If the evil spirit is “seen,” that is, reflected . . . he is overcome. – Marie-Louise von Franz
Unmask Satan, and you vanquish him. – St. Augustine
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When director William Friedkin shot what was to become one of the signature moments in his 1973 film of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist, where demonically possessed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil turns her head 360 degrees on its stalk before the unbelieving eyes of the two priests enjoined to cleanse her, screenwriter-producer Blatty had to object. Not only was it a physical impossibility in a scenario constructed mainly of improbabilities and Grand Guignol when Friedkin had been hired on the basis of his straight-shooting 1971 drama The French Connection and previous background in documentary film, it was counter to everything Blatty had envisioned about the drama. It was, in a phrase, too much.
It was also, as Blatty was soon to concede, a showstopper.
The reasons for this may be legion, but one of the possibilities, which Blatty, a seasoned screenwriter with a master’s in English Literature, should have recognized is that besides all else, the scene was a perfect distillation of the film’s subtext into one ringing, concise image. For, as much as anything, The Exorcist is about revolution – a world spinning out of control – as is the film-within-a-film Regan’s actress-mother Chris is working on. Most importantly, though, it’s about an intimate group of protagonists each having his or her own head turned around in countless different ways.
And it wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened in the story, or the last. Earlier on, another character underwent a similarly wrenching experience, the aftermath, possibly, of his having been thrown out the girl’s window and down a flight of steps outside; it would happen again at the end of the drama to one of the aforementioned priests, Father Damien Karras. Like a compulsive bit of behavior, the motif signals a clue to the film’s pathology: a sorting out of personal demons and a reorientation to the world at large.
As Mark Kermode summarizes the era the action took place in in his eponymous 1997 BFI book on the film,
The Army was shooting American college kids protesting about the Vietnam war. Hippies, once tolerated, found themselves tarred with the same brush as Charles Manson, the cult murderer who made shaggy hair, sex, and drugs synonymous with brutal killing and pagan sacrifice. The death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Festival in 1969 had left a generation of flower children wondering what had happened to all the peace, love, and understanding with which they were going to save the world. Even the government was unraveling inexorably, as President Richard Nixon became increasingly implicated in a string of suspicious, even criminal subterfuges. By late 1973, the presidency was on the brink of collapse, the walking wounded from Vietnam were everywhere in evidence, and the only thing America was exporting was paranoia.
While this is familiar ground for anyone who seriously considers the film, such turbulence wasn’t reserved for society as a whole. Blatty has freely admitted the book and film to be an outgrowth of his midlife crisis – a tender time not unlike Regan’s similarly transitional pubescence – begun while out of work as a writer of the kind of Hollywood trifle rapidly going out of style at the time. To the extent that his story was inspired by a newspaper article he had read while a student at Georgetown University – another turning point in his life – and set on that same campus and its environs, the writing reflects a going-back and a re-education on the same site where many other revolutions were taking place.
Reading his account of writing and shepherding his work to the screen in William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: From Novel to Film, one is struck by the almost messianic undertone to Blatty’s striving, as though in an effort, fueled by fears of obsolescence, to identify with a drastically changing world, he had taken that world’s cares upon himself in order to expiate them, as does his Christlike fictional counterpart, Father Karras. His contention within the story that the demonic possession was targeted not at the girl but at the elder cleric Merrin (and, via suggestion, the Catholic church) hints at a personal vendetta against the similar institution of Hol[l]ywood, his description of the film Chris is working on as “a musical comedy version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” suggesting a private design to overturn the tables of the Temple. Quoted, unflatteringly, in Pauline Kael’s review of the film making claims like “as I went along writing my funny books and screenplays, I felt I wasn’t making a contribution to the welfare of the world” and calling his book “quite frankly . . . an apostolic work,” he comes across as having been engorged by not only his mission but himself, as well. (Kael goes on to suggest a parallel between the author’s behind-the-scenes machinations – the book was financed by Bantam based on an outline, the movie deal done before its publication – and John Cassavetes’s character in Rosemary’s Baby, who whores his wife to Satan in order to obtain a Broadway hit.) The mocking, indignant tone to those parts of his memoir concerning the similarly egotistical directors he had encountered in his Hollywood career suggests a desire to take the reins of that career and assert himself in a manner not unlike that used by the demon who takes control of Regan. Perhaps inevitably, the film became a battleground between the forces of the director and writer possibly unresolved until its unprecedented “Screenwriter’s Cut” Y2K theatrical re-release.
Writing is itself a willing form of possession, the term “inspiration” meaning “breathing in a spirit.” It’s an abandonment of the ego to the darker forces, much like falling asleep, both conditions permitting the occupation of the mind by various personalities, all facets of the same unifying consciousness. Since The Exorcist’s accumulation of identities is intended as a lead-up to their climactic expulsion, one might assume Blatty’s writing to have involved a similar catharsis, Regan an instrument of purgation meant to project him to a new level in the world of entertainment and ideas.
The use of a term like “project,” especially when talking about movies, is a considered one. It’s a cornerstone concept in psychological theory, and The Exorcist, despite having pushed the technological envelope of horror filmmaking as had 2001: A Space Odyssey science fiction five years earlier, is primarily a psychological drama, as attested by all those twisted heads, and bears analyzing thusly. For, from Merrin’s early discovery of the detached head of an icon and the film’s ensuing visual emphasis on similarly decapitated statuary, to the inexplicable stopping of a clock, the film plays as the dream of a likewise “disembodied” consciousness taking place in no specific time frame, its fragmentary, often non-sequitur structure representing the associative flow of a slowly disintegrating ego craving re-integration.
As outlined by analyst Marie-Louise von Franz in her 1978 volume, Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology (evidently inspired by the sudden prominence of exorcism and possession in the popular culture), this “projection” is the process by which a mind, faced with perceptions about itself it finds unapproachable firsthand whether because the material is too shameful, embarrassing, incriminating or even complimentary, buries these perceptions in the unconscious. The unconscious, then, being indisposed to such reticence, finds some other way of dealing with the material, “projecting” it onto some external person or thing. The recipient of these projections often finds him- or herself ridiculed, criticized, demonized, or idolized, sometimes even driven out of the subject’s life or consciousness, as in the tradition of the scapegoat. By externalizing its concerns in such a way, the mind can then address the material objectively, resulting in either some form of action (as is often the case in situations involving racism, sexism, or homophobia – examples of projection, all) or in considered analysis.
In analysis, the subject acknowledges the projection, deals with it, and reintegrates the material into the personality – “re-collecting” it. This process of recognition Franz terms “reflection.” Consider the climax of the myth of Medusa, the gorgon whose gaze turned humans to stone (the psyche frozen in stasis) until being fixed in the mirrored interior of the hero’s shield – the recognition of the Medusa-within. Writing, too, like any other art, is one long drama of projection, of imbuing a blank page or canvas with the products of one’s imagination. Afterwards, the writer can review the work and recognize and own the personal psychological material there. The mind employs a similar process in dreams, embodying aspects of the personality – archetypes that have no real form but in the unconscious, or the complex itself desiring expression – and uses a sort of Cubist technique to examine these artifacts from all angles at once in their various paradoxes, ambiguities, and outright contradictions, in order to resolve them.
Some people are more natural receptors for others’ projections than others. Toni Wolff, Jung’s contemporary, in fact, reserved one of her four feminine personality types for this character, which she termed the “mediumistic” woman. As described by Irene Claremont de Castillejo in her book, Knowing Woman: A Feminine Psychology, this type “is permeated by the unconscious of another person and makes it visible by living it. She may pick up what is going on beneath the surface of the group or society in which she lives, and voice it.”
Possession, Franz avers, can be read as a form – or result – of projection, exorcism being the withdrawal of imposed misconceptions. In young Regan, a sweet but basically bland figure caught at a transitional moment, the film and its audience find an easily receptive – “impressionable” – vehicle for the projection of all the disquietude Kermode describes above, and then some. It should come as no surprise, then, that she should manifest so many different personalities, among them Satan, Karras’s mother Mary, the Sumerian deity Pazuzu, “no one,” and “Legion”: her body has become a dumping-ground for others’ repressed neuroses and psychoses relieved only when, after a lull in the exorcism (Franz’s moment of reflection), Karras goads the presence into himself, “re-collecting” the projection. (It’s the final irony of a film ostensibly intended to gather people back to God that it’s not God at all that triumphs over evil, but a man.) When he hurls himself out a window to ensure the menace doesn’t return – his only guarantee being rooted in the assumption that he “is” the demon – it’s the exorcism – the ejection – from a greater consciousness, finally, than any of the characters’: the filmmakers’, for example, and, by association, the viewing audience’s. For in a film named, against horror-film tradition (as Kermode points out), for the hero instead of the adversary, the experience of watching – of “going to see ‘The Exorcist’” – becomes itself a catharsis, an ejection of whatever negative elements the spectator may have brought to the theater.
Assuming that what has invaded the personality is evil. As sociographer Wade Davis characterizes possession in primitive cultures, it signifies not an invasion, but “the return of the spirits to the body” (emphasis mine), in keeping with The Exorcist’s own contention of a dis-spirited world separated from God. Franz supports this in Jungian terms, indicating ghostly possession especially as the visitation of a “lost” spirit – meaning, the complex, or network of signs and associations underlying the pathology – uprooted from the unconscious in order to be “found,” or acknowledged by the consciousness. In the instance of demonic possession, the material is seeking to be “‘religiously’ taken into account,” as Franz puts it: to be recognized and accepted by the soul.
As the term “demon,” from the Greek daimon, originally indicated not a necessarily evil spirit but also a divine one, a genius, the force may be seen as neither positive nor negative, but conditional. (The similarities to Karras’s Christian name, too, should not go unnoticed: the daimon inhabiting Regan is Damien.) With the gradual insurgence into the pop-cultural mainstream of such mythical figures as Sinbad, Jason, Ulysses, and Hercules in the films of the fifties and sixties (themselves the descendants of such mythological forebears as Gog, Gorgo, Kronos, Behemoth, the Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth, and the Colossus of New York – all presaged by the postwar myth- and fairytale-films of Cocteau and Disney and the contemporary slew of religious epics) and ignited by the Aquarian-Age metaphysics of the 2001 Starchild, such a mythico-spiritual irruption into a consciousness hammered by recent events into a condition of oppressive reality – an invasion equal in violence to its need – was bound to occur. The dark side of this influx continued through such name-checking film and literary titles as Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Andromeda Strain, The Mephisto Waltz, The Methuselah Enzyme, The Poseidon Adventure, Malpertuis and its array of gods-sewn-into-human-skins, The Neptune Factor, TV’s “Gemini Man,” Demon Seed’s “Proteus” computer, and the Native-American Manitou, all paralleling the Jesus-freak rock musicals Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The lineage finally culminated, you could say, with the eventual establishment of a new, technological mythos in the arrival of 1977’s Star Wars.
All this floating anxiety finds its locus in the disillusioned character of Father Karras, whose last name comes from the Greek charis, root of the term charity, and whose first name evokes, as Blatty has it in the novel, “the name of a priest who devoted his life to taking care of the lepers on the island of Molokai. He finally caught the disease himself.” Reflective of Catholic Blatty’s avowed career dilemma, Karras is suffering a crisis of faith localized in the figure of his ailing, impoverished, immigrant mother, the real-life center of Blatty’s 1973 memoir, I’ll Tell Them I Remember You. For Karras, Regan’s possession indicates the real presence of spiritual forces in the world, enabling him to finally realize his potential – the name he was born to embody – and to exorcise his own demon of despair — the specter of the diseased mother, a foreign presence he could not help. From the evangelistic tone of Blatty’s writing and other public pronouncements we assume a similar effect for him as well, the in-spiration he was looking for after a life of fluff writing coming in the form of a demonized young woman. When the identity of the inhabiting presence progresses from “no one” to “Legion,” it’s the advancement, in Blatty’s private world, from anonymity to celebrity via the same earthly vehicle.
Chief of all demons – which often start life as other cultures’ deities before being reinscribed by ascendant religious systems as other-than – was Lucifer, whom the presence inside Regan at one point claims to be. The story of how this Bearer of Light became relegated to the underworld via hubris and jealousy over God’s omnipotence is familiar; it’s also a fairly apt description of the repression of psychic materials, malignant to the ego, into the unconscious underworld – burying another source of illumination under layers of suspicion, ignorance, and misunderstanding. How this devil gets projected back into the world can be equally enlightening.
