I was around ten, big for my age, but not big enough to sneak into the La Scala and watch The Exorcist. The media warned us—don’t go. Rather than see it, there was talk of church boycotts and a spate of suicides. And those that did see it fainted, spewed up, or went insane. But my sister was made of stronger stuff. Jo even smoked and drank vodka. She wasn’t eighteen, but there was a buzz about the film that made it a rite of passage.
We heard, of course, about the highlights. Regan (Linda Blair) poking herself with a crucifix and her head turning back to front like a piegon while spouting green goo. This was a step up from Christopher Lee as Dracula, who hung about open windows, waiting for the lady of the house to arrange her negligee so her big boobs were showing, before inviting him inside to bit her on the neck and leave two pin-prick marks. It wasn’t safe to go to bed without a crucifix. Being Catholics, of course, we’d more crucifixes that the average American had household personal guns. And if my wee brother was sleeping, I could set him out as a tasty snack, with a big arrow pointing to the room next door, where my two sisters were more than a match for Dracula. Just let him try laying a fang on them.
The Devil, of course, was a different matter. Atheists could poo-poo the existence of ghosts, or use logic to prove that God didn’t exist, but you’d need to be mad not to believe in the devil’s existence. Wherever sex was, he was sure to follow. Ironically, the swinging sixties saw a surge in numbers to religious institutions. The Exorcist was a reminder of the good old days when good was good and evil was truly evil, and nobody abused anybody in their beds.
When, for example, Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) asks Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on his daughter, he quips, that he could, but he’d have to find a time machine and whisk them both back to the sixteenth century.
Father Karras is having his own Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of The Cross) and doubts if he can continue being a priest. If he believes in God. This is centred on his Italian Mama, who is ill and lives alone. He thinks he should be caring for her in her last days. When she’s taken into hospital, his uncle, her mother’s brother, remonstrates with him there’s nothing they can do. They haven’t got the money for private care. He asks, Who’s going to take care of her? – you?
Father Karras has no answers, but as well as being a priest and psychiatrist, he’s a keen amateur boxer. Lt. Kinderman (Lee J Cobb) buttonholes him on the track. He’s investigating a strange death on a stairway, outside Regan’s window. Chris MacNeil’s boyfriend fell down those stairs, his head turned back to front. Father Karras might know something about that, he hints, some wayward priest with a grudge. After all, there’d also been the desecration of the church.
Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) brings the storylines together. The film begins with his architectural digs and ancient demons. When Father Karras tries to tell him about Regan’s medical history, Merrin tells him none of these things matter. He’s Peter Cushing’s Doctor van Helsing hunting down Dracula to his lair. Instead of a brace of wooden stakes in his hand: a worn Bible. Father Karras follows the formula: Good versus Evil. God versus the Devil.
The Prodigy (2019) a horror film directed by Nicholas McCarthy, and written by Jeff Buhler gives this formula a twist. A child at birth is inhabited by the soul of a Hungarian born mass murderer, who’d relocated to the United States. The battle for the body is the battle for the soul.
In The Exorcist this is shown graphically with the words ‘help me’ appearing on her abdomen, underneath the skin for her mother to read. Twelve-year-old Regan is innocent, but the devil has taken her.
We all know how it ends in a boxing match. Father Karras knocking the living hell out of twelve-year-old Regan and the devil inside her. ‘Take me,’ his invitation accepted. One for the other. Broken in body (Eucharistic rites: this is my body, broken for you), but time enough for Confession and repentance. The Catholic Church 1—0 Devil nil.
Watching the film, forty years later, you see how run down New York is. This is the Nixon era. There’s rather a corny scene when Chis MacNeil goes up into the attic to investigate what she thinks are rats. She has a torch, which doesn’t work. Instead, she lights a candle. The traps for mice lie empty. The candle flares up and just as suddenly goes out. The real surprise is the caretaker appearing, immediately, with a torch. That’s what you call service. Things were better in those days. Servants could anticipate your every need. They even knew when the devil was going to flare up and stand ready with battery power.
Roe versus Wade, 1973, the year of The Exorcist. Nostalgic religious porn. The rise of the religious right. The election of the demonic moron’s moron backed by the religious right. 2021, the squashing of Roe versus Wade. Peter Cushing or Father Karras, we need you to put one on the evil ginger quiff and pink-faced one spouting green goo and household cures by injecting common disinfectant? Evil lurks—still.