The Exorcist at 50: a terrifying film that symbolizes the decline of America’s faith and optimism

by Aislinn Clarke, Queen’s University Belfast

Please note this piece contains spoilers.

Having made a film about priests making a film, I find myself discussing cinema with actual priests more than most. Invariably, the fathers’ favorite’s film is The Exorcist, in which two priests battle the ancient evil that has possessed a pre-teen girl.

At the climax, Father Damien Karras leaps from the child’s window, plunging down 75 steps to his death, exorcising the demon and saving the child. A hero.

There’s a thrill in seeing yourself depicted on screen, in seeing your vocation elevated to a hero’s journey and enmeshed into pop culture. I don’t want to know the chef who doesn’t enjoy Pixar’s Ratatouille.

But what about the rest of us? Most of us aren’t priests. Most aren’t even Catholic. Indeed, since the release of the film, the reputation of the Catholic church has sunk lower and lower, as scandal, corruption and abuse have become common knowledge. Yet the priests’ favorite film, which turns 50 this year, remains a household word, where other outstanding movies of the period have found themselves on the street.

The Exorcist is not Catholic propaganda. While the film’s director, William Friedkin, an agnostic Jew, described the film as being about faith, he meant the concept of faith itself – what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard considered “holding on to the objective uncertainty with infinite passion”.

For Kierkegaard, faith was a venture, an action one takes in spite of – or because of – not knowing. Friedkin’s faith is not placed in anything named, but the film itself is riddled with uncertainty and culminates in action in the absence of certainty.

America in crisis

Friedkin was recognized as one of the premier directors of the 1970s’ all-male New Hollywood, alongside peers such as Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Alan Pakula, and Peter Bogdanovich. This movement responded to the experience of previous decades with films that captured the uncertainty and irresolution of American life: the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassinations, Watergate.

If 1950s, America was a teenybopper full of hope and confidence, the America of the late 1960s was a young adult learning that her parents are only human after all and no one is taking the wheel. Not even Jesus.

In All The President’s Men Pakula reveals the corruption at the heart of American democracy. Watergate was a watershed and faith in American institutions and the “great experiment” never recovered.

Under more recent administrations corruption is expected, even accepted. All The President’s Men is surely a hit among journalists, but the hero class of Pakula’s film has taken a reputational drubbing in recent decades, a notch above the priesthood.

Yet The Exorcist retains a legacy and place in popular culture that the other paranoid films of New Hollywood don’t.

For Friedkin, uncertainty in our institutions and our understanding is built in. When Regan McNeil becomes possessed by a demon, her mother takes her to a doctor, but psychiatry, psychoanalysis and hypnotherapy don’t work. The latest medical advances don’t work either.

And neither does a medieval Catholicism: the demon chuckles at the priests’ efforts to exorcise it. It mocks them. It even takes a crucifix and – rather than shrinking from it, as any self-respecting screen monster should, it repeatedly inserts the crucifix inside the body of its host.

The Exorcist is not a film about a successful exorcism, but about what we do in the face of uncertainty and the cynical grinning face of the demon doubt. It is not a film about a priest, but about a human being. When Karras takes the demon into himself and jumps from the window, it is literally a leap of faith. He can’t know that it will work, but he acts. Pazuzu, the demon of doubt, would prefer he didn’t act at all.

The great unknown

For me, the film’s most chilling moment comes when Regan interrupts her mother’s raucous shindig to flatly tell a guest (an astronaut): “You’re gonna die up there.” Then she pisses on the carpet like an untrained animal.

The administration that presided over “one giant leap for mankind” was also responsible for Watergate: optimism gave way to cynicism and, in a cynical mindset, it is easier to do nothing at all. The demon here is a head-swiveling personification of imposter syndrome, it comes to remind us of our smallness, our irrelevance, our hopelessness. It speaks with such certainty.

Faith is about not being defeated by the limits of our understanding. We may not have all the answers, but we can be courageous and curious. Faith is action and the hope that action is worth taking. At a time when our institutions and frameworks for understanding the world continually let us down, perhaps we need this lesson more than ever.

While astronauts facing a journey into the unknown chasm of space may die up there, it is the giant leap for mankind that inspires them to go. The Exorcist perseveres, because it is hopeful, not hopeless. It says something necessary about humanity. It has faith in us.

Aislinn Clarke, Lecturer in Film Studies, Queen’s University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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