Not being too much of a horror fan growing up, I tended to shy away from the horror genre where ever it appeared. However, I recently grew to find an appreciation in the horror genre and while I still shy away from slashers, I tend to find interest in more atmospheric or suspense driven horror since, to me, it is still able to be chilling without verging into the area of gore porn.
When I started watching The Exorcist, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect considering that I’ve heard it was one of the scariest movies of all time but I didn’t seem to be getting scared. By the end, I came to this conclusion: The Exorcist was not made for us. Rather, this movie was expressly made for the 1970s audience that it had when first released. Because the 70s was a time of staunch secularism, the idea of having that secularism shattered by the existence of the supernatural would have been much more frightening than had the same theme been introduced to us in the modern era. While our modern culture still has a similar vein of secularism, we have become much more comfortable with accepting the unknown as something less frightening and more something to be explored and explained. This was not the case in the 70s.
As the film starts, we are shown a view of Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn) life as an actress and how she just seems rather jaded with her profession and her life in general although she does value her role as mother to her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair). We are also shown the current situation of a Catholic priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who confesses that he is doubting his faith in God. Chris, representing the secularism of the times, disdains religion and goes so far as to call priests nothing more than “witch doctors.” Karras, however, represents the tendency for the religious to begin accepting secularism and reject their faith during this time. Both of these characters, two sides of the same coin, are then slapped in the face with the demonic possession of Chris’s daughter, Regan.
As Regan begins displaying psychotic symptoms, Chris immediately brings in the help of various doctors all of whom can’t explain Regan’s condition and when she is forced to turn to Father Karras for an exorcism, Karras only agrees to examine Regan as a psychiatrist first, given that he has been certified and that he would often attribute psychotic behavior to mental illness before demonic possession. This theme continues of the secularists in the film constantly attempting to explain the unexplainable condition of Regan using science or psychology since no one is willing to even entertain the possibility of a supernatural event. It is not until the demon possessing Regan begins to tell Karras details about his recently deceased mother that she could not have possibly known. Only these details begin to convince Karras that perhaps supernatural forces are at work and his mental condition deteriorates as a result with him becoming increasingly emotional and prone to outbursts.
When Karras finally accepts that an exorcism is necessary, he is appointed as the assistant to Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who has had experience with exorcisms before and represents the religious who still retains his faith, as opposed to Karras who has been slowly losing his faith up until this point. During the exorcism, it has become obvious to Karras, Chris, and the audience that this is indeed a supernatural event and the demon taunts them with knowledge that it could not have normally known and with visions designed to torment them. Father Merrin dies whilst performing the exorcism and in a final act of desperation, anger, and sacrifice, Karras asks the demon to possess him and leave Regan. As Karras is being possessed, he retains his will just long enough to dive out the window and fall down a set of stone stairs, fatally injuring himself and the demon with him. Just as Karras is dying, another priest appears to perform the Catholic sacrament of Last Rites which Karras agrees to, reaffirming his faith in God.
Overall, so many aspects of The Exorcist speak to a time in our history when a belief in the religious or supernatural was discounted as nothing more than trickery or insanity. The prevalent secular thought believed that anything could be explained through science or medicine and thus, religion was unnecessary and discounted as the delusions of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t accept science as the only truth. The Exorcist sought to provide a horrific situation where those secular beliefs were not only challenged; they were outright smashed by the existence of the supernatural and the revelation that secularism couldn’t explain everything. This is the most frightening part of The Exorcist. Not the scares, the grotesque demon face, the head spinning scene but rather the idea that there are things that we simply can’t explain and that we were ever confronted with that fact, it would be frightening as hell as this film was widely considered when first released. While The Exorcist doesn’t retain the same level of scares that it did back in 1973, it does still retain an intense story that serves very well as an allegory for the battle of secularism and religion that both spoke to its 70s audience and still speaks to us today.
Have you see The Exorcist? What did you think of the iconic horror film? Comment below!