The Evolution of Captain Howdy: How Pazuzu Changes Throughout the Exorcist Franchise

by Jennifer Alexandra Chinnery

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article. 

[page 149] 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 

The lens through which I will be looking at The Exorcist franchise is a phenomenologically biocultural one. I have argued for this approach to horror elsewhere (Chinnery 14), but I will outline it here: a phenomenologically biocultural approach to horror understands that horror media scares the viewer by triggering evolved survival responses that are culturally developed and experienced via an affective sensorium. Mathias Clasen’s work forms a large part of this approach; in Why Horror Seduces, he details the evolutionary psychology behind the science of fear and how the brain is designed to accept horror stimuli as “real” to improve chances of survival.

Horror fiction targets ancient and deeply conserved defense mechanisms in the brain; when it works, it works by activating supersensitive danger-detection circuits that have their roots far back in vertebrate evolution, circuits that evolved to help our ancestors survive in dangerous environments. Humans have an adaptive disposition to find pleasure in make-[page 150]believe that allows them to experience negative emotions at high levels of intensity within a safe context (Clasen 4).

The dangers detected in these circumstances follow evolutionarily familiar threats to human life: sharp teeth and claws, the dark, the predatory, and the hungry. These threat characteristics may be presented directly or via a creature with “supernormal” or exaggerated traits (Clasen 63), like the giant shark of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). These characteristics are then informed and given shape by the cultural attitudes of the film viewer in question. We can understand the process by which the viewer perceives these threat triggers via a phenomenological approach that understands a connection between viewer and object as an interaction (Daniel 31; Hart 8; Ndalianis 16). Image and sound influence the bodily way in which an audience interacts with a piece of horror media, driving an affective response that is corporeally tied to the viewer. 

The Exorcist

Based on the novel of the same name by screenwriter William Peter Blatty, director William Friedkin’s 1973 film The Exorcist follows Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) as she attempts to save her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) from a mysterious condition that is revealed to be possession by a demon. Regan is subjected to terrible bodily and psychological trauma before she is saved by the priests Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the former dying during the exorcism and the latter inviting the demon into himself before leaping from Regan’s bedroom window—seemingly to his death. Although the demon is not named in the film, he is given the name Pazuzu in the screenplay (Blatty [screenplay] 6), and the film’s prologue and climax feature a statue of the same mythological figure. The primary manifestation of Pazuzu in the film comes through the invasion and manipulation of young Regan MacNeil. Her traumatic experience with possession leads her to act as both the primary victim and antagonist [page 151] in the film. Through her, we see Pazuzu taunting Chris, Karras, and eventually Merrin, using vile language and acting with sudden bursts of violence. As Mark Kermode puts it, “For the first time in a mainstream movie, audiences witnessed the graphic desecration of everything that was considered wholesome and good about the fading American dream—the home, the family, the church and, most shockingly, the child” (9). This is achieved through not just Blair’s performance but also the stunt work of Eileen Dietz, the vocal work of Mercedes McCambridge—who plays Pazuzu’s voice when manifested in Regan—and the effects team who put together the Regan dummy which was used for several quick shots. The image of the possessed Regan stands the test of time; as Adam Charles Hart points out, Regan was a commonly used jump scare during the “screamers” craze in the early 2000s (72).

In terms of the actual threat characteristics to which the audience responds in watching The Exorcist, the initial onset of scares from Regan come from uncanny behavior—telling an astronaut that he is going to die during her mother’s party, urinating on the floor, throwing herself around on her bed. This is played to much greater effect in the 2000 Version You’ve Never Seen cut, which includes many early examination sequences in which Regan is shown to be listless, energetic, overly stimulated, humming, moving from place to place without apparent purpose, seemingly without direction. These early interactions are challenging as the audience is given unusual behavior and dared to find a threat—a threat most will be contextually aware is coming—in the form of an innocent young girl. The demon here occupies a place Matt Hills might describe as being a horrific “object” that is not defined but alluded to: “Possession horror … offers many instances of the interplay between object-directed emotion (experienced where the possessive forces is ‘housed’ in one specific body) and objectless anxiety, where the possessive force exceeds any one body/object and hence potentially saturates a mise-en-scene” (27). Such saturation can be seen most clearly in the changing nature of Regan’s bedroom, the site of the hor-[page 152]ror. Regan’s bed changes with Regan, prompting Marc Olivier to describe it as having “its own character arc as the forces of medicine, religion, domesticity, and demonic infestation compete for dominance of the space” (184).

