he can be fascinating, he can be dull,
He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your
I can smell something cooking,
I can tell you there's going to be a feast.
was so quiet, one of the killers would say later,
you could hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail
shakers in homes way down the Benedict Canyon. Saturday,
August 9, 1969 was a hot night in the Hollywood Hills.
And like a plague of boils, they descended upon the
secluded house just after midnight. Demons were walking
the earth in search of a feeding.
were barking. A man was heard screaming, "Oh,
God, no, please don't! Oh, God, no, don't, don't,
her arrival the next morning, the housekeeper ran
out of the house screaming "Murder, death, bodies,—blood!"
She had seen a bloodfest and was freaked.
in blood, a dead body was slumped in a car on the
driveway. Two bodies, looking like mannequins dipped
in red paint, lay on the well-cared-for lawn.
police officers entered the home, they noticed the
word "PIG" painted on the door in what appeared
to be blood. In the center of the living room, facing
the fireplace, was a long couch. Draped over the back
was a huge American flag—patriotic gore.
the other side lay a young blonde woman, very pregnant.
Later identified as Sharon Tate, film director Roman
Polanski's wife, she lay in a fetal position, her
legs tucked up toward her stomach. Blood had been
smeared all over her. A white nylon rope was looped
around her neck twice; one end extended over a rafter
in the ceiling, the other led across the floor to
yet another body, that of a man, about four feet away.
The man was drenched in blood, his face covered with
a bloody towel, his hands bunched up near his head
as if still warding off blows. When the police lifted
the towel, the man's face was so badly contused that
the cops' guts did flip flops.
what appeared to be a ritualistic murder, blood was
strewn throughout the house. Multiple stab wounds—bayonet-sized—had
been inflicted. One victim had been stabbed fifty-one
Manson's "Family" members were eventually
convicted of the murders. While Manson was awaiting
trial, his attorney remarked that he was an example
of the "total failure of modern society."
As a leader of the Family, Manson said he was Christ
and Satan simultaneously, and that he had sent his
death squads to Benedict Canyon that night.
Family member Charles Tex Watson entered Roman Polanski's
home, he said, "I'm the devil. I'm here to do
the devil's business." All the victims died of
gunshot and multiple stab wounds, coming mainly from
Tex's knife. Susan "Sadie" Atkins later
said killing Sharon Tate was the most exciting experience
in her life. She recalled how she felt a strong urge
to drink Tate's blood. "I opened my mouth and
licked it on my fingers." Patricia "Katie"
Kren winked after killing one of the male victims
and, in a stroke of evil brilliance, carved the word
"WAR" on the dead man's stomach with a fork.
When the police discovered his body the next day,
the fork was still protruding from his gut.
Polanski was in Europe on movie business at the time
of the murders. One year after his film Rosemary's
Baby hailed Satan as alive and well on
planet earth, fact and fiction seemed to converge
that outré August night in 1969.
Sharon Tate massacre was perpetrated in the midst
of a cultural vortex that began in February 1964 and
extended to The Exorcist phenomenon
that played itself out during 1974 and the period
we now know as the "seventies" culture.
The events of those years are still defining our cultural
sixties, for all intents and purposes, began in February
1964 when the Beatles landed in New York City. Beatlemania
took the country by storm and, within a year, the
world. The Beatles went on to become the biggest entertainment
act in history and brought rock music to the fore
as a true art form.
their predecessors, the Beatles soon revealed themselves
to be more than just entertainers. As cultural icons
and modernists, they would be willing to critique
and even debunk the past. The defining moment came
in 1966 with a remark made by John Lennon at a time
when public demand for the Beatles seemed insatiable.
Concerning Christianity, Lennon said: "Christianity
will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue
about that. I'm right, and I will be proved right.
We're more popular than Jesus Christ right now. I
don't know which will go first. Rock and roll or Christianity.
Jesus was alright, but his disciples were thick and
ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for
importance of this statement cannot be underestimated,
for it challenged the basic fabric of Western society.
