of its time, coming shortly after the decade that marked the first media-recognized intellectual revolt among young people. Stephen King, the 20th Century’s most popular horror writer, remembered it as the embodiment of the deepest fears of the middle aged and middle class. “Our parents said, ‘You going to get a haircut pretty soon?’ And we said, ‘No, I don’t think so. Want a joint, dad?’ …There was a youthquake, a youth revolution, a kind of civil war between parents and children; and with all this as a backdrop comes a movie about a wonderful, beautiful suburban girl who turns into a foul-talking, stringy-haired, ugly monstrosity who is saying these ugly words, these terrible obscenities, vomiting pea soup on people.
“Parents are looking at this and they’re feeling horror… and a sigh of relief, saying, ‘That’s
what happened to Susie. She went to college and the devil got her.’ It’s a powerful parable for what parents saw. The Exorcist
was able to reach out to older people and grasp something that made them heartsick.”
But it sickened younger people as well. And terrified them. I slept with the light on for quite a few nights after I first saw it. Even now, if I let myself think about it in bed at night, I get so uneasy that if I’m alone I might turn the light on.
A synopsis of the story doesn’t sound all that scary, especially as there have been so many knockoffs since it came out. A 12-year-old girl starts talking in different voices, masturbating violently with a crucifix, shoving people out of windows and being generally unpleasant. It turns out she’s possessed by a demon. Her mother gets a priest in to sort it out, which comes at a tragic cost.
The book isn’t particularly frightening, a surprise when you consider that it had sold five million copies in the two years between its publication and the making of the film. But its success is less surprising when you read it - it may not frighten, but it’s an astonish piece of storytelling, with a seriousness of thought that compensates for the occasional clumsiness of the prose.
Not everybody thought so at the time. There were snide reviews in Time
and The New Yorker
, the latter by Pauline Kael, doyenne of U.S. film critics, who, with the trademark insensitivity and short-sightedness that saw her write off other iconic films of the 1970s (Marathon Man
, Five Easy Pieces
), dismissed both book and film as “ugly,” “brutalizing” and “shallow.”
But this is no trashy bestseller. In Father Karras, the young priest with a crisis of faith and a festering guilt about letting his mother die in poverty, Blatty created as convincing a character as ever appeared between book covers.
The book is often depressing in the honesty with which it faces up to the realities of human suffering. Blatty prefaces it with quotes from real life mafioso killers and references to the Nazi death camps to underline his central concern - that there is such a thing as pure evil.
The story is set around Georgetown University, the Jesuit-run college where Blatty himself was a student. While studying there, Blatty heard about a 14-year-old boy who had supposedly been possessed by a demon that priests had driven out of him over a period of months.
Twenty years later, after writing the screenplays for a few forgettable films, Blatty wrote the book. The priest who’d performed the exorcism refused to co-operate with him. When Blatty said he intended to write the book in any case, the priest asked him to change the victim’s gender, to protect the anonymity of the boy. Blatty obliged, and thus Regan McNeil, poor little possessed girl, was born. This gave the book added authenticity, according to Thomas Allen, author of Possessed
, an account of the real-life exorcism. “Historically, young girls have been victims of possession more often than boys,” he said.
In 1994, at the age of 91, Blatty’s teacher at Georgetown remembered his reasons for writing the book. Father Joseph Thomas Durkin said Blatty told him him there were three reasons. “The first was to advance himself as a writer. The second was to make money. The third was to remind people that there is a supernatural realm of existence.”
Durkin believed the film was a fair representation of the real thing. He did not believe it had a harmful effect. “Quite the contrary, because it shows the reality of the evil spirit.”
That was a reality that British censors saw fit to protect the public from. The video was banned in the U.K. from 1984-89, though it could be seen regularly in cinemas.
Mike Bor, a spokesman for the British Board of Film Classification, told me in 1994 that the film had been banned because of a “combination of themes.” He claimed that “some research has shown that young teenagers may be drawn into the satanic aspect. Satanic abuse cases do appear from time to time in the press.” He didn’t know that all such cases had been debunked. Bor said he was also concerned that there was “a lot of underage viewing of videos.”
