The Exorcist: The One That Started It All

As part of this project on Feminist Tensions in Exorcism Cinema, we decided to watch the movies.  All of the movies, if we can get our hands on them.  We wanted to know if there were any patterns in what they were representing.  As we watched each movie, we liveblogged our experience.  Using Facebook or simply Microsoft Word, we recorded our reactions to the film as they occurred.  Doing so in the social network allowed us to have conversations with others while we watched the movies, which gave us new insights or helped us talk through the thoughts that were in our heads.

As previously mentioned, we could not do this project without considering the series of movies that began with William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist, released by Warner Brothers and based on William Peter Blatty’s bestselling 1971 novel.  I had only seen the movie once before, and it is one of Chris favorites. We watched the Extended Director’s Cut that was released in 2000.  Before seeing the movie, I had read a more recent edition of the novel, which included more scenes that had originally been edited out.

A7158129-34According to the documentary included with the disc set, Friedkin and Blatty disagreed on the cut of the original film.  Friedkin had cut out 12 minutes worth of filmed material based on studio suggestions of what was not necessary.  Blatty thought Friedkin had cut out the heart and soul of the film.  According to Friedkin, the now famous “spider-walk” scene, seen here, had to be cut because the wires on stunt double Regan showed in the original film.  Additionally, the scene in between exorcism attempts where Fathers Lankester Merrin and Damien Karras discussed the despair purpose of demonic possessions was cut because Friedkin thought that theme was present throughout the movie and did not need to be so obviously stated.  According to this documentary, Friedkin says the 2000 version is the best version because it is the most complete version – it is the director’s intended, extended cut.  Thus, watching this movie as part of our research made the most sense if we wanted to get a complete vision of what was intended to be represented in the movie.

What follows then is not an academic analysis of the movie, but our liveblogging reactions and conversation about the movie.  These reactions reflect our academic analysis of the movie, given that, as academics, we watched this movie with that mindset in action.  Our intention in presenting our liveblogging here, and in the subsequent similar blog posts, is to talk through our thoughts on the topics and themes of the movie, while also hoping to bring others into this conversation. In giving you, the online community, our thoughts, we understand them better, and perhaps also learn from you.  Thus, our thoughts, as follows…with spoiler alert caveat, as what happens in the movie is given as context for the reactions.

Interestingly, the beginning did not say that the movie was based on a true story, which the more recent exorcism movies have done.  It did say that it was William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, due to the popularity of the book.  But if you didn’t know the book was a fictionalized account of a real story, then you might think the entire story here is a fiction.  (Author Note: The Exorcist as a book was based on a real case, but it changed the facts of the case when the people involved did not want to be represented in a novel.  After the success of the book and the movie, another non-fiction book came out that purports to more faithfully tell this real case, and this non-fiction book was later made into a Showtime movie, Possessed.  We did watch this movie to include it in the project.)

In Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) finds the head of Pazuzu, which looks serpent-like just as a head, and he seems very shaken just by seeing the head.  In Barbara Creed’s 1993 book The Monstrous Feminine, she talks about this scene as foreshadowing the issues of sexuality that would be dealt with in the movie.   I do see the women in black, and the old woman, Creed discusses as symbolically representing the hags or witches of the Middle Ages of Europe, but I do not see the same significance – except that the old hag was in the coach that nearly ran Merrin down, and the horse-drawn carriage could be read as the spectre of death.

Ah, a statue of Pazuzu, which shows his penis as a serpent. According to Creed, Pazuzu is linked to Regan (Linda Blair) through this snake imagery, as Regan was one of King Lear’s daughters who was said to be “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.”  Thus Regan, already associated with the snake, becomes further possessed by Pazuzu, a devil and consort to the snake goddess, Lamia.

Interestingly, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), Regan’s mother, has short hair, which makes her look rather boyish.  And in her movie she does not wear a wig to cover up her short hair for the movie, when in the book she is wearing a wig.  Flaunting her independence, her non-conformist nature? Also, Regan looks older in the movie than she was in the book – you can clearly see that she is in puberty, as she has the beginning of breasts.  I got the sense from the book that she was not yet in puberty.

Regan gets into bed with Chris the night she hears Chris getting upset about her ex-husband.  The lead-up is slow, methodical, without showing anything, and giving time for Damien Karras’ (Jason Miller) story to be intertwined as he tries to deal with the stress caused by his guilt over not being able to take care of his mother.   It is interesting how much of the story focuses on Father Damien’s background, and his guilt, calling on us to sympathize with him. He is clearly set up as the protagonist.

They bring Regan to the doctor, but not after any indication that she was acting out at home as occurred in the book – just that during the doctor’s visit she apparently sees a flash of a demon and then starts acting up, being belligerent and disobedient.  And then it is called a disorder of the nerves that is most often seen in early adolescence.  But they didn’t show much other than perhaps saying she was not sleeping, perhaps because she sensed that the bed was moving.  After the doctor’s visit Chris gives exposition on the symptoms that brought her here, including the lying about the bed moving.

