The Real Reason ‘The Exorcist’ Remains Iconic … if Not a True Horror Film8 min read
St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430AD), long before he became a Christian, would not accept the easy answer regarding the most important questions of existence.
- Is there a God?
- What is the relationship between Good and Evil?
- If there is a God as the Christians describe, whence Evil?
- And if God is all powerful and omniscient, then how can a man have individual free will and self-determination?
These questions frustrated him, by his own account, in The Confessions, until he understood that he was asking the wrong question:
The question is not, “Why is there Evil?” but “Why is there Good?”
That is to say, one cannot reason oneself to a sensible answer to any of Augustine’s questions if one starts with the idea of suffering and evil; as if those things are equal to the Good. But, once one looks through the telescope from the other end, as it were, one can make sense of the Universe and the inclusion and even “rightness” of evil in it.
Key to this understanding is that Evil and Good are not relative values. Like temperature (in which there is an absolute Zero (evil) but not maximum for heat (Good), Evil is relative to Good but Good is not relative to Evil.
These are key insights, I think, if one is to understand the brilliance of both “The Exorcist” (novel 1971; film 1973) and its true sequel, (“Legion,” novel 1983; film, “Exorcist III,” written for the screen and directed by Blatty, 1990). For, far from illustrating the feebleness of good against evil in this world, both films work very hard to show that without Good, there is no Evil.
In fact, the theme of both films is that Good is the only thing that makes sense of this world. And that this itself explains rationally how suffering itself can be, itself, good, since that good issues from a contest between the two poles between (and the apotheosis of) good and evil which seem to exist within this curious creature that is human.
There are a few films that can make a claim to being iconic. Film, after all, is a new medium—scarcely over a hundred years old. It is a quintessentially American art form.
“Citizen Kane” taught every director the elasticities of the format. No serious director can fail to reckon with Orson Welles’ teaching everyone what the future might hold for them.
“The Wizard of Oz” teaches storytellers the basic tropes of the human condition, the importance of the faerie tale as foundation for the artform’s magic. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” demonstrates the ways in which a film might not merely reflect the landscape of film, but alter the landscape of culture—complicating as it does the assessment of women’s role in society just before the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s.
Taking up the terror that underlies human mastery of a Promethean gift of technology without the ability to control it—recalling Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”—Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” contemplates the end of humankind even as it casts a look back at its fundamental nature and beginning.
Blatty’s “The Exorcist” was written in the context of an upheaval in Western Culture. It was published in 1971. The film came out in 1973. It’s an incredibly close turn around that speaks to the importance of the novel’s participation with the zeitgeist in which it was published.
For context, think of this: The Manson murders occurred in in California in 1969; the trial and sentencing of those convicted of those heinous acts happened in 1971. For those of you who were not alive during that time, it was an earth-shattering bit of experience.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” attempts (and succeeds) in capturing the feel of the time in L.A. (if not America) and may make its way to the list of films that capture something essential about American experience at that time.
Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” had appeared to critical acclaim in 1968—but that film is more a promotor of the zeitgeist than a warning. And that is what distinguishes “The Exorcist” from other films that might be likened to it.
And there really are no films that can be likened to it.
Every horror film made since owes something to “The Exorcist,” but none have taken the questions of good and evil or the human condition so seriously or so successfully—either in philosophical or filmic terms. “The Exorcist” itself is so far ahead of its time that the tropes it invented are inevitable and unavoidable.
Many films since have attempted to match the terror evoked by Blatty and Freidkin’s production; but they have failed. From the “Conjuring” franchise (which is quite good in its own right) to “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Relic” (much better than its reviews seem to recognize).
Every possession film must reckon first with “The Exorcist: and then decide how it is going to deal with it effectively. Here’s the challenge: You cannot copy it; you must recognize it; you will imitate it; you cannot do better.
Why is this the case?
It is partly a matter of raw filmmaking skill on the part of Friedkin and Blatty (who profoundly influenced Friedkin’s direction). Blatty offered him great material; but Freidkin himself brought to the project a set of skills that produced a film that was uniquely scary—in film terms—that had nothing to do with the story’s plot.
Weirdly, “The Exorcist” works because it shows you everything (most slasher films, by contrast, fail for precisely this reason). Likewise, the editing and sound—with ambient noise, silence, and a minimal score—brilliantly leave the audience unsettled from beginning to end.
Early and late entrances, plus the cutting between seemingly unconnected scenes (amped up in “Exorcist III” by Blatty as director) is subtly disorienting for the audience. The climax of “The Exorcist” is not only totally provided for and expected, it is also deeply creepifying and satisfying.
But hindsight is 20/20 and (forget “Exorcist II: The Heretic” for a moment), the writing of “Legion” and the making of “Exorcist III,” through hindsight, fleshes out the real psychological terror and philosophical questions mined by the very situation of the first film and novel in a way that bears repeated viewing and thought.
Lt. Kindaman (Lee J. Cobb in the original film; George C. Scott in the sequel) seems to be a major/minor character. A tack on in the first film giving it a “police procedural” fail. Yet, the dialogue given to his character is so funny and fresh, Blatty’s affection for him (and his oddly cynical and comic view of the world) seems obvious.
Thankfully, this is carried over into the first third of “Exorcist III.” Scott’s performance as Kinderman, whose portrayal of the character, from 15 years after the events of the original, becomes darker and more cynical (and, frankly, more emotional and panicked as he begins to question his own faith) as the sequel progresses, for good reason.
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In “The Exorcist,” Kinderman is used to investigating what he thinks is the mundane matter of murder. The events of the film teach him that murder, and human life, hold greater meaning than he has hitherto considered.
By the time we meet him in “Exorcist III,” he accepts that the roots of all evil can be traced to the devil surrounded by those who will not take him seriously—either out of fear or arrogance. He has become the reflection of the faithful man completely dismissed by the world around him.
Which brings us, I think, to a grand misunderstanding about the first film and perhaps of the second. Neither film, properly speaking, is a “horror” story. Both are psychological examinations of human beings who must re-consider the philosophical and existential grounds for their own beliefs.
As such, the first film masquerades as the story of a girl possessed by a demon named “Pazuzu,” (clever that, since that is NOT what the film is about). In actuality, it shows how evil uses the innocent to accomplish its deeds.
Ricky Gervais recently unpacked how comedy has a subject and a target. People, he claims, become offended when they don’t like the subject of a joke when they don’t realize the joke’s target.
A similar misunderstanding haunts “The Exorcist.” Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil is the subject of the possession; she is not the target. Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin is the target.
This underscores the helplessness of not good but evil. Unlike God, evil can do nothing if it cannot seduce or force some good actor to go for it. Good, as G.K. Chesterton noted, will do no good thing itself that it cannot allow one of its creatures to do freely instead.
And, that, as they say, is the rub. And it seems to be what Blatty as a writer and director so wanted to express to the world. After all, if there is a Devil, there must be a God. Full stop. Hence, each film actually underscores a belief in the Good in the face of the evils we are presented with every day of our lives—even if they don’t come in the form of a little girl whose head twists 360 degrees and spews pea-soup.
At the same time, as we wend our way through a world that presents us with what is the mundanity of serial murder, is it any wonder that the Kindermans of the world develop a self-protecting cynical humor that shield them from their worse fears?
“The Exorcist” itself is so far ahead of its time that the tropes it invented are inevitable and unavoidable.
Too many films and stories do two things at the same time: they ask us to agree that such evil simply operates all around us, and there’s really nothing we can do about it—not really (“Rosemary’s Baby” or “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”)—or they ask us to take such evil as a joke (take your pick).
“The Exorcist” and “Exorcist III” (I’ll leave the debate about the virtue of Blatty’s director’s cut versus the studio’s re-shoot for another day) ask us to take the questions of good and evil seriously by asking us to recognize that those questions are wider and bigger, sometimes, then our own experiences, even as they impinge upon our lives.
Bonus: Blatty’s “The Ninth Configuration” (the other movie he directed, starring Powers Booth) has a weird connection to “The Exorcist.” Regan’s character early in that 1973 film says to an astronaut at a party held by her mother, “You’re gonna die up there.”
Powers Booth’s character in “The Ninth Configuration” is an astronaut who goes crazy in space and then is convinced he’s been asked to come run an insane asylum when, in fact, he’s a patient.
But that’s an article for another day.
Gregory Borse teaches film appreciation, history & development, philosophy, literary theory and a variety of literatures on a small campus in a large university system in the South. His short story “Joyellen” was selected as an online exclusive for West Trade Review’s Summer 2021 issue. He has published or presented in the past on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters” and seminal horror films ranging from “Nosferatu” to “Halloween,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Strangers,” among others.