Why ‘The Exorcist’ Still Haunts Us 50 Years Later

October 26, 2023 | 5 books mentioned 6 min read

cover ExorcistIt’s a big year for the devil. The late William Friedkin’s gruesome masterpiece, The Exorcist, turns 50 in December. Earlier this October, the impresario of ill-conceived horror reboots, David Gordon Green, brought the franchise half-back to life with The Exorcist: Believer. Most excitingly, a new wave critical perspectives on the original film has begun to crest, and gliding high atop the pack is Night Mother: A Personal and Cultural History of The Exorcist by Marlena Williams.

Structured like a traditional Roman Catholic exorcism, the series of essays that comprise Night Mother break fresh ground by weaving a trenchant analysis of “The Exorcist” and its fraught cultural context together with a searing personal reckoning. Just as Regan’s condemned soul and scarrified body haunt her mother, Williams revisits the shattering final months of her own mother’s life. Grief possesses Williams’s agile, edifying prose, but rather than weighing it down sets it aloft, propelling her journey through disparate readings of The Exorcist, from the racialized family fears of Nixon’s America it mined to the production’s death-haunted history. I sat down with Williams ahead of the release of Night Mother to discuss why the world is still riveted by the film all these years later.

Ryan Coleman: You point out in the first essay of the book, “My Mother and the Exorcist,” that there are a million ways to read The Exorcist. It’s a conservative attack on liberal family models; it’s about the hatred of young women; it’s actually a covert molestation story. In one of the last essays, “Something Sharp,” you explore a really interesting reading the film, as a graphic exploration of either the horror of the passage from adolescence to womanhood, or the hatred and disgust with which society perceives that transformation.

cover ExorcistMarlena Williams: Puberty sucks, we know this. Movies are always reminding us of this. But there is just so much that makes it a nightmare in so many ways. So in a way, portraying it as a horrifying ordeal in movies makes sense. But I think there is something particularly disturbing about the way The Exorcist does it, and the context it places it in. Obviously, the book and the film were written by a fairly conservative man. I like William Peter Blatty a lot. I think he’s funny and smart and wrote a great movie. But he’s incredibly Catholic, and I think you see a lot of his fears around women in this movie, and his disgust, in a way, toward girls maturing into women. So if you wanted to make The Exorcist more like the first version you brought up, portraying puberty as the horrifying bodily transformation and emotional transformation that it is, it would have to be told from Regan’s perspective. But in the film we have, Regan is barely a character. She’s a source of fear, a source of disgust, an embodiment of some kind of lost innocence. That’s where this interpretation of The Exorcist as a movie about puberty or about womanhood doesn’t quite sit with me. I’m thinking of what Stephen King said about writing Carrie in 1972 or ’73—he called Carrie an “uneasy masculine shrinking away from the prospect of female equality.” I think the same thing is going on here.

cover ExorcistRC: I know you’ve read one of my favorite books on film because you quote from it in Night Mother, and that’s Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, which begins with a discussion of Carrie. She wants to expand our assumptions about the way that people watch movies, especially horror movies and especially in terms of gender. If we assume slashers, for example, play so well with teenage boys because they love to see girls get stabbed and killed, then how do you explain the massive success of Carrie, which hinges on identifying with a vulnerable, isolated teenage girl in the throes of the most teenage-girl nightmare possible? Like you said, it’s similar to The Exorcist.

MW: It is, but in Carrie, she’s much more of a main character than Regan is in The Exorcist. She speaks and moves about the world where Regan is mostly silent. It’s not her voice, it’s the devil’s voice, and not even Linda Blair’s voice, it’s Mercedes McCambridge’s. She’s just this shell, whereas in Carrie, I think it’s much easier to have sympathy for Carrie White because we are walking in her shoes.

RC:  You say that in the book—it’s not called Regan, it’s called The Exorcist. And it’s called The Exorcist for a reason. Regan is not the main character here, she’s practically silent. Silenced, even.

MW: Tied to a bed and gagged.

RC: Right! You ask a powerful question in the book: What would The Exorcist look like if we were asked to identify and empathize with Regan rather than fear her? Could you speak to that, and also speak to what function do you think being made to fear this little girl plays?

MW: One of the main starting points for the book is the fact that this movie fucked me up so bad when I first saw it. I think that I wouldn’t have been so scared if Regan had been a fully fleshed out character who I could relate to. But she was just this scary, empty vessel for the devil and his demons. On a selfish level I do sometimes wish the movie—you know, no, I don’t necessarily wish the movie was any different. I’m glad it’s the way it is, but I know that it would have disturbed me less if we would’ve been able to step into Regan’s shoes and follow her through this terrible experience that she’s undergoing.

There’s the first layer of fear, which is that it’s shocking and scary to see someone, especially a kid, undergo something so horrific. Then there’s the second level of fear, which is seeing how men, broadly—the men in the movie, the director, writers, makers of the movie—see you as a young girl. It’s easy to see teenage girls as these silly, angry, superficial little beings with no real character. I really experienced that as a young person, I saw the way people saw me and acutely understood that people thought I and other girls were just dumb, ditzy, uninteresting. I really felt that as a young person. But I had thoughts in my head! I was a smart, interesting person. It’s changing now, but our inability to have empathy for young girls and to view them as complex, deep characters with the ability to control their lives is disturbing to me. It’s disturbing that we can’t do that, and that we’ve been dismissing them for so long.

But at the same time, the opposite concerns about The Exorcist are true too. This is a story, an incredibly powerful story, about the vulnerability of a little white girl. How her family could not protect her. I think the film reflects a lot of cultural concern about our children. Let’s keep our children safe at all costs, because something happening to our innocent children is the ultimate fear.

coverRC: Something happening to white children in particular, which you write about in the essay “James Baldwin Sees The Exorcist.” I would have never thought to look at The Exorcist through a racial lens, but doing so makes it seem obvious why Regan is sidelined as a character. Of course she couldn’t be a full character, because she’s performing the function of an object. You quote the Mark Kermode book on The Exorcist, where he describes the central fear the film is exploiting as the “graphic desecration of everything considered wholesome.” Of course it has to be a little white girl. But that’s the paradoxical thing about young white girlhood, and just young girlhood in general. You’re simultaneously made into the ideal of everything that is pure and wholesome, and you’re absolutely hated and ignored by society at the same time. 

coverMW: Exactly. That was an interesting way for me to look at it. The James Baldwin essay was enormously clarifying for me. It’s funny because when you read the essay, you get the sense that he doesn’t actually care that much about the film. Not that he doesn’t care for it, which actually, he doesn’t, but it’s not like he’s analyzing shot composition or anything. He grew up watching movies like all of us, but he’s not coming from it from a trained cinematic perspective. He really dredges up so many brilliant insights about all the ways in which America is so fucked up, though. We do so many terrible things to children, to little girls, to people of color too of course, but society lost its mind about this imperiled little white girl—it whipped up this frenzied moral panic around the sanctity of white girlhood and womanhood, when at the same time white women and girls are routinely treated terribly by white men and boys. Baldwin says the film is one massive deflection. If we want to talk about real evil, what’s wrong with the world and this country, it’s not the devil. You don’t have to look that far.

is a writer from the San Gabriel Valley. His work has appeared in MUBI Notebook, the LA Review of Books, BOMB Magazine, and more.