I was 11 years old and in the 6th grade when I first saw The Exorcist. To say that it scared the shit out of me is the understatement of the century. Even now, looking back 28 years, I can still remember watching the final exorcism scenes from underneath a blanket with my hands over my ears so I didn’t have to hear the demon-possessed Regan MacNeil speak. It rattled me right down to the core – and this was the edited for television version that was ABC Friday Night Movie or some such thing. Why did my parents let me watch this? Truth be told, I probably begged to watch, much like I begged to read The Amityville Horror in 3rd grade only to be too scared to sleep. Honestly though, I don’t remember. I think I blocked that out of my mind.
I remember going to bed that night and seeing Regan’s possessed face everywhere. In the window above the bathtub, coming up out of the toilet, peeking out from under my bed. It’s amazing that I slept at all that night. I still have a hard time watching it without being scared – it gets to me on a visceral level that almost no other horror film has since. Perhaps it was because I watched it at such an impressionable age and it left such deep scars in my psyche. A couple years later, I taped the movie when it showed on WGN and watched all the scary parts a million times, probably in an attempt to anesthetize myself to the scariness that had so jarred me a year earlier. I scared one friend of mine with it so much he refused to even entertain watching it and I inadvertently watched it when one of my brother’s friends was over (he was 8 at the time.) Years later, my brother and I saw “The Version You’ve Never Seen” that was re-released in theaters in the 90s and I still had to look away from the screen at certain points. Yes, even this seasoned horror fan has limits.
So there I was, 11 years old and having been scared to the edge of sanity by The Exorcist, what did I do? To deal with this, I did what came naturally – I went to the library and checked out William Peter Blatty’s novel. There I sat in my 6th grade classroom on book break (from 10:05 to 10:25) and while my classmates were reading Encyclopedia Brown or Judy Blume novels, I was reading The Exorcist. Margaret may have been seeing if God was there, but in my book, the demon possessing Regan was referring to holy water as “the semen of the saints” and asking Chris MacNeil if she knew what her cunting daughter did. Probably not appropriate for 6th grade. Why didnt may parents say something? Because they were and are cool and were letting me find my own way. While reading, I couldn’t help but think back to the beating that watching The Exorcist was for me. I often wonder what it must have been like to read that book without having seen the movie. The words and images are inextricably linked.
I’ve read the book several times since then and as I’ve gotten older and the shocking scenes of demonic possession, exorcism and the world’s worst potty mouth have become repetitive and lack some of the punch they had initally. Oh sure, that scream of “MERRIN!!!!” that rattles the house when Father Merrin and Father Karras show up to perform the exorcism still catches me off guard. I still get creeped out by Regan masturbating with a crucifix growling “Let Jesus f*** you!” while innocent voice of Regan breaks through in protest. The one scene in the exorcism that I still have trouble with to this day lasts only a few seconds and looks like this.
Now what in the hell is so scary about an old woman sitting on a bed? I have no idea. I can’t explain it. For those who have seen the movie, you know the woman is Father Karras’ mother who had recently died. Karras blames himself for not doing more to help his mother in her final days and is wracked with guilt about it. The demon, as Father Merrin predicted prior to the exorcism, knows their weaknesses and will use them to distract them from the task at hand. When the demon starts speaking in his dead mother’s voice (after telling him that his mother sucks cocks in hell) asking “why you do this to me Dimmy?”, Karras falls to pieces. To this day, I can’t look at that when it comes up on the screen, although having been forced to look at it in preparation for this post, perhaps the next time I watch the movie, I’ll be able to watch that scene.
It’s the quiet horror in The Exorcist that gets overlooked so frequently in favor of the levitation and head spinning and green pea soup projectile vomiting. The crisis of faith that Father Karras is feeling is central to the story. As a parent, I can relate to the sense of helplessness that Regan’s mother, Chris, feels as she takes her child to doctor after doctor only to be told that there isn’t anything wrong with her daughter, and how someone as faithless as Chris can be pushed to consult the church after all the traditional support mechanisms have failed. Many argue that the possession is at least partially allegory for adolescence, especially when Chris MacNeil utters the famous phrase “I’m telling you that that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter!” There’s a loneliness that persists throughout the book, as if to remind us that we all travel this road alone, even if we are surrounded by others. But it also ends with hope, especially in the budding friendship between Father Dyer (Karras’ best friend) and Lt. Kinderman, the police officer who gets caught up in the story but is oblivious to the supernatural goings-ons. It also leaves us wondering – was it really a demon from hell, or were the demons just the ones we bring upon ourselves?
It’s a roller coaster ride on many emotional levels. Writing this post makes me feel like I should reread the book. Maybe it’ll be the first of 75 that I try to read in 2012. The power of Christ just might compel me.