In the novel, Blatty refers to a book employed by Karras in his research on exorcism, “a green-bound volume called Satan, a collection of articles and Catholic position papers by various French theologians” – a real book that seems to have been a primary reference for the author himself. (Satan makes occasional reference to both Blatty’s concept of despair as primary sin and the Baudelairean-derived maxim that the devil’s greatest trick is in making people believe he doesn’t exist, as well as picturing and postulating on the obscure figure of the demon Pazuzu; many of Regan’s symptoms appear to be modeled on cases cited here, as well.) Published by Sheed and Ward in 1951 under the editorship of Père Bruno de Jesus-Marie, O.C.D., before the Second Vatican conferences of the following decade modernized many of the Church’s positions, it’s a wide-ranging assortment stretching from forceful statements on the factual existence of its subject, through various psychological considerations, to studies of his representation in Milton, Blake, and Balzac. It resolves with a chapter on perhaps its real subject, Adolf Hitler, with no mention of the Church’s complicity in his dominion on earth. (Indeed, the Nazi Occupation of the authors’ homeland is a clue to the prominence of possession among their subjects.)
Read from the detached perspective of a non-believer, some of the more literal-minded essays in the book come across as object lessons in projection. How else to account for the depth of detail and analysis on a figure on whom there is no material evidence and no scientific validation, only the often feverish and emotional theorizing of a coterie of, after all, some of the most repressed individuals in modern society (many or all of the essays being written by members of the Catholic clergy), denied the same earthly plenitude as reportedly tormented their subject? This Satan then becomes equated with ambiguity (Charles Moeller, p. xxiii), rebellion (Joseph de Tonquédec, S.J., p. 44), matter, desire, and anarchy (Henri-Charles Peuch, p. 156), death (Germain Bazin, p. 359), the imagination (Dom Aloïs Mager, O.S.B., p. 502), pride (Walter Farrell, O.P., p. 13) and envy (Bernard Leeming, S.J., p. 23) – all various aspects of simple human experience amplified and personified into an institutional bogeyman. The layperson’s assigning of these evils and pseudo-evils to one all-encompassing persona is an easy and understandable psychological convenience; less comprehensible is the similar construction by many of the learned spiritual professionals Jesus-Marie has assembled. It’s no small point, then, that the uncoverer of The Exorcist’s “demon” is a Catholic priest.
In the film’s portent-laden, In-the-Beginning prologue (reminiscent of 2001’s “Dawn of Man” sequence, with “primitive” – Iraqi – people toiling in the desert under the watchful eye of the cosmos), paleontologist Father Merrin (Blatty also once considered a career in the cloth) discovers the head of an icon of Pazuzu, emerging like some leftover piece of psychological material – the complex – surfaced in dreams. (In one of Friedkin’s interpolations on the Blatty, he also uncovers an anachronistic St. Joseph’s medal that should not have been found in such pre-Christian ground, hinting at all such figures as the projections of an eternal, trans-historic, transcultural archetype.) Squaring off with a full-sized statue of the creature before Friedkin shifts the scene to “modern” America, Merrin disappears, then, for the bulk of the drama, like an ego subsuming itself once the machine of the dreamplay is in place in order to let its unconscious representatives take their part. The impact of the sequence is that, once uncovered, all this fragment of an idea needs is a focal point to fix in, a template. This the film – and, by suggestion, Merrin – finds in the figure of Regan, the half-formed adolescent daughter of an actress who will dutifully “act out” the projection.
Which is not to lay the onus for the entire subsequent action on Merrin, or the Church he represents. (At this point in the novel he’s identified only as “the man in khakis,” ostensibly universalizing the identity and making him a cipher – a touchstone, a flashpoint – for a variety of associations; he is, again, a “catholic” – in its original sense, “comprehensive; universal” – priest.) Merrin is simply the means by which the mind of the movie turns over psychic information that will trigger a sequence of events necessary to the resolution of latent spiritual issues as multiform as the characters in the drama. Given that, it may be instructive to regard those characters most intimately associated with the girl who comes to embody these anxieties, in order to isolate what personal and societal demons they too may be projecting onto her.
To begin with Regan herself, we might ask why such a person would either accept these horrors upon herself, become a target of others’ projections, or even – the true believer’s viewpoint – be accessible to a visitation of evil.
As to the first possibility, you have to take into account the conditions of her life at the time. She is, again, at the threshold of adolescence – meaning, she’s ready to exorcise the specter of childhood and take on the work of maturity, her notorious projectile vomiting and soiling of herself a regression to infantilism at a time of physical and psychological upheaval. The facial welts, blemishes, and sores that develop as her condition worsens suggest every teen’s nightmare of the ravages of acne, the battery of personalities parading through her an exaggeration of the adolescent trait of trying on attitudes and personas in search of the one that fits. As described by Kermode, the arteriogram scene – one of a series of physiological tests inflicted on the traumatized girl – signifies a blood-letting “deflowering” (it was a time, too, of sexual revolution), opening up the action to his analysis as “a dramatization of Chris’s terror of her young daughter’s impending adulthood” – her own terror, as well.
