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“There is only one”: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist

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(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat by Sean T. Collins.)

The 13 Days of Halloween: Day 11

3. The Exorcist, dir. William Friedkin
the third scariest film I’ve ever seen

“Allahu akbar…”

These are the first words we hear. So we’re in foreign territory, then, and territory presided over by a very great God, one who demands–and receives–worshipful obedience. To dust off an almost forgotten cliche: ‘In light of recent events,’ it might be tempting to believe that we are to understand the events that follow as a product of this devotion to the potentially murderous mysteries of faith. It is equally tempting to fume about Orientalism and misrepresentation of the Other. Interesting ideas indeed, but here I’m going to opt to ignore the forest and focus on one of the trees: This movie begins in Iraq, an appropriate instance of synchronicity given that The Exorcist, the film widely considered to be the greatest horror film of all time, is actually a war movie.

Of course I’m not referring to a war between countries, or even between civilizations, although there are certainly hints of the latter in the rapid-fire juxtaposition of Islam, paganism, Christianity, and modern atheism that begin the film. I am referring to that most unfashionable war, that of good versus evil. But it even trumps the unfashionable rhetoric of today, which when it uses those four letter words does so as codes for democracy and totalitarianism. This is not a philosophical war, or even a religious one. It’s a spiritual one–literally, a war between spirits. The field of battle is humankind, the weapons are lethal in the highest degree, and the horror of the conflict, in which neither side answers to man and law, is total.

I can’t think of another horror film that’s as… majestic as The Exorcist. The horrific images it employs are not just frightening, they’re mind-blowingly so, and deliberately at that. This is a film intended to scare the living daylights right out of you for hours after you leave the theatre or turn the TV off. It’s the cinematic equivalent of shock and awe, and its makers are virtuosos to rival any four-star general. And it’s all harnessed (quite explicitly, in the oft-stated words of its director) to force the audience to confront the idea not just that we are not alone in our world, but that this world is not ours at all.

The demon is first shown as a tiny statue, with the noise of insects buzzing incongruously as it is discovered. Friedkin is already establishing that this thing is royalty–it is the Lord of the Flies. We see it stop a clock. We seem to hear its influence in the cacaphony of the town–the clanging of hammers on anvils, the thunderous stampeding of carriage hoofs as a wild-eyed woman (not the last one we’ll see, oh no) is pulled past, mouth agape as if in some silent scream. We see the potential of the little statue realized in a massive monument–monkeylike head, insect wings, snakelike phallus, blank eyes. The noise swells and buzzes and screeches and growls and screams. That kind of intensity is unmistakeable: War has been declared.

The battleground is a body, that of Regan McNeil, a young girl from Washington, D.C. (and that is surely no coincidence). Here, actually, is where many critics stall: This must be a film about male anxiety over female sexuality! Well, yes, it is that–if Regan’s curiosity about her mother’s love life didn’t tip you off, and the displaced menstrual imagery of urination and surgical blood spurts didn’t either, and dozens of male doctors penetrating her with all manner of needles and tubes still left you guessing, surely “Fuck me!” and “Let Jesus fuck you!” and “Lick me!” and “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Karras!” weren’t insufficiently obvious. But it isn’t any more about just that than, say, Apocalypse Now is just a critique of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. Human sexuality–human female sexuality–the onset of human female sexuality–these are just weapons in the war, accessible by either side. What better way to erode the resistance of the humans who comprise both the battlefield and the frontline troops than to force them to focus on areas they see as private and personal, if not shameful and animal?

As in many wars, at first the wrong kinds of troops are deployed. We’re supposed to be comforted by the clinical whites of modern medicine, even when they’re stained red. But it becomes rapidly apparent that as much guesswork and dead-ending and thinly veiled savagery is present here as in the work of the “witch doctors” such disciplines believe themselves to have supplanted. The boundaries are blurred further by the sideline professions of the witch doctors themselves. Our very first glimpses of Father Lancaster Merrin show him to be an archaeologist, apparently of some reknown; he simply seems to have brought along, in addition to intellectual curiosity about the old gods, fear of them as well. But our protagonist witch-doctor, Father Damien Karras, does not have the regal, professorial carriage of Father Merrin. What he has is a massively sympathetic face with eyes that seem to pour forth emotion like faucets, a degree in psychology as valid as that held by any of the condescending experts, and the frightening knowledge that his faith is failing him. This modern witch doctor, who has been the latter half of his split personality, is about to see his belief in the former shaken to its foundations as well.

The primary method of assault is visual. (It tends to be, in the great horror films: As Mr. Morgan puts it in The Ring, “My God, the things she’d show you”; or as the Hitchhiker puts in in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, “You like this face?”) The demon (the filmmakers) show them (us) an escalating onslaught of horrors. Regan’s face is wounded and made monstrous. The lights flicker in and out. Regan’s head twists around like an owl’s, and her tongue extends like a snake’s. She levitates the bed, then she levitates herself. She flashes the face of a demon (the first apperance of which, in Father Karras’s dream (we’re talking about the original version of the film here; I think its earlier appearance in the special edition loses much of its power, though to be sure I’d need to ask someone who saw it for the first time that way) is in my opinion the second scariest image ever put on film). The demon statue appears behind her. And most horrifyingly–for it almost succeeds–she transforms into Father Karras’s mother. As voiced by actor Jason Miller in one of the all-time great performances, the anguished cry Karras responds with–“You’re not my mother!”–is like some pathetic inversion of the final words of many a dying soldier.

