Transubstantiation: Analysis of The Exorcist

Karras' frailty, against the imposing symbol of an immortal spirit, parallels the true weakness of his faith when confronted.

Karras’ frailty, against the imposing symbol of an immortal spirit, parallels the true weakness of his faith when confronted.

Amid the various monsters and maniacs of modern cinema, the fact that William Friedkin’s film adaptation of a minor Catholic superstition not only became one of the highest consistently rated horror movies of all time, but that it inspired a whole new subgenre (via a slew of inferior imitations) is astounding. A horror film with relatively little gore, it is nevertheless terrifying because of Blatty and Friedkin’s shared understanding of basic human fears: the things that we imagine to be the demons in our life, and more than that, the human condition’s inability to reliably face, much less overcome, these fears.

The most well-known analysis of Exorcist is it as a metaphor for the burgeoning sexuality of its main character, Regan (Linda Blair), who is both the film’s antagonist (indirectly) and the lens through which we see the rest of the characters. Regan, a girl in the midst of puberty, is suddenly enveloped by emotional and physical changes that she neither understands nor controls; moreso, these changes make her alien and hostile to her family and those that try to understand her. This point is underscored, in a rather over the top fashion, by Regan’s body- now possessed by a demon- almost immediately falling into corrupted sexual assault on herself and her mother. Preceding this, Regan begins using sexually violent language, which escalates through her possession, to the point where she (or the demon that her sexuality represents, thematically) propositions both the priests brought in to rescue her psyche from possession.

This kind of heavy-handed messaging by Blatty and Friedkin has had both declared as misogynistic, a label that might stick if the sexual metaphor wasn’t effective and accurate in the film. There’s a rich history of horror films being about generational distrust or distaste: the father-son hatred of The Shining; the maternal dread of Rosemary’s Baby; and the use of slasher movie maniacs to punish young people in movies like Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Horror films consistently show a deep fear of the generations that follow the filmmakers or writers, in the 1970’s especially- the era that, aside from this film, spawned A Clockwork Orange, The Brood and The Omen, all films that showed children to be grotesquely unknowable and hostile. The American children of the 1960’s had turned out to be rebellious, and dangerously different from the culture they came from; a generation both more liberally leniant of social causes yet simultaneously more violent (or at least, perceived as so), on a scope of behavior not seen in American since the 1920’s. Cinema’s response- seeing children as threatening or alien- has persisted since the mid-1950’s, but most strongly post-Vietnam.

So if we look at Exorcist as a product of its generation, it falls squarely in the wheelhouse of what is to be expected of 1970’s genre films. But the film’s recognition as a masterpiece does not solely rest on its ability to convey Regan’s journey into adulthood, costuming it as a horror piece. Much of the credit can go to Friedkin and his cinematographer Owen Roizman’s masterful framing and use of depth of field, as well as Friedkin’s employment of long stretches of silence interrupted by evocative modern classical music (most notably the pinprick violin work of Night of the Electric Insects). But these are just pieces of set dressing for a work that, in and of itself, is deeply psychological and insightful about regret and loss.

The priest Damien Karras characterizes both the sympathetic side of psychiatry and the pragmatic side of the priesthood, compared against the zealotry of Father Merrin.

The priest Damien Karras characterizes both the sympathetic side of psychiatry and the pragmatic side of the priesthood, compared against the zealotry of Father Merrin.

In neither the case Exorcist was based on- the 1940’s possession of a boy given the pseudonym Roland Doe- nor in its leading characters, is Catholicism a crucial piece of information. Roland Doe came from a Lutheran family, and in Blatty’s book, Regan and her family are agnostic at best. But Blatty and Friedkin both came from families with deep religious complexity. Friedkin’s family fled to the U.S. after surviving a Russian purge of Jews in the Ukraine, and Friedkin resented his father for not doing enough with his life; Blatty, also an immigrant, grew up with a devout Catholic mother who could never afford to pay rent, and who moved him from house to house. So both men going into this project understood the nature of family tension, particularly between parents and children, and knew that one of the easiest emotional crowbars into this dynamic was the introduction of religion, particularly ones most commonly associated with the use of shame and guilt.

