Bookended by The French Connection and Sorcerer, The Exorcist is the pivotal middle term in a rough trilogy that captures the height of William Friedkin’s 1970s output. All three films starts outside of the United States, and all three films are preoccupied with how the United States occupies global patterns of exchange. The Exorcist opens in the Middle East, at an archaeological site, where Friedkin continues the kinetic energy of The French Connection into an accelerated tracking-shot of a young boy who runs to announce the discovery of a demonic totem to Lankester Merrin, the Catholic priest who is in charge of the dig, played by Max von Sydow. We then follow Lankester in a brief prologue as he starts to feel the impact of this totem, which works primarily by enhancing his – and our – awareness of the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity, which in many ways is the real horror of The Exorcist. During these early scenes, we’re asked to envisage Christianity as part of the same cultural matrix that produced Islam, setting the stage for a demon that often operates by infiltrating American Christianity with the residues of a more ancient Middle Eastern monotheism. This opening sequence culminates with Lankester apprehending the demon’s presence as he’s caught between two sightlines – the gaze of a larger demonic statue, and the gaze of a Muslim elder – before the action pivots abruptly to Washington DC, and its cultural adjunct in Georgetown University.
We’re introduced to Washington, and Georgetown, as a simulation of the radical student politics of the 1960s, by way of actress Chris McNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, who we meet playing a university dean, making her way through a massive demonstration to the steps of the university, where she makes a plea for moderation, deference and law and order. From the very outset, then, it’s clear that the counter-culture of the 60s has passed into the realm of historical simulation, which has in turn detached Baby Boomers from their radical heritage. While still exhibiting some of the iconoclastic characteristics of the Boomer generation, Chris can now only experience student politics through a cinematic simulation, and even there she is forced into the role of the older generation that the Boomers defined themselves against. As Chris herself describes it, the film is “kind of like the Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story,” signaling a deep anxiety, thoughout The Exorcist, about Boomer futurity, and the fate of the Boomer project, which eventually converges with the demonic presence unleashed by Lankester’s dig in the Middle East. Even in these early scenes, however, Friedkin’s tableaux are haunted by the spectre of student politics, and the great student movements of the 60s, especially since Chris’ family home backs right onto Georgetown campus, fusing her everyday experience of the university with the film she is shooting there.
By alternating between Chris’ opening shoot and her real life on the fringes of campus, Friedkin suggests that mass protest and mass media are no longer capable of challenging authority in the same way that they did during the 60s – they have ceased to be counter-cultural. Friedkin thus sets himself the challenge of setting a new film language to deal with Boomer malaise – or at least evoking the inadequacy of contemporary cinema to deal with this crisis in Boomer futurity. To that end, he fills the first act of The Exorcist with cavernous spaces that are too large or too vacant to be reined into Chris’ film, along with abrasive bursts of dissonant noise that prevent his own mise-en-scenes from ever quite settling or stabilizing. In effect, the demon announces its presence first and foremost through these disjunctions of sound and imagery, manifesting itself as a disruption of the New Hollywood cinematic field.
This crisis in Boomer futurity, and the arrival of the demon, coalesce around Chris’ relationship with her daughter Regan, played by Linda Blair. Like so many 70s horror films, the father is absent from this household, although Friedkin is more ambivalent than most directors about how to handle it. On the one hand, we’re introduced to a loving, tender, beautiful relationship with Chris and Regan, encapsulated in a bedtime conversation they have about the possibility of Chris taking a new partner. While Regan is open to the idea, it doesn’t seem like their family needs completion either, since mother and daughter form a resilient and self-sufficient unit that can withstand an absent father. On the other hand, Chris breaks down in the next scene, during a phone conversation with Regan’s father, who we learn hasn’t even called his daughter for her birthday. This is the first time we see Chris lose control in the film, and the first time that Regan sees her swear, paving the way for the torrent of profanity and blasphemy to come later in the script. Between these two poles, Friedkin suggests that the failure of the Boomer project lies in the relation between fathers and daughters – in the failure of Boomers to envisage a world beyond paternalism and patriarchy, but also the failure of male Boomers to live up to those patriarchal expectations to begin with.
This anxiety about Boomer paternalism takes us to the third main character and location after our introduction to Lankester in the Middle East and Chris in Georgetown – Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest played by Jason Miller, who spends his time between Washington and New York, where he cares for his ailing mother Mary, played by Vasiliki Mariaros. Whereas Chris is a single mother caring for her daughter, Damien is his mother’s only son, and directs all his paternal energies towards her, given that he has no children of his own, and his own father has died. To some extent, Damien is aligned with Regan’s absent and unnamed father, especially since both men shared a connection to Europe. Where Regan’s father is living in the Hotel Excelsior in Rome, Damien is a Greek-American who has devoted his life to the Catholic faith, raised in predominantly Greek and Italian neighbourhoods of New York. For the first part of the film, Chris and Damien thus follow different but parallel trajectories, since their lives both revolve around households involving mothers who are alone, and the perceived risk to mothers who are alone. This risk becomes a reality when the demon inhabits Regan, but also when Damien’s mother dies when he is out of town, converging both Chris and Regan on the Boomer incapacity to process single mothers, and single women, as part of its radical agenda, which The Exorcist diagnoses as the Boomers’ key generational shortfall.
In effect, then, the first half of The Exorcist alternates between a girl without a father, and the son of a solitary mother, while the demon seems like a friendly paternal presence, nicknamed “Captain Howdy” by Regan, who even considers him a potential mate for Chris. In one of the eeriest early scenes, mother and daughter use a Ouija board like it’s any other game, as Regan asks her new friend, “Captain Howdy, do you think my Mom’s pretty?” At the same time, Damien has a nightmare in which we see the demon’s face for the first time, but if you take away the creepy music and distorted visuals, this dream simply shows his mother walking through New York and taking the subway herself – hardly a horrific spectacle outside the film’s anxieties about female independence, or the anxieties that the film attributes to its Boomer audience. No surprise, then, that when the demon starts to possess Regan, Chris turns to Damien, who she has seen around Georgetown, for advice, since their two stories naturally converge upon a lost father-function, or an anxiety about a waning father-function, that the demon both exemplifies and assuages. For, like the slashers of 70s horror, the demon here both capitalizes on the absence of a father-figure and occupies the positon of a father-figure in a heightened and hyperbolic way, using Regan to assert himself as man of the house.
The second half of The Exorcist is driven by this demonic need to both expose and double down on the absent paternal signifier of New Hollywood cinema, even as Friedkin tries to come to terms with this patriarchal horror at the heart of Boomer liberation. At the same time, Friedkin and screenwriter William Peter Blatty seem prescient that the body of the young girl is the prime site for this patriarchal regulation. In effect, the film takes a young girl’s body and experiments with what happens when it is introduced into Boomer society with no paternal or patriarchal imprimatur. The result is a return of the Boomer repressed, as Regan’s body becomes a site for demonic revanchism, and a canvas where the Boomer regulation of the female body is rendered visible as torture porn. As the demon’s desecration of Regan’s body accelerates, Friedkin exhausts every discourse that might explain it, taking us through medical, neurological and psychiatric tests that quickly feel like part of the demon’s modus operandi, as if it wants Regan to undergo this barrage of bodily regulations as part of its broader torture trajectory. At times, the demon’s main goal appears to be to force Regan to spend as much time as possible bound up in lego-medical administration, culminating with a forced angiogram that remains the most visceral, volatile and horrific moment in the movie.
Yet the demon isn’t content with forcing Regan through all the regular forms of Boomer regulation, since Regan’s very existence as the daughter of a single mother – with a man’s name to boot – positions her outside these very structures to begin with. The medical, neurological and psychiatric interventions thus serve as mere preludes to the exorcism, which Chris first considers after confessing to a doctor that she had planned to take Regan to Rome to visit her father in the near future – a confession she makes while wearing Middle Eastern-styled headsgear. In order to double down on Boomer patriarchy, the demon has to revert back to the distant origins of Christianity, thereby demonstrating that Boomers are more indebted to the Judeo-Christian beliefs than their radicalism might initially suggest. Before we experience any of the exorcistic processes, Friedkin thus fetishizes the last great wave of European immigrants to America, exemplified by Damien and his New York neighbourhood, as the second main conduit for the demon. As a Catholic priest, Damien forms a link to European Christianity, while as a Greek immigrant he recalls the Orthodox fusion of Eastern and Western Christian traditions, effectively turning him into an embodied lineage of Christianity from its Middle Eastern to American incarnations. The treatment of Catholicism is thus not all that different here from the role it plays in traditional Gothic literature, where it is alien precisely because it reiterates this connection between English-speaking Christianity and the broader monotheistic matrix of the Middle East, which is here conflated with the repressed atavistic kernel of the Boomer project, as least as Friedkin and Blatty perceive it.
Put another way, the ultimate Gothic object of The Exorcist is American Catholicism, while the film as a whole is fearful of the way that Boomerism has come to occupy a similar Catholicity with respect to the future of American radicalism. Between Chris and Damien’s trajectories, The Exorcist is even more fearful that the Boomers may have actually enhanced the demonic cult of the father-function in American society, culminating with the “person inside of Regan,” who in retrospect now seems like Reagan – Reagan speaking through Regan. While this eventually necessitates an exorcism, the exorcism doesn’t provide any clear answer, even when Damien calls Lankester back from the Middle East, since both men confess that they know hardly anything about the process, which remains arcane even in the fringes of the Church. Similarly, the demon seems to be welcoming the exorcism as part of its own regulatory process, much as it welcomed earlier medical, neurological and psychiatric efforts to expel it, until the demon and exorcism converge on a regulation of Regan’s body without any clear agency, and without any discursive path for the film to process or conceptualise it.
During the final moments of the exorcism, then, we seem to have reached the limit of what New Hollywood can envisage or process. To some extent, Friedkin registers this by pushing the limits of what can be shown on screen, visualizing the Boomer terror of a female body unregulated by paternal oversight – or the terror of losing the patriarchal desecration of female bodies needed for the Boomer status quo to continue – as a series of eruptions, ejections and expulsions of bodily fluids, starting with urine and moving through vomit to feces and blood. During these scenes, Friedkin combines horror, profanity, vulgarity and sacrilege in ways rarely seen before or since, as Regan’s body becomes a vehicle for the Boomer religion at its most misogynistic, violent and vulgar. In that very process, however, Regan becomes the man of the house, or is needed to bring the man of the house into existence qua demon, who greets the exorcists as they arrive with the first genuinely authoritative masculine voice that we have heard in the film so far. Even as the voice climaxes, however, it punishes Regan’s body more brutally, and forces the priests to do so as well, until we are basically left with the spectacle of the two priests taking over the demon’s work, beating, punching and desecrating a little girls’ torso until she seems to be at death’s door.
Despite the power of this sequence, however, I found the subplot about Chris’ own film career eerier in capturing Friedkin’s frustration with the discursive limits that The Exorcist runs up against in trying to articulate this Boomer lack. Midway through the film, Regan kills Burke Dennings, the director of Chris’ film, played by Jack MacGowran. Although Regan apparently ejects Burke out her bedroom window, which sits above a long flight of stairs at the Georgetown campus, we never see this crime – and can’t, since it signals a space beyond the cinematic status quo that Burke and his film represent, and that the film is anxious to escape. Instead, we only see the crowd gathering at the bottom of the stairs, where Burke’s body lands – a crowd that is both similar and different to the crowd he orchestrates for the opening scene where Chris plays the reproachful campus dean; similar, because once again we’re presented with a group of students gathering on Georgetown campus; but different because these students are now displaced from the spectacular apparatus of Hollywood, neither in a film nor exactly out of the scope of a film either, since they’ve just witnessed the death of a major director. By displacing the moment when Burke is ejected from the window, Friedkin situates us in the same space, forcing us to see the devolution of Hollywood spectacle as a spectacle in itself, and displacing us from any direct identification with the film’s characters.
This cinematic displacement gives way to a series of free-floating signifiers that perpetuate this peripheral cinematic space over the next part of the film, from the appearance of a private investigator who tries to get Damien onside by confessing that “I love to talk film, to discuss, to critique,” to the bizarre cameo from Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon, which suggests that the more patriarchal this Boomer regulation becomes, the more it signals its fear of being emasculated by the previous generation of Hollywood actors and archetypes. Chris also observes, early on, that saying Regan is possessed is as ridiculous as saying she is Napoleon Bonaparte – a comparison that turns out to be quite apt, since this demonic Boomer voice is, like Napoleon, diminished in stature, and turns to conquest in part to compensate for a militaristic and paternal fantasy that it can never hope to properly fulfil.
In the wake of the director’s death, and in light of this post-cinematic space beyond Regan’s window, The Exorcist thus seems to be searching for a discourse that doesn’t yet exist – for a Generation eXorcism that will expel the anxieties of Boomer futurity by transplanting them seamlessly onto the next wave of students, adolescents and young adults. Yet despite the Boomers’ best efforts to either thwart or fulfil this prospect, the demonic legacy of their generation is beyond them here, and the demon is so conflated with Boomer discourse that it can only be disrupted through shock, symbolism or the vacant space outside of Regan’s window – the space that hovers over the Georgetown steps, and which bespeaks a cinematic language that Friedkin’s camera hasn’t yet attained. For me, then, all the shock and gore remains secondary to the way both priests abruptly die – Lankester offscreen, like Burke before him, and then Damien also thrown out the window, like Burke before him, although this time we do see the entire process whereby Damien is ejected through glass and down the staircase, where a crowd gathers to watch him just as they did for Burke a few days before.
Once again, the crowd of the 60s has been replaced by crowds bearing witness to the exhaustion of the 60s, and the 60s is subsumed into cinematic spectacle, signaling the waning of cinematic spectacle itself as a vehicle for radical action as the Boomers once conceived it. By definition, we can’t occupy this space for any great length of time and remain in Friedkin’s film, and so he exorcises the audience, cutting rapidly to the Georgetown steps the next morning, where they stand quiet, empty and brooding – an evocative absence, the punctum or ellipsis around which the entire film’s line of flight from Boomer New Hollywood pivots. Regan wakes up, and Reagan is on the rise, but the final note of The Exorcist is Damien’s friend, Father Joseph Dyer, played by Father William O’Malley, walking towards the steps, peering over them, and then starting to walk away, as the camera cuts before this movement can be completed. The audience are therefore also left in this weird, provisional, hypothetical hesitation – as much as a gesture as a space – as we hang, suspended, over the staircase that signals the need for some future augmentation of cinema, or what we mean by cinema, to process the decline of Boomers and the inherent conservatism of New Hollywood. On the one hand, Joseph is the only major character to be played by a priest, but, on the other hand, Joseph is framed as the only overtly gay character – a final queer touch that perhaps explains Friedkin’s career-long interest in gay lives, outlooks and perceptions as a step towards the expanded cinematic world whose apparent impossibility The Exorcist so evocatively imagines.