The gauntlet was thrown down by the biggest pop icons
of the age.
had just emerged from the fifties. The Beatles' audience,
even the younger ones, had been raised on Leave
It To Beaver, anti-communism and the fear
of God. Men dressed formally in hats and ties, and
women were expected to nurture their children on Christian
morals and have dinner ready when their husbands came
home from work. Lennon's statement challenged all
it provoked one of the last real stands for Christian
fundamentalism. The failed attempt by fundamentalist
groups to ban the Beatles, including burn-ins to torch
Beatles records, meant that the old-time religion
had lost its two-hundred-year grip on American culture.
intellectuals had already decided that the older views
had to go. Time magazine reflected this
quite aptly on April 10, 1966 with its sepulchral
cover of red-on-black which asked, "Is God Dead?"
Time's cover appeared as the death-of-God
movement was peaking. Its opening paragraph set the
tone: "Is God dead? It is a question that tantalizes
both believers, who perhaps secretly fear that he
is, and the atheists, who possibly suspect that the
answer is no." The article's ending sentence
is an epitaph for the modern age: "Perhaps today,
the Christian can do no better than echo the prayer
of the worried father who pleaded with Christ to heal
his spirit-possessed son: 'I believe, help my unbelief.'"
same Time cover makes an auspicious
appearance in Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.
Mia Farrow, who plays Rosemary, tentatively gazes
at the cover in an obstetrician's office at a point
when she is fleeing a group of Satan worshippers whom
she believes desire her unborn child. The Time
cover acts as a signpost of the period and an omen
of what is to come.
film is an artistic commentary that cannot, considering
the murder of Polanski's wife, be separated from the
director's personal life. It offered Polanski's analysis
of an ordinary couple confronting the evil at-large
around us. The popularity of Rosemary's Baby
eventually led to an entire cycle of such stories
that reached its apex several years later with The
Baby is a modern fable about life in the
sixties. The story centers on Rosemary and Guy, a
socially ambitious couple who move into an elegant
old New York City apartment (housed in the Dakota
building outside of which John Lennon would be gunned
down in 1980). Guy is a frustrated actor trying to
make his mark in the world. The young marrieds make
friends with an odd couple next door, the Castenets,
who eventually intrude into their lives.
becomes pregnant and, as if by magic, Guy starts landing
good acting parts that were mysteriously vacated by
actors stricken by strange physical ailments. As we
come to find out, Guy has made a pact with a cult
of Devil worshippers, led by the Castenets. As part
of his deal with the evildoers, Guy assists in drugging
Rosemary, whereupon she is sexually assaulted by Satan
himself. Rosemary believes all this is merely a nightmare.
As a result of the union, Rosemary becomes pregnant
with the Devil's baby.
grows suspicious and eventually fears a cult is after
her baby. She tries to escape, but it seems the cult
members' web stretches throughout the city and that
she cannot get away.
baby is finally born, but Rosemary is told the child
died. Shortly thereafter, still suspicious, she hears
crying in the next-door apartment and eventually finds
her way there. She sees her child and is initially
repulsed. "He has his father's eyes," she
is told—a reptilian look, we suppose. But her
maternal instincts kick in, and in one of the few
moments of humanity displayed in the film, Rosemary
accepts the child, who is hailed by the cultists as
the anti-Christ. "Hail, Satan.... His power is
stronger and stronger," the worshippers proclaim.
"God is dead."
1968, social, racial and generational conflicts were
rampant. Three years earlier, "Burn, Baby, Burn"
exploded when the Los Angeles inner city neighborhood
of Watts erupted in rebellion. It took 20,000 National
Guardsmen five days to quell the looting and arson.
Thirty-four people, mostly black, were killed.
Vietnam War was raging. The senselessness of the dead
combat soldiers was played out on the nightly television
news. Seeing death was believing, and as Walter Cronkite
began to vacillate on the war, even middle America
began to doubt.
