[page 7] The Exorcist: Studies on Possession, Influence, and Society, the October 2023 special issue of Supernatural Studies edited by Edmund P. Cueva and Nadia Scippacercola, is a collection of articles by scholars from three continents dedicated to The Exorcist fifty years after the 1973 film and a few months after director William Friedkin’s death.
William Peter Blatty’s best-selling 1971 book, based on a supposedly true story of the exorcism of a possessed teenage boy in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States (Kermode), and very similar but not identical versions of William Friedkin’s film have had a disruptive influence throughout much of the Western World. The Exorcist has become one of the most famous horror films, one of Warner Brothers’ most extraordinary box office hits, and a topic of seemingly endless media discussion. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, the film won two (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound) as well as four Golden Globes. Some film critics have written that it is difficult to place the film into one genre because of its ambiguous nature, but it has nevertheless had a significant influence on the development of the horror genre.
Regan’s exorcism is a collective act of catharsis: Roger Ebert writes that even “in the extremes of Friedkin’s vision there is still a feeling that this is, after all, cinematic escapism and not a confrontation with real life. There is a fine line to be drawn there, and The Exorcist finds it and stays a millimeter on this side.” Laura, Luisa, and Morando Morandini comment that critics generally denounced the film’s gruesomeness, the use and abuse of special effects, and “the frequent stupidity of the screenplay” but argue that there is an indisputable point: “one is not only frightened by the monstrous metamorphoses of the little girl, but if one sympathizes with her, one almost identifies oneself with her” (507). Paolo Mereghetti reports that “even today, it is still a frightening and disturbing film ... capable of involving even the shrewdest viewers in thorny issues such as faith and atheism and offering no easy answers” [page 8] (2263). Pino and Rossella Farinotti write that Friedkin and Blatty “touch sensitive chords in all of humanity, even those parts that don’t believe in the existence and possible incarnation of Absolute Evil, … instrumentalizing an innocent thirteen-year-old [sic] as their means of communication. The spectator is thus placed in a ‘not guilty’ condition like the protagonist: he can let himself be ‘possessed’ by the horror, by the obscene, by the doubt, finding his own original ‘purity’ when he leaves the theatre” (862).
This special issue aims to start new conversations about The Exorcist, focusing primarily on three as-yet underexplored dimensions: 1) further investigation of the concept of possession, 2) presentation of new scholarly developments, and 3) assessment of its cultural impact. The Exorcist, both as a book and a film, has had a lasting influence beyond the world of horror. It is a foundational, multivalent work: on the one hand, it helps audiences understand the theological concept and spiritual dimension of demonic possession in the Roman Catholic faith, and on the other hand, it investigates domestic/public spaces, dynamics, and spheres. Indeed, The Exorcist examines social discourse and narratives from a transformative and turbulent period of American history, sheds light on the difficulties that aging populations face in societies that do not offer adequate social safety nets, and exposes the miserable circumstances endured by people with mental health issues and medically uninsured individuals and families. Moreover, The Exorcist also speaks directly to the colonization and neo-colonization of archaeological sites and religions.
Four of the eleven articles which follow engage with the concept of possession: Edmund P. Cueva’s “Apotropaic Pazuzu? Evil vs. Evil” examines the demon’s nature to place it in a context that explains its power and ancient Mesopotamian origins. This article considers the analysis of clay figures, the art of sculpture, and the problem of Pazuzu’s origin as an ancient demon that had a dual nature and apotropaic functions. Following this line of investigation, the study deepens the meaning and spaces of possession in The Exorcist. Krista S. [page 9] Gehring’s ‘“We’ve Got a Witchcraft Type of Murder’: The Exorcist, Criminal Law, and a Demonic Possession Defense” reminds us that a homicide investigation occurs in both the film and the novel. That Burke Dennings was murdered by Regan MacNeil, possessed by the demon Pazuzu, is apparent to those aware of the events in the MacNeil home, and Regan even “confesses” to the crime. This article discusses Regan’s culpability in the officially unsolved murder of Dennings according to specific US laws to argue that, if Regan MacNeil were prosecuted for the murder of Burke Dennings, the prosecution would have difficulty establishing her role in the offense, her defense attorney might have been able to use demonic possession as an affirmative defense, and she would likely be found “not involved” in Dennings’s murder. Micah Untiedt’s “Demons in the Celluloid: How The Exorcist Delivered Evil Through the Screen” explores the idea that this film disturbs the spirit of anyone who views it. Untiedt contextualizes this unease by delving into the American societal subconscious, beginning over a century prior with the rise of American Spiritualism, the marketing of morbid entertainment, and the building of tensions between Christian morality and counterculture which exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the case of The Exorcist, the evil is believed to have exceeded the confines of the screen. Rumors of evil spirits residing within the film stem primarily from what audiences believed to be subliminal messaging hidden in the film, with audiences fearful that demons could escape the screen and follow them home. The article argues that the convergence of the supernatural entertainment of the late 1800s with new media technology contributed to the belief that demons can make contact through film. Sonia Overall’s “(pre)possessed. An Erasure Sequence” is a creative piece exploring the concept of hidden messages as a form of possession, using erasure performed on a collection of British print media.
