The Exorcist (1973)
Updated: Jan 1, 2022
“There is a power of evil…in the very fabric of the film itself,” observed the evangelist Billy Graham, as regards The Exorcist; and I must agree, The Exorcist just feels different to any other film in existence and so is undoubtedly among the most important films ever made. Frankly, I have never liked this film and never watched it in any depth until a few days ago—it always appears to me as if it were filmed through a grey lens; it is as if there is a grey static over the entire production, not visually but rather as the emotional sensation with which it leaves me. It is a charcoal film. The Exorcist also genuinely shocks me, and much more so than any more recent film; in particular, the scene where the crucifix is used for masturbation, the way the mother’s head is plunged onto her daughter’s genitalia, and the young girl’s use of “cunt” and “fuck” remain a genuine shock—far more visceral than any more recent film, although in a sense more recent films have much greater licence in sex, obscenity, and blasphemy. The Exorcist feels “out of its time”, as if it should not have been made then and could not be made even now; and this out-of-timeness indicates genuine artistic power—power that compels you.
The Exorcist fascinates at the narrative level because it is a lacuna; the standard narrative formula—as described by Aristotle—features an opening act where the players and their problems are outlined; a second act in which the players struggle against their adversary—they suffer setbacks and then start to turn the tide; and then a third act in which “the good” has the upper hand and we are in the mopping up operation where all the loose ends are tied up. The Exorcist does not follow this formula exactly; rather, in The Exorcist we see evil gain the upper hand and then insidiously triumph against all attempts to check its progress; just as Regan, the possessed twelve-year-old, begins to literally decay under demonic influence, so the film’s narrative corpse rots.
Established authorities are largely powerless against evil: firstly, parental authority fails—Regan’s mother cannot help her; then science fails, the doctors and psychiatrists are baffled; and, finally, even religious authority almost fails—both priests die during the exorcism. It is only at the very last moment that evil is defeated; up until then its progress has been inexorable and all human agency has been helpless—and, as we shall see, even this is a doubtful victory. Evil draws us down the drain and we are powerless to resist; and this is what compels about The Exorcist; it draws you down into the depths—it is a film to drown in.
It is my contention that The Exorcist is a European film, not an American film. Remember that America is “the city on the hill” where people went to escape European darkness; nothing really bad ever happens in America and the old legends and fairy stories have been banished along with aristocrats and kings—firstly by Protestant Christianity and secondly by scientific materialism. The actress who portrayed Regan, Linda Blair, stated that she was a Christian but in her Christianity Satan did not exist; and Max von Sydow, who played the exorcist Father Lankester Merrin, similarly stated that in his Protestant upbringing—albeit not American—the Devil was a figure of fun, not a serious threat; though, note well, that the Scandinavian von Sydow—unlike the American Blair—at least gave credence to the idea the Devil was real, even if in a metaphorical sense (in truth I doubt Blair is Christian at all; she simply said so for publicity purposes to off-set criticism against the film).
In America, stories—film stories, the American medium—usually follow the formula seen in the three Star Wars films: first act, problem presented; second act, tribulation where our heroes face setbacks but begin to pull ahead at the end; third act, good unambiguously triumphs. Americans are not an ambiguous or subtle people; they are highly moralistic, as befits a people formed by ultra-Protestant Christianity, and they expect a simple parable where “the good guys win”. The Exorcist does not conform to this formula, and this is why it is powerful—it is much more real than the standard morality tale; and it is not an American film.
This is a Catholic film set in America’s political heart, Washington DC; in other words, it is a Catholic film set in the heart of a country that has in many ways defined itself by its anti-Catholicism—in the 19th century fear that papal power had infiltrated America was a palpable political force; and JFK’s election, not so long before The Exorcist was filmed, was still a major cultural event—the first Catholic president. In many ways, the Catholic Church embodies what Americans want to get away from: absolutism and deep European roots—the Church effectively continues the Roman Empire in another form—along with a superstitious outlook that seems dark and obscurantist.
The Americans were in revolt against paternal authority, namely the British Crown, and papal authority is almost like the ur-daddy for Europe; if the American revolutionists had a complaint, it was that the British king—Protestantism notwithstanding—was still too much like the big daddy in Rome. Further, of course, America was founded by Freemasons; and Masonry is essentially Catholicism’s mortal enemy—or at least fostered the Church’s most bitter enemies. So The Exorcist really represents ideas that are anti-American at core, except it situates these events in America—and at America’s political heart; such evil could only happen in Washington, itself an interstitial zone—being not a state but a special administrative unit.
