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

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

[page 113] 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 twentieth century saw the rise of film as an art form and a way of conveying narrative. Like literature, film builds on the oral tradition. Film, a primarily visual medium, is a potent vehicle for the creation and conveyance of myth by virtue of the psychological duality of the moving image—it is simultaneously real and unreal. We speculate that when public literacy reached a certain threshold, literature supplanted the spoken word as the principal vehicle for the dissemination of ideas, and, at some point in the 1950s, film substantially supplanted literature as the prime vehicle. 

Film became the dominant vehicle for shared mythology at a time when older myths from those at the foundations of Christianity to the myth of the American cowboy no longer functioned satisfactorily. America needed a new body of myth [page 114] and film provided it. William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) was a part of this new mythology. This begs the question, why was new mythology—or any mythology—needed?

Into this world, in December 1973, walks Father Damian Karras, S.J., M.D., a man of science—psychiatric medicine—and a man of the cloth. A would-be hero for an age struggling with the inherent tension between the two domains. While Joseph Campbell’s conceptualization of the Heroic Journey (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949) has been heavily criticized by folklore scholars, its influence on film is difficult to counterargue. Indeed, it provides a readymade template for cinematic storytelling that any would-be screenwriter would be foolish to overlook or avoid.

The Heroic Journey is summarized thusly by Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Hero 23). Karras (Jason Miller), the spiritually-questioning man of science, certainly begins a heroic journey with an immersion into the realm of supernatural wonder. One could even say that—by taking the demon Pazuzu into himself and then plunging to his doom—he wins a decisive victory. And then, viewed through the lens of the Heroic Journey, he fails. There is no return; there is no boon to bestow.

Confronted by the reality of the supernatural realm, the existence of which he has repeatedly expressed disbelief in, he accepts its existence. Scientific empiricism, after all, relies on the primacy of sensory experience as a route to knowledge—and a mouthful of supernaturally-projected vomit is surely nothing if not a sensory experience. The supernatural is demonstrably real. Karras believes. His religious faith, however, is inadequate: raised in, schooled by, and sworn to the service of the Roman Catholic Church, Karras eschews the Rite of Exorcism in favor of swearing, strangulation, and repeatedly punching a twelve-year-old in the face. He then invites the demon to leave its victim and take possession of himself—surely [page 115] a mortal sin inasmuch as it constitutes a deliberate turning away from God—and commits suicide, considered a mortal sin under the Baltimore Catechism operative at the time.

Karras fails at his heroic journey—there is no return bearing a boon for society. He receives proof of the reality of the supernatural realm—something that would presumably strengthen the faith of countless doubters—and he literally throws it out the window. This modern myth, The Exorcist, intended by its author to strengthen belief in a God that always triumphs over evil, had just the opposite effect on most of its audience. They believed that it depicted the triumph of evil (Kermode 85). As such, Karras’s heroic journey can productively be seen as a myth-rooted metaphor for the decline of Christian belief in western culture.

In “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art” (1970), Campbell suggests that myth traditionally serves four functions: the mystical/metaphysical, the cosmological, the sociological, and the psychological. The first of these functions is relatively constant and universal. The second and third vary significantly over time and between cultures. The fourth function, the psychological, underlies and supports the others. What follows is a brief discussion of these functions.

The Mystical/Metaphysical Function

The mystical function of myth wakens and maintains: “in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms, ‘from which,’ as we read in the Upanishads, words turn back’” (Campbell, Masks 609). The extent to which The Exorcist attempts—and ultimately fails—to fulfill the metaphysical function of myth is illustrated by author William Peter Blatty’s remark on the importance of the 1949 Mt. Rainier exorcism that inspired his work:

Like so many Catholics and people of faith, I thought it would be nice to put my fingers through the holes in Christ’s hands or have Christ appear on the Empire [page 116] State Building to give me a private revelation. ... So, if all the reports of the paranormal in the case were true, it would seem to me, although not a proof of everything I had been taught, at least an absolutely riveting corroboration. (Travers and Reiff 15–16)

Inasmuch as both book and film were intended by the author to affirm “the recognition of the ultimate mystery,” it seems to have disproportionately impacted those who already professed a strong religious belief. Powerfully connected American evangelist Billy Graham, a prominent archconservative known at the time for his opposition to women’s equality and homosexuality, asserted that there was literally evil present in the celluloid that the film was printed on, an assertion that, if he had been able to demonstrate it, might have constituted the very proof Blatty desired (McCabe 138). Unfortunately, for both Blatty and Graham, this function of myth requires compatibility with the second function, the cosmological, to be fulfilled.

