Manning The Line

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1974)

In his “video introduction” to the 25th anniversary edition of the DVD, director William Friedkin makes plain the intentions of screenwriter/author William Peter Blatty and himself: “[The film] strongly, and realistically, tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe, both good and evil…[I]f you believe there is a force for good that combats, and eventually triumphs, over evil, then you will be taking out of the film what we tried to put in it.”  This conception of cinema as theology, a tool for postulating metaphysical principles and prescribing a particular ethics of combative vigilance and self-sacrifice, seems (according to the criteria established by film critic Robin Wood) a truly reactionary, almost Manichean, response to contemporary secular culture.

Beyond the “restitution of moral order” endemic to this (right) wing of the horror film, The Exorcist concludes on a somberly expectant note, wherein Father Dyer becomes the de facto replacement of Fathers Merrin and Karras (by being given custody of the St. Joseph medallion), gazing off over the city in expectation of further engagements with the forces of evil and disorder.  As Barbara Creed has shown in her essay on the film, the battleground in this skirmish has been the body of a pre/pubescent girl (the bar marks the threshold between the two states); however, her handling of the film ignores (or downplays) certain aspects of the struggle, in keeping with her post-Freudian, feminist reading of the horror genre.  Creed states, “In the end, Regan and her mother are reunited.  The two ‘fathers’ are dead.  The symbolic order is restored, but in name only.”  This description ignores the actual final shots of the film, and the presence of the third “father”, Dyer, in whose “name” the symbolic order continues to thrive.

One aspect of Creed’s interpretation – central to her argument – concerns the putatively “female” nature of the devil in the film.  She links the demon Pazuzu to “his consort” Lamia.  To begin with, this confuses traditions (Lamia deriving from Greek mythology, and Pazuzu from Assyro-Babylonian); additionally, according to this tradition, Pazuzu stands in a relationship of enmity and opposition to Lamashtu (the malevolent goddess who threatens mothers during childbirth).  The Pazuzu head discovered by Father Merrin functioned as an apotropaic amulet to ward off the malefic influence of Lamashtu; “evil against evil,” as Merrin’s assistant puts it.

The presence of a male demon (or devil) within Regan – rather than emphasizing the feminine basis of the abject – points to a different thematic concern: the blurring of the boundaries between the genders.  So Creed’s point about the female voice of the actress playing the devil ignores the efforts of the filmmakers to “neuter” the voice, and thus render it androgynous.  Throughout the film, in fact, there is a consistent androgynization of the female characters, as well as the depiction of a key scene (the desecration of the Virgin Mary statue) involving androgyny.  While this ambiguity or gender-bending can be seen as characteristic of the abject, it problematizes the unilateral reading of the “female as devil” and the “reconciliation with the mother’s body” as envisioned by Creed.  The maternal, by film’s end, has been “put in its place,” and the film concludes with the vigilance of the paternal. The sexual politics at work within the film is more complex, and more reactionary, than Creed portrays.

The opening scenes of the film, set and filmed in Northern Iraq, present the Near East as the cradle of evil: an exotic, Orientalist antipode to the West.  The film portrays Islam and its practitioners as the shadow or dark side of Christianity.  Even before there is an image on the screen, we hear the muezzin’s call to prayer (and later witness a group of men in prayer), accompanied by ominous music.  The sights and sounds – particularly the repetitive clamor of hammers and anvils – recur throughout the film, linking the activities in Iraq especially with the machinery of medical treatment, and every time they recur they signify an evil omen.  The spectacle of the radical “otherness” of the region also presents native women, clad in black and coded as hags or crones, as representatives of the malefic feminine.

Participating in an archeological dig, the Jesuit Father Merrin discovers an anomaly, a medallion of St. Joseph, which bears the inscription Ora pro nobis (“Pray for us”).  According to Catholic doctrine, St. Joseph – the father of Jesus – is patron saint “against doubt” – making his medallion an especially significant talisman, ultimately coming into the possession of Father Karras (where it is first seen in a dream, then around his neck; its presence is anomalous, perhaps “miraculous”).  Another dream image that links sequences – the Arabic clock’s pendulum, which in Iraq comes to a halt – signifies that the “time is out of joint,” as Shakespeare put it.  Only regression, escape from the modern, can set it right.

