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.