For over 40 years, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist has remained a classic. Analyzed, studied, reviewed, and revisited, it’s been looked at from virtually every angle. What remains after all these years is the simple fact that it is, without much debate or doubt, one of the single most frightening films ever made.
It’s impact is universal. Atheists feel its impact as much as devout Catholics. Religious belief isn’t a pre-requisite for The Exorcist to leave its mark. My aunt was living in Columbia at the time of its release. She was 23-years-old with two little boys, my cousins. Coming home from the theatre, there was a minor earthquake. Nothing to write home about, but it was just enough. When she went to check in on my sleeping cousins, their beds were shaking. She couldn’t move she was so terrified.
My father-in-law, a profound Atheist, would cross the street if he saw a 12-year-old girl coming towards him. My own mother dragged my father to the premiere on opening night. It was Boxing Day in Toronto, and freezing outside, where they waited in line for over an hour before the show. My mom wanted to leave the theatre. My dad, as penance, refused.
Everyone has a story about the impact of The Exorcist. It’s part of what’s made it so memorable. I was 13-years-old when I saw it for the first time. I’d been told not to. I’d been warned. But, as anyone who’s ever been 13 can attest to, that only stokes the fires of curiosity. I was at my friend Rachel’s house, and we happened to find it on TV. We watched it without any of our parents knowing. Until that night, of course. I don’t think I slept for two days. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t look at my stairs for a month. To this day, staircases still give me the willies.
But what is it about the film that makes it so impactful? The notion of the corruption of an innocent is surely present. For the religious at heart, the influence of the Devil and the supernatural would certainly churn ones stomach. But as a whole, The Exorcist is expertly crafted to remove whatever preconceived notion we may have of security and control.
The Exorcist winds up being about the removal of power. We have Father Damien Karras, the self-proclaimed “unfit” priest. We have Chris MacNeil, the theoretically unfit, single, working mother. Physicians prove useless, as do police, and psychiatrists. The family dynamic is all but destroyed, with the role of mother shown to be largely ineffective, and the role of son shown to be equally as helpless. Guilt and shame prevail, allowing the powers of evil to overtake this sweet, innocent little girl and show us as animal and ugly, as Father Merrin so aptly puts it during the exorcism.
“I think the point is to make us despair,” Father Merrin says to Karras when asked why Regan was chosen. “To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the idea that God could love us.”
That feeling of utter despair is what both draws people to The Exorcist time and time again, and simultaneously repels us. The notion of the doomed lot, the helpless, guilt-ridden group of misfits who find themselves floundering in the face of adversity.
One of the fundamental structures we rely on so heavily in our lives is that of family. Our parents, as children, are the bringers of wisdom and guidance. They nurture us and feed us, keep us clothed, sheltered and healthy. The Exorcist swiftly tears down this comfort, removing from our frame of mind the kind of security we, as a society, have come to associate with normalcy and protection.
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a popular Hollywood actress, is a single mother. She is divorced, and raising her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), as she tries to lead her very demanding career in the spotlight. Regan feels unavoidably neglected, as they move from town to town, making it nearly impossible to lay down roots and allow Regan to form any significant bonds with anyone but her working mother. Her father, as is demonstrated by an angry phone call around Regan’s birthday, can’t give his own daughter the time of day. Meanwhile, Chris is shown to be demonstrably guilt-ridden and helpless in the face of her absentee ex-husband. She throws lavish dinner parties, and appears very collected for the public eye. Such is the way with divorcees – don’t let them see how hard a decision it was to make. But the difficulty of such a choice still exists, and it’s plastered all over Chris’ frazzled face, and Regan’s forlorn eyes.
We next see Father Damien Karras. A priest who has lost his faith, he considers himself, as a result, unfit to counsel others. A psychiatrist by trade, he became a priest to help guide others. But now, possibly due to his mother’s illness, he finds himself struggling. His mother lives too far, and refuses to leave her home and move closer to him so he might take care of her. He can’t afford to put her in a nice nursing home, or afford quality medical care, and so she winds up in an asylum. Her eventual death leads Karras to a dark place of doubt and guilt, where he holds himself solely responsible for her demise. The role of the Son has failed.
As Regan gets sicker, the cracks begin to show through Chris’ otherwise composed façade. She turns to physician after physician, who consult more physicians until she finds herself sitting before a board of doctors, none of whom have anything of real value to suggest. “You just take your pills, and you’ll be fine, really.” Chris tells her daughter, not really believing it herself. Things worsen. The role of the Mother has failed.
Once the physicians come to the MacNeil household and see Regan in full fit for themselves, only then do they realize that they are as helpless as Chris. They attempt to explain away what they’ve witnessed, feeling castrated by their inability to do their jobs. And so Western medicine fails, too. Similarly, Lt. William Kinderman cannot bring the criminal he hunts to justice, as he is a demon within an adolescent girl. So, like all the others, Justice fails as well.
We go through the various systems of comfort and security, as old as the family, through to the Catholic church, medicine, and the law. Every system is left useless. Every attempt to help fails.
The film becomes true despair, which in many ways is what troubles audience members. There is no help. The bad guy, essentially, gets away. And if he would dare attack a young, innocent girl, one with no sins, and guilty of no crimes, then, as adults, we are most certainly not safe.
This tension, the inability to find salvation even in the most hallowed of sanctuaries, is amplified by the brilliant work of makeup effects legend Dick Smith. His painstaking work on Linda Blair made audience members faint in the aisles. Theatres were obligated to keep smelling salts on hand due to the sheer volumes of people that were passing out. The old age makeup he did on Max von Sydow was so good, he had trouble finding work in North America for many years, as everyone assumed he was well into his ’80s, despite being only 43 at the time.
Combine Smith’s unbelievable makeup design with the vocal work of the incomparable Mercedes McCambridge, and you have a work that will stay with you for the rest of your life. To this day, I hear McCambridge’s recording, and want to hide beneath the sheets. All this remarkable work, combined with the breakdown of systems of security and comfort, and it’s no wonder the film has stayed with us. It seeps into the fabric of our daily lives, and makes us feel unsafe, within or without religious doctrine. Fear is universal.