The Cosmological Function

The cosmological function of myth creates an image of the world that is in keeping with the times. Campbell states that:

To be effective a mythology must be up-to-date scientifically, based on a concept of the universe that is current, accepted, and convincing. And in this respect, of course, it is immediately apparent that our own traditions are in deep trouble; for the leading claims of both the Old Testament and the New are founded in a cosmological image from the second millennium B.C., which was already out of date when the Bible was put together last centuries B.C. and first A.D. ... Moreover, the marvels of our universe, and even of man’s works today, are infinitely greater both in wonder and in magnitude than anything reported from the years B.C. of Yahweh. (Hero 144)

There is tension between the cosmological function of Christian mythology and science. Cold War American culture was [page 117] told to place its faith in Christianity but was exposed to the greater explanatory power of the sciences and, because the cosmological function fulfills the mystical function, there was, for Cold War America, a crisis brewing—a spiritual tempest. The country entered a postwar period of scientific advancement and understanding that eroded the nation’s collective belief, already waning, in the Christian God at great speed even as America assumed it to be a core, if somewhat generic, aspect of American life. 

The postwar rise of Evangelism, with its emphasis on faith, even in the face of rapidly accumulating scientific knowledge that offered a reasoned, supported way of considering the cosmos, may be seen as reactive. As science progressed, making dramatic strides in understanding and fueled in part by the record college and university enrollment financed by the GI Bill, the evangelical movement grew ever more fundamentalist in tone (Livingstone and Hart 47). This turbulence is reflected in expressions of popular culture such as horror film. 

The horror film was successful because its concerns resonated with the viewing public. We suggest that, during the Cold War, Christianity lost its hold on the collective psyche of America and that this occurred because an insufficiently small fraction of the culture truly believed in Christianity as a source of religious teaching. The culture of the Cold War seems to be one of reluctant, even begrudging, disbelief. The loss of myth creates a vacancy—a lacuna—in the cultural unconscious. If the unexpected success of The Exorcist arose at a time when the Christian myth system no longer adequately functioned to allow communication between the conscious and the unconscious, then consideration of the film’s utility in fulfilling the cosmological function of myth bears consideration.

In the wake of the Second World War, the marvels of the universe and of human works made the Christian worldview increasingly unsatisfactory. The God of the Old Testament had felt the need to disperse humanity when they built the Tower of Babel and threatened to reach the heavens but, as men slipped the surly bonds of earth and moved into space, this God [page 118] apparently felt no need for similar protective measures.

The solid foundation that once supported Christian doctrine had been undermined over time by a series of scientific revolutions:

The Topographic Revolution As western civilization spread across the face of the Earth in the wake of Columbus’ 1492 voyage, no Eden, no Garden of Paradise, was found. This was a blow to established Christian doctrine as promulgated by Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, both of whom insisted that paradise was a physical region of the earth.

The Copernican Revolution Copernicus published his ideas about heliocentrism in 1543. Galileo’s research supported the idea that the earth revolved around a stable sun. By the middle of the twentieth century, to suggest otherwise was to invite pity or derision. The populace, modestly educated and literate, understood that the earth revolved around the sun and not, as is implied by the biblical story of Joshua, vice-versa.

Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that the Copernican revolution was the trigger pull that began the “death of God”:

What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we now move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still not an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction?—for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of murderers? (Book 3, Number 125)

Elsewhere, he writes:

The most important of more recent events—that “God [page 119] is dead,” that the belief in the Christian God has become unworthy of belief—already begins to cast its first shadows over Europe. To the few at least whose eye, whose suspecting glance, is strong enough and subtle enough for this drama, some sun seems to have set, some old, profound confidence seems to have changed into doubt: our world must seem to them daily more darksome, distrustful, strange and “old.” (Book 5, Number 343)

The Newtonian Revolution Isaac Newton, building on the work of Galileo and Kepler and later supplemented by the work of Kant and Laplace, demonstrated that: “the origin of the universal machine was found to have been not as a perfectly formed structure immediately from God’s hand, but as a precipitate, by natural laws, from a cloud of rotating gas, a nebula” (Campbell, Masks 615).

