To use the words of my partner, this movie is just bonkers.
Continuing the reporting of our initial thoughts on the Feminist Tensions in Exorcism Cinema, we come to the sequel to the horror blockbuster that started it all, The Exorcist. Coming out four years after the blockbuster that supposedly scared audiences into sickness and shock, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) saw the return of Regan (Linda Blair) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), albeit only in flashbacks, and the addition of Father Lamont (played by the amazing actor Richard Burton) and Dr. Tuskin (the equally amazing Louis Fletcher). With John Boorman (Deliverance, Zardoz, Excalibur) taking over to direct the movie, the pedigree was in place to deliver a good movie.
What we got is, well, bonkers.
Never having been a big fan of the first movie, I never felt the need to seek out this one. Now, after having seen the sequel, I am still not sure what the heck I witnessed. Per the purview of this project, I took notes of my understanding of the movie, and how what I was seeing related to the ideas and tensions we are interested in studying. What follows, then, are my notes, perhaps a little more fleshed out as I make this second attempt to figure out just what the heck that movie was all about.
Because, here’s the thing: while it says exorcist in the title, there really isn’t an exorcism in the movie. Technically, we should not even include it in the series, were it not for the fact that it features Regan. Her mother is gone, but the demon may not be — because it seems to be trying to keep her from being a prophet — I think. The most interesting thing about the movie is how it connects to the first through Regan’s developing relationship to and importance for the Church, and I think that is why it is worth studying as part of exorcism cinema.
So here goes: working through Exorcist II: The Heretic. Be forewarned: spoilers abound, and my muddling and confusion are painfully evident.
The opening credits have women chanting in a foreign language while another cries out in pain. The film opens on a house in South America, where women hold back another that seems to be possessed, writhing in pain. She wonders to those around her why she is sick, but then she happily lets flames consume her. So, that happened. What it was, I am not sure.
We are then reintroduced to Regan, who I am guessing is in high school (I never did get a clear idea as to how old she is). Regan is in full teenager mode now. She is getting attention from a boy while tap dancing, attention she seems to like. She does not appear to be wearing a bra, and her boobs are clearly bouncing. I would say she has moved past the idea of being a young innocent, except she never does spend time with boys in a romantic way — throughout the movie she is portrayed as the innocent virgin in flowing white clothes. She is also seeing a psychiatrist about her dreams about the possession to appease her mother. She does not appear to remember much of what happened during that ordeal.
Father Lamont is introduced and is asked to investigate Father Merrin’s death. The Church official making this request brings up the problem of exorcism to Church’s desire to portray itself as being progressive — which is an idea that still gets bandied about in relationship to the Vatican today, as it exorcism is a dirty secret. Showing himself to be this movie’s Father Karras, Lamont is again positioned as the priest who has doubts about his faith, about the existence of God, as he says he sees only evil around him, that “God has fallen silent”. So we have another priest who is doubting his faith. Great.
Dr. Tuskin, Regan’s psychiatrist, is positioned as dealing with a lot of tough cases – deaf, blind, mentally disabled, autistic, and otherwise handicapped children. She is also positioned as opposing Lamont, as she is focused on science and Regan’s mind, not Regan’s soul. She comes off as a tough, independent, modern woman, like Regan’s mother Chris was positioned before the possession and her spiral into frustration and powerlessness. I predict Dr. Tuskin dies or comes to learn she is wrong; we must have the modern woman be taken down, after all, in order for the patriarchy to be proven correct and restored to its rightful place of power. Could the rhetoric of conversion be useful in understanding how femininity is subverted in these films?
Just as we started to see at the end of the first movie, when Regan acted warmly towards the priests after her possession, Regan here seems to have an attachment to the priest, an attraction even. She wants to show off in front of the priest, to use a machine to be hypnotized with the psychiatrist with the priest watching. She isn’t interested in the procedure until she sees the priest. She seems to be seeking the priest’s approval, attention, and even affection.
Now, as for the hypnosis — via a machine — that is where the film really gets bonkers.
