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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Exorcist XL: Is Friedkin's Film Blasphemy or Reverence?

With the 40th anniversary of what is arguably considered the most frightening horror film of all time--and unarguably the most financially successful--my intention has been to celebrate that milestone all year. Much like I did with the 25th anniversary of A Nightmare on Elm Street in 2009, the 50th anniversary of Psycho in 2010, the 30th anniversary of An American Werewolf in London in 2011 and the 90th anniversary of Nosferatu in 2012. Alas, my schedule has made this more difficult than I originally planned, but at long last I'm able to sit down and put together the first of my "Exorcist XL" series, commemorating 40 years since the release of the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture...

Growing up as a Roman Catholic, The Exorcist was a film that has filled me with dread for as long as I can remember. On the sidebar of this very blog, I recount the traumatic experience of first being exposed to it at the tender age of 8. It was a film that had an aura of the forbidden, and seemed in many ways to be the literal embodiment of evil. However, over time, I've come to the conclusion that--far from the unholy terror it has often been portrayed to be--The Exorcist is actually a very pious work. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it pro-Catholic propaganda. And that's coming from someone with the utmost admiration for the film.

I've heard religious individuals condemn The Exorcist as being the work of the Devil, and of being an immoral and irresponsible movie that devout Christians should avoid at all costs. Never mind the fact that, to my knowledge, the Roman Catholic Church (nor any major religious group, for that matter) never came out openly against the film in any way. In fact, the film even had the full participation of the Jesuit order, and even lent one of their brethren, Fr. William O'Malley (a licensed exorcist) to not only consult on the film, but to even appear on camera as the character Fr. Dyer, close friend of Damien Karras.

Why would this be the case, if The Exorcist were in fact a Satanic, anti-Catholic movie? If anything, it is quite the opposite. Within the world of The Exorcist, the priests are the good guys--they are soldiers of Christ. In fact, the movie is almost medieval in its thinking, casting the scientists as misguided, ineffectual and even actively negligent in their inability to help Regan during her plight. God and the Devil are quite real here, and only the disciples of God can be of assistance. Von Sydow's Fr. Merrin knows this to be true, and calmly dismisses more secular approaches.

One can even go so far as to interpret Regan's possession as a punishment for her mother's atheism--a belief system that in the world of this film leaves her without the ability to protect her daughter in any way. Chris MacNeil must go on a journey that forces her to confront the existence of traditional spirituality--much like Fr. Karras must struggle with his own loss of faith. It is only when Karras abandons his nihilism and embraces the empathetic virtue of self-sacrifice that he is finally able to find a true solution that separates Regan and the demon (although one can argue his selflessness is not necessarily religious but simply humanist in nature.)

Those who choose to avoid The Exorcist because they consider themselves good Catholics are missing the whole point. The movie may portray things that are considered hideous and obscene sacrilege, but these are depicted solely to demonstrate the work of the Devil in all its explicit evil. The movie does not take the demon's side--if anything, it is the men of God whom we are most encouraged to root for. Regan's revolting words and actions are shown simply to make the defeat of the demon that much more satisfying. And there is nothing seen that cannot also be found in actual reports of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests. I do not believe the film glorifies these elements, but rather uses them to establish the significance of the threat.

In short, the world of The Exorcist postulates that God and the Devil exist, that radical good and evil also exist, and that Christian spirituality is better equipped to combat evil than man's 20th century secularism. In other words, it is an extremely traditional film in theme and philosophy, and not the sordid, blasphemous work its opponents have often characterized it to be. In fact, I'd go so far as to speculate that the film can be interpreted as alarmingly archaic in its traditionalism, eschewing modern humanistic developments for a very black-and-white, fire-and-brimstone Old Testament version of reality. Far from being a Satanic work, it could easily have been based on an ancient or medieval fable, intended to keep potential stray believers on the straight and narrow.

The Exorcist may make the Devil seem cool, but don't forget that in the end the Devil loses--and it's the power of Christ that compels him.


John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for posting this link, Brian. It's a great post that I enjoyed very much. I think you are correct in your assessment of The Exorcist. Joseph Laycock has argued similarly that the film supports a folk piety in a time of secularization: http://www.theofantastique.com/2009/10/27/joseph-laycock-the-exorcist-secularization-and-folk-piety/. Keep up the good writing and analysis.

jimmie t. murakami said...

The version that premiered in American Cinemas on Boxing Day 1973 is still the best version, only the spider walk should`ve been added, nothing else.

Keir said...

I disagree with the last line- the Devil wins in the end. What did he say his intention was? He wanted "a young priest and an old one." He got them. The girl was simply bait to be discarded after. Consider- what you describe as Karras's "self-sacrifice" is considered self-murder- the greatest sin a Catholic can commit apparently. Regan seems to return to normal (after everything around her has been defiled and destroyed), but to focus on her is to lose any sense of proportion.

Anonymous said...

William Peter Blatty had a bit of a pious agenda with both the book and the film (not that there's anything wrong with that). When I was a young preacher's kid, I didn't have a lot of qualms about watching this movie because to us it was "real". In the book/essay collection "Shock Value" by Jason Zinoman, he goes into a lot of detail over how Friedken and Blatty butted heads over the ending. Blatty eventually got "The Version You've Never Seen" release with the more optimistic ending over the original theatrical release that ended with Karras being read his last rights. I'd recommend the book, because it kind of confirms a few of your hunches, or at least addresses them.

Anonymous said...

You should check out the book "Shock Value" by Jason Zinoman, because it addresses some of the hunches you're expressing here. Blatty and Friedkin butted heads a lot over the ending of this film, and Blatty finally got his way with "The Version You've Never Seen". It had the optimistic ending with Regan hugging Father Dyer rather than the original ending that was simply Karras's death. I can see both interpretations, but not even the film's creators seemed to be able to agree.

B-Sol said...

Thanks for the link, John! Keir, that's a fascinating assessment--I'd never thought of it that way! Now I need to rewatch the film again. Emily, I understand where you're coming from. I think the movie has another level of depth for Catholics, because we were raised to believe this is all possible. Hence, the ramifications are much more chilling.

Unknown said...

I went to a Jesuit University, met Father O'Malley and was schooled in Jesuit spirituality.

As a pastor and a trained exorcist for the past 38 years I can say that this movie was one of the reasons I considered ministry and dealing with people who struggle against possession, oppression and the like.

The ending reflected the book. I have never seen an exorcism end that way but I think that the author wanted to reflect the sacrifice of Christ in the young priest's death. Jesus indeed said, "Take Me" to evil and saved us all. The part where the girl kisses Father Dyer always brings tears to my eyes because of that.
And let me tell you, having seen these dedicated men in action doing their jobs as God's Marines, I would put their cool points out the window next to any devil or demon in Hell, any time, anywhere.

atmim said...

Fr. O'Malley was my senior year religion teacher at Fordham Prep in the Bronx. We knew we were in trouble when we got the booklist over the summer and saw we had to buy the book "Meeting the Living God" by William O'Malley, SJ. (Oh, shit, he wrote the book!) He opened it with a Peanuts cartoon of Snoopy typing while on top of his doghouse. Lucy said, "I hear you're writing a book on theology, you'd better have a good title." Snoopy then typed: "Has It Ever Occurred To You That You Might Be Wrong?" He was a great teacher who made young men think and question. He was the first priest who ever let us know atheism was certainly an option, said gay people were fully human (which was a relief to me, even if it made the football players a little uncomfortable). He relied a little too much on Pascal's wager, but I'm grateful I had him. It was a great class.

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