Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Johnny California: THE EXORCIST

 by JB

I have waited a very long time to write about this movie.

Me and The Exorcist go way back. I was eleven years old when it was first released to theaters the day after Christmas, 1973. My parents refused to let me see it, which angered me greatly. I began to behave irrationally, spouting profanities and murdering inebriated British directors. I made up weird games with the family crucifix. I puked every time my mom served her famous pea soup. I took to backflipping down the staircases like... Oh, I don’t know... a spider. Eventually, my parents implored our parish priest to... just kidding! The power of jokes compels me!

The truth is, being a good Catholic boy (in theory), I listened to my parents and did not sneak into a screening. I did, however, get my hands on the novel and furtively read it on the sly. With the benefit of fifty years' hindsight, my parents were right. At eleven years old, I was far too young for The Exorcist. (There, I said it. Mom and Dad, you were right about something! NOW PLEASE STOP HAUNTING ME.)
In middle school, I also read Wilson Bryan Key’s books, Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, and The Clam Plate Orgy. Boy Howdy! For a brief period in the crazy 1970s, Key made a name for himself by suggesting that most print, radio, and television advertising was replete with airbrushed images and audio stimuli hidden just below the threshold of conscious understanding.

All of this, of course, was horseshit. Most of it was based on a famous urban legend of an “experiment” carried out at a New Jersey movie theater in the 1950s. Some wily psychologist got ahold of a tachistoscope (a projector that flashes single images at speeds as fast as 1/1000th of a second). This psychologist flashed “Drink Coke” and “Buy Popcorn” on the screen during showings of Picnic. Popcorn and drink sales rose precipitously.

The problem is, this never happened. No credible evidence of any psychologist, any study, any theater, or any results have ever been found. All bullshit. Oh, did I mention that the tachistoscope was operated by the Loch Ness Monster? #fact.

Media Sexploitation contains a chapter titled “The Exorcist Massage Parlor” in which Key lays bare all the subliminal shenanigans supposedly going on in The Exorcist. To wit: 1) the flash of the Satanic face, now widely referred to as “Captain Howdy,” during Father Karras’s dream; 2) the use of natural sounds of bees, pigs, and lions mixed into the film’s soundtrack; and 3) the film’s use of “repeated” images for narrative continuity (Father Merrin taking his heart medication, the stopped clock, the face of Karras’s mother, etc.) You can read the chapter here.
For a thirteen-year-old Catholic boy, these books were strong stuff. I did not yet possess (Hee-hee) a Grade-A Bullshit Detector, but I feel reading those goddamned books were a big part of how and why I developed a Grade-A Bullshit Detector.

I eventually saw the film in all its glory, and it affected me deeply. Though I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I am sure my religious upbringing had a lot to do with how powerful I found the film to be. I still maintain that it is the scariest film ever made. I have since seen it dozens of times—in both the original theatrical version and the more recent “The Version You’ve Never Seen” (TVYNS). I have enjoyed Mark Kermode’s epic documentary, The Fear of God: Twenty-Five Years of The Exorcist; I read and enjoyed the Daniel Olson-edited collection of criticism Studies in the Horror Film: The Exorcist from Centipede Press; I recently purchased and watched Warner’s new 4K disc; and last week I attended a Fathom Events theatrical screening. You just might say that I am “All Exorcist-Upped!”

I have always resisted writing about The Exorcist. It’s always held a special place in my black little heart, and I didn’t want to merely repeat thoughtful things other people have said about it over the last fifty years. But my most recent Fathom Events screening got me to thinking, and here are a few of my thoughts on The Exorcist:

1. As opposed to the audience when I went to see “The Version You’ve Never Seen” in a theater, this most recent audience had a unique reaction—certainly, one I had never seen before in a movie theater. The TVYNS audience frequently laughed, as if they were trying to protect themselves from the film with an armor of hipster irony. The film was upsetting them in a way they were not used to being upset, so their uncomfortable laughter was defensive. Last week's Fathom Events audience had a very different demeanor. They were attentive and reverent; they held the film at arm’s length, as though observing it under glass, like a museum exhibit. They all seemed to be thinking, “Oh, this is what really scared people 50 years ago.” I thought this was odd because, even at my advanced age, I think the film still works, and I still find many of the images and much of the language to be unironically disturbing.

2. At my most recent screening, I was taken with the idea that The Exorcist can be seen as a parable of female empowerment. Both Reagan and her mom, Chris MacNeil, are women. Chris is an actress, and we see her filming some sort of campus unrest picture, in which her character—a liberated, “with-it” professor-who-knows-how-to get-through-to-the-young type—breaks through a group of student protestors to read them the riot act, trying to persuade them with some good old-fashioned common sense. Even in the film-within-a-film, she takes control.

