The Archaeology of Abjection in The Exorcist
Warner Home Video released a new Blu-ray set of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist on October 8, coinciding with the film’s 40th anniversary. The occasion warrants, I think, a brief revisiting. The set repackages an earlier Blu-ray edition with some new, inconsequential documentary features. Like the earlier release, the package pairs both the 1973 theatrical cut with Friedkin’s 2000 director’s cut. The director’s cut adds about ten minutes of footage, to disastrous but revealing effect. Various assessments of the “new” version over the past decade have pointed out that the new material disrupts the technical virtuosity of the shorter, tighter version. In the new cut, random inserts of Pazuzu’s face pop up on walls and oven hoods, Regan descends the stairs in a clumsily harnessed “spiderwalk” and vomits blood, and so on. The slow-building dread of the original cut settles into a hokey monster movie. More important, the new footage significantly deepens the film’s misogyny. Though that misogyny was already front and center in the original cut, the new footage gives a much more comprehensive view of the film’s politics, and its particular take on patriarchal hegemony.
Two new shots open the director’s cut, and they concretely establish the links between Regan and the Virgin Mary. The film opens on an exterior of the Georgetown house where Regan MacNeil and her mother, Chris, live, which then dissolves to a close-up of the Mary statue at a nearby cathedral. “The juxtaposition of these two shots,” says Friedkin in his commentary, “shows that these are the two places that will come under attack by the demon.” These sites of struggle, the home of a virgin and the Virgin Mother, represent what Friedkin calls a “self-conscious parable of Christianity […] a struggle of good against evil.” The depiction of metaphysical evil controlling a feminine vessel that must be purged and purified by the self-sacrifice of a male innocent is a common set up, if I may understate. I’m sure, furthermore, that I won’t offend anyone’s sensibilities by noting the rather strong link between Christian – particularly Catholic – doctrine and patriarchal values.
Indeed, much criticism, particularly feminist criticism, of The Exorcist focuses on Regan, Chris, and sometimes Karras’s mother as exploited victims, ciphers over which men strain and huff for physical and spiritual domination. Yet the spiritual struggle represented by Father Merrin and Pazuzu is much more over the soul of Father Karras than it is over the body of Regan, a point often glossed over, but one that is key to Karras’s Christlike sacrifice. Some critics have complained about the lack of characterization, that there’s not enough visual information about characters to make assessments or develop sympathy. But the visual design of the film – which I’ll comment on more in a moment – indicates that all the characters save one are incidental. The struggle in the film is not of people, but of patriarchal methods of control, and the only character that is actually developed, the only one who actually matters, is Karras.
Moreover, the activities of Merrin, Karras, and Pazuzu as archaeologist, psychologist, and occupist, respectively, share a method that links the three as a sort of patriarchal trinity. It is this relationship, that of the male characters and their activities, that visually organizes the narrative, and the key word is “organize.” Set against a cultural background of post-hippie sex, drugs, rock & roll; rising voices of feminism, racial and homosexual civil rights struggles; and Vietnam, The Exorcist is a profoundly conservative film that realigns the grid of good and evil, casts all else into the realm of the abject and then slowly reintegrates the abject within the Order of the Father. That the film is conservative, or in Jon Landau’s words, “religious porn,” is nothing new to say, but focusing on the torture Regan endures and the terror Chris feels misses the central existential problems of the film. Pazuzu, though an exoticized Eastern “Other,” nevertheless also serves as part of the Western trinity in the film, and the struggle is as that of Eden: using Eve to get to Adam. The misogyny of this film is such that the women are not merely being harnessed and restored to subordinate positions – though that certainly happens – but that the women don’t even matter. They’re merely symptoms of a power struggle among men. They’re not where they’re supposed to be, and must be restored to their rightful place.
In case there are people who have not seen it or have not seen it in some time, the film opens with an extended prologue at an archaelogical dig conducted by Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) in Northern Iraq. He discovers a strange idol that disturbs him, and he cuts his dig short because, he says cryptically, “there is something I must do.” The narrative then shifts to the famous actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), in Georgetown for a film shoot, and her young daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), who soon is possessed by the demon Pazuzu, of whom Merrin’s idol is a likeness. Chris enlists the help of Father Karras (Jason Miller), a priest-psychologist who has lost his faith. Karras contacts Merrin, and the two perform an exorcism in which Merrin is killed and Karras, to save Regan, takes Pazuzu into his own body before committing suicide.
Karras is slightly feminized by his parallels to Regan and to Chris, which is the source of his self-doubt. He, too, is not where he is supposed to be. Both he and Regan are fatherless, both are estranged from their mothers. Where Karras shoulders guilt for abandoning his mother (in her eyes) to die in a sanitarium, Regan is abandoned by her mother (perhaps in her eyes) to die in her own room. Chris – the masculinized name suggests she is in some liminal space between mother and father, which is to say, she is neither – is caught up in her work, her parties, her conflict with Regan’s estranged father, and treats Regan more like a girlfriend she sees now and again than a daughter. Karras is caught up in his job as diocese psychologist and in wrestling with his faith, and leaves his mother for most of each week alone in her New York apartment. Opposing sexualities also link Regan and Karras: Regan, entering puberty, is awakening to sexuality, while Karras, a priest, has stifled his own.
