©2019, by M. Keith Booker
When it was released in 1973, The Exorcist was considered one of the most shocking films ever made, with multiple critics wondering how it could possibly have evaded an “X” rating. Since that time, it has continued to stir controversy, with some critics seeing it as exploitative near-pornography and others claiming it to be a profound meditation on the nature of good and evil, especially from a Christian perspective. It is certainly the case that The Exorcist is a complex and contradictory film. On the one hand, it depends for its effect on a number of violent and shocking images; on the other hand, its narrative is carefully constructed, leaving a number of questions unanswered. In any case, the film became a major cultural phenomenon after its release in 1973, drawing huge audiences and often affecting them profoundly. It became, at the time, the most successful horror film ever, in terms of Oscar recognition. Propelled by a highly effective (and sensationalist) marketing campaign, it also went on to become one of the best known (and most profitable) horror movies ever made, becoming an iconic part of America’s pop cultural landscape.
Despite its fantastic content, The Exorcist has some claim to be rooted in reality. It is an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel of the same title, which itself was based on a series of exorcisms performed by Catholic priests in 1949 on an anonymous fourteen-year-old American boy (dubbed “Roland Doe”). This process of exorcism is one of the most famous ever recorded; it was supposedly successful. According to this narrative, the malevolent demons who had possessed the boy were expelled, and he went on to lead a rather normal life. However, Thomas B. Allen has researched this case in detail, determining in his 1993 book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism that experts analysts of the case have generally concluded that there was nothing supernatural about the boy’s symptoms, so that there was, in fact, no exorcism. Most other unbiased observers have also concluded that details of the case do not support a supernatural explanation and that details that do support such an explanation might have been imagined or fabricated by the priests involved. Others have simply felt that the boy might have faked the whole thing himself.
Virtually everyone with any interest in horror film knows the story of The Exorcist. An archeological dig in Iraq foreshadows the appearance of the ancient demon Pazuzu, who then somehow comes to Washington, D.C., and possesses the body of a twelve-year-old girl. Catholic priests are called in to battle the demon. They ultimately succeed, but only after experiencing considerable difficulties, including the deaths of both exorcists assigned to the case. But this quick plot summary does very little to capture the texture and intensity of this film. Peter Travers better captures the nature of the film when he sardonically notes, in his announcement of the release to theaters of an expanded version of the film in 2000, “For some, this 1973 tale of demonic possession will evoke tender nostalgia for a time when it was still shocking to watch a twelve-year-old girl (Linda Blair) stab her vagina with a crucifix in the presence of her movie-star mom (Ellen Burstyn) and tell a priest (Jason Miller) that his ‘mother sucks cocks in hell.’” Ah, yes. Those were the days.
In point of fact, The Exorcist courts controversy in a number of ways, some of which have actually become even more controversial with the passing of time. For example, the opening scenes in Iraq drew few complaints at the time. How better to evoke the spirit of ancient evil than to show an archeological dig in one of the earliest sites of human civilization? Granted, the film was released in the midst of the first Arab oil embargo, which ran from October, 1973, to March 1974. But the Arab world was still a distant, hazy image of the exotic in the popular American imagination at the time, while Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), the book that brought attention to the objectionable tradition of stereotyping with which the Middle East had long been represented in the West, was still nearly five years away.
Now, more than forty years after Said’s book and nearly twenty years after 9/11, the Arab world is much better known to Americans, even if the stereotypes with which it is represented have in many ways become much nastier. Iraq, in particular, is much better known to ordinary Americans than it had been in 1973, and any film that suggests an evil threat emanating from there surely has different resonances now than it had back then. Still, that the major motif of The Exorcist symbolically suggests a menacing ancient Arab man attacking an innocent young American girl (in America’s capital city, no less) could not be more clear. Indeed, Tim Jon Semmerling uses this film as a key example of “Orientalist fear” in American film, arguing that the demon Pazuzu essentially functions as an “evil Arab” who exposes the precariousness of our seemingly confident Western identities (31). The Exorcist was certainly not made in response to the oil embargo, or as an anti-Arab diatribe, but it came along at a perfect time to capitalize on this new atmosphere of suspicion toward a suddenly hostile Arab Middle East. Similarly, while it makes sense for supernatural horror films to have connections in the Middle East (as that region was the starting point for the most popular Western mythologies of the supernatural), it is also the case that The Exorcist seems to embrace Orientalist stereotypes more than is really necessary for the narrative purposes of the film.
Granted, Pazuzu is depicted as an ancient demon who predates Islam (and presumably even Arabs), but the siting of the opening carries numerous Islamic resonances for present-day audiences. For example, most of the Iraq scenes that open the movie were filmed in around the city of Mosul, which is, indeed, in northern Iraq (northwestern, actually), as indicated by on-screen text. For Americans, Mosul is probably now best known as the site of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and the forces of the Islamic State (ISIL), which occupied the city from the summer of 2014 to the summer of 2017. Mosul is quite an ancient city and contains, among other things, the purported tombs of a number of Old Testament prophets, including the supposed tomb of Jonah, which was destroyed by ISIL soon after occupying the city. Given these resonances, the fact that we hear the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, as the film’s title flashes on the screen in the opening credits has clear negative connotations for post-9/11 audiences in the West, especially as it includes the words “Allahu akbar,” which have come to be regarded in the West as a sort of signifier of impending terrorist activity.
In any case, the scenes of the archeological dig were shot at an actual dig site in the even more ancient city of Hatra, about 50 miles southwest of Mosul. Interestingly, Hatra is about equidistant between Mosul and the Iraqi town of Sinjar, near the Syrian border. Sinjar is a stronghold of the Yazidi sect, the members of which do in fact worship an entity often considered to be a demon, though a relatively benevolent one. It is possible, then, that the Yazidi provided some of the inspiration for Pazuzu, though Pazuzu himself is a demon in ancient Assyrian mythology. Of course, the Yazidi—many of whom have been massacred by Islamic fundamentalists from ISIL in recent years—are decidedly not Muslims. Still, American audiences in 1973 could hardly be expected to make fine distinctions among different groups in the Middle East: Orientalist stereotyping does not deal in such distinctions, but in sweeping generalizations, so Islam and Arabs in general are inevitably caught up in the film’s depiction of the Middle East as a locus of evil. In addition, Islam is specifically evoked in the film as we hear the adhan, not only at the beginning, but also at the end of the film. For Muslims, of course, this call is one of the world’s holiest, most beautiful, and most peaceful sounds. For many Americans, however, it sounds very foreign at best and possibly like an anthem of terrorism.
Director Willliam Friedkin has stated that he used the adhan to symbolize good in the film, in opposition to Pazuzu. On this reading, the adhan at the beginning of the film signals that all was well prior to Pazuzu’s release by the archaeological dig, and the adhan at the end indicates that the reign of good over evil has been restored. The film gives no indication of this, though, and Friedkin’s explanation sounds very much like something that was concocted after the fact, in an attempt to avoid controversy. In fact, regardless of what Friedkin did or didn’t intend, anti-Muslim sentiment in the West is strong enough that most Western audiences (more now than in 1973, even) would almost certainly associate the adhan with the ancient, Oriental evil represented by Pazuzu. Thus, most Western viewers of the film are likely to conclude that the first adhan signals the coming awakening of Pazuzu, while the second indicates that he has not been defeated after all and is still around, completely changing the interpretation of the end of the film and giving the adhan a crucial importance. Thus, whatever Friedkin’s intention, the film is clearly constructed so that the adhan helps to create an atmosphere of mysterious menace for most Western viewers.
Our first view of the dig site, incidentally, includes a shot of a line of camels being led across the top of the screen, as if to emphasize the exotic and foreign nature of the setting, camels being one of the most common images of the Orientalist iconography of the Middle East. Most of the workers at the site appear to be Arabs, toiling away with picks and other fairly primitive implements. But, of course, the dig is being spearheaded by a Westerner, Fr. Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), a priest who happens also to be an archeologist. Among the ancient artifacts found at the site, Merrin discovers a modern St. Joseph medal, a common bit of Catholic paraphernalia, but not one that would commonly be found in ancient ruins. Merrin is notably puzzled by the incongruous discovery, but sets it aside. Then, just after Merrin subsequently unearths the image of a small, sinister-looking demon’s head, the scene cuts to a view of an Islamic minaret, with a red sky behind it, illuminated by the harsh, Middle Eastern sun. Merrin, sitting at a street teahouse surrounded by Arab voices and music, takes a nitro-glycerin pill to combat an obvious heart condition, signaled also by an obvious tremor in his hands. He looks old and worn (by the magic of Hollywood makeup—von Sydow was only 43 and quite healthy as the film was being shot). It’s a primitive scene—traffic on the street is horse-drawn. Merrin, as he sits there, seems visibly shaken—apparently bothered by that demon’s head.
Cut to a more serene, indoor scene, perhaps a room in a museum, exoticism still marked by a shot of a clock the face of which features Arab numerals—something that would, in fact, be quite unusual to see in the Middle East. Merrin is examining artifacts, while his Arab associate, perhaps the curator of the museum, makes notes at a desk. As Merrin looks at the demon head, the Arab mumbles “Shaitan youharib Shaitan” (“one devil fights against another”). A possible implication, especially given later events in the film, is that this demon head is a sort of magic talisman that had been keeping Pazuzu in check, though whether it is the head of Pazuzu himself or a rival demon is unclear; in any case, its removal by Merrin might very well have unleashed the demon. However, there is no real explanation in the film for how this head is related to the later events in The Exorcist, thus introducing the first of many unsolved mysteries in the film. The exact mechanism of Pazuzu’s entrapment and release is unclear—and unimportant. Director Friedkin’s comments even suggest that there is no release here and that the discovery of the head merely gives Merrin a premonition that he will soon have to face Pazuzu in battle. However, I prefer the “release” theory as more consistent with the remainder of the film, because it suggests that the demon has been released by modern science (archeology), while later events demonstrate that science (medicine) is unable to deal with the result, thus strengthening the film’s (misguided) critique of science. Then, as Merrin examines the head, the strange clock suddenly stops, and Merrin again appears shaken. Soon afterward, he leaves the museum, soon to leave the Middle East. As he makes his exit, he walks slowly, as if in a daze, behind a row of praying Muslim men, as we once again hear “Allahu akbar.” Then he makes one last trip out to the dig site, where he encounters fierce armed Arabs (they turn out just to be guards protecting the site), fighting dogs, and a full statue of a demon, presumably Pazuzu. As Merrin confronts the statue, possibly contemplating a future battle, the screen fades into a view of the modern Georgetown area of Washington, D.C.
Beginning a horror movie with a prologue that sets an atmosphere of menace has become almost standard practice by this time, though it was more unusual in 1973. But the ten-minute “Iraq” prologue of The Exorcist is a highly effective one, partly because the legacy of Western involvement with the Middle East makes it easy to deploy that region of the world as a source of menace. But the atmosphere continues to build in Georgetown. We already expect the worst when we see actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn)—temporarily living in town to shoot a movie on location—as she looks over a script in her Georgetown bedroom at night, then hears a strange noise outside her bedroom. When she goes to check it out, the noise seems to be coming from the attic. She concludes that the house has rats, but we suspect that it might be much worse, especially after the family servant who has traveled with the MacNeils to Georgetown assures her the next day that there are no rats.
For a while, life for Chris and her twelve-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair) seems relatively normal, as much of the focus shifts to the introduction of a mysterious priest, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who lives with his failing mother in a modest apartment. Karras is a trained psychiatrist who works with troubled priests, but he is troubled himself, struggling with his faith. The film then takes another horror-film turn when we learn that Regan has been playing with a Ouija board she found in a closet of their rented house. Chris is merely amused when Regan claims to have been communicating with an entity known as “Captain Howdy” via the board, though most viewers surely suspect something sinister is afoot. Soon afterward, Regan claims that her bed has been shaking in the night; meanwhile, the noises in the attic continue. Chris checks the out herself, in a very tense scene, but finds nothing, though the candle she carries does suddenly flame up and go out at one point.
A number of the scenes in The Exorcist are among the most memorable and shocking in all of American film: Regan’s head spins around backward on her neck; she projectile vomits a torrent of green liquid onto a priest; she levitates into the air; she performs a number of shocking sexual gestures, including a lewd demand to be fucked by a priest and a violent attack on her own genitals using a crucifix as a weapon, while Pazuzu’s voice shouts “Let Jesus fuck you! Indeed, shock is clearly the key strategy of The Exorcist, which seeks to convince us that there are far more horrifying forces afoot in the world than those of which we are aware. In fact, given the reputation of the film for reliance on shocking and excessive scenes, it is a bit of a surprise to realize how slowly this film builds toward its eventual shocking moments. At this point, we are more than half an hour into the film, and nothing clearly supernatural (or shocking) has occurred.
Indeed, for the first hour of a film that runs two hours and twelve minutes in its extended cut version (the original version is two hours and two minutes), nothing clearly supernatural happens, though Regan does exhibit more and more unusual symptoms. Still, the most horrific things that occur during the film’s first hour have to do with the draconian series of medical tests to which Regan is exposed by doctors determined to demonstrate that her symptoms can be explained by a physical ailment, perhaps a lesion in the temporal lobe of the brain. Indeed, no matter how odd her symptoms and behavior become, the doctors doggedly pursue an answer that fits their view of the world. And, even when they despair of finding a physical explanation, their recourse then is to call in psychiatrists to seek a psychosomatic explanation. This emphasis on the blindness of the doctors is a key to the way in which The Exorcist is a film that centrally deals with our lack of preparation, in the skeptical modern world, to deal with genuine supernatural threats when they confront us. According to the film, there are more things in heaven and earth (and hell) than are dreamt of in the philosophy of modern science. Thus, Frentz and Farrell read the film as a rejection of science and an affirmation of “transcendent Christian faith as the most viable means of coping with the problems of contemporary life” (40). Little wonder, then, that the Catholic Church, despite its long reputation for trying to prevent shocking material from coming to the big screen, was an enthusiastic booster of this film, which features, after all, not one, but two virtuous Catholic exorcists willing to sacrifice their lives in the battle against evil.
