October 31, 2012—Frequently named one of the scariest films of all time, The Exorcist (1973) holds a special place in the culture and history of Georgetown University. For dozens of Halloweens, the horror classic has been screened on campus for Hoyas who have a taste for the supernatural.
Assistant English Professor Caetlin Benson-Allott, who is also a core faculty member in the Film and Media Studies Program, feels that one reason the film has endured in popular culture is its aesthetics.
“The Exorcist is one of the best horror movies from one of the best periods in U.S. horror production. It took advantage of a renaissance in special effects artistry that changed the appearance of U.S. film during the 1970s and ’80s,” she said. “Shots like Regan’s spinning head or the writing on her stomach could not have been produced with that level of verisimilitude even a few years earlier.
“It thrilled fans of the genre with spectacles they had never seen before,” she said.
William Peter Blatty (C’50) was inspired to write the book that led to the film—for which he wrote an Academy-award-winning screenplay—while an undergraduate student on scholarship at Georgetown. Published in 1971, The Exorcist was based on true events: the 1949 case of a Catholic family from Maryland whose young son was said to have become profane and telekinetic after using a Ouija board and getting possessed by a demon.
Blatty spruced up the tale for his novel. He made the main character a preteen girl, Regan MacNeil, whose mother was a famous actress working in the Georgetown area. He also deeply personified the invading spirit, naming it Pazuzu after a Mesopotamian demon that was said to bring famine and locusts.
In the story, the MacNeils turn to the Catholic Church—specifically, to a young priest at Georgetown, Damien Karras—for help when medical science fails to cure the symptoms of possession. According to Associate History Professor David Collins, S.J., this points to the long tradition in Catholicism of using exorcism, which is the eviction of entities from people or places, to fight evil.
“What exorcism has meant or entailed has changed throughout history,” Father Collins said. “There is evidence of Christians exorcising the possessed since the apostolic age.
“Within a Christian worldview, evil can be personified, relational, and possessive. But one thing it cannot be is all-powerful,” he continued. “Thus, exorcism is a sign of Christ’s ultimate supremacy over all. In the rite itself, a way that that supremacy works is through the prayers of the Church.”
In both the book and the film, good does defeat evil, but only after Father Karras kills himself by falling down a flight of stairs—a scene that was famously filmed on the steep stairway by the Car Barn on Prospect Street.
Since he first saw The Exorcist “in the mid-’80s,” Father Collins has become friends with several Jesuits who had parts in the film. But as a priest, he also views the work more critically than most.
For example, Father Collins knows that the Catholic Church has been phasing out exorcism since 1972, when Pope Paul VI suppressed the office of exorcist—a minor order since the Middle Ages—in order to better align the Church with modern knowledge about mental illness, which had sometimes been mistaken for possession.
“In short, much of the film’s premise, if it was ever theologically sound, was out-of-date before the film made it to the big screen” one year later, Father Collins said. “[But] the power of evil is intriguing. Why are sales for Dante’s Inferno so much higher than for his Paradiso?”
According to Benson-Allott, who will be screening the film in a course next semester called Horrors: Technologies and Techniques, The Exorcist remains relevant because it forces viewers to think about complex topics.
“Friedkin’s movie inspired such broad controversy [when it was released] because it used a ‘low’ genre—the possession movie—to address very pressing social issues: divorce, women’s social standing, [female] sexuality, the role of religion in contemporary U.S. culture,” she said.
“As Americans, we’re taught to think of our identities as stable and our bodies as sovereign property,” she continued. “The Exorcist invites us to question those beliefs.”