Summer of Love had not brought peace or love. As more
and more young people flocked to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury
district and other hippie strongholds, the spirit
of liberation crashed against uncertain realities,
producing increased drug addiction, crime, and mental
and physical illness.
of peace and love quickly faded into cynicism. "Give
me love" turned to "give me revolution"
by 1968. It was the year of revolt and the year Martin
Luther King was gunned down in Memphis. The Beatles
turned Eastward, then clashed over money and egos;
the group that had signaled the start of the '60s
the last gasp of breath for the sixties generation,
occurred in the same month as the Manson murders.
The next year, three of the high priests of the youth
culture, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin,
all died drug-related deaths. A generation of flower
power children was left wondering what happened to
peace, love and understanding as the stench of death
blew across the land.
December 8, 1969, a scant four months after the Manson
murders, twenty-three miles east of San Francisco
at the Altamont Speedway, the Rolling Stones performed
for over 400,000 long-haired flower children. Security
was augmented by a couple hundred Hell's Angels accessorized
with brass knuckles, knives and leaded pool cues—it
was headbashing time. On the stage, Mick Jagger, in
skintight velvet pants and thigh-high red boots, broke
into "Sympathy for the Devil." Then, as
the band played "Under My Thumb," a young
black man made the mistake of leaning against one
of the Angels' choppers. As a pack of Angels surrounded
him, he incautiously brandished a pistol. Three Angels
jumped him and knifed him in the back, neck and face.
The peace of Woodstock and the innocence of a generation
died with Meredith Hunter that night.
months later, in 1970, a popular mainstream film openly
ridiculed belief in God and the older moral structure.
Robert Altman's highly praised M*A*S*H,
set during the Korean conflict, played out the horrors
of the Vietnam War in the context of black comedic
relief. The film was an onslaught against older values.
March 1970 at Kent State University, National Guard
troops opened fire on student demonstrators and onlookers,
killing four unarmed students. Elsewhere, the feminist
and gay liberation movements were gaining steam. Age-old
cultural mores were being tested and found lacking.
the government seemed to be unraveling. In June of
1972, the Watergate scandal that implicated President
Richard Nixon was unearthed. By 1973, the presidency
was on the brink of collapse.
walking wounded from Vietnam were everywhere. Legless
men were pushed in wheelchairs by ghosts. The only
thing America was exporting with success, it seemed,
was death and fear. By the early seventies, the world
had turned into what seemed a demonic nightmare. This
is hell, we were beginning to think, but
we're all in it together.
many, life appeared to be merely birth and death with
all the mumbo-jumbo in between being anecdote. "He
not busy being born is busy dying," Dylan sang
to the rootless generation.
however, were questioning whether something else might
be at work in the human rat race of life. In a controversial
address, Pope Paul VI expressed his concern over the
demonic influences at work in the modern world. In
November 1972, he had this, in part, to say: "Evil
is not merely a lack of something, but an effective
agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting.
A terrible reality.... That it is not a question of
one Devil, but of many, is indicated by various passages
in the Gospel.... But the principal one is Satan...."
Pope's remarks created debate inside and outside the
Catholic Church. In fact, many priests within the
Church, even at that time, considered the idea of
a personified Devil an embarrassment.
was against this societal backdrop that The Exorcist
opened in the United States on December 26, 1973—a
year after the Pope's controversial address and just
seven months before the House of Representatives initiated
impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon.
great film can be a thing of strange and terrible
beauty. It reaches out and brushes up against truths
destined forever to elude those filmmakers who insist
on adhering to workaday realism. By drawing on images
and a vocabulary extending far beyond the rational,
these films speak to us of the fears and desires buried
deep within our subconscious.
a film is William Friedkin's classic The Exorcist.
Written by a Catholic, directed by a Jew, and produced
by the multinational Warner Bros., the film was championed
by political radicals such as Jerry Rubin, picketed
by numerous pressure groups, praised by the Catholic
News for its profound spirituality, and
branded satanic by evangelist Billy Graham. Graham
supposedly said an evil was embodied within the celluloid
of the film itself.