That something beyond the reach of medicine might be occurring is suggested just past the half-hour mark as a statue of the Virgin Mary in a chapel on the Georgetown University campus is obscenely desecrated. Soon afterward, Chris observes Regan’s bed shaking, but the possibility of a natural explanation remains. The first hour of the film also includes the death of Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), who is sitting with Regan when he somehow falls from the window of her room and tumbles down the long, steeps stairs below it. He is found dead, his neck so twisted that his head is facing backward. The implication will eventually be that the possessed Regan tossed Dennings from the window, probably twisting his head around backwards before doing so, though there is never any real resolution to the mystery of his death. The one thing for sure is that his death brings onto scene a man who is perhaps the most enigmatic character in the film, Columbo-esque police Lieutenant William F. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), a movie buff who nominally investigates the death, though he doesn’t really seem to do all that much investigating. Having attempted to befriend Karras by offering him movie passes, he appears again at the end of the film to befriend another priest, Father Joseph Dyer (Father William O’Malley), who had issued the last rites to Karras. Then Dyer and Kinderman walk away together as the faint strains of the adhan are heard in the background. Exactly why Kinderman is even in the film—and exactly why he keeps trying to befriend priests, even after the case is presumably over—remains unclear, as he seems to have no actual impact on any of the action. One could, perhaps, surmise that he feels a troubled priest might be involved in all the strange goings on in Georgetown and is trying to investigate as subtly as possible. But, more than anything, he seems simply to represent another secular institution that is unable to deal with the kinds of things that are happening in this film.
With science and other modern institutions, such as the police, unable to come to Regan’s aid, what is left is the church, specifically the Catholic Church, Satan’s old nemesis. First comes Father Karras, who is highly skeptical of the notion of demonic possession but agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist. Even after observing some of her seemingly supernatural shenanigans, he remains unconvinced—something that Pazuzu appears to aid by pretending to be harmed by tap water that Karras had presented as holy water and speaking in tongues merely by talking backwards in English. Exactly why Pazuzu would do so is another mystery, but then one of the points of the film is that some things in the world simply defy rational analysis. In any case, Karras is concerned enough that he decides to seek the permission of the Church to perform an exorcism. The Church agrees, but assigns the exorcism to Father Merrin, who had performed one in Africa a decade or so earlier, with the inexperienced Karras assigned to assist.
We are almost an hour and forty-five minutes into the extended cut of the film by the time Merrin begins the actual exorcism. Just over ten minutes of furious action later, the frail Merrin already lies dead, presumably of a heart attack, though the death actually occurs off-screen, with no witnesses. Karras, an amateur boxer, then carries on the battle, repeatedly punching the possessed girl in the face, then allowing his own St. Joseph medal to be ripped off, stripping him of protection and allowing the demon to jump from Regan’s body to Karras’s, just as Karras wants. Karras then hurls himself out the window and down those same stairs, coming to rest at the bottom just as Father Dyer conveniently walks by to deliver the last rites before Karras dies.
All’s well that ends well, though it is not really at all clear how The Exorcist ends. For one thing, it is not at all clear why Karras’s strategy would actual work and why it would prevent Pazuzu from simply returning to Regan. Indeed, almost everything about the film’s final moments raise more questions than they answer. There is, for example, that final adhan. Regan appears to have largely recovered, but what scars will she have suffered, despite suggestions that she mercifully remembers nothing? As she and Regan prepare to leave Washington, Chris offers Karras’s St. Joseph medal to Father Dyer. Dyer suggests that she keep it instead, which is not that mysterious, given that he no doubt already has one. But what are we to make of the various St. Joseph medals that pop up during the film, including this one, the one in Iraq, and the one in Karras’s dream about the death of his mother? And how did the one in Iraq get there in the first place? Or are they all somehow, mysteriously, the same medal, as Director Friedkin has suggested? In any case, none of the medals really seem important to the plot; their only purposes seems to be to introduce more mysteries into the film.
While many of the scenes in The Exorcist were certainly chilling, even shocking, when the film was first released, familiarity and repeated parody have probably robbed them of some of their shock effect over time. One could also argue that The Exorcist is inherently less terrifying than Rosemary’s Baby precisely because focuses more on supernatural events in which most members are unlikely to believe. It is also the case that Pazuzu does not seem so much bent on a conspiratorial effort at world conquest or triggering the holocaust as on making a few individuals’ lives genuinely miserable, like some sort of really nasty trickster. Granted, the domestic focus of The Exodus, concentrating on the attempts of a mother to shield her daughter from outside threats, provides an avenue that most audiences can identify with. On the other hand, Chris is a rather unconventional mother, doing her best to juggle motherhood and her successful career as an actress. Still, in a review of the 2000 Director’s Cut of the film, Roger Ebert is probably right when he suggests that one of the film’s strengths is the way it sets its horror in midst of the mundane by embedding “the sensational material in an everyday world of misty nights, boozy parties and housekeeping details, chats in a laundry room and the personal lives of the priests.” Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, there are a number of possible allegorical readings of the possession:
“One is tempted to view the possession, which occurs in Regan’s early adolescence, as a sort of metaphor for puberty, making Regan’s plight something of an analog for the emergence of feminine sexuality (if one focuses on her gender) or just an analog for the famously crazed behavior of teenagers in general (if one focuses on her age). Mostly though, The Exorcist is such a powerful and visceral assault that it is rather pointless to attribute any meaning beyond what appears on the screen” (Booker, Superpower 137).
As Murray Leeder puts it, “The Exorcist was as dependent on sensationalism and ballyhoo as a William Castle gimmick film” (Horror Film 59). It is thus, in many ways, more the forerunner of the later turn to slash and gore in the horror film over the coming decades than it is the successor to the more thoughtful effort of Rosemary’s Baby. Kim Newman calls The Exorcist a “cinematic dead-end” because it failed to inspire a string of important successors in the possession film genre (Nightmare Movies 62). I would agree in the sense that he means it. That did, it did not become the progenitor to a rich new crop of possession/exorcism films. But I would also argue that the film laid the groundwork for the turn to bloodier and more violent horror in the years to come in subgenres other than the possession film, and is in that sense an important historical landmark in the evolution of horror film.
Booker, M. Keith. Superpower: Heroes, Ghosts, and the Paranormal in American Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
Cade, Octavia J. “Sifting Science: Stratification and The Exorcist.” Horror Studies 7.1 (2016): 61–72.
Frentz, T. S. and Farrell, T. B. “Conversion of America’s Consciousness: The Rhetoric of The Exorcist.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.1 (1975): 40–47.
Leeder, Murray. Horror Film: A Critical Introduction. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Newman, Kim. Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
Romano, Aja. “The History of Satanic Panic in the US — And Why It’s Not Over Yet.” Vox (October 30, 2016). https://www.vox.com/2016/10/30/13413864/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-explained. Accessed March 23, 2019.
Rueda, Sergio. Diabolical Possession and the Case Behind the Exorcist: An Overview of Scientific Research with Interviews with Witnesses and Experts. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.
Semmerling, Tim Jon. Evil Arabs in American Popular Film: Orientalist Fear. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Travers, Peter. “The Exorcist.” Rolling Stone (September 22, 2000). https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/the-exorcist-249742/. Accessed March 5, 2019.
 The Exorcist was nominated for ten Oscar, including Best Picture. It won two, for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound.
 This campaign included carefully circulated rumors about deaths and accidents befalling those involved in the production of the film, with the implication that the production might have been cursed. It even capitalized over concerns about the ordeals suffered by young Linda Blair during production by fabricating stories that she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of those ordeals.
 For an in-depth discussion of this case, see Rueda.
 See Semmerling’s chapter on The Exorcist for a detailed account of the film’s Orientalism.
 See Cade for a discussion of the ways in which archaeology and medicine are treated as parallel examples of the scientific method in the film.
 Still another famous stunt, in which Regan spider-walks down the stairs of the MacNeil home, deleted in the original theatrical cut, was added at exactly the one-hour mark for the 2000 Director’s Cut version of the film that was released to DVD. However, the doctors attempt to explain even the spider walk as resulting from natural causes.
 Fairly soon after Dennings’ death, Chris discovers a crucifix that someone left in Regan’s room. The source of this crucifix remains one of the film’s unexplained mysteries. There is, however, some reason to believe that Dennings had brought the crucifix to the room, enraging Pazuzu and leading to Dennings’ death.
 Director Friedkin has stated his belief that Merrin also battled Pazuzu in the African exorcism.