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Good vs. Evil in The Exorcist

Updated on August 28, 2014

The Version You've Never Seen

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Good vs. Evil in The Exorcist

It might be said on the simplest of levels that the 1973 film The Exorcist is about a little girl who becomes possessed by a demon and is then purged of this demon through an exorcism conducted by two priests. But to go beyond plot summary and find out what the movie really has to say or what the point of it all is, one has to dig deeper. According to director William Friedkin at least, the film is really about, “the constant struggle within all of us … of goodness and evil” (The Exorcist Audio Commentary). That battle and its outcome, therefore, are central to an understanding of the movie. In order to analyze this battle it is necessary to establish what in this film constitutes “good”; what constitutes “evil”; and perhaps most importantly: which side wins? For Friedkin the outcome was clear: “goodness triumphs over evil” (The Exorcist Audio Commentary) but whether or not that is the case requires a clear overview of the facts. To reveal what the movie portrays as evil, this account will analyze what elements the movie uses to provoke fear in the audience—and to reveal what the movie portrays as good, this account will analyze the figures that stand against these elements of terror. The film could not create such terror if the ideas it was talking about were nebulous and completely beyond the experience and setting of the average audience member, so it’s important to see both how the film grounds its supernatural features in Biblical accounts and supposedly real cases of exorcism, and how it exploits the historical and social fears of its time. The treatment of science is of particular interest in this film, because it is used in many different and often contradictory ways: to be fearsome, painful and malicious; to be toothless and ultimately feeble; and to be an inextricable element of the figures in this movie that represent good. Finally, this paper will look at what happens in the aftermath of the clash between good and evil and determine the results of the conflict. The version of this film that will be used for this analysis is the 2000 rerelease known as “The Version You’ve Never Seen” which contains eleven minutes of scenes and images that were cut from the original 1973 release of the movie and also contains a commentary track from William Friedkin. The original book by William Peter Blatty will be referenced only minimally, with the main focus on the film. This analysis will not extend to sequels of either the book or the movie.

Something frequently exploited in the press concerning this film was its supposed basis on a true story. In the National Catholic Reporter article “‘The Exorcist’ Fairly Close to the Mark” this original case is described as happening to a thirteen-year-old boy in Mount Rainer who became possessed by a demon which was exorcised out of him. Many of the details from that case, such as the child’s use of a Ouija board, strange sounds within the house, flying objects and levitation were incorporated into the original book and the movie that followed (7). It is important for the success of the film that the audience members see the possession of the little girl, Regan, not as an imagined and impossible scenario, but as a very real possibility. It makes the terror more personal and less abstract.

Of course, even without the use of the rare modern cases of exorcism, the audience would still have the Biblical cases of exorcism from the New Testament to consider. In Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jesus heals many people who are said to be demon-possessed (including children). He not only exorcises the demons himself, but he appoints his followers to do the same, saying, “these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons” (Mark 16:17). There’s a rather curious quirk to Jesus’s encounters with the demons he drives out which S. Vernon McCasland talks about in his article “The Demonic ‘Confessions’ of Jesus.” Very frequently the demons will identify Jesus as being the messiah—the question is why? McCasland dismisses the idea that the demons are meant to represent a testimony of Jesus’s divinity (surely there are more reliable sources on hand than hell-spawn?). Instead he posits that in doing so the demons are putting up a verbal struggle, working on, “the widely prevalent belief that if one knows the name—the identity—of a person or spirit, one has stripped him of his power, has rendered him impotent and harmless” (33-34). This type of verbal struggle is something that comes up in The Exorcist, along with the demon using the names (and, more broadly, prior knowledge) of the priests fighting against it in order to attack them.

Jesus healing a demon-possessed man.
Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. | Source

The demon takes up the central position of horror in this movie, both in its grotesque invasion of Regan and as a lurking spiritual presence in her home through the use of semi-subliminal flashes of its face. However, the demon is certainly not the film’s only monster. The world of The Exorcist is ugly and uncertain. Nick Cull has examined the historical and social context of the film and book in great detail and noted its use of the issues of the day. “The story,” he explains, “broke in a time of crisis. … Spy scandals and labor disputes raised the specter of a Communist enemy within” (47). This kind of paranoia dovetails perfectly into the fears The Exorcist brings up—the idea that anyone, even an adorable twelve-year-old girl, could secretly harbor pure evil within her. Cull’s article also brings up the “intergenerational conflict” in the film (48). Regan’s mother is an actress, and in the scene she plays in the movie-within-a-movie she is a teacher arguing with a bunch of rioting college students over the destruction of a building. In The Exorcist the youth are, in the case of the college students, an unruly mob, and in the case of Regan, a carrier of the devil. Middle-aged Father Karras’s neglect of his elderly mother is also on full display, and his guilt about her death is perhaps what comes to define him the most in the film.