The scene shifts to Georgetown and a slow zoom from cityscape to a particular house.  The link between the two regions is made explicit by matched shots of the reddened sun and Chris’ hand turning on a lamp.  Additionally, the mise-en-scene of the earlier sequence, the time-battered ruins of Mosul, allow Georgetown to be read as a symbolic Wasteland.  (Eliot, another opponent of “lax” modernity, also proposed an escape to the past and the comforts of orthodoxy).  Chris McNeil lies on her bed, making notes on a script.  By all indications, Chris has an authorial hand in writing her own lines; however, her agency and authority, revealed as tenuous and unstable, exerted consistently throughout the early part of the film (especially toward servants and other “minor” characters), become sidelined by the process of her daughter’s possession.

A few scenes later we are shown the film-within-a-film, called Crash Course, starring Chris and being shot on location in Georgetown.  The film depicts campus protests over the presence of Defense Department representatives (of the patriarchal order).  Chris’ character becomes an authority figure – traditionally a masculine role, especially on a campus run by “Fathers,” the Jesuits – and argues against disruptive activism, advising the students, “If you want to effect any change, you have to do it within the system.”  In her guise as an actress (and using the power that confers in “real life”), Chris has infiltrated the patriarchal order and stands as its representative within the hierarchy known as the “generation gap”.  That the source of rebellion stems “from within” makes ironic reference to the incipient possession of her young daughter; it also ties into the “unconscious rebellion” mentioned by Kinderman in the context of the desecration scene.  Chris blurs the boundaries between gender roles, asserting too much authority and too aggressively; by doing so, she invites the forces of evil into her home and into her daughter.

The desecration scene, though it occurs early in the film, before the appearance of any explicit signs of Regan’s possession-metamorphosis, contains strong indications that she is in fact the culprit.  The clay used to deface the Virgin Mary statue – giving her phallic nipples and a (Pazuzu-esque) serpentine penis and thus rendering her androgynous – seems to be the same kind as Regan uses to mold her (Pazuzu-esque) statues.

We see the priest enter the church carrying floral offerings (a brief shot shows him in the background, the seemingly “innocent” maternal face in the foreground), which he places before a statue of St. Joseph bearing the Christ child.  He moves across the altar toward the Madonna statue.  Looking up, he notices in horror the vandalism (the shot frames him with the Joseph statue standing watch behind him).  These two or three shots inform the viewer entirely through the use of mise-en-scene that the “Fathers” are allied whereas, separated by an intervening cut, the mother stands alone.

As if to reinforce this segregation, the subsequent scene shows Father Karras visiting his mother at an asylum, where he must run a gauntlet of hysterical women, who serve as doubles of the old crones from the opening sequence.  His feelings of guilt and abandonment worsen after her sudden death, and this inner turmoil provokes a dream sequence which links the Iraq and DC sequences and also equates (through the use of a quasi-subliminal insert) the mother and the demonic.  Dogs also link sequences; the dogs in Iraq represent animal nature (“red in tooth and claw”) turning on itself; the dream dog can perhaps be associated with Cerberus, guardian of the underworld, especially as Karras’ mother rises up from a decidedly infernal subway entrance.  Throughout the dream, we see shots of the St. Joseph medallion in freefall; when it at last strikes the ground, the scene abruptly cuts away to Regan undergoing medical testing procedures.

The crosscutting between Karras and Regan in the following scenes deepens the association between them.  When Regan, protesting against her treatment at the hands of the medical authorities, spits out “You fucking bastard!” the scene cuts immediately to Karras saying a Requiem Mass for his dead mother.  The rapidity of the editing makes the allegation appear to be aimed equally at him.  As Karras prepares to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist, the liturgy prompts, “Lord, we are not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and we shall be healed.”  Karras feels unworthy, of both mother and father, and the “healing word” will not be spoken until the end of the film, when it will require his self-sacrifice.

