Undercurrents: The Exorcist, Fifty Years On

After 50 years, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is still surprising us. Since its release in 1973, the film has garnered a reputation for being one of the most notorious shockers to assault the silver screen. But in the wake of the numerous films that put torture front and center, cinematic thrillseekers may be disappointed. For all its vomit-spewing, head-spinning antics, The Exorcist is a subtle, if uncompromising, exploration of the mystery of faith—one that ingeniously dresses its most skeptical character in the vestments of a priest.

At this point, even those who sedulously avoid the film likely have a passing familiarity with its story. Having exhausted all medical avenues, Chris MacNeil, not religious herself, comes to believe her daughter, Regan, is possessed by an evil spirit and seeks the help of a Catholic priest, named Damien Karras. The Exorcist wouldn’t be nearly as frightening without Ellen Burstyn’s utterly convincing performance as a mother shattered by her daughter’s transformation into a malevolent caricature of her former self: “I’m telling you that that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter!” It’s also worth mentioning here that the film’s most harrowing scenes involve not any Satanic depredations, but rather a series of invasive medical tests culminating in a carotid angiogram. Director William Friedkin cut his teeth working on documentaries and he brings a stark realism to these scenes that will challenge even the most jaded of viewers.

The opposite of the painstaking auteurs who see their actors as glorified puppets, William Friedkin was after spontaneity in his films. Not that he was always easy on actors. Burstyn sustained a back injury during filming and Friedkin was perfectly willing to fire a gun into the air or slap someone across the face to capture a genuine look of shock. Part of what gives The Exorcist such staying power is its electrifying atmosphere of unbridled intensity. The film doesn’t have the polished sheen of a carefully staged production, but rather the chaotic energy of a disaster scene. There were no multiple takes, actors delivered their lines in their own words, and Friedkin kept the cameras rolling well after the performances ended. The result is a film with an uncanny sense of verisimilitude. Every time I see it, I can’t help thinking, ‘is this really happening?’

William Peter Blatty’s novel on which the film is based, confronts readers with a straightforward argument: If the devil is real, then so are God and his angels. William Friedkin then made a film that provokes fear that outpaces skepticism. Put simply, it’s hard to deny what ‘scares the hell’ out of you. In her classic exploration of the genre, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, Carol Clover argues that horror films play a game of cat-and-mouse with their audiences. The films we celebrate “win.” By this standard, most horror flicks come up short, delivering a series of poorly executed, thoroughly predictable scares that audiences handle as easily as a cheap crossword puzzle. Plenty of horror films cheat by aiming at shock value, but shock always has an expiration date. For better or for worse, The Exorcist pounces on its viewers by marrying a highly confrontational style with great spiritual depth, reserving its most powerful scares for after the credits have rolled.

“I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.” So confesses Fr. Damien Karras to his superior at the beginning of the film. And Karras remains a skeptic until his final moments. When Chris approaches him about a possible exorcism for her daughter, he stares at her dumbfounded before replying that he’d first have to get Regan into a time machine and take her back to the sixteenth century. In the advent of modern medicine and psychology, he maintains, such archaic measures are now obsolete. With his deep-set eyes and haunted face, Jason Miller’s Fr. Damien Karras is the archetypal faithless priest. Like Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno and Graham Greene’s “whisky priest,” Fr. Karras prioritizes his priestly role over his unbelief. “There’s not a day in my life where I don’t feel like a fraud,” he intones to a man he’s counseling, and this spiritual anguish is evident throughout the film.

But Fr. Karra’s unbelief meets its match when he enters the house at 3600 Prospect Street. By this point, Regan’s body has become a malign canvas for the evil spirit inhabiting her. From the furtive scampering sounds in the attic to the phlegmy wheezes of Regan’s breathing, the film’s sound design is also a nerve-shredding tour de force. The most inspired sound decision, however, concerns the voice of the demon itself. With the help of actress Mercedes McCambridge, whose commitment to the role was spelled out in copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes, Regan’s voice sounds like a lecherous old man speaking from the trenches of a lifetime of dissipation. It’s a ravaged human voice—not some robotic studio creation and witnessing it coming from a little girl is equal parts unnerving and obscene.

