“We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder”: The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense
by Krista S. Gehring
Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.
[page 33] 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.
The day after Christmas in 1973, director William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) opened in theaters across the country. Moviegoers stood in lines blocks long, eager to view what the theater marquees claimed to be “something almost beyond comprehension” (Tien; Woodward 60). Those that made it into the sold-out cinemas experienced what was soon to be labeled “the scariest movie ever made,” and many of them stumbled out of the dark into the bright lights of the theater lobby to collect and calm themselves (Van Gelder 46; Woodward 60). The story centers on the progression of the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair), and the ex-[page 34]orcism performed to cast out the demon Pazuzu. While many viewers remember the events in the film related to Regan’s possession and the eventual exorcism, there is also a homicide investigation.1 Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), a film director and friend of Regan’s mother, actor Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), is found dead at the bottom of a staircase near the MacNeil home in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. Lieutenant William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) suspects that his “accidental” death has a more sinister origin.
Krista S. Gehring is a Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Social Work at the University of Houston-Downtown. Her research interests include criminological theory; crime and popular culture; justice-involved women; risk/needs assessments; and pretrial needs. She is the writer of the CrimComics series, criminology comic books published by Oxford University Press. She is the lead author of the forthcoming text Criminological Understandings of Horror Films: Reel Fear in the Lexington Books Horror Studies Series. Her research has also appeared in Criminal Justice and Behavior, Feminist Criminology, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, and the Journal of Criminal Justice Education.
MLA citation (print):
Gehring, Krista S. "'We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder': The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 33-52.