The Reactionary EXORCIST
I have always considered THE EXORCIST reactionary and overrated.
Let’s start with the overrated part.
My issue with THE EXORCIST is that its scares are basic, childish: on the level of someone waiting round the corner and shouting BOO, or a nasty brother showing his sister his mashed up food on his tongue. “Did you hear there was an accident? HERE ARE THE VICTIMS GLAAA” — like that. It does scare, yes, but not in any substantial way. Pazuzu is basically just a prankster.
I have always felt this way about it, especially since OMEN got me first as a kid(as well as a lot of other horror), so this seemed…so basic when I got to IT. What I gathered was this was a film designed to scare middle-class people who didn’t watch any other horror.
And ones with traditional upbringings where religion had been important in a way we don’t understand now.
When you’re looking at the film you’re seeing a film designed to scare people brought up before Vatican II. If anything, the film is a rebuke to Vatican II — that’s the younger priest Karras: modern, enlightened, doubting his faith, trained as a psychologist at Harvard — in the view of a traditionalist, hardly a priest at all.Merrin, the older one, though, is the Old Church. The daddy that people like the younger priest, or the baby boomer generation, rejected.
It’s not accidental that the film Regan’s mom is doing appears to be attacking student protestors. The free speech movement is referenced by Regan’s profane outbursts — or at least the paranoid middle-class perception of it, where they thought of it just as a bunch of brats going crazy. Even as late as the early 70s.
But this was also a time of a retreat of that generation, post-Kent State, where we had other films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE depicting their slaughter — the ending of EASY RIDER turned into a whole film, with cannibalism: the older generation attacking and eating the younger one. Considering them meat for slaughter, a powerful image to a generation facing being poured into the slaughterhouse of Vietnam for the whole previous decade. Compare the two that year: TEXAS CHAINSAW is about a threat TO that generation, while EXORCIST is a threat FROM.
As we live in a time that the primary intended audience for films is almost always younger people(ever since STAR WARS) you may not understand: they were not the intended audience.
It was their parents.
The more “normal” part of their generation, and the whole generation’s parents — the main audience of THE EXORCIST — simply perceived their rebellion against institutions they were invested in, and which they believed their kids should have been grateful for and obedient to (like they had been) as insanity. And perhaps even the work of the Devil. That’s the context this was coming out of that you do not recall, because you were probably not there at the time.
EXORCIST after all is a very reactionary film. It hammers at you that your modern freedom and disbelief and science are of no use, that you, the boomer generation then must, to put it bluntly, run back to daddy. In 1973 that’s a direct rebuke. In fact, they even make medical treatment look crueler than exorcism. Which, if you know about real modern exorcisms, is dangerous bullshit. The film actually caused new exorcisms, which were nothing but abuse, in some cases causing deaths.
But more: remember too that this film was the same year as Roe vs. Wade. This was the year the fundamentalists began their resurgence, partly due to that, and started interfering in politics when, previously, that had been taboo. This was a time when the right-wing religious people suddenly had a “enough of this shit” moment. And as you know, this never went away.
Especially in the South where I grew up — EXORCIST and the later, even more influential THE OMEN, very popular there, built powerful and malign new mythologies. I saw a minister quote this from the Omen, claiming it was from Revelations. (It’s not, it’s just David Seltzer):
Where do you think their obsession with the Antichrist and Armageddon got its fuel, its iconography, its language? From THE OMEN. (which certainly injected “666” into pop culture, single-handedly) And initially, from THE EXORCIST, for there never would have been a market for THE OMEN without that coming before. Not from the Bible, even if they themselves are unconscious of this.
THE EXORCIST is an example, like SOUTH PARK, of how you can not realize how reactionary something is and how it seeps into your mind because it’s entertaining.
And besides, as said, it’s overrated.
Labels: film, horror