It’s a machine that connects their minds to each other through hypnotism. Seriously. They are syncing minds through synchronized hypnosis! Pseudoscience! They are not even trying to be like real science, more like science fiction tinged with spiritualism. This treatment of science is very contrary to the respect given to science in the first movie — even if science failed to understand Regan’s condition, at least it was real science. This is not real science, as the movie is saying that somehow through hypnotism the psychiatrist can see what Regan sees, in her mind! That’s like sharing a virtual world in The Matrix, only far less possible!
And not only can they see into Regan’s memories but experience them as well somehow. For us the viewer, we get superimposed images from the exorcism appear before them (see the first picture in this post), giving us their subjective experience in the collective hypnotism – but it is a scene from the exorcism that was not in the original movie. The image is lined up so that demon’s hand is over the psychiatrist’s heart, and the psychiatrist is feeling Merrin’s heart attack, but the image shows Merrin dying in the wrong place given the first movie. Superimposed over Regan is image of possessed Regan, but the make-up is different. And there is a visualization of a heart being massaged and played with by the demon — because somehow that is in Regan’s memory? But, the memory being seen was not from Regan’s perspective, as possessed Regan was seen in the image with Merrin. So who’s memory was that? Just what is going on?
You really need to have seen the first movie for this to make any sense, since you are just thrown into the narrative and expected to remember and know what had previously happened. There is no way to watch this movie on its own.
Thanks to this “collective hypnosis” session, Lamont says Merrin was killed by demon Regan – and that it was both horrible and fascinating. He believes without doubt right away. So much for his lack of faith! So much for having to investigate! You can just go into the person’s subjectivity and bam! He especially seems to believe there is a fire when Regan draws a picture of him with flames around his head. This priest is quick to jump to conclusions – he may not have faith in God, but he has faith in his insights. Also believes that the sync machine shows that there is evil, an ancient demon, locked away inside of Regan. This movie moves at a very, very fast pace in comparison to the first one. Most likely because it knows that what is being depicted makes no sense, so do not tarry on it to let people figure that out.
Okay, now it gets weirder. Regan is sleeping, hearing voices calling to her, then she sees flashes from an African village…as a locust? Then a swarm of locusts attack the village’s crops. There is a priest there, and it’s Merrin, and he seems to know Regan is watching. Regan sleepwalks out unto rooftop/balcony and is awakened at the edge by doves. Pretty heavy on the symbolism there, as she is clad in a white gown. Regan lives with Sharon, her mother’s assistant from the first movie, and Sharon is concerned about Regan. Sharon meets Lamont at the house from the first movie to talk about Merrin’s encounter with the demon. Sharon seems to scoff at the idea of prayer as being a good way for giving her peace. And why is there a giant locust hovering in Regan’s old room that Lamont doesn’t see?
We get a flashback to Merrin studying the holy men of Africa, a boy with power against the locust swarms. But it is not a flashback. Regan sees this in the sync device with Lamont – so how does she know Merrin’s past? Those flashes of the African village from before were one of Merrin’s memories – only not from Merrin’s perspective, as he is seen in the memories. The boy he was studying is possessed, and says he is Pazuzu, the demon never truly named in the first movie. Lamont calls out Pazuzu, king of the evil spirits of the air, I guess. Then we hear the chanting sounds from the opening credits, and Merrin is bringing the possessed boy up a cliff on a stretcher. The chanting is coming from the possessed boy. Just – weird.
