Science and Religion, The Confrontational Ontology in The Exorcist

the exorcist film essay

Father Karras: Why her? Why this girl?

Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.


Science and Religion, The Confrontational Ontology in The Exorcist

Probably one of the biggest debates generated by the cultural phenomenon that was the release of The Exorcist in 1973 is the question of whether, after its many re-releases, the attractive publicity of cataloging it as “the scariest film of all time” makes sense or is simply cheap publicity and if the film itself lives up to that showy description. Arbitrarily calling it “the scariest movie of all time” will invariably remain a subjective matter, what some find terrifying others do not, and so it goes in a cycle where we will never be able to confirm that. But enough years have passed to be able to delve into its effects on cinema with a more objective bent; not only from the points of view of its detractors and its most devoted fans, but also in its irrefutable facts that keep it as a significant film and therefore impossible to ignore. As well as its qualities and flaws as a horror film are discussed, and as well as it always expands a rich colloquy about the impact it had on the cinema of the 70’s, this film also debates a copious amount of topics from ethereal planes, without exactness that require something directly veridical.

Much of its monumental fame comes from its enigmas that naturally arise from its dramatic core that philosophizes about the perspectives that religion has on evil, the semiotics of demonology in contrast to that of Catholicism. It is strongly interesting the theoretical construction that has as its genesis the writing of William Peter Blatty, who adapts his own novel published in 1971. However, moving away from the literary and the dark symbolism of its content, what has been eternally engraved in the history of horror films and popular culture is the provocative iconography of the film. The Exorcist┬áhas a very authentic, very bawdy and very daring idea of how to personify the devil, and nothing less than in the body of the purest being in the world, a sweet little girl. All the scenes in The Exorcist, in which they exploit to the fullest the infernal imagery in representation of the diabolical is part of the paraphernalia of horror, just as Groucho Marx’s painted mustache is part of classic comedy. Each of these elements brings together not necessarily qualities that make it a great film, but influential qualities that constitute it as a film that continues to resonate to this day.

For colloquial conversations, The Exorcist is the film about a girl who is possessed by the devil, however, for me it has always been the film about a tormented priest who is challenged under his own principles of faith, and how certain vicissitudes, engender a crisis that questions his Catholic philosophy. Prominently, the central theme is that of the demon-possessed girl, that much is obvious, yet the narrative framework never pretends to give it the dramatic momentum of the same energy and uniqueness as that of Father Karras. Subtly one can perceive a dialectical storytelling, perhaps the surface of grotesque horror and profuse vulgarity obscures that subtlety too much, but even so, it is there breathing in every frame. On one side we have the religious institution and on the other side the scientific institution, two fundamental pillars for human society; Blatty’s writing takes as dialectical articulation the issues of both opposing sides, and in essence, gives a rather agnostic spirit to the film. There are countless details that materialize that sense of skepticism regarding the supernaturalness of the events, a distinctive example of this is the scene when Father Karras throws apparently consecrated water to a possessed Regan tied to the bed and she screams thunderously as if it were fire, the next act we discover that that “holy water” was never blessed, thus raising a logical doubt in us as audience as well as in Father Karras. In that nuanced power of storytelling with an intrinsic duality lies much of its controversial complexities.

Regan, played with laudable psychological commitment by Linda Blair, is a normal teenager who faces the same issues as anyone her age, but added to that, her mother’s separation from her father and the abandonment she suffers because of the latter, make her an atypical and even more problematic character. Her overprotective mother, played powerfully by Ellen Burstyn, is an actress who lives entirely concerned about her daughter and has the arduous role of having both mother and father functions for Regan. The most salient ingredient in the writing of these characters is that they are atheists. At times it seems to be a mere storytelling device to confound and confront the atheism of these characters with the paranormal events, yet it is a major essentiality in the hierarchy of themes found in the narrative. If we elaborate a scheme about the theological dilemma that takes place in the characters it would be like this: Science versus Catholicism.