The assault is aural, too. The demon’s voice emanates incongrously from the little girl’s body, as does at one point or another the voice of a homeless man and a dead English film director and a dead mother of a priest. The demon’s language is obviously an assault on the ears. The otherworldy growls, screams, buzzing and screeching crescendo repeatedly. And we musn’t forget the extradiegetic music, any more than we’d forget the terrific splendor of Father Merrin’s spotlit arrival at the McNeil household while Regan’s demon eyes stare expectantly outward. Harsh, dissonant strings, tinkling bells, ambient tones–evil has a power of beauty just as does good.

And good’s power is cruel just as is evil’s. Good relies on strength, and on the projection of that strength. The priests shout and yell. They wrestle and restrain. They strike. They dress in uniforms, like soldiers. They wield weapons of God. They chant like the repeat of artillery: “The power of Christ compels you,” over and over again, sending chills up and down the spine, over and over again until that power’s compulsion is at last affected. It’s a magesterial moment: At last, good is bringing out weapons big enough and hard enough to fight those that evil has used throughout.

War is death, and there is death here, brutal, human death–heart attacks and defenestration are sufficient to feed the fires of this battle. And it’s the sacrifice of soldiers, make no mistake about it. They submit themselves for sacrifice not because they don’t fear death–clearly they do, evidenced by the fervor with which Father Karras tells Regan’s mother Chris that Regan will not die–but because they do fear it, and because that fear gives them basis for comparison against the superior fear of the evil such sacrifices are meant to combat. Good (at first I accidentally typed God, but I suppose it wasn’t much of an accident) demands such sacrifices without compunction. After all, this is war.

My point is that, in a sense, this movie lacks that awful certainty I tend to look for in horror. There is evil, which his a horrifying notion, but there is also good, which is… leavening, if not comforting. But still I say only “in a sense,” because even though evil has an opponent, we are still caught in the crossfire. At any moment we may be asked to believe the unbelievable in order to fight the unspeakable. It may cost us our faith. It may cost us our sanity. It may cost us our lives. How we rank those losses is the film’s central question. And the realiztion that there are forces whose intrusion could cause that ranking to change, forever, is the horror at the movie’s heart.


Postscript: It should come as no surprise to you that in a war waged in and by a horror film, the monumental horror image is what I view to be the most lethal weapon in the arsenal. In my senior essay I did a close reading of The Exorcist, detailing the use of the monumental horror images throughout the film and the profound, “cosmic” fear they engender. Below you can find reprinted the relevant portion; to read the whole essay, click here and find out how.


The inspiration of cosmic fear – specifically the type stemming from Catholic dogma—was an explicit thematic concern of William Peter Blatty, who adapted The Exorcist’s screenplay from his own novel of the same name. He carefully constructed his story so that the demon Pazuzu, who possess young Regan MacNeil, would be more terrifying for its mental effects on those around Regan than its physical effects on Regan itself. In the novel, Father Lancaster Merrin, the missionary and archaeologist who is summoned to exorcise Regan, insists that “the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house.” Merrin discusses this further in a conversation with the conflicted Father Damien Karras, found in another scene that was cut from the film’s final cut but was present in both novel and screenplay:

Fr. Karras: Why this girl? It makes no sense.
Fr. Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves
as…animal and ugly. To reject the notion that God could love us.

Director William Friedkin stressed the importance of the idea that the film’s true horror stemmed from what the demon represented in his introduction to a recent special edition video release: “…it’s a story that can perhaps make you question your own value system, even your own sanity, because it strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe, both good and evil….[t]his had to be a realistic film about inexplicable events.”

With their unequalled, specifically representative power, monumental horror-images were the logical choice to convey these themes in the film. Unlike The Shining, however, The Exorcist focuses on the second, more literally “monumental” type of horror-image. From the beginning, Pazuzu is associated with monuments and statues. During a dig in Iraq, Fr. Merrin accidentally unearths the head of a small Pazuzu statue after removing the St. Joseph’s medal that had been placed mysteriously nearby. At that moment we first hear the unearthly buzzing sound we come to associate with the demon; the discovery of this mini-monument appears to have “unleashed” him once again.

