[1973] The Exorcist

YOUR MOTHER SUCKS COCKS IN HELL, KARRAS, YOU FAITHLESS SLIME! – Reagan Teresa MacNeil/Pazuzu, The Exorcist

(That will be the only time I get to quote that in a semi-academic paper)

The Exorcist hits home as a shattered reality for the millions of religious folk who fear God and the Devil in (almost) equal amounts. While this quote is not a summation of The Exorcist thematically, it is the most overt method that director William Friedkin used to disarm his audience. The Exorcist stunned, and continues to stun, audiences through a plausible disconnect from reality because a religious man or woman does believe and fear the devil; he or she does believe in demons and exorcisms to remove them; and, he or she does want to believe that God is the answer.  For Father Karras, whose faith wanes as his mother dies, Pazuzu, the demon who possesses the young Reagan MacNeil, is the manifestation of his guilt and faith, two factions that almost exclusively define Christianity. The horror doesn’t lie in the devil or in the details but in the harsh reality that this movie is really made for children.

Adults, no matter their religious faith, have lived long enough for certain adolescent sheen to have been ripped off. We learn the harsh truths that our elders aren’t necessarily wise simply ‘because,’ and that relationships are complicated: with oneself, with our families and loves ones, with strangers and with God. The Exorcist seems a farce to the adult freed from the dogmatic belief in the supernatural and the impossible. As kids, we’ll believe in anything, because why not? There’s no inherent context built into our brains about what’s real and what’s not. The time before youth start questioning their beliefs is the best time to indoctrinate them. You, the adult, tell the child that God exists and that Hell is real and that demons exist to torture their souls towards God as Savior. And the youth fully believes and so it’s easy for the child to just believe that he or she is possessed by a demon, or that the divorce is his or her fault. That’s the horror and that’s where The Exorcist succeeds.

‘Overt horror’ is an attempt to impress its audience through incredible situations, copious amounts of shock and awe and mostly gore. To the untrained eye or to the easily impressionable, the overt horror films seem frightening or scary – we’ll make a mental connection to the actor or situation and channel his or her own survival instinct; we don’t like to see other humans hurt as a species (save for misanthropes and sociopaths). These films, including the Saw series, the Final Destination series and all the precedents and descendants (the Scream series, the Paranormal Activity series, the Human Centipede series, Keeping Up With The Kardashians) use almost comically overt tropes to scare the audience; but it’s an ephemeral fright. In no way do these films linger past a few seconds of decapitation or buttocks-to-manticle embroidery; they offer a quick shock, or in the case of some a final twist or shock that is (usually) a let down. The exception to this rule is die Kinder, who don’t yet have the mental bank or the defense mechanisms to process the trope and move on to the next one. Thus is the appeal of the horror film, both the overt and the more psychological or occult thriller, for the young.

Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?

Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

Depending on perspective, then, children are either an ideal audience for horror, or the exact opposite. If we look at horror (any manifestation) from a director’s lens or a playwright’s pen, the impressionable may as well be sitting ducks for the snipe of a rifle or the twist of a head. The effort needed to achieve horror’s main goal – uncomfortable fear – is minimal, which either leads to nightmares (The Exorcist) or lazy writing (any sequel to a movie with an original idea – SawScream, Paranormal Activity, etc.). On the contrary, because the ideal audience doesn’t have (m)any accessible reference points, the thrill to scare might lead to the manifestation of a mental scar (seeing Event Horizon when I was 9 was….not a good idea). As far as appropriateness goes, the parent or guardian should decide if he or she wants to either, a. expose the child to the genre early and often to systematically numb the effect of horror, or b. avoid the situation and put on a more ‘age-approrpriate’ film. I’m sure there’s a risk/reward system in there somewhere.

The Exorcist has critics foaming with praise and the reason the film continues to endure and age gracefully into the annals of film lore (and Oscar nominations) is the overreaching script and understated acting. The dialogue (see above, as well as, “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you,” while Reagan/Pazuzu masturbates with a crucifix) is still shocking, especially in an age of never-ending profanity and violent gestures. The cast of (relative) unknowns kept this film from ‘becoming a Brando picture’ or a Nicholson film, though we do get a wonderful performance from Lee J. Cobb, in one of his last films. This practice is common in horror, keeping casts relatively unknown, and it’s to keep the human connections to a minimum. Seeing a well-traveled actor brutally murdered elicits an unwanted sympathy from a director’s viewpoint, except in the case of The Shining, which is the most horrifying film ever made. That film, which is a Nicholson film, digs deeper than The Exorcist because the most innocuous of details keep the audience off kilter the whole length of the film and Kubrick intentionally grabs the audience and mirrors Jack Torrance’s dissolution into insanity. The Exorcist‘s director, William Friedkin, chose to scare through direct confrontation and a worsening ‘condition’ and thus Reagan’s experience with the supernatural is told linearly and obviously. We, the audience, see the overtness and it’s our inability to affect the outcome that’s uncomfortable, but fleeting. The Shining‘s director, Stanley Kubrick, however, knew that there’s no escaping the horror of one’s own thoughts. He chose to prod the human mind through a series of left-turns and mind-melts and he knows, just like we know, that it’s horrifying, being left alone with one’s own mind. Don’t take your kids to that one.

I’m relatively clueless about 1973’s Oscar nominees: The Exorcist is the first of the five that I’ve seen. I’m intrigued by the others: The Sting (winner), American Graffiti, Cries And Whispers and A Touch Of Class. In terms of recognition, The Exorcist has certainly entered more conversations, but I’ll hold judgement until I’ve seen a few of the others, whether this fact is highly justified.

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