“The Exorcist”, one of the most chilling, horrifying films ever made, has been re-released by Warner Brothers 27 years after it’s initial release stirred controversy and fascination.
There a few things you should know about “The Exorcist”, though you may not want to.
Now, when I say “you may not want to”, you probably think I’m going to tell you that demons are real and demon possession is a growing problem in our society so you better stay away from Ouija boards and stop listening to Marilyn Manson or AC/DC, backwards and forwards.
Actually, the truth is that people love these stories. They love them because something in us wants to believe that there are demons out there. The public is endlessly fascinated by villains, serial killers, poltergeists, ritual Satanic abusers, and so on. If you try to convince someone that there really isn’t as much evil out there as they think there is, they are frequently disappointed or alarmed.
Actually, the truth is that there really is a lot of evil out there. But, as Bob Dylan once observed, “the evil I see wears a cloak of decency”. Sure, there are rapists and pimps and pushers and thugs. But there are also executives and politicians and kings. Who is responsible for most of the misery in the world? How many people have died in this century, unnecessarily, as the result of war and starvation? What makes us think that because a man wears a suit and works in a gleaming office tower and drives in a limousine– what makes us think this man or woman is not “evil”, when they sometimes make decisions or policies that result in human catastrophes?
It isn’t even close.
But something in us prefers to see evil embodied in specific persons, whom we can ritually exorcise (pardon the expression) from our lives. Why? Because, at the most fundamental level, these stories allow us to believe that evil is not us.
Anyway, back to The Exorcist:
1. William Peter Blatty, the author of the book, The Exorcist, was brought up in a Catholic household and once considered joining the priesthood.
2. The novel was allegedly based on a “true story”, and the movie, of course, was based on the novel. Several priests served as “consultants” to William Friedkin, director of the movie. Now, when it comes to Hollywood, we all know what a “true story” is and the worthlessness of “consultants”. This particular “true story” concerns a 14-year-old boy who was possessed by a demon which was exorcised by several Roman Catholic priests. These events took place in 1949 in Mount Rainier, Maryland– so we are told–and were reported in various newspapers including the Washington Post. According to some researchers, the boy in question, the real boy, upon whom the Exorcist is based, had some serious emotional problems long before the possession episode. William F. Bodern, a Jesuit, was the officiating priest at the exorcism.
The boy is alive and well and has been located. He refuses to talk about the incident.
3. The boy’s grandmother was, in modern parlance, a religious fanatic, fascinated with all things cultic and spiritual, and she passed on this fascination to the boy. So those of you looking for a more naturalistic, psychosomatic explanation don’t have to look too far. Add to this the fact that Blatty’s own mother was very “spiritual” and you might begin to get the picture. Blatty also attended a Jesuit High School. He served time in the U.S. Air Force. His parents moved around a lot while he was growing up.
4. People attach great weight to the “true story” business. In fact, William Peter Blatty has not kept a secret of the fact that he made up most of the details in the novel and the movie. On the other hand, at times he does sound as if he sees himself as a journalist, rather than a writer of fiction. This doesn’t keep most people from believing that some demon-possessed child somewhere did the things shown in the movie.
Two interesting interpretations of the movie: a) a allegory of dominant, controlling males attempting to restore innocence to a adolescent female whose emerging sexuality threatens them, b) an allegory of teenage rebellion, plain and simple. Neither interpretation is really interesting. They don’t survive the dynamics of the story itself.
5. In the movie, the words “help me” appear on Regan’s body, in broken letters, as if punched there from within. You might draw the logical conclusion that it is the spirit of Regan, inside the body, begging to be relieved of the presence of demons. I thought it was the dumbest thing in the movie. What is the supposed explanation for this? Obviously, Regan before possession was not capable of stenciling words onto the surface of her stomach through sheer will-power. Was a little Regan inside her stomach doing it?
Oh, come on– it was downright hokey.
6. The British Board of Censors banned the film for 15 years after it’s release. I’m told the ban was lifted in 1999, which is strange, since the film was released in 1973. What was it doing between 1973 and 1984? Perhaps what they banned was the video release. [Do you live in a free, democratic society? Then why does the government tell you which films you are allowed to watch?]*
7. It won Oscars for best sound and adapted screenplay. Blatty initially wanted to use well-known actors, including Paul Newman, in the film, but later decided to use relative unknowns, including Jason Miller, Ellen Burstyn, and Max Von Sydow. This was a very, very smart decision: the film is much more forceful and convincing.
8. Aside from the special effects and the horror elements, the film is actually a good drama. In some ways, the story of Father Karras’ mother was more horrifying than the demon possession.
How does nonsense spread? Very easily. William Peter Blatty supplied the initial myth– that the movie bore some kind of substantive relationship to real events in Mount Rainier in 1949. This, as it turns out, is utterly false, other than the fact that a boy appeared to suffer from convulsions and some Roman Catholic priests performed what they called an “exorcism”. The boy’s convulsions eventually subsided, and at least one of the priests involved in the exorcism acknowledges that nothing really weird happened. But most news stories simply quote Blatty, and cite other books that were dependent on the same sources, and perpetuate the myth. Why? Because people love the story. They are fascinated by it. It’s a heck of a lot more exciting than mental illness.
You have to know this: Blatty was a lightweight Hollywood comedy writer before he turned out “The Exorcist”. Since then, he’s taken pains to try to establish his credentials as a “deep”, serious author. If you’ve only seen “The Exorcist” you might buy it, because, like I said, the drama is exceptional.
But what you are really seeing is William Friedkin’s wonderful direction and the superb acting of Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Max VonSydow, and Linda Blair.
There are four full-time exorcists in the Archdiocese of New York, appointed by Cardinal O’Connor. The Pope himself has attempted three exorcisms (and failed). In an average year, according to Time Magazine, they investigate 350 cases and conduct 10-15 exorcisms. They only perform exorcisms after all possible “natural” causes of the phenomenon have been ruled out. Mind you, this judgment of what is “natural” and what might not be is being made by someone who believes that people occasionally can be occupied by sentient evil beings.
The “director’s cut” of the movie proved that Directors should not always get final cut. Actually, I’m sure Friedkin knew that the scenes “restored” to the “director’s cut” deserved to be cut. The scene of Regan spider-walking down the stairs upside down is downright ridiculous.