The Exorcist was released on December
26, 1973, it received an almost unanimous critical
dubbing. "The movie is vile and brutalizing,"
Jay Cocks wrote for Time. Pauline Kael,
writing for The New Yorker, called it
garbage and asked, "Aren't those who accept this
picture getting their heads screwed on backwards?"
until Martin Scorsese's 1988 The Last Temptation
of Christ would a mainstream film provoke
such wildly diverging reactions. To this day, the
power of The Exorcist is considered
so potent by some that its video release is still
banned in Great Britain.
thousand moviegoers saw the film its first week. Amazingly,
it played in only two cities, not to mention only
two theaters, because Warner Bros. executives didn't
know what to do with it. After screening it the first
time, they sat dumbfounded. As one movie executive
asked rhetorically, "What the fuck did we just
critics may have called The Exorcist
everything from "occultist claptrap" to
"religious pornography," but word-of-mouth
was the film's strongest weapon. Lines began to grow
in front of theaters, winding their way around square
city blocks. The Exorcist grossed over
$165 million in ticket sales in the United States
alone (or $412 million when adjusted to today's figures).
audience hysteria surprised those who worked on the
film. Within weeks of the first public screenings,
stories began to circulate of fainting, vomiting,
heart attacks and miscarriages. In Berkeley, California,
a man threw himself at the screen in a misguided attempt
to "get the demon." Others were committed
to psychiatric care after seeing the film. There were
even reports of young men in Boston parading naked
in front of the screen, shouting they were the Devil.
to explain this? Steve Allen responded by saying that
The Exorcist was more frightening than
other horror films because there's a part of us that
always knows that it's fantasy. With the murders in
Psycho, "you can always holler for
the police. But in this film, the evil is something
one feels utterly defenseless against and there's
nothing you can do about it. That's what scares people
the most." Friedkin attributed the intense reaction
to people's need to believe in God and the Devil.
Exorcist was fear in its most horrible
sense—the inevitability of personified
spiritual evil that can manifest itself in and through
Terror of Transcendence
holds a mirror up to human experience. Its prime function
is to make the tensions of life stand still in order
to be observed and studied. As in the great Cubist
paintings, the tensions may be viewed from all angles
and in all manner of settings.
is, however, a tension when painted on canvas or captured
on film or dramatized on stage which leads to religious
art—the tension of transcendence, the tension
between a person's experience as a knower and a lover,
and "the simultaneous experience that nothing
in the visible, tangible universe can fulfill or satisfy
the human need to know and love." Transcendence,
then, becomes the human being's search for something
to commit to beyond the material universe.
may have varied responses to the tension of transcendence:
we may respond as Christian, Hebrew or Buddhist, as
atheist or agnostic. One may respond to the tension
of transcendence through drugs in seeking to open
the doors of perception. The interest in the occult,
including UFOlogy and the demonic, is an important
signpost of the transcendent element in human nature.
Not to experience the tension of transcendence is
not to experience the depths of true humanity.
Exorcist is an attempt to depict and dramatize
transcendent elements of reality in a modern framework.
This possibility is what eventually brought William
Peter Blatty to write his 1971 novel. "Several
years ago," he noted in the early seventies,
"I set out to write a novel that would not only
excite and entertain (sermons that put me to sleep
are useless), but would also make a positive statement
about God, the human condition, and the relationship
between the two."
his behind-the-scenes book on The Exorcist, Blatty
recounts how, as a junior at the Jesuitical Georgetown
University in 1949, he came across a Washington
Post account in which he saw "tangible
evidence of transcendence." The newspaper outlined
the details of a supposed demonic infestation and
subsequent exorcism of a fourteen-year-old boy in
Mount Rainier, Maryland, in 1949. "In what is
perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of
its kind in recent religious history," the article
began, "a fourteen-year-old Mount Rainier boy
has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession
by the devil."
to the Post, the boy's "symptoms"
included the unassisted movement of his bed, mattress,
a heavy armchair and assorted small objects, inexplicable
scratching noises in his vicinity, and his own screaming,
cursing and voicing of Latin phrases (a language he
had never studied).