The maturity Regan is inevitably drawn toward must appear ominous and unfriendly to the young girl: the gorgon of responsibility crouching at her door, the burden of sexuality similarly in the offing, the inscrutability of adult behavior awaiting. And considering the grown-ups inhabiting her sphere of reference, her revulsion may not be unfounded: separated Chris, who lapses into vulgarities while berating her estranged husband long-distance for failing to call on his daughter’s birthday (Blatty’s real father had also abandoned his family); the obnoxious-drunk director Burke Dennings, whose assaults on taste and propriety are entertained by Chris and the others; the groundsman Karl, in the novel, surreptitiously supporting his abusive drug-addict daughter; finally Karras, the spiritual leader with no confidence in his abilities to comfort the lost or trust that there even is a Spirit he can lead them to.
Friedkin’s cut from Karras visiting his dying mother at Bellevue mental hospital to Chris’s cast party gives some indication of the happy front projected by the older generation while all was disarray beneath; it gets hammered home when Regan makes her appearance in a nightgown to predict death for an astronaut attending (a premonition of the end of patriarchy and the fall of that other Heavenly Father), before pissing on the carpet in front of them – a signal that, while they’re busy partying, their children are hemorrhaging. The missing father mirrors the reticence of God – the original absentee parent – in contemporary culture; when Regan fashions an imaginary playmate for herself called Captain Howdy – after Howard, her dad – it’s a calling forth of the father-within (a spiritual force Franz refers to as the “inner companion”) and a dry run for her eventual connection and metaphorical communion with not-the-Father, Karras. As it’s Karras who’ll shepherd her across the waters into maturity and spiritual realization, the demon serves as his invitation to intercede; the “calling” he receives is hers.
As an object of others’ projections, the case has been made often enough for all such demon-child stories (The Exorcist followed quickly by such offshoots as TV’s Bad Ronald and The Death of Richie, cinema’s It’s Alive, The Omen, The Devil Times Five, Who Could Kill a Child?, To the Devil a Daughter, Carrie, The Night Child – even those deprogramming movies of the early eighties like Ticket to Heaven and Split Image, and a host of other, more explicit rip-offs like Beyond the Door and Cathy’s Curse, all predated by The Bad Seed, Village – and Children – of the Damned, and The Other) as expressing parental fears of the emergent power of youth culture, though the film itself, as indicated, does much to suggest these children as only acting out the foibles and dysfunctions of their elders. Because of her author’s – hence, prime “projector’s” – avowed midlife issues, though, one might wish to regard Blatty’s own motives for creating such a character and for putting her through such ordeals as he does.
To start with, the name he’s chosen for her is a reference to King Lear, as acknowledged in the novel in Chris’s thought that “she had almost named her Goneril,” after another of the senile ruler’s jealous, greedy, and manipulative daughters; butler Karl even goes to see a recent film adaptation. (Kent’s encounter with Lear during a storm might have inspired Karras’s similar confrontations with Regan/Pazuzu; there’s a further in-joke in that The Exorcist’s Burke Dennings, Jack MacGowran, had a supporting role in this real-life contemporary version.) In I’ll Tell Them . . . , Blatty describes his brother Mike’s — a haunted, enigmatic figure who obviously informed the Karras character as much as did Blatty himself — idea of investigating “the traditional ‘problems’ of Hamlet . . . from the point of view of an inspector of police called in at the end to the ‘scene of the crime,’” and in many ways The Exorcist is a similar interrogation of Lear, with Blatty’s Inspector Kinderman that detective. Why Blatty would elect to name his innocent focus of attention after one of the king’s cruel, harridan daughters instead of the loving, unjustly ostracized Cordelia, though, is a form of authorial demonization that would take more than an objective analysis to sort out. (Subjectively, there’s the possibility that Blatty may have found it easier to identify with the favored offspring of a mad parent – his batty mother – as suggested by parts of I’ll Tell Them . . . .) The theatrical connection does, at least, hint at a recognition of the world as governed by an insane God, if one at all, analogous to the similarly omniscient “author” possessed himself by an irrational distrust of the Good Daughter and whose withdrawal of that paranoid projection brings about the end of the maelstrom. His choice of Pazuzu – hailing from the same Middle Eastern origin as Blatty’s Syrian-Lebanese ancestry – as the occupying demon also carries a whiff of misogyny, as this figure was a consort of Lamia, one of the early forms of Lilith, Adam’s willful, apocryphal first wife. It’s also likely that Blatty simply couldn’t resist the pun in the name, as the book and film both came together under the California governorship of Ronald Reagan, the former Democratic president of the Screen Actors Guild long since “possessed” by conservative values (his own head-turning experience) in what has always been a famously liberal town. By bringing Hollywood to Georgetown – where Chris’s film company is shooting on-location – situated in Washington, D.C., Blatty could comment on the politics of film production and also forewarn the public of the possible results when Re[a]gan – who had already made a tentative bid for the White House in 1968 – would similarly occupy the Capitol.
Carol J. Clover, in Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, offers several insights as to what should make Regan a channel for others’ self-realizations. In a chapter on this and other occult films, Clover considers the feminine nexus of so many features in terms of their femininity itself: their possession of an additional “opening” to their male counterparts, the vagina and vulva that serve as both an entry and an exit for life, a yonic portal to worlds unknown. She’s “open” to interpretation, as to projection, a conduit for all the world’s ills to be reflected in one perceptible location. (With the film’s 2000 reissue this motif found extra resonance as an opening on to a new age, as demonstrated in such contemporary “portal” films as Being John Malkovich, The Ninth Gate, and Sliding Doors.) The girl’s deflowering suggests her own opening to such influences, the image projected onto the motif of her uncloseable bedroom window (irreversible sexual maturation), which Clover notes provides an entrance for the unceasing draft Kinderman warns is “a magic carpet for bacteria.” Dennings’s visit to her room alone carries uneasy suggestions of sexual intent, his ejection out the window the second symbolic rupturing of her hymen and a quid pro quo for his trespassing: if he thought he could abuse this 12-year-old girl, he surely got his head turned around. It’s this window, too, which seems to call Merrin to the MacNeil battlefield in another of the film’s iconic moments, his arrival at the house illuminated by the light streaming from this very aperture.
Theologians and mythmakers since the creation of Eve at least have regarded women and their “portal” in similar terms to Kinderman’s, as an entry point into the world for evil, as Regan serves in this story and as is made explicit in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. Satan, to its credit, is not uncritical in its assessment of the Church’s historical attitude toward women and the consequences of those doctrines during the Inquisition and other, equally colorful, chapters from its past (see, especially, Emile Brouette’s essay there on “The Sixteenth Century and Satanism”), though it does try to pass the bulk of the blame on to its Protestant colleagues. (Significantly, Friedkin’s conception of actress Linda Blair’s “possession” makeup was based on the idea that Regan has been wounding herself with the crucifix, a sort of acting out of the damage done to all women by its adherents. Blatty’s own attitude toward women, his beloved mother aside, may be deduced from chapter six of I’ll Tell Them . . . , where he devotes two pages to memorializing his brother Eddie, four and a half pages to brother Mike, seven to Maurice, and to his sister Alyce, three paragraphs.) Eve’s painting as the first temptress, inspired by the phallic Serpent, sheds light on another of The Exorcist’s set pieces, the prostration of Regan before the snake-phallused statue of Pazuzu; when the scene abruptly cuts to the priests – as though the moment hadn’t really happened at all – the whole segment plays out as the inelegantly edited fantasy of at least one of the Fathers present, of the eroticized female bowing before his own iconic (unrealized) sexual potency.
Since Pazuzu was the personification of the disease-carrying southwest wind, you can see Regan’s possession as a profane conception from the impurity wafting through her portal. The “malignancy” that has invaded her and that requires expiation is itself a matter of perception, for in her impregnation the girl has become infused with her own Juno (a form of “genius”) aspect, after the Roman goddess of women’s reproductive power. Though the scenes of these clerics taming Regan’s hysteria are reminiscent of similarly repressive tableaux in such Hammer Studios chestnuts as Dracula, Prince of Darkness and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, when the words “help me” appear in relief on her belly like the “Home, fuge” that materialized on Faustus’s arm, it’s an indication that something needs to emerge from her womb, the characters gathered about her to enact its exorcism in fact there to aid its delivery. This is what Karras does when drawing the presence out of her in the end, midwifing the spiritual birth of her own next generation cleansed of the body-paranoia of his repressed old order.
