3/14/11 - the exorcist

In today's excerpt - The Exorcist. William Blatty's 1971 novel The Exorcist, and the 1973 movie based on it, was about an actress's daughter wracked by involuntary convulsions and whose mother, when doctors prove powerless to treat her, resorts to the services of an exorcist. It exploded across the American scene in large part because it captured the trauma and profound unease of its time—intentionally reflecting such themes as Vietnam, campus dissent, the breakdown of the family and religion, the abortion debate, the Manson murders, and the Arab oil crisis:

"Critics from the Wall Street Journal to Moscow's Isvestia were appalled, but audiences were overwhelmed by the result. As newspapers reported viewers fainting, Americans lined up to see what all the fuss was about, and then queued to see it all again. ...

"By March 1974, the film had sold 6 million tickets in the United States and was poised to sweep the world. ... The scale of the reaction suggests that the film—like William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same name, and on which it was based—had hit a nerve. The Exorcist touched on issues that were all too alive for the world of 1973. ...

"Blatty's novel is explicit about the manifestations of evil in the modern world. ... In late 1969 the world learned that American troops had massacred some 200 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. The war in Vietnam had become a perverse pseudo-industrial enterprise in which units were rewarded for their 'body count' like insurance salesmen reaching their targets. It was this aspect of the war that attracted Blatty's attention. His epigram for part three of his novel came from a 1969 edition of Newsweek: 'a [Vietnam] brigade commander once ran a contest to rack up his unit's 10,000th kill; the prize was a week of luxury in the colonel's own quarters.'

"The novel also alludes to what many Americans still regarded as the 'original sin' of the era: the murder of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In an early chapter the child Regan visits Kennedy's grave, and a Georgetown church, introduced as the site of JFK's marriage, is the scene of revolting desecrations (apparently perpetrated by Regan under demonic control). Blatty sought to draw these disparate manifestations of evil—crime, Communism, genocide, war and assassination—together into a cohesive presence. The demon of The Exorcist was the result. ...

"The screen adaptation of The Exorcist ... revolves around 'social evils', the foremost of these being inter-generational conflict. The Exorcist found the US divided as never before along generational lines. The world of the young, whose language and culture openly defied the past, was increasingly a closed book to older Americans. College campuses across the country had erupted in protests against the war in Vietnam, culminating in the shooting of protesters at Kent State University, Ohio, in May 1970. This background is evoked in early scenes of The Exorcist in which we learn that Regan's mother is an actress in a film portraying campus dissent. She is seen begging an angry crowd of students to 'work within the system'. The theme of a young girl's transformation into a demon-possessed beast played with America's growing fear of its youth. The girl is named Regan in an allusion to one of literature's original 'thankless children' in Shakespeare's King Lear. Yet the film also touches a second nerve: the guilt of the middle-aged over the neglect of their parents. The priest, Father Karras, is wracked by guilt after seeing his mother committed to a mental hospital. His guilt becomes a principal avenue of attack for the demon during their climactic confrontation. ...

"Blatty's story clearly reflects contemporary fears over the breakdown of the family. Regan is the child of a 'broken marriage'. Her mother is caught up in her career and alternates neglect with cloying over-compensation. The early manifestations of the demon as an 'imaginary friend' seem like a substitute for the girl's absent father. A different sort of Father restores the situation. Beyond this The Exorcist plays on the guilt of women moving into the work-place and 'usurping the masculine role'. To this end, the mother is given a male name: Chris. The events that follow beg to be read as a punishment for nothing more than being a woman of her time. ...

"The Exorcist also played on concerns over reproduction that had surfaced during the preceding decade. The 1960s had seen shocking images of birth defects resulting from the drug Thalidomide, sharpening fears of giving birth to the 'monstrous'; it had also seen an intense debate over the issue of abortion, which reached its climax in January 1973 with the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade. The murderous, possessed child Regan can be read as a projection of the guilt of a generation that had conceded that legal abortion was a necessity. The abortion debate had turned on the issue of a woman's right to control her own body. ...

"The use of Georgetown was significant. The district, close to the heart of Washington DC, was inseparable from American political power; a senator is among the guests at Chris's ritzy party. Chris and her circle add a cultural dimension to this power: her life is shown splashed on the cover of Photoplay magazine. The murder of film star Sharon Tate by Charles Manson in 1969 gave the 'evil hits Hollywood star' scenario a chilling topicality. Beyond this, an 'enemy within' the American movie industry was a favorite theme of isolationists before the Second World War and of anti-Communists after it. Blatty's story flirts with this same notion. Indeed, Father Merrin's warning to beware of the demon's voice as it mixes lies with truth is exactly the sort of thing President Nixon had begun to say about the American media as it probed the breaking story of Watergate. ...

"The Iraqi prologue ...  anticipates a phobia that would become a fixed part of American popular culture from the 1970s onwards: fear of the Arab world. ... The release of The Exorcist coincided with a new low in US relations with that region. With Middle Eastern oil producers doubling prices overnight on December 23rd, 1973, it was already clear that more than one demon could be released from the sands of Arabia."


Nick Cull


"The Exorcist"


History Today


2000, Volume 50, Issue 5
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment