Who's Afraid of The Exorcist?
By John W. Whitehead

From Gadfly October 1998


Well, he can be fascinating, he can be dull,
He can ride down Niagara Falls in the barrels of your skull.
I can smell something cooking,
I can tell you there's going to be a feast.
—Bob Dylan

It 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.

Dogs were barking. A man was heard screaming, "Oh, God, no, please don't! Oh, God, no, don't, don't, don't..."

Upon 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.

Drenched 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.

As 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.

On 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.

In 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 times.

Charles 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.

When 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.

Roman 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.

Is God Dead?
The 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 acumen.

The 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.

Unlike 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 me."

The 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.

America 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 of this.

Furthermore, 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.

The 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.'"

This 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.

The 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 Exorcist.

Rosemary's 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.

Rosemary 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.

Rosemary 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.

The 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."

A Terrible Reality
By 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Affirmations 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 was disintegrating.

Woodstock, 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.

On 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.

Several 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.

In 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.

Even 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.

The 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.

To 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.

Some, 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...."

The 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.

It 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.

Utterly Defenseless
A 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.

Such 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.

When 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?"

Not 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.

Twenty-eight 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 see?"

The 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).

The 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.

How 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.

The Exorcist was fear in its most horrible sense—the inevitability of personified spiritual evil that can manifest itself in and through people.

The Terror of Transcendence
Art 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.

There 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.

We 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.

The 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."

The Real Thing
In 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."

According 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).

The 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."

Blatty's 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.

Before 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.

Blatty 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.

The Novel
Blatty's 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 bedroom window.

When 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.

According 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."

The 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.

A Totally Realistic View
Blatty 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.

Next, 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."

Warner 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.

As 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.

Friedkin 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.

It 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."

Friedkin 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."

The Prologue
Friedkin's 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 of faith."

Friedkin 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 the future.

A 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."

Merrin 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.

Next, 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."

When 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.

Merrin 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.

As 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 child.

Karras's Crucible
The 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.

Cut 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."

The 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.

As 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."

Our 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."

Instead 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."

Focusing 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."

Hell's Kitchen
Karras's 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.

Inside, 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.

Later, 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."

Fact 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 side.

The 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 is weakest."

The Nightmare
Fresh 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.

Karras's 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:

He dreamed of his mother. Standing at a window high in Manhattan, he'd seen her emerging from a subway kiosk across the street.... He waved. She didn't see him. She wandered the street. Buses. Trucks. Unfriendly crowds. She was growing frightened. She returned to the subway and began to descend. Karras grew frantic, ran to the street and began to weep as he called her name; as he could not find her; as he pictured her helpless and bewildered in the maze of tunnels beneath the ground.

Friedkin expanded the guilt-ridden dream to encompass images and themes from the entire film—from the Iraq prologue to the Georgetown steps finale—the St. Joseph medal, the snarling desert dogs, the pendulum clock, and the face of the demon. Friedkin explains the key to the dream sequence: "What I was trying to do... was to explore the notion that two different people, Father Merrin and Father Karras, who are in different parts of the world, had experiences, or memories, or dreams, or nightmares, that had brought about a synthesis between them."

Science And Religion
Karras's nightmare fades into a struggling Regan, who curses and spits at doctors who frantically attempt to inject her with a sedative. A physician summarizes her condition as "a symptom of a type of disturbance in the chemo-electrical activity of the brain."

The idea of dehumanizing science pitted against ancient religion is a recurring theme of The Exorcist. When Chris MacNeil first asks Karras for help with an exorcism, he responds: "Well, first thing, I'd have to get into a time machine and get 'em back to the sixteenth century.... It just doesn't happen anymore, Ms. MacNeil.... Since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia... all those things they taught me at Harvard." Through his studies of psychiatry, Karras has rationalized away his faith.

However, in the coming scenes, it is the words and actions of the doctors that appear to be the rituals of some primitive religious practice. In fact, it was the arteriogram scene that caused vomiting and illness in audiences. Blatty himself said he never had the stomach to watch this part of the film.

As Regan is laid upon the examination table, a physician whose attire resembles an exotic priestly habit anoints her skin with dark iodine. Kermode writes: "Regan's shoulders are bared, and an undeniably penile syringe is brought forth, erect and ejaculating. She whimpers as it pierces her flesh, the blood flowing in orgasmic spurts, hungrily sucked up by the machinery of medicine." The term "modern medicine," as portrayed in the film, is an oxymoron—all the cutting, stabbing and probing that contemporary physicians do is not that far removed from the cavemen. We only want to think so.