The screenplay for The Exorcist was written by a Lebanese Catholic, William Peter Blatty, whose parents had emigrated to America—it was based on his own novel; his mother was deeply religious and she probably served as the model for the mother of Father Karras, the Greek priest and psychiatrist who is consulted by Regan’s mother as to whether an exorcism would help her daughter. Karras, who doubts his faith, is tormented during the exorcism by visions of his mother, who dies alone earlier in the film; the demon Pazuzu, who has inhabited the child, seeks to exploit Karras’s guilt over his mother’s lonely death to defeat him.
Karras is not, in fact, American: he is threatened by the police detective Kinderman with deportation if he does not comply with his investigations into a murder connected to the possession. Similarly, the exorcist himself, Lankester Merrin, is Dutch-English and not American. Regan’s father—her parents are divorced—remains off-screen in Europe throughout the film; he is either European himself or has abandoned America for Europe—Regan’s mother, the actress Chris MacNeil, cannot reach him in Italy to speak to his daughter on her birthday.
Regan’s mother is in DC to work on a film, so the Georgetown house where her daughter is possessed is rented. She works closely with the alcoholic and foul-mouthed British film director, Burke Dennings; and he is the demon’s first victim—the possessed Regan hurls Dennings from her bedroom window and down the long flight of steps below while he babysits her. So, in short, a great many protagonists in The Exorcist are not American—including the hero, Father Karras. Even Regan and her mother, though American, move in what was then called “the jet set”; the international celebrity circuit with no permanent home—probably as much at home in Cannes as Kansas. Further, MacNeil has two German or Swiss servants, Karl Engstrom and a woman. This is why I say The Exorcist is a European film in America; even the demon Pazuzu is not an American native, not a Red Indian god—he is from Babylon; and his recrudescence is marked in the opening scene when Merrin, at work as an archaeologist, uncovers a little Pazuzu statue on a dig near Nineveh in Iraq.
So The Exorcist takes place in a dislocated environment—rather like America itself: the actress Chris MacNeil is divorced, acrimoniously so; she is atheistic; and she moves in a powerful international elite, mixing with astronauts (“You’ll die up there,” a possessed Regan informs the unfortunate star man) and, presumably, powerful people from Washington. Regan has her own nanny during the day and seems to be largely unsupervised; before the possession takes hold, she tells her mother about how she met a man on a grey horse who offered her a ride (who he?) and it is in their rented—i.e. unfamiliar—house that she discovers a Ouija board with which she begins to communicate with the demon (under the name “Captain Howdy”). Her mother later mentions their family home has burned down and they are building a new one—there are many subtle touches such as this throughout the film that build the sensation that Regan and her mother are “marked”, and have been for sometime.
So Regan’s dislocation directly leads to her possession; she is cracked open—divorced parents; no permanent home; constant movement—and this is how the demon seeps into her; later, during the depths of her possession, Regan’s skin literally cracks open, so there is a suggestion that her literal physical fabric is destroyed once her spiritual fabric has been compromised; and this is because she has grown up in a torn social fabric—materialist, atheistic, dislocated, and hedonistic.
So the social message in The Exorcist is fiercely reactionary: the possession comes about due to divorce, hedonism, cosmopolitanism, and materialism. I well recall at my Catholic school how the ferocious Mrs. Nash would relate to us how two teenage girls played with a Ouija board and were found a few days later hanged in a cupboard—so beware; and it is this sensibility that simply does not exist for MacNeil, so that it is only after she has worked through the best medical authorities (including, note, the Jewish Dr. Klein), with their angiograms and then-advanced brain imaging, that she resorts to the Church. Even then, she is frustrated; Father Karras, as a Harvard-trained psychiatrist—albeit at the Church’s expense—expresses reluctance to consider an exorcism; he has too much America, too much rational scepticism, in him to believe anymore.
The film takes place in the belly of the beast, Washington DC. To put it in reactionary Catholic terms: the global imperial centre of Judeo-Masonic power that seeks to enslave the world through usury, pornography, and hedonistic sterility; an empire—the kingdom of the beast—that worships science, materiality, and feminine revolt against paternal authority; in other words, against Christ and his spiritual message. What better location for a literal demonic possession to take place? After all, as the film makes clear, demonic possession is not a regular event; even the Catholic authorities are reluctant to say it happens in modernity.