In Regan, Chris sees the offspring of her own atheist values, her separation from Howard reiterating her separation from God, creating a matriarchal household consisting of herself, Regan, secretary Sharon and Swiss housekeeper Willie Engstrom (old, harried husband Karl Engstrom the only masculine presence there) reciprocal to the priests’ exclusively male quarters. Regan’s ejection of Chris’s libidinous director – God reduced to a drunken satyr – out her window replays this divorce, with Dennings constructed in her mind as a demon invading the corpus of the home and setting up the later defenestration of not-the-Father Karras. The nascent Women’s Liberation that was the theme’s clear touchpoint must have appeared to such representatives of the patriarchal Church as a replay of the rebellion that characterized Satan himself in their eyes, whose fall was reportedly brought on by a likewise “desire for self-sufficiency” (Farrell; Satan).
While Chris’s reluctant film-within role, which the novel describes as “a psychology teacher who sided with the rebels,” sets her up as another descendant of that instigator of anarchy, Eve (she’s featured, in her one production sequence in the novel, inciting students to tear down their administrative building; in the Friedkin she tries to quell those forces), her academic discipline as well as sympathy with this faction suggest a desire to comprehend the forces welling up in society as well as in her daughter. She’s Blatty’s – and his audience’s – conduit to an understanding of the conditions threatening their complacency. By the same token, her name is evocative of the Christ who bore similar nonconformist sympathies and who, like Chris, was torn between the role assigned him by God and his own earthly concerns (as Chris was by her director and her own more conservative attitudes). The conflict in her character suggests Blatty may have been similarly torn between his better judgment and the paranoia of his day, the story a working out of this dilemma to its amicable resolution.
Watching Regan’s head turn 360 degrees without breaking her neck must have been some kind of signal to Karras that he wasn’t seeing straight, himself; we assume that’s why he had to propel himself out the window soon afterwards. (The beating he inflicts on the girl while recalling the projection, still shocking today, would be convincing to any good man that he’d gone too far and couldn’t control himself any longer, and so needed to do whatever he could to protect her from further harm.) By triumphing in this way, he ejects the dis-ease out the same opening it had arrived through (and via the same figurative agent, the Church), and in so doing feminizes himself: makes himself permeable to the forces that impregnated her. In throwing himself out the window, he gives birth to himself. Though the book gives no indication that his head has been wrenched in the doing – Friedkin deliberately obscures its position in the film, encouraging speculation – Karras’s fall down the same set of stairs as Dennings implies a correspondence between the fallen men, so that we may understand that his head has in some sense been turned around.
Whatever the suggestion of corruption in the MacNeil household, the ultimate point of the story seems to be that this exalted image of divine masculine authority – false, weakened, or lacking in every instance – must be eliminated before order can be restored to the world. More than restored, this order is in fact furthered: a real revolution has taken place, or will. The film’s original closing moments, where Karras’s colleague Father Dyer ponders the abyss below the steps outside Regan’s bedroom window, suggest the priest as reflecting on both his own position and the role his order played in the disaster. (Compare this with the conclusion of Hammer’s X – the Unknown, where a befuddled scientist ponders the crater that film’s inchoate menace had emerged from, the inexplicable aftershock from its destruction signaling a matter not yet resolved.) The nightmare that had begun upstairs – suggestive of a malevolent God, or the disturbed mind – in Regan’s room found its calm center with the two priests sharing a moment at the top of another set of stairs – the fraternal heart – and concluded with the silence below, where the devil ought to be (the body, still a mystery to the celibate priest). Dyer’s nascent friendship with Kinderman, in the Blatty, suggests a return, then, to the masculine world – changed, perhaps bettered: he’s not the same as when he met Chris and her family.
There’s another instance where steps feature profoundly: Karras’s dream of his recently deceased mother in the crowded, unfriendly streets of Manhattan. Translated almost verbatim from a real dream of Blatty’s recounted in I’ll Tell Them . . . , it describes her emergence from a subway lost and alone and her return before Karras can catch up with her, taking place in the time it takes Merrin’s St. Joseph’s medallion to fall to the pavement like the crumbling smokestack in Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. The dream compresses into thirty seconds every child’s experience of the parents – their unreachability, their helplessness in death – as of life itself, arising out of the depths and returning just as surely. Knowing how deeply Blatty revered his mother, it’s not too great a stretch to correlate her figure with the lost grace Karras (“grace” being an alternate translation of “charis”) also felt. His descent down another set of steps signals a return to the comfort of her womb achieved by the breaching of that vaginal aperture.
