I was pretty young, too young, when I first saw The Exorcist. Even then I could see that the themes dealt with were way beyond my understanding and that it featured imagery which would remain chilling to me for the rest of my life. I was also terrified.
Back then the effect the film had on me was visceral. Even though I was only able to take the film at face value, without truly comprehending the gravity of the situation as seen through the eyes of religion and family, the fear had buried itself in my brain.
It was so incredibly frightening to me that I literally refused to be in a room with the copy of the video tape (yes that’s how long ago it was). I felt that for the first time in my life I had been witness to pure evil; the kind of evil that before then had only been glossed over in fairy tales and fables. I was also genuinely worried that the tape itself might contain some of that evil and it might rub off on me if I spent enough time near it.
That is the power of The Exorcist. It’s not like other horror films whereby you find yourself in fear that the monster, ghoul or psycho killer might appear in your house when it gets dark and you are on your own. Instead this film leaves you with the fear that evil might find its way inside of you; that you would be totally helpless because no amount of running or hiding would do anything. That is why the video tape had to be kept far away from me.
What’s really incredible then, is that as years have passed and I have watched The Exorcist more and more, I find that not only am I still scared by it, but that I am in fact more scared than I was as a child. Literally every other horror movie I saw whilst young has become more of a fun film to watch with mates. Though I appreciate the nature of these films I now just wear a smile when I see Freddie Krueger, Chucky, Jason Voorhees, The Cenobites et al. But watching the demon Pazuzu take hold of poor Regan just grows in potency.
I should probably point out that I have always found religious imagery quite creepy. I see it as strange that churches, as bastions of salvation and love should be built as imposing and cold stone monuments. There’s also the fact that religious ceremonies and precessions remain very archaic in their execution; the robes, the candles, the chant like prayers and the use of a higher power as a source of fear as well as love is all very intimidating to me. It’s not that I’m suggesting vicars should rock up in jeans and T-shirts, or that churches should be decorated with funky print wallpaper and sofas, it’s just I find the old, old, old school nature of the church odd.
It is most definitely the above paragraph that allows The Exorcist to have even more impact on me. The battle between Fathers Karras and Merrin and the demon feel very ancient and therefore authentic. It is a chilling game of wits that consumes the body and soul of a young girl in a way that seems like this kind of thing could easily be real. It could have been going on for centuries, which would account for the church still representing itself in the ways of old; they see it as the only way to fight, wearing the ‘armour’ that has protected them for so many years in a battle with the darkness.
I find it weird that many of my friends don’t feel the same way. All too often I hear “The Exorcist isn’t scary anymore…..it’s just funny” and I can’t comprehend how that can be the case. I can agree that the head spinning thing might look a bit dated now, but to focus on the literal happenings in the film is to misunderstand it completely. It is instead through terrified empathy that this story becomes so horrific. That if this happened to someone you love you wouldn’t just be scared, you’d be so pitifully helpless that you would become an insane gibbering wreck!
Though the film does have some huge climactic and iconic scenes, it is generally played as a continual burn of evil. It doesn’t feel like a traditional scary film made up of a few key moments. There is a real sense that even when the story takes us out of Regan’s bedroom, the evil is ever present. Thus we can never settle. The fear is ingrained in us and the feeling of helplessness takes over us as we view the happenings through the eyes of Regan’s mother.
This isn’t just the best horror film ever made, it is also one of the best films full stop. So next time you get a chance to watch The Exorcist, be it the theatrical version or the directors cut (with that nightmarish ‘Tarantula Walk’ sequence), don’t just assess it on what you see; think about the thematics; the real struggle between true good and evil. Think about what would happen if that kind of evil really did spill over into our world and took hold of someone you love. This is ancient terror and incomprehensible fear. The Exorcist is a masterpiece.