The Huttonian Revolution James Hutton (1726–1797), a geologist, determined that the surface of the earth was not created as is but rather is the product of the rising of older material that was laid down under the oceans, compressed under a tremendous force that results in immense heat. This material is then forced through rents in the displaced strata, where it decays, and washes back into the seas in a grand illimitable cycle. Hutton’s work conflicted with the biblical version in which the earth was created in the span of a few days, as did Alfred Wegner’s subsequent work on continental drift (32–37). 

The Darwinian Revolution With the general acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the idea of fixed species roaming the earth in the form assigned by Jehovah on the fifth day was no longer serviceable. When, in 1953, Watson and Crick deduced the structure of DNA, a mechanism for genetic inheritance was suddenly made available, and the theory—generally accepted but still controversial—was hugely strengthened. [page 120]

The Subatomic Physics Revolution The atom, at the turn of the last century, was determined to be a collection of even smaller particles; particles whose form and position at any moment were demonstrably unknowable. As an understanding of the fabric of the cosmos accrued and disseminated, the hand of the creator God began to seem an inadequate explanation for the very nature of existence. Discrepancies between biblical cosmology and scientific knowledge were too great. Science could be ignored, denied, or misinterpreted but no longer reconciled with America’s religious tradition. As John Dewey noted in 1931:

The shock and uncertainty so characteristic of the present marks the discovery that the older ideals themselves are undermined. Instead of science and technology giving us better means for bringing them to pass, they are shaking our confidence in all large and comprehensive beliefs and purposes.

Such a phenomenon is, however, transitory. The impact of the new forces is for the time being negative. Faith in the divine author and authority in which Western civilization confided, inherited ideas of the soul and its destiny, of fixed revelation, of completely stable institutions, of automatic progress, have been made impossible for the cultivated mind of the Western world. (25–26)

There is little room for Christian metaphysics in the Frankenstein films of the Cold War era. Victor Frankenstein is a man of science, one for whom Christian cosmology and its accompanying values are devoid of value. In vampire films, Christian metaphysics is superficially present; the presence of the sacred is alluded to but rarely made manifest. Christianity is largely present only in its traditional symbolism; neither Jehovah nor his angels appear. 

Peter Cushing, speaking of the frequency with which crosses were employed in Horror of Dracula (1958), stated that by the end of the film, he felt like a “crucifix salesman” (Wright [page 121] 42). In the Hammer Studios Dracula film The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), released one month before The Exorcist, Cushing’s vampire hunter refers to the holy rood as a “symbol of good.” Its power has become symbolic; it is devoid of any true magical power. The cross has become a magical talisman divorced from its original role as a focal point for Christian worship and a reminder of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. In the same film, Dracula plots to destroy all humanity—not through magical means or spiritual corruption—but by using an engineered strain of the bubonic plague virus.

One aspect of myth’s cosmological function is providing a basis for cognitively dealing with mortality. In Christianity, with its emphasis on accountability for a life lived in accord with the will of God, the meaning of life is consummated in death. To shake the collective faith of the nation in the Christian belief system was to engender anxieties about death. We assume that Christian mythology, while still a dominant strain of American culture, was by the late 1950s no longer the defining and uniting force it once was. In fact, belief in Christianity became divisive as the second half of the century unfolded, and century’s end found Christian rightists organized and attempting to reassert the dominance of their cosmological worldview through the political and judicial processes.

Alan Watts, writing in 1968, addressed contemporary attitudes toward the dominant strain of western religion thus:

We have very few religious people in the Western world because most people do not believe in Christianity even though they may be Jehovah’s Witnesses. What they feel is that they ought to believe, and they feel very guilty because they don’t really believe. So they preach at each other and say, “You really ought to have faith,” but don’t really believe it because if they did they’d be screaming in the streets. They’d be taking enormous full-page ads in the New York Times every day, and having horrendous television programs about the Last Judgment. But even when the Jehovah’s Witnesses call at your door, they’re quite courteous. They don’t really believe it. It’s [page 122] simply become implausible and what everybody does in fact believe is the image of the fully automatic model, that we are chance gyrations in a universe where we are like bacteria inhabiting a rock ball that revolves around an insignificant star on the outer fringes of a minor galaxy. And, after a while, that will be that. When you’re dead, you’re dead. It’ll all be over. (12)

Watts’s opinion echoes the expression of popular culture placed in the mouth of noir writer Raymond Chandler’s “everyman” Phillip Marlowe: “What did it matter where you lay when you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell” (14). The loss of a mythic basis for coping with death deprives life of meaning and is, we suggest, one of the major influences on Cold War popular culture. Such a loss was perhaps made more pertinent by events such as the tragedy of the Second World War, the raw horror of the Holocaust, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, and, over the course of the 1960s, the stream of body bags and images that poured out of Vietnam.

Horror film reflects this anxiety. The horror film is filled with death, with necromancers, ghosts, spirits, revenants, vampires, zombies, and resurrected flesh as well as with a thousand-and-one forms of murder. The threat of death provokes anxiety. In addition to the dread of impending death, the horror film is pervaded by uncertainty about the finality of death. Death does not always mean the end, as evidenced by the parade of horrors that meander and drag through the gothic darkness. The dead can seldom be confined to the coffin for long. They return to wreak havoc on the family, foes, friends, and random strangers. 

Someone once referred to “the irrevocable law of death”—but in the horror film, death is neither lawful nor irrevocable. Many a body or soul is preserved on the threshold between life [page 123] and death and many a horror narrative is resolved by the elimination of this liminal state. To be entertained by horror films is to experience death and undeath by proxy, to take an unnerving but safe glimpse into the void, combining pleasure with an intimation of mortality.

Again, the cosmological function of myth is: “that of formulating and rendering an image of universe, a cosmological image in keeping with the science of the time and of such kind that, within its range, all things should be recognized as parts of a great holy picture” (Campbell, Masks 140). The cosmological function forms a lens through which existence is perceived and this lens must not conflict with the “science of the time”—it must not conflict with the generally accepted perceptions about the nature of the cosmos.

Again, we must consider that the first function of myth, the mystical, is fulfilled by the second, the cosmological function. In the words of Campbell:

The first function of a mythology—to awaken a sense of awe, humility and respect, before that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms, “from which,” as we have read, “words turn back”—has been capitally served by every one of these sciences of the second function: the rendition of a cosmology, an image of this universe of wonder, whether regarded in its spatial or its temporal, physical, or biological aspect. (Masks 620)

Carl Jung, writing on the nature of religious belief suggested that faith requires supporting experiences for the individual and the culture to sustain it:

The Churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their own inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it. The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter. Belief is no adequate substitute for inner experi-[page 124]ence, and where this is absent even a strong faith that came mysteriously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously. (Undiscovered 265)

We feel that the cosmological function struggles—unsuccessfully—in the body of myth that is horror film to integrate science into the existing Christian myth system. This unsuccessful struggle to reconcile existing beliefs in Christianity with contemporary beliefs about the nature of the universe is reflected in horror films’ ambivalence toward science. This ambivalence is particularly visible in The Exorcist when Regan undergoes a cerebral angiography—a medical imaging technique that allows visualization of the blood vessels of the brain—a scene which reputedly led to fainting and vomiting by some audience members. In horror film, science is often treated with suspicion and distrust. To treat Christianity in the same fashion, however, would have been to court censorship and box office catastrophe. Instead, a safer path is taken, and Christianity is merely paid lip service or ignored altogether. It is a subversive approach, one in which Christianity is portrayed as beleaguered at best, occasionally useless, and most often irrelevant. The Exorcist takes a different approach, treating Christianity and its underlying beliefs seriously, but arrives at the same point. The rites of the Roman Catholic Church ultimately prove useless, even though its “image of the world” is depicted as accurate.

The Sociological Function

The sociological function is that of “validating and maintaining some specific social order, authorizing its moral code as a construct beyond criticism or human emendation” (Campbell, Masks 40). Horror film in the Cold War era validates an emerging social order.

Campbell, speaking of the “old” social order, states that:

[W]ith respect … to the moral value of this heritage, with its emphasis on the privilege of race and its concept of an eternally valid moral law, divinely delivered [page 125] to the privileged race from the summit of Mount Sinai, it can be asked whether in the modern world with its infinite mixture of contributing peoples any such racism can be longer regarded as either edifying, or even tolerable; and further, whether with all the conditions of life in flux (so that, in fact, what only yesterday were virtues are today, in many cases, social evils), anyone has a right to pretend to a knowledge of eternal laws and of a general moral order for the good of mankind. (145)

The Exorcist emerged five years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the rioting that erupted in its wake, at a time when the horrors of the Holocaust were a mere 27 years in the past. It arrived at a time when class distinctions were becoming readily apparent as the poor and disenfranchised were served up as cannon fodder in Southeast Asia while the privileged evaded military service. 

