This was probably my third or fourth time watching this movie, the first time being around the age of 10. I recently heard Joey Diaz on The Joe Rogan Experience talking about how he, too, recently rewatched The Exorcist and I really wish that I could have watched the movie the way he did. To hear Diaz talk about it, it seems that he is watching it the way that it is intended to be watched. He is bothered to see a small child say obscene, hurtful things; he’s creeped out by the images and sounds. Most importantly, he’s scared. He feels legitimately threatened by this demon that has the power to transform a sweet, spoiled girl into a cursing, puking monster whose definitions of self-mutilation and masturbation are unsettingly intertwined.
But here’s the rub: The demon (who would seem much more ridiculous if its name “Pazuzu” was ever spoken onscreen) is not supposed to be the centrepiece of the movie. Neither is the little girl who the demon takes over, nor the suffering mother whose career, social circle, and personal safety are shattered by this demonic intrusion. [Side note, I was planning on overusing the phrase “For Christ’s sakes” a mockery of this character, but I realized that the last person I want irritating me is me] No, this movie is about the titular exorcist, Damien and his semi-triumphant battle against both his own lack of faith and Pazuzu itself. It’s a movie that takes a secular family, the MacNeils, introduces a little terrifying spirituality at them, and then comforts you by letting you know that, when it’s all said and done, Catholicism has your back. One of the last shots we see is of Regan, after suffering through her ordeal and remembering nothing of it, hugging a priest simply because she recognizes his collar and the hand that “God” played in her rescue, for Christ’s sakes (see how annoying that is?).
That’s not to say that we’re talking about a Kirk Cameron movie or anything (to be fair I’ve never seen one). There is still some ridiculous, unsettling stuff that goes on in the movie but it’s all in the context of a world where the Christian God is real, present, and directly influential. Sure, the scientists get to take a crack at things but only for the purpose of establishing their own limitations. It wants you to feel like science has reached the end of its usefulness and that you are, undoubtedly, in the middle of a supernatural shitstorm for which there is no possible scientific solution. Even the hero priest treats the process of exorcism like an archaic, impractical ritual, preferring to seek out psychological answers to the Regan’s problems.
It’s clear, pretty early on, however, that this is not an issue that’s going to be dealt with by way of a Children’s Tylenol and a hug. That’s why it’s supposed to be scary. It’s not the green goop that seeps out of Regan’s mouth, it’s the fact that humanity and all of its (non-religious) creations have failed to save this girl’s “soul” and all we have left to turn to is “God.” Regan’s possession is a microcosm for the need for religion itself but its implausibility lends itself to a loss of that terror when religious belief is removed.
Having done absolutely no research on the subject, I would speculate that anybody with religious inclinations finds The Exorcist scarier than Atheists or Agnostics. Real terror comes from plausibility. That’s why, in my limited understanding of diseases, Contagion unsettled me so deeply.
That’s not to say that there isn’t room for horror within an improbable story. If the story is told well, then even a movie about a killer futon can have moments of legitimate terror, as long as the writing, acting, and technical prowess is there to make it happen. In many of those respects, The Exorcist stands out, even still, by pushing boundaries that are still questionable. For a non-spiritual audience, however, there is too much distance to be truly effective. I understand that a young girl defiling herself with a cross is supposed to be especially disturbing because of the defilement of a Christian symbol. But without imbuing that symbol with the power it is intended, the blasphemy and horror of the movie lose their immediate association. The Exorcist is most potent to a Christian audience, as they are the ones with the most propensity toward offense at the subject matter. Forced, violent masturbation of a young girl is a terrible thing regardless but the addition of the symbol puts it over the edge.
I have seen some hard-to-swallow Christian propaganda in my time, like one pamphlet where a little boy doesn’t pray, so he gets kicked out of his house, beaten and starved at a shelter, and eventually dies alone in a cardboard box, from which Jesus comes to rescue him. The Exorcist uses the same framework (an Atheist family allows an evil spirit into their home due to their lack of faith, a few people die and then, when God is invoked into the equation, everybody wins, including the two priests to sacrifice their lives to the cause of the demon’s extradition – presumably to go to Heaven) but allows itself to delve into a world of twisted, dark fantasy in order to demonstrate just how bad things get when you don’t invite God to the dinner table. The makers of the story clearly asked themselves “What is the worst possible thing we could make this girl say and do?” and lay it all on the line. And then it all gets excused (and avoids the torture porn label) by thanking God for saving us all.
I am not trying to completely destroy everything that makes The Exorcist so allegedly great. Aside from a really poorly written and edited first half, most of the film deserves the accolades that it has received. Its sound editing and cinematography are off the charts. Jason Miller’s portrayal of Father Damien Karras is quite astounding, too. The special effects still maintain a high standard of accomplishment. But, when it comes down to what the film says, it boils down to an unimaginably dark Scared Straight promo to bring you over to team Jesus.