When he finally seeks church approval for an exorcism, Karras is not yet convinced the case is the genuine article. But he must concede that it meets the necessary criteria. An old stalwart is called in to lead the rite. Portrayed with grave dignity by Max von Sydow (aged with makeup), Fr. Lancaster Merrin displays none of Karras’s skeptical misgivings. “I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested,” says Karras. “So far I’d say there seem to be three.” When he tries to go on, Merrin swiftly interjects: “There is only one.”

The film’s ending mirrors the story’s ambition. Merrin will die of heart failure in the midst of the exorcism, driving Karras to invite the demon into himself, at which point he jumps from the window. He receives last rites from his friend, Fr. Dyer, before succumbing to his injuries. A direct encounter with supernatural evil has saved his faith.

The first clue that The Exorcist is after more than cheap thrills arrives in its opening. After a series of shrieking violin strings, the title appears on-screen in blood red letters, accompanied by the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer). We are then plunged into an archeological dig taking place in the ruins of Nineveh. Though it may initially seem disconnected from the rest of the story—indeed this Iraq prologue almost didn’t make it into the film—it deftly showcases the film’s central tensions surrounding ancient evil invading the modern world.

A clue to the film’s inner workings arrives in its prologue. In one scene, we see Merrin turning over an amulet of Pazuzu, king of the wind demons in the ancient Mesopotamian religion. He was believed to offer protection from other evil spirits and these amulets were used to ward off spiritual attacks. For some mysterious reason, Merrin is shaken by the figure, seeing it as a portent. The museum curator remarks, “Evil against evil.”

The most famous shot in The Exorcist reveals the silhouetted figure of Merrin approaching the MacNeil house as a radiant shaft of light falls from Regan’s bedroom. Inspired by René Magritte’s Empire of Light, the shot offers a spiritual inflection of the painter’s inversion of light and darkness: The Exorcist, the ostensible source of light is here a figure of darkness, while Regan’s bedroom, the site of supernatural evil, is portrayed as an effulgence of light. In a word, this is the film’s strategy. If William Peter Blatty’s novel set out to prove God’s existence by confronting us with supernatural evil, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist gives such fulsome shape to supernatural evil that we are forced to take it seriously again. In this sense, he’s fighting fire with fire. Evil against evil indeed.

Granted, the film is a serious work of art, but what accounts for its lasting spiritual resonance? One of my childhood Sunday school teachers once characterized it as “the most evil film” she’d ever seen. The famed evangelist Billy Graham said much the same, going so far as to claim that there was evil in the very celluloid on which the film was captured. In response to such statements, I want to argue that a compelling portrayal of evil is not necessarily evil in itself. In some cases, it’s even necessary. Imagine a portrayal of the torture at Abu Ghraib that downplayed its horrors. This would amount to a moral compromise that honors neither the victims nor the audience.

Christianity is unique in its serious treatment of evil. It does not claim that evil is an illusion. It does not claim that it’s some importunate inconvenience that thwarts human flourishing. It does not claim that evil is merely ignorance in need of education. For Christians, evil is all too real and its final defeat comes through nothing less than the cross of Christ.

Most films trivialize evil by giving us a world devoid of any significant moral consequences. Lying, stealing, infidelity, murder—all are played for laughs in much of our entertainment. Conversely, The Exorcist confronts us with a serious vision of evil, one that cannot be explained away by psychology and modern science. Friedkin’s tactics may not always be noble, but the spiritual legacy of his film is.

Editor’s note.
The Solas Undercurrents series examines important themes in popular culture. In so doing, we are not endorsing or recommending the media in question! Evil is an important and significant topic in everything from film to novels to art to, of course the Bible, and a crucial one to discuss. We also want to encourage Christians whose friends or colleagues have watched this film to be equipped with good questions to ask them. For a deeper dive into engaging with culture, we recommend Dan Strange’s book, Plugged In.