Each October in Logan Square, a Chicago neighborhood where I used to live, the Logan Theater does a run of late-night showings of classic horror films. Hundreds of people turn out to see movies like The Shining and Halloween on the big screen, queuing up at the ticket booth even in the wee hours on a weeknight. They buy 16 oz PBR Tall Boys with large popcorns, yell out answers to pre-film trivia, and laugh. The joyful, boozy, and communal mockery of these films’ campiness is part of the fun.
Last year in October, I was living a block away from the Logan, and three close friends had gotten tickets to see The Exorcist. It’s a film I’d promised myself never to see, but the importuning of my bros and the excitement of the night drove me out the door after my bros had left. I caught up with them outside the theater at one minute to showtime and we went inside.
We were the last four dudes to get in, apparently, because the only four seats left together were three rows from the front. We sat down as a thirty-foot-wide William Friedkin appeared. He warned us about what we were about to see. I tried to both face forward and look at something that wasn’t the director’s enormous face—and realized I couldn’t.
My fingers stayed in my ears for the opening scene in Iraq. I then clamped white knuckles around my armrests until the first shot of Regan, the 12-year-old girl and the one I knew was really in for it with this demon called Pazuzu (because of a Wikipedia page that was still glowing on a laptop screen in my apartment).
When I realized that in not a lot of minutes this girl was going to fill up basically the whole of visual space available to me with her freaky demoniac visage, I left.
Later, one of my friends who stayed would tell me that there were none of the customary laughs or line call-outs during The Exorcist. There were no sounds from the audience at all.
. . .
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Friedkin’s film. For most of my life I have avoided even thinking about the movie, figuring for years that even thinking about it might open up my soul to, like, a lot of demons.
But then two weeks ago, I signed up to receive a review copy of The Exorcist’s 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray 3-Disc Boxed Set—the works. I covenanted with my bros to—honest before God—give the movie the viewing it deserved from me, its ideal viewer. And I was. As a deeply sensitive and religious person, I was duty-bound to allow The Exorcist its full effect. History, art, and God each demanded this in a different way.
Last Tuesday morning I received a FedEx package that fell into my apartment as I opened the door. Game on. I noticed the boxed set included a forty-page, hard-covered essay adapted from the the director’s memoir. “Perfect,” I thought, “I’ll read this before I watch the movie, so I know what’s coming. Maybe it won’t be as scary then.” I read it just before bed and that night I didn’t sleep, because that’s what you get for trying to cheat history, art, and God.
One week ago yesterday, in the late morning, I drank an armful of coffees and sat down to watch the movie with my friend Brendon on Brendon’s massive television in Brendon’s basement apartment. Before the movie began, we prayed for God to protect our souls. Friedkin’s face again loomed large. We watched the movie.
There area a few lacunae among the time stamps that break up the record I kept during the film, and these I attribute to both bathroom breaks and fits of terror. For some of the remaining entries, there are only repetitions of the phrase “perfect love casts out fear.” Here are some others:
12:00 — The person I take to be the hero of the film, an elderly priest, is climbing over some rocks and looking at stuff. What’s that backlit thing on the hill? He’s climbing to get a bette IT’S THE DEMON
12:08 — First Regan sighting.
12:11 — Ouija board! Regan is in trouble! Don’t do it Regan! Aw man, she’s doing it WHO’S CAPTAIN HOWDY REGAN?
And so on.
In case you can’t tell from the above, The Exorcist is scary as hell. Because you can’t tell from the above: It’s also a remarkable film.
William Peter Blatty’s novel and screenplay are based on accounts of the actual exorcism of a 14-year-old boy, which took place in stages between Missouri and Maryland in 1949. It’s one of only three cases of exorcism in the 20th century that have been officially accepted by the Catholic Church in the United States. For his research, Blatty corresponded with two priests involved in the 1949 case and perused records of the event kept by those involved. Friedkin’s memoir booklet contains excerpts from these records:
There were rappings and scratching in the walls of the hospital room…furniture moving as though by an unseen force…the shaking of the mattress…sexual references to the priests and nuns…religious relics flying off the walls…agonizing shouts and screams that seemed to emanate from deep within the boy…curses, swearing and diabolic laughter, as well as gyrations and physical strength beyond his natural powers…blood, scabs and welts appearing on his skin…violent outbursts and attempts to kill the priests…the letters H-E-L-L appearing on his chest, and these words spoken from the mouth of the boy by “another voice” and remembered by all the witnesses: “All people that mangle with me will die a terrible death.”