The prologue establishes the foreign “Otherness” of Pazuzu. Merrin digs, disturbs, and claims artifacts from a culture alien to Catholic Christianity. He ignores the culture, evidenced in the way he obliviously walks by Muslims at prayer, and digs maze-like tunnels in the earth, searching for hidden treasures. The sound design builds to cacophony as Merrin stumbles around the bazaar, and finally the camera cuts between dogs fighting and an iconic shot of Merrin facing off against a statue of Pazuzu. The dogs fade into Merrin and Pazuzu, linking the two images. So the prologue builds to a battle, but for what, over what? Nowhere is good mentioned here, and in fact, Merrin’s assistant murmurs “Evil against evil…Father,” before a clock pendulum stops. Friedkin says this story is self-consciously a parable of Christianity, a struggle of good against evil, yet his visual design suggests something a little more complicated.
Merrin’s dig is a visual metaphor for Karras’s work as a psychologist, and perhaps as well for his spiritual anxiety. Karras digs into the minds of men, ignoring their general humanity in favor of searching through mazes of the mind for hidden artifacts. But now he feels guilty, he has lost his faith, he no longer believes that God is good. In Regan, all that is abject confronts Karras at his weakest moment. Regan is torn, she bleeds, she vomits, she curses. All of Karras’s doubt, all of his guilt, seems manifest on Regan’s body, which itself cries “Help Me,” not through her own voice but through words literally written on her body from the inside. (Other critics suggest that Regan isn’t even the one crying “help me,” but that Pazuzu is the speaker; either interpretation aligns with the patriarchal tendency to write the female body.)
The director’s cut confirms this connection between Karras and Regan with a short dialogue scene between Merrin and Karras on the staircase outside Regan’s room, another scene left out of the original theatrical version. The men sit at different levels of the zig-zagging stair and face opposite directions. “Why, why this girl?” asks Karras. “To make us despair,” answers Merrin, to make us despair that God would allow such a thing. Let me emphasize the word “us.” To Merrin, all this is about the two priests. In fact, he’s completely uninterested in hearing details about Regan’s case. Regan doesn’t matter. This is first about the dominion of God, and second about the faith of Karras (which is also the dominion of God). Karras renews his faith through sacrifice. He redeems himself for abandoning his mother by saving Regan.
Pazuzu appears in all of Karras’s dreams, just as he appears in Regan’s. He haunts them both, thereby bringing them together. Karras’s shaken faith and Regan’s young innocence, along with their shared sense of isolation, attracts Pazuzu, and paradoxically offers Karras a chance at redemption, even though that redemption requires his ultimate sacrifice. Again, the focus is on Karras. We know why he is tormented, and we know also that Regan is his chance to do right by God. Interestingly, earlier in the film, Karras watches Chris filming a scene for her movie in which she attempts to quell a student riot. Her dialogue in that scene insists that you can’t accomplish anything unless you do it within the system. So it is with Karras.
The staircases that haunt Karras ultimately serve as the thresholds of his salvation, and make a visual bookend to Merrin’s dig in Iraq. He dreads the walk up the steps to his mother’s apartment. In his dreams, his mother ascends the subway stair. Regan, possessed by Pazuzu, walks backwards on her hands and feet down the stairs of her home. Karras and Merrin climb the stairs to perform the exorcism, and Karras throws himself down the staircase outside Regan’s window to destroy Pazuzu and himself. These staircases, which ascend and descend to thresholds, liminal spaces that must be crossed, join Karras to Regan, Merrin to Pazuzu, and intersect guilt with absolution, despair with faith.
What is it that Karras’s sacrifice, which he makes by working within “the system,” accomplishes? Nothing more than a reinstatement of absolute patriarchy, that of the Church, one that rejects science and psychology, and the sociopolitical upheavals that would lead a man to self-doubt and a woman to cut her hair short and masculinize her name. The impotent doctors and psychologists – a point emphasized when Regan crushes the testicles of a psychologist who tries to hypnotize her – must give way to a value system held together by blind faith. The director’s cut adds several more shots of Chris watching Regan suffer through the doctors’ tests, which, again, emphasizes Chris’s reorientation to faith and submission. At the end of the film, Father Dyer (William O’Malley) hands Chris a religious trinket. Regan, who had never met him before, sees the cross he wears and impulsively hugs him. That is the moment in which the two women’s fate is truly sealed.
Will Dodson is the Ashby Residential College Coordinator at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he teaches rhetoric, literature, and media studies. He is the author of several forthcoming book chapters and articles.