There is a film this Catholic reviewer has been avoiding, and it is The Exorcist (1973). I have seen it more than once, which in hindsight is more than I think anyone should view it. People watch it is a classic horror film. My view of it is as a critical Catholic. It is one that I studied while completing my dissertation “‘The Costumed Catholic’: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973” at Loyola University Chicago. Note the last year. Towards the end of my degree, we had a so-called Catholic scholar come to Loyola to give a talk on Faith in film. I was given the privilege of having lunch with her. Our conversation involved a rather odd disagreement about today’s movie. Her analysis focused on instances of Jesuit spirituality in the film. This makes sense as it features a real-life Jesuit priest, Reverend William O’Malley as Father Joseph Dyer, who was an advisor on the set. To me, this seemed a limited way of looking at the proceedings, and my concern was focused on how the movie is dismissive of Christianity in general. The scholar in question was equally dismissive of my claims. As such, much of what is to follows is me laying out my case in greater detail. Who knows? Maybe this person will read this review one day and better understand my position.
The beginning of The Exorcist would not appear to relate to the rest of the film, at least not at first. Aged priest Father Lancaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) unearths a demonic artifact while on an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. That is pretty much all you see of his character for the moment. The movie then shifts to Georgetown, near Washington D.C., where successful actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) lives with her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair). Strange things begin happening around the house. Part of this can be attributed to Regan beginning to play with a Ouija board. If it were up to me, these so-called toys would be outlawed, but I digress. Things truly come to a head during a fancy dinner party when a clearly disturbed Regan comes down from her bedroom in her pajamas and urinates on the living room floor. This is also witnessed by Father Dyer, who is an old friend of Chris and in attendance at the soiree. What he does not see is what happens after the guests leave. With Regan cleaned, Chris hears a loud noise from her room, and rushes in to find her levitating above her bed. Chris is not a spiritual person, and despite the obviously supernatural nature of these events, she instead subjects Regan to a series of medical and psychological tests. They have no scientific explanation for what is going on, and they, too, fall victim to strange occurrences that are going on around the child. In consulting with Chris once more, they suggest that Chris consult religious authorities on the matter. Not yet willing to go that route, things get worse when it looks as if Regan has murdered their house caretaker, Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran). His body is found at the bottom of some steps nearby by Detective William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), who begins sniffing around the MacNeils. It is at this point that Chris decides to turn to the Catholic Church. The person she approaches is a local priest that she has seen in the area while filming a movie, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a Jesuit. We have had scenes of him interspersed already, particularly as they relate to questions about his vocation and his fears for his sick mother (Vasiliki Maliaros). When Chris mentions the possibility of an exorcism to Father Karras, the priest is shocked, not seriously taking the request. When Chris persists, he claims that this sort of thing is not done anymore, and suggests that Regan see a psychiatrist. What convinces him that there is something more going on with the child is when he is convinced to visit her. Upon entering Regan’s room, the unnaturally cold atmosphere, her changed visage, and her knowledge of events that she should not know of are startling. Still, as a trained therapist himself, he attempts to investigate Regan as he would anyone else in need of analysis, maintaining that it is not so easy to get permission to perform the eponymous ritual. What convinces him of the urgency of the situation are two things. First, while listening to recordings of what he initially believes to be babble on Regan’s part turns out to be her talking backwards. The other is seeing the words “help me” scrawled on Regan’s torso. Father Karras presents the case to the Bishop, and permission is given for the exorcism. Since Father Karras has no training in this regard (yes, that is a thing), the person who is called upon to do it is Father Merrin, though Father Karras is asked to assist given his knowledge of the situation. The ritual does not go well, to say the least. Father Merrin seems to know what he is doing, just as much as the demon possessing Regan is able to resist the prayers and sprinkling of Holy Water. It takes a physical toll on Father Merrin. Meanwhile, the demon psychologically attacks Father Karras, suggesting that he has abandoned his mother. At one point in a lull in the happenings, Father Karras assures Chris that Regan will be okay. When he re-enters the room, he finds a dead Father Merrin. Enraged, he grabs Regan, throws her to the floor, and demands that the demon enter him instead. When it does, he then throws himself out the window. Chris rushes in to find a sobbing, but otherwise fine, Regan. Outside, the authorities arrive along with Father Dyer, who administers Last Rites to Father Karras. Our last scene is of the MacNeils leaving the house for good, and Father Dyer convincing Detective Kinderman that Burke’s death is case closed.
I cannot think of a single cinematic instance of experimenting with a Ouija board going well, and The Exorcist is no exception. This also gets to the heart of the matter as to why I despise this film. God is real. So, too, is the devil, unfortunately. While the devil’s tricks rarely manifest themselves as violently as they do in the film, it is still possible. Our culture is far too cavalier in its attitudes on these matters, which is why I believe Quija boards should be banned. Let us take organized religion out of the equation for a moment, and instead think of spirituality as the undefined, anything goes realm that so many think of it as today. When it comes to ghosts, demons, and possessions, does anyone truly understand any of it? The so-called “toy” against which I am railing is marketed as a device essentially for meddling in powers no one comprehends, particularly not children. I think this is egregiously bad, even if the spirits with which you are supposedly communicating with were not real. The problem, though, is that they are, and nobody should trifle with them. Again, you could end up like poor Regan. However, this is not the worst part of the film. That is reserved for the ineffectualness of the exorcism. To continue the logic chain already started in this paragraph, if a Quija board can put you in contact with spirits, it stands to reason that there is something that has power over them. It is not us, folks. When an exorcism is performed, it is not the priest who is wielding some kind of magical power over the demon. Instead, he is merely a tool in the hands of God in triumphing over evil. I am no expert on these matters, nor do I wish to be, but what little I understand tells me that those few priests called upon to be exorcists (and they do exist) are some of the most steadfast souls. In this way, the film does get one thing right. Father Karras is an emotionally wounded man, and the enemy exploits this in defeating him, thus not right for the ritual. What is disturbing is that Father Merrin is rendered impotent in the face of the demon. God has power over these situations, and in this view, the exorcism should have worked, and should not have resulted in his death. Taking in a demon to save Regan’s life is not the solution, either.
And therein lay another bone of contention between myself and the aforementioned scholar during our lunchtime discussion of The Exorcist. She viewed Father Karras’ actions as heroic in some kind of perversion of Jesuit theology. For me, it is a failure. My hope in writing this review is that it will make you not want to watch the film, and to understand the reasons why. Never mind my theological stance. There are sacrilege scenes involving the desecration of statues of Mary, and Regan stabbing her private parts with a Crucifix, not to mention the swearing. These are images that I pray to unsee, and I wish to spare you the need to do so yourself.