This background is part of what makes The Exorcist as disturbing as it is. Every supernatural happening in the film finds its original source in these records. Blatty and Friedkin aren’t messing around. Neither is the entity they portray.
This arguably factual foundation contributes to the inescapability of the world opened by the film. It’s a world where possessed people exist, and that world looks an awful lot like our world. All of our familiar comforts and defenses in the face of the uncanny—entertainment, wealth, influence, science—have a home in the world of the film, and the film shows them to be shams.
In the clearest example, psychiatric doctors diagnose Regan’s condition as being the result of a “brain lesion,” which has become one of my favorite movie homophones of all time. After Regan attacks two of her doctors and launches one of them clear across her bedroom, they regroup in the hallway and calmly suggest to Regan’s mother that she up Regan’s sedative dosage.
The impotence here is devastating, and the mother’s resulting helplessness and isolation are also devastating. When all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, but some things aren’t nails at all—they’re more like, you know, demons.
The competing intelligibilities here also bring out the horror. The logic of psychosis can lock a murderer safely in the enclosed world of immanence, but possession blows the doors off our immanent world and acquaints us with a dimension that is just beyond us. We’re given just enough explanation to glimpse it and not enough to know it.
H. P. Lovecraft is your man if you’re interested in horror that defeats the mind in this way. In two of his most effective short stories—”The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Colour from Space”—hapless, pitiful humans discover horrifying realities that pull at the fringes of our own. Non-Euclidean geometry and colors outside our visible spectrum bamboozle to the point of madness. Beyond the reach of our coherent thoughts, things stir without concern for human life. Reading Lovecraft, we’re led to touch the surface of this other reality without comprehending a thing about what it is that we’re touching.
So it is with exorcism. Instead of natural human appetites warped by misfortune and abuse into fully fledged murderous desires—the story of a John Wayne Gacy Jr. or a dozen other famous killers—we have sacrilege, blasphemy, sexual abuse, and anti-teleological outbursts of violence and evil laughter in a great simultaneous cacophony that arrives from beyond human desire, with no clear indication of why and no idea of what might be next. There’s telekinesis, levitation, demonic visions, and other sundry breaks with the known order of things. It’s pandemonium.
At one point, Pazuzu speaks through Regan, and when a doubting priest plays the tape back in reverse, Pazuzu’s backwards-spoken words issue in a downright Augustinian register: “I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing.” But how can nothing speak? How can nothing act? How can this be happening? Grappling with the spiritual black hole of Pazuzu brings home something new and personal about Andrei Tarkovsky’s suggestion about the purpose of art: “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”
Perhaps to show us the way, the film itself concludes with a turn to good—and even now, it is easy for me to forget it. My biggest surprise was the ultimate vindication of some of Friedkin’s words from a page in his adapted memoir. The Islamic call to prayer opens the film and it includes a refrain that translates “God is good. God is great.” Friedkin writes that this refrain captures his movie’s underlying theme.
It’s true. God wins in The Exorcist. The movie climaxes with a Christ-like sacrifice that saves the demoniac. Then it concludes with the hardest-won kiss in movie history: Regan, fully dis-possessed, remembers nothing of her ordeal, but when she meets a priest outside her home she spontaneously gives him a childlike kiss on the cheek.
God is good. God is great. Friedkin notes in his recorded preface to the theatrical version of the film that those who see the world as a fundamentally dark and violent place will only find darkness and violence in the movie, but that those who believe in another power that overcomes that darkness will find hope in the movie.
I’m with you, Mr. Friedkin. While The Exorcist terrified and disturbed me, it did not leave me without hope, because in the face of the greatest evil God shows himself to be greater still.
. . .
If you had to recommend one horror movie to a timid Christian friend, which would you recommend, and why? Leave your answer in the comments—and shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but one commenter will be chosen to win a copy of the 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray Boxed Set of The Exorcist.