Once the possession is in full force, the threat characteristics are dialed up, and the uncanny effect is much more intense. This is accomplished by using a guttural and un-Regan-like voice and altering Regan’s appearance with special effects and by the aggressive and hateful things coming from this young girl’s mouth. Combine this with the quick cuts of the life-like but not alive practical dummy that is cut to for gags like the “head turn” and the litany of injuries all over Regan’s face, and the result is clear: possessed Regan is the threat of a stranger, made harder to qualify by the fact she is also still just a child. Kermode alludes to this film having a potentially “paedophobic tract” (27), but I think more than just presenting Regan/children as being scary, The Exorcist muddies the water by ascribing characteristics and traits that we do not associate with children to Regan, which from a survival standpoint makes the threat harder to parse. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the repeated cuts to Chris’ distraught face as Regan’s actions worsen. Chris is the person who should be the most caring and supportive of the child, and the distance between the Regan that was and the creature in Georgetown is mediated via Chris’s expressions as seen by the audience. Clasen refers to the psychological mechanism at work here as “emotional contagion” (Clasen 50).

Ironically, what is reported to have been one of the most upsetting and difficult-to-process scenes in the film on its theatrical release doesn’t actually pertain to possession or any form of demonic or malevolent spirit in the slightest; the scene in which Regan undergoes an arteriogram had audiences struggling to cope with what they were seeing (Kermode 53). This is perhaps one of the purest expressions of a threat stimulus in fiction inciting a corporeal reaction in the audience, demonstrating an unwillingness to see bodily damage done to a person—especially to a child—even if in the name of medi-[page 153]cine, with the sight of blood and the moans of pain from Regan driving an affective response. This also primes the audience for the painful events Regan undergoes, as an element of authenticity has been provided to the proceedings. As Matt Glasby asks, how can the audience be expected to tell the difference between the blood shown in the painfully realistic arteriogram sequence and the carnage that follows it (35)?

It is also worth mentioning the content of Regan’s discussions with the priest; particularly her loudly shouted assaults on her mother, the priests, and anyone who is in the room with her. Pazuzu—via Regan—demands and even forces sexual “gratification” by violently stabbing herself between the legs with a crucifix and shoving Chris’ face into the same spot. Shot composition and sound effects manipulate the audience’s affective response to what they are seeing: 

[T]he scene shocks because it violates the body of a girl, generally associated with virginity and innocence, and because it does so by desecrating a key symbol of Christian religion…its power relies on the capacity to create a form of somatic empathy between it and Regan’s body, so that the viewer can vicariously imagine the pain such an instance of abuse could generate. (Reyes 63)

Whether the sex is the point or Pazuzu is simply choosing the words and acts that would cause the most distress is unknown. Despite the three female actors working to portray him in this film, Pazuzu is definitively coded as male. The traditional use of male pronouns in reference to “the devil” and the large phallus of the statue aside, Regan refers to Captain Howdy as “he” before the events of the possession take hold. Hearing these profane comments from a young girl’s mouth adds to the uncanny effect, especially in comparison to the “before” Regan in the film. But Pazuzu being coded as male adds a more culturally relevant tract to the possession, that being Pazuzu’s apparent grooming of Regan and her subsequent physical/ sexual abuse. The demon has been talking with Regan for some time, seemingly giving her false information (specifically [page 154] about her mother’s romantic aspirations with film director and soon-to-be corpse Burke Dennings [Jack MacGowran]). Manipulating her beliefs and invading her home, bedroom, and finally, body adds a very human-like facet to Pazuzu’s cruelty.

