Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What an excellent day for an exorcism

At a friend’s birthday party in 7th or 8th grade, we watched The Exorcist. For fun. “Ha, ha, let’s watch a horror movie with terrible special effects.” I had never heard of it. Someone put it on, turned out the lights, and almost immediately the future adult in my mind was thinking, “We should not be watching this. What kind of parents would allow a group of 12-year-olds to watch this? We should not be watching this.”

I spent the next two hours with my back against their living room wall, watching intermittently through my clenched hands, sometimes plugging my ears, every good humor in me petrified. I didn’t speak as we waited to be picked up after the party ended. Everyone else was joking, laughing, pushing cake in each other’s faces. When I got home and saw my mother, I burst into tears. I was so terrified that I didn’t feel shame in doing this. I was hysterical. I did not sleep that night. Yes, we laugh about this now, but that terror was very real at the time. No movie has done that to me before or since.

At that point I had been raised as a habitual Catholic and had not bothered to ponder religion or spirituality. Church was something rote but comforting done once a week, like it or not. Religion in a Catholic grade school fostered complacency or, at least, spiritual laziness. Pray to God, give thanks, say three Hail Marys after confession, blah blah.

Into the blank slate of my mind came The Exorcist, which did the thinking for me. It was a rough initiation into the realm of spiritual questioning. “The devil is real, and he works his evil on undeserving people,” the movie said to the 12-year-old me. “There is no reason to it. It happens.”

In high school, I discovered, to my utter horror, that my family actually owned William Peter Blatty's novel. I found it while rummaging through the attic of our home in Buffalo. That purple paperback cover. That white, soulless face plastered across the front. I was upset by this discovery and decided the only logical thing to do was to read the damn thing and exorcise The Exorcist from myself.

I read it in one sitting, alone in the house on some dark weekend. To leave it unfinished would mean the story was still happening in the ether. It needed to be concluded. Irony: I loved the book, especially the end. My bleak grade-school assessment of the movie was tempered by an evolved understanding of and appreciation for faith and doubt. I was very moved in the final pages when Fr. Karras squeezes Fr. Dyer's hand to affirm his belief in God during last rites at the bottom of the steps -- even though he has just seen irrefutable proof of evil.

Despite this, I had no desire to endure the movie again. Until now. For reasons unknown to me, I felt compelled to watch it Sunday night, alone, in the dark, not two miles from Georgetown, where it takes place. From its opening scenes, it conjured in me a queasy dread. But now, as a more nuanced 23-year-old, I was able to appreciate why and how it conjured the dread. It is a singular movie-watching experience; it's a full-on psychological attack on the viewer that is tactical, not sensational. The first hour of the movie is all atmosphere. Noises. Insinuations. Half-hearted diagnoses. But it all has a locomotive power that builds and builds.

Here are the notes I scribbled during it:

1:30 - Friedkin's introduction. He talks about how The Exorcist makes you question your sanity. Great. I always worried that watching the movie again would unhinge me in some way. You see how affecting this movie was on a 7th grader?

2:01 - Just seeing those red block letters (THE EXORCIST) freezes my spinal fluid.

8:00 - Fr. Merrin's clock stops in Iraq. I still remember the image vividly from the first viewing. It is so simple. Conveys the perfect sense of metaphysical dread.

11:50 - And I remember those fighting dogs, too, and Max von Sydow staring down that statue. I am queasy. We are reminded daily by our government that there is evil in our world, and that we are fighting it. And either in the real life or The Exorcist, they say it comes from Iraq. Go figure.

13:15 - This is what I found so scary the first time -- those noises from the attic. A house naturally creaks and groans as the temperature drops at night, but after watching this it seems like the most unnatural thing. It plants the seed of doubt in your mind.

34:06 - The defiled statue of Mary. Another image that was seared into my brain. The perversion! But it's nothing compared to the perversion to come.

47:09 - The battery of clinical tests perpetrated on Regan is almost as terrifying as the demonic possession. Spinal taps. MRIs. The poking and prodding. Clicking machines. The scientific rationale. The insidiousness of a white hospital room. Of a needle administered.

56:00 - I can't imagine seeing this movie in theaters, where you can't control the volume of the sound. I am watching it with one finger on the volume button, because I find the audio aspect the most terrifying. While most horror movies make me close my eyes, this one makes me plug my ears.

1:05:22 - Conflict + guilt = a body invaded by a spirit?

1:07:15 - A belief in the power of exorcism can combat the belief that the body is possessed by a spirit. Is there no reality to life? Only the perception of reality?

1:22:00 - The scariest part is this thing that says it's the devil not only "knows" Karras' mother is dead, but also that she's in hell. It could be a manifestation of guilt or remorse. How could Karras not be more phased by this? This is one of the failures of the movie: that it doesn't show Karras profoundly scared and flabbergasted from his first, wretched encounter with the girl. He seems to be taking it in stride.

1:26:30 - I am fascinated by faith and doubt, and the scenes of Karras "celebrating" Mass have tremendous weight as the story progresses. Especially shots of the transubstantiation, which is really its own form of imposed possession, right?

1:30:00 - Is the possession caused by a father complex? Burstyn can certainly relate from her real-life experience. Her autobiography refers to a "father-shaped hole" in her heart. In The Exorcist, that hole is filled by a demon.

1:34:00 - Even after all this -- the vomiting, the speaking in tongues, the thrashing, the "telepathy," the word-shaped scarring on her stomach -- Karras still has doubts about whether the child is possessed? This is where the movie doesn't make sense.

1:37:00 - I love how Max von Sydow is the hero, and how even the devil knows him, and how he doesn't flinch when the devil calls him by name, as if he's done personal battle with Satan before. Which he has -- von Sydow spent much of his career previous to this role as Ingmar Bergman's go-to metaphysical protagonist.

1:38:00 - "The attack is psychological." Indeed.

1:39:00 - There is something about priests going up against evil. I have great respect for most clergy, especially Jesuits (but not the Catholic Curch as an institution). It is adrenalizing to see them "suit up" and march unblinking toward the great battlefield of good and evil.

1:51:00 - It's really two movies in one: Burstyn's and Jason Miller's. She's barely in the second half; he's barely in the first.

1:54:00 - Never underestimate the scare power of a well-timed phone ring.

1:55:00 - Lots of people think this movie is a laugh riot. It isn't. For me. But...it is kind of comical when Karras slugs the girl at the climax. It's comforting to know that the devil in this movie is punchable. I almost want a "POW!" or "ZOCK!" to flash on the screen at this moment.

2:00:00 - The end. As always, things loom larger in the memory. I'm going to be able to sleep tonight. There is a twitch of disappointment in this -- I believe in the power of movies, and part of me would've been delighted if this movie sent me straight back into my own personal loony boon. Alas, it didn't. Does this mean I'm an adult? Now that's scary.


Rusty said...

The book is really just a totally perverse beach and airplane novel. It's so readable even though it is making you sick to your stomach. Kind of like Devil Wears Prada*, but, you know, the good kind of sick to your stomach.

*I am defaming a book I have never read.

I've seen The Exorcist more times than any other movie and there are parts that still get to me. Regan's shadow moving around the bedroom is the worst. The constrained demon is bad enough; imagine it moving around at will.

J.J. said...

The novel is a compulsive read on the level of Grisham or Crichton, yes.

What do you like about the movie that's made you watch it so much?

Rusty said...

When I was younger I loved horror movies. The one I was never allowed to watch was The Exorcist. My mom had a similar experience when she was a 20-something in the theatres as you did at your friend's house and she wouldn't allow me to buy it, rent it, or watch it. She was pissed when I convinced a friend to rent it for a sleepover.

So, I guess it was always the Holy Grail of horror movies for me. The one that was so scary that merely having it in the house would present problems. And I wasn't disappointed. The directing, make-up, sound, and acting are all first-rate. I don't think there's a movie that is THAT scary that is also THAT good.

MD(enver)W said...

Dude, I can't believe you didn't mention how, during the movie, one of our 7th grade friends snuck out of the house, went into the backyard and started banging on the window that was behind the TV, causing us all to scream like the school children we were. Are you sure that didn't contribute to your fear fest? Funny how the movie didn't affect me at all, but I do remember having some frightening Spin-the-Bottle experiences at that same party.

Going back to film talk, The Exorcist doesn't scare me. It's the Omen movies that freak me the heck out.

Middento said...

Here's the funny thing: your recounting of your scarefest revived various issues that I had with horror movies as an 11-year-old -- and, I confess, as the wuss that I am, weren't even close to The Exorcist: my first horror movie, Poltergeist (which I know isn't really a horror movie but made me freak out about the clown under my own bed); Nightmare on Elm Street in high school; The Shining and Texas Chainsaw Massacre in college, the first of which I got through only by clutching my best friend, the latter which I (famously) didn't even make it up to the meathