The Cultural Phenomenon: The Exorcist

Written By Hayden Claborn, Entertainment Reviewer

Linda Blair in The Exorcist
Linda Blair in The Exorcist

The Devil is in every frame of this film”- Billy Graham, American Evangelist

Explaining why William F​​riedkin’s The Exorcist is my favorite film is tricky. On my most recent viewing, I realized that I’ve seen it so many times I begin to focus on random details. In the opening Iraq sequence in which the audience is so bombarded with sound that we become accustomed to almost fear silence. In one moment we’re watching Chris (Ellen Burstyn) and Regan (Linda Blair) talking about adopting a horse and in the next are startled by the screams of a subway car. The environments of the film come across as hostile. 

As a whole, The Exorcist is in conversation with God and the natural world. I’d compare it to the works of Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (Persona, The Seventh Seal) in that it captures the cloudy nature of the human soul and the silence of God. It’s a film about the unexplainable and coming (literally) face to face with evil. Despite all the horrific elements ,very few films take faith as seriously as this one. These are people who need faith. 

Max von Sydow in The Exorcist
Max von Sydow in The Exorcist

But before I get too in the weeds, I’ll tell the uninformed what the film is about. Regan McNeil is a twelve year old girl who gets possessed by the devil (maybe from playing from a Oujia board but this fact remains unconfirmed). In response to this, her mother Chris reaches out to Father Karras (John Miller) who’s mother has just died alone, something he feels intense guilt over. While he’s skeptical at first, things soon get so out of control he garners help from the tituatar exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow). 

Many of the scary bits in The Exorcist are so iconic that it feels redundant to talk  about. We all know about the vomiting of pea soup and Regan’s head turning 360 degrees. The moments that horrify me, however, are the more personal ones. Karras being told by the devil that “You killed your mother! You left her alone to die!” strikes me in the gut. This isn’t just a demon, it’s an entity eager to exploit what haunts you. 

William-Friedkin directing Linda Blair
William-Friedkin directing Linda Blair

Despite being a wonderful actress, Linda Blair’s voice wouldn’t cut it for the parts where the devil spoke. Mercedes McCambridge was already a known Hollywood figure, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1950 for All The King’s Men. But her most iconic work is voicing the devil. To achieve the spine tingling voice she’d swallow hard boiled eggs, chain smoke, and drink whiskey. And since Fredkin is such a mad man, he had her bound to a chair during the recordings. 

Make no mistake, The Exorcist was a cultural phenomenon on the level of Star Wars. According to Box Office Mojo, if the film came out in 2019 it would’ve made a little over a billion dollars adjusted for inflation. In terms of worldwide grosses, it ranks as the 14th highest grossing horror film. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and walked away with two for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay. 

However, all of this isn’t the reason why The Exorcist is my favorite film. What makes it my favorite film is for years every time I’d watch it the film would scare me in a new way. It has evolved with me. As Roger Ebert said when reviewing La Dolce Vita, “Movies do not change, but their viewers do.” 

What makes art truly special is that it has the ability to touch us in different ways. We’re allowed to grow with a film or piece of music. The best cinema can offer us a window into our souls. There is a shot near the end of the film (spoiler alert) after Father Merrin has just been killed. Regan/the devil are sitting up against the pillars on the bed. It’s not the scariest or even most flashy moment of the film but something about sets me at ease. We’re seeing evil in a non-performative mode. The face of an evil, twelve year old girl, just sitting there. 
When I think of The Exorcist, what comes to mind is the humanity it captures. A mother crying out for help, a son grieving his mother, good triumphing over evil. All of these elements create something that has never been done before or again.

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