This is where the Pazuzu of ancient Mesopotamian religion shifts into a being that is more aware of and connected to Christian mythology. The film does not explicitly refer to Pazuzu as Satan, Lucifer, or the Devil (aside from Pazuzu’s own claim, which is an artifact from the novel and the demon’s need to keep Karras guessing as to the cause of Regan’s illness) and also does not name the demon Pazuzu; cinematically, this will come later in the franchise, but it does appear in Blatty’s screenplay. Similarly, the use of Pazuzu in white magic to drive away other demons is referenced in the film’s Iraq prologue, “Evil against evil.” 

Pazuzu himself has very few direct manifestations in the film. Pazuzu is strongly associated with the wind; when Merrin pulls out the small statuette at the film’s beginning, a strong wind can be heard. This provides, to begin with, a tone and a pervading sense of dread rather than overt horror. A more direct source of fear can be found in the large statue of Pazuzu that Merrin visits at the end of the prologue (and that reappears during the exorcism over the bed). Its visual qualities are overtly hostile; large teeth with alert but blank eyes, raised hand as though in motion, and a large, snake-like penis. There are also cultural aspects in the Western world that imbue the statue with a sense of power; statues are usually created to honor or pay homage to a revered, most commonly religious, entity. In a cultural setting where powerful beings are celebrated in statues, a work like Pazuzu’s statue grants the being that inspired the work power by association.

The final manifestation of Pazuzu in the film is that of a pale face with sunken, red eyes and rotten teeth suspended in darkness. In the theatrical cut, this face appears in a quick cut during Karras’ nightmare following his mother’s passing. This image was from a make-up test for an unused version of Pazuzu’s look, with Eileen Dietz portraying the demon. With its [page 155] minimal detail, the quick cut grants the viewer just enough time to grasp eyes wide and teeth bared before the film moves on, prompting a fear response that will go without closure for the rest of the film. In The Version You’ve Never Seen, some more of these make-up test shots were inserted into the film, along with a close-up of the statue’s face. 

The Exorcist, then, can be understood via a phenomenologically biocultural approach as using evolutionarily cogent threat stimuli like a dangerous stranger and encoding that in a densely cultural format involving social attitudes to children, religion, and sex to frighten the viewer. But if the film—and Pazuzu—was so effective at scaring audiences at the time, how does Pazuzu change with the culture over time?

Exorcist II: The Heretic

John Boorman’s 1997 sequel to The Exorcist was terribly received, and while I do not want to litigate the quality of any of the films under discussion here, it is not hard to see why. Regan (Blair), now sixteen years old, is in therapy when Father Lamont (Richard Burton) from the Vatican arrives to try to unlock Regan’s repressed memories. He has been sent to confirm whether the exorcism in Georgetown really happened or if Merrin’s (von Sydow) willingness to write about the demonic was a baseless artifact of an older form of the church. Lamont’s investigation takes him to Africa, where he learns that Regan is a “holy healer” who must be protected, as people like her can drive away beings like Pazuzu. Lamont and Regan return to Georgetown and face off against Pazuzu there before banishing him. To be honest in my appraisal of this film, it is difficult to see Pazuzu as the antagonist or as any form of actual threat. Father Lamont is a lot more threatening in how he suddenly imposes himself on Regan’s healthcare and absconds with her at the end of the film. Furthermore, when Pazuzu presents himself to Lamont at the end of the film in a manifestation of Regan’s body in a sexually suggestive position on Regan’s bed, the priest requires absolutely no persuasion or [page 156] bargaining before engaging in sexual activity with her.

