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What an Excellent Day For an Exorcism: The 50th Anniversary of The Exorcist


This article was originally published on October 30th, 2023 in Issue 001 of Film Club 3000, which you can view here.


You hear stories of women clutching their pearls and fainting at the sight of the Phantom in the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, an early adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel, ‘Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’. The film tells the story of a young opera singer, Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin), who becomes the obsession of a mysterious masked man that desires to coach her to stardom (Lon Chaney). This obsession becomes scary when he kidnaps the singer and demands her affection, crescendoing with the aforementioned scene where the Phantom’s mask is forcibly removed by Daaé to reveal a horrible disfigurement, which terrifies Christine, and apparently the audience of the time. The tale goes that the grotesque image of what is revealed was so horrifying that several women in the audience exclaimed and promptly fainted or left the theater in disgust and horror. However, the film was a success, and became the 5th highest grossing film in North America in 1925 (the only Horror film to make the top ten list). It took almost 50 years for a film to horrify the general public with graphic images in a similar way. The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, has been cited as the scariest film of all time by many critics, and its release was followed by many stories that mirror those of the audience reaction to The Phantom of the Opera. The popularity of Horror films is indicative of humanity’s need for emotional release and in-depth evaluation of our innermost fears and desires. It’s masochistic and depraved, while also being so incredibly human, and this dark side of all of us is what connects us to each other.

1973’s The Exorcist came about at a time when horror as a film genre was not taken seriously by the public. The studio had very little faith in this film, and after a supposedly “cursed” production that took twice as long as what was intended and went way over budget, Warner Bros executives were worried about breaking even in the box office. However, despite mixed reviews in the media, The Exorcist was a massive box office success. People stood in line for hours to see the film. The New York Times published accounts of audience responses similar to those reported about The Phantom of the Opera. “A number of moviegoers vomited at the very graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theater, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage,” (Klemesrud). The Exorcist terrified audiences across the nation. This terror bred a fascination with the horror genre, and legitimized the form.

The story follows film actress, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), as she seeks the help from two Catholic priests, after her 12 year old daughter, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), begins exhibiting signs of demonic possession. When you think about the tone of 1970s America, it’s clear that the concept alone could cause an outrage. There was a cultural war going on that pitted the older, and more religious generation, against their children, who were questioning religion and sometimes leaving it altogether or starting new religions (the 70s would go on to be none as the decade that popularized cults). Furthermore, with a rise in Rock and Roll, parents were fearing the impacts that the occult was having on their good Christian children. All of this created the perfect environment for a film about a child being possessed by the devil, and subsequently exorcized, to have a huge impact on society. Not only did this film push the boundaries of what kinds of stories can be depicted in mainstream media, it went on to show some of the most terrifying images ever seen on screen; such as a child stabbing her own genitals with a crucifix, yelling horribly obscene things like “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!”, and the 12 year old girl (while possessed) going so far as to push her own mother’s face into her crotch. These depictions were wildly controversial, and certainly outraged a portion of the population. Yet, still The Exorcist has managed to be one of the most celebrated and influential horror films of all time.

These depictions opened the gateway and gave permission for so many filmmakers to explore tortuous, terrifying, and blood curdling stories and ideas. For a nation that seemed to be appalled by such imagery, these films prove time and time again that there is something in our psyche that makes us unable to turn away when we are faced with haunting visuals of blood, guts, and gore. A modern audience would probably look at The Exorcist and think that the gore is pretty tame compared to current horror franchises like Saw, Final Destination, and The Human Centipede, but it must be understood that these films owe everything to William Friedkin’s original work. Additionally, our continued fascination with all things vulgar and scary begs the question: why? What are the abject horrors that we face every day? How can movies help us explore them? The Exorcist is clearly a response to the cultural argument that as time passes, we stray further away from God. The character of Father Damian (Jason Miller) is representative of a society that is losing its faith. Professor of Cinema Studies, Barbara Creed states, “Whereas Regan-as-devil is powerful, Father Damien as a representative of God is weak and impotent. Not only has he lost his faith, he is thinking of leaving the Church,” (Creed, 148). And it is that loss of faith that creates a world in which an innocent child can be possessed by a demon. This analysis reflects common fears of the time, but as time passes, our fears change–and so do our movies.

October 2023 saw the release of The Exorcist: Believer, a reboot of the original film franchise made 50 years later. At the time of my writing this, the movie has just been released in theaters, and the response is overwhelmingly negative. That’s not to say that it won’t be looked upon differently in years to come, but it is fair to say that in our modern oversaturation of media it is important to make a good first impression. And critics do tend to judge remakes and reboots with a heightened rigor compared to original films. The question always comes back to: why was this remade? What was missing in the original that the filmmaker thinks we need a reboot? And you cannot deny that one of the main reasons films see reboots is because they draw an audience and ultimately make money, even if the general consensus is that the movies don’t live up to the original. Where the original Exorcist film broke ground with a script that shocked and horrified audiences, The Exorcist: Believer was tasked with the challenge of meeting that expectation and exceeding it, while also paying homage to the now-classic film. The film plays well as a modern scary movie. Admittedly, the plot is a little clunky, but it isn’t exceptionally bad by any means. The simple fact that its predecessor is one of the most prolific horror films of all time was leading this film to the slaughter from the beginning. The best way to honor The Exorcist 50 years after its release would have really been to create a truly unique original story that pushed the boundaries of horror even further.

The public fascination with the horrific exhibitions displayed on screen in The Exorcist, and in perhaps a less impactful way in The Exorcist: Believer, relates to our first example directly. In response to the public reaction to the film, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), it was stated, “During the silent and early sound period, film reviews clearly regarded “feminine” responses to horror as the appropriate responses, responses that demonstrated the effectiveness of a horror film, not a rejection of it,” (Brown and Jancovish, 64). In this, the “feminine response” is in reference to the fainting, puking, turning away, and leaving that was reported during viewings of horror films. There is an expectation that audiences are going to see scary movies to be scared and to see things that will make them flinch or jump or scream. And yet, scary movies prevail. With this activity, we are able to see our worst nightmares come to life, and live to tell the tale! We gain power over our fears, and are able to exist in a community of people who share these fears with us. That’s all part of the fun–masochistic, but fun! The Exorcist was one of the first modern horror films to bring our obsession with our fears to the forefront. Its success is evidence that we rely on movies like this to fulfill some deep and twisted curiosites, while examining our own pain and having some kind of cathartic release in the process. We are so strange to have such fascinations, but it is what connects us and makes us human.


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