The Exorcist (1973) follows the experiences of 12-year-old girl Regan MacNeil and her actress mother Chris when they move into Georgetown for a film shooting. Due to reasons unknown, Regan begins to behave in a very strange and profane manner. When she begins to harm herself and others around her, Chris starts to seek medical attention. However, every medical and psychological method fails her and she turns to the church to request an exorcism. She ends up meeting Damien Karras, a priest, and psychiatrist who is losing his faith and dealing with a terminally ill mother, and this is where the stories start to merge and true horrors unveil.
In 1971, William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” was published and it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for fifty-seven weeks, at number one for the first seventeen weeks. It sold more than 13 million copies. Two years later, the film adaptation directed by William Friedkin was released and it too became a global sensation. People used to wait in long lines outside theatres in the harsh winter weather for their turn to watch the film. Then there were reports of audience members fainting, vomiting, and even leaving the film screaming and shaking.
Despite mixed reviews and intense reactions, The film was bestowed with countless awards, the most notable was being the first horror film to win an academy award for best picture. Furthermore, out of a list of 101 movies, IMDb rated “The Exorcist” the number one scariest movie ever (2013)
So the question is what made the film so scary and yet so popular that roughly 50 years after its release it continues to haunt us?
Yes, we can consider the fact that the film was inspired by a true story and there were rumors of strange things happening around the set that labeled it as “cursed” but to truly understand how the film left such a lasting impact on its time and then generations to come, we have to look at two things; where the horror genre was and where the American culture was at the time “the Exorcist” was released.
The horror genre found its origin and evolution in great literary works like Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, and Frankenstein. But after these, due to many censorship codes, such as “The Hays code” in America, the horror genre became limited to the thrills of white skeletons and melodramatic parodies. But over the course of the next few decades, things started to shift. American pop culture became interested in the devil and the occult. World War two led the American culture to an identity crisis and for the first time technology allowed people to visually witness the true atrocities of war. Thus the Cinema also started to depict real-life horrors rather than the white picket fence apple pie life.
In the midst of all this a novel called “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin brought the moral panic of the rise of sin and Satanism to the forefront. This novel launched a renewed interest in the horror genre and with that the next two great novels to come were Thomas Tryon’s “The Other” and William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist”
In his book Paperbacks from Hell, Grady Hendrix describes these three novels as the unholy trinity which changed horror on the literary front.
Where Rosemary’s Baby represented the downfall of society and the threats of temptation to adults the Exorcist represented the dangers that posed against the innocent. And that really is what made the film scary. It attacked the very moral fiber of the ruling class of society similar to Dracula which wasn’t really scary on its own but it terrified its audience of the time because it directly attacked the ruling class of England by giving them a sexual deviant of a foreigner coming into their Victorian lands with foreign money and posing as an aristocrat.
The Exorcist, thus with its realism, represented a significant historical victory for horror against the many elitists who didn’t take the genre seriously as a form of artistic expression.
The Historical Significance of the Exorcist
You can only ever truly see how scary something was by looking at it through the historical context.
The Exorcist was released to an audience of people who were predominantly Christian whose children were listening to the bands like Rolling Stones (who glorified Satanism) in a time of alarming increase in drug use and other rebellious acts, these parents were witnessing their children and the country falling down to moral degradation slowly and to them the innocence of the possessed child Regan being turned into this evil demon was the image they could project their own sociological insecurities onto.
“[The Exorcist] is a film about explosive social change, a finely honed focusing point for that entire youth explosion that took place in the late sixties and early seventies. It was a movie for all those parents who felt, in a kind of agony and terror, that they were losing their children and could not understand why or how it was happening” -Stephen King
Now if you see this film in the 21st century with its many advancements in filming and psychological studies in the horror genre, you probably won’t find it half as scary. But that will not stop you from admiring its intricately woven plot, genius cinematography, acting performances, and the imaginative film-making which was way ahead of its time.