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Sunday Scaries: The Fifty-Year Possession

Content Warning: This article discusses The Exorcist. And all of the explicit and upsetting content it became infamous for. So… read at your own risk.

Like all Millennials, I was born well after the zeitgeist cement of The Exorcist had already long-dried, and so had spent my entire childhood under the impression that it was the most bone-chilling, blood-curdling, nightmare fuel-pumping, traumatically horrifying movie ever made as a matter of settled fact. And so, growing up in a conservative community that very much treated angels and demonic possession and the Holy Spirit as literally true, and as a kid who often had a habit of getting swept up in the terror of what few horror movies I was able to see, I studiously avoided watching William Friedkin’s phenomenon for many years, figuring that whatever value it had as a cinematic experience was not worth the therapy bills I would have to incur to undo its psychological damage.

Imagine my surprise when, in college, I finally steeled myself for the Scariest Movie Ever Made™ as a burgeoning movie nerd who realized it was basically required viewing among cinephiles… and it hardly scared me at all. Possibly because I had built it up so much in my mind to unreasonable expectations, or maybe by that point I had already heard of the split pea soup puke and “your mother sucks cocks in Hell” scenes that had become incessant reference points in subsequent movies and TV shows making callbacks to what was the first horror movie ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and was, briefly, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Or it could have been because, by the time I had seen it, I was very much disillusioned with the conservative religious worldviews that were omnipresent during my formative years and was not even remotely persuaded by the possibility of demonic possession as anything more than unfortunate mental illness treated by ignorant religious authority figures with straight-up abuse. Then again, I never found the possibility of being attacked by zombies all that likely, and Night of the Living Dead might still be my all-time favorite horror movie for reasons I should probably explain in a future Sunday Scaries

Warner Bros. Pictures

Anyway, a few years later, I decided to revisit The Exorcist, and once my initial “…is that it?” disappointment subsided, this time around, I found myself unexpectedly rocked by an emotionally moving (if somewhat structurally messy) family drama. In fact, I still maintain that the first half of the movie is by far more affecting than the latter half. A scene of a teenage girl with demon eyes levitating above her bed rolls right off me like water on a duck. That same girl getting poked and prodded with needles and strapped onto an exam table while being hooked up to cold inscrutable medical devices while her poor mom (played phenomenally by Ellen Burstyn) looks on with crushing worry, desperate to ease her daughter’s suffering but having no idea how, and suddenly my insides twist themselves into knots with anxiety. 

Plus, even if I didn’t find The Exorcist more powerful for its sympathetic characters at the center of its garish horror theatrics, it is impossible for anyone to not admire it on at least some level for the seismic impact it continues to have on the culture, nearly fifty years after its release. It’s important to remember just how unprecedented The Exorcist was when it first hit theaters in the winter of 1973. Before then, horror movies that touched on religious beliefs, like Rosemary’s Baby, usually toned them down into subtext so as not to limit its appeal to general audiences outside of particular denominations. More overtly religious Hollywood movies were, almost without exception in English language cinema, lavish and “classy” period epics in the vein of Ben-Hur, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and The Bible: In the Beginning…. For audiences who were used to decades of ecumenical cinema as this:

To suddenly be hit with a movie steeped in religious spirituality and tradition like this:

Well, let’s just say those reports of theater attendees fainting, vomiting, and suffering medical emergencies while watching the film are easier to comprehend when understood in that context. There’s an excellent episode of the ‘You’re Wrong About’ podcast discussing the entirely predictable explosion in the popularity of exorcisms to treat real-world ailments after the film’s release. But more interesting, to me at least, is how this one movie both gave birth to and froze the entire “demonic possession” subgenre of horror in place to this very day. Not only in its aesthetics and lurid nastiness as a movie, but also for framing demonic possession as a story conflict within the purview of the Abrahamic religions. Think about the number of exorcism-themed horror movies that have been released since 1973:

Amityville II: The Possession, The Possession of Michael D., Possessed, Constantine, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Blackwater Valley Exorcism, The Unborn, The Last Exorcism, The Devil Inside, The Possession, The Conjuring, The Taking of Deborah Logan, The Vatican Tapes, The Possession of Michael King, The Nun, The Last Exorcist, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, Prey for the Devil, and The Pope’s Exorcist all trade in on the iconography of The Exorcist to some degree, and I am almost positive I failed to list even half of the exorcism movies that aped it. In fact, the only supernatural possession movies I can think of that do not walk as obviously in its footsteps – like The Evil Dead franchise and Hereditary – lean in on more generalized pagan occultist mythology than the explicit Catholicism of The Exorcist, and even then, you can still see traces of it in them.

Actually, now that I mention it, that’s another remarkable testament to the enduring power of Friedkin’s horror classic as a cultural icon: this is a movie that presents the Catholic Church as the good guys. As trustworthy. As an institution that has the safety of children in their best interests. You would think the revelations of the last twenty years alone would have dimmed its pop culture import at least somewhat. To say nothing of the dramatic decline in religious belief among the general population, at least in the United States. But no. The legacy of this soon-to-be-five-decade-old movie lives on. This still hovers over popular culture to a degree shared by an infinitesimally small amount of feature films, let alone anything even remotely as gruesomely shocking.

Universal Pictures

How do I know this? Because as I sat in a packed movie theater exactly one week ago, quietly marveling at how a three-hour biopic about a theoretical physicist was attracting sold-out crowds on a Sunday afternoon, the trailer for David Gordon Green’s legacyquel The Exorcist: Believer made its debut, and everyone in that theater let out a collective “ooohhh!” of recognition the instant those four little keys hinting at Jack Nitzsche’s theme music rang out. Fifty years later. There were probably people in that room whose parents weren’t even born yet when the original film exploded onto the scene, and yet they all recognized what young girls screaming obscenities in deep scratchy-sounding voices, getting strapped down onto hospital beds, and developing a progressively revolting necrotic appearance has to mean. Because of one movie that made those things fully synonymous with itself to this day.

The Exorcist, much like the demon Pazuzu (yes, that’s the literal name of the entity that possessed Reagan MacNeil in William Peter Blatty’s novel, which Friedkin wisely concealed in the adaptation because good lord that’s a silly name for a demon), possessed an entire subgenre, which extended beyond horror and even cinema in general to significant influence on just about every Judeo-Christian religious group in the hemisphere. But unlike Pazuzu, there is no Father Karras to exorcise this cultural demon. No filmmaker since the end of Richard Nixon’s last full year as President has even tried (except John Boorman, wildly unsuccessfully, but that’s a subject for another article).

Love or hate the movie, or even just indifferent to the fuss in either direction, you have to respect that.

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for now-retired Awards Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and weird pop culture rabbit holes.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these somewhat unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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