“Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?”
Faith is a battlefield, and war is Hell: The Exorcist.
The most important moment in William Friedkin’s 1973 horror blockbuster happens entirely off-screen, yet drives most of the rest of the plot. No, I’m not referring to Regan’s initial possession, Father Merrin’s first exorcism (covered in not one but two Exorcist prequels), or even the death of Father Karras’ mother. I’m talking about Burke Dennings; about a head turned all the way around; about someone’s hand at work. Demonic or divine? Or is there a difference?
Let’s back up. Based on a bestselling novel by William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist is the story of an old priest, a young priest, and the actress who asks them to help her daughter, Regan, who seems to be possessed by the devil. Neither mother nor daughter is religious, but medical science has failed them, and the events Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has witnessed are beyond rational explanation. Hence the exorcism, the film’s big climax and an iconic sequence of pure cinema. In a certain light the movie resembles nothing more than a sports film in the way it builds up to the big match between Team Good and Team Evil, carefully establishing the fighters, their history with God and this demon, and drawing them into the ring: a little girl’s bedroom. How they get there–and what happens when they do–is specifically linked to the death of Burke Dennings.
Chris is an actress living in Georgetown with her daughter while shooting a movie. Dennings is her director. An Englishman and a rude drunk, Dennings is friends with Chris and perhaps more; Regan seems to pick up on something: “You’re gonna marry him, aren’t you?” Chris insists they’re just friends. The truth is unclear; one of many examples of The Exorcist being difficult to pin down around the edges. The movie isn’t subtle but it is often elliptical. This might be an artifact of the adaptation process; the novel isn’t bad but it can be clunky and overly literal. Like some films based on books, The Exorcist opts to cut without necessarily condensing, leaving intriguing implications of character and story points only fully explained on the page. (In the film, for instance, it’s not clear who has desecrated the church, whereas the novel makes it clear that Regan/the demon is responsible.)
The full extent of Dennings’ relationship with Chris isn’t the only mystery surrounding him. Even after we understand the manner of his death, its circumstances remain hauntingly unclear. Yes, the demon (in Regan’s body) twisted his head around so far it was facing the other way before throwing him out of the window and down the tall stone staircase outside the McNeil home–we surmise as much from the demon’s rude parody of the murder, as it turns Regan’s head completely around and harangues Chris in Dennings’ voice. It’s an image so iconic, so often parodied itself in pop culture, that we forget that it presents a key clue in the mystery of Dennings’ death. Burke was alone in the house with Regan when he died–but why was he up in her room?
Film critic Rob Ager’s excellent close reading of The Exorcist zeroes in on this question. Ager notes that, when possessed, Regan exhibits many psychological and behavioral signs of sexual abuse, from violent outbursts to sexualized behavior (the crucifix masturbation scene, for example); and he suggests that Dennings may be directly responsible. Under this theory, Dennings is left alone to watch Regan; he molests, or attempts to molest her; and is killed by her possessor in response. Granted, there isn’t much evidence of this being literally true, although Dennings is a fairly unsavory character (even more so in the novel), a bitter, angry drunk, and perhaps a whiff of sexual deviancy (again, explored further in the novel) is part of what Regan is picking up on when she assumes Burke and Chris are an item. Evidence or no, there’s certainly a narrative gap here into which Ager’s theory fits neatly. The book does feature a more innocent explanation of the event (that Dennings simply heard a noise and went to check on Regan, and that the girl’s angry assumption that Dennings’ interactions with Chris would lead to the end of her parents’ marriage inspired the demon’s violent reaction), but that doesn’t necessarily refute the possibility that the possessed girl’s symptoms deliberately mirror sexual abuse on a thematic level, or prevent us from reading the film in this way.
Whatever happened the night of Dennings’ death, Regan’s head-spinning trick convinces Chris in a moment of utter horror what her daughter, or the thing that currently looks like her daughter, has done. It’s this revelation that finally causes her to forgo the useless doctors and psychiatrists (worse than useless–one of the most emotionally traumatic sequences in the film is when Chris watches Regan go through a series of frightening and invasive tests) and approach Karras asking for religious assistance. Chris’ emotional unraveling is one of the highlights of the film, a deeply affecting performance from Burstyn as a mother confronting a seemingly insurmountable problem while struggling to maintain her strength for her daughter. It’s her increasing frustration and distress at the inability of medical science to even tell her what’s wrong with Regan that makes those sequences so memorable and impactful despite their essentially mundane narrative function, common to many horror stories, of eliminating rational explanations before embracing supernatural ones. But Chris might have gone on seeking rational solutions, even eventually putting Regan an institution, if she hadn’t realized what happened to Dennings. The very next scene after the head-spin is Chris consulting with Karras (but not before asking him if a murderer’s crimes would remain confidential).
Unlike Father Merrin, who seems ready to leap into spiritual battle from the film’s prologue (in which he discovers a statue of Pazuzu, an ancient demon, in Iraq), Karras doesn’t seem to believe at all. He responds to Chris’ request for an exorcism by telling her that they just aren’t done anymore, that what the Church used to consider possession they now understand to be various forms of mental illness. His examination of Regan is careful and reasoned–his trick involving the holy water, for instance–although the film has already shown us that something supernatural is occurring (Regan’s bed and furniture move in a manner impossible without some form of outside power). Even when he takes his findings to the Church, he speaks carefully, saying that he doesn’t really believe it’s a genuine possession, “But I have made a prudent judgement that it meets the conditions set down in the ritual.” His evidence would seem to include Chris’ whispered confession that she believes the demon killed Dennings, an account that matches the description of the death Detective Kinneman gave to Karras earlier in the film. But the last scene in the sequence is Karras seeing words form on Regan’s flesh, all lowercase, as if the girl herself is exhorting him to “help me.” That convinces Karras that, whether he believes or not, the exorcism should be performed. The Church agrees and Father Merrin is called in. Now all the elements are in place for the great battle.
