Echoes Of A Horror To Come: The Exorcist At Fifty

They say that he was born of the dawn. That he brought us light. That he brought us death. But Lucifer was consumed with loathsome pride, fancying himself Lord of the clouds. And so he was punished. Pitched from heaven by a vengeful God, he streaked wailing through an ashen sky, crashing to earth, condemned forever to more pedestrian gigs: stalking the fearful imaginings of illiterate peasants, allegedly inspiring witchy sexual appetites, exciting the raunchily swinging hips of rock & roll singers.

In The Exorcist (1973), all those earlier folky fears are combined with post-war American dread. And they appear where we’d least expect it: the fragile body of a sweet prepubescent girl. The film seems to show her mercilessly possessed by the ancient Mesopotamian god of the southwest wind Pazuzu, if not Satan, the wretched fallen angel himself. It doesn’t feel like it’s 50 years old. The Exorcist‘s ability to terrify remains undimmed, and the film still reflects some of the concerns of the day, as well as some darker impulses from the wretched unconscious. Making sense of this, however, requires us to get the story straight about a film that many people think they know better than they do, and which is so often reduced to a series of contextless parodies, from the Scary Movie franchise to Family Guy.

The Exorcist concerns divorcée film star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). They live together in a beautiful house in Georgetown, not far from Washington, D.C while Chris is on set. After Regan’s behaviour becomes increasingly troubling, including urination in front of party guests, the unexplained quaking of her bed, and acts of violence, it appears she is possessed by a demon that changes her voice and appearance; her newly found abnormal strength appears to be responsible for the death of Chris’s friend, film director Burke Dennings (Jake MacGowran), found crumpled at the bottom of the steps to the house with his head gruesomely twisted all the way around.

Medical science fails to help her. A doctor suggests exorcism instead. So Chris seeks out Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit priest with faith shaken by doubt and guilt concerning his lonely dying mother (Vasiliki Maliaros). During his visit, Regan claims to be the Devil. She projectile vomits, speaks in tongues, and reacts violently to what she is told is holy water. Father Karras calls in the more experienced Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), and the two perform an exorcism. When Merrin dies of a heart attack, Karras beats the possessed Regan and demands that the demon take him instead; he defenestrates himself, sacrificing his own life. The curse is broken. Regan returns to normal. She has no memory of what has happened to her.

Of course, this summary does little justice to the film, as it fails to account for the film’s rich narrative layers which give Regan’s trauma its emotional texture. The most important of these layers is how it is ‘foreshadowed’ by earlier events. This dramatic technique, typically found in Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, and probably familiar to anyone forced to study literature in school, presents the viewer with words and images that anticipate a horror that is yet to come: King Oedipus ignores the warnings of blind prophet Tiresias before putting out his own eyes in spurts of cascading blood; the ‘untimely death’ of Romeo and Juliet; there are many more examples.

Mark Kermode reads foreshadowing in The Exorcist as what he calls a “pre-echo”. This suggests that Regan’s trauma has its own paradoxical sense of time. An echo is, of course, something we hear after a first sound. A pre-echo would then be a reverberation we hear before that sound. This reflects French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s description of the contradictory character of his complex concept, the ‘Real’. This doesn’t just mean some ultimate ‘reality’ out there beyond us. It refers, rather, to two things at once: both the hard core of a traumatic experience that words fail to describe, and a vague, shadowy silhouette of those events that still has properties of its own which appear to the human mind precisely when language hasn’t proved adequate to the task of describing it. The Real can only be ‘constructed afterwards’, naming the distortions it leaves behind. This ties in with Kermode’s claim that the film shows us Regan’s trauma in adults” “reaction[s] to the horrors afflicting Regan before showing us those horrors themselves’. Hence Chris’s horrified gasps, the doctors’ confusion, the priests aghast.

This intensifies film theorist Barbara Creed’s take on critic Julia Kristeva’s understanding of what many other feminist writers influenced by psychoanalysis have called the ‘abject’: the complex, unstable way we construct our sense of who we are as selves separate from our mothers by rejecting what we are not. Or, as Julia Kristeva, a big influence on Creed, says: ‘I abject myself with the same motion which “I” claim to establish myself’.

Creed reads the apparently possessed Regan’s wretched voice and spitting, vomiting, bleeding body as a ‘monstrous’, abject protest against the split between two types of meaning: the pre-verbal ‘semiotic’ realm represented by Chris’s authority as a mother and the ‘symbolic’ laws decided by the figures of institutional authority, all of whom are men (film directors, doctors, priests). This is what makes it possible for Regan to become an adult who speaks for herself, but only on the condition that the semiotic dimension is forgotten. This repression produces the monstrous – Regan’s abject refusal to enter the symbolic world of adulthood is expressed in a foul parody of her girlish body and its functions under Chris’s care, using a disastrous sexualised language to do it.

This is all foreshadowed in the opening sequence, when Merrin is overseeing an archaeological dig in northern Iraq. This prepares the viewer for the horrifying clash between the semiotic realm that is the ‘precondition of language’ and what happens when trauma is only understood symbolically through the ‘retroactive effect of the failure of its own representation’. The foulness we see in The Exorcist then has a time structure of its own: before and after, child and demon, precondition and retroactivity, pre-echo and reaction.

