The marketing for most horror movies is almost comically overblown. More than a few substandard schlockfests have promised fainting audience members, people running from the theater screaming, weird mantras of telling oneself that it’s only a movie…it’s only a movie… But the reason why such nonsense exists is because of that vast body of bad movies trying to chase the terror invoked by the truly unnerving masterpieces they emulate. Because there are those rare few that do manage to get under the skin of an entire populace so effectively that they get banned in certain countries, are credited for causing heart attacks and miscarriages and cause a horror phenomenon so profound that even psychiatric journals try to name the precise reaction such films provoke. This is a movie that crosses lines audiences didn’t know were there to be crossed, and creates a distinct sense of unease that even those inured to the most gruesome, cruel, sadistic and disturbed specimens of horror entertainment still find this one a kind of cinematic no-go zone. Even now, nearly half a century later, the Exorcist has lost none of its power, and it likely never will.
The story takes place in Georgetown, D.C., where single actress Chris MacNeil is raising her 12-year-old daughter Regan, who is sweet and kind and completely unaware of the torment about to befall her. After playing with a Ouija board, Regan begins to exhibit increasingly strange and obscene behavior that soon exceeds Chris’s ability to manage. As she reaches her wit’s end, trapped with a daughter she needs to save—but from what?—she has the girl undergo a battery of tests, all to no avail. When Regan’s case reaches the outer edge of science, the idea of an exorcism is raised by her doctors in the hope that maybe it will produce a psychosomatic effect sufficient enough to calm Regan down. Psychiatrist and priest Father Damien Karras is called in for the job and it takes him no time at all to realize that Regan is suffering from an actual demonic possession. He calls in his mentor, the elderly Father Merrin—whose encounter with a statue of the demon Pazuzu years earlier make him the ideal ally in the battle to come. Together, Merrin and Karras square off with the greatest evil they have ever witnessed, armed only with their faith that somehow, they can compel the darkness within Regan to willingly vacate its helpless host. Never has there been such an internecine battleground. And never has a war for so much occupied so little space. In this most intimate of contests between good and evil, there can be only one winner. And those who lose, lose their souls.
This is the kind of movie that gets more intense the older one gets. As a teenager, still riding high on delusions of immortality, the Exorcist might not come off as especially horrific. After all, there are no real jump scares in it. There’s not a whole lot of gore. There is not a lot of death. There aren’t even a lot of special effects, and what effects there are represent only what filmmakers could get away with in 1973. In many respects, this is almost like some kind of medical drama about a sick girl cooped up in her bedroom while the adults all worry that she’s not going to get better.
But the story is much more than this, of course. Much, much more. A good portion of the movie’s power comes from one’s parental urge to protect children, which Regan’s mom personifies. Her terror and helplessness before Regan’s possession go hand in hand. If you have ever talked to a parent who has not harbored some deep fear about something hurting their child and not being able to do anything about it, then that person might just be lying about having had kids at all. And it only gets worse as the movie goes on; the more we see Regan endure the agonies Pazuzu inflicts upon her, the more we remember that this is an innocent 12-year-old girl being victimized. And there just isn’t a whole lot more horrifying than that.
One does not need to be particularly devout to find the contest between Pazuzu, Karras and Merrin deeply disturbing. It’s not just how the demon abuses little Regan. It is the joy it derives from doing so, and in how it stubbornly refuses to concede to the forces of goodness that confront it. If there is one thing we see during the Exorcist, it is that evil never gets tired. Evil never quits. Evil always persists. Evil never just goes away, which is why it must be confronted with all our strength. Because anything less than that will never, ever prevail.
And yet, there is a strange hope built into this movie’s endless horrors. Early on, as we grasp the full extent of Regan’s possession, we see the words HELP ME appear on her stomach in the form of scars; a clear sign that no, she’s not insane. She is possessed. And if somebody doesn’t save her, nobody will. That’s pretty intense to take in. But when we stop and walk back from this, something becomes clear. For all its power, Pazuzu still can’t stop Regan from reaching out for help. Pazuzu cannot just take over anyone. It can only take over the weak and unwary, the frail and the fearful. There is a reason why it inhabits Regan and not her mother. There is a reason why it can laugh at Karras and not Merrin. There is a reason why it is not simply roaming the streets and bathing them in blood. This evil is as dark as it gets, but just like every other kind of evil, it is just a bully. Everyone is stronger than even the greatest of demons. They just need someone to remind them of that, and to believe.