There is a film within a film in The Exorcist; the film is also a film about cinema—it reflects back upon itself. Indeed, the famous long staircase on which two characters die—now known as “The Exorcist steps”—was originally known as “the Hitchcock steps”, simply because the steps inherently suggested filmic suspense; the location was made to be filmed. The detective who investigates the murder of Dennings, Kinderman, is a film buff who invites Father Karras to a film and asks for an autograph from Regan’s mother—herself a famous actress. There is a sense throughout the film that everyone who works in film or is obsessed by film—such as Kinderman—has missed the real point, so in a way The Exorcist is an anti-film; it is an attack on Hollywood and filmic glamour itself. Film enchants—glamour is literally enchantment—and so conceals reality.
The film which took MacNeil to DC is suggestively entitled Crash Course (prefiguring the direction in which her family and life is about to head; i.e. her atheistic and materialist life as an independent woman is about to end in a crash, demonic possession); Crash Course is apparently about the student revolts in the 1960s and MacNeil describes it as “the Ho Chi Minh story as done by Walt Disney”, so there is a hint that the film title also refers to the direction in which Blatty perceived ‘68 to be headed. MacNeil plays a set-upon lecturer, not unlike Jordan Peterson, who remonstrates with the student mob to be reasonable and work within the system to effect change—the students simply bay for more blood.
The film’s writer is reported to be in Europe; “Hiding?” asks MacNeil, “Fucking,” replies the vulgar British director, Dennings—to general laughter; presumably this is what MacNeil’s ex is also up to in Europe, hence why he is too busy to call his daughter on her birthday. It is MacNeil who takes the father’s place; she is the original girlboss, even her first name—Chris—is masculine. The scene is observed by Father Karras and he laughs at it along with the crowd, a sign that he has secularised and so can also laugh along to a dirty joke—and enjoy the Hollywood fantasy; he is a modern priest, not stuffy and out of touch.
As the scene with the student demonstration continues, we see the cameras and light operators around it. The message is clear: the student demonstrations that consumed the previous decade were fake; it was all a show for the cameras, completely unreal. The public might be fooled and might think that the student rebellion—along with its anti-war chants—was real, but it was not. Demonic possession is real, though; the thing everyone has forgotten about and regards as impossible is much more real than all the student protests and Washington politics that otherwise consume popular attention.
Midway through the scene, we see Dennings with a small monocular—archetypal equipment for film directors. In esoteric terms, the monocle also symbolises Masonry; the esoteric suggestion could be that Anglo-Jewish Masonry controls the theatre that is student politics and leftist politics in general—it is all a media phantasm. The scene ends with a shot that shows Karras in retreat from the film set; the director yells, “Cut!”—the final implication is that religion and demonic possession are real, student protest is fake. The real thing is the lonely priest who walks from the fantasy film set that is student politics; we have forgotten what is real and important, we only know the show.
Dennings, the first man to die at the demon’s hands, disgraces himself at a party thrown by MacNeil; he is horribly drunk, as usual, and starts to harass the servant Karl Engstrom. Interestingly, Dennings attacks Karl for being a German, for being a “murderous bastard”, and does so until Engstrom starts to choke him. Engstrom maintains he is Swiss; it is unclear whether this is true and perhaps it is clarified in the novel, but the implication seems to be that if he is German then he is possibly a war criminal who has hidden in America—or Dennings is just generally unjust to him as a German, generally bigoted against Germans.
Yet Karl is a good character, albeit a background one. He remains loyal to the family throughout the ordeal and it is implicated that while Regan is possessed—before spiritual intercession has been sought—that it is he who hides a cross under her pillow. MacNeil questions all her staff as to where the cross comes from and Karl’s circuitous answer seems to suggest he is responsible. In other words, it is Karl who understands the true situation immediately and takes measures to remedy it—although ultimately the cross proves quite futile. Earlier in the film, the demon, before it fully possesses Regan, causes scratches in the attic. MacNeil attributes this to rats, but Karl immediately says that is impossible—the German is more canny than the liberated atheistic American actress.
The interpretations here vary according to whether or not Karl is really German, but if we assume he is so then does not The Exorcist suggest that the Axis cause was just? Karl, the pious German Catholic, is assaulted by the drunk British film director, a vulgar man—a man who possibly has Masonic connections. A vulgar British drunk who manipulates reality through the media, a man with Masonic connections who hates Germans? Sounds a lot like Churchill and his boozy rhetorical brilliance to me—and Hitler was a Catholic by birth. It is true that the National Socialists were, in particular, anti-Christian; yet, as a whole, the Axis cause in the war—including sympathetic countries such as Spain—was the pole that still stood for spirituality in various forms (some traditionally Catholic), the Allies and the Soviets, by contrast, were purely materialist secularists.