Regan’s mother, like the doctors she hires to examine her daughter and determine what pathologies she has, maintains her “faith” in scientific objectivity with a disconcerting intransigence that the girl will be cured as long as more medical tests are done. However, even science has limits, and they eventually succumb to speculative solutions, i.e., exorcism, suggesting to Regan’s mother that she seek out a priest to perform the expulsion of the demon. Believing in something you can’t see is extremely tricky when you have no religious affinities or sympathies with the sensibilities of the subjective, something similar occurs here with the characters, mainly Regan’s mother, who gets angry when she finds a crucifix under the pillow in her daughter’s room. There is a commentary of secularism that can be noticed in the fears of the characters, who like all human beings are afraid of the unknown, and that itself, not only disturbs believers but also non-believers.

In parallel to the atheism of these characters, we have the tragic and most dramatically intricate character in the film, Father Damien Karras, played flawlessly by Jason Miller. This elegiac character, finds himself in an existential vacuum when his elderly mother passes away, and he feels at fault for it, leaving him in a complicated and grief-stricken crisis of faith. From a more profoundly analytical perspective, I have always found this character gigantically more fascinating than any other in this film, and I can openly see that his Christian principles are not entirely orthodox, as his philosophical conundrums virtually always play out in skeptical terrain. It’s a highly odd thing to say that a Catholic father is skeptical, it’s illogical and bizarre, but it’s an absurdity that transpires with remarkable gravitas in the film and takes on substantial dramatic force in the film.

In the middle of the parallelism, there is the character that we mistakenly believe will be Regan’s savior, the imperturbable Father Merrin played with immense piety and exquisite style by Max Von Sydow, who participates in an archaeological excavation in Iraq during the first sequences of the film, managing to find an intimidating statue, which turns out to be the stone image of the demon king Pazuzu. I say as a middle ground, because this character despite not performing an omnipresent role in the film, is the one who has a precise position on his beliefs unlike the others, which makes him the archetype of Catholicism epitomized. His experience with exorcisms, lead him to be recommended as the ideal one to conduct the Catholic ritual for the possessed girl. The narrative method in that eerie and transcendent scene where we see the act of expelling a demon from the human body, is not only crucial for the liberation of Regan and her distraught mother, but also for Father Karras, who with his own eyes will witness the infernal decadence and must face his fears to recover the Catholic idealism that governs him. That ice-cold sequence, replete with vile and infamous gutturals, where we see the reverberating word of God confronting the devil’s filth, is definitive in closing the character arc and consummating the dramatic purposes of the film.

None of this should be considered “terrifying”, analogous to the advertising saying “the scariest movie of all time”. Whether ephemerally spine-chilling or perpetually creepy, the concept of horror films has historically been misguided. Wanting to see a horror film just to seek sensations that elicit fear, is like wanting to see a comedy just because you want to laugh. Ontologically one could say that a horror film should scare you just as a comedy should make you laugh, nevertheless specifying that does not mean that holistically those are the ultimate purposes of an opus. Many of The Exorcist’s detractors, with banal comments, criticize the film’s horror as being too droll, deliberately perverse and even campy, yet that vague argument is nothing more than a fallacy that could be made valid only on an utterly superficial two-dimensional plane. The perception that this film has of the devil is that of Catholics, therefore the devil here must be the anti-thesis of God; therein lies the explanation and justification for all those vituperative screams and abrasive aggressiveness that can be interpreted as a hyperbolic depiction of Satan. The raw and cruel way of insulting and provoking that the devil has here, forms an iconoclastic assault against all religious idealisms of Catholicism, consequently this is how it should be, nasty and profane.

The Exorcist is a film that exaggerates a lot, of course, remember that this film belongs to the frenzied decade of the 70’s, when the sexual revolution and the socio-political tumult exploded in an insurgent and libertine fashion. Although, it is worth noting that the hyperbole helps the contrasts to stand out and be easily identifiable, making the film narratively fluid and filmically striking in its philosophical provocation.