Post account made an indelible impression
on the young Blatty. "If there were demons,"
he noted, "there were angels and probably a God
and a life everlasting." Thus, in Blatty's mind
the Devil's incarnation in the Maryland boy became
an apologetic for the existence of God. Whether this
assumption was logical to the human mind, Blatty thought,
was irrelevant since "prudent judgments do not
satisfy when dealing with the supernatural; for the
ultimate issue is too important; the issue is God
and our hope of resurrection."
life thereafter took some curious turns and eventually
landed him in Hollywood writing comedy screenplays,
some of which, including the 1964 film A Shot in
the Dark, are classics. However, he became
frustrated over a lack of opportunity to write anything
serious. During these years, Blatty continued his
"studies in possession, but desultorily and with
no specific aim." His fascination with the Mount
Rainier story remained. And by 1963 the notion of
possession as the subject for a novel began to crystallize.
writing his novel, Blatty talked to a Jesuit at Georgetown.
He was told of a priest who, in his thirties, had
"shock-white hair" and was said to have
performed an exorcism. Blatty wrote to the man, who
turned out to be the priest who had exorcised the
demon from the Mount Rainier boy. The priest, Jesuit
William F. Bowdern, was from St. Louis.
reportedly asked Bowdern to help write an account
of the Mount Rainier case which, he argued, could
"do more for the Church and for Christianity
than eighty novels could." Bowdern's clerical
supervisor, however, instructed him not to publicize
the case for, among other reasons, its possible embarrassing
and disturbing impact on the young man involved. Undaunted,
Blatty worked on a fictional tale inspired by the
case but not linked to it directly. The result was
his novel, The Exorcist.
fictional possession story centers on an actress and
single mother, Chris MacNeil, whose daughter Regan
develops serious behavioral problems while they are
living in Georgetown. A barrage of medical and psychological
tests fails to explain either the radical transformation
of Regan's personality or the violent shaking of her
bed. Further horrors ensue. Burke Dennings, the director
of Chris's current film, is found dead at the bottom
of the steps near the MacNeil home, his head twisted
completely backward. A Jewish detective, Lieutenant
Kinderman, surmises Dennings was murdered in the MacNeil
house at the top of the stairs, then thrown from Regan's
traditional medicine and psychiatry fail to cure Regan,
the avowedly atheist Chris turns to young Father Damien
Karras, a local priest with a background in psychiatry,
in a desperate attempt to save her daughter. He reluctantly
agrees to perform an exorcism on Regan and is joined
by an aging exorcist, Father Lankester Merrin.
to Blatty, other than the possession syndrome, everything
else in the book is fictional. The book isn't directly
about the case in Maryland, but without it the novel
would never have come into being. "Amazingly,
it was about 80 to 85 percent accurate from the one
case in 1949 on which Blatty based it," noted
Reverend John J. Nicola, an authority for the Catholic
Church on diabolic possession. "The only thing
I question is the scene depicting the masturbation
with a crucifix. I can justify, even from a moral
standpoint, everything else in the film, including
the language. There is no way of showing diabolic
possession on the screen without using that language.
It is part and parcel of every case."
Exorcist was a phenomenal success, selling
over thirteen million copies in the United States.
And because of Blatty's meat and potatoes prose and
its highly visual character, the book was destined
to become a film.
Totally Realistic View
sold the book rights to Warner Bros. and eventually
surfaced as the sole producer of the film. Blatty
also wrote a first-draft screenplay which ran an amazing
225 pages—approximately four hours on the screen,
despite eliminating the important Iraq prologue which
opened the book.
negotiations began with Warner Bros. to find the right
director. The short list included Stanley Kubrick,
Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols. But Blatty's search
eventually ended with William Friedkin who had impressed
Blatty in a face-to-face meeting in the late sixties
by severely critiquing one of Blatty's television
scripts, calling it "the worst piece of shit
I ever read in my life." Friedkin had directed
over a thousand live television shows and fifteen
documentaries. With The Exorcist, he
would combine his documentary skills with a storytelling
technique he has yet to duplicate. As Friedkin would
say, "It's got to be a good suspense film first,
it's got to scare the hell out of you!" To achieve
this, Friedkin decided that the inexplicable events
in Blatty's novel must have a total reality on screen:
"What turned me around was when Bill Blatty let
me in on the fact that his story was based on an actual
case. I realized then that the film had to be a totally
realistic view of inexplicable events. It had to be
absolutely flawless in its presentation of real people
against real backgrounds."
