The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear
By Nat Segaloff
Citadel: 352 pages, $28
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The Washington Post was published on August 20, 1949 a story on the front page with a rather shocking headline: “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reportedly Held in Devil’s Grip.” The following story went on to report in dry, objective language that a 14-year-old “was freed from devil’s possession by a Catholic priest,” in “perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of this kind in religious recent history.” There it is, in black and white, above the fold, right next to an article about the FCC. We are told that this really happened.
Over the years there has been some disagreement as to exactly where in Maryland the exorcism took place. More important is the fact-based approach to the story, the notion that this story belongs to reality rather than the supernatural. It’s the same principle that drives The Exorcist, William Friedkin’s hugely influential horror hit 50 years ago, which had moviegoers lining up for the privilege of scaring themselves to death and, in many cases, throwing up as they exited the cinema (usually before the film was finished).
As Nat Segaloff explains in his new book: “The Exorcist Legacy: 50 Years of Fear“The film spawned sequels, prequels, sequels and even a TV series that ran from 2016 to 2017 (leave you behind me). It’s on the verge of another sequel, courtesy of David Gordon Green, who just finished revamping the Halloween franchise.
As is so often the case, there’s still nothing quite like the original, or at least the original movie based on a book based on the thing that could have been real. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel (which was inspired by the 1949 story), The Exorcist, despite its chilling setting and visual effects, betrays its director’s documentary background – and that’s what makes it chilling.
Friedkin just won an Oscar for directing The French Connection (1971), but his roots lay in hard-fought nonfiction, including the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump, which helped break a man off death row. He had a cameraman, Owen Roizman, who was trained in the art of point-blank guerrilla shooting.
The result is a film that, through its imagery, editing and naturalistic tone (which earned the film one of two Oscars), is determined to convince you that what you’re seeing through the cracks between your fingers is really happening. That this little girl, played by Linda Blair, is actually inhabited by a demon named Pazuzu, who swears like a drunken sailor (voiced by a rough Mercedes McCambridge) and has a cruel sense of humor. And that her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is at her wit’s end after going through a series of doctors who use rational diagnoses to explain what’s wrong with poor Regan. In that sense, The Exorcist isn’t fantastic at all. It’s as flimsy and blunt as that headline in the newspaper or a hard backhand executed by the demon’s tormented human host.
In his dutiful, in-depth book about the film and its legacy, Segaloff, who was the advertising executive for a Boston theater chain that showed the film during its premiere, explores what made so many Exorcist viewers puke. The obvious assumption is that it was the Projectile Pea Soup, the Bloody Cross, or the Spinner Head. That wasn’t the case, insisted Blatty, who claimed he had stationed himself at the back of a theater to watch the nauseated flee. The worst culprit, Blatty says, was the scene where Regan does an arteriogram: a needle is stuck in her throat and blood spurts out.
In other words, according to Blatty, it was the realistic depiction of a flesh-and-blood medical procedure that took most viewers’ eyes off lunch, rather than some devil’s game. Apocryphal? Possibly. But the story suggests that the film’s most disturbing quality is its sense of realism.
Friedkin is a believer, or at least he sees the benefits of playing one. As Segaloff explains, Friedkin directed a 2017 documentary called The Devil and Father Amorth, in which he follows a real-life exorcist practicing his craft on an Italian woman. Gabriele Amorth, a former exorcist from the Diocese of Rome, was the inspiration for Russell Crowe’s recent horror film “The Pope’s Exorcist‘ which isn’t as bad as you might think.
Amorth was also a co-founder of the International Association of Exorcists. Everyone, it seems, could use a union. The documentary, which lasts just over an hour, feels a bit stunt-like and is unlikely to gain many new followers. And yet it is still a documentary. About an exorcist. Made by the director of The Exorcist.
Segaloff makes a convincing argument that The Exorcist is about faith. Father Karras, the young priest played by Jesuit-trained playwright turned actor Jason Miller, is killed; He is in existential free fall long before he is drafted into the exorcism service. The world in which Chris McNeil, Regan’s mother, lives is the secular stew of Hollywood; She’s in Washington, DC filming a movie when her daughter becomes the devil’s plaything.
What does Karras think? What does Chris think? More precisely: What does the viewer think? Could or did something like this really happen? Can answers be found in mental illness or an overactive imagination? The questions hang in the air like the bed in Regan’s room, bringing both truth and mystery to The Exorcist.
There have been many books about the film, the best of which is probably Mark Kermode’s critical-historical monograph simply titled The Exorcist, published by the British Film Institute in 1997. To Segaloff’s credit, he quotes Kermode extensively, lending some intellectual weight to an otherwise fairly straightforward approach. The film is like a series of questions to which the answers remain tantalizingly elusive. And yet it also has a solidity, a sense of verité (to use a word important in documentary history) that makes you feel like you can reach out and touch it. A word of warning: it’s still burning.
Vognar is a freelance writer based in Houston.