Volume 9, Issue 1

(Fall 2023)

Special Issue: The Exorcist: Studies on Possession, Influence, and Society

Guest editors: Edmund P. Cueva and Nadia Scippacercola

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Cover image: Cover image: “Saint Wolfgang and the Devil” (1471-1475) by Michael Pacher (c. 1435-1498), public domain

Guest Editors’ Introduction, by Edmund P. Cueva and Nadia Scippacercola (7-13)

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Apotropaic Pazuzu? Evil vs. Evil, by Edmund P. Cueva (15-31)

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Abstract: This article explores the complexities surrounding Pazuzu and his significance in both ancient Mesopotamian mythology and The Exorcist, both book and film. By examining his origins and sources of power through the ceramic images of the demon, the article offers an analysis of his character to clarify his role in The Exorcist. The demon, which has a nature at odds with itself, is an intriguing figure with a fascinating place in ancient lore.

Keywords: Pazuzu, sculpture, clay, demon

“We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder”: The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense, by Krista S. Gehring (33-52)

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Abstract: The Exorcist (1973) is touted as the “scariest movie ever made,” centering on the demonic possession of an innocent 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil. While many viewers remember the events in the film related to the possession and the eventual exorcism, a homicide investigation also occurs. Lieutenant William Kinderman suspects that the “accidental” death of the director Burke Dennings has a more sinister origin. The murder of Dennings by Regan (possessed by the demon Pazuzu) has been underexplored in academic works, and horror films are not often studied using a criminal justice approach. This article will discuss the criminal investigation in the film and examine criminal law and demonic possession. Examining The Exorcist with attention to questions of criminal law allows us to discuss Regan’s culpability in the death of Dennings. I argue that, if Regan were prosecuted for the murder of Dennings, the prosecution would have difficulty establishing her role in the offense, her defense attorney could use demonic possession as an affirmative defense, and she would likely be found “not involved” in the murder. 

Keywords: crime, homicide, law, criminal defense 

Demons in the Celluloid: How The Exorcist Delivered Evil Through the Screen, by Micah Untiedt (53-66)

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Abstract: Upon its release in the winter of 1973, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist became one of the most controversial films of all time, captivating the world in a spectacle never before seen and hardly replicated since. This article dives into the history of Spiritualist entertainments, the use of electronic media as a tool for spiritual contact, and the society in which religious fervor clashed with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s in order to discover how The Exorcist was primed to terrify the world beyond the screen. By examining the ways in which The Exorcist revitalized fears of media and spiritual influence, we can come to a deeper understanding of the power we attribute to the cinema as a whole. 

Keywords: cinema, cursed, horror, media, Spiritualism 

(pre) possessed: an erasure sequence, by Sonia Overall (67-70)

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‘(pre)possessed’ is a sequence of six erasure poems created using found text. The work explores the concept of hidden messages as a form of possession, where apparently unbiased newspaper coverage and banal magazine columns contain the seeds of other— darker—ideas exposed through erasure. Riffing on the urban legend of satanic messages buried in song lyrics using ‘backmasking’ and the practice of subliminal advertising, ‘(pre)possessed’ demonstrates how creative erasure can ‘uncover’ the demonic apparently hiding in plain sight. The found text used in the work was drawn randomly from a collection of British print media gathered over five months. 

Lankester Merrin, Abraham Van Helsing, and the Traditions of Kosmic Kombat in Popular Christian Media, by William S. Chavez (71-96)

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Abstract: This article examines the role of Father Lankester Merrin in The Exorcist (novel, screenplay, and film) to discern the popular and religious milieu from which the character stems—namely, the cumulative tradition of kosmic kombat associated within historical Christianity and gothic horror movie icons like Dracula and Abraham Van Helsing. Merrin, a veteran of spiritual warfare, ritually bested Regan MacNeil’s Pazuzu demon years earlier in Africa at the cost of his health. Their rematch functions as a theological treatise on the necessary steps taken when confronting supernatural evil. As possessed Regan taunts Merrin in the novel: “This time, you’re going to lose.” Through a historical and media contextualization of the character, I argue that Merrin simultaneously operates as the “old guard” of Catholic faith and tradition and as a priestly incarnation of the Van Helsing archetype, both of which the ritual novice Fr. Damien Karras is meant to emulate. 

Keywords: kosmic kombat, Lankester Merrin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Hammer Film Productions, theology 

Forensic and Experimental Estrangement: Investigating the Supernatural Body, by Octavia Cade (97-112)

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Abstract: Horror is a genre defined by destabilization: it undermines the expected and causes individuals to become estranged from the world around them. Through confrontation with unfamiliarity, those individuals are forced to reassess the beliefs that they once held to be paramount and to reorder their understanding of the universe. This characteristic is particularly evident in horror films focused on a supernatural body. The Exorcist (1973) and The Atticus Institute (2015) both use medical science to examine their living patients, while The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018) and The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) are centered on the forensic investigation of a supernatural body. In each of these cases, the possessed body becomes an experimental subject, and the failure of scientists to understand the results of their investigations is highlighted. 

