The Exorcist: A Horror Freak Show
Mrs. MacNiel and Regan
Disgust, shock and revulsion were the reactions expressed by movie patrons as they exited the theater. They absolutely had to tell their friends, many of whom could not fathom such abominations, and most decidedly would want to see it also. This is an old story. The film was, Freaks (1933), and similar scenarios had played out in any number of circus and county fair, “freak shows”, dating back over a century. Exploitation in all manner of maladies and malformations of unfortunate humans and other such oddities have generated public curiosity, for perhaps, as long as the public has existed. It is upon this heap of human suffering and indignity, on which, The Exorcist (1973) builds its stature as a, pre-blockbuster era, Hollywood mega-picture.
Today, the film is considered by some as an early essay in realism horror. However, it also presents a convoluted vision of western culture, and more specifically, a disintegration of conventional American society. Some examples of these “freak” or contorted conventions, once formerly banned under censorship restrictions as imposed by the Product Code Administration, include blasphemy upon Christianity and Catholicism. The affront to Christian morality is exhibited in both verbal desecration and iconographical defiling of religious objects. The American family unit is portrayed as in dissolution. Its father figure both absent and uncaring, the single career mother is consumed by material wealth, while the child exists in a world of magical thinking. There is a notion of extreme class division, with little middle ground, as a chasm between rich and poor that exists within western capitalist society. This is depicted through both the bourgeois social strata of the MacNeil’s and the dehumanization of the poverty stricken Father Karras. The MacNeil’s can afford the best medical care for Regan, (Linda Blair) and yet, Father Karras, (Jason Miller) is forced to leave his mother in an ill begotten state institution. Hypocrisy of western medical science is displayed through physicians who smoke cigarettes and are unable to find a cure. They sit powerless in board meetings and despite the litany of testing performed can only suggest “witchcraft” as an alternative. However, the most disturbing of these cinematic sideshow attractions is the sexualizing and profanity used in the exploitation of a minor. Vincent Canby’s review stated, “They’re getting their kicks out of seeing a small girl being tortured and torn, quite literally”, also noting that audience members were inattentive if, “the tormented child on screen was not vomiting bile at the priests, masturbating with a crucifix, screaming obscenities about the young priests dead mother, or, for fun, turning her head 180 degrees to the rear”.
I recall the fervor that surrounded the film’s release in 1973 as a sentiment of catching a glimpse of the unspeakable rather than praise of its stylistic form or production value. Indeed, it was the gross out special effects, which generated excitement and interest in the film. The plot was only of a secondary concern. The public’s strong desire to peer inside the darkened tent and ogle the cinematic oddities resulted in mass box office receipts. It was so financially successful that the film is considered a catalyst of change in American Cinema, Thomas Schatz states, “The Exorcist pushed the logic and limits of the genre to new extremes, resulting in a truly monstrous hit and perhaps the clearest indication of the emergent New Hollywood”.
Realism elements found in The Exorcist aided in its nominations for ten Academy Awards in 1974. This honor was rarely bestowed within the horror genre and the film won two Oscars, one being for Best Sound Design. It is not the cacophony of guttural vocal effects, but rather the absence of sound, as noted by this viewer, which adds to the pseudo realism. The aural depth of the silence creates a spatial perceptual void that positions the spectator for the auditory onslaught of bumps, thumps and the demon voices emitted from the possessed child. This use of silence had previously proven an effective style technique in the film M, (1931) directed by Fritz Lang.
A secondary stylistic form is creative camera movement and its use creates a perceptive discord in the spectator. This occurs during the sequence that Mrs. MacNeil, (Ellen Bertyn) and Lt. William Kinderman, (Lee J. Cobb) are discussing the death of Jack Dennings, (Burke MacGoweran) who has been found with his neck twisted completely around at the bottom of the stairs outside Regan’s bedroom window. The director uses multiple dollies out in a rotational series of cross cut shots, which break the 180 degree rule. This form denotes an unraveling of the fabric within the rational centralized content being discussed in the dialogue. The rational logic is that the murderer would have been a “large strong man” in order to account for the body’s condition. Mrs. MacNeil and Lt. Kinderman are visually separated from the explainable core of their conversation and into a realm of uncertainty. The irrational conclusion being exposed is that Regan, as demonic surrogate and possessed of super human strength, committed the murder. This unexplainable implication is slowly disclosed entirely through use of camera movement.
The Exorcist helped to formulate a pattern through which “New Hollywood” could build audience excitement and attendance. The film was based on a bestseller novel and generated a wide public interest and controversy. The film studio possessed the desire to repeat the success of The Exorcist in the future as they continued to lure patrons into the darkened tent of curiosity.
Canby, Vincent. “Why The Devil Do They Dig ‘The Exorcist’?” The New York Times,
January 13, 1974, accessed January 18, 2013.
Shatz, Thomas. “The New Hollywood.” In The Film Cultures Reader, Edited by Graeme
Turner (New York: Routledge, 2002).