All of the doctors who treat Reagan (save one) are male. They all fail spectacularly. My favorite scene showing the limits of medical science involve the doctor who witnesses Reagan’s bed levitating and shaking, yet still insists the problem is a lesion on Reagan’s frontal lobe. A hypnotherapist gets his balls crushed in Reagan’s powerful fist. I began to think that what the male medical establishment in the film really couldn’t explain was why so much of Reagan’s aberrant behavior was explicitly sexual. From Reagan calling her doctor a “f****** bastard” to her admonition for him to “keep [his] hands off my f****** c***,” her numerous salacious suggestions to the two priests, and her notorious episode with the crucifix, Reagan’s possession ordeal seemed to be a grotesque, exaggerated vision of budding adolescence. All of the priests involved in the exorcism are male. I'd argue that they fail spectacularly as well. I began to think that I was thinking thoughts about the film that had never been thunk, but when I returned to the compendium of Exorcist criticism referenced above, I found Barbara Creed’s thoughtful essay, “Woman as Abject Monster: The Exorcist”, where she waxes eloquently on just this subject.

Creed writes, “In films depicting invasion by the devil, the victim is almost always a young girl, the invader the male devil. One of the major boundaries traversed is between innocence and corruption, purity and impurity. The Exorcist is usually seen as involving a case of possession by a male devil. However, I will argue that the devil, in this case, may well be female.”

So, as opposed to Father Merrin telling Father Karras that the possession is a way for the devil to make onlookers feel ugly, despairing, and unworthy of God’s love, I began to think the possession was a way for a female devil to use females to make males feel stupid, inferior, useless, and impotent.
3. I was amazed during my most recent screening at all the animal imagery and references in the film. The wild dogs battling with each other during the Iraq prologue, the Pazuzu statue’s snake-like phallus, Reagan’s drawings and clay sculptures, the famous “spiderwalk” sequence, the animal sounds mixed into the soundtrack, Reagan’s famous utterance “The sow is mine,” and innumerable other references that are more metaphorical than quantifiable: all told, this film is a zoo. Is this simply Friedkin’s way of making tangible (and therefore photographable) the concept of “The Beast?” I’m still mulling this one over.

4. Many years ago, I visited the famous Georgetown staircase featured in the film’s climax. (The rest of my family took a trip to the National Zoo to see the Chinese pandas.) My cabdriver knew exactly where to take me when I mentioned the steps. It’s a popular tourist attraction, and today looks exactly as it did in 1973. When I got there, I still wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. At the bottom of the steps, there is a gas station. (It’s hard to see in the film because it’s only featured in one extreme long shot at the very beginning.) I walked up to the gas station attendant and asked, “Is this the...?” Before I finished my sentence he shouted, “Yes, you found it!” I wondered how many times a day he got asked the same question.
The steps are creepy and scary, even in the middle of a sunny afternoon. In any version, The Exorcist still plays—frightening, affecting, and nuanced.

From somewhere far off, Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” softly plays.


  1. Excellent write up. My Catholic dad insisted I watch this when I was 10... It was 2002... He seemed to think it would be spiritually instructive. The movie terrified me. As I've grown older (31 today, hooray for me!), I return to this movie again and again, not for the scares but for the astounding character work. But there are aspects of it that still scare me. I'm no longer Catholic (I think I've lost my faith, JB), but there is something spiritual about this movie that deeply unnerves and upsets me. Father Karras finds faith again not by discovering that god is real, but by finding out that the devil is real... which might be the least hopeful way to find your faith again. You know the devil is real and so you just have to hope that God is real. It's a deeply pessimistic idea punctuated by Father Karras receiving not last rites, but confession as he lays dying, probably already dead, unable to state to the confessor that he has repented. Anyone who knows the act of contrition knows that, technically, his confession at the end doesn't count... It's a non-confession to a god who may not exist while travelling to an afterlife where the devil definitely does exist. It blows my mind how dark that is.

  2. In my previous life as a high-school film studies teacher, I became acquainted with the phenomenon of Dads (It was always the Dad.) showing kids horror movies when the kids were way too young. I could never figure out why: 1) Dads wanted to “ toughen the kids up? 2) Dads wanted a horror movie watching pal? 3) Dad wanted to be there to make you feel better when you ran screaming from the room? Which one of these?
    Also— not to quibble, but I believe confession is part of Last Rites. I could be wrong. I still find your theory about the end of the film fascinating.