How ‘The Exorcist’ Redefined the Horror Genre

Arnold T. Blumberg
Horror TV
Horror TV Movies
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On April 8, 1966, Time magazine published what would become one of its most famous (infamous?) cover stories: “Is God Dead?” A deep exploration of the state of religion in America at that time, the issue intrigued and offended many and set the stage for a rise in spiritually-themed horror that dared to confront some of our most cherished cultural convictions. When Rosemary’s Baby arrived in 1968 — adapting the 1967 novel and featuring a scene in which the titular mother-to-be peruses that very issue of Time — the message seemed clear. The answer was “yes,” and the Devil was victorious.

A Permanent Pop Culture Fixture

But it was The Exorcist in 1973 — based on a 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty — that may have just provided the most positive and powerful answer to Time’s question and defined the subgenre of spiritual horror for decades to come. The Exorcist has become a permanent fixture in pop culture, with its many iconic visuals (the poster image of a priest standing under a streetlight and ready to combat evil alone has been evoked countless times), memorable lines of dialogue, and even the ethereal eeriness of Mike Oldfield’s composition Tubular Bells, part of which became as famous as the film’s theme music. Regularly dubbed the scariest movie ever made, The Exorcist casts a substantial shadow over cinema history, but perhaps most significantly of all, it posits a world in which God is most definitely alive and well…if not always there to immediately save the innocent from torment.

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Despite taking viewers on a nerve-wracking roller-coaster ride of demonic proportions, the film manages to convey an extremely positive message for those with spiritual conviction. After all, the very idea that the Catholic rite of exorcism could work against an actual demon attempting to gain control of a girl’s soul confirms that these things are true; therefore, God too must be real. The result is a film that, while horrific, tells the faithful that they are right.

The power of that affirmation may be part of why the film has gone on to become such a landmark of terror long after the initial reaction was a bit mixed. The Exorcist was directed by William Friedkin from Blatty’s own screenplay adaptation of his book, which was in turn inspired by a true story concerning the 1949 exorcism of a young boy in St. Louis. The film starred Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Jason Miller, Linda Blair as a 12-year-old girl named Regan plagued by Pazuzu the invading demon, and Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the possessed Regan. Garnering a range of good to bad reviews but performing very well at the box office, the movie is still one of the top grossers of all time and the first horror movie to get a Best Picture Academy Award nomination in addition to nine other nods, winning two for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing (the scene with the bone-chilling voices on the recording alone deserves the statue).

This is not to say that the film or the resulting pop-culture-fueled beliefs about exorcism were entirely accurate despite being so quickly embraced by the public. Although Americans went through a period of intense fascination about the very idea of priests battling for the souls of their flock against all manner of demonic hordes, the truth about exorcism was a bit more nuanced. The Exorcist did depict the 1614 Roman Ritual, which underwent a number of modern revisions, with a reasonable level of authenticity, but sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed some discrepancies. For example, at one point, the possessed Regan reacts with pain to “holy water” that was definitely not blessed, creating a shred of doubt about the veracity of the situation. Or is that just a demon up to its old tricks, trying to rattle the confidence of the faithful?

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Regardless of the occasional logical disconnect, some of the movie’s jarring imagery, both subtle (flashes of demonic faces not quite subliminally inserted into scenes) and overt (Regan masturbating with a cross and using profane language, or twisting her head around 360 degrees and spewing steaming bile on a priest) was instantly burned into the public consciousness. Stories of bizarre incidents surrounded the making of the film, building the legend of a “curse” on the entire production, as well as tales of violent and sickened reactions from those in the theater proliferated, dominating newspaper coverage and ensuring that The Exorcist would not be soon forgotten. And no one looked at pea soup the same way ever again.

The Film Becomes a Franchise

In the end, Pazuzu may not have retained control of Regan, but the demon’s influence has been felt ever since throughout our media, and most certainly in the local cinema. During the last 43 years, there have been five sequels to the original 1973 film. Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) also achieved a degree of infamy, but not because it was an effective follow-up. The movie, with Linda Blair returning to the role of the once-possessed Regan and joined by powerhouse talents like Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher, was a massive flop and remains a curio for those that like to subject themselves to one of the worst movies ever made. Many years later, Exorcist III (1990) replaced the late Lee J. Cobb with George C. Scott as Inspector Kinderman, with Jason Miller returning as well. This installment has built a strong cult following, with a recent re-release on Blu-ray restoring a cut of the film using footage long considered lost.

