‘Not Against Flesh and Blood’: 50 Years of ‘The Exorcist’

FILM ANALYSIS: ‘The dragon went elsewhere to make war on the rest of her children.’

Jason Miller and Max von Sydow portray priests in ‘The Exorcist.’
Jason Miller and Max von Sydow portray priests in ‘The Exorcist.’ (photo: Unknown; likely a still photographer employed or hired by Warner Bros. Cropped and edited slightly by Daniel Case prior to upload; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years after its release, the director of The Exorcist died.

At the time of the making of the horror movie, William Friedkin was a self-confessed secular Jew. By his death at the age of 87, it was reported that he “strongly believe[d] in the teachings of Jesus.”

Cinema is often strangely prophetic.

Films appear to come from nowhere and yet eerily predict — or usher in — the future, manifesting whatever spirit of the age is moving.

Consider the rash of horror movies that both heralded and ran in parallel with Germany’s Weimar Republic. They seemed to point to a greater horror hovering in the wings: one clutching a swastika. In the 1960s, Psycho (1960) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962), with their themes of mindless murder and assassination, seemed to foreshadow the darkest currents then swirling around American society and which would by the end of the decade move mainstream.

If this is the case when it comes to certain movies, what are we to make of the timing of The Exorcist?

By 1973, when The Exorcist was released, the horror genre, whose popularity had revived in the 1960s, had fallen into repetition and parody. Audiences were bored by endless Dracula- or Frankenstein-themed films, and critics, who had never been fans of the genre, were bored beyond belief.

In any event, from the late 1960s on, film studios and their audiences had turned away from the highly fictionalized world of the Gothic to embrace the brutal naturalism of New Hollywood. In the early 1970s, filmmaking in Hollywood was all about “authenticity,” purported to be the capturing on celluloid of unvarnished reality; this became an era where cinematic realism ruled.

This makes the appearance and later success of The Exorcist all the more surprising. Its director had just come off the back of a huge hit with both critics and box office, namely The French Connection (1971). This film’s unromantic and at times vicious depiction of crime and law enforcement fit perfectly with New Hollywood, and Friedkin duly received an Oscar for his efforts, one of many Oscars awarded to that movie.

Following such acclaim, Friedkin could have made any film he liked. And yet, he made a film about a possessed child, two Catholic priests and a ritual that many contemporary Catholics thought no longer existed: namely, the rite of exorcism. The result, as we know, proved to be just as huge a hit at the box office as had The French Connection.

Audiences lined up at movie theaters across the United States to buy tickets to see The Exorcist in the winter of 1973. Other than Rosemary’s Baby (1967), this was the first Hollywood movie to move successfully from the horror genre into the mainstream. In fact, these two films bear comparing.

Both The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby were made by directors (Friedkin and Roman Polanski) who did not believe in any supernatural evil: something central to the plot of both films. Both movies are about children. The reality of the devil is affirmed in both — not as some vague psychological construct but as an all-too-real diabolic entity. In Rosemary’s Baby, evil triumphs; in The Exorcist, it is unclear who or what triumphs — at least, so it may have seemed to audiences when the movie was released.

Based on William Peter Blatty’s 1971 best-selling novel of the same name, Friedkin’s movie version was deemed suitable only for adults, not least because of its garish elements, obscenities and sickening blasphemies. Looked at today, there is one curious aspect within the plot of The Exorcist, however. That is that the drama is not so much the exorcism itself as the relationship between the two Jesuit priests to whom the mother of the possessed child turns for aid. The younger of the two priests, Jesuit Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), is the quintessential cleric from the early 1970s: a priest, seemingly without faith, who questions what the Church teaches on matters of faith. He also seems to be in a personal crisis, questioning his own vocation.

Needless to say, on the existence of the devil, he is agnostic and even more doubtful about whether there are any circumstances that would call for an exorcism to be performed. Needless to say, Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), the older of the two priests, is cut from a very different cloth, from an older fabric woven from the threads of Tradition and Scripture. He knows exactly what — or, more precisely, who — he has been called in to do battle with in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

One of the most telling lines in the movie comes when the agnostic mother, frantic with worry about her daughter’s behavior, enquires of Father Karras about the possibility of exorcism.

“I’d have to get into a time machine and get back to the 16th century,” he replies. Yet, while on his way to the exorcism that follows, he asks if Father Merrin wishes to review the psychiatric notes of the young woman in question. By way of reply, the older priest asks, “Why?”

From his first involvement in the case, Father Merrin recognizes exactly the nature of the combat and, more precisely, who is the adversary. Instead of perusing notes derived from some human thinking, the older priest instructs the younger priest to make ready for what is to come by fetching sacerdotal vestments, holy water and a copy of the Rituale Romanum. Despite the liturgical changes that had, at the time, recently been introduced by the Church, the exorcism ritual still in use in the 1970s was the same as had been used for centuries; and it would remain in use until the new rite of exorcism was issued in 1999.

In this scenario, it is clear who is the more authentic priest. It is the one who believes in what the Church has always taught on the reality of the devil and who strives to act as a priest in the situation presented should, namely, rid the distressed family of what plagues it.

In contrast, the audience watches as the younger priest prevaricates and philosophizes. By the end, it is clear that Father Merrin is a Catholic priest, while Father Karras appears but a tired counterfeit.

Eight years before the release of The Exorcist, in December 1965, the Second Vatican Council ended. Some heralded the moment as the beginning of a new “springtime” within the Church; for others, it was the coming of night. Whatever the merits of either position, there can be little doubt that in the confusion in the Church that followed the Council it seemed that there were many who preferred not to emphasize the supernatural in preference for more “relevant social questions.” The reality of the devil was quietly dropped, gently set aside in order to emphasize a different “gospel”: one that was just in time for — and just as bogus — as the so-called 1967 “Summer of Love” and all the “flowers” that sprouted from that era.

In light of this, that Hollywood should make a film, a serious one at that, about an article of faith, namely belief in the reality of the devil, was, to say the least, unexpected. At movie theaters around the world The Exorcist proclaimed an eternal truth — widely neglected or ignored by the Church at that time — namely, the existence of the devil. While being interviewed about his new film, its agnostic director was asked what the movie was really “about.” His reply: “the mystery of faith.”

Friedkin was right.

That is exactly what this film is about, but it is only half the story.

Let us return to where we started and the idea of the prophetic nature of film.

The Exorcist was released in December 1973. In January of that same year, Roe v. Wade had been adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whereas in Rosemary’s Baby the devil had attacked the mother figure, in The Exorcist it was the child who was under attack. In both movies, the plan of the Evil One is clearly delineated: to denigrate, degrade, and ultimately destroy the mother and child presented in the films.

Maybe it is that mysterious aspect of the nature of our faith to which Friedkin referred? Namely, the never-ending struggle, as detailed in Chapter 12 of the Book of the Revelation, between those in darkness and the disciples of light. One between the devil and the faithful of the Church, who, engaged in this life-and-death struggle, are so doing while “holding [to] the mystery of faith in a pure conscience …” (1 Timothy 3:9).