Bros. initially refused to consider Friedkin. Several
events, however, made him emerge as the prime candidate.
The most prominent was the opening of his 1971 The
French Connection, for which he won the
Academy Award for Best Director.
a teenager living in Chicago, Friedkin was a movie
freak, seeing Hitchcock's Psycho over
and over and studying it. When he saw Orson Welles's
Citizen Kane, it changed his life and
made him want to be a director.
was hired. In his customary fashion, he was demanding
and autocratic. He promptly critiqued Blatty's beloved
first-draft screenplay (which is reprinted in full
in Blatty's On The Exorcist book). Friedkin's
most important objection to Blatty's screenplay was
the need to reincorporate the Iraq prologue, which
eventually opened the film. "I just want you
to tell the story from beginning to end," Friedkin
said, "with no craperoo." Blatty listened
and quickly produced a rewrite. Finally, in 1972 Friedkin
and Blatty began shooting The Exorcist
from a script that would ultimately win an Oscar for
Best Adapted Screenplay.
was clear from the start that The Exorcist
would not be an easy shoot. The first shot inside
the New York soundstage was a close-up of bacon cooking
on a griddle. Friedkin didn't like the way the bacon
was curling; he wanted it to remain flat while it
cooked. The production, therefore, was stopped while
the prop master searched the city for preservative-free
bacon, which was difficult to find in 1972. "Friedkin
was moving so slowly," Peter Biskind notes, "that
when one of the crew returned to the set after being
out sick for three days, the director was still on
the same shot."
also had a short fuse. He fired people in the morning
and rehired them in the afternoon. On the set, Friedkin
the perfectionist was known as "Wacky Willy."
professionalism, drive for authenticity and commitment
to the ultimate message of The Exorcist
made it one of the great films of modern times. According
to Peter Travers and Stephanie Reiff: "The whole
idea behind doing a film of The Exorcist
has to be that out of all this terrible human behavior
we're showing, there is still something that points
to a transcendental dimension to life. It's the mystery
set out to pull Blatty's ideas together into a cinematic
weave. Reinserting the book prologue gave the film
its initial continuity. Beautifully filmed, the prologue
establishes a number of aural and visual motifs which
will reverberate throughout the film. It is essential
to understanding The Exorcist for it
shows how the past plays on the present to produce
discordant screeching sound, heard over the red-on-black
titles, as Mark Kermode notes in his essay on the
film, "offers an eerie pre-echo of the creaking
bedsprings and demonic scratchings that will later
infest Regan MacNeil's Georgetown bedroom." As
a huge ochre sun burns over the ruins of Nineveh,
an archeological dig is revealed. A young boy approaches
a Teilhard-like Father Merrin digging. Led by the
youngster to another section of the dig, Merrin is
told by a co-worker, "Some interesting finds."
is shown a St. Joseph's medal. "This is strange,"
he remarks. Friedkin cleverly introduced the medal,
which does not appear in Blatty's novel or screenplay,
as a cinematic talisman which will mysteriously appear
throughout the film and link various characters and
events, especially Father Damien Karras.
Merrin finds an amulet of the demon Pazuzu, symbolic
of Satan. Having been involved ten years before in
an exorcism that almost killed him, the priest takes
the find as a sign that he will confront Satan again.
This is driven home at the curator's office. Merrin
eyes the Pazuzu amulet suspiciously as the curator
remarks, "Evil against evil." The clock
behind him stops. The meaning is clear: the normal
flow of time has been interrupted by a force from
the past and, as such, time is meaningless in the
course of human events. The curator remarks that he
wishes Merrin was not leaving. Merrin responds, "There
is something I must do."
