On a cold Sunday night in December of 2008, I sat and waited for my parents to go to sleep before silently sneaking out of bed to grab my laptop. With the eerie blue light of the screen filling my room, I began searching for a film that I had heard of earlier that morning while sitting next to my mother in church. That particular Sunday, the pastor was warning the congregation, specifically curious teenagers like myself, about the incendiary nature of a film that was first released 35 years prior and was now being rereleased in the popular Blu-Ray format with all new special features. According to this pastor, to view this movie was to risk your very soul to demons who resided within the material of the film. He warned of the consequences of opening your mind to such an experience. which included physical harm and possible demonic possession. That night at about one in the morning, lying in the dark, I dared myself to defy the intense warnings of my mother’s church and watch William Friedkin’s The Exorcist for the first time. I hit play, sank beneath the covers, and waited to face the demons. The demons never arrived, but that was the night [page 54] I became possessed by the terrifying power of The Exorcist. Since that night, I have longed to discover how this particular film has continued to plague the public consciousness in a way that disturbs the spirit of anyone who views it.
Since it was first released on December 26, 1973, The Exorcist has been surrounded by public intrigue and controversy. The opening week of the film saw lines wrapping around entire city blocks as thrill-seeking audiences waited in the cold to buy their tickets. Many had come to find what exactly about this film was inciting such fury from conservative critics, parenting groups, and religious officials. Some movie theaters saw protesters gathered alongside ticket-buyers and many crowds contained priests ready to convince curious viewers to turn away or to save them as they left the theater in states of extreme fear and shock. Indeed, many audience members fled theaters before the credits rolled as they became so frightened by the film that they trembled, vomited, or even lost consciousness (as documented by, among others, Judy Klemesrud for the New York Times, as will be discussed later in this article). These displays of pure terror only seemed to increase the appeal of the film as the mile-long lines, protests, and ensuing news coverage of both supporters and protesters of the film culminated in making The Exorcist, one of the top-grossing films of the decade, and one of the most influential public spectacles of cinematic history.
The high emotions that surrounded the release of The Exorcist and the subsequent years of rumors about its evil nature have led many to ponder what exactly about this horror flick incited such a strong and lasting public response. Many scholars and critics have attributed the film’s reputation to its controversial and upsetting content and the ways in which it challenges audiences with its sacrilegious imagery and faith-shaking plot. While I agree with this, I also believe that the truest answer lies deeper within the societal subconscious, beginning over a century prior with the rise of American Spiritualism, the marketing of morbid entertainments, and the building tensions between Christian morality and counter-[page 55]culture which exploded in the late 1960s and early 70s. These combined forces paved the way for The Exorcist to terrify and to reveal the spiritual power of the cinema.
In order to fully realize the scope of the power of The Exorcist, one must look to the beliefs of American Spiritualism, the history of séances, Spiritualist entertainments, and the relationship between technology and communication with the dead. To support this theory of the spiritual power of cinema, this article builds on Simone Natale’s Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, and Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. While each of these makes connections between modern media technology and spiritual reformations, most of this research stops at the advent of cinema rather than exploring how cinema grew well into the twentieth century to become a powerhouse of spiritually charged entertainment. The public response to The Exorcist is ripe for analysis as to how Spiritualist entertainments transferred beyond the screen, causing spiritual awakenings and, in some cases, spiritual destruction.