Scenes of poverty and chaos pervade his storyline. When he goes to New York to visit his mother he first comes across a homeless man begging for money in the subway (a setting which will, by the way, later be used as a symbol for hell) and then walks through a poor neighborhood with delinquent kids jumping up and down on junky cars. When Father Karras visits his mother and tends to her broken leg, he finds that she is capable of little more than sitting in a chair and listening to the radio all day. She fondly tells him that his uncle visited her… last month. In the end, without Karras taking care of her, she winds up in the Psych Ward of a hospital. “Why would you do this to me?” his mother pleads of him, refusing to talk to him any further. She dies soon after that, and Karras feels that her death is his fault. Not only that, but the movie almost seems to say that her death is God’s fault. As Karras’s uncle points out, if Karras had been a private psychiatrist instead of working as a priest, he would’ve had the money to take care of his mother better.

The film can also be seen as provoking fears of a breakdown of the family, with much of the blame placed on the mother. Regan’s parents are separated and, “her mother is caught up in her career and alternates neglect with cloying over-compensation” (Cull 48). In this way, the film functions as part of a backlash against feminism. The scene in which Regan’s neglecting father fails to call her on her birthday, and her mother shouts profanities at him over the phone is played for maximum trauma as the picture pans out to show Regan leaning against the door and taking in every word. Changing the possessed child from a boy, as in the original case, to a girl makes this all the more clear. Regan literally becomes a monstrous female and the horror associated with her femaleness is most distinctly demonstrated during the scene in which she stabs a crucifix into her vagina.

Even in the midst of all these things that the film deems social evils, the monster that probably deserves second-billing to the demon itself would have to be the ambiguous specter of science. Regan’s mother assembles a team of doctors in order to discover what’s wrong with her little girl and in the course of their treatment they try many different drugs and medical tests on her. Two medical procedures—an arteriogram and a pneumoencephalogram—are shown in gruesome detail. According to the director, some consider the arteriogram scene the most disturbing one in the entire film. A doctor sticks a needle into Regan’s neck, blood shoots out before they stick a tube in to inject her blood with a dye; then a large machine encircles her, scanning her brain. Regan is conscious and clearly in pain throughout the procedure. The pneumoencephalogram machines are even noisier and more frightening to the girl… and frightening to the audience.

Of course, science functions in some ways as an adversary to religion when dealing with Regan—does she need a doctor or a priest? In some ways, the film pulls no punches, leaves no ambiguity about whether Regan is possessed or simply disturbed. Regan predicts the death of an astronaut, knows things about Father Karras before he tells her anything, makes things move without touching them, levitates (your wires are showing, Exorcist), and finally the spirit within her goes into Karras. Yes, there are many things about her condition that could be explained by her bad family situation or a psychotic break. Even her increased strength and flexibility is somewhat explainable through her extreme emotions and lack of restraint (a 360° head turn is pushing it though), but the psychic phenomenon makes it look as though there is no other explanation besides demon possession. Director William Friedkin actually helps to provide one, though, saying that it’s legitimate to ask if people in such extreme situations and “in a heightened state” are seeing things that are really there—in other words, it’s possible to view the supernatural elements as a shared delusion suggested by Regan’s own assertion that she is possessed (The Exorcist Audio Commentary). Indeed, the film does at times seem dreamlike, with images of the demon flashing on screen so quickly they can hardly be registered—interrupting the normal flow of reality and taking place on some other plane.

One of the semi-subliminal images of the demon from the movie.
One of the semi-subliminal images of the demon from the movie.

This division of interpretations as to whether Regan is possessed or suffering some mental illness would seem to split down philosophical lines and set up a battle between religion in science. And in some ways it does. Medical ethics and scientific limits are not questioned for nothing in this film directed by a Catholic director based on a book written by a Catholic author. But the lines between the two are not quite so neat. Both of the priests that handle Regan’s exorcism are rational men—and men of science! Father Merrin is an archaeologist and Father Karras is a psychiatrist. The church itself is very reticent to get involved in Regan’s case until all the medical options have been completely exhausted. In fact, it’s not any member of the clergy that suggests that Regan have an exorcism—it’s her doctors. They don’t suggest it out of religious conviction, but instead out of a lack of further ideas and on the chance that it will have a psychosomatic effect on Regan.

It’s also fair to point out that opinions about the validity of demon possession and exorcism don’t always break along religious lines, with most believing that demon possession is at least rare and disturbances can more likely be blamed upon mental disorders. Some, like Juan B. Cortes and Florence M. Gatti in their bookThe Case Against Possession and Exorcism, argue against the use of exorcism and the belief in demon possession. In his commentary on the book, Richard Woods outlines their belief that demons were the blame for unknown medical conditions—but that Jesus’s healing was nevertheless miraculous in that it cured psychological conditions instantly. Though he does point out that there are problems with this view, such as the fact that Jesus either appeared not to know that there were no demons, or was aware and actively tricking people (325-326).