The film does a bad job of presenting Pazuzu as anything other than an occasional housemate sharing Regan’s memories. Father Lamont is immediately read as a much more significant danger. This makes it very upsetting when Regan is sent off by her psychiatrist (Louise Fletcher) to travel with the priest at the film’s end. There is a broader mythology outlined in the film: Satan has sent Pazuzu to kill “holy healers” like Regan and Kokumo (Joey Green and James Earl Jones), a young man Merrin exorcised in the past (the basis for Merrin and Pazuzu’s prior knowledge of each other in the first film). In terms of threat portrayal, the Pazuzu-Regan at the end of the film is presented in much the same way as in the first film. There is only really one new element to the presentation of Pazuzu as horror object, though it is a unique one for the franchise until a later entry’s flies—locusts. Some audience members may find the individual close-ups of locusts frightening, with their bizarre and very not-mammalian appearance, but to a Western audience, the ecological threat of a locust swarm is more cognitively appreciated than corporeally felt.

The Exorcist III: Legion

After having nothing to do with Boorman’s sequel, Blatty returned to the franchise by writing a sequel novel—Legion— in 1983 and then writing and directing the 1990 film adaptation. The Exorcist III (also known as The Exorcist III: Legion, after Blatty’s 1983 sequel novel) follows Lieutenant William Kinderman (George C. Scott) as he investigates a spate of murders seemingly committed by a long-dead serial killer. The people being killed are those close to Karras (Miller) and Kinderman’s initial investigation seventeen years prior, including Karras’ friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders). Ignoring Heretic entirely, Legion reveals that Karras, possessed by Pazuzu after the demon left Regan’s body, survived the fall down the stairs and has been in a secure psychiatric ward, kept alive by Pazuzu, all this time. Not only is Pazuzu in situ within [page 157] Karras, but so too is the soul of the dead serial killer James Venamun (Brad Dourif), who has been “jumping into” other patients and controlling their bodies to commit the murders. This man attempts to kill Kinderman’s daughter before being interrupted by another priest attempting an exorcism. In the end, Karras pushes Pazuzu aside just long enough for Kinderman to shoot the priest, finally letting him rest. 

There is no separate manifestation of Pazuzu in this film; the demon is seen only in Karras/ Venamun. However, Legion offers another culturally informed shape of fear: the serial killer. Venamun was known as the Gemini Killer, a clear reference to the Zodiac Killer active in California in the late 1960s. Not only is Gemini one of the constellations of the Zodiac, but we are also shown a taunting if conversational mode of communication between the killer and authorities in a manner reflective of the Zodiac Killer’s letters to police and journalists. In Legion, however, this communication takes place in the form of cryptic conversations in a psychiatric ward as opposed to cryptograms. Instead of visual depictions of the demon, the audience gains a greater understanding of Pazuzu’s character; perhaps one of the most important characteristics we come to understand about Pazuzu from this film is that he is capable of craving petty revenge. Previous films made it clear that the demon is a force intent on sacrilege and insult, causing pain and trauma using violence and sex in whatever way is most fitting, but it is not clear why he is doing these things. In Legion, he has a very clear motivation: he wishes to cause pain to those who previously got in his way. Pazuzu’s actions in this film are born of spite; he is simply playing a long game to cause Karras, who is to some extent aware of what is going on with his body, the pain and anguish of knowing that his hands are being used to kill his old friends as well as innocent people. 

Legion is a slow-moving film, with long scenes of dialogue and moments of quiet that ground the horror in the implications of the narrative as opposed to anything overtly visceral onscreen. This enables two actual visceral and energetic jump scares a lot of room to incite fear in the audience. First, a nurse [page 158] is going about her job on the ward as a police officer sits in a chair at the back of the long, locked-off shot. The nurse investigates a noise in a patient’s room before returning to her post and checking another room. As the officer leaves, the nurse walks out, locking the door behind her. As she walks left to right across the frame, the shot zooms in sharply as a person wearing a sheet and wielding a pair of gardening shears approaches her from behind, through the door that she just locked. It is the first sequence of violence-in-action, as everything up to this point was focused on the aftermath of the murders. The sudden rush of sound, combined with the rapid camera motion, gives the viewer a handful of seconds at most to comprehend what is happening before it is too late. 