Valerie Stinason, a consultant child psychotherapist and editor of Treating Survivors of Satanic Abuse
, disagreed with Bor and said she thought that films like The Exorcist
come as a relief to those who have been abused in the course of satanic rituals. An atheist from a Jewish background, she argued that the premise of the film - that the child is not to blame for the possession and can receive redemption - was in itself of therapeutic value. She said she had treated an eight-year-old girl who had been taken to an exorcist after showing symptoms like those in the film. The girl was severely beaten by the exorcist, but the root of her behavior - masturbating in the classroom and uttering obscenities - lay in sexual abuse by a family member. The family, too ashamed to admit the cause, had blamed it on the devil.
Whether you regard the film as an advertisement for Satanism or an aid to therapy, you may be surprised to learn that in the U.K. it was not illegal to possess the video, only to supply it for commercial gain. So whenever I wrote about it during my time there, I protected my friendly neighborhood video pirate by saying that he didn’t charge me anything for the copy he gave me.
A clue as to what makes the film so terrifying can be found by watching it on video rather than in the cinema. Viewed on a T.V. screen, while still not recommended for children’s parties, it doesn’t have the same impact it does when seen on a big screen in a dark cinema, where the sight and sound of it grate on the nerves. I’m not referring only to the horror scenes; the film is shrill throughout, both aurally and visually. It looks washed out and grungy, like a color version of those kitchen sink films of the 50s and 60s. This naturalism is abetted by the near-absence of background music. The sound is both strange and effective - the dialogue is recorded so quietly, and often mumbled, that it can be hard to hear, just like conversation in real life. But other, common sounds - a cup being put down on a table, a drink being poured, a door being opened - seem to be amplified. These effects combine to make the film headachy and unpleasant to watch.
Then there are the subliminal effects. A few are noticeable if you see it enough times, most notably the the brief superimposing of the face of a demon on Linda Blair’s face immediately after the infamous revolving-head scene. There are rumors of other such effects, and speculation that they might be harmful to the viewer.
Friedkin didn’t deny using such effects, but rejected any suggestion that they might cause harm. ”I tried to make The Exorcist
so that it would operate in a dreamlike way upon the audience,” he told Fangoria
magazine. “In other words, so it would implant itself upon their subconscious. There are therefore certain things in the soundtrack which are designed to do that, and certain subliminal shots or noises to which attempt to get into the subconscious of the viewer. But there’s been a lot of bullshit written about the subliminal cuts. I used them to evoke that fragmentary feeling you get when your mind reaches in and grabs a card from somewhere that seems completely out of context.”
Such devices may explain why the film is so frightening to watch. But if it’s only down to atmosphere, to superior special effects, why does it haunt people for so long afterward? Stephen King’s view of it as a metaphor for the deepest fear of the post-1960s bourgeois may not be far wrong, but it’s something more primal, more frightening than mere political or cultural insecurity. If the fear was as superficial as King thought, then the film wouldn’t have had the power to terrify people in the decades that followed, people for whom sex, drugs and political radicalism were as taken for granted as tap water.
The fear tapped into by The Exorcist
is an existential fear, not a political one. We may never articulate the fear, but most of us are afraid that we are born alone, live alone and die alone, and that our relationships, ambitions and interests are only necessary illusions to enable us to cope.
All horror, as Stephen King has said, is based on one or more of three elements:
1) The Werewolf (a force that takes possession of you; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
is an archetypal werewolf story)
2) The Bad Place
3) The Thing Unseen
Of the three, The Werewolf and The Thing Unseen are the most frightening, because there is no safety in numbers. There is no comfort in other people; they can’t protect you from The Thing Unseen, and they might actually become The Werewolf. Within these contexts you’re completely alone. Everything takes on an aspect of menace. Everything is a potential threat.The Exorcist
incorporates both the The Werewolf and The Thing Unseen. It uses divide-and-conquer tactics to isolate each person in the audience with their own fear. As you cuddle up to whoever you’re with, you don’t feel much safer - because you’re afraid that at any moment their face might contort, their eyes turn yellow and glisten with venom, and their lips spew curses in a voice not their own.