In going to see his mother in the institution, he is harassed by women who beseech his help as a priest, and he angrily shrugs them off.  It seems Damien can get no relief from needy women.  And they show him working off this anger immediately afterwards on a punching bag – his anger being handled through aggression and violence, very masculine of him. He is set up as being anxious towards women, which presumably foreshadows what will happen when he meets the MacNeil women.

The party is a lot bigger than in the book, and during it Karl snaps and attacks Burke.  That didn’t happen…but it would help to lead to more suspicion on Karl after Burke’s death.  By the time Regan comes down, it is the core group left.  But there has been no introduction to the female psychic from the book, who is worried about Regan and seems to sense that something is wrong with her beyond simple medicine.  Thus that potentially powerful woman who has a solution is kept out of the story, thereby removing a strong female character.  I will need to find out if the psychic was in the original novel, and if not, why put her in for this version?

We see Chris starting to worry and breakdown after the peeing incident.  I have a feeling she never again shows strength in this movie.  Especially as right away she goes in to see the bed shaking with Regan on it.  Thus, there are no real strong women in this movie; Chris, the single mother who is rich and famous, is reduced to damsel in distress, reaching out to traditional patriarchies, such as science and religion, to help her through the situation she cannot control.

The flashes are off a white-faced demon, which I think links to both of the prequels.  Both Regan and Damien see these flashes, and thus they are linked and foreshadowed to deal with the demon — one as the protagonist, one as the antagonist.

In showing the idea that it is a lesion on the brain causing her activity, the film shows her undergoing medical tests – to show the technical possibilities of modern medicine, and yet how they can fail to understand human beings.  We can sympathesize with Regan on the medical examination table, as it looks painful, but there is also the abject nature of seeing her blood spurt out that makes us repel from her at the same time. It is very hard to sympathize with Regan as the movie goes on due to how much her appearance and actions repel us.

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The doctors go to see her when the brain scan turns up negative, and they see that Regan is being flung around on her bed.  That is the first instance of the demon growl and voice as her throat boils up and she commands them to fuck her.  All Chris can do is scream in pain and fear as the doctors wrestle her down to give her drugs.  Chris’ power is to yell at the doctors in disbelief at what they are telling her.  Thus she is challenging modern medicine and modernity, and yet when she is completely broken down and turns to the Church for help, she does not challenge that patriarchy.  The Church is positioned as the better one in that comparison.

The noises made by the machines of the medical tests are meant to scare us, and hopefully give us some sympathy with Regan, as we do not like the discord that they produce.  But it is also getting us to think about the futility of such methods – that all they are good at is making loud noises, signifying nothing.

Regan is hypnotized.  She says she is 12, thus pubescent, and that someone is inside her.  During this scene, Regan begins growling, has a filthy smell, briefly demonic features and yellow eyes, then goes for the psychiatrist’s balls and unleashes an unholy scream.  Pretty obvious – she is a threat to man’s very nature of being a man.

Damien has done work on witchcraft from a psychiatric angle – it is not called Satanism, it is referred to as witchcraft, which directly implicates women in doing the evil deeds, just as Creed said with the references to witches in the beginning of the movie.

They take her to the Barringer clinic where we can see Regan’s struggles, the scratches on her face, the cracked lips.  The doctors are discussing what they think she has: somnambular-form possession, which is rarely seen except in primitive cultures, as it starts with guilt and leads to the person coming to believe s/he is inhabited by some “alien force”.  Again Chris expresses anger and power and agency at the doctors coming out of her frustration.  The doctors there suggest exorcism – a stylized ritual where a rabbi or a priest tries to drive out the spirit, basically therapy through the power of suggestion.  Interesting that they mention rabbi.  Chris asks if they are telling her to take her daughter to a “witch doctor” – again, the term witch is bandied about in a negative connotation – and the scene ends before the doctors can correct her use of the term, thereby implying that it was acceptable.

Chris finds the crucifix in Regan’s bedroom and accuses Karl.  She seems upset by the notion of religion – again, the use of “witch doctor” instead of “priest or rabbi” indicates that she does not believe in religion and perhaps actually is very skeptical of it.  This could be demonstrating Chris as a modern woman, a disbeliever who also blasphemies, who must undergo her own fall to learn hubris and her place in the world controlled by patriarchies like the Church.

The demon and Regan talking to each other.  The demon is forcing the crucifix into Regan’s crotch – the masturbation scene, where Regan than forces Chris’ face into her crotch and says lick me – Chris is reduced to having absolutely no power any more, as the entire dynamic between daughter-mother is completely overthrown.  Regan’s body has been violated, her relationship with her mother has been violated, and the turning around of the head, which is physically impossible (and not in the book) further illustrates how much reality has been violated by the demon’s presence.  The demon in Regan has gained the upper-hand in the relationship, in the household, in their lives, by having it all revolve around her, just as a selfish child might, or a girl emerging into her sexuality and drawing attention to herself.

