By Jerome Reuter
This is a film that needs no introduction. William Friedkin’s 1973 masterpiece has been seen by just about everyone, and I mean everyone. It’s a work that still horrifies audiences, even today. It’s also one of the most accessible horror films to date, as well as one of the most recognizable. But what is it that draws our attention to this one? Why are we captivated by the story of a young girl tormented by possession?
There really is no concrete answer to these questions. If you ask six different people about a film, you’re likely to get six different answers. However, I have my own theories on why this one resonates with us as much as it does. I also feel The Exorcist has a deep-rooted psychology, one that sits with someone long after the end credits roll.
The first thing that comes to mind is the victimization of a child. Children are the ultimate taboo victims. In a sense they represent naiveté, innocence, and we can’t help but sympathize with them. As children, we were powerless to influence many events unfolding in the world around us. Our defenses had little to no ability to protect us from the harm of the outside world.
Watching Reagan’s transformation in this film is what’s most memorable. We see her go from an innocent child to the newest vessel of Hades. The visceral effects are what bring this transformation to life. The images of masturbation with a crucifix, to projectile vomiting make any first time viewer seem uneasy. I’ve heard many people say these images made them fell uneasy. In my opinion, they’re necessary to establish how far the possession has gone. In my opinion, it’s one of the more interesting character arcs you’ll ever see.
Speaking of possession, that brings me to my next topic. The film tackles the debate of religion vs. science. There are those of us who live by fact, and others who live by faith. These two paths are perfectly interwoven into this story. Psychology and science fail to give an answer to possession. Religion, and the supernatural are the revealed to be the cause. This is actually a brilliant reflection of the progression of civilization. As we have progressed as a species, superstition has been dismissed as laughable. After all, there’s a reason why science replaced alchemy. This was an age where many asked ‘Is god dead?’ This film makes us ponder of the existence of unseen forces at work. Both Fathers Karras & Merrin represent new and old methods of thinking, Tradition, and reformation are perfectly personified.
Much of the film’s strength lies in its atmosphere. Friedkin uses little to no music, except when it’s absolutely necessary. He allows the sequences to play out on their own, allowing the viewer to take in the whole experience. In film, music is one of the most powerful elements of storytelling. It helps guide our subconscious, as well as our emotions. When music is absent, it allows us to be completely enveloped in the imagery. There are moments in this film, which feel cold as ice. When they occur, you feel cold.
This is why this film has maintained over the years. It isn’t something you watch, it’s something you feel. From start to finish, it’s an assault on the senses. We’re drawn in form the beginning due to this film’s reputation. The terror is confined to a suburban setting, which hits home for any resident of suburbia. In an age where possession film imitators try to scare us, The Exorcist proves there are no substitutions.