The other such moment comes when Kinderman is investigating the hospital’s psychiatric ward. The audience is aware that he is being watched from a nearby cupboard, but as the shot transitions to a low-angle wide shot of Kinderman looking around, he is unaware of what the audience can see, an old woman crawling across the ceiling like a spider or a crab. Again, the sudden, rapid movement accompanied by the uncanny bodily movements make a confusing sequence that is difficult to comprehend quickly, causing anxiousness in the viewer. 

Exorcist: The Beginning

Exorcist: The Beginning (Renny Harlin, 2004) opts for a more direct and obvious horror format. Through the use of persistent dark environments with stark directional lighting, loud jump scares, and grotesque imagery, Renny Harlin’s version of the canon’s fourth entry seeks to replicate the form and function of Pazuzu from the original film while escalating the complexity of the visual effects. Whether the film succeeds in terms of its narrative is not under discussion here, though The Beginning could well be considered the “safest” follow-up to Friedkin’s original film owing to its replication of the most well-known elements of that first film. Affectively challenging special effects, make up, and outbursts of violence assault a collec-[page 159]tion of tired and beaten characters struggling to survive a world twisted by the demonic incursion. Merrin (Stellan Skarsgård)—no longer Father—is a brooding archaeologist sent to a dig in Kenya where a church that should not be where it is has been uncovered. On arrival, he finds that a young boy (Remy Sweeney) may have been possessed by a demon buried beneath the church, and Pazuzu is revealed to have possessed Dr. Sarah Novak (Izabella Scorupco). In the final confrontation with the demon, the audience is presented with a familiar sight: a pale face crisscrossed with cuts and wounds, bright green eyes, and a much deeper and more threatening voice. In what could be a reference to Legion or perhaps the once-lost “spider walk” scene, Sarah crawls across the walls like an insect and, at other times, contorts and bends unnaturally. The same threat characteristics are deployed here as in the first film, albeit through more technologically advanced visual effects. Another persistent threat is the local wildlife: a pack of hyenas is linked to the uncovering/ releasing of Pazuzu, stalking characters before brutally attacking and ripping apart a child. (Incidentally, this moment deliberately lures the audience to assume that Joseph, the victim’s brother who was unharmed during the attack, is the “Regan” of this film.) Hyenas, as carnivorous mammals, represent the series’ most direct threat to its audience, although the average viewer’s chance of being devoured by a hyena seems quite low. 

One area in which this film departs from the first concerns its use of sensorially-charged material. Even in the foulest moments of Regan’s possession, the disgusting elements onscreen, like vomit and blood, were visual and sterile. A great deal is made of Regan’s room being freezing cold, and aside from the terrible stench that is sometimes indicated by characters reacting to it (such as in the therapy sequence), there is no sensory data being delivered or any associations being instigated in the viewer. We understand there is a terrible smell, but we have no means of knowing what that smell smells like without a character either alluding to it or having something presented on screen that forces the viewer to make [page 160] an assumptive connection. In The Beginning, however, the setting forces a temperature change that brings a different approach to non-visual response. Where before the grotesque was largely visual or implied, now an excessive use of blood, faeces, weeping boils, and yellowed teeth are accompanied by the sounds of flies buzzing and maggots squirming. The implied temperature of the setting “sets the smells off” as Merrin enters Sarah’s room to find images scrawled on the walls in blood and excrement amidst a corporeally experienced nightmare of sensorial address. Strangely, this assortment of horror stimuli is not used in the final encounter with Pazuzu, which is set underground in gloomy tunnels that look—perhaps due to association with the rest of the franchise—cold. 

