We’re almost there, horror fans! Halloween week has arrived, and I’d like to journey back to the distant past. There was one tale that scarred me for life while also sucking me past the point of no return and into the horror genre forever. The movie remains one of the scariest things I’d ever seen, but the book was even worse. If you don’t recall me mentioning my all-time favorite horror experience, then let’s get to it. That’s right, it’s The Exorcist – both the (1973) film by William Friedkin and the (1971) novel by William Peter Blatty. Prepare yourselves for yet one more review on this classic (SPOILERS, but fifty years later so too bad!). I encourage you all to watch this masterpiece on Halloween, and let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Flashback to 1989:
I was ten years old, with the world-weary attitude of a thirty year old. Ma was about to watch a scary movie.
The scariest movie ever made, she’d said before adding – You won’t want to see this!
Oh please, I scoffed. I’d lived through tons of scary movies, how bad could it be?
And we settled in, just Ma and me. No one else loved watching movies more than us, the rest of the family off doing their own thing as usual. And the images emerged on the screen – a blazing bloody sun, an old man and a desert, a stopped clock, barking dogs, barely any dialogue and most of that was in subtitles. My confidence grew, lulled by the thought that this was just another of Ma’s boring old-timey movies.
My reluctant interest was finally captured when Regan was introduced, a girl not much older than me who lived with her mother after a divorce. I thought the dialogue was a bit corny, enough that I couldn’t quite relate to this squeaky clean kid. The thought of divorce was sad but foreign to me. Little did I know I’d share that experience only a couple of years later.
Then the girl whipped out a Ouija board…neat! I’d heard of those. This was better. Everyone I knew swore they were dangerous, but none of the characters in the movie seemed to care. Surely this would lead to something awesome!
The brief scene of the church desecration was immediately unsettling. A Catholic church like the one we went to every Sunday. Oh my God, what did they do to Mary’s statue? My face must’ve looked just like the random priest on the screen, disbelieving that such a thing could’ve occurred in a sacred place. Who could commit such an act, unafraid of divine punishment? My youth reared its head as I broke into a light sweat at the thought of confession. Crimes like those had to require more than a few prayers for a chance at absolution.
Ewww, now the girl was peeing on the carpet – so gross! She’s too old for that.
What’s going on? I asked Ma.
You’ll see, she replied in a mysterious voice.
And I was sucked in, my confidence draining when faced with the horrific hospital scenes. That poor girl, subjected to such painful procedures. I covered my eyes when a big fat needle slid through her neck, a tube shooting a thin stream of blood across her blue gown. I sympathized as she cried out during the brain scan, metal parts clattering all around and scaring her half to death. I hoped I’d never have to go to the hospital!
And what’s this stuff with the priest? He’s so sad, probably because his mom is sick and old. Another hospital but different, shabby and rundown and full of crazy old people. His mother’s laid up in bed crying for him – Dimmy, why you do this to me?
A shiver slid down my back, and I immediately recalled our frequent visits to great-grandma in the old folks’ home. All those old people who’d reach out when I walked by, begging me to talk to them. They called out other people’s names, names of loved ones who might’ve abandoned them…maybe the names of the dead. Not cool, it was way too similar to my real-life fears.
And the tension rose as the girl continued to suffer. In a sudden shift, doctors raced to the house to greet the mother’s pale assistant. They rushed up the stairs to an unseen room filled with banging and screaming. What on earth was going on? The bedroom door opened to reveal the poor girl rising and crashing down, bent at the waist and howling for her mother. Her face was a mask of terror, her screams ringing like hell’s bells through my overwhelmed child’s brain. Her eyes rolled back in her head, pure white, and her mouth twisted before releasing an animal’s snarl.
And that was it for me, for that viewing anyway.
I raced from the living room, unable to watch any more. Did I return and watch the rest with my mother? I honestly don’t remember. That one moment was etched in my head, crystal clear thirty years later. Everything after was a blank.
The series of torturous convulsions wouldn’t leave my head. I had nightmares, not only of that scene from the bedroom but the other images leading up to it. As time went by, it got better. But I knew one thing. I had to watch this again to see what happened. Eventually, I got my wish. We bought the VHS, and I watched it over and over with my best friend and anyone else who wanted to join us.
The movie that once terrorized me became one of my all-time favorites. It still scares me, but with every viewing I feel as if I survived a climb up Mt. Everest. Talk about facing your demons, quite literally in this case. That thrill of accomplishment and survival never gets old.
But why is The Exorcist so scary?
As the decades slip by, I notice more people claiming The Exorcist isn’t the scariest movie ever. Maybe it’s the wealth of parodies that followed. Laughter is a great monster slayer. Plus, the real-life horrors in our world are more terrifying than film or books. Maybe the religious themes no longer resonate with a society shifting towards secularism. Notions of shadowy demons slain by the light of a higher power seem like a fairy tale in a world where science is king and we only believe in sensory evidence.
I can’t speak for others, only speculate about their opinions. But why am I still scared?
I was raised a Roman Catholic, but I’m as lapsed as one can be. Doesn’t seem to matter to my brain. Exposure to that religion at an impressionable age planted seeds I’ll carry forever. And it makes sense. We’re all haunted by at least one superstition from our youth, despite the stream of common sense flowing from our rational adult minds.
But that can’t be all of it. I’ve been a horror fan for most of my life, reading and watching increasingly more disturbing stories. And like many, I’ve experienced real pain and tragedies that stab sharper than fiction ever could. I should have a pretty thick skin after all these years. Nope, doesn’t matter. Hell, I still can’t sleep with the closet door open. I’m certain a demonic Regan hides behind the clothes, her tiny hands over her mouth to suppress a stream of chilling giggles.
