‘The Exorcist’ Revisited


Today is William Friedkin’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate it then to take a look back at his beloved film, The Exorcist? One of the most iconic films in the annals of horror cinema, the 1973 film remains as relevant and as frightening as ever. Adapted for the screen by William Peter Blatty from his novel of the same name, The Exorcist is a supernatural tale of a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demonic force. In desperation, her mother seeks the aid of the church to perform an exorcism. The film follows both Regan’s possession, and the psychological journey of  Father Damien Karras, who is in the midst of a crisis of faith.

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The Exorcist, alongside horror classics Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen, belongs to the “demonic child” cycle of films, popular throughout the 60s and 70s. The film was built up to mythic heights of terror as reports of extreme reactions by audiences whirled: vomiting and fainting of theater patrons, a crazed audience member rushing the screen in an attempt to kill the demon, viewers in need of post-Exorcist psychiatric care. Miscarriages, suicides, and murders were all attributed to the unholy influence of the devilish film. The film was loathed and condemned by many, but this only stoked the roaring box office sales. The Exorcist ended up being a huge commercial success, grossing over $441 million worldwide (9th all-time if you account for inflation)and earning 10 Academy Awards nominations, walking away with Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Miscarriages, suicides, and murders were all attributed to the unholy influence of the devilish film.

At its core, the film touched on very real issues present in the American zeitgeist of the time. William Blatty based his novel off a real case of possession, which he saw as a story of hope. If a supernatural evil could exist, then it could be said that a supernatural good could exist in counterpoint. Coming off the horrors of the Vietnam war, the film was an attempt to bring faith and truth to a clear-cut battle of good versus evil. Though many members of the church took exception to the vivid portrayals of evil, the blasphemy, and the blatant sexuality of the film, others suggested that the spiritual battle ending with the triumph of good was something much needed at the time. But there was another issue at the forefront of The Exorcist’s subtext: inter-generational conflict.

A demonic Regan.

Inter-generational conflict was really at the crux of the demon child cycle, and The Exorcist proved itself to be particularly apt at representing this. At the time, the generational divide in America was larger than it had ever been before. An adult generation was faced with a youth whose language and culture was increasingly alien to them. Again, the Vietnam war figures prominently as university and college campuses across the nation were embroiled in protests against the war, culminating in the shooting of protesters at Kent State University in May of 1970. This is mirrored in the films opening scenes where we see that Regan’s mother acting in a film about campus dissent. She represents the older generation, begging her students to “fight within the system.” Regan, then, can be seen as representing the America’s youth with her possession playing on America’s fears of their youth. Parallel to this is Father Karras, an embodiment of middle-aged guilt over their own parental figures. Father Karras is tormented by guilt after seeing his mother put in a mental hospital; a feeling that defines the entirety of his character. Most telling of all, The Exorcist is set within the home, bringing evil into the former bastion of security and comfort. This fear of America’s youth felt threatening to the sacred familial space of the home and The Exorcist makes it potent, terrifying, and raw.

Aside from the film’s interesting sociological slant,

The Exorcist

is, in essence, a downright good horror film. Even today, it’s still a terrifying experience and its success must be applauded for ushering in a whole new era of horror movies. Horror director heavyweights such as John Carpenter and Wes Craven cite

The Exorcist

as a film that pushed the boundaries of the genre and cleared the way for them to create their own horror classics. The film is still popular today, engendering hundreds of parodies and sly shout-outs. It is still listed as a major influence for many new visionaries, and continues to be released in different formats, the most recent being the 40th anniversary edition in 2013. So today, I say happy birthday and thank you to William Friedkin for his role in bringing one of the best horror films of all time into being.

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