Originally from Federal Way, Washington, a suburb outside of Seattle, Michael Onorati is a senior double majoring in Cinematic Arts Critical Studies, with Honors, and Film & Television Production. During his years at USC, he was a member of the Sidney Harman Academy of Polymathic Study and an assistant “game runner” for “Reality Ends Here,” an alternate reality game hosted by the School of Cinematic Arts. Although he enjoys all kinds of movies, his research at USC has primarily been in the horror and suspense-thriller genres. As a Film Production student, he has been a director and production designer on several student films. In his free time, he enjoys reading, recreational running, and card games, and can often be found exploring museums or attending Visions and Voices events.
With the advertising slogan “almost beyond comprehension,” director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty set out with the paradoxical goal of both shocking and spiritualizing viewers when crafting The Exorcist (1973). On the one hand the film is an exemplar of horror and some might say obscenity, featuring the defiling of religious artifacts, prolonged scenes of medical tests involving needles and the drawing of blood, urination and vomiting, the humiliation and battery of clergymen, and strong obscenities spewing from the mouth of an innocent twelve-year-old girl possessed by a demon that may be the Devil himself. Yet at the same time, the film is a religious story of good versus evil, in which Christian values are upheld and the powers of righteousness and humility are able to defeat the dark forces at work. The Exorcist is thus a work of sacred blasphemy, exposing its viewers to the foulest of images and sounds in order to guide them on a reverential journey through the dark night of the soul. The paradoxical purpose is reflected in the film’s aesthetic design. Many of the normal iconographies of the horror film are reversed and perverted as darkness surrounds the good and light surrounds the profane. This motif is embodied in the film’s most famous image, that of Father Merrin’s (Max von Sydow) shadowy figure looking up into the eerie light emanating from the possessed Regan MacNeil’s (Linda Blair, with Mercedes McCambridge providing the voice of the demon and playing the possessed Regan in certain scenes) bedroom after having arrived at the entrance to the house on Prospect Street. The bedroom light transforms the night fog into a ghoulish haze through which the dark and despondent Merrin must penetrate. Light is the source of evil, and darkness the guardian of purity (Kermode 89-90). This central visual and visceral trick is matched with groundbreaking special effects, “subliminal” and what may be called “near-subliminal” imagery, and stroboscopic editing (Kermode 45-48), all of which combine with a story centering around discussions of a lack of belief in God, to both excite the viewer’s fears and reaffirm their faith. With this careful, intentional, and complex construction of diametrically opposed thematics and aesthetics, The Exorcist is a film that has provoked equal amounts of outrage and praise (Kermode 9) and remains one of cinema’s most censored and controversial works.
It is important to note that censorship attempts on The Exorcist had begun even before the shooting began. In Chester, Delaware, the placement of the novel by the West Morris Regional Board of Education on the school district’s “recommended reading for English classes” spurred outrage from parents, over a hundred of whom attended a board meeting in January 1972 and demanded that the novel be banned forever in the school district. What resulted was a passionate debate between the mob of parent protesters and a rather obstinate school board. Board member Thorwald Torgersen admitted that he had not read the novel. Yet Torgersen still refused to have any passages read aloud at the meeting in his presence because he had reserved the book at the library, was highly anticipating the read, and did not want any part of the story spoiled for him. George Palk, another board member, swung back and forth, championing “liberal education” and “restraint” in the same sentences. The teenagers themselves did not express any concerns over the novel and its content. The end result was the decision that since the novel was on the “recommended” list and not the “required” list, parents could self-censor their children’s reading habits as they willed. When Father William O’Malley, a Jesuit teacher of senior Advanced Placement English at a school in Rochester, who had been hired as a technical and religious advisor for the upcoming film adaptation, heard of this incident, he agreed that the novel should not be required reading in high schools. But, he expressed his bewilderment that people would get so upset with the novel when it depicts good triumphing over evil. Furthermore, O’Malley argued that claims that the novel was morally corrupt were unwarranted, for the heinous acts in the novel are committed by the Devil and shown to be negative. O’Malley’s role as advisor on the film would evolve into him being cast as Father Dryer, a friend and confidant of the protagonist, Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller). He would later state, “Anybody who has his wits about him would have to realize that everything in the book is written in an absolutely moral context.” Blatty himself also expressed such disdain at the censorship efforts of his novel in school districts: “You find insanity everywhere. The spectacle of parents who become hysterical when their children react calmly and maturely to a work of fiction is in itself a suitable subject for psychiatric study” (Bouzereau 157-158).