A barrage of gothic instruments is wheeled in to record the ceremony. A scanner traces an illuminated cross on Regan's forehead. Suddenly the air is filled with rhythmic pounding—the primitive beat of the occult. With Regan helpless before science, the transition is to a bright, white screen. In the silence of technology, Regan's skull floats into view as the doctor recounts, "There's just nothing there."

Friedkin, now that the audience is prepared, pushes it into the demonic possession of Regan in full force. We find science totally inadequate in the face of ancient religious forces. Time has stood still.

It's clear that The Exorcist turned its back on the therapeutic framework of the postwar era. The physicians and psychiatrists are befuddled. They cannot measure up to the spiritual challenge of the film. And Chris has no choice but to call upon priests—or "witchdoctors," as she initially called them.

The Exorcist, then, substituted a kind of born-again medievalism in place of science and the machine. "Like The Godfather," Biskind recognizes, "The Exorcist looked ahead to the coming Manichaen revolution of the right, to Reagan nattering about the godless Evil Empire. Satan is the bad dad who takes up residence in the household of divorced MacNeil in the stead of the absent father-husband. Families who pray together and stay together don't have unseemly encounters with the devil."

The Animal and the Ugly
The intense demonic possession of Regan, for all its grotesqueness, is merely a sideshow to the real meaning of the film—the reason for Regan's possession.

Friedkin's and Blatty's disagreements on how the theological message of the film should be presented dated back to their earliest meetings when Friedkin refused to work from Blatty's much-loved first-draft screenplay. During the writing of the second-draft screenplay, Blatty held fast to the important interchange between Father Merrin and Karras in which the exact nature of Regan's possession is explored. Blatty had said this scene was one that "many readers of the novel considered their favorite." As it appears in the revised script, the scene, which occurs during a lull in the exorcism just prior to Merrin's death, reads thus:

Scene 232
In the dimness, Merrin and Karras lean against a wall, their faces numb with shock as they stare at door to Regan's room. O.S. singing continues.
: Father, what's going on in there? What is it? If that's the Devil, why this girl? It makes no sense.
: I think the point is to make us despair, Damien—to see ourselves as animal, and ugly—to reject our own humanity—to reject the possibility that God could ever love us.

According to Blatty, Max von Sydow (Father Merrin) had argued for these lines to be expanded during rehearsals, a request apparently granted during filming. However, Friedkin sliced the scene out in the final edit, explaining: "It's like, the whole movie was about what they were talking about, so why are they talking about it?" Blatty battled for this scene but later commented: "There is enough message implicit in the story. The story itself is enough of an argument for transcendence. It makes the supernatural real."

Apparently not for everyone. There has been confusion over the meaning of The Exorcist. In fact, within months after the film's opening, both Friedkin and Blatty were shocked to learn that audiences were interpreting the finale as negative, a victory of evil over good.

The importance of the edited scene is that it affords a clear rationale for the possession and sets the tone for the final scene. After he finds Merrin dead, Karras taunts the demon to leave Regan and come into his body. At this point, Karras makes a superhuman effort to retain control of his muscles just long enough to throw himself and the demon to their deaths. It is an act of self-sacrifice—reminiscent of Christ's death on the cross as a sacrifice for humankind—which saves Regan and confirms Karras's own reborn faith. Karras's soul is saved. Death does not have to have dominion over us. This was Karras's victory as "the" exorcist of the film.

The Exorcist captured the critical questions of its time: Is God merely the delusion of a handful of prophets and gurus? Is Satan personified evil? Made against the backdrop of the Sharon Tate massacre and the chaotic events of the late 1960s, the film examined what happens when the insanity of evil and violence mash up against the soul. In a sense, with the triumph of the spirit, The Exorcist signalled the end of the death-of-God movement.

The strength of The Exorcist lies in Blatty's belief in the demonic nature in much of modern life. It seems to reduce much of humanity—you and me—to the animal and the ugly and have us question that God could love us in any way. However, the beauty of The Exorcist is its optimistic message—that people can transcend this world and reach a spiritual level dominated by good. Evil doesn't always have to win in the end.