Friedkin’s framing of the sequence with the device of the St. Joseph’s places the experience of the mother in the context of the father. (Blatty’s real-life last sight of his own dad was of him descending into a subway.) Joseph’s distinction was in accepting the role of not-the-father to Jesus based on his love for and faith in Mary – both Karras’s and Blatty’s mothers’ names. Seen in the light of Blatty Sr.’s abandonment (for whom the often generous though overly precious author reserves his most balanced and poignant words in I’ll Tell Them . . . ), the dream reveals instead of misogyny and a reaffirmation of faith in God a hunger and a desire for the feminine and a continued bewilderment (Father Dyer’s attachment to those steps) as to the absence of the One Being who would connect his child to the erotic ground of existence and the meaning behind it all. Fitting, then, that this medallion (which Regan rips off of Karras’s neck before the priest immolates himself, defenseless without it), symbol of the stewardship and responsibility Blatty Sr. had forsaken, should find its way from the earth to Father Dyer’s pocket via Chris, who doesn’t need it – she’s already proven herself as a parent. It’s a reminder of the distance he, as all men and wearers of the cloth, have to go before finding his own grace. The film’s dream is its dream – its mission, its intention, its goal for itself.
Before departing with her mother afterward, Regan, who reportedly has no recollection of the preceding events, does something curious: she kisses Dyer on the cheek. The gesture is ambiguous. On the surface, it would seem an indication that something about the ordeal has remained with her in her unconscious for which she’s driven to express gratitude, yet the vagueness of her motive begs the viewer to consider other possibilities. Such as forgiveness. Regan, bruised but healing, and her mom, appreciative but apparently unconverted (the passing of the medallion), move on from the accursed house with no hard feelings for her demonization at the hands of such upholders of divine order as Karras and company, cleansed but also cleansing, like a psychic agent having taken temporary residence in the consciousness and then leaving. (It’s the first time she’s seen out of doors in the Friedkin – an admission of her interior nature – until her liberation from Karras’s projection.) As if to reinforce the theme, Kinderman, whose name translates as “child-man,” a term consistent with Blatty’s memoir-portrayal of his father, also drops his case against Regan as Dennings’s murderer. His alliance with Dyer in the novel, as in the reissued film, reflects the almost-Jesuit Blatty’s reconciliation with the likewise Jewish director (who has, conversely, demonstrated a lack of interest in working further with the author). The poignancy of Blatty’s inability to connect with this figure penetrates, and makes the revised ending of the Y2K version all the more resonant.
Concerning Blatty and his mother, the kiss comes across as something similar. According to the novel, Merrin – the name a derivation of Maerin, the Northern European goddess also known as Mari, or Mary – was renowned among his colleagues for his interpretation of faith “in terms of science, in terms of a matter that was still evolving, destined to be spirit and joined to God.” Substitute “matter,” which many theologians have associated with Satan, for its cognate mater, and you see the philosophy as a hopeful prognosis for Blatty’s own mother’s wayward soul. Drawn in I’ll Tell Them . . . in benignly demonic terms as a similar trickster – variously thieving, lying, and provoking in order to lend her children a better life – this extraordinary woman gets projected into Regan along with all the other daimons. Blatty’s effect then in sending Karras down those steps with their mutual Mary is to offer a sort of last rites for his mother, Karras’s sacrifice guaranteeing her safe passage to heaven. Regan’s kiss plays as the gratitude of such a soul returned to her son and a forgiveness to the world for the debasement she had to live through in order to get there.
In an age where the idea of the director-as-auteur is beginning to come under question, the reissue of a work such as this, whose writer has finally claimed “possession” of his material, may mean a reappraisal is in order after all. The more you know about Blatty and his efforts – once you get past the self-importance of his motives and the desperate need to be liked that oozes from his prose – the warmer and more personal his and Friedkin’s cold and off-putting film becomes. Giving yourself up to it, as to any external reflection of oneself, can take some sort of effort, but can yield, at the same time, some kind of benefit, some sort of revelation.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from YouTube trailers and/or the DVD(s).