The success of the horror genre revolves around the paradox that people want to see what they do not want to see (Berliner 129), and the potency of The Exorcist comes from its use of this paradox in a religious context. The film depicts visual and oral blasphemies while telling a story of the reaffirmation of God in the lives of a doubting priest and atheist American family. Critics have both interpreted it as a work of reverence and as a work using religion as a weapon to attack the very foundations of reverence. In other words, some critics view the film as a modern Christian allegory and others view it as a modern freak show (Malone, Censoring Hollywood 162). Initial reviews of the film largely condemned it. Film Quarterly classified it as a “sickening exhibition,” and “the trash bombshell of 1973, the aesthetic equivalent of being run over by a truck,” film critic Vincent Canby called it “a chunk of elegant occultist claptrap,” and film critic and historian Pauline Kael considered it to be “sick” and Friedkin to be “mentally unprotected.” The sentiments of distaste were not just reserved for the critics, for some regional authorities began to express their displeasure with the film. Although the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had given the film an “R” or “Restricted” rating, meaning that no one under the age of 17 could attend the motion picture without the accompaniment of a parent or guardian, the district attorney’s offices in both Boston and Washington, D.C. gave the film an “X” rating, and charged that it was “obscene.” The censors in Great Britain banned the home video release of the film for a period of 25 years, and prevented it from being broadcasted on television, even in a cut version as was made for the film to be shown on American television. Religious organizations added further fire to the flame of loathing for the film. The Christian Century attacked the film, commenting that it was “repulsive” and “commercially exploitative,” and to top it all off, a series of staged group burnings of the novel by church groups occurred in wake of the film’s release (Berliner 129-130). The critics, censors, and religious organizations all seemed to agree that the profanities in the film were distasteful and that its depiction of evil went so far to the extreme that it was unredeemable.
One radical religious response to the film resided in the belief that it was itself a work of evil. Evangelist Billy Graham lashed out, claiming that evil was “buried within the celluloid of the film itself,” a notion that authors Les and Barbara Keyser put into more academic prose by arguing that the controversial techniques of the filmmakers were a kind of “demonic intervention” (Malone, Censoring Hollywood 162). What may have spurred the notion that the film contains a sort of demonic force imbedded within it is the controversy that surrounds the supposed “subliminal” imagery in the picture, which has sparked much anger and claims that the film is dangerous, or at least unethical. For example, fundamentalist author Hal Lindsey used the suggestion of subliminal imagery within the film as evidence that it is “setting the stage for the future attack of Satan,” and on a more scholastic level, media critic Wilson Bryan Key argued that The Exorcist is “threatening, or even dangerous” for a small percentage of the movie going audience because of what he called the film’s “repertoire of visual and auditory subliminal innovations” (Kermode 45).
Although accounts of subliminal images in the film have been greatly exaggerated and distorted, the original theatrical release and its various alternative versions do contain images that are literally on screen for sometimes only a second or two at a time, including recurring intercuts or superimpositions of the demonic statue of Pazuzu from the opening sequence set in northern Iraq and a demon face. In addition, the sounds and image of two dogs fighting and a clock stopping are also inserted at different points in the film. Many of these images are used to connect the different narratives that comprise the film. The possession and exorcism of Regan, Merrin’s discovery of a stone figure of Pazuzu in Iraq, and Karras’s self and religious doubt intensified by the death of his mother, all tie together through the use of connecting tissue of these carefully spliced-in images (Clagett 121).
Though the splicing in of these images may achieve the desired unsettling effect, the fact that they are consciously noticeable technically makes them not “subliminal,” for subliminal images are ones that are invisible to the conscious mind and are only picked up on by the subconscious. Addressing this issue, Blatty would later state in an interview that “There are no subliminal images. If you can see it, it’s not subliminal.” Attempts to attribute subliminal imagery to the film have gone so far as to Key interpreting the two priests visible breaths of air in Regan’s freezing bedroom to actually be the faces of ghosts (Kermode 45)
However, the stroboscopic editing of the film can be used to legitimize certain claims of subliminal imagery at work. Stroboscopic editing is the visceral technique of intercutting alternating white and black frames when cutting from one image to another. The various “subliminal” images are accompanied by such alternating white and black frames, especially in the nightmare sequence, in order to create a surreal feeling that both alarms and guides the viewer (Kermode 48). The subliminal images clash together in order to jar and startle the viewer, and yet they serve as the narrative strands through which the various characters spiritually connect. Karras’s nightmare includes his seeingimages of dogs fighting, the Pazuzu statue that flashes for a brief moment on Regan’s closed door and later appears above in a hazy light in the film’s climax, and the nightmarish demon face flashes in shots from each of these three character’s perspectives.