Exorcist: Dominion

Exorcist: The Beginning may have been the fourth Exorcist film to be released, but whether it was the fourth one made is a matter of film production semiotics. Before Harlin’s film was released, Paul Schrader had made Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005). Dominion was almost complete when Morgan Creek replaced Schrader with Harlin and had most of the film reshot. As such, though Dominion features most of the same actors in most of the same locations, the story being told is very different. Like Beginning, a church has been found in a place where no church should logically be, and uncovering it lets the demon Pazuzu loose into the world. However, Merrin (Skarsgård) is not a grizzled ex-priest being sent to steal an artifact for a private collector, but rather the guilt-ridden archaeologist in charge of the dig. So too does Pazuzu’s manifestation change; instead of possessing Dr. Rachel Lesno (Clara Bellar) in anticipation of the possession of Regan in the original film, Pazuzu seemingly seeks to buy his way into the world, first by healing the sick rather than corrupting the innocent, and then by attempting to bargain with Merrin. 

Cheche (Billy Crawford) is a young man who has been isolated from his community, seemingly suffering from long-term [page 161] injuries and lacking trust in others. His presence around the dig prompts Merrin to bring him to Dr. Lesno, where the healing process is quicker and smoother than it has any right to. We don’t see Pazuzu’s interactions with Cheche, but once in control of their now shared body, Pazuzu is communicative and conversational. There is the same pale visage with the same predatory gaze, dressed to look like the common visualization of Jesus, albeit hairless, and yet Merrin is free to leave the church after his first interaction with Pazuzu, and the demon awaits his return. Pazuzu in this film is a characterized individual than a series of scares, more like what Blatty originally intended for Exorcist III, and—except for one moment when we see Cheche’s face contort via visual effects into the “Dietz face”—Pazuzu is not presented as something that frightens, rather as something frightening. 

The Exorcist (TV Series)

The Exorcist television show (Jeremy Slater, 2016–2017) seems like a reboot of the original film. Two priests—one, Father Marcus Keane (Ben Daniels), with exorcism experience and the other, Father Tomas Ortega (Alfonso Herrera), struggling with his emotional place in the church—become entangled in the demonic possession of an adolescent girl, Casey (Hannah Kasulka), at the behest of the child’s mother, Angela (Geena Davis). After the (first) exorcism has begun halfway through the first season’s run, it is revealed that Angela Rance is, in fact, Regan MacNeil, having changed her name and become estranged from her mother after the events of the first film (with no mention of Heretic, Regan’s second appearance in the franchise). Marcus assumes that the demon possessing Casey wanted her older sister Kat (Brianne Howey) and ended up with Casey as the “next best thing,” but in fact, the demon is Pazuzu, who has returned for Regan. Eventually, the demon trades Casey for willing “integration” with Angela/Regan, once again establishing that the exorcisms of this franchise rarely work. [page 162]

The series marks the first time that Pazuzu has a humanoid manifestation as a speaking character, referred to in the credits as The Salesman (Robert Emmet Lunney). Here, the white face with the darkened eyes and the red mouth that has been the basis of Pazuzu’s appearance throughout the franchise is replaced with a middle-aged white man in a fairly cheap-looking suit. He is first seen following and interacting with Casey before it is made clear that other characters cannot see him. He appears as a spectator at one of Casey’s lacrosse games, seeming like a regular person (in itself rife with red flags) before it is made apparent using a series of close-ups that there is something more nefarious going on. Immediately after this, Casey gets revenge on a player who shoves her to the ground by snapping the player’s leg without touching her. 

In previous installments, and in particular in the original novel, characters have speculated as to why the Devil/Pazuzu is doing what he is doing. Here, the prolonged runtime of a television series allows for more time with Casey as well as with Pazuzu. As such, we get a much clearer idea of how the demon thinks, what his motivations are, and how they are surprisingly human. Pazuzu is obsessed with Casey’s looks; beyond his manipulation of her insecurities, he seems to be actually distracted. He celebrates her beauty, makes her explore her own body in isolated moments, and eventually makes her pleasure herself (all while inflicting severe pain). We are perhaps seeing behind the curtain that obscured events in Georgetown, the events that Regan experienced as a younger child, as this aspect of both the story and the antagonist has been significantly updated for a modern-day viewership. 