They bring the boy to a holy site to do the exorcism. (Now, this sequence somewhat aligns with the prequels that came out after this movie, because the demonic possession is in Africa – but it is nowhere near the same story as in the prequels, as we will discuss later. So what purpose do the prequels serve?) We hear Pazuzu’s voice, and it seems rather feminine — which would mean that a male body is possessed with a feminine spirit, which would make him an abject object, something not aligning with our notion of reality and thus something to be feared. Locusts are given as symbols of the evil spirits of the air… and then Lamont wants Pazuzu to bring him to the boy? And the locust is real, scaring people? Oh god I do not understand… But when Regan speaks it is also with Pazuzu’s feminine voice. Is that also Pazuzu’s voice doing the strange, guttural chanting and groaning during the flying? And then we learn that the boy grew up — to be played by James Earl Jones–who roared at Pazuzu like a leopard…and somehow they are seeing all of this through the collective hypnosis…and it is real…and the boy who was possessed, Kokumo, is now a man who will be dressed like a locust…because, bonkers…
Good things, miracles, seem to happen around Regan. Sharon feels at peace around her, and when Regan talks to an autistic girl, she gets the girl to express herself: “First she was talking inside, and then she started talking outside.” Dr. Tuskin wants Lamont to stay away from her. Lamont wants to get rid of demon he believes is still inside of Regan (why he believes that, I do not understand) to allow her to come to her full spiritual power — because she is a powerful force for good on this planet, and the demon doesn’t want her to be that, so that was why Regan was possessed (which counters the first movie, because bonkers). Dr. Tuskin says we make our own demons in our own minds. So the demon is the block preventing Regan’s power, her agency, and it is science not religion preventing her from finding her power? That would seem to be saying that modern women would be better served by embracing the traditional patriarchy of the Church rather than finding their liberation through science, countering the feminist movement’s messages of the time.
And now Lamont goes to the holy site in Africa where the exorcism was performed. What sect of Christianity is this? Lamont is rambling on about evil being all around, that he had to disobey — what, I don’t know. Regan can apparently see the distress that he is experiencing despite being in New York City. It turns out Lamont went to Africa to investigate Merrin’s death, because that is where Pazuzu is? Regan reacts in pain, while tap dancing, when Lamont is being stoned for the suspicion of devil-worshiping, for asking questions. Regan claims that after you are synced via the hypnosis machine, it doesn’t matter how far away from that person you are, you are still synced. Regan appears to have an epileptic fit after Lamont escapes the stoning. She doesn’t want to be drugged because claims Lamont needs her.
This is what I think is happening. Regan is not positioned as a threat – the demon Pazuzu is. And yet Pazuzu is still given a feminine voice – so still the feminine is the threat. The wrong feminine – the one that is not in alignment with the church. The one that is preventing Regan’s soul from flourishing, and thus from being aligned with the Church. And science, which works to free women from oppression, is positioned as a barrier for not doing enough to take care of Regan’s soul, i.e. align her with the Church. In the first movie, science was just incompetent, whereas here it is more positioned as antagonist.
So Lamont almost praying to Regan when Regan says to call her, and to call her by her dream name, Pazuzu, prince of the evil spirits of the air. Which, okay…Pazuzu then is leading him on, he is praying to Pazuzu, the demon – a feminine sounding demon who is gender identified as masculine. So there is the abjection in the crossing of the gendered boundary. Pazuzu is the one leading him to the man who is Kokumo, who is wearing the locust outfit seen above. He knows Regan is being possessed in the dreams, and says Lamont has lost faith in his God. So is Lamont wanting to help Regan by allowing Pazuzu to take control of her? Is Pazuzu no longer evil? My head is spinning like Regan’s did in the first movie.
To prove he believes in God, Lamont has to walk across spikes on bare feet to get to Kokumo, who then appears in a white suit and not a locust outfit. He laughs at the idea that he was possessed, says his mother would say that. What he does now is study locusts. Some more pseudoscience about how locusts change into destructive creatures when they brush wings with each other, which makes Lamont worried that Pazuzu has brushed him with his wings. Because, bonkers.
So Dr. Tuskin has kids? Another single mother that has to be brought down a peg?
Sharon throws Lamont out of the apartment when he returns, saying she doesn’t want to hear about demons. Lamont is not in a priest outfit now, and is somewhat wearing demonic colors… Is Lamont possessed now? Thanks to the sync, apparently, he finds Regan at a museum. Is Regan seducing, possessing Priest through the sync machine?
Merrin was apparently on a mission to find and protect holy people from the forces of evil: “Satan has sent Pazuzu to destroy this goodness.” In the sync Merrin, somehow, tells Lamont to take his place, that Regan is precious and must be protected. The demon really sounds like a shrieking woman, almost banshee-like wail.
So now, to protect Regan, they are all going back to the house in D.C. Regan says she is just following Lamont to help him, as he appears to be in a trance — again, is he possessed? Pazuzu appears to be stalling Sharon and Dr. Tuskin, who do not want Regan to go there. The injured man, the turbulent plane ride, the driver who is hesitant to take the taxi to that house, another accident…all the while Priest acts like is possessed and must get to the house. Regan keeps yelling Father at him – father issues, displacing affection for her own missing father? All three women are in white, while Lamont is in dark, red clothing. He is demonic, leading them to their doom?
Priest opens the door to the room where Regan was possessed, and locusts swarm out. Only the locusts were not real. Meanwhile Sharon and Dr. Tuskin are in the car accident. Sharon lets Dr. Tuskin stay trapped in the car. Sharon is another acolyte for Pazuzu, the way Lamont is becoming? So this is all about the rise of devil-worshiping? Is embracing the demon the way for Regan to gain her true power? (See a similarity to that idea in The Last Exorcist: Part II.) Regan opens the bedroom door and sees her possessed self on the bed: quoth the demon, “Pazuzu’s Regan is the only Regan.” And then she seduces Lamont with the possibility of sex and asks Lamont to kill other Regan. Meanwhile Sharon kills herself in fire like the woman in the beginning, who was apparently another one of those holy people Satan doesn’t want walking around.
Then Regan speaks with Merrin’s voice to argue against Pazuzu, to sway Lamont back to the side of good. She tells Lamont, in Merrin’s voice, that he must tear out Pazuzu’s evil heart. And then there is a locust swarm as possessed Regan calls out Pazuzu’s name while being killed. So the locusts swarm into the room and attack Lamont, giving Pazuzu power, and the house is being torn apart. And then Lamont tears out Pazuzu’s heart. So that’s not so much an exorcism; the only real exorcism in this movie was the very brief one done by Merrin in the past in Africa. And the house collapses but the swarm is still attacking. Regan does the swinging arm noise thing we saw Kokumo, who was also one of these holy people, did in the past to stop the swarm. And she stops the swarm. So Regan has some power, has some agency, that has nothing to do with the demon. It comes from her “good soul”, as evidenced by her wearing white and appearing innocent again.
So Sharon hungered to believe in something, ended up believing in the demon, and Lamont seems okay with that, says it wasn’t her fault. She just believed in the wrong thing, so the lesson is to believe in the right thing, i.e. the Church. Lamont says the enemy of the human race is subdued – not gone, mind you. Dr. Tuskin has come to understand Regan is special and now believes in her and Lamont, in the power of the soul – this is a true religious conversion.
What Lamont does when ripping out the heart of Pazuzu from Regan is a metaphorical, a visual representation of what exorcism is. It is the idea of ripping out the core of the demon from the possessed’s body. So there is no ritual of exorcism performed, but the concept of it is realized through the visual metaphor. And upon doing that, Regan finds her power and her innocence returned to her, as she is brought into alignment with the Church’s teachings. The path that started in the first movie, of bringing Regan more into alignment with this traditional patriarchy, is apparently complete at this point, as Regan is promoted to a holy person who represents the good possible when being in alignment with God and the Church. Regan’s power is to be an agent of God, an agent of the Church — but how does that align with the Church’s progressive cause the priest in the beginning was so concerned about? Perhaps the progressiveness is in focusing on a woman has having such spiritual power and importance — and yet, there have always been some female saints and holy people in the Church. So is having Regan be such a holy person progressive, or regressive, in that her only option for power is through the Church, as tradition would dictate?
A bonkers movie, that makes very little sense as things happen just out of the blue, without any seeming connection to any narrative event, and with even less of a connection to reality than the first movie — but it does have a lot to muddle over in terms of the relationship, the tension, between the modern woman of the feminist movement and the position of women as dictated by traditional patriarchy.
And just who was the heretic of the title? Regan? Lamont? Dr. Tuskin? Sharon? Merrin? Kokumo? Us, the viewers? I honestly do not know.