The ritual itself is physically, mentally, and spiritually grueling, a horrible endurance test that both priests fail in spectacular fashion. It’s clear from earlier in the film that Karras, a Church psychiatrist who admits to a friend, “I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom,” is not only the weak link on Team Good but possibly the primary target of this demonic presence:
Demon: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Father Karras: You would like that?
Father Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Demon: It would bring us together.
Father Karras: You and Regan?
Demon: You and us.
Before the exorcism, Father Merrin, warns Karras that the demon will mix truth and lies to attack him psychologically. In fact, the demon only speaks to Karras, ignoring Merrin to try and dishearten Karras by inflaming the priest’s guilt over neglecting his mother prior to her death. The tactic is successful. Karras is distracted and dismayed; Merrin sends him out of the room, and when Karras returns, he finds Merrin dead on the floor, presumably as the result of Merrin’s medical condition (for which he takes pills–a heart issue, probably) as exacerbated by the physical and mental stress of the exorcism ritual. Furious, Karras actually begins punching the possessed girl before demanding that the spirit pass into him, instead. Once it does, rather than cause anyone further harm, Karras regains momentary control and throws himself out Regan’s window and down the steps outside–a choice that seems inspired by Karras’ knowledge of how Dennings died. Beyond that, it offers a thematic bookend to the possession, a horrifying murder avenged in a similar act of noble suicide.
Stairs feature prominently in the film as a symbol, and not just the killing stairs outside the McNeil home. Again and again the film visually suggests the duality of Heaven above and Hell below–Karras’ dead mother descending the steps of a New York subway station in a dream, for example, or the luxurious staircase leading up to the Church official’s office when Karras submits his report. The stairs leading up to Regan’s bedroom must be climbed every time a manifestation is heard from downstairs, and the two priests must ascend every time they step into the metaphorical ring to do battle. Karras dies at the bottom of the steps, where he seems to have regained his faith enough to silently request the last rites. Dennings is thrown down there as well, where Det. Kinneman searches for answers. In the film’s prologue, Merrin surmounts a stony path to confront the Pazuzu statue. Even the possessed Regan floating above her bed is suggestive of a tie between verticality and religious forces. Faith, the film argues, is a hard, upward climb, from which it is easy to tumble.
Why is The Exorcist so powerful, so engrossing, so terrifying for audiences even today? It routinely hits the top ten in lists of the best horror movies, and the franchise has extended to five films and a television series, not to mention the cultural ubiquity of jokes about head-spinning and green pea soup and priests shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” Despite some minor faults (I still think Kinneman’s affability is a misstep that dulls the film’s pace, and the same goes for the overlong prologue), The Exorcist is an emotionally powerful film that was most viewer’s first exposure to the entire idea of exorcism. On top of that, it’s a special effects extravaganza, seamlessly bringing the idea of a supernatural entity to the screen. The struggle between adult institutions and the troublesome child who confounds them is an age-old conflict, and one that more than appealed to America in the early 1970s. (This cultural wavelength is winkingly satirized in the film itself, as the movie Chris is filming casts her on one side of a generational divide over anti-military student protests.) Some of the film’s profanity is still shocking today, especially issuing from the mouth of a little girl who, earlier in the film, is so sweet and so loving. Even beyond the religious horror of seeing a demon run amuck, the film taps into our fears of any loved one suffering from a physical or mental illness that changes their behavior or words into threats, abuse, and misery.
But I think one last reason it endures is the script, adapted by Blatty from his own novel. Not just because he succeeds in trimming away most of the fat from his book, or because the story is so well structured to lead everyone to the climactic spectacle of the exorcism itself. But because the film also presents a series of little mysteries to complement its chief one. What really happened to Dennings that night? Who desecrated the church? What relationship does the prologue bear to the rest of the story? When does Regan come under the demon’s power to begin with? What’s up in the attic? All these answers, if there are answers, happen off-screen. They’re mysteries, to be examined and wondered about endlessly. There’s so much of this movie that we must take on faith, rather than evidence. Life happens, and it’s up to us to interpret it according to our beliefs. And that applies just as much to the film’s central entity.
What does it want, this demon? Regan is just a means to an end. Does it target Merrin as its nemesis? Karras, as weak link? Merrin suggests that the demon wants them to despair, to show them Regan brought low and demonstrate that it can destroy part of God’s creation. But all things serve the Lord. Burke Dennings’ murder is a horrifying, violent act, but it also inspires Chris to seek help from the Church, and it gives Karras the means to destroy the demon. Far from destroying Karras’ faith, the experience gives him cause to believe–for if a demon exists, why not God? The one implies the other, just as a staircase must lead somewhere. Perhaps this is all God’s plan. Maybe bad demons happen to good girls for a reason.
I think the film gives us hope in that regard. After all, The Exorcist ends about as well as any horror film can, with Chris and Regan leaving town alive, damaged but still whole after their ordeal. Life, it turns out, goes on, despite the mysteries we encounter. Maybe that hope is the final piece of the puzzle, the last reason why this film endures: ultimately, faith is rewarded. Go, Team Good.
Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 5: Five’ll Get You Dead, because God does not play dice with the universe. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.