Those who agreed with Graham’s claim that the film itself was evil and should be condemned found further support beyond the “subliminal” imagery in a series of freak events and tragedies that occurred both on and off set to the filmmakers and to audience members. A series of strange accidents happened on set, including actress Ellen Burstyn (who plays Chris McNeil, Regan’s mother) receiving a back injury from the filming of the crucifix masturbation/self-rape scene because of how hard she was thrown back in a shot where Regan attacks her. (The special effect was achieved through wiring and the performance through Friedkin’s decision not to tell Burstyn how forceful it would be.) In addition, a gaffer accidentally cut off his toe. Furthermore, the cast and crew were plagued with a series of personal tragedies. On Von Sydow’s first day on set his brother died. Jack MacGowran (who played film director Burke Dennings) died just a week after his character’s death scene was filmed, which incidentally did not make it into the final cut of the film. Blair’s grandfather died during shooting, and Miller almost died after being hit by a car before all of the scenes with his character were even shot. In addition, a series of strange phenomenon happened to the film stock itself, including unfilmed ghostly images popping up in the dailies and unexplainable double exposures of Blair’s face. All this was enough to give Friedkin several breakdowns on set, and a complete mental breakdown when shooting completed (Malone, Sacred Profanity 272-273). Those condemning the film on account of religious and moral reasons argued that this troubled and tragedy-ridden shooting and the director’s own mental collapse signified that the film was dangerous and unholy.
Although the filmmakers had known that they were dealing with controversial subject matter that might face banning efforts in different communities or among different sectors, neither Friedkin, nor Blatty, nor Bud Smith, the film’s leading editor, expected as large of a backlash as occurred. To begin with, none of them really feared the X-rating. In editing, the only scene that the filmmakers begun to think might have problems with regards to the MPAA was the crucifix masturbation scene. This only because they wondered if the MPAA might think that it looked like the actress might actually have been masturbating, and also considered whether or not the line, “F*** me, Jesus, f*** me” would be going too far for the MPAA. They ultimately decided to leave the scene as they had originally cut it and sent a print to the MPAA, which gave the film an R-rating and positively commented on how “powerful” the movie had been. Although Friedkin had had few concerns regarding the MPAA, he was anxious about local community censors, since a recent Supreme Court ruling had given these groups the legal authority to establish their own criteria for what is “obscene” or “pornographic.” Community censors could even cut a film if they deemed it necessary, without the approval of the filmmakers. All the same, Friedkin decided to put the idea of censorship out of his mind during production and post-production, and instead stayed true to his creative vision. With an R-rating, the backing of distributor Warner Brothers, which also approved of the final cut, the story itself being one that shows the triumph of the righteous over the profane, and the thus-far support of Catholic organizations, Friedkin had every reason to believe that the majority of the trouble with the film was over when it premiered and became a hit (Bouzereau 158-160). It was true that the film was critically panned for its violent and graphic content, but this did not stop the audiences from pouring in, and attacks that the film was a work of evil and dangerous seemed to be only radical and absurd interpretations.
What could not have been predicted however was the unusual number of freak, tragic, and violent events that would soon come to the foreplay of the battle to censor the film. Four women in Toronto sought psychiatric care after seeing the picture, a 16-year-old boy in England died of an epileptic seizure after returning home from seeing the film at the local movie theater, and a teenager in West Germany was so traumatized by the movie that he shot himself after watching it. These odd and startling claims that the demons of the film were manifesting themselves in real-life only created more publicity for the film. As claims that the film was evil grew, so did its box office earnings. But as more and more claims of the film creating real-world atrocities arose, Friedkin became increasingly alarmed and worrisome, which did not help with his recovery from his recent mental breakdown (Malone, Sacred Profanity 273).
In light of the film’s unexpected success and the alarming reports of its dangerousness, religious organizations and communities begun to crack down on it and raise their voices of disapproval. Having criticized the MPAA for not giving The Exorcist an X-rating, the United States Catholic Conference gave the film a rating of A-IV, for objectionable to certain audiences. In Boston, Massachusetts, a group of individuals concerned about the film and wanting to protect children from it targeted the Sack Cinema 57 Theatre, where The Exorcist had been bringing in record-breaking ticket sales, and demanded that the theater ban the film in a case that made its way to the Boston Municipal Court. The case was dismissed on the grounds that The Exorcist did not “meet the guidelines of obscenity as laid down by the United States Supreme Court” (Bouzereau 160-161). Like the United States Catholic Conference, the citizens of Boston who decried the film were upset by its R-rating, strongly feeling that the film deserved the X-rating. Eventually the Boston authorities would snub their noses at the MPAA and give the film an X-rating (Berliner 130). Jack Vallenti, president of the MPAA, responded to these denouncements against the association’s decision in a statement to the New York Times on February 25, 1974. He reiterated that the R-rating itself implied that the film was not for children and that the film’s few violent moments and strong language were used for thematic purposes and not in excess, with the viewer’s imagination filling in what is not shown on screen (Bouzereau 161).
By 1974 however, the condemnations of The Exorcist ranged from the murderer of a 19-year-old girl arguing in his defense that he himself had not committed the crime, but had seen the movie and it had put “something else inside” of him that committed it (Malone, Sacred Profanity 273) to a psychoanalyst who saw the film as “a menace to the mental health of our community” (Paul 287). Against these critiques and criticisms, Vallenti’s claims that the power of the film lied not in its content but in its ability to spark the mind seemed to many like exactly the reason why the film needed stronger censorship, although this did not stop the film from continuing to rake in box office revenue.
Although the number of critics, scholars, and church members who supported the film and found it to be one with an important and ultimately hopeful message had strongly decreased from the start of production to just a few months after its release, some still did uphold the controversial view that the film was ultimately one about the healing power of God. Yet, concerns begun to arise even within these circles. The film certainly mixed the explicit and the poetic, and its unexpected mainstream appeal would doubtless spark imitators. Knock-off and rip-off films would likely be made solely for profit, and unlike Friedkin’s film, these could not be counted on to balance artistry with horror. Exploitation films done using the style, thematic, and narrative elements of The Exorcist would likely trash the Vatican and dishonor the holy without the redeeming artistic and moral implications of the film they were copying (Heller-Nicholas 67-74). Whereas The Exorcist featured strong performances from its actors, a haunting score, and beautiful editing, cinematography, and frame composition, rip-offs would presumably not take these artistic measures, and thus lack both the sophistication and sense of morality of the original. Some scholars and church organizations thus attacked the film not for its content and themes, which they found not only acceptable but actually morally just, but for the imitators that it would doubtless inspire. These people, many from academic, intellectual, and/or philosophical backgrounds, supported the film’s censorship and in some cases its outright banning as a necessary precaution to shield the Catholic Church from true embarrassments and affronts down the road, and to safeguard cinema audiences from tasteless exploitive content. Worst of all was the fear that the “subliminal” tricks employed for thematic reasons in The Exorcist would become a staple of the exploitationist films.
Indeed, such films would be made including Abby (1974), a raunchy demonic possession horror film rush produced and released less than a year after The Exorcistpremiered, and the equally profane Cathy’s Curse (1977) was on the horizon. As film critics and church members had feared, these blasphemous films and others like them featured perverse nuns, explicitly sexual demons, and possession as a form of sexual release (Penner 137). Borderlining on “torture porn” and “body horror,” their mix of graphic sexuality and graphic violence would help pave the way for the next wave of horror films, the slasher cycle, hinted at by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and fully inaugurated by Halloween (1978). Although the demonic possession rip-offs failed to captivate audiences or make blockbuster sales as The Exorcist had, they worked to further develop a taste for the graphic in the horror genre, this time around without the need of the costumed aesthetics of the Universal and Hammer horror films of years past, nor the high-quality production design and performances of films like The Exorcist. Guts and gore mixed with nudity, promoted first by The Exorcist rip-offs and then by the slasher films, would erode the last remnants of censorship and push what could be considered “R-rated” material to its boundaries.
It is telling that The Exorcist appeared at a time of anxiousness in the United States. In the early 1970s, the destruction of the family unit, the loss of faith in God and the lack of respect for religion, youth rebellions, and the breakdown of the home were all a part of American culture. Against the backdrop of political and social paranoia and unrest in America and the world at large, Pope Paul VI issued a statement regarding his concern that demonic influences were present in the modern world, corrupting it with pain, fear, doubt, and suffering. “Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting,” he proclaimed in a speech on November 15, 1972. Pope Paul VI saw “The question of the Devil, and the influence he can exert on individual persons as well as communities,” as “a very important chapter of Catholic doctrine,” and urged for it to be given renewed attention (Kermode 8-9). Within a year, The Exorcist would open in theaters, depicting the desecration of the church, the child, the family, and everything sacred. Yet, the ending is one of the triumph of good versus evil, as Karras sacrifices himself to rid Regan of the evil spirit possessing her.
Controversial for its perversion of usual horror iconography, use of “subliminal” and stroboscopic techniques, graphic depictions of religious desecration, profanity and violence coming from an innocent child, and supposed ability to influence actual demonic and tragic events in the real-world, the film was faced with attacks of blasphemy and cries for censorship from critics, educators, politicians, community boards, and church groups including the once supportive Catholic Church. Criticisms of the film ranged from the spiritual belief that it was evil itself to the intellectual question of whether or not it would have long-term consequences on the representation of religion in cinema. All the same, the negative press was publicity, and these censorship attacks combined with the odd stories of its allegedly cursed production made the film into a blockbuster. Moral and ethical questions still surround talk of The Exorcist today, which continues to face censorship struggles with regards to its publication on the TV and on new media such as the Internet and online streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Praised and at the same time despised, poetic and at the same time exploitive, righteous and at the same time shocking, and sacred and at the same time profane, The Exorcist is a film in which good triumphs over evil, and yet it is a film about evil, where evil is the spectacle that viewers come to see. Constructed with these diametrically opposed goals it comes naturally that responses would be equally paradoxical.