So it strikes me that this interlude—the struggle between the German Karl and the British Dennings—dramatises the struggle between the secularised Anglo-Saxon world under Judeo-Masonic influence and anti-Masonic Europe, still residually loyal to that most European institution: the Holy Mother Church. Further, Karl is clearly the wronged party and the good man: the man who tries to force the demon back with the cross, even though the atheist MacNeil disapproves; and this is why the The Exorcist is, at its deepest levels, not an American film. It is a film from Europe—and this is why it disturbs people so much, for it unconsciously suggests that, contrary to the popular propaganda image, the forces that triumphed in World War II opened the portal for demonic influences to enter the world.
The cross Karl hides under Regan’s pillow is an important means by which the film acts as an inescapable whirlpool. At a certain level, all people retain a belief—even if they laugh at it otherwise—that the cross is sacred and will protect you. It is a usual trope in vampire films for the cross to be wielded to force the vampire back; and I think even atheists think the cross will protect them in an emergency. In The Exorcist, the demon takes the cross and masturbates with it; it then forces Regan’s mother onto her daughter’s genitalia to commit an act of cunnilingus that leaves her mouth soaked in blood—the scene still shocks today. The scene’s effect conforms to the general tendency in the film where evil triumphs over all; the cross—the thing you counted on secretly to protect you, even if you scoff at it otherwise—turns out to be powerless; the demon has no compunction in its misuse as a dildo; actually, it revels in the desecration. Again, the general sensation is that evil will inevitably triumph—you will be dragged down; and all institutions, from medical science to the Church, will submit to the Antichrist.
Of course, good does triumph over evil in the very last frames; but it remains a very marginal victory. Father Merrin, the exorcist and senior priest, dies as he carries out the exorcism—he suffers a heart attack. The possessed Regan cackles over his body, and this sends Karras—his resolve already failing throughout the exorcism—into a rage. At this moment, he demands that the demon comes into him and it does so; it then turns his body to Regan with an intention to kill. Before it can do so, Karras momentarily regains control over his body and hurls himself through Regan’s window and down the long flight of steps that Dennings was earlier despatched down.
He ends in a pool of blood and a priest arrives to offer him extreme unction. So good wins, but both the heroic protagonists die. Further, Karras has technically committed suicide—a mortal sin—in order to defeat the demon; so his death is paradoxical—he saved Regan and defeated the demon, but did he do so at the cost of his own soul? It is this dilemma that gives the film its very understated and unAmerican ending; Regan is restored and does not remember her ordeal, yet that is not really the point.
In fact, the film’s central protagonist is Father Karras. The demon Pazuzu is either unleashed by or announces himself to Merrin on his archeological dig in Iraq. On this dig, Merrin unearths a little Pazuzu statuette—Regan will later make her own version in clay during her possession—and with it he finds a St. Joseph medallion; the find is an anomaly—the Christian artefact should not appear with this Babylonian statuette. This opening sequence establishes the uncanny in the film, an object is literally uncovered—etymologically related to what “uncanny” means—and it is found to be an anomaly; things are not where they should be from the film’s first frames. During the exorcism, the medallion will be dropped by Merrin, only to be recovered by MacNeil and offered to another priest in the film’s closing moments. So this anomalous Christian artefact bookmarks the film: its strange appearance marks the opening and its final offering up is closure—and perhaps reflects the now-restored Regan’s embrace of the Church, for she joyfully kisses a priest before she leaves Washington.
So at one level, the film is about Merrin’s confrontation with Pazuzu—according to the novel he faced him before in Africa. His fate is to die in this last struggle. More substantially, the film is about Karras; and, really, the demon has come for Karras, not Regan at all. We can tell this because there is a scene in which Karras interrogates the Regan-demon and the creature says it welcomes an exorcism because it will bring Karras and the demon together. This scene is precognition; for the demon anticipates that Karras will eventually invite the demon into himself to draw it from Regan. Retrospectively, this again contributes to the sensation that evil holds all the aces; it knows each play. It knows what Karras will do in his rage over Merrin’s death; and so we are left concerned—if Pazuzu knew Karras would be possessed, was that the plan all along? Did Karras win? Again, this is why the film concludes in a very subdued way.
Personally, I feel that Karras basically wins—although the state of his soul, given his suicide, remains a paradox for us to consider. At the film’s start, he is disillusioned; as a psychiatrist he deals with priests who have lost their vocation, and the truth is that he no longer believes either. He shows the utmost resistance to suggestions that Regan has been possessed, and really has to be forced to it—yet there can be no doubts that at the end, having seen what he has seen, that his faith is restored.