Later that day, a shaken and disturbed Merrin travels to the site of an ancient, ruined fortress. Though he earlier told a fellow scholar that he was leaving because “there is something [he] must do,” he seems shocked to discover exactly what this “something” turns out to be. As Merrin stands in the ruins, a shadow covers his face. He looks up to see an enormous statue of Pazuzu looming in the center of the frame, blotting out the harsh glow of the midday sun. As droning, atonal music is heard on the soundtrack, Merrin climbs a rocky hill; the camera rapidly swings around his head to reveal the statue, now fully visible, atop a hill opposite Merrin’s. A series of quick cuts follow: a startled Merrin turns to see an Arab atop a similar hill, watching the proceedings (rifle-toting Arab security guards had threatened Merrin at the gates to the ruins moments before); he turns again and sees two wild dogs, fighting and growling in the desert. Finally, he turns back to the statue. The camera zooms in slowly on Merrin’s face, then on the statue’s face. Finally, as the dogs’ angry growls become distorted, merging with the droning music, the buzzing sound we heard earlier, and what appears to be a woman screaming, we cut to a final shot of Merrin and the statue, standing on opposite ends of the screen, facing off in an archetypal image of good versus evil. This in turn dissolves to a shot of the setting sun above the barren desert landscape, which itself dissolves to a placid aerial view of autumnal Georgetown. The bizarre sounds gradually fade out.

By first showing us Pazuzu not in his “real,” demonic form, but in a representational, monumental form, Friedkin offers us a hint as to the true threat that the demon represents. Pazuzu is a holdover from an outmoded, ancient belief system, an embodiment of an evil for which the modern, complacent, atheistic America into which it has been introduced (in this very sequence) cannot account. Fr. Merrin seems to understand this threat simply by gazing upon its graven image in the ruins.

Pazuzu itself appears to understand the power of the monumental horror-image to concretize evil in a supremely disturbing fashion; in fact, the next true monumental horror-image we see – a desecration of a statue of the Virgin Mary – is its doing. A series of leisurely cranes, pans, and tracks follow a bespectacled priest as he enters Georgetown University’s chapel to place flowers by the statues of the Holy Family. As he crosses the altar after placing the first batch in front of St. Joseph, he stops short, and the camera swoops in on his face as he looks up. We cut to a still shot of the Virgin, centered and illuminated by the light from the chapel’s windows. Crude red and black breasts and an enormous, conical penis have been affixed to the statue, whose hands have also been painted blood red. The priest reacts with a horrified whisper of “Oh God.”

This horror-image, once again literally “monumental,” comes a solid half hour into the film. We have yet to see anything explicitly supernatural or violent; nevertheless, the fact that something profoundly wrong is happening has been undeniably confirmed by this indisputable, literally concrete depiction of evil. The defiance of contemporary Judeo-Christian conceptual schemes implicit in the ancient Pazuzu statue is made explicit in this direct violation of a Christian icon. Furthermore, it is worthy of note that by this point in the film, Regan has been shown to be an amateur sculptor. As the gaudy coloring and childish workmanship of this desecration indicate, Regan was the vessel in which the demon committed its crime; her talents neatly lend themselves to its mission to boldly proclaim the presence of irrational, diabolical forces in the world. Pazuzu, it would seem, picks its victims well.

The use of the monumental horror-image reaches a feverish peak in the film’s climactic exorcism sequence. In this sequence, Pazuzu’s possession of Regan (which often displays inanimate, “statuesque” characteristics: catatonia, somnambulism, immobility, and of course the infamous “head-spinning” special effect, made possible by the use of an actual mannequin) becomes explicitly monumental in nature. After a series of seismic tremors that nearly destroy her bedroom and a vicious verbal assault against Fr. Karras in which she blames him for his mother’s death, Regan bursts her bonds, her eyes going white. She slowly levitates off her bed, arms outstretched in a blasphemous, satanic parody of Christ’s crucifixion. After further earthquake-like shocks to the room, we cut to a shot from above, in which the Regan-thing, bathed in cold blue-white light, is placed dead-center. This “vulgar display of power” stuns both Merrin and Karras; they respond to it by repeatedly invoking a rival power, that of Christ. After she finally sinks back down onto the bed, she assaults Karras as he attempts to re-fasten her restraints. Another tremor sends Karras and Merrin crashing against the wall, where they look up to see the supposedly bound Regan, arms outstretched, silhouetted against a strange blue light. The clear graphic similarity of this shot to the introductory shot of Pazuzu’s monument is made unmistakable by the inexplicable appearance of that very statue behind Regan’s bed, accompanied by the same buzzing, droning, and screaming heard during the original sequence.

Regan’s levitation and the subsequent appearance of Pazuzu are the one-two punch apotheosis of the horror of The Exorcist. Their near-total violation of moral, spiritual, and physical norms can only be described as obscene. Displaying nearly all the characteristics of the archetypal monumental horror-image, they clearly demonstrate the unforgettable power of such images to make “real” the unreal, the abnormal, the things that should not be. Their accompaniment by cataclysmic physical trauma to the bedroom reinforces the fashion in which such images rend the fabric of reality that Karras and Merrin have viewed as normal all their lives. Their exhaustion at the end of this scene stems not from any great physical ordeal, but from the tremendous toll these monumental horror-images are taking on “[their] value system, even [their] own sanity.” Such are the effects of horror at its best (or worst?) – the horror of cosmic fear.

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About Sean T. Collins

  • Greg Hagin


    Great post on what I heartily agree is the definitive horror movie. Question: if the first flash of the mask of the demon (which I seem to remember occuring as Karras ascends the a stairwell early in the film) is the SECOND scariest image in film, then what do you regard as the first?

    again, wonderful piece.