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Definition: Exorcist, The from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

US horror film released in 1973 and directed by US director William Friedkin, based on a novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty. The story tells of a pubescent girl (US actor Linda Blair) who is possessed by the devil which has to be exorcised by a priest (Swedish actor Max von Sydow). The film achieved notoriety partly because it was banned, only appearing on video in the UK in 1999, and partly due to the mythology that grew up around the filming of it, including the alleged deaths of nine crew members.

Summary Article: Exorcist, The
from Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia

During the 1960s, various events—including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the seemingly interminable Vietnam War, and an increasingly bloody civil rights movement—shattered America's optimistic political and social climate. Amidst the nation's rapidly rising fears, the release of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby in 1968 ushered in the modern era of the horror film (Waller, 1987). Prior to the release of these seminal works, horror films had generally been set in another time and place—usually in the past and/or in remote locales. By contrast, Romero and Polanski brought terror into our everyday lives by setting their tales in contemporary America (Waller, 1987). The Exorcist, in a profoundly disturbing way, continued this unsettling trend.

By the time The Exorcist was released in 1973, the nation's confidence in the American Dream—peaceful, prosperous lives centered on nuclear families—had eroded. A sequence of events that had begun five years earlier suggested that the United States was becoming increasingly violent. In March 1968, American troops brutally massacred hundreds of Vietnamese citizens at My Lai, a widely publicized atrocity that appalled and angered many. Only one month later, pacifist civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Since King's faith, grace, charisma, and influence had helped calm an intermittently violent movement, his murder was both symbolic and a turning point.

After King's death, race riots erupted across the United States while millions of antiwar protesters took to the streets. The general climate intensified when, in May 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four student antiwar protesters at Kent State University. Campuses across the country erupted in response. Young people seemed to be dangerously out of control; the free-spirited hippies who had reveled in peace, love, and happiness at Woodstock in August 1969 appeared to have morphed into violent rebels. For many, the stabbing death of African American Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival only four months later, in December 1969, set the tone for 1970s America. Even the sacrosanct office of the U.S. president was under attack as the Watergate scandal raged; only seven months after the release of The Exorcist, Nixon, facing impeachment, became the first president to resign.

The silhouette of Father Merrin outside the McNeil home in a still from the film The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, 1973. (Warner Bros./Getty Images)

In early 1970, widely publicized details about the 1969 Manson Family murders contributed to Americans' growing sense of unease and bewilderment. Cult leader Charles Manson had directed his followers to carry out two sets of brutal killings in Los Angeles. Their goal was to instigate what Manson called “Helter Skelter,” an inevitable apocalyptic war Manson believed would be precipitated by growing racial tensions in the United States. The Family members who committed the murders were in their late teens and early twenties, and the connection Manson made between his cult's beliefs and various songs on the Beatles' White Album exacerbated Americans' distrust of an increasingly rebellious youth culture.

Moreover, the Manson Family, headed by father figure Manson, made a macabre parody of the American family and symbolized its breakdown. During a time of social violence and political deceit, not even family life could provide Americans a sense of security. Divorce was on the rise; throughout the United States, single-parent households became more common. Also, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade gender discrimination, women had begun joining the work force in increasing numbers. Many Americans questioned whether this change was positive and speculated about its impact on social stability. Adding to the turmoil, women joined together—on the streets and in the name of a sisterhood of solidarity—to create a liberation movement that grew exponentially in the early 1970s. Americans connected youthful rebellion to lax parenting, which inevitably led to the breakdown of the nuclear family and women's increasing independence. The Exorcist reflected their concerns.

The film's main character is a 12-year-old named Regan (Linda Blair), whose single mother works as an actress. Left alone to entertain herself, Regan contacts and befriends a demon by way of what is ostensibly a child's toy: a Ouija board. As her mental and physical states deteriorate, medical doctors and psychiatrists fail to find a cause, much less a cure, for her illness. In a remedy suggestive of the pro-nuclear family sentiment of the day, Regan's nonreligious mother asks a Catholic priest, Father Damien Karras, to help her family by exorcising the demon (Phillips, 2005).

This process is a difficult one, in part because Karras fears he is losing his own faith. In a scene that conflates youth culture, decadence, and evil, he expresses his concern to a fellow priest at a bar while the Allman Brothers Band's song “Ramblin' Man” plays loudly in the background. Significantly, Father Lankester Merrin, the senior priest the Catholic Church asks to assist with the exorcism, is in Woodstock writing a book when he receives word about the possession. He reads the letter from the Church while walking slowly through a forest; the subtle message is that Merrin will return from bucolic, pre-Altamont times to restore order to contemporary America by casting evil from young Regan.