Something that stands out, watching The Exorcist or especially reading the book from a modern perspective, is something that goes entirely unsaid—despite moments like when “Chris raced down the hall to Regan’s bedroom. Whimpering. Crying. A sound of bedsprings rapidly moving up and down” (Blatty, Exorcist 80)—and that is the potential child sexual abuse victimhood of Regan. This is not to say that Regan was abused in the novel/film, but rather to establish that neither [page 163] the film nor the novel say anything about Regan’s being alone in the house with a consistently inebriated older man who knows and is known to her. In the book, Burke Dennings is more frequently at the house, very intoxicated (and thus a poor choice for a caregiver regardless of his actions) almost all the time. There is no comment on Sharon leaving the drunk Dennings alone in the house with Regan that considers the vulnerability of Regan to predation and abuse. At some point while they’re alone in the house, Dennings goes up to Regan’s room. He is later found at the bottom of the steps outside Regan’s window, his neck twisted all the way around. The book and the film do not create space to ask why Dennings was in the room or whether he was safe to have around a young and sick child. In tandem with the grooming behavior from Pazuzu—private and secret conversations, the proximity to her playroom and bedroom, and even taking a name reminiscent of the father figure that Regan is presently missing—Regan’s victimhood takes on a familiar yet completely unrecognized shape. 

It is interesting, then, when we come to the series, that not only are we explicitly shown the sexually predatory grooming behavior of Pazuzu in his interactions with Casey—glorifying her looks, driving her to wear clothes that are more revealing than she seems comfortable with—but also the pathway to injury, violence, and manufactured consent. Pazuzu uses his influence to further isolate the already isolated Casey, makes her feel good, and then begins the emotional, physical, and sexual torture. The series even draws the line between this Pazuzu and Captain Howdy; when Angela flashes back to her childhood, Regan’s childhood, in Georgetown, she recognizes him as a photographer who took her picture. In that moment, we see Regan’s first interaction with Captain Howdy. He seems to put her into a catatonic state and forces on her some form of extreme sexual gratification against her knowing consent.

The terrible and unknowing evil that took Regan is transformed into a series of comprehendible and, sadly for some, recognizable behaviors. For all of Casey’s Regan-like uncanny behavior and malicious, knowing looks to Father To-[page 164]mas and Angela, the audience also sees Casey come to realize how bad Pazuzu is and try to resist his influence. His body language gets more forceful and claustrophobic until he is sitting on her chest like the image of a sleep paralysis demon. The Salesman’s appearance also changes as the façade slips: in the hospital room after Casey has a violent outburst on the train (attacking a man who was sexually assaulting her at the time), the Salesman’s teeth are rotten, his voice gets unnaturally deep, and his suit gets more tattered to the point of being ripped open at the back, revealing what could be stumps where a pair of wings once were. As his appearance becomes more malevolent, so do the insults and criticisms as Pazuzu draws from the abuser handbook. In his final appearance, after he has taken Angela and all but fully claimed her, we see he is burned and, in places, seemingly necrotized. His teeth are black. Where his skin isn’t black, it is bright red, and his eyes are just black circles. His suit is also burnt, and the house in which he is manifested is also peeling and damaged. His motivation to get Regan back comes from entitlement and an inability to accept being walked away from. Fittingly, in his final moments, Pazuzu is a pathetic wreck sobbing on the floor before he is driven out of Angela/Regan for the last time.

A final aspect of the demonic that is ultimately separate from the story of Chris, Regan, and Casey and the history of Pazuzu until quite late in the first season is that of conspiracy. Several possessed individuals and integrated demons have infiltrated positions of authority in the church, state, and economy. They use their connections to plan a trip for the Pope through Chicago, where they will assassinate him. Here, the predominantly white and male group of the powerful conspires to use the unhoused as unidentifiable foot soldiers and visit mass violence on lower-income (usually non-white) neighborhoods to harvest organs, an event that attracts considerably less media attention than the disappearance of Casey. In understanding that a very few select people hold an immense amount of power, wealth, and resources, the series provides a rare form of almost-explicit capitalism-horror. Where this in-[page 165]tersects with Pazuzu serves only to bolster our comprehension of the demon’s strength; where Brother Simon (Francis Guinan) has been acting as the leader of the demonic conspiracy, he and his conspirators are made to kneel before the newly integrated Angela Rance.