Another function of these parallel scenes is to establish a connection or equation among a variety of ritual forms – the rites of the Mass (Communion, Requiem), medical testing (X-ray, arteriogram), psychotherapy (hypnosis).  All these rituals offer sacred and secular varieties of apotropaion (warding off evil), or attempts to disrupt the progress of the possession, to “say the word and…be healed”.  None of them will suffice.  In the end, the assembly of psychiatrists at the Barringer Clinic presents Chris with the most radical assessment.  They refer to “a type of disorder rarely even seen anymore except in primitive cultures.  We call it ‘somnambuliform possession’…[I]t starts with a conflict or guilt and it leads to the patient’s delusions that his body has been invaded by some alien intelligence.”  However, there may be one “outside chance”, a form of therapy considered as “shock treatment”: exorcism.  Of course, they assert, the effects of this “stylized ritual” do not arise from any truth-value inherent in the religious worldview; in fact, exorcism is a secret “kept in the closet as a sort of embarrassment”.  It functions through “force of suggestion”; belief in possession “can be made to disappear” by a countermanding belief in the power of exorcism.  Thus, exorcism works as a form of “make believe” or play-acting.  To which Chris, a professed nonbeliever, replies in incredulity, “You want me to take my daughter to a witchdoctor?”

There are two related issues at work here.  The first suggests notions of acting or acting out, which link Regan’s behavior to Chris’ profession, leading to the possibility that her “possession” is in reality a form of performance art, an active of creative self-expression on the same order as her drawings and models – all of which, not coincidentally, “pre-figure” Pazuzu.  As Creed rightly points out, Chris’ behavior during the early parts of the film finds itself doubled in Regan’s subsequent misbehavior: “Mother’s swearing becomes Regan’s obscenities; Mother’s sexual frustrations become Regan’s lewd suggestions; Mother’s anger becomes Regan’s power.”  Chris acts (literally and figuratively) as a negative “role” model for Regan’s “coming of age”.  Not surprisingly, faced with such transgressive behavior, Chris disavows her own “reflection” by positing that “that thing upstairs” isn’t her daughter.  She tells Father Karras: “You show me Regan’s double – same face, same voice, everything – and I’d know it wasn’t Regan.”  During this discussion, one of Regan’s clay models, a Pazuzu-esque bird-creature stands on the desk between them.

The second issue links contemporary behaviors or practices to vestigial, “primitive” forms of belief.  When Chris first mentions “getting an exorcism” to Father Karras, who has been educated at the behest of the Jesuits within secular contexts (Harvard, Bellevue) in psychiatry and counseling, he says, “First thing, I’d have to get them into a time machine and get them back to the 16th century.”  Exorcism “just doesn’t happen anymore,” now that “we’ve learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia, all those things they taught me at Harvard.”  Karras straddles both worlds; at it is this Janus-vision which the film suggests as the source of his doubt and loss of faith.  After his initial consultation, Karras points out that Regan’s claims not merely to be a demon, but the Devil himself, reinforce the connection to a mental source of her “illness”.

In a previous scene, where Kinderman seeks advice from Father Karras, he characterizes the act of symbolic desecration as “unconscious rebellion”.  He believes that a priest with a grudge against the Church might be responsible.  For Creed, this would entail the struggle with the maternal, a clear-cut gender dichotomy; whereas, in fact, it is as an androgyne that Regan-Pazuzu acts out against the maternal by making her over in its image.