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Chris’ breakdown and pleading with Damien is what finally gets him to see Regan and consider an investigation for an exorcism.  Damien has had many women seeking his help, and he finally relents to Chris. There is no real explanation for why this is, but given that Damien has been shown as undergoing a crisis of faith, his accepting to see Regan is most likely just a plot device to have him confront his crisis, and thereby the plot device serves to help the underlying themes of the movie.

Regan as Demon also indicates having some power over Damien, by taunting him with his mother and the homeless man in the subway station, which means she is a threat because he represents the Church, the ultimate patriarchy.  And yet Damien does not believe she is possessed upon first seeing her – he believes psychiatry is the route to go.  Chris also yells at him when he plays psychiatrist on him, saying she wants to know that an exorcism will not help her.  She is reduced to yelling out of frustration to have her agency, her power.

Regan’s physical body does deteriorate as the possession continues – which isn’t something seen in all of the possession movies.  And there is the symbols on her stomach that spell out help me.  That was apparently enough for Damien to seek out request for an exorcism, and Merrin is called in – Merrin, who the demon also called for when it was speaking English backwards – and then yells out when Merrin enters the house.  Merrin warns them to not listen to the demon, that the demon is a liar, will mix lies with truths to attack, the attacks are psychological – and often refers to the demon using a masculine prefix.

The first exorcism is attempted: Regan writhes and moans as the ritual is performed over her.  She taunts Damien about his mother and his faith.  “The noonday devil”? (Author’s Note: This reference appears to be to lethargy and sloth.)  Flashes of the demon with the white face.  Regan is laughing at the apparent weakness of Merrin, his inability to do what is necessary, his impotence.  The demon alls Merrin a faggot, commands Damien to fuck Merrin.  And there goes the impossibility of the head again, completely around – which was not in the book.  S/he taunts Damien with the guilt of his mother.  Regan floats over the bed – also not in the book – and they start the “The power of Christ compels you” chant until she floats back down.  The priests are acting as vessels for God – that the demon should not be compelled by them but by God.  Regan stands up on bed and in shadow see the statue of Pazuzu. There is no asking the demon of his name.

Merrin thinks the reason this is happening is to make them despair, to view themselves as ugly and animal, and that God could not possibly love them.  Funny, to me, that this is happening through a young girl as the demon’s vessel.  Because women in scripture are also seen as a way to debase men, to get them to not consider the holier aspects of themselves because of being seduced into bodily pleasures.

Damien is taunted by his mother through the demon, by his guilt over what he did to his mother, which prompts Merrin to cast Damien out so that he can confront the demon alone.  Chris does not partake in the exorcism ritual – she is not there to help her daughter during this process, her agency completely gone and displaced by the masculine power of the priests.  Damien returns to the room to find Merrin dead and Regan unbound.  He violently attempts to resuscitate Merrin to no avail and Regan giggles.  Damien attacks Regan, throws her to the floor, hits her, strangles her.  Regan rips away his priest collar and Damien tells the demon to take him – which the demon does, as seen in the changes to Damien’s face and eyes.  Damien moves to strangle Regan as Regan cries, but then Damien wrestles control and throws himself out the window and down the steps.  Damien apparently had the strength to stop the demon through sacrifice.  Chris did not have the strength through her pleading and crying and frustration.  Merrin did not have the strength through his use of ritual and belief in God.  Damien had his strength in anger and seeking revenge for what the demon did to Merrin and how it brought up the guilt of his mother.  But that also made Damien weak – his emotionality, his lack of self control, his lacking in masculine stoicism – Damien does not defeat the demon and cast it out of the mortal world except through his own death.

Honestly, how often does the exorcism actually work in these movies?  How often does it result in everyone living, both the possessed and the priest?  If the possessed dies, does the Church, does the patriarchy win?  If the priest dies, does the demon, does the rebellion to the patriarchy, win?  If the demon is vanquished, it is obvious that the Church wins and normality is restored.  If the possessed dies while possessed, then it is also a case of the Church winning as normality is restored.  But what happens when the demon wins — how often does that happen?  It would seem to indicate that the Church, and thus patriarchy, has lost, which we are led to believe is a bad thing.  But is it?

Also interesting is how Regan appears to like the priests after the exorcism.  After having given no indication of caring for religion or priests before the exorcism, and being downright anti both of them while possessed, her warmth towards them at the end speaks to her possible conversion, to her coming around to being on their side.  I have a colleague who is doing some research on pop culture and the rhetoric of conversion.  The concept and analytic approach may be of use in understanding the relationship between feminism and the patriarchal institutions of religions in this exorcism cinema. This possible analysis becomes even more interesting when we consider Regan’s journey in the sequel, which will be the next movie covered here.

But for now, a bit of mood music for this project’s journey:

20 thoughts on “The Exorcist: The One That Started It All

  1. Reblogged this on Seems Obvious to Me and commented:
    I am collaborating with Dr. CarrieLynn D. Reinhard on a project that proposes to look at feminist tensions in exorcism cinema. In this post, Dr. Reinhard discusses the most famous film in the genre, The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin).

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