Saturday, 3 September 2011
The Exorcist - From Innocence to Experience
Well, on the night before Halloween when I was twelve years old, a friend and I rented The Exorcist (1973), camped out in his basement and attempted the feat. We made it to Father Merrin's arrival at the house and decided it was too much in one night to endure the actual exorcism, so we finished it the following morning. In the light.
Some might say we wimped out. But the reality is that I didn't sleep a wink that night, because not only did I have the demon's face etched into my brain, I had no idea what the outcome of the whole story was! That lack of closure was pure torture for the hours I spent terrified in the dark unable to sleep.
Time and time again, The Exorcist is labelled as "the most terrifying film ever made," specifically by Entertainment Weekly and Movies.com, and it seems to have stood the test of time. Even though the fashions and hairstyles have all changed and all of the technology seen in the film is insanely outdated (the hospital scenes are often credited as the most gut-wrenching scenes in the entire movie), the themes of this film continue to resonate with viewers today and probably will for decades to come.
Why? There are many reasons why as a film it works on so many levels. The acting is flawless on all counts, the special effects and makeup creations are outstanding and as real as anything you'll ever see, and the script penned by the original novel's author, William Peter Blatty, not only provides humanity and honest dialogue, but develops the story and characters at a perfect pace in order for the audience to fully sympathize with everyone involved in Regan's transformation from innocent girl to hideous demon.
And therein lies the real reason why we are continually drawn to this story - the transformation from innocence to experience; when we unknowingly give up the freedom of being a child and spend the rest of our lives trying to rediscover it. Regan is twelve years old. The age in which we are still a child but not quite old enough to shoulder the physical and emotional responsibilities of being an adult. Our bodies are changing, new and interesting feelings are being discovered, but we still hold onto our innocence.
The Exorcist takes that transformation that we all go through and turns it entirely on its head (or, in this case, spins it around). When we first meet Regan (Linda Blair), she is a cute, rosy cheeked girl of twelve who is happy to create Plasticine sculptures and ride horses - a place where we have all been. And over the course of the film she deteriorates into this horrible monster that eludes all medical and psychological knowledge and requires the aid of an ailing priest with a past, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), and Father Karras (Jason Miller), a psychologist priest in the midst of a crisis of faith. Together they perform the rites of exorcism to fight for her life and her soul - as well as their own.
Each character in this film possesses characteristics and traits that we can all relate to - a mother who just wants to help her daughter, a young girl in the middle of her parents' separation, a middle aged man who no longer knows what to put his faith in - and the performances are written and executed so well it's impossible not to find traits we all share with them. But while the film's major story arc revolves around Father Karras and his journey from emptiness to redemption through faith and sacrifice, the reason why audiences and critics alike continue to be drawn to this story is the fact that it's happening to an innocent child, and it's the innocent child in each of us that we all fight to protect.
As I said in my first post, the horror genre challenges us to accept that some things happen in real life whether we like it or not. In the case of The Exorcist, we are forced to watch an innocent girl tormented by a demon, a spiritual representation of all of the inevitable changes that come with losing one's childhood innocence - the physical loss of virginity, the emotional loss of the ignorance to the horrors of the world, and the discovery of one's own mortality and limitations - and we can't help but feel that we are all Regan in some way.
Ultimately, through the act of self sacrifice Karras succeeds in driving out the demon, but as we are in life when we lose our innocence, Regan is never the same. The physical scars remain on her face (much as once virginity is taken, it can never be physically repaired), and when we see her in the final scene her rosy carefree nature is replaced by the guilt of knowing that people have died for and because of her, and a longing to return to the way life was before it all happened - the way most people deal with various forms of guilt throughout their lives and long to return to the innocence of childhood. We all experience this in our own different ways to various degrees, which is why we are drawn to Regan's journey. It's shockingly cathartic, and we don't want to admit that we strangely can relate to her experience.
The lines that are given to the two priests in The Version You've Never Seen are very moving:
Karras: Why this girl? It makes no sense.
Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To reject the possibility that God could love us.
In essence, these are the lies that we constantly tell ourselves. Whereas the demon chose to possess Regan to attack the people around her and make them feel alone, unworthy and unloved, the demons that we continually deal with - self consciousness, self doubt etc. - make us feel the same way about ourselves.
But the positive aspect of the whole terrifying ordeal is that in the end it's love that wins. Karras invites the demon into his body, and because of his love for this poor girl he throws himself out of the bedroom window and down the famous staircase in Georgetown before it can re-enter her. This one final act shows us the true power of love, and what love for self and for others can do to overcome all of the obstacles that the experiences of our own journeys have brought us.
For it is when we love that we can truly live.