His temptation is worldly: Karras, as a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, could obviously be at the social heights—his uncle alludes to a Park Avenue apartment and a private hospital for his mother. Yet the Church paid for his tuition and so he is poor; his mother, though she adores him, must suffer poverty and a grim lonely death in a primitive hospital—in a scene that prefigures the way Regan’s hands are bound down during her possession, Karras’s mother is bound to her bed to protect her in her final delirium. As Karras’s uncle reminds him, he could have been a big-shot psychiatrist; instead he is a poor priest who does not even believe in what he does.
So the demon tempts Karras with the material world and his guilt that he could not provide for his mother, even though he could have done so lavishly if he had a worldly career. The demon turns into her and calls to him. Karras is too materialist; he takes the demon at face value—believes Regan has multiple personalities and is fooled by the creature. In a test to see if Regan is merely severely mentally ill, Karras throws tap water on her—she reacts as if it is holy water. Karras concludes Regan is insane, a demon would know the difference.
Yet as Merrin reminds him when he arrives: “The demon is a liar.” Of course the demon pretended the tap water was holy water; it wants Karras to doubt his faith—to think it is just a very mentally ill little girl. The film understands that the lie is at the heart of Satan; and it also understands that Hell is cold—breath hangs in the air during the exorcism, as the beast drops the temperature to its preferred levels. Similarly, Merrin affirms “there is only one”; there is no split personality, just the demon Pazuzu—possibly the confusion over one or many is also an allusion to the notable demon Legion, whom Jesus casts out and who was many in one.
So The Exorcist is really about how one man, Karras, loses his faith completely but then is redeemed in an extraordinary struggle that still leaves his final state in some doubt. There can be no question that after what he has seen he now believes; yet his final rage at Merrin’s death and invitation to let the demon possess him shows wrath—he loses control; and, as indicated earlier, the demon expected that. The demon expected to possess him, so perhaps overall this was a loss. A more spiritually collected man might have removed Merrin’s corpse, regrouped with other priests, and resumed the exorcism. Obviously, for dramatic purposes, this would bore; and so, in fact, we are left with Karras’s soul in an ambiguous position—and this is why, once again, The Exorcist leaves us somewhat subdued and uneasy.
In short, the film accurately depicts one man’s spiritual struggle, along with the weaknesses and ambiguities involved in that struggle; it also shows, frankly, the real power of evil, not the cartoonish evil or evil as parable we usually see on the screen. This is why The Exorcist struck Billy Graham as evil in its very fabric; few artistic products have ever depicted evil’s awesome spiritual power—not just evil in the cops and robbers sense, but in its metaphysical sense.
Hence The Exorcist is not a moral film; it is much deeper than that—it is not evil in the sense Graham meant it, for I do not think it is pro demons or that it favours demonic possession or Satan. Rather, the film’s strength derives from a very accurate depiction as to what real spiritual evil—a concept basically dismissed in modernity with a shrug—looks like; and also its accurate description, through Karras, as to the mortal struggle that confronts a man in his heart. Karras is not a “good” man in the conventional Hollywood sense; he is a real man in turmoil, who is put to the test and possibly fails—and to see this actually represented to us is horrific.
From a purely theatrical standpoint, the depiction is helped by the fact that the man who played Karras, Jason Miller, had trained as a priest himself and abandoned that course—he had little to no acting experience; so what you see in the film is all too real in that respect. Further, several priestly characters in the film were actual priests; and the director used various tricks, such as a shotgun fired unexpectedly next to an actor’s ear, to elicit real responses—and from a loric perspective, the sound effects were all created by an illiterate Mexican peasant and sometime associate of the occultist film director Jodorowsky.
It is no surprise that there are many diabolical legends associated with the film itself, from the set burning down only to leave Regan’s bedroom intact to a high death rate among the crew and actors (including the actor who played Dennings, the director); not to mention that the film itself was edited at an address in New York that was numbered “666”—a neutral number of earthy success but frequently associated with evil, for the Devil rules the earthly realm. If the spiritual relates to how we manipulate consciousness—how we perceive—then doubtless these events should be given credence and taken seriously. The Exorcist remains not a film but a thing; it is an entity—almost from another time and place—that does not belong here. It has come to disturb, to make us question history, and to question what temporal forces are good and evil; and to question whether we are ourselves prepared for the tests that may well await us.