Four contributors present novel scholarly developments regarding both the book and film: William S. Chavez’s “Lankester Merrin, Abraham Van Helsing, and the Traditions [page 10] of Kosmic Kombat in Popular Christian Media” examines Merrin’s role in the original Blatty novel and Exorcist films to discern the popular and religious milieu from which the character stems. Through a historical and mediatic contextualization of this character, Chavez argues that Merrin simultaneously operates as the “old guard” of Catholic faith and tradition and a priestly incarnation of the “Van Helsing” archetype, both of which Karras is meant to emulate. Octavia Cade’s “Forensic and Experimental Estrangement: Investigating the Supernatural Body” considers several twenty-first-century horror films about the supernatural body and trauma. In each of these, the possessed body becomes an experimental subject, highlighting the failure of scientists to understand the results of their investigations. In these narratives, as in The Exorcist, science is proven a failure—but unlike The Exorcist, religion also fails. In such films, neither love nor duty is enough, as neither religion nor science is enough; however, there remains an inability to connect positively with others and a nihilistic perspective that places little consideration on hope or recovery. Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt and Darrell Riffe’s “The Failed Heroic Journey of Fr. Damian Karras, S.J., and the Decline of Christianity as a Unifying Myth” examines The Exorcist as a conveyor of cultural mythology in the Cold War era in the context of Joseph Campbell’s four functions of myth and Carl Jung’s model of the psychological functions that myth serves. The authors suggest that, during the Cold War, Christianity lost its hold on the collective psyche of America because only a small number of Americans truly believed in Christianity. So, horror films reflect the audience’s anxieties about death, and The Exorcist can be productively viewed as a modern myth capable of increasing the richness of the audience’s lives by filling them with meaning. Jeffrey Bullins’s “The Version You’ve Never Heard: The Evolving Soundtrack of The Exorcist” thoroughly investigates the differences between the 1973 and 2000 film soundtracks. The 1973 film, built on emerging sonic techniques, would, in turn, influence soundtracks for the rest of the decade. Conversely, 2000’s The Version You’ve Never Seen bor-[page 11]rows stylistically from genre films of the late 1990s. This creates stylistic contrast and highlights different diegetic choices.
Finally, three articles focus on the evolving cultural impact of the book and film: Jennifer Alexandra Chinnery’s “The Evolution of Captain Howdy: How Pazuzu Changes Throughout the Exorcist Franchise” explores how the presentation of the series’ antagonist changes over time and through the film’s sequels and engages with how the original film’s suggestions of child sexual abuse are rewritten in the recent television series. Paul A. J. Lewis’s “House of Exorcism: Possession, Exorcism, and the Family in Eurocult Films, 1974–1979” examines “Eurocult” films about diabolical possession made in the years that immediately followed the release of The Exorcist. These films described “the feared dissolution of the bourgeois family, shaken by the disintegration of the Catholic moral and the violent rebellion of the sons against fathers and society, from the 1968 student protests to the rise of armed terrorism” (Curti 3) and targeted liberal parenting styles, exposing the hollow hypocrisies of the privileged classes. Nadia Scippacercola’s contribution, “Account of the Birth of a Classic: From **** to Masterpiece of its Genre: The Rise of The Exorcist in Italy,” closes the volume, analyzing news articles regarding The Exorcist over the last fifty years from one of Italy’s oldest and most influential newspapers, focusing on a series of elements that, over time, have been inseparably merged into the narrative and the Italian imaginary connected to the film as well as highlighting the evolution of critical perspectives: once a film to be described with unpublishable adjectives and met with comments such as “film scandalo,” “kind of bambocciades,” reactionary, and “birbonata” (“naughty”), the film has, over time, come to be called a “Masterpiece of the Horror Genre.”
The Exorcist is a film that scares and shocks its viewers who, in turn, are influenced by it. Part of its power is due to its presentation of the narrative as if it were real and, above all, possible. The film deals with a drama that could affect anyone, playing on the fear of mental illness in a vulnerable period like adolescence. It makes audiences believe that no one is safe and [page 12] that an evil threatens to infiltrate our communities at any moment. Leaving aside the political and sociological metaphors of its time, it strongly references its historical-social context (see Lewis), a world in which Kinderman’s police investigation appears real and possible (see Gehring). The Exorcist is a somewhat conservative and yet reactionary film, which puts two priests—two Jesuits, two scholars, two fighters—at its center through their sacrifice of themselves (of course recalling that of Christ). Theirs is a sacrifice that still has a value (see Cade): evil “can only be defeated through prosocial resistance and self-sacrifice” (see Cueva). Ultimately, the concept of “redemption,” self-sacrifice for the benefit of the community, is at stake. It is worth noting that Father Karras does not sacrifice himself for his mother, but he does so for a girl who needs help and whose biological father is absent (while the figure of the mother/Madonna appears desecrated several times). Nevertheless, this modern myth (see Schnopp-Wyatt and Riffe), intended by its author to strengthen belief in a God that always triumphs over evil, had an opposite effect on much of its audience, who believed that it depicted the triumph of evil (Kermode 85). As such, Father Karras’s heroic journey can be seen as a myth-based metaphor for the decline of Christian belief in Western culture.
The Exorcist’s power of suggestion lies in its theme (see Untiedt), according to a mechanism that is ancient in origin and that we also find in Lucian of Samosata’s second century Philopseudes (The Lovers of Lies or The Doubter). In this text, Tychiades, himself an unbeliever, acknowledges that he has been influenced by the frightening tales he has heard; having his head now filled with them, he complains: “I think I see monsters and spirits and Hecates!” (40). This suggests the effect of horror fiction that can, even today, make us choose to sleep with the light on! The Exorcist reawakens our slumbering consciousness by confronting it with the darker side of human nature, death, and the afterlife. The personification of evil, the entity that possesses Regan, is a demon, in the original and ancient sense of the word (see Cueva), although [page 13] spectators implement a semantic completion based on their own culture and psychological universe. In Italian film criticism, for example, reference is nearly always made to the Devil, not a demon (see Scippacercola). The presence of a demon and not of the Devil amplifies the sense of the power and pervasiveness of evil. In The Exorcist, however, God the Father is also absent and distant, and Pazuzu aims to make us reject the possibility that God could love us. This is the meaning of the eternal challenge facing all of humanity, in which man is left to fight alone (see Chavez’s kosmic kombat), with all the ineffectiveness of his science (see Cade) and application of his laws (see Gehring). Humans are alone but not yet wholly desperate, according to a vision that is optimistic when viewed in comparison with subsequent films (see Cade).
The Exorcist, like all classics, contains both universalities and, as demonstrated by the open ending that gave way to sequels, ambivalencies. The articles that make up the volume deal with various themes and bring thought-provoking perspectives for an ever-deeper understanding of a film that represents a milestone in cinema history and has become imbued in the imaginary of the Western world.
Edmund P. Cueva and
Curti, Roberto. Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1970–1979. McFarland, 2017.
Ebert, Roger. “The Exorcist.” RogerEbert.com, 26 Dec. 1973, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-exorcist-1973.
Farinotti, Pino, and Rossella Farinotti, editors. il Farinotti 2023. Dizionario di tutti i film. BookTime, 2022.
Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist. BFI, 1997.
Mereghetti, Paolo, editor. il Mereghetti. Dizionario dei Film. Edizione del trentennale 1993–2023. Baldini Castoldi, 2022.
Morandini, Laura, Luisa Morandini, and Morando Morandini, editors. il Morandini 2022. Dizionario dei film e delle serie televisive, with extended book: il Morandini 2023. Zanichelli Editore, 2021–2022.