Classics Revisited: The Exorcist

I think I saw The Exorcist when I was too young… this is not your typical I-saw-The-Exorcist-as-a-kid-and-it-scarred-me story… quite the opposite in fact. I saw the movie when I was in middle school, and slept like a baby that night. It’s strange, considering the impact movies like Night of the Living Dead, Jaws, The Terminator, and Return of the Living Dead (11-year old Adam did not realize it was a comedy) had on me. I was a very impressionable and easily frightened kid… so, why didn’t The Exorcist have an impact? I think, in the end, I just didn’t get it. I spent the next few years scoffing at anyone who said The Exorcist scared or scarred them. I thought, they were just babies, and wouldn’t know a true horror movie if it snuck up behind them with a butcher knife. That all change in the 2000 when the film was re-released in theaters. I don’t know if it was the communal experience of fear, the shear darkness of the theater, the surround-sound, the added “spider-walk” scene, the resubmitted subliminal imagery (more on the misuse of the term subliminal shortly), or some combination of the above elements. Whatever it was, I was thoroughly frightened by the film. My respect and appreciation of this classic came relatively late in my horror-movie consumption life-course.

I’m going to begin with my analysis of this re-watching of the film and then I want to talk a bit about the viewing experience itself, as there was something unique about this viewing. Specifically, I watched it with a group of friends, one of whom claims never to have seen a horror movie in his life. Before we get there, I had a few thoughts about this movie I would like to share. Let’s start with the only negative aspect of the film… and to be fair, this is something that the film really can’t help… it’s simply a matter of time (and the effect it has on science). Specifically, while most of the film holds up, there are also some areas that come off as extremely dated which, again isn’t surprising since the film is over forty years old. In fact, I think one could (successfully) argue that this is actually a strength of the movie… it is nearly half-a-century old and only a few parts come off as being from a different time. The two major areas in which the time difference is most apparent is in its treatment of other cultures and psychology. The beginning of the movie, which takes place in northern Iraq, trades heavily on the fear of the unknown and the foreign. I don’t think it falls into racist or xenophobic territory, but there are a few questionable scenes… a few too many of old crones, “strange” customs, and cultural differences that are placed in the film simply to introduce a sense of unease… again, while I don’t think it’s exactly wrong, it at least feels a bit old-fashioned. When it comes to its portrayal and treatment of psychology though, this movie feels like it was excavated from an archaeological dig site, dusted off, and projected on the side of a decaying barn. The amount of time spent trying to discover the “medical” cause of Regan’s abnormal behavior and the number of times psychiatry (really what we now call psychology) is treated as the last-resort, worst-case option gets frustrating. It gets to the point where the doctors are acting as if psychiatry is one step removed from going to see a witch-doctor (which, in and of itself is an outdated and culturally insensitive term). It’s especially odd since the disorders they are diagnosing her with (“hyper-kinetic disorder”, now knows as ADHD) are now considered the realm of mental health treatment. This portrayal is especially upsetting (at least to me) considering the recent push to understand mental health and illness as simply another form of health care and treatment. Again, though, I really can’t be critical of The Exorcist for this… it is, as every movie is, a film of its time.

The next thing that jumped out at me from this viewing could be seen as a weakness: the movie makes several jumps in time that are not readily apparent… similarly, the film presents elements or ideas that are never sufficiently tied up. For example, there is very little presented on screen that explains why Regan’s mother would be taking her to the doctors to be examined. Similarly, we never know (at least not explicitly) why the sculpture and medallion (or at least different versions of the two) from the beginning of the film (in northern Iraq) end up in the MacNeil household in Georgetown. While watching the movie I started to make notes about this, and found myself getting frustrated by the film. However, once the film ended and we discussed it as a group, it made me realize that Friedkin was making a choice. There are enough clues and implications in the film that, while not allowing you to come up with an air-tight explanation, they allow you to come up with at least a plausible reason behind what is happening. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ll ever watch this movie alone again… not because of how unsettling it is, but because I feel that to do this is to do it wrong, and not paying the film the respect it deserves. In the end, The Exorcist is meant to be a communal experience.

There were might major take-aways, though I had a few other thoughts while watching the film:

  • Today’s horror movies (generally) do not have the same pacing as do horror movies from this era. The Exorcist is over two-hours long, and while some may feel that this is too long (as I mentioned in a previous post, I think most horror movies shouldn’t be over ninety minutes), this movie does a great job of pacing and slowly building up to the exorcism (which, takes palce during the last thirty minutes of the film). Friedkin also make choices that you wouldn’t see in modern horror films. For example (and this is a minor spoiler, so if you don’t want to have anything ruined, skip to the next bullet), we see Damien struggling with his decision of whether or not to return to the exorcism. If the movie were made today, we would stay inside the room… assuming that Damien had abandoned Father Marrin, only to suddenly appear again when he’s most needed.
  • I’ve watched several classic horror movies over the past month or so, and I came to the realization that there just aren’t many modern examples of horror-movie theme music. For example, we all know (at least anyone whose watched a horror movie knows) the music from Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Exorcist, Jaws, but can any of you hum the theme to Scream how about Insidious? Can anyone think of a modern example, to which I’m being unfair? The closest I came to was the music from It Follows, I can’t tell you what it is or hum any bars, but I remember it being at least different and therefore somewhat memorable.
  • I think I would be remiss to not at least mention the subliminal aspects of the movie. I guess the first thing to say is that term subliminal in this case is a bit of a misnomer, at least in reference to the elements in the film most people discuss. Subliminal, by definition, is something we cannot be consciously aware of. Therefore, the brief flashes of (what we presume is) the demon’s face, the superimposed images, and weird cuts are actually quite liminal. Regardless of where you fall on the debate (though, it’s not really a debate… it’s a definition… so, if you insist on using the term subliminal, then you also have to be okay with being wrong) the use of this imagery is effective. While I don’t necessarily find this movie scary, I do find it unsettling and uncomfortable. The use of these near-subliminal images helps to ratchet up these feelings. To me, the watching The Exorcist is always a visceral experience… it tends to trigger my fight-or-flight response… which, is fun… in a weird way.

Wow, this is a long one. Okay, I don’t want to keep you for much longer, but I think I at least have to say a few words about my friend’s experience while watching the film. As I mentioned towards the beginning of this post, he claims to have never watched a horror film (I used the word “claims” because he has seen Alien, but argues that it is a sci-fi movie… I would say it’s more of a horror film, but I get his reasoning). So, being a social scientist, I couldn’t help but write down a hypothesis before we sat down to watch the film. Here’s what I wrote: “he will not be the least bit scared by the movie”. I am equal parts satisfied and disappointed to report that my hypothesis was confirmed. While he didn’t seem to completely hate the movie, he did say things like “It wasn’t really my type of movie”, but that it was at least “interesting”. Also, I want to make it clear that he was being honest. We all watched him (covertly) during certain scenes, and he was completely unfazed. Now, we could debate this single case… but, as a social scientist, taking the deductive approach, I should really use this information to develop a new general hypothesis. The reason why I thought the movie would have no impact on him is specifically due to the fact that he never watched a horror movie before this. What I mean by this is that I think there’s an exposure element when it comes to being scared by horror movies. Most of the people I know who love (and are scared by) horror movies, have a story of seeing one way too early in their life (you can read my first post to see mine). I think this sensitizes us to the genre… it also allows us to suspend disbelief because we are able to tap into the past. Just some food for though. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Anyway, that’s (more than) enough for today. See you tomorrow.


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