The priest Damien Karras characterizes both the sympathetic side of psychiatry and the pragmatic side of the priesthood, compared against the zealotry of Father Merrin.
The priest Damien Karras characterizes both the sympathetic side of psychiatry and the pragmatic side of the priesthood, compared against the zealotry of Father Merrin.
More than just being an object of change or symbol of transformation, the possessed Regan becomes a mirror against which the rest of the characters must stand in front of and be judged for their fears and shortcomings. At the film’s beginning, each of the three adult leads in the film are facing individual life crises that they cannot answer. Ellen Burstyn, as Regan’s mother Chris , is divorced and frustrated with her career as a mainstream actress, as well as her relationship with her daughter; Max von Sydow is Father Merrin, a priest who is slowly dying and mentally injured by his past inability to defeat the demon that now possesses Regan; and Father Karras (Jason Miller) a young priest and psychiatrist who has lost his faith, along with suffering the traumatic death of his immigrant mother. Friedkin framed the writing of the screenplay so that each character is first introduced through doubt: Merrin, in Iraq on an archeological dig, displays fear and doubt about his health while observing robust men his same age; Karras is initially spied upon while speaking to a fellow priest about how he feels like a fraud; and Chris’ first line in the movie is expressing doubt to her director about her film. It’s a subtle introductory way to demonstrate their shortcomings, that without knowing anything else about the characters, we immediately see them as weak and vulnerable.

This is later brought up by Father Merrin during the exorcism when, regarding why God would allow a child to be possessed (or alternatively why Satan would possess a child), he says, ” I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.” It is this fear that is central to The Exorcist: that whatever great challenge lies in front of us, that we will not rise to overcome it. For Merrin, this is facing death after a life with relatively little to show for it except for devotion to the church; for his partner Karras, the challenge is how to regain faith in the church and his own abilities. When, late in the film, Merrin warns the young priest that the demon’s powers are psychological, Friedkin is reminding us that the horror of Exorcist is not in blood projectile vomiting, but in evil’s ability to create doubt in ourselves. On a second level, Merrin knows what we are shown on the screen: the only people that we see Regan physically attack are those with whom she shares an intimate connection of some sort: her mother, whom she sexually assaults; and nurses and doctors who either penetrate her physically (with needles) or mentally (in the case of the psychiatrist). We never see Regan actually physically harm other characters; although it is implied that she kills Merrin and the minor character Burke Dennings, we do not see it.

The insertion of Catholicism as a thematic element was useful for invoking a mood of guilt and unworthiness.

The insertion of Catholicism as a thematic element was useful for invoking a mood of guilt and unworthiness.

Across the end of the second act of Exorcist and into the third act, there are two scenes that follow each other that are most central to the film. Father Karras, standing at the altar of his church, is performing the Euchrist, reciting a line of liturgy that speaks to the mystery of faith in its role in the ceremony. The belief of transubstantiation- that the bread and wine used in the ritual, once consumed, actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus- is reliant upon the faith of worshipper in the act: the chemicals and substances of the bread and wine are part of Christ’s body in the mind, separate from what any observable science could tell us. In the following scene, Karras attempts to trick the possessed Regan by spraying holy water on her, while to him it is simply tap water. That central item is the touchstone for the rest of the film: the pragmatic, ideologically forsaken Karras only sees water, while the demon- a true believer, if there ever was one- identifies the water as holy because it is held by a priest, so to the demon, it becomes holy.

That separation between ritual and belief is the genius of The Exorcist. The elderly Father Merrin, for all his wisdom, is still following the empty form of ritual, and reveals his true self to Chris when, as a joke, he says that his will is weak. Merrin is ultimately unsuccessful in his attempt to exorcise Regan, and dies in the attempt, the thing that he fears the most throughout the film. Likewise, Chris is too ignorant of either ritual or faith to be of any use standing against the challenge her daughter presents, instead handing her offspring over to doctors and priests throughout the film. Karras is the only character to overcome the challenge of Regan when he regains his faith late in the film. It is not faith in God that he gains, however; he sees the power of the demon become manifest and accepts the demon into his own body. Because he truly believes in demonic possession, the demon leaves Regan and enters him, driving him to kill himself before harming a child.

The last thing Karras does before accepting the demon into his body is to throw the possessed body of Regan to the floor, and to begin beating her. Karras, a former boxer, is now on the same psychological level as the demon, accepting without question what he sees before him, rather than trying to explain it away, or using established form to expel it away from him. Rather than the external item becoming an internalized item of faith, the transubstantiation in The Exorcist moves from the inside out; that whatever we ultimately are on the inside will be made physical, and exposed to the rest of the world. Regan, symbolically, is moved from a child to a sexual, violent creature; Karras is reduced to a violent, impulsive man; and Merrin dies while trying to prove that he will not be killed by evil. It’s a subliminal lesson that Friedkin and Blatty impart to the audience through use of supernatural elements, that possession is not most times by an unclean spirit, but by the psychological and emotional shortcomings we carry.

About theoldsquid

Walking proof of the power of sublimation.
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