Keywords: destabilization, exorcism, psychology, estrangement, experimentation 

The Failed Heroic Journey of Fr. Damian Karras, S.J., and the Decline of Christianity as a Unifying Myth, by Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt and Darrell Riffe (113-130)

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Abstract: The Exorcist is examined through the lens of film as the dominant conveyor of cultural mythology in the Cold War era. It is considered in the context of Campbell’s four functions of myth and Jung’s model of the psychological functions that myth serves. It was released at a time when Christianity was no longer adequate to serve as a unifying cultural force and was being replaced by science as a way of knowing. The film, while firmly situated in the Christian worldview in which demonic forces are real, is nonetheless ambivalent about the utility of Christian beliefs in providing relief from psychological and physical suffering. This is supported by Father Karras’ religious doubts and his inability to complete a successful exorcism. This failure reflects the failure of Christianity to provide a satisfactory unifying cultural narrative and this very inadequacy is, in large part, responsible for the film’s potency. 

Keywords: monomyth, mythology, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Christianity 

The Version You’ve Never Heard: The Evolving Soundtrack of The Exorcist, by Jeffrey Bullins (131-148)

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Abstract: The Exorcist (1973) was one of the most successful horror films of the 1970s and many subsequent films copied its subject matter and style. However, its aesthetics do not carry over to its own rerelease, The Exorcist: The Version You’ve Never Seen (2000). Beyond 10 minutes of extra footage, the soundtrack is heavily modified. New music and sound effects are added, and existing effects are combined with new elements. This soundtrack is more complex and layered, working against the style of the original. Twenty-seven years later, instead of following the realistic aesthetics of the original, Version borrows stylistically from late 90s horror. Rather than influencing its contemporaries, it is influenced by them. This works against director William Friedkin’s professed goals of realism and suggests significant narrative differences. This article examines changes in the soundtrack between The Exorcist and Version and how a realistic, objective aesthetic morphs into a stylized, subjective soundtrack closer to its 2000 contemporaries. 

Keywords: The Exorcist rerelease, film scores and soundtracks, Jack Nitzsche 

The Evolution of Captain Howdy: How Pazuzu Changes Throughout the Exorcist Franchise, by Jennifer Alexandra Chinnery (149-166)

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Abstract: In 1971, William Peter Blatty published a novel that would spawn what is often referred to as one of the scariest films of all time, a disliked sequel, a slow-paced follow-up that originally lacked an exorcism, a fourth film that was made twice, and a series that garnered positive reviews before being cancelled. To say the Exorcist franchise is inconsistent would perhaps be an understatement. And yet, throughout the entries into its cinematic and televisual canon, one thing has remained present: the Mesopotamian demon antagonist, Pazuzu. Throughout this article, I will outline how the first film uses stimuli to prompt a feeling of fear in the viewer via a phenomenologically biocultural approach and then explore how the presentation of the series’ antagonist changes over time to see what can be learned from this. 

Keywords: phenomenology, evolutionary psychology, horror 

House of Exorcism: Possession, Exorcism, and the Family in Eurocult Films, 1974–1979, by Paul A. J. Lewis (167-189)

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Abstract: This article examines “Eurocult” films about diabolical possession made in the years that immediately followed the release of The Exorcist. European films about diabolical possession are relatively under-discussed and often regarded as disreputable examples of paracinema. While many of the films featuring diabolical possession as a narrative motif are horror pictures, the theme of possession has a cross-genre appeal. Exploring the significance of the “Eurocult” label for these pictures, the article considers the manner in which Eurocult possession films frame diabolical possession as a “day of reckoning” for the bourgeois family and the institutions of church and medicine. While medical doctors and priests wage ideological battles over the causes of the possessed individual’s aberrant behaviors and bodily slide into the abject, the possessed individual spits out “home truths” for the members of their immediate family. Ultimately, these films are simultaneously rebellious and conservative. 

Keywords: Eurocult, possession, cinema, diabolical, horror 

An Account of the Birth of a Classic: From **** to a Masterpiece of Its Genre, The Rise of The Exorcist in Italy, by Nadia Scippacercola (191-220)

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Abstract: This paper analyzes news articles regarding The Exorcist over the last fifty years from the Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s oldest and most influential newspapers. This analysis uses the newspaper’s online database (Archivio PRO del Corriere della Sera) and was conducted systematically for the first decade or so from the book’s publication and the film’s release (1971–1983) and then in a synthetic way for the intervening decades. Through the study of the distribution, location, and content of the more than 1,500 references, the examination of the forms and stereotypes of the journalistic lexicon and storytelling, and the analysis of the critical judgments expressed in the elzeviri, this investigation focuses on a series of characteristic elements that over time have been inseparably merged into the narrative and the Italian imaginary connected to The Exorcist; finally, it highlights the evolution of critical perspectives. 

Keywords: history of criticism, Corriere della Sera, journalistic treatment, Italian Imaginary, reception