The Exorcist was intended to offer a validation of the existing social order, but for most of the audience, it appears to have had an opposite effect. From its opening scenes, in which Max von Sydow’s dignified European Father Lankester Merrin moves through an Iraq seemingly only populated by unnervingly alien “others,” to the ending—meant to be reassuring and uplifting (Kermode 85–87)—in which law and religion, in the form of Detective William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) and Father Joseph Dyer (Father William O’Malley), walk off arm-in-arm, it was commonly received by the audience as a triumph of evil and a failure of the system it depicted as a valid reality.

The Psychological Function

The psychological function underlies and supports the other three functions. According to Campbell it functions “[t]o foster the centering of an unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with a) himself (the microcosm), b) his culture (the mesocosm), c) the universe (the macrocosm), and d) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and [page 126] within himself and all things” (Masks 6). The relationship to that “ultimate mystery” is primarily addressed by myth’s first, mystical function, the relationship to the universe by the second, cosmological function, and the relationship to culture by the third, sociological function. The Exorcist, as a mythic vehicle, fails to fulfill the first three functions. The individual’s relationship to his or herself is fulfilled solely by the fourth, the psychological function. For Campbell, the psychological function of myth is served when myth provides a model against which the individual can measure their personal achievement and maturity. Campbell, working as a comparative mythologist within the discipline of anthropology, devotes the least energy to this final function of myth. To garner a deeper understanding of myth’s psychological function, we turn to the work of Carl Jung.

Jung concerned himself almost exclusively with myth’s psychological impact and identified five specific psychological functions that myth serves, three of which are relevant here: revealing the unconscious, encountering the unconscious, and making life meaningful. 

Revealing the Unconscious Myth, in this, the first of Jung’s functions, serves to reveal the unconscious to the conscious. Jung’s model of the psyche includes two separate unconsciouses: the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The elements of myth—archetypal figures, events, and objects—emerge from the collective unconscious and take on distinctive forms in the personal unconscious: “Modern psychology treats the products of unconscious fantasy-activity as self-portraits of what is going on in the unconscious psyche about itself” (Jung, Principles 262). Elsewhere, Jung states: “Herein lay the vital importance of myths: they explained to the bewildered human being what was going on in his unconscious and why he was being held fast” (Function 466).

If we treat The Exorcist as a modern myth revealing the unconscious—individual or collective—to conscious awareness, the understanding that emerges is one of unconscious [page 127] disbelief conflicting with conscious adherence to a mythological worldview that fails to fulfill its intended purpose. The failure of the film—in its intended role of affirming a Christian worldview—to address and fulfill the four functions of myth illustrates an unconscious dynamic in which supernatural entities, manifest here in the form of Pazuzu, are acceptable but the “inevitable triumph” of good over evil in a Christian context is not.

The film was a revealed expression of the unconscious—and disturbing—struggle that was widespread at the time. An increasing proportion of people, despite the external, behavioral compliance with the Christian worldview, simply didn’t feel that God had any impact on their lives. The myth had failed, but the socio-cultural pressures to adhere to it remained in force. The intensity of the expressed outrage, like the reaction six years earlier when Time Magazine asked, “Is God Dead?” in bold red letters on its cover, gave lie to the protestors’ unconscious disbelief.

Encountering the Unconscious In addition to revealing the unconscious, myth serves to open us up to the unconscious, to bring us into contact with that portion of ourselves that we can know in no other way. Consciously we are stirred by the stories, but unconsciously the archetypes in the collective unconscious and those that form the nucleus of complexes in the personal unconscious are aroused by resonant aspects of the story: “Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious” (Jung, Psychology 280). Elsewhere: “Mythological ideas with their extraordinary symbolism evidently reach far into the human psyche and touch the historical foundations where reason, will, and good intentions never penetrate; for these ideas are born of the same depths and speak a language which strikes an answering chord in the inner man, although our reason may not understand it” (281). The Exorcist served the second function, that of [page 128] facilitating, for the audience, an encounter with the unconscious and its concerns about these issues. Taken as such, the general public response, strident objections aside, was not that God is dead, but that God is irrelevant. Evil, on the other hand, was both real and relevant.

Making Life Meaningful In addition to connecting individuals to an inner world, myth also serves to connect humans to the external world. By transforming the external world into one of responsive, numinous personalities and situations, myth brings the inner world into harmony with the outer one and, as a result, makes life more meaningful: “Myths have a vital meaning. Not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe, which immediately falls to pieces and decays when it loses its mythological heritage, like a man who has lost his soul. A tribe’s mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always and everywhere, even among the civilized, a moral catastrophe” (Jung, Function 261). And elsewhere, Jung states: “Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find his place in the universe. He can stand the most incredible hardships when he is convinced that they make sense; but he is crushed when, on top of all his misfortunes, he has to admit that he is taking part in a ‘tale told by an idiot’” (556–7). And: “Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything” (Jung, Memories 340). 

The Exorcist is productively viewed as a modern myth. Campbell’s mystical/ metaphysical function is served by the film’s themes of encountering the supernatural. When audience members shivered at Regan’s possession, they were brought into contact with the dread unknowable. They were forced to reflect on the supernatural, to stand at the point where human understanding fails, where, as Campbell said, “words turn back.”

The cosmological function is, we feel, of particular rele-[page 129]vance. The Exorcist emerges at a time when the Christian cosmological image of the world was becoming difficult for much of the public to accept. This gave rise to anxieties about religious beliefs that are reflected in the film, and, in turn, the film provided a medium for audience engagement with those anxieties. The sociological function is served by the films’ general emphasis on moderate humanist values in opposition to violence, terror, and oppression. Evil in horror film is sometimes presented as attractive, particularly in vampire movies, but always as something to be opposed. This film struggles to provide a social order in the face of evil. The conclusion—a Jewish detective and a Catholic priest striking up a friendship, and a relieved mother and her troubled daughter driving off into the sunset, even as evil is loose upon the world—seems to indicate that order is to be found, not in religious belief but in secular relationships.

Jung’s psychological functions of myth are also relevant, particularly the first three: revealing the unconscious, encountering the unconscious, and making life meaningful. The Exorcist serves to reveal the unconscious in that it gives shape and narrative form to archetypal figures and events of concern to the unconscious—particularly those dealing with issues of religion and the supernatural. The film also serves the second function, that of facilitating, for the audience, an encounter with the unconscious and its concerns about these issues. It served the third function, making life meaningful, by, at least momentarily, transforming the outer world. As the audience immersed themselves in the unfolding spectacle, their internal world with all its anxieties, hopes and beliefs met numinous figures and situations that, in as much as the audience was thrilled or captivated, increased the richness of their lives.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, 1949.

—. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. The Viking Press, 1968.

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. Pocket Books, 1939. [page 130]

Dewey, John. Living Philosophies. Simon and Schuster, 1931.

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

Jung, Carl. The Function of Religious Symbols, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 18, Princeton University Press. 1959.

—. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Princeton University Press, 1991.

—. Principles of Practical Psychotherapy, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 16, Princeton University Press, 1959.

—. The Psychology of the Child Archetype, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 9, Princeton University Press, 1959.

—. The Undiscovered Self, in Civilization in Transition, Volume 10, Princeton University Press, 1970.

Kermode, Mark. The Exorcist. BFI, 1997.

Livingstone, David, and D. G. Hart. Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, 1999.

McCabe, Bob. The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Omnibus Press, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Joyful Wisdom. T.N. Foulis, 1883.

Travers, Peter, and Stephanie Reiff. The Exorcist: The Strange Story Behind the Film. Pinnacle, 1974.

Watts, Alan. “Western Mythology: Its Dissolution and Transformation.” Myths, Dreams, and Religion: Eleven Visions of Connection, edited by Joseph Campbell, MJF Books, 1970, p. 12.

Wegner, Alfred. The Origin of Continents and Oceans. E. P. Dutton and Co., 1912.

Wright, Bruce. Nightwalkers: Gothic Horror Movies, The Modern Era. Trade Publishing, 1995.

Darrell Riffe is an adjunct professor of film studies at the University of Pikeville. His interests include genre theory, horror films, and Japanese and Italian film. His current research focuses on the development of negative Appalachian stereotypes in journalism and entertainment media with an emphasis on depictions of serial murder, torture, incest, and cannibalism. Daniel Schnopp-Wyatt is a professor of counselor education and supervision at Lindsey Wilson College where he teaches qualitative research methodology, ethics, substance abuse treatment, and group psychotherapy. He has published on a variety of public health issues but has more recently focused on aspects of culture and history. 

MLA citation (print): 

Schnopp-Wyatt, Daniel, and Darrell Riffe. "The Failed Heroic Journey of Fr. Damian Karras, S.J., and the Decline of Christianity as a Unifying Myth." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 9, no. 1, 2023, pp. 113-130.