In the opening sequence, the thin legs of a running boy, the rigid glare of a man’s glass eye, and the stare of a toothless grinning woman reappear in Regan’s ravaged body hurled around her bedroom, blazing hellish gaze, rotten mouth. The noises of the Iraqi village (an ironmonger hammering an anvil, chattering voices, sombre prayers), and Jack Nitzsche’s grinding, jarring score, become the noises from Regan’s bedroom: groaning bedsprings, infernal noises Chris initially mistakes for rats, and the chanting of the exorcism as Merrin famously intones ‘The power of Christ compels you!’
This is all overseen and organised by the implied sexual threat of the Pazuzu statue that so troubles Merrin at the end of this sequence, accompanied by more of Nitzsche’s ghastly sounds. This organises a series of other pre-echoes: the relationships between Karras and his mother, and Regan and Chris; the demon cruelly repeats the words of an elderly alcoholic Karras encounters in the subway, as well as his mother; the moaning dementia patients in Bellevue hospital where Karras condemns his mother, the ‘possessed’ Regan’s snarls and growls. Most importantly, there’s Chris’s use of bad language on the phone to her ex-husband. Regan overhears this. It resounds in her vile sacrilegious terror tongue.

Regan’s catastrophically sexualised behaviour is a tainted, abject echo of three things Chris says to her earlier in the film: when looking through pictures from a modelling shoot, ‘I don’t like that cover, you look so mature’; when confronted by Regan’s behaviour, ‘You’re not my little girl anymore’; when reporting it to the doctors, ‘That thing is not my daughter’. American cultural anxieties about the whole society’s changing moral fabric after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, important in themselves, are solidified in these three words: ‘mature’, ‘little girl’, ‘thing’.

This lets us displace the film’s more obvious moments of abject pyrotechnic foulness: Regan’s bodily contortions (levitation, shaking, putrid diseased skin), projectile vomiting, her obscenities, the infamous crucifix masturbation sequence. This is how many people choose to remember it. What Regan says and does aren’t unimportant. There is, however, one scene that condenses all these horrors. Not only was it not in the original theatrical cut, though it is now in the Director’s Cut, but is narratively and thematically vital: the medical examination scene.

The scene begins with Regan undergoing a series of physical examinations. She hums to herself, twitching and twirling. She seems to be showing signs of hyperactivity. Then we are shown an interview between Chris and Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman). Dr Klein says that Regan seems to be suffering from a nervous disorder shared by many other adolescents. He prescribes Ritalin. The end of this scene is compelling. Dr. Klein asks Chris whether Regan has ever been known to use bad language. Chris denies it. Then Dr Klein reports to Chris that Regan has said something vile and disturbing, especially for America in 1973: ‘She advised me to keep my fingers away from her “goddamn cunt”’, he says. Chris responds anxious and fretful but does not emit a typical horror movie scream.
This is crucial. It’s certainly perfect expression of Kermode’s claim about reactions since the drama rests in Chris’s expression of concern. But it’s also example of Freud’s description of ‘displacement’, when apparently less emotionally significant dream-thoughts appear more clearly in the content of the dream. This secures what Kermode says in more recent interviews that the film’s ‘incidental scenes do all the heavy lifting’.

Combined with the problem of the pre-echo and the question of the voice however, it seems as though this scene is not only vital for how the narrative unfolds, but a clear and subtly terrifying moment where the true horror of the film lies. We have not only Chris’s non-scream, a refusal of a typical horror cliché, but the first introduction to the problem of Regan’s possession. Yes, Regan is possessed by a voice that does not belong to her. Yes, it speaks with a guttural masculinity, a cruel, gravelly scorn. The point is that it has an intimate, penetrating force, an ‘an obscene over-proximity’.

The removal of this scene from the original cut, however, creates, Kermode says, a ‘severe narrative problem’. Without it, the film moves from the miseries of Bellevue Hospital to the party at Chris’s house, where Regan comes into the living room in a nightdress, urinates on the floor, and tells an astronaut attending the party that he’s going to die in space, before being removed from the action by an apologetic Chris who says ‘I’m sorry, she’s been sick. She doesn’t know what she’s saying’.

The medical examination scene gives us a concentrated form of the time-structure of Regan’s trauma. An echo is, again, something we hear after a first sound; a pre-echo is a reverberation we hear before that sound. This monstrous thing we can barely bring ourselves to look at is then seeable in Regan’s wretched body as she resists the very language that won’t let her stay as she was in Chris’s home. The adults’ reactions to this are the shocked, ringing after-effect of this. And they come before we get to see it. This suggests that Regan’s possession is at least in part a product of those adult responses. Their reactions make the very thing that causes the reaction in the first place, so Regan’s possession is constructed afterwards to explain the effects it produces. The viewer then presupposes all of this this for the narrative to make sense, prompted by the foreshadowing and the ominous gloom it casts over the forward thrust of the narrative. The ‘retroactive effect’ of Regan’s trauma is this: the failure to look it in the eye straight away is what makes it possible to look at it at all and the very substance of that act of looking once it has happened.

Even after five decades, The Exorcist still has the power to shock us. These are frights that scatter popcorn to the wind, found later, dusty and polystyrene dry but still yummy, in hoodie pockets and underneath the cushions. It’s now rightly regarded as a classic, with no censors breathing down our necks or closing our eyelids for us, and the restoration of the medical examination scene is what allows us to organise how we see and hear these horrors: their echoes, their cries.

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