They’re still there almost every day. At the corner of 36th and Prospect Streets in Georgetown. More than forty years later, tourists and even locals arrive at the stairs where the film The Exorcist was shot in the early 1970s. They take pictures, talk about the movie. They giggle and shiver.
Why does The Exorcist endure? The most obvious reason it does is that the demonic is real, and the idea that supernatural forces beyond our control can affect us, even taking over our very bodies, is frightening. But a lot of films have depicted the occult and not had the seismic and enduring impact of The Exorcist. The film endures because the atmosphere it depicts has become our own. The point of the demonic in The Exorcist is not to levitate bodies, vomit on priests, and telepathically toss furniture around the room. The point—often lost even four decades later—is to convince human beings that we are animalistic and not worthy of God’s love.
To convince us of this, the demon in the film most frequently attacks others in vulgar sexual terms, even raping the victim, a young girl named Regan. The scores of Exorcist imitators in the last four decades have gone heavy on the cement-mixer voices and floating bodies, but have largely avoid the heavy sexual themes of the original. The imitators have avoided this, I think, because Hollywood has helped to promote the kind of dehumanizationcelebrated by the demon in The Exorcist.
Exorcist author William Peter Blatty based his 1971 book on a real case of demonic possession that occurred in Maryland in the 1940s. Yet the most important part of the novel was left out of the film. This section was so important to the story that it caused a rift between Blatty and director William Friedkin. Near the end of the book version, Father Lankester Merrin, an older priest, is explaining evil to Father Damien Karras, a young Georgetown Jesuit. The demon’s target, Fr. Merrin says, is not the innocent girl he takes over. The target “is us.” He continues: “I think the point is to make us despair, to reject our own humanity, Damien, to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; unworthy.” Fr. Merrin then explains that the devil is not so much in wars or on great geopolitical dramas, but in the small, quotidian cruelties: “in the senseless, petty snipes; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends, between lovers.” Enough of these, he says, and “we don’t need Satan to manage our wars.”
In The Exorcist, the demon refers to Regan’s mother, a famous actress named Chris, as “Pig,” and to Regan as “Piglet.” Part of this is carried over to the film, where the demon calls Regan “the sow.” This is part of the dehumanization that Fr. Merrin talks about—the way evil attempts to make us despair and consider ourselves animals unworthy of God’s love. This theme is effective in the story because Fr. Karras is having a crisis of faith—he both doubts the existence of God and feels his sins have made him unworthy of love. The demon, as Fr. Merrin notes, “knows where to strike.”
No one who was alive when The Exorcist was released the day after Christmas in 1973 will forget what the cultural atmosphere in America was like, and how the film detonated like a neutron bomb. The United States was in the middle of a cultural revolution. The country was trying to extract itself from Vietnam, the Watergate story was blowing open, and the sexual revolution was at hurricane force. In January 1973, Roe v. Wade was handed down by the Supreme Court. It wasn’t long before abortionists and their allies were comparing young humans to lower life forms, including, yes, pigs.
The Exorcist was part of this milieu, yet it was also quite traditional—indeed, it argued for the unchanging age-old reality of good and evil. The film was emblematic of a radical new direction horror movies had taken while at the same time announcing that the demonic was real and that Jesus Christ is the only power that can control it. American horror movies can generally be separated into two eras: the pre-revolutionary, pre-1960s era, and the post-revolutionary era, the 1960s to the present. Pre-revolutionary films had a common theme: a supernatural threat is introduced into the community and is ultimately put down by religious and civil authorities. The Blob, The Thing, Dracula, Frankenstein: all depict an outside force being met and defeated by faith, civil authorities, or scientific knowledge. Of course, science is often also the cause of the monster (Godzilla).
By the late 1960s, the horror genre—with the exception of the Indian summer of British studio Hammer—was spent. Horror films were now shown in drive-in theaters and exploitation houses. It was at this point that such maverick filmmakers as Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma revolutionized the genre—as New York Times horror expert Jason Zinoman writes in his book Shock Value, these directors succeeded by “exploding taboos and bringing a gritty aesthetic, confrontational style, and political edge to horror.” Their films included Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween. This new kind of film “dispensed with the old vampires and werewolves and instead assaulted audiences with portraits of serial killers, the dark side of suburbia, and a brand of nihilistic violence that had never been seen before.”
In the post-revolutionary era, the old authority figures were no longer reliable. Two landmarks of this are Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead, both released in 1968. In Rosemary’s Baby, the older generation is shown as not just pushy and arrogant, but literally wicked and poisonous. And in Night of the Living Dead, authority completely breaks down. As horror historian Kim Newman notes, “Love, the family, military capability, and individual heroism are all useless…. horror film heroes have become morally neutral front-line troops, able to understand neither the enemy nor their superiors.” Newman adds that “Ever since [Night of the Living Dead], movie characters have been caught between the monsters and the reactionaries.”