Having looked at the “evils” in this film, that brings about the question: what is good? Well, in this film it is the force that stands against those evils—God, the church, and the agents of the church. William Blatty was not shy about his intentions for the original book to, as Nick Cull puts it, “scare a new generation of Americans back into church.” Blatty even called the novel, “an ‘apostolic’ work” (47). The question is: how did these figures representing “good” stand up against the ultimate evil of the demon—and how did audiences respond?

Well, not all Catholics or all Christians were necessarily wooed by the film adaption of this “apostolic” work. Paula Rabinowitz recalls how “audiences at The Exorcisthad fainted at the blasphemous language and imagery,” and how “some theatres refused to show the movie after angry patrons hurled rosaries at the screen. The Archbishop denounced the film for inciting such uncivilized behavior” (65-67). Rosary-hurling seems like a definitive “no” vote, at least from those Catholics.

However, taken from a certain view, all the blasphemy is necessary for this film’s ultimate end if goodness is truly to triumph over evil. The demon is evil—of course it’s evil. It must be evil—as evil as it can be so that the side of good becomes more ultimately good by contrast. That would be a fantastic excuse if that was what had happened. The fact of the matter is: this film is not a Catholic film with horror overtones; this is a horror film with Catholic overtones. The demon is well and truly the star of the movie whose monstrous cruelty is unmatched by some kind of equal and opposite act from the “good” side.

Part of that comes from the fact that what is going on here is that a supernatural creature is being pitted against humans, and the humans are no match. Of the two priests conducting the exorcism, both are in some way unequal to the task. Father Merrin is experienced and emotionally steady. He’s faced this demon before and he knows what to do and what not to do. Yet he’s physically deteriorating and knows that he’s going to die. The younger priest, Father Karras, is physically strong—a runner and a boxer. Yet emotionally: he’s an open wound. He’s tremendously guilty about his mother’s death and is in the midst of a crisis of faith. They are frail prey for the demon.

And they are prey—that’s important to catch. Regan may be the one that the demon possessed, but she was not the only one it had designs on. In an interlude during the exorcism, Father Karras asks Father Merrin: “Why this girl? It doesn’t make sense.” Father Merrin answers: “I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.” In this sense, the priests are just as much a target as the little girl; it’s the priest who will be tested. This is even more clear in the conversation that the demon and Karras had earlier. “What an excellent day for an exorcism,” the demon commented to him. “You would like that?” Karras asked. “Intensely,” the demon answered. “But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?” Karras pressed. The demon answered that it would bring them together. “You and Regan?” Karras asked. “You and us,” the demon answered. It was right.

To be fair, neither Regan nor the priests are the true fighters in this battle between good and evil. They’re more like chess pieces in the bout between the demon and God. Just as Regan is possessed by the demon, the priests must be filled with the Holy Spirit and cast out the demon in Jesus’s name in order to have any effect at all. Nevertheless, for all the director’s claim that the movie is about the ultimate triumph of good over evil… looking at the way it turns out, it’s a squeaker at best. Yes, the demon is cast out of Regan and that is a victory. However, both priests that conducted the exorcism wound up dead—one was even possessed by the demon for a time and was under its control to the point that he almost killed Regan. William Friedkin has said that he always tried to film Father Karras “ascending” to symbolize his spirit’s ascent (The Exorcist Audio Commentary), but the most memorable scene involving him is probably his demon-possessed descent down six flights of stairs to his death—like the pigs driven to their death in Luke when Jesus drove Legion out of a man. Friedkin says of the ending where Father Dyers (Karras’s best friend) and Lt. Kinderman exchange a conversation that echoes one that Kinderman had with Karras that it shows that “Karras is alive in all of them” (The Exorcist Audio Commentary) which is… nice, in a metaphorical way. However, in a non-metaphorical way, Karras is very dead. Was it worth it? Well, certainly it was to Regan, but it seems doubtful that the real problem here has been solved. It is implied in the film (and confirmed in the director's commentary) that Father Merrin has exorcised the demon that was in Regan before, from another child. The monster has been driven out… but dead? Unlikely. It’ll be back… for sequels.

Pazuzu - King of the demons in Assyrian mythology.
Pazuzu - King of the demons in Assyrian mythology.

And that’s where the good triumphing over evil message really falls apart. If a holy force were to sweep in and plunge evil headlong into hell, that would be triumphant—and comforting. The Exorcist is a horror movie; horror movies deal in discomfort. There must be casualties and the monster must be pushed back by the end of the film… but permanently destroyed? No. In the end, the humans in this film are much at the mercy of spiritual evil and social evil. Holy power—the power of Christ—is a weapon against it, but wielded by frail humans who make mistakes, it doesn’t always save them from death. This movie may be called The Exorcist, but the demon strutted and fretted its hour (more like two) upon the stage much more than the titular figure of Father Merrin. The Exorcist makes it clear that there is a battle going on between good and evil—but neither side makes out particularly well during this skirmish.

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