I have a theory, though, at least to explain my fears. The Exorcist, both Blatty’s novel and screenplay, contains so much more than the disturbing images of a young girl pursued by demonic evil. Corruption of innocence is a formidable theme, and it’s best exemplified in the evil kid trope I mentioned in a previous blog. I wasn’t much younger than Regan when I first watched The Exorcist, and that could’ve planted the fear I was vulnerable to a dangerous supernatural entity.
Fair enough for a kid to feel that way. But I’m forty years old now. In recent years, my attention shifted from Regan’s PoV towards another. I grew more engaged with the bigger battle, something hinted at with meaningful flashes of brilliant imagery and brief philosophical discussions. I find myself drawn to Father Damien Karras, our tortured hero, who experiences a massive crisis of faith.
It is this loss of faith and the vacuum of despair it creates which strikes me hardest now. And that was intentional, as I learned in an old interview with Friedkin and Blatty. Funny enough, they didn’t view the book or the film as horror and were shocked by people who did. I’m not really surprised by their feelings. After all, many people refuse to see horror as art despite fine examples proving otherwise. And The Exorcist is art, regardless of what genre tag you use.
I empathize with the good father – his guilt, grief, and the bitter sense of loss for the best parts of himself and the world he once revered. Damien overcame poverty during childhood, shamed by his unstable mother’s begging. Drawn to the priesthood by a pure love for God and a desire to help others, he believed he’d found his path to happiness.
But, he’d seen too much shit over the years. And when his mother became too ill to live alone, her brothers signed her into Bellevue – a public mental hospital. Damien couldn’t stop this. As his uncle teased, who has the money for a private hospital? He didn’t know what to do, and when his mother died alone in that ignominious place he blamed himself.
At the same time, a dark part of him didn’t want to give any more. Hadn’t he given enough of himself to an ungrateful world? And after everything he suffered growing up, he must’ve resented the fact that his mother still needed him to sacrifice even more time and money. He’s shamed by his own resistance, but he doesn’t actually do anything wrong. Thoughts aren’t actions, even if they gnaw at our very essence. If anything, he continued to give against his will because Charity was a personal compulsion he’s unable to deny.
When Chris MacNeil begged for his help, crying out for anyone to hear her, Damien stepped up. He’d never even met the real Regan, the sweet little girl who loved her mother more than anything. He faced a laughing demon who threw his greatest shames and worst fears into his face. Damien was mocked, puked on, tormented, and abused but kept on going.
In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Damien’s huddled on the staircase. The actor, Jason Miller, pulled off this mood with flawless ease. Never has a man appeared so beaten down, broken, checked out from the conflict he tried his best to fix. Chris MacNeil asked something like, Will my daughter die? And he looked up, utter despair pouring from those sad eyes. He shocked us all by saying in a firm voice – No.
And Father Karras saved Regan, a priest who lost his faith but regained it in a brutal battle with the ultimate evil. He has a choice during the attempt to literally wrestle a demon from a dying girl. And in true hero fashion, he shouted – Take me!
The demon accepted this offer and, if you paid attention during the movie, all those taunts now make sense. This was what the demon wanted all along, to possess a man of God – the ultimate sacrilege. But Father Karras, openly struggling against his newly invited inhabitant, struck one final blow. He leaped from the window, crashing to the brutally steep steps below. It’s the only way he could think of to thwart the demon, even if it meant losing his own life as well.
Beyond beautiful, this sacrifice of a simple man for a suffering child. A spiritual man who’d lost his way, regaining his faith and using it as a shining shield against an unspeakable evil. He’s seen the worst of the world, the dark part of humanity. He was ready to give up on the lot of it, until he offered all of himself for one final stand.
And The Moral of the Story…
The Exorcist is a masterpiece that will stand the test of time. Life never gets easier, and many fear the world is in a steady decline. Sounds pessimistic, but I don’t mean it to be that bad. Because even if disaster lurks on the horizon, that doesn’t mean our personal lives will cease to include moments of joy through personal victories and loving relationships.
All of us experience the “dark night of the soul”, a moment we’re beaten beyond recognition and all hope seems lost. Some of us don’t recover from that glance into the abyss. But some of us, even as we’re dangling from the end of a rapidly fraying rope, recognize darkness and utterly reject it. Somehow, we climb up again into the light and continue to fight for what we believe in.
When I watch The Exorcist, I cover my eyes and shudder at the scary parts. Sometimes I laugh at the more adult jokes I never got as a child which now make perfect sense. I stand in awe of the mystery of Father Merrin, the enigmatic priest and main exorcist who’s danced more than once with demons and lived, even if the poor guy doesn’t make it this time. I weep with Chris MacNeil, the desperate mother who just wants her daughter to live and be happy. And I stand in solidarity with Father Damien Karras, aching at his burden of guilt and self-loathing, trapped in a lonely hell without faith in anyone or anything.
I cheer him on as he battles his ultimate foe and wins, for it’s not really the demon who is his enemy but himself. Despite his presumed death (spoilers for The Exorcist III, lol), he is fortunate enough to die on a spectacular redemption arc. Damien gave up on everything, a human more lost and in danger than Regan. Not forever, though, because he allowed light and love back in. He died, but his death was pure after his selfless sacrifice for a stranger. People like Father Damien Karras do exist. As horrible as the news is, we do see these stories of real heroes risking their lives for others. This is a horror movie, but it actually shows the audience what miracles are capable when good people fight back. And if that doesn’t restore your faith just a bit in the universe, then I don’t know what else could.