In the meantime, Karras is experiencing problems caused by the breakdown of his own family. His mother, who lives alone with only a radio to keep her company, is ill with an injured foot. If her nuclear family unit were intact, she would be cared for; in actuality, however, her brother visits infrequently and eventually commits her to a psychiatric hospital so she can receive the medical care neither he nor her son can provide. Eventually Karras's mother does return home; but she dies, broken and alone—her body lying undiscovered for a number of days.

The demon uses Regan's possession to provoke Karras about his mother's death. When Karras first visits the teen, the demon claims it has his mother, and that its goal is to unite the priest with “us.” It accuses Karras of leaving his mother alone to die and claims she will never forgive him. Later, it plays tricks on him by adopting the physical guise of his mother and, speaking in her voice, asking him why he treated her poorly. Father Merrin cautions Karras to beware the demon's mixing of lies and truth. For viewers in 1970s America, this warning recalled President Nixon's comments about the American media as it probed the breaking story of Watergate (Cull, 2000).

Near the end of the exorcism, Karras determines that the strain of possession is causing Regan's heart to fail. The situation worsens when the elderly Merrin dies during the rite. When the demon giggles about his death, Karras physically attacks Regan's body. He angrily instructs the demon to leave her and to take possession of him instead. Once it does, he struggles not to kill Regan, finally meeting his demise after jumping out the girl's bedroom window. Karras's sacrifice saves Regan's life and her family.

The Exorcist does not present Regan as an entirely passive victim. Significantly, her name is an allusion to a thankless child in Shakespeare's King Lear (Cull, 2000, 48). During a time of seemingly uncontrollable youths, The Exorcist depicts that quintessential teenage haven—the bedroom—as a source of evil. The film presents shots of Regan's closed door before revealing each round of hideous atrocities within the room (Kermode 2005, 42): the girl swears, strikes her mother, vomits on a priest, and masturbates fervently with a crucifix.

Violence perpetrated by university students inspired a key scene in The Exorcist (Cull, 2000). Regan's mother, Chris, is shown acting in a film that portrays dissent at Georgetown University. While in character, she implores students to work “within the system.” Ironically, the film places the “real” Chris outside the system by suggesting she invited evil into her home because she is not a full-time mother.

As Americans debated motherhood, female bodies became a source of anxiety. Wide availability of birth control pills beginning in 1960, followed by the Roe v. Wade decision to legalize abortion in January 1973, meant women could choose their reproductive futures—and therefore their destinies—for the first time in history. At a time when many Americans questioned this newly acquired freedom, The Exorcist showcased a frightening female body beyond control (Cull, 2000); Regan even defies natural order by rotating her head 360 degrees.

When William Peter Blatty wrote the eponymous book on which The Exorcist is based, he fictionalized the 1949 account of a 14-year-old Maryland boy's exorcism. Blatty's decision to change the possessed from a teenage boy to a female on the cusp of womanhood complimented issues current in 1970s America. That Blatty set the story in Georgetown, just outside Washington, D.C., strengthens the film's political and social statements (Cull, 2000, 49). The Exorcist equates the evils of the modern world with Satan and, therefore, presents religion and traditional morality as their sole antidote (Kinder and Houston, 1987). Although Blatty intended this conservative message to be the film's focus, director William Friedkin packed The Exorcist with terror-inducing delights that kindled audiences' love of the horror genre (Phillips, 2005). Arguably, in 1973 Americans were poised to be scared.

See also: Horror Film, The

  • Cull, Nick. “The Exorcist: Film in Context.” History Today 50(5), May 2000: 46-51.
  • Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist, 2nd ed. British Film Institute London, 2005.
  • Kinder, Marsha, and Beverley Houston. “Seeing Is Believing: The Exorcist and Don't Look Now.” In Waller, Gregory A. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. University of Illinois Press Urbana, 1987.
  • Phillips, Kendall R. Projected Fears: American Films and American Culture. Praeger Westport, CT, 2005.
  • Waller, Gregory A. “Introduction.” In American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. University of Illinois Press Urbana, 1987: 1-12.
  • Youmans, Joyce M.
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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