Merrin moves toward the stopped clock, a single rose
is seen on a white teapot on a table. The rose provides
continuity throughout the film. Later, in the apartment
of Father Karras's mother, the wallpaper is covered
with roses. The wallpaper is the same in Chris MacNeil's
bedroom. There is a single rose in the sugar bowl
in the apartment of Karras's mother. When Regan later
urinates on the rug, her mother, Chris, is holding
a pink rose. Flowers are the plant's reproductive
organ and symbolize both death and resurrection. In
Renaissance art, flowers also represent the soul.
is mysteriously drawn back to the dig. His journeys
to and from the dig are littered with allusions to
the coming horrors—from the steel worker who
prefigures Regan's eye-rolling, to the haggard old
woman in a carriage who nearly runs Merrin down and
whose quickly exposed face is similar to Regan's during
her deepest demonic possession.
Merrin climbs the mound to confront the great statue
of Pazuzu, angry dogs scuffle in the dust. Friedkin,
in a brilliantly compressed introduction, "has
conjured an ancient, exotic battleground between good
and evil," writes Kermode. As the prologue fades
into a modern Georgetown setting, this exotic ancient
battleground is injected directly into the life of
a modern, wealthy, single, white mother with no apparent
religious beliefs. The scene is thus set not only
for the forthcoming spiritual battle but also for
the contest between science and religion, as doctors
and priests attempt to subdue an uncontrollable female
ancient world of Iraq fades to a house in Georgetown
where Chris MacNeil follows scratching sounds to her
daughter's bedroom. There she senses an unexpected
coldness. The sheets on Regan's bed are pulled back.
The window is open. Something has crawled into the
young girl's room and perhaps into her bed.
to a movie being filmed called Crash Course.
The viewer is introduced to director Bruce Dennings
and Father Damien Karras, a dark young priest—first
seen smiling at the obscenities on the set, then moments
later walking away in deep thought. Introduced face-on,
smiling and radiant, the suggestion is that this is
Karras's story. "My typist had been working on
the novel," Blatty recounts. "She didn't
offer any editorial comment, so halfway through I
asked for her reaction. She said, 'They're after him.'
I said, 'Who?' She said, 'You know, them. They're
after Father Karras.' Well, she picked up on what
half the readers do not—that it is Karras, not
the little girl. Karras was going to be lost forever
or he was going to be saved. This is his crucible."
movie being filmed, Crash Course, is
a tale of teenage insurrection. "Though neither
Friedkin or Blatty has much truck with the idea,"
Mark Kermode notes, "it is not hard to read The
Exorcist (both novel and film) as, on one
level, a paedophobic tract, reflecting deep-seated
parental anxieties about the changing nature of 'childhood'."
In fact, Stephen King cites The Exorcist
as a socio-horror movie par excellence
on the early schism between adulthood and adolescence.
Karras walks away, Chris shouts to the student mob:
"If you want to effect any change, you have to
do it within the system." The scene has important
subliminal impact—Karras's loss of faith in
the system and his doubts about his calling as a priest.
"I need out, I'm unfit," he later tells
a friend. "There's not a day in my life that
I don't feel like a fraud."
next view of Karras is in an underground subway station.
Jets of steam belch from the tracks. Karras ascends
from a glowing underworld to the shadowy gloom of
the platform. Here he encounters a wretched drunk
who reaches out a clawing hand and begs, "Father,
could you help an old altar boy? I'm a Cat'lick."
This line will later recur as one of Regan's most
potent demonic taunts, "striking at the heart
of Karras's faltering faith and mocking his inability
to find charity for the world's great unwashed"
according to Kermode. As Blatty writes in the novel:
"He could not bear to search for Christ again
in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and
bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be."
of responding to the beggar with priestlike charity,
Karras recoils in horror—an indication that
Karras's humanity, as for so many of us, has significantly
been drained from him. As Kermode recognizes, the
derelict's haggard face, momentarily illuminated by
an incoming train, prefigures the flashlit demonic
visage which will later appear in Karras's dream of
his mother: "Once again, all key elements of
the unfolding story collide in a swift montage: the
ancient battleground between good and evil; the possession
of Regan; Karras's faltering faith; even his own ultimate
ascension to salvation—all these elements are
here in this seemingly incidental subway encounter."
on the ugliness of poverty, the horror of wasted human
lives, and the bestiality of the beggar, Friedkin
gave visual resonance to the message of Blatty's novel,
something Blatty described as the mystery of goodness:
"Karras is a man who has rejected his own humanity,
and the demon will attack this particular vulnerability.
He asks the question, 'How can God love someone who
has to chew food to digest it, and who has a gastrointestinal
system?' That's why the hideous side of human nature
must be shockingly portrayed. It's the demon's attack
on Karras's Achilles heel."
venture into Hell's Kitchen, the apartment where his
mother seems to be recovering from a fall down a flight
of stairs, further accentuates his plight. Unkempt
kids run amok outside in the street, and decrepit
wrecks and general disarray are the conditions of
his mother's neighborhood.
Karras binds his mother's leg, and we glimpse a medal,
probably St. Joseph's, around her neck similar to
the one Merrin uncovered in Iraq. Karras attempts
to stifle his guilt about his mother's living conditions
and his abandonment of her in a series of poignant
exchanges between son and mother. Again, his despair
about the decrepitude of the material world is evident.
a troubled Karras in a campus bar, racked with guilt,
tells his superior, "It's my mother, Tom... I
never should have left her... I want out of this job.
It's wrong, it's no good." This scene closes
with Karras's despairing declaration that "I
think I've lost my faith."
and fiction fuse in The Exorcist, as
both Blatty and Friedkin had in common an inordinate
attachment-obsession to their mothers. Both had recently
died, and, at the time, Blatty was writing a book
about his. "My grief could be described by an
outside observer as neurotic, overdrawn, and one might
describe Billy's [Friedkin] reaction as the same as
mine," said Blatty. "Who knows what deep
psychic effect it had on both of us?" As one
woman described a meeting with Blatty during the making
of The Exorcist, "He was morose,
crying about his mother." Blatty asked her if
she would accompany him to a sound studio where he
was trying to contact his mother's spirit on the other
final scene with Karras's mother stressed a frenetic
attachment and extreme guilt, much like Blatty's.
Karras finds her incarcerated at Bellevue Psychiatric
Hospital. There is a connection, writes Kermode, between
Karras's disturbed mother and Regan, and it will become
explicit: "We see a haggard form of Mrs. Karras
held down by restraining straps.... She will not be
comforted by her tearful son, demanding, 'Why you
did this to me, Dimmy?' before turning away in incoherent
rage, struggling to escape his desperate ministrations.
All these actions will be mirrored exactly by Regan
as symptoms of 'demonic' infestation. At the Barringer
Clinic, and again during the exorcisms at the Prospect
Street house, she too will be strapped to her bed.
When either Merrin or Karras attempts to draw the
sign of the cross on her forehead, she will struggle
away from them in a manner that clearly recalls Mrs.
Karras's withdrawal from her son here at Bellevue.
More startling still, Regan will appear to Karras
during the final exorcism as a vision of his mother,
mimicking her voice and saying, 'Dimmy, why you do
this to me?' This attack will prove to be the most
devastating, hitting the spot where Karras's faith
from a scene of demonic chaos in Regan's bedroom,
Friedkin cuts to the corridors of the Jesuit residence
at Georgetown University. Father Joe Dyer finds Karras
in his room, consumed with guilt and remorse about
his mother's recent lonely death in New York. As Dyer
slips off his shoes, Karras falls into an anguished
dream about his dead mother. A ghastly, leering face
with red-encrusted eyes flashes past the screen amid
an extraordinary montage of disparate, jumbled images.
It is clear the demon has invaded even Karras's dreams.
dream is of crucial importance to the film. As with
many of Friedkin's visual props, Karras's nightmare
has roots in Blatty's novel: