Nick Cull explores how the smash-hit horror film exploited all the issues that most worried Americans in the early 1970s.
It all began on the day after Christmas 1973. An unearthly screeching followed by the sound of the Islamic call to prayer pitched America headlong into the first screening of William Friedkin’s film: The Exorcist. During an atmospheric prologue a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow), digging in northern Iraq, uncovers the carved head of a demon, made to ward off the forces of darkness as ‘evil against evil’. But Merrin is troubled by a premonition of horror.
The scene switches to Georgetown in the United States, where a twelve-year-old girl, Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of an actress, Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn), is wracked by bizarre convulsions. Doctors, who are powerless to treat her, speculate that the girl may be demonically possessed. After Regan has apparently committed murder, a Jesuit priest, Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is summoned to help. Convinced that he is facing an authentic demonic possession, he asks the Church to arrange an exorcism. The Church sends Merrin to officiate and together the two priests struggle to free the child. Merrin dies of heart failure. Karras prevails, but only by forcing the demon into his own body and throwing himself to his death from the girl’s bedroom window.
The manifestations of the demon hit hard. In a guttural voice (dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge) the girl barked a stream of obscenity such as had never before been heard in a Hollywood film; she vomited; she levitated; she twisted her head through a hundred and eighty degrees and she masturbated with a crucifix.
Critics from the Wall Street Journal to Moscow’s Isvestia were appalled, but audiences were overwhelmed by the result. As newspapers reported viewers fainting, Americans lined up to see what all the fuss was about, and then queued to see it all again. In San Francisco a deranged patron charged the screen in an attempt to kill the demon; in Harlem a priest attempted to exorcise drugs from his neighbourhood; in Boston a woman was carried from the theatre murmuring: ‘it cost me four dollars but I only lasted twenty minutes’.
By March 1974, the film had sold 6 million tickets in the United States and was poised to sweep the world. At one level The Exorcist phenomenon was just a skilfully mounted spectacle, stretching the limits of a newly liberal Hollywood. Yet the scale of the reaction suggests that the film – like William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same name, and on which it was based – had hit a nerve. The Exorcist touched on issues that were all too alive for the world of 1973. This was not a coincidence. It was more than a product of its time; it actively sought to shape that time. Like the carved demon’s head unearthed in the prologue, The Exorcist was an image of ‘evil against evil’, or such evils as were identified by its conservatively-inclined and deeply Catholic creator.
As the Warner Brother’s publicity department reminded the press in 1973, The Exorcist was based on a historical case. In August 1949, the Washington newspapers reported that a boy in Mount Rainier, Maryland, had been freed from demonic possession by the rite of exorcism. It was an unusual step. The rite, as codified in 1614, was usually regarded as a relic of the dark ages before a modern understanding of mental illness. But this was also an unusual case. The tormented boy had spoken in languages he had never studied, and strange symbols and letters had appeared spontaneously on his body. The story broke at a time of crisis. America was terrified of the mounting power of Communism overseas. Spy scandals and labour disputes raised the spectre of a Communist enemy within.
With such discord abroad, one reader, at least, saw the Mount Rainier exorcism as a ray of hope. William Blatty, a young student at Georgetown University, saw the possession as evidence that supernatural evil existed, and that, therefore, supernatural good must also exist. Twenty years later, with the mood of crisis again in the air, Blatty sought to communicate this conclusion to others. Although a successful writer of comedies, he felt confined by this genre. He wrote The Exorcist and produced it as a motion picture to scare a new generation of Americans back into church. Blatty was quite open about this aim. He called his novel ‘an apostolic work’. Thirty years after its publication he even claimed that the book’s best-selling status was a direct result of divine intervention, which opened a slot for him on the Dick Cavett chat show.
Blatty’s novel is explicit about the manifestations of evil in the modern world. On its opening page he juxtaposed an epigram from the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus confronts a demon, with a succession of quotations showing contemporary evil at work. These include an extract from an FBI wire tap in which a gangster jokes about torture and murder; a graphic account of Communist atrocities against priests, teachers and children from the writings of Dr Tom Dooley, an American doctor who worked in Vietnam in the 1950s; names that evoked the Nazi extermination of European Jews: Dachau, Auschwitz and Buchanwald, a subject that was at last being addressed by American thinkers. Within the body of the book, Blatty selected an epigram that alluded to a further topical manifestation of evil: American conduct in the Vietnam War.
In late 1969 the world learned that American troops had massacred some 200 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. The war in Vietnam had become a perverse pseudo-industrial enterprise in which units were rewarded for their ‘body count’ like insurance salesmen reaching their targets. It was this aspect of the war that attracted Blatty’s attention. His epigram for part three of his novel came from a 1969 edition of Newsweek: ‘a [Vietnam] brigade commander once ran a contest to rack up his unit’s 10,000th kill; the prize was a week of luxury in the colonel’s own quarters.’
The novel also alludes to what many Americans still regarded as the ‘original sin’ of the era: the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In an early chapter the child Regan visits Kennedy’s grave, and a Georgetown church, introduced as the site of JFK’s marriage, is the scene of revolting desecrations (apparently perpetrated by Regan under demonic control). Blatty sought to draw these disparate manifestations of evil – crime, Communism, genocide, war and assassination – together into a cohesive presence. The demon of The Exorcist was the result.
Blatty’s bid to revive the idea of a personal devil flew in the face of the academic theology of the time. The Warner press pack pointed interested journalists to the German theologian Herbert Haag, who had just published a multi-volume work entitled Farewell to the Devil. Yet others shared Blatty’s desire to revive the notion of a personal evil. As Mark Kermode has pointed out, in November 1972, Pope Paul VI urged Catholics to return to the study of the Devil: ‘Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality...’ The project was sufficiently plausible for three Jesuits to give their services as technical advisors to the film; two of them, William O’Malley SJ and Thomas Bermingham SJ, even acted in it (playing Father Dyer, a friend of Karras, and the president of Georgetown University respectively).
On its release The Exorcist received a mixed reception from those who concerned themselves with public morals. Many took exception to the depiction of blasphemous acts, child sexuality and the vivid representation of evil. Media alarm ranged from criticism of the relaxed ‘R’ certificate (under-17s accompanied by an adult) attached to the American release, to lurid accounts of viewers being driven to breakdowns and suicide. As a result, the film was picketed by some clerics and condemned by the Protestant evangelist Billy Graham. But the Catholic News, at least, suggested that the theme of evil was apposite for the age, and under the headline: ‘Exorcist needs careful attention’, urged viewers to look beyond the excesses of language and style.
The screen adaptation of The Exorcist avoided the novel’s epigrams and allusions to the spectacular evils of the age. The film revolves around ‘social evils’, the foremost of these being inter-generational conflict. The Exorcist found the US divided as never before along generational lines. The world of the young, whose language and culture openly defied the past, was increasingly a closed book to older Americans. College campuses across the country had erupted in protests against the war in Vietnam, culminating in the shooting of protesters at Kent State University, Ohio, in May 1970. This background is evoked in early scenes of The Exorcist in which we learn that Regan’s mother is an actress in a film portraying campus dissent. She is seen begging an angry crowd of students to ‘work within the system’. The theme of a young girl’s transformation into a demon-possessed beast played with America’s growing fear of its youth. The girl is named Regan in an allusion to one of literature’s original ‘thankless children’ in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Yet the film also touches a second nerve: the guilt of the middle-aged over the neglect of their parents. The priest, Father Karras, is wracked by guilt after seeing his mother committed to a mental hospital. His guilt becomes a principal avenue of attack for the demon during their climactic confrontation.
The action of The Exorcist takes place within a realm that had been uniquely privileged in American post-war culture: the home. The evil is doubly disturbing for erupting in so familiar a setting. The poster for the film traded on this. A man with a suitcase stands on a street, silhouetted in the light from a bedroom window over the caption:
Something almost beyond comprehension is happening to a girl on this street, in this house, and a man has been sent for as a last resort. This man is The Exorcist.
The sacred sphere of the home is at risk. The family context is no less eloquent. Blatty’s story clearly reflects contemporary fears over the breakdown of the family. Regan is the child of a ‘broken marriage’. Her mother is caught up in her career and alternates neglect with cloying over-compensation. The early manifestations of the demon as an ‘imaginary friend’ seem like a substitute for the girl’s absent father. A different sort of Father restores the situation. Beyond this The Exorcist plays on the guilt of women moving into the work-place and ‘usurping the masculine role’. To this end, the mother is given a male name: Chris. The events that follow beg to be read as a punishment for nothing more than being a woman of her time.
In re-working the Mount Rainier case for 1970s America, Blatty altered the gender of the possessed child. In so doing he moved his story into the typical territory of the horror genre: the female body. From Regan’s body flows a stream of obscene words, actions, deeds and copious fluids of various hues and textures. Is this the male fear of the castrating female re-animated for the era of Women’s Liberation? The Exorcist also played on concerns over reproduction that had surfaced during the preceding decade. The 1960s had seen shocking images of birth defects resulting from the drug Thalidomide, sharpening fears of giving birth to the ‘monstrous’; it had also seen an intense debate over the issue of abortion, which reached its climax in January 1973 with the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. The murderous, possessed child Regan can be read as a projection of the guilt of a generation that had conceded that legal abortion was a necessity. The abortion debate had turned on the issue of a woman’s right to control her own body.
In The Exorcist both bodies and children are out of control. However, the gender politics of the film did not excite much comment at the time. Critics were more concerned by the violence of the images, and there were many more tangible subjects demanding the attention of the women’s movement.
Blatty also transformed the class and geographical background of the original story. The ordinary Mount Rainier household of 1949 became the Georgetown home of an actress modelled on Blatty’s Hollywood neighbour Shirley MacLaine. (Other characters include a war-obsessed British film director loosely modelled on J. Lee Thompson.) The use of Georgetown was significant. The district, close to the heart of Washington DC, was inseparable from American political power; a senator is among the guests at Chris’s ritzy party. Chris and her circle add a cultural dimension to this power: her life is shown splashed on the cover of Photoplay magazine. The murder of film star Sharon Tate by Charles Manson in 1969 gave the ‘evil hits Hollywood star’ scenario a chilling topicality. Beyond this, an ‘enemy within’ the American movie industry was a favourite theme of isolationists before the Second World War and of anti-Communists after it. Blatty’s story flirts with this same notion. Indeed, Father Merrin’s warning to beware of the demon’s voice as it mixes lies with truth is exactly the sort of thing President Nixon had begun to say about the American media as it probed the breaking story of Watergate.
The Exorcist touched other themes of its era. In the 1950s, American horror films had displayed concern over the capabilities of science; by 1973 it seemed appropriate to ponder its limits. In one of the early manifestations of Regan’s possession, the ancient world of the demon comes face to face with modern science. Regan confronts an astronaut at her mother’s party and predicts his death. Her symptoms defy scientific explanation. Like the church, medical science has its costumes, dogmas and ceremonies (the numerous tests on Regan, which are shown in gut-wrenching detail). Unlike the church, it cannot help. The audience is offered a choice of world views: the assumption of the doctors that human thought is nothing more than a collection of electrical impulses, and the assumption of the priests that human beings are pawns in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Both have unsettling implications.
Although Blatty’s screenplay for The Exorcist followed his novel faithfully, the film added a new level of social comment. In the novel the principal characters are straining to be warm and supportive. In an un-filmed sub-plot a kindly Jewish police officer helps the servant, Karl, by arranging rehabilitation for his drug addict daughter. The novel is resolved with the cop, Kinderman, and a surviving priest, Dyer, becoming friends. They go off into the sunset chatting about films and quoting the end of Casablanca. It is ‘the start of a beautiful friendship’ between church and state. The film is bleaker. The characters all live and remain in a state of mutual alienation. By failing to deliver emotional resolution, the film successfully keeps viewers ill at ease. The city in which the characters live is introduced as an emotional desert: the camera first cuts to Georgetown from the prologue amid desert ruins in Iraq, as sounds of dogs fighting and an evil screeching blend into what is clearly meant to be their modern equivalent, the traffic noise of a contemporary American city.
The visual realisation of the Iraqi prologue also carried political implications, with multiple allusions to an established lexicon of American filmic and news images. At the climax of the Iraqi sequence, Merrin confronts a statue of the demon like a western gun-slinger amid the ruins of Nineveh. The demon, identified in the novel as Pazuzu, was a genuine character in Mesopotamian mythology: a demon associated with the wind. As the enemy of the bringer of sickness, Lamasht1u, the image of Pazuzu was a popular protective amulet for childbirth, but the choice of the image in the 1970s had other resonance. The demon’s fist is raised in something that looks oddly reminiscent of the black power salute, the era’s abiding symbol of African-American rage, made world famous when used by two black American athletes on a medal rostrum at the Mexico Olympics of 1968.
The Iraqi prologue was already firmly rooted in the tradition of American horror movies. The archaeological dig recalls stories of Egyptian curses from the 1920s and the films they inspired. Meanwhile, the trenches cut by the archaeologists suggest the battlefields of the First World War and hence an enduring struggle. Yet, above all, the prologue anticipates a phobia that would become a fixed part of American popular culture from the 1970s onwards: fear of the Arab world.
It was in keeping with the American isolationist mistrust of things foreign, that the inner evil in The Exorcist has a foreign source. It is doubly significant that the origin of this evil is located in the Arab world. The film heightens this. Iraq is represented as a place in which time has stood still. This is made explicit when the clock in an official’s office stops. Iraqi sights and sounds (frenetic digging and hammering, dark passages, the alien glances of Iraqi people, the Islamic call to prayer) are used to unnerve the audience. Such attitudes did not auger well for Arab-American understanding. The release of The Exorcist coincided with a new low in US relations with that region. With Middle Eastern oil producers doubling prices overnight on December 23rd, 1973, it was already clear that more than one demon could be released from the sands of Arabia.
Although Blatty’s name appeared in three places on the poster, the film’s success owed much to the artistry of its director, William Friedkin. The Exorcist is an astonishing piece of cinematic manipulation. Friedkin’s camera technique, restrained by the structure of the house, and borrowing from documentary, builds the sense that we are in a real space, surrounded by real sound. In this context, the eruption of the demonic voice is all the more terrifying. The film is more subtle than the novel. Friedkin allows its message to form in the mind of the viewer, paring down his dialogue to such an extent that only the audience is aware of the full narrative. Yet Friedkin’s accomplishment undermined Blatty’s political project. The shock of the visceral experience of viewing The Exorcist obscured all else.
Vincent Canby of the New York Times reported that large sections of the youth audience talked and smoked during the establishing sequences and only tuned in to the movie during the possession. Such audiences could hardly be identifying with the forces of order in the film. Despite Blatty’s intent, it would seem that for many who watched The Exorcist, this was horror functioning in the same way as it had in the era of Boris Karloff, recycling the fears of the age as escapist entertainment and captivating audiences with the anarchic license given to the monster.
The Exorcist did not drive America back to the church, but it did drive America back to the horror film. Its success ushered in a new golden age of American ‘A Movie’ horror: director’s like John Carpenter and Wes Craven came forward to revitalise the genre, and were glad to use the licence won for them by the excesses of Blatty’s film. The legacy of The Exorcist was a rich and frequently subversive vein of horror cinema. Themes like social fragmentation and the questioning of family relationships, which had surfaced in earlier films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or Night of the Living Dead (1968) and bloomed in The Exorcist, remained current. Evil children did especially well. In Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) Satan’s son wreaks havoc in the life of his adopted father, an unsuspecting American diplomat. In the wake of Watergate it was not that surprising that by the end of the movie the evil child had moved in to the White House.
Some directors used the genre for social satire. In George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), Americans resurrected as flesh-eating zombies still feel compelled to congregate at the shopping mall and go through the motions of consumerism. Others like David Cronenberg in Videodrome (1982) suggested new ways of thinking about the human body and its relationship with technology. The genre continued to trade on fears of the female body, and frequently punished characters who indulged in such things as pre-marital sex or who smoked dope, yet it also opened up the imagination. The most formulaic horror films became a branch of American camp, showing audiences through exaggeration how artificial the markers of personal identity could be, and thereby opening a range of possibilities for alternative behaviour.
As a key player in the evolution of the genre, The Exorcist retains cult status. Warner’s marked its twenty-fifth anniversary in 1998 by releasing a new version with a digitally re-mastered sound track. Given this legacy, Blatty’s original political intent for his story now seems as curious a relic as the stone head of Pazuzu. Rather than exposing or even exorcising the ‘enemy within’, The Exorcist and the films it inspired became ‘enemies within’ in their own right. There was clearly more mileage to be derived by American conservatives in denouncing such films than in making them. ‘Evil against evil’ might have worked in ancient Iraq, but it did not work in 1970s America.
- Mark Kermode, The Exorcist (2nd edition, BFI, London, 1999)
- Mark Jancovich, American Horror from 1951 to the Present (Keele University Press/ British Association For American Studies, 1994)
- David J. Skal, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, (Plexus, London, 1993).