The Reactionary Propaganda of "The Exorcist"
I know this looks bad, but it’s okay. This is a religious film!
The Exorcist (1973) is the most successful reactionary American film since The Birth of a Nation. It was written by Opus Dei member William Peter Blatty and directed by William Friedkin.
The Catholic American writer Flannery O’Conner created the modern genre of righteous gore. Rather than provide Reader’s Digest bromides such as, “every time I see a sunrise, I know there is a God,” her stories suggested, “every time I see a knife plunge into a chest, I know there is a God, because God allows man to choose evil, and let me show you how much evil God allows!"
Finally, the Christian writer could justify blood, guts, and perversion to illustrate theology. The Exorcist sanctifies horror with vomit, blasphemy, and crucifix masturbation. The devil exists to outrage and own the Libs, to demonstrate the ultimate result of their permissive society and feminism.
The movies’ ‘original sin’ is presented in the character of Ellen Burstyn. She is a ‘coastal elite,’ an agnostic, an actress (a profession that was once considered tantamount to prostitution); worst of all, she is separated from her husband. This apparently invites the devil. A broken home made both the writer and director see red––for biographical reasons.
Both Blatty and Friedkin grew up in homes where their fathers abandoned the family when they were ten years old. ( Friedkin: “My father was never interested much in making money, and I resented him for that.”) Both men instead blamed their mothers for their troubles, which explains the misogynist themes in The Exorcist.
What makes The Exorcist so effective (or pernicious) is that the adult characters never devolve into stereotypes or buffoonery. Each modern cosmopolitan is portrayed sincerely and realistically, with the best intentions––working from everything in their secular toolboxes. Jason Miller, as Father Karras, is a multidimensional character: a progressive Jesuit with a Harvard degree in psychology. Like Blatty, a second-generation immigrant who is wracked with guilt that his vow of poverty prevents him from taking better care of his disabled mother. He is the face of Vatican II. He is also losing his faith (but will soon find it again once the gore begins!).
William Friedkin spent the '60s directing filmed versions of plays by Harold Pinter and Mart Crowley and developed a talent for working with actors. Indeed, the first third of the film could have been written by a serious and realistic American playwright like Arthur Miller. The cast is excellent, and the story progresses to where it seems the girl is developing schizophrenia. Regan (Linda Blair) is submitted to a spinal tap; Father Karras racks his Harvard-trained brain for psychological explanations. There are no easy answers. AND THEN…
Like a car from The French Connection crashing into the living room, the film abruptly shifts into supernatural and literal head-turning overdrive. All representatives of a changing progressive society, those faithless coastal elites, are shaken to the core as God allows not merely evil but full-blown demonic possession. Friedkin’s talent for directing action and special effects prevents the film from descending into comedy (although it was lampooned endlessly).
Straight out of Ingmar Bergman films, in walks Max Von Sydow as the titular figure. Father Karras’s faith in modernity is still not completely broken. He asks The Exorcist if he wants to read notes on the case. Sydow politely responds, in effect, “Empirical evidence? I don’t need no stinking empirical evidence!” Sydow is a Ronald Reagan type: probably dumb, but strong, silent, and in command of the situation. Finally, the film presents a Real Man (well, for a Catholic priest).
Soon, the two accomplished actors are reading from Luke, and the audience is firmly on the side of two men reciting mumbo-jumbo and splashing holy water. The vomitron 2000 spews in all of its green glory, and Sydow is such a good actor that he never breaks, even when his glasses are covered in vomit.
In the end, Father Karras offers himself in sacrifice, gets a bad case of pink eye or demonic possession, and leaps out of the window, notwithstanding that suicide is a mortal sin in Catholicism. (Despite attending Georgetown, intellectual consistency was never Blatty’s strong suit.)
America was going through a cris de coeur in 1973: Watergate, the impending loss in Vietnam, and stagflation. There was pent-up resentment about single-parent homes and ungrateful, out-of-control teenagers. The character of the demonically possessed young girl provided societal catharsis.
Skeptical critics wondered, “Isn’t all of this religious egghead stuff about free will just an excuse to make an obscene monster movie?”
Black people are absent from The Exorcist. Despite its concern with the demonic, evil as practiced by human beings is also absent. James Baldwin wrote,
The mindless and hysterical banality of the evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying.
Despite its shock effects, The Exorcist is a comforting film. It treats evil as an externality, certainly not caused by good middle class whites and institutions such as redlining, segregation, the prison industrial complex, etc. Baldwin writes, “He who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.”
Baldwin suggests the true source of the mother’s concern is class panic. (After all, the mother could simply commit her daughter to an institution and let them worry about projectile vomiting and levitations.)
The Exorcist is concerned with the continued invulnerability of a certain class of people, and the continued sanctification of a certain history.
Flash forward to 2021.
Rather than a professional writer like Blatty, we apparently have some American guy who lives in the Philippines with his father and posts on the internet. The DC elites now run a pizza parlor where ritualistic pedophilia occurs, and some anonymous government worker named Q reveals their exploits.
Of course, the Catholic Church has been revealed to be the biggest child rape protection racket, but myths about evil based on resentment still need to exist, no matter how badly written.
The message of Qanon is the same as The Exorcist.
"I'm bad, you're evil."