In The Exorcist, a hip actress and single mother, Chris McNeil, is shooting a film in Washington when he daughter Regan begins to exhibit strange behavior. When her bedwetting and absent-mindedness turns out to be full-blown demonic possession, McNeil consults Fr. Karras. At the time, Karras is having a crisis of faith. He is a member of Kim Miller’s neutral front-line troops, unable to understand either the demon or the older priest, Fr. Merrin, who comes to perform the exorcism. By the end of the film, when Karras has seen evil up close, he no longer has doubts. The young priest, so understated and even passive throughout the entire film, explodes in rage at the demon, sacrificing himself to save Regan. Amidst the drugs, scandal, rock and roll, and moral collapse of the 1970s, The Exorcist announced that there are some evils that are timeless and don’t change.
This theme has returned in recent years, as the horror revolution of the 1960s has been replaced by more seemingly classic fare. Vampires and zombies are back, replacing the torture porn and gore that was dominant in the 1990s. Films like The Conjuring and Paranormal Activity provide scares through shadow, implication, and demons rather than sadomasochism.
But something is missing; the fear isn’t as deep as it is in The Exorcist. The vampires in the Twilight series are waxed male models, with the lead character, Bella, becoming a vampire as a form of self-realization. The zombies in The Walking Dead seem more cartoonish than terrifying. This shift exhibits a kind of cowardice on the part of their creators. Unlike William Blatty and Exorcist director William Friedkin, they seem unwilling to concede that evil strikes at us in our most sacramental and personal space—our sexuality. To do so would be to concede that a gnostic separation of the soul and body, a willful confusion about the meaning of sex, and a degradation of female sexuality has been part of the liberal cultural triumph of the last forty years. And Hollywood is not about to indict itself.
But to avoid this theme is to make inferior films, which is why The Exorcist endures. You can even see the decline in remakes of lesser horror movies. Fright Night is a vampire movie that came out in 1985 and was remade in 2011. It tells the story of a kid named Charley Brewster who finds himself living next door to a vampire. What made the original Fright Night so great was its combination of humor and horror, particularly the brilliant performance of Chris Sarandon as Jerry the vampire. To help battle Jerry, Charley goes to Peter Vincent, the host of a cheap local horror show called Fright Night. Vincent, played by Roddy McDowall, is a washed-up actor who has landed at the bottom of the celebrity food chain.
Vincent has also lost his faith. When Charley convinces him to confront bloodsucker Jerry, Peter pulls a crucifix out. Nothing happens. “You have to have faith for that to work,” smirks Jerry, who then watches as Peter flees. As the film moves along, however, Peter Vincent begins to slowly finds his courage—and his faith. In a climactic scene, Jerry approaches Peter, intent on turning him into a member of the undead. Peter hesitates, gathers himself together, and produces a crucifix. Jerry starts to smirk and bare his fangs, but then stops cold, repelled by the crucifix. Peter Vincent has found belief in Jesus Christ.
Fright Night is not as heavily religious a film as The Exorcist; Peter does not consult a priest or pray the rosary. But is a religious film in the way that so much of Western culture was once informed by Christianity in subtle (and not so subtle) ways that made our art more powerful. In the 2011 remake, Peter Vincent is no longer a TV personality but an alcoholic illusionist. His own parents were murdered by a vampire, and Peter’s journey in the film is to acquire the courage to confront vampire Jerry. While the remake does have Jerry reminding Charley that “you have to have faith for that to work” when Charley produces a crucifix, that line is never repeated for the rest of the film. While Charley and Peter find courage, there is no discovery of faith.
Forty years after The Exorcist, it is still not the wars or geopolitical battles or natural disasters or espionage that marks our era as evil. It is the degradation of ourselves as spiritual beings, a degradation that takes the form of sexual assaults, both physical, spiritual, and putatively humorous. Sitcoms are a twenty-minute seriesof sex jokes. Journalists go on talk shows and giggle about how a nickname for the Tea Party sounds like a sex practice. A liberal writer recently wrote an essay entitled “Abortion is Great.” As I write this, a recent video ad by a feminist group is online, featuring a series of young girls shouting out the f-word in defense of abortion and same-sex marriage. They are about the same age Regan was in The Exorcist.
This is why people still gather at the famous Exorcist stairs in Washington where Fr. Karras plummets to his death. These days we laugh at vampires, who have become defanged. Torture horror is passé. Zombies don’t frighten us. But having become convinced that we are indeed soulless, rutting animals, and encouraged by the culture that this is a good thing, we look to The Exorcist like a mirror. The truth holds us rapt.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.