(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
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.