This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series
– By Sam Hendrian –
Why do people like watching scary movies? Such is a question that has been pondered by philosophers and everyday thinkers throughout the history of film. While there may be no definitive answer to this question, one likely reason is that humans find excitement in the idea that there exists terrible evils for goodness to overcome. After all, the rote routines of daily life can be rather humdrum sometimes, numbing the sense of purpose we long to feel. Behind the protective glass of cinema, we enjoy watching creatures of vice wrestling viciously with creatures of virtue, hoping profusely that the creatures of virtue shall be triumphant. One of the most memorable movies to depict such a wrestling match is 1973’s The Exorcist.
Directed by William Friedkin and written by Catholic author William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist was a box office phenomenon and remains one of the only horror films to have been nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. In a societal culture dominated by secularism, it serves as a sometimes horrifying but ultimately inspiring reminder that having faith in a higher power is indispensable for human beings who seek lasting peace and joy.
When we first meet twelve-year-old Regan MacNeil, it is hard to imagine a sweeter, more innocent girl. Her divorced mother, Chris, is a successful Hollywood actress. They are temporarily living in a house near Georgetown University, as Chris is filming a movie there. While all is not well in their lives—Mr. MacNeil has not been there for either of them when they needed him—they are happy to have each other’s loving company.
Subtle implications of demonic activity begin when Regan demonstrates to Chris her fondness for playing a Ouija board that she found in the house. She mentions a “Captain Howdy” who has been playing the game with her, which Chris just interprets as a cute creation of her imagination. Later, Regan acts rather strangely during a physical examination at the doctor’s office. Subsequent episodes of strange behavior and a seemingly shaking bed convince Chris that her daughter is in need of some serious medical assistance.
Thus begins the most frustrating portion of the movie. As Regan’s behavior steadily grows violent and disturbing, every doctor whom poor Chris sees insists that she simply has either a severe nervous or psychiatric disorder that can be treated by medicine. Chris has no religious beliefs, but when one of the doctors finally suggests asking a priest about performing an exorcism, she desperately heeds his advice and goes to see a priest named Father Karras, who also happens to be a psychiatrist.
Father Karras is perhaps the film’s most complex and fascinating character. A tortured man, he feels guilt over not being present at the recent death of his mother and expresses to a fellow priest that he fears he has lost his faith. When Chris confronts him about the possibility of giving her daughter an exorcism, he writes her off, explaining that after schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders were discovered by doctors, the idea of a person actually being possessed by a demon has largely become non-credible, even in the eyes of most priests. He says that he can come examine Regan, but as a psychiatrist, not a priest. Furious that a priest himself is basically telling her to see more doctors, Chris retorts:
“Oh, not a psychiatrist! She needs a PRIEST!”
Filled with sympathy for the poor mother, Father Karras comes over to examine Regan and determine whether or not she is actually possessed by a demon. Despite her horrific behavior in his presence, he remains convinced that she is simply schizophrenic or something of the like. Chris will not have any of this, and as Father Karras continues to observe Regan over time, he finally becomes convinced that she is in need of spiritual assistance. After a meeting with his bishop, he is granted permission to perform the rite of exorcism alongside an elderly, more experienced priest named Father Merrin. Walking into Regan’s room together, the two priests prepare for a spiritually trying, potentially deadly battle with the forces of hell.
On the surface, it seems that The Exorcist is merely trying to scare people into faith. Screenwriter William Peter Blatty said that one of his main purposes in writing it was that if he could convince people to believe in demons, they might also come to believe in God. Nevertheless, there is something deeper than fear tactics at the heart of his story. As we each daily struggle to keep up with the rhythm of life, we may often feel what the protagonist in the Simon & Garfunkel song “America” expresses: I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. If we were not created by a loving God with a greater purpose in mind, if there is only nothingness after this Earthly life filled with suffering and loss, then empty and aching is what we should logically feel.
Paralyzed by the pressure of people looking up to him as a model of faith, Father Karras begins to feel a deep emptiness as severe doubts flood his soul. Is there really an all-loving God? Is there really eternal life? The idea of an innocent little girl being possessed by a demon seems icing on the garbage cake. And yet, as Father Karras assists Father Merrin in performing the rite of exorcism, a subtle transformation occurs in his doubt-drugged soul. During one brief, shining moment, he believes that there is a divine good capable of overcoming diabolical evil. This belief fuels him with a fleeting self-confidence that he uses to perform a heroic, life-giving act.
As the old cliché goes, the world is the Devil’s playground. When we realize that the monkey bars are forged with the metal of human depravity, and the swings go downwards with suffering more often than they go upwards with joy, it is easy to lose our faith and start believing that there is nothing really sacred or divine about life. But if we let doubt and despair have the final say, then Satan has won. Let us not give the Prince of Lies that satisfaction. Let us remember the indispensability of faith when it comes to finding peace and fulfillment in this torturously turbulent world. And when having faith seems impossible, let us lift our hearts heavenward with a simple, honest prayer:
Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.