In regard to the beliefs in the power of cinema reacting with the clashing of counterculture and religious institutions leading up to the release of The Exorcist, this paper examines Hugh McLeod’s research into the cultural revolution throughout the 1960s and early 1970s and research from Drew Beard on the rise of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Except for Beard’s research, which defines one of the inciting incidents of the Satanic Panic as the release of The Exorcist on home video, many scholars have ignored the film as a catalyst for moral panics. At the time of its release, the film became highly influential by adding to the debate on the moral safety of children as many young people flocked to the film, some as a sign of rebellion. As it would turn out, this rebellion would produce a moral panic that would be based on beliefs in the power of new media technology that had originated a century prior and would continue well after the 1970s and 1980s. [page 56]
Over a century before the release of The Exorcist, a religious revolution was taking the world by storm. Spiritualism began as a method of explaining and proving the existence of an afterlife through communication with souls beyond the grave. The movement was focused on mediums, people (often women) who had otherworldly access to the spirit realm and could call upon ghosts to speak, write, or tap out messages to the living. Many today look back on Spiritualism as a simple movement focused on morbid curiosity, but as Molly McGarry writes in Ghosts of Future Past, “Although Spiritualism may appear at first glance to be a fringe religion that rose and fell in the United States during the nineteenth century, this history entwines with fundamental questions of mourning and memory in our own time” (16). Spiritualism was one of the first steps in a long history of communication with the dead in order to better understand life, and Spiritualists soon became famous for incorporating modern entertainments and technology into their practices.
While many believe that the most important locations of Spiritualism were the private homes of mediums, scholars such as Simone Natale argue that the most important locations of the movement were the lecture halls in which mediums such as the Fox Sisters began performing for a paying public. These theaters saw scenes similar to those at movie theaters during the opening weeks of The Exorcist, with religious groups protesting outside the doors and many onlookers being compelled to buy a ticket because of the commotion surrounding the performance. As the popularity of these performances grew, Spiritualists began combining human mediums with entertainments, creating a relationship between new media and old, spiritual beliefs in the permeability of the boundary between life and death (McGarry 22). Through entertainment, Spiritualists could reach a much larger audience, all while profiting from those audiences’ faith.
While unified by the common goal of finding proof of a tangible afterlife, Spiritualism never had a central church or doctrine. However, if one were to search for a common practice [page 57] within Spiritualism, it would be the séance. The ritual of séance was practically the same from home to home: men and women would gather around a table, dim the lights, or extinguish them completely, and turn their attention to the medium who would then call upon the spirits. As the practice moved into theaters and lecture halls, the ritual stayed mostly the same but often added new elements such as a paying public audience and musical accompaniment. Later, some séances included projections into their shows, creating the spectacle of phantasmagoria, which, as Noam Elcott points out, was the beginning of Spiritualism collapsing human mediums and technological media (117). As these mediums morphed together, the ritual of the séance moved from the table with the flesh and blood medium to the screen where humans were projected in the ghostly form of light and shadow.
In her book The Blue Light of the Screen, Claire Cronin declares that “Because both demons and ghosts lack physical bodies … we could say that all spirits are akin to electronic media” (48). Her comparison of ghosts and electronic media mirrors that of Jeffrey Sconce. In a history of the use of media to connect with the spirit realm, Sconce moves from early technology such as the telegraph to more modern technologies such as television and cinema. The difference between these early and later technologies is the origins of the ghosts communicating through them: “The first ‘ghosts’ of television, in other words, did not speak through the technology (as did the ‘spirits’ of telegraphy and radio), but seemed to actually reside within the technology itself” (127). The glowing screen of the television and the projected images of the cinema carried the potential for ghosts to reach out to audiences beyond. Although television has its own factors of ghostliness, it would be through the cinema and the cinematic experience that the discourse of Spiritualism would find an everlasting home.
The cinema has a long history with ghosts. From Georges Méliès’ The House of the Devil to The Exorcist to modern-day paranormal movie franchises, filmmakers have been terrifying audiences with special effects and narratives involving super-[page 58]natural evils. In the case of The Exorcist, however, the evil went beyond the confines of the screen. These rumors of evil spirits residing within the film primarily stem from what audiences believed to be subliminal messaging in the film. One of the more recognizable subliminal cuts is in Father Karras’s dream sequence where the face of the demon Pazuzu flashes through with startlingly quick intensity, leaving the stunned viewer to second guess what they have just witnessed. As Mark Kermode writes, “The longstanding suggestion that The Exorcist is littered with sub-liminal demonic imagery has, perhaps more than any other aspect of the movie, provoked angry claims that it is somehow dangerous, evil, incendiary” (45). Once audiences caught wind of this imagery in the film, many became afraid that those very demons would be able to escape the screen and follow them home.
The Exorcist’s ability to transcend the screen and so powerfully affect audiences speaks to the social influence of the Spiritualist movements and entertainments. Without the supernatural entertainments of the late 1800s converging with new media technology, it would be difficult to inspire beliefs of demons making contact through film. Laura Mulvey attempts to answer how and why the cinema has become so spiritually influential: “The cinema combines, perhaps more perfectly than any other medium, two human fascinations: one with the boundary between life and death and the other with the mechanical animation of the inanimate, particularly the human figure” (11). These fascinations, particularly with the breaking of barriers between life and death, are the same that inspired Spiritualist séance performances. The cinema carried this goal further by capturing life on the screen that could be paused, rewound, and replayed, trapping spirits in a mechanical loop. The Exorcist combined all these fascinations, and in turn, created the perfect publicity storm which would combine controversy with curiosity and once again borrow from supernatural entertainments of the past.
The Exorcist features some of the most horrific moments in film history as audiences are subject to view the physical, emo-[page 59]tional, and spiritual destruction of a young girl at the hands of otherworldly demonic powers. Some of the more disturbing and infamous scenes involve masturbation with a crucifix, vomiting bile onto priests, spewing obscenities at her mother, and unnerving, invasive medical sequences. Before the film opened in 1973, many critics and censorship committees had already been calling for action against the film’s R-rating, which they believed should have been bumped up to the X-rating to protect young audiences. However, these critiques only brought larger and larger audiences to movie theaters across the country. The more outrageous the claims against the film became, the more public intrigue caused people of all ages to line up to see the film. As religious groups became involved, The Exorcist became an experience that engaged with the porosity between the boundaries of entertainment and faith, daring viewers to risk their souls to the film’s demonic influences. With this publicity at their fingertips, the film’s promotional team would begin utilizing age-old marketing tactics of spectacular entertainments.
The spectacle surrounding the release of The Exorcist brought out many reporters to capture this rare event. In January of 1974, New York Times reporter Judy Klemesrud took to movie theatre lobbies across the city to interview audiences before and after they viewed the film:
It’s been reported that once inside the theatre, a number of moviegoers vomited at the graphic goings-on on the screen. Others fainted, or left the theatre, nauseous and trembling, before the film was half over. Several people had heart attacks, a guard told me. One woman even had a miscarriage, he said.
These reports of heart attacks and miscarriages spread like wildfire, and while it urged some to stay as far away from the film as possible, it brought others to the theaters in droves, with some viewers attending multiple showings. In the same Times article, one young man who was lined up to view the film for a second time explained “You feel contaminated when you leave the theatre. There’s something that is impossible to [page 60] erase. I’ve had nightmares ever since I’ve seen it.” This promise of contamination, of absolute terror that would follow the viewer home, became the prime selling point of the film.
The strategy of utilizing salacious rumors to sell tickets has been around for centuries. However, it reached its peak with the Spiritualist entertainments of the nineteenth century before evolving into what is now recognized as “Ballyhoo” marketing. This type of marketing in Spiritualist entertainments often relied on the uncertainty in the authenticity of the performance:
In nineteenth-century spiritualism, mediums usually welcomed nonbelievers and skeptics to their seances. This was due in part to the fact that the key issue was not faith in itself, but rather the participation in a common experience that stimulated a sense of curiosity, excitement, and wonder. Thus, public and private seances allowed sitters and spectators to maintain a flexible interpretation of their involvement, mixing religious piety with entertainment and spectacle. (Natale 171)
Skeptics were also likely to line up for The Exorcist as they sought this common experience of mixing fear for the soul with terrifying entertainment, with part of this appeal being that the film was cursed.
Rumors of the curse began circulating during the production of the film. While filming The Exorcist, a set burned down, Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered spinal injuries, a gaffer severed his fingers, and actor Jack MacGowran, who played Burke Dennings, passed away before the film was released (Kermode 76). As Beth Kattelman notes in her article on Ballyhoo marketing and the rumors involving The Exorcist: “By reporting outrageous stories, the critics hoping to warn people away from the film actually succeeded in adding to the mystique. Audiences were fascinated by the ominous rumours, and the more sordid the stories became, the more they lined up to see the film” (68). Clearly little had changed between the time of Spiritualist entertainments and the release of The [page 61] Exorcist, proving that human nature remains curious about challenging, horrific experiences. As the popularity of the film grew exponentially into 1974, The Exorcist became a challenge of bravery for those who could make it through a viewing. For those brave enough, viewing The Exorcist also became a way to challenge religious opponents who felt the film was aiding counterculture in disturbing societal norms.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw an explosion in the opposition between countercultural ideologies and institutionalized religions. By 1967-1968, political and religious debate had reached a boiling point: “[C]ontrasts in life-styles were becoming increasingly glaring as a growing minority of those influenced by the ‘counter-culture’ experimented in increasingly provocative ways in such fields as sex, drugs, clothing, hairstyles, and language” (McLeod 224). With the knowledge of alternative lifestyles becoming more accessible to the youth through media, a moral panic began to bubble as many feared that the younger generation had become increasingly vulnerable to dangerous influences. The fears of corrupted youth moving away from morality and religion and towards socially radical ideals during a time of technological, economic, and social change were far from new. As Molly McGarry writes, moral panics tend to “recirculate old fears and project them onto new demons” (87-88). The demons of this particular panic of the 1970s were constructed by the media.
The impact of media on the moral panic pointed at the counterculture cannot be understated. Through media such as music, film, and television, young people could be exposed to a vast array of new worldviews and politics. Plenty of these messages were worrisome to traditionalists as they could come from anti-religious, feminist, or civil rights groups who could lure the younger generation away from the dominant (white, patriarchal, and Christian) social order. Alongside the American war in Vietnam, media influences allowed tensions to build in anti-authoritarian movements as many detected “oppression, injustice, sinister hierarchies in every area of society—in politics, in industry, in education, and in the [page 62] church” (McLeod 224-225). In The Exorcist, young Regan certainly represents the youth failed by traditional lifestyles and power structures such as the nuclear family and the fields of medicine and psychology. It is this failure that leads the young girl to seek solace in her “friend” Captain Howdy through the use of the Ouija board.
The Ouija board that Regan uses to connect with the demonic entity, Pazuzu, could easily stand in for the media that young people were consuming at the time. As Drew Beard writes in his article on the rise of the Satanic Panic,
Captain Howdy’s entrance into the MacNeil home, having used the Ouija board and young Regan’s curiosity as a gateway, spoke to a growing fear of intrusion in the 1970s culture, with spaces assumed to be safe revealed to be easily breached, a sense of vulnerability and a lack of significant protection from previously trusted institutions. (213)
Regan’s mother Chris being a Hollywood actor adds another layer to the media which influences Regan. The young girl is introduced to several characters in Chris’s life, including the drunken director Burke Dennings whom she later murders, is exposed to adult parties and alcohol, and seems to lack stability in her family life because of her parent’s public divorce she reads about in popular magazines.
Regan’s demise through her engagement with the occult because of her alternative lifestyle seems to align with traditional, Christian ideals of purity and salvation. The film reinforces values of family, especially through Regan’s savior, Father Karras, who becomes a sort of spiritual father, replacing her biological father through his sacrifice. The Exorcist also uses the fear of children being met with evil influences to reinforce traditional morals of raising children and preserving innocence. Part of what makes the film so disturbing is being forced to watch such an innocent young girl become corrupted into committing such obscene acts of verbal and physical violence. With the other factors of her single-mother household, her lack of stability, and access to media, it [page 63] seems as though Regan’s unprotected innocence becomes the catalyst for the demon’s arrival. As Barbara Creed writes in “Baby Bitches from Hell,” “A central figure of many films about the young girl is the way in which innocence and evil are interconnected; it is as if the girl’s innocence opens the way for the entrance of evil, one feeding off the other in a complex relationship of interdependence” (36). This relationship between innocence and evil, and the idea that innocence must be fiercely protected to keep evil at bay is a major theme in The Exorcist. It is why the characters and the audience are relieved at the end of the film when it is mentioned that Regan has no memory of her possession, helping her regain her status as an innocent youth. The ending of the film brings back a balance between good and evil by defeating the demon through faith and sacrifice. While one might imagine this ending would satiate most audiences, especially the religious sects, it turned out that The Exorcist was just the sounding board for a much broader conflict between religion and culture.
Alongside the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s came a decline in participation in religion. Christianity and Catholicism saw the most damage in this decline as it was estimated that regular mass attendance dropped from 71 to 40 percent between 1966 and 1975 as well as a large drop in the number of young men and women becoming priests and nuns (McLeod 225). In the midst of this public decline in traditional spirituality, The Exorcist became a target for church leaders looking to place the blame onto modern media culture. Many followed the warnings from leaders such as fundamentalist author Hal Lindsey, who claimed that the film was inciting a future attack from Satan onto the earthly realm (Kermode 45). Then there was possibly the film’s greatest opponent, televangelist Billy Graham. In a 1974 sermon on the spiritual and moral decline of Americans, Graham referenced The Exorcist:
Now, Americans at this hour are vacillating according to the latest polls. Some deny the existence of the devil altogether, but others have an unnatural fascination with the devil and with demons and with exorcisms [page 64] and other things in the occult. And because of the success of The Exorcist and many new films are being made on the subject on the devil and evil right now. A pastor who saw one of these films said recently: “It was obnoxious, repulsive, disgusting, pornographic and obscene.” I myself have not seen any of these films. I do not intend to expose myself to this type of thing. (“The Devil”)
Graham’s declaration to not view the film is met with applause by his congregation. While these sermons certainly did not stop The Exorcist from growing in popularity, statements on the provocative nature of the film would have a lasting effect that would continue for decades to come.
In the years after its release, The Exorcist came and went from theaters in rereleases that continued to capture audience imaginations. The controversy surrounding the film continued but weakened as the years passed and it became less popular in movie theaters. However, in February of 1980, CBS would air a heavily edited and censored version of the film in a prime-time slot when adults and children might be watching. This ignited new moral panics as horror was introduced to the home television screen: “Thanks to cable television and home video, supernatural horror movies like The Exorcist gained ‘after-lives,’ haunting the public imagination far beyond the limited secondary markets faced by older films prior to the advent of cable and the VCR. Horror had finally come home” (Beard 212). With its release onto home video in particular, through which the film could be paused and rewound in search of the rumored subliminal messaging, the film’s demons were resurrected and relocated from celluloid to the light of the screen.
Thirty-five years after the release of The Exorcist, its impact clearly remained as it moved from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray and into the rooms of thirteen-year-olds illegally downloading digital copies after church. The belief in demons existing within the material of the film persisted, proving that the Spiritualist entertainments of the nineteenth century had succeeded in permeating the public consciousness with the [page 65] beliefs that media could be used to convey spirits and deliver demons. Since the publicity for the film mimicked the marketing strategies of those same entertainments, rumors of curses and stories of audiences vomiting, fainting, and experiencing heart attacks only fanned the flames of the film’s reputation as a supernatural entertainment that contained evils. These evils inspired discourse about the film that pitted popular and counterculture against religious and moral groups who sought to protect the innocent souls of the youth. The combined forces of religion, popular culture, and the spiritual salvation of innocent youth continue to make The Exorcist one of the most influential films of all time, capturing demons and curses within its celluloid and continuing to challenge viewers almost fifty years later to risk their souls to its power.
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Cronin, Claire. Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. Repeater Books, 2020.
Graham, Billy. “The Devil, Demons and Exorcism [Tempe, AZ, 16 Sept. 1974].” Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, billygraham.org/audio/the-devil-demons-and-exorcism/.
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The Exorcist. Directed by William Friedkin, Warner Brothers, 1973.
The House of the Devil. Directed by George Méliès, Star Film Company, 1896.
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