As a supernatural horror film it has many anomalies, at times unnecessarily languid and at other times acceleratingly inconsequential, yet as a tragedy and as a drama it is impeccably, complexly perfect. Looking for veracious reasons as to why it is commonly called a classic horror film and an absolute masterpiece of 70’s cinema is an unfathomable action, very tough to delve into and find solid arguments to consolidate it as such. However, in the introduction of this writing I asserted with great confidence that the effects that this film generated and continues to generate in the audience, is what matters most and possibly is the origin of its greatness, it is an opus of modern horror cinema that makes a deafening noise, has left a mark on all who have seen it, and like any tattoo, it can not be erased or denied.

The plot is capable of stimulating intellectual debate as preposterous as it may seem, but in reality it is quite true to assert its power, its weighty influence on cerebral meditation as the engine that drives the fascination that is born to imbue us with its themes and explore them. There is an intriguing semiotic in the visual patterns within this film that the astute director William Friedkin articulates with much cautious premeditation; it is worth saying and specifying, that this production is highly competent in the materialization of the famous novel on which it is based, and is indeed, a major paradigm of how a literary work should be formalized on the big screen. Evidently, like any novel that has been adapted, it is not possible to transpose absolutely everything, but fruitfully, the exhaustive script written by Blatty does not make noticeable any discrepancy with his novel, perhaps many aspects are trivialized that in letters and book operate much better and seeing them conceived in the film medium are not entirely convincing, yet fundamentally, what is translated into seamless visual organization, is the symbology that superimposes theme after theme with an enviable and austere impetus.

The physiognomic architecture of The Exorcist is that of a deceptive aesthetic, that of a style that invites us to decipher its absorbing design. From the outset, a series of juxtapositions occur that alert us, warn us that something baleful is coming, but nothing here is pragmatically heavy-handed in the execution of those mysterious sensations; the orchestration of camera movements, and the flexible editing, operate simultaneously to create thematic associations that beneficially envelop the visual narrative in an exercise in sinister symbology.

In the sequences taking place in Iraq, we see, in a wide shot, a group of Muslims performing an act of religious meditation or veneration, then we see Father Merrin progressively approaching Pazuzu’s silhouette, even aggressively with an unpredictable incision, a shot of black dogs fighting intercept the calm but sibylline moment we are witnessing. In comparison to that scene, after what we saw in Iraq, the plot shifts to Georgetown, where we see Regan’s mother, Chris, finishing a normal day’s work as an actress and decides to walk home. We observe how Ellen Burstyn walks placidly feeling the soft breeze of the autumn season while dry leaves fall from the trees and children in Halloween costumes ask for candy, as atmospheric accentuation the iconic soundtrack that we all know sounds directing the steps of the character and the singularly Halloweenesque atmosphere. Suddenly, Ellen Burstyn is juxtaposed with shots of two nuns walking in the opposite direction from her, that cut feels abrupt and interrupts essentially to break the order of the sequence, it is a contrived incision that works to contextualize its ghostly atmosphere, and as an ending to that scene, we see Regan’s mother pause with curious intrusion to observe carefully in the distance a conversation between two priests, including Father Karras; elementally, every cut, framing and superlative motion is precisely calculated to anticipate the tragic events. The simultaneity of the actions, emphasizing or rather prophesying bad omens, is an insightful, purely cinematic configuration to establish its own hell.

The vitality of the horror, and especially the drama of The Exorcist, remains undiminished for many reasons. One could elaborate a voluminous dissertation discussing the performances, the thematic patterns or the visuals, but that would be a superfluous indulgence. I submit that no, this is not “the scariest movie of all time”, even more so when you seek it out for those trivial purposes. That being said, if you seek this film out for the right reasons, then yes, it is one of the all-time great modern horror films that makes a chilling, stentorian roar on religious philosophy and the politics of our beliefs in a substantial and unforgettable manner. The Exorcist will perennially preserve its vital signs, its devilish terror probably won’t, yet as a film, it is what it is, and its shocking potency will never go away.


Matteo Bedon
About Author

When I'm not watching and studying films, I'm writing about them.
Part-time essayist and full-time film critic.