more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

2015 Movie Challenge: The Exorcist


43/52: A movie about a magician exorcist*

Depart, then, transgressor. Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent. Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster, give way to Christ,  in whom you found none of your works. For He has already stripped you of your powers and laid waste your kingdom, bound you prisoner and plundered your weapons. He has cast you forth into the outer darkness, where everlasting ruin awaits you and your abettors. To what purpose do you insolently resist? To what purpose do you brazenly refuse? For you are guilty before almighty God, whose laws you have transgressed. You are guilty before His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom you presumed to tempt, whom you dared to nail to the cross. You are guilty before the whole human race, to whom you proferred by your enticements the poisoned cup of death.

– The Roman Ritual, Part XIII, Chapter II, “Rite for Exorcism”

I’m no theologian, so this may be neither here nor there, but it seems to me that the priests in The Exorcist are misdirecting their efforts to save the possessed 12-year-old girl.  They employ The Roman Ritual, calling on the power of Christ and almighty God, adjuring Satan and his demons, and so on, and so forth; but who’s really inside?  Who’s possessing her?  The demon is supposedly Pazuzu, an Assyrian demonic entity.  Why would Pazuzu obey the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church?  Indeed, I tend to think he/she/it doesn’t.  The Church, and God, and man, lose this fight.  No one wins, per se, but it’s clear (to me) that all those rites and rituals, all those fancy speeches, all those attempts to shame and suppress and cast out something older and stronger than they can understand – it seems to be all bark and no bite.  More on that in a moment.


Somewhere in Iraq, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) is working on an archaeological dig.  A member of his team finds an artifact depicting Pazuzu, a demon he’d battled previously.  He realizes that the war isn’t over.  In Georgetown, actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is shooting a film and living in a rental house.  Her daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), is a happy and affectionate girl – but she begins to change nearly overnight.  Regan becomes irritable, volatile, foul-mouthed, and unpredictable.  Chris takes her daughter to a variety of medical and psychiatric professionals, but they can’t find anything wrong with her.  They recommend an exorcism – not because they believe Regan is possessed, but because there have been cases where the psychological effect of a Church authority figure casting out the Devil has led to an improvement in the patient.  So they say.  As Regan grows violent – stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix, moving furniture around telekinetically, walking upside down on the stairs and vomiting blood – Chris turns in desperation to Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller).  He’s a trained psychiatrist as well as a priest, but he’s experiencing his own crisis of faith.  His elderly mother lived alone in a shoddy apartment, was admitted to a state-run psychiatric ward, and died alone.  He agrees to see Regan, but only as a psychiatrist.  While he’s disturbed by the fully possessed Regan – who invokes Karras’s mother and picks quite deliberately at the open wound that is his filial guilt – he doesn’t think exorcism will help her.  Chris pleads with him, however, and so he takes his case to the Church.  They agree to send Father Merrin to exorcise Regan, with Karras assisting.  It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight – and the only upside is that Pazuzu finally does leave Regan’s body.  At best, however, the exorcism ends in a draw.

shotRemember_E_orcist11 jpg

If you read enough feminist-leaning film criticism, you’ll find many statements of the obvious: The Exorcist is, in some way, about society’s (read: the patriarchy’s) fear of how puberty (read: sexuality) changes girls.  It gives them a terrifying power that isn’t socially (patriarchally) acceptable.  As Sady Doyle puts it in “The Season of the Witch“:

All of this is typical girl-fear. Once you realize that The Exorcist is, essentially, the story of a 12-year-old who starts cussing, masturbating, and disobeying her mother—in other words, going through puberty—it becomes apparent to the feminist-minded viewer why two adult men are called in to slap her around for much of the third act. People are convinced that something spooky is going on with girls; that, once they reach a certain age, they lose their adorable innocence and start tapping into something powerful and forbidden. Little girls are sugar and spice, but women are just plain scary. And the moment a girl becomes a woman is the moment you fear her most.

Sure.  Very fair point.  I don’t, however, think it follows that The Exorcist is actually arguing in favor of “typical girl-fear.” I think it’s about the true power of femininity, and how the patriarchy’s ruthless suppression thereof is a sure sign of just how awesome that unknown, unknowable force can be.  The Church does not win.  The patriarchy does not win.  Father Karras implores Pazuzu to take him instead of Regan, and Pazuzu does.  Karras manages to launch himself out a window before Pazuzu can compel him to kill Regan – but Karras doesn’t win.  He just avoids doing something horrible to someone else.


I may be beating a dead horse here, but I see The Exorcist in terms of Church/patriarchy and paganism/femininity.  Those more scholarly than I can probably tease out the tension between the relatively new Church and the paganism that’s existed around the world for millennia – but I think that’s what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about a world that has tried hard to pretend that the default has always been masculine power, that has worked for centuries to repress its more feminine tendencies; and, like Freud’s madman in the next room, trying to beat down the door the more you struggle to keep it closed, sometimes those older and stronger forces break through.  Consider how the Church has tried to demonize – literally – sexuality.  It’s always associated with women.  The Devil especially enjoys using women to try to lure righteous men to their doom, the Church has long argued.  If that’s how you want to play it, Pazuzu seems to say, then that’s just what we’ll do.

Not unlike one of Jackie Treehorn's sketches, to be honest.

Not unlike one of Jackie Treehorn’s sketches, to be honest.

Basically, I think The Exorcist warns against denying our older, stronger selves.  The madman (madwoman) will break through, and with a genuine vengeance.  God won’t save us from ourselves.  Prayers won’t, rituals won’t.  I was thinking about The Babadook, actually, when I re-watched The Exorcist again.  You have to learn to live with your demons.  The more you deny, the stronger they get.  Considering that the Western world is very much predicated on denial, resulting in the toxic masculinity poisoning us all, I’d say we might be as doomed as Father Karras and Father Merrin – but maybe not.


*Sue me.  There are probably other magician-related movies besides The Prestige and Hugo, but I couldn’t think of any; and while I feel fine about The Prestige, I don’t have a hell of a lot to say about it.  I actively dislike Hugo, so I wasn’t about to subject myself to that one again.  Besides, one man’s magic is another man’s religion.  It’s all relative. 

2 comments on “2015 Movie Challenge: The Exorcist

  1. Karen / Small Earth Vintage
    November 2, 2015

    I recently read Blatty’s novel, and found it even scarier than the movie (which I’ve always liked and found frightening). I like your reading of the film. This may have been better portrayed in the book, but Father Karras is going through a fairly serious crisis of faith in the book, and it’s not just about his belief in God, but his belief in whether he can actually help people. He has to die in the end in order to help Regan. Some might read that as a Jesus-like sacrifice, but that’s not the feeling I got from the film or book.

    By coincidence, I just saw The Babadook yesterday, and liked it. And yes–living with your demons.

    And as a funny aside, the actor (Father William O’Malley) who was the piano-playing priest buddy of Karras in the movie was a teacher at my university. He used to give a talk and viewing of the film in my dorm every year at Halloween! I can’t remember details, unfortunately, but I remember he shared some creepy stories from the set.

    • mcwhirk
      November 2, 2015

      I’d be interested to read the novel, too, because I imagine there are all kinds of literary and/or scholarly details that wouldn’t work in a film – but would be fascinating/terrifying to read. Karras’s sacrifice at the end could certainly be read as Christ-like, and I wouldn’t say that’s wrong; I see it more as his better human nature winning out over the demon. Compassion instead of cruelty, that kind of thing. But then again, I *would* be a little heretic and see it as a godless ending, wouldn’t I?

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