Furthermore, the conversation between Kinderman and Karras establishes an equivalence between the violence and desecration and earlier forms of “ritual inversion”: witchcraft and the Black Mass.  Both of these so-called practices involved – or were supposed to involve – the profanation of the “white rituals” of Catholic liturgy through their inversion; thus, for example, Eucharistic hosts were trodden upon or proffered from between clenched buttocks; obeisance was made not to God the Father but to his supposed coeval and antagonist, the Devil.  Of course, there is some historical question as to whether or not these practices were ever widespread (or even, particularly in the case of witchcraft, existed as such).  Nevertheless, they were “constructed” by their opponents, the Inquisition and its witch-finders, in works like the Malleus Maleficarum, much as Gnostics and other heresiarchs of the early Church were constructed by their opponents, the authors of what has come to be called Patristic literature.  In both cases, “Fathers” respond to the perceived usurpation of their rights and powers by the forces of the feminine.  The claims made by the film about these practices and their Manichean (dualistic and antagonistic), vestigial nature serve as a sharp rebuke (on the part of Blatty, in particular) to the forces of modern secular society.

Throughout these scenes, we have been witnessing two worldviews in conflict: the secular, rational and contemporary (exemplified by science, medicine and psychotherapy) versus the vestigial, “throwback,” closeted secret of the reality of possession.  The conflict finds its reflection within Father Karras – astride both worlds, his doubt and unbelief warded off by the St. Joseph medallion – and so requires its own double, the steadfast figure of Father Merrin.

In the climactic exorcism scene, Karras invites the devil or demon into himself.  It is only at this point where the possibility of a secular, psychological account of Regan’s possession becomes impossible; it is also the point where Friedkin, usually so strenuous in his pursuit of the documentary and the “realistic” – on the commentary track of the DVD, he uses this word in about every other sentence – admits to abandoning his quest for verisimilitude in order to indulge the effect, the miraculous, the impossible.  Once the film crosses this threshold, it hypostatizes its antagonist, removing the struggle from the realm of the human into that of the theological or metaphysical.

Karras’ self-sacrifice reenacts a scene from Gospel accounts (Luke 8:26-33).  In the course of his itinerant wanderings through the country of the Gadarenes (or Gerasenes), Jesus encounters a possessed man.  The man is portrayed as “unclean” – polluted because he “lived…among the tombs”.  Jesus inquires his name (knowing an entity’s name, according to ancient traditions, gave one power over it).  The man replies, “’Legion,’ for many demons had entered him”.  Jesus proceeds to expel them but, rather than send them “into the abyss” (they plead for clemency), he sends them into a herd of swine (also associated with pollution and impurity), which then “rushed down the steep bank” and destroy themselves.  (The story was, of course, familiar to Blatty; in due course, he will title his official sequel to his earlier book Legion, which he will then adapt for film and direct as Exorcist III.)

Karras feels unclean, unworthy.  He takes the demon into himself and throws himself out the window.  His actions can be seen as an ironic comment on what Kierkegaard called the “leap to faith” (or leap of faith): the radical action necessary to overcome the absurdity of faith, not to mention the paradoxes and contradictions between faith and reason.  For Karras, this leap destroys his body; only on the verge of death can he confess his sins and so receive his last rites (rights), also known as extreme unction (the unction or oil links the soon-to-be-deceased with Christ or “the Anointed One”).  This act of self-destruction, an exhibition of contempt for the carnal or material, links Father Karras with early Christian martyrs.  The very word means “witness”; to martyr oneself is to give witness to the reality of the faith.  Only through self-negation can Karras avoid “the abyss” of unbelief and agnostic extinction.

We have seen how the filmmakers develop a consistent attitude throughout the film to the feminine and, more particularly, to its modern attempts to “liberate” itself and assert a measure of autonomy from the patriarchal.  We have seen how the real danger consists in blurring gender roles and boundaries, to render the female androgynous.  Though this movement partakes of aspects of the abject, as developed by writers such as Kristeva and Creed, it employs such notions of collapse and meaninglessness as evidence of the ultimate threat, which must be protected against by a rearguard regression to earlier beliefs and practices; in a word, by a full-scale retreat from the modern.  The film thus stands as perhaps the paradigmatic example of the reactionary forces active within (and articulated through) the modern horror genre.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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