As far as the construction of horror “gags” is concerned, the series uses visual and practical effects to recreate many uncanny movements, the destruction of the body, and the perversion of the natural world in the wake of the demonic. Where many of these are effective in triggering those same threat responses in an audience, the series’ scariest sequences come not from the gore effects or booming sonic assaults but in the earlier episodes when Casey is not fully aware of how much danger she is in when The Salesman is around, his hand on her shoulder and whispering in her ear. 

Via a phenomenologically biocultural approach to horror cinema, we can understand how the threat of Pazuzu changes over time. In The Exorcist, the demon is manifested chiefly through an uncanny perversion of a child’s appearance, behavior, and attitude. The film is loud and abrupt, and presents Regan/Pazuzu as an unknown element. Across the decades between that film and the television series, Pazuzu has taken on the form of locusts, a Zodiac Killer-inspired serial killer with a sense of spite, a victim of sexual abuse made monstrous amidst an unwelcoming and unfamiliar environment, and finally a possible alternative to God. Where some of these can be identified as elements familiar to the cinematic or social culture of the time, there is no clearer example of a changed cultural attitude informing an adaptational change than the series. Where before Regan was an unknown quantity, her struggle with Captain Howdy taking place before the film or beyond Chris’s—and therefore the camera’s—reach, Casey’s targeted grooming is placed front and center. A more modern awareness of abuse and consent foregrounds Casey’s struggle and makes the goal of the priests less a case of driving the demon out and more a case of bringing Casey back. [page 166]

Works Cited

Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist. Harper and Row, 1971.

--- The Exorcist [screenplay]. Faber and Faber Ltd, 1998.

Chinnery, Benny J. Fear, Trauma and Found Footage: How Found Footage Horror Can Help Us Feel Better. U of Hull, 2022, Master’s thesis.

Clasen, Mathias. Why Horror Seduces. Oxford UP, 2017.

Daniel, Adam. Affective Intensities and Evolving Horror Forms: From Found Footage to Virtual Reality. Edinburgh UP, 2020.

Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Directed by Paul Schrader, Warner Bros, 2005.

The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Bros, 1973.

The Exorcist [television series]. Created by Jeremy Slater, 20th Century Fox, 2016–2017.

Exorcist: The Beginning. Directed by Renny Harlin, Warner Bros, 2004.

Exorcist II: The Heretic. Directed by John Boorman, Warner Bros, 1977.

The Exorcist III: Legion. Directed by William Peter Blatty, 20th Century Fox, 1990.

Glasby, Matt. The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film. Quarto Publishing Group UK, 2020.

Hart, Adam Charles. Monstrous Forms: Moving Image Horror Across Media. Oxford UP, 2020.

Hills, Matt. The Pleasures of Horror. Continuum, 2005.

Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist. British Film Institute, 2003.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. McFarland, 2012.

Olivier, Marc. Household Horror: Cinematic Fear and the Secret Life of Everyday Objects. Indiana UP, 2020.

Reyes, Xavier Aldana. Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership. Routledge, 2016.

Jennifer Alexandra Chinnery is currently undertaking her PhD at the University of Hull, redefining found footage horror and locating it in its historical place. Her MA thesis uses found footage horror as a means of demonstrating how horror cinema can be therapeutically beneficial and she has also presented papers on transmedia storytelling in Cloverfield, found footage horror as a means of reflecting social trauma, and gendered violence in the Exorcist franchise.

MLA citation (print): 

Chinnery, Jennifer Alexandra. "The Evolution of Captain Howdy: How Pazuzu Changes Throughout the Exorcist Franchise." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 149-166.