But you’re also afraid to be left alone. You’re afraid that there might be nobody around to help you when your bed starts to shake and rises into the air, when you’re beaten by invisible hands. Worst of all, you’re afraid of become The Werewolf yourself.
Traditionally, horror stories are meant to provide a feeling of reassurance. You tell them in a warm room on Halloween, and the stories you’re telling are about evil things that lurk in the dark and cold outside. These things don’t live in warm rooms or near fires, and they come to people who’re alone, not groups of friends. So, as long as you stay warm and stay in the light and stay together, you know you’re safe.The Exorcist
tells you that you aren’t safe. It tells you that the thing you’re afraid of isn’t out there in the dark, it’s in your cosy room. The Exorcist
tells you there’s nos no safety in your group - one of them might be The Werewolf. The Exorcist
, both book and film, ultimately leaves you feeling lonely. And that, more than anything else, is what we are afraid of.
We’re so afraid of that that we’ve had to mythologize the film as a thing of evil. We’ve had to invent stories of a curse on it. There were rumors that the devout Catholic Blatty was into devil-worship. I was said that strange things had happened on the set of the film. In fact, there were the usual minor accidents that happen in any workplace over the period of a year. One actor died after completing filming. Another actor’s brother died in Sweden. These were seen by some parties as example of diabolical intervention.
Another popular rumor is that the 14-year-old actress at the heart of it had been so traumatized by it all that she’d had a breakdown. “The thing is, people really wanted me to be mixed up,” Linda Blair told Fangoria
. “They wrote all these articles about how deranged I was and the psychiatric problems I was supposed to have. The articles that were written were so manipulative, so full of outright lies. The press thought they could make money by taking pictures of me doing weird things… but I just didn’t do weird things!” She did develop something of a problem with cocaine, being arrested for possession (of drugs, that is) on one occasion, but in Hollywood that’s the opposite of weird.
Blair said that the root of all the hysteria was a simple audience desire to believe in the film. “Maybe people wanted to believe weird things happened because it helped the whole process of being scared.”
She may be right. More than 25 years after The Exorcist
, people showed a similar determination to believe that The Blair Witch Project
And, scary though they find it, people don’t react to it they way they used to. I talked to someone who saw it back then at the Regal Cinema in Edinburgh, Scotland. ”I ran out about halfway through it,” she said. “The St. John’s Ambulance Service was waiting outside, giving out the phone number of The Samaritans. I phoned, and they played ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’ I tried to go back into the cinema, but quite a few people had vomited and I couldn’t stand the smell. I haven’t seen the film since, but I’ve never forgotten it. At the time I thought I’d seen everything, but it was horrifying.” Horrified as she was, she still said she’d be curious to see it again.
And that, at least, is not unusual. The film still fascinates. When it was banned on video in the U.K., it played to full houses in arthouse cinemas like the Cameo in Edinburgh. A manager there told me it was a popular date movie. “It attracts a lot of young couples. Maybe it’s some sort of test of the relationship. If you can squirm through The Exorcist
together then you’ve made it.”
I suspect that the reality of The Exorcist
as a date movie is slightly different. One of the reasons I’ve seen it so many times is that it’s ideal for a first date because you’ll have no problem getting her to stay the night afterward.
So it really is a film that works on every level - a frightfest that is also a film of richness and complexity, one that yields more and more with repeated viewing, if your nerves can stand it. It contains little violence, and its message is one of such morality that the Jesuits not only approved of it but helped Friedkin and Blatty make it. In a world in which the torture-porn of the Saw
franchise entertains teenagers, perhaps we need more films like The Exorcist