And then there’s the convoluted story of the next sequel, whose production went so askew that it eventually led to the release of two completely separate films. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004) and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005) shared a star (Stellan Skarsgard) but very little footage, as the latter film directed by Paul Schrader was nearly entirely reshot by Renny Harlin when the studio thought Dominion wouldn’t perform well. When The Beginning failed to find an audience, Dominion was released after all, and fans continue to debate the relative merits of the alternative productions. Whole books could be written about this debacle, but suffice to say these films are mere footnotes in the long legacy of the original film and its effect on pop culture. Most recently, a FOX television series has extended the saga, demonstrating without question that there is life in the old demon yet.

As for other explorations of exorcism outside The Exorcist franchise itself, few stories have ever come close to matching the true impact of Friedkin’s film in its perfect blend of horrifying imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and well-drawn, human characters caught up in a supernatural nightmare. Most of these knock-offs and side steps have tended to focus on the exploitative and visceral aspects of the premise, preferring jump scares to genuine emotional development. Nevertheless, movie makers were compelled by the power of box office profits to produce many similar stories of demonic possession and priestly crusaders. Among the many riffs on the premise were such frightful fare as the Italian film Beyond the Door (1974), which also attracted an unsuccessful lawsuit from The Exorcist’s studio, Warner Bros.; the Turkish knock-off Seytan (1974); the Blaxploitation movie Abby (1974), whose success was curtailed by another Warner Bros. lawsuit; the embarrassingly bad but often beloved cult British film The Devil Within Her (1975) starring Joan Collins and Donald Pleasence; and the quickly retooled 1973 Italian film Lisa and the Devil, directed by Mario Bava and then altered into the shoddily constructed 1975 re-release retitled The House of Exorcism for obvious reasons.

A Subgenre Grows

As the ’70s waned, the trend in spiritual horror and demonically-possessed children began to fade, although there were a few significant final entries in the trend. The Omen (1976) boasted the towering Hollywood presence of Gregory Peck, while The Amityville Horror (1979) may or may not feature music in its Academy Award-nominated score originally composed by Lalo Schifrin for The Exorcist (he flatly denied the rumor many times). One could even argue that The Exorcist makes its presence felt in possession and spiritually-connected children tales like The Child (1977) and The Shining (1980).

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And of course, where there is fear, there is also laughter. We frequently need to find humor in horror in order to make the darkest corners of our collective culture palatable to us. The Exorcist generated more than its fair share of iconic moments that have been parodied again and again, especially when it comes to characters vomiting pea soup. Perhaps the most significant, if only because it actually stars Linda Blair herself, is Repossessed (1990), an oft-overlooked but entertaining parody that puts Blair back in bed and ready to spread her evil influence around the world via a live television event. Scary Movie 2 (2001) also took its jabs, but as with most such satire, done with affection and respect for the original.

Cultural Significance

Visual and verbal references to The Exorcist also turn up in everything from TV shows like The Simpsons to advertising campaigns. Recently, there’s been a new surge in spiritual and exorcism-themed horror movies, from Stigmata (1999), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Rite (2011), The Possession (2012). Even the Paranormal Activity series has the 1973 classic in its very demonically-altered DNA, and then there’s the [REC] series, a zombie saga from Spain that expertly wove more scientifically-based tropes from that genre together with that of demonic possession and the threat of Biblical evil.

Some of these films explore the same themes that The Exorcist mined decades earlier, including the clash between science and spirituality. Is the possessed person truly a victim of demonic forces, or are they suffering from a mental or physical illness? Can salvation be found via the application of scientific knowledge and technology, or must we finally turn, as Agent Mulder once said so eloquently in The X-Files, to the fantastic as a plausibility? And as with The Exorcist itself, many of these movies attempt to build their own legend by recounting tales of bizarre happenings on the set or “curses” that befall the production team.

But what does it all mean? Horror is a genre that dares the audience to confront their darkest fears and their most sacred taboos. Dramatizing the invasion of the innocent — mentally, physically, and spiritually — by the essence of evil sets up a struggle that forces audiences to confront the very core of their religious beliefs. Whenever we are going through a time of great cultural strife, our entertainment tends to provide us with a reflection of that crisis while also giving us a means to process and purge that fear. It’s also a classic rendition of the battle between good and evil, with our very souls as the prize. There’s even a bit of fatalism there too, as even in victory we can face a defeat of sorts; after all, it’s a long fall down those stairs. And through it all, perhaps in some way, our culture is still on a crusade to seek answers to the deeper mysteries, to search for comfort and even salvation where we are most accustomed to finding it: not at church or at home, but in that darkened movie theater.

The power of The Exorcist still compels us all, and it surely will continue to do so for many years to come.

The Exorcist TV series currently airs Wednesdays at 9pm on Syfy in the UK.

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