“Do you know what she did? Your ****ing daughter?”
In 1973, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s book, The Exorcist, was released. Along with it came a tidal wave of hysteria, as people fainted in the cinema, local councils banned the film from being shown and its reputation as the scariest film ever made was cemented. The limited showings led to Exorcist bus trips being organised to take eager horror fans to the places where they could see this legendary film.
I first came to it in 2000, when it was re-released. I wasn’t allowed to see it in the cinema, so eagerly waited for the VHS release which we rented. We got it home, I put it on, I watched it, and I was… underwhelmed. Like so many people watching it for the first time in the early noughties I didn’t really understand what had made this film so shocking to audiences in 1973. That said, ever the devoted horror fan I watched The Exorcist 2 (don’t) and The Beginning (also don’t), and strangely only recently made it to the third film, which is actually decent.
I revisited The Exorcist a number of times over the years, and when I saw the extended version it finally clicked for me. Those scenes added a background to the slowly escalating possession of Regan (Linda Blair). They showed the steps taken by her mother, Chris MacNiel (Ellen Burstyn), to address every possible cause of her outbursts. Before finally having no other option than to address her affliction spiritually. And as the quality of home releases improved, I could see more and more details in the background. Faces and shadows in the darkness, the deepening lines on all the character’s faces, as they are slowly worn down by a monster inhabiting a child’s body.
And that’s the true horror of it, a child losing her innocence and becoming unrecognisable to her mother. The advent of the pill, women being able to have sexual freedom, and the peace-loving hippies of the 60s were replaced by the angry protests of the 70s. The gulf between conservative parents raised in a post-war era of limits, patriotism, and sacrifice, and their revolutionary children widened and became its most vast. As adults found they no longer recognised their children so that was reflected in film, and taken to the extreme. It is no coincidence that Regan herself is at the age when she is starting to turn into a woman herself, developing her own ideas and opinions, and moving away from the childhood innocence that leads us to always believe our parents.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, that fear transcends faith, as this evil is present not only in an American city but in an Iraqi archaeological dig, with the Islamic call to prayer heard in the background. Regan and her mother themselves are agnostic, holding no religious beliefs, and like so many religious horrors that fact gets in the way of church help. As the church believes only those who are victims of intense spiritual turmoil can be left open to demonic attack.
But the evidence is insurmountable, and the turmoil between the generations is enough. Regan contorts herself into impossible positions, speaks languages she’s never heard let alone learnt, her skin reacts with blisters and sores when exposed to holy water and the innocent girl trapped inside tries to send messages to her family by causing welts to appear spontaneously on her skin. Spelling simply “help me”. The two priests who help her, Fathers Merrin (Max Von Sydow) and Karras (Jason Miller) deal with their own traumas, giving the devil a way to undermine their attempts to assist Regan.
And so, when we watch The Exorcist, we are presented not only with Regan’s possession and her internal demons, but our own, and our children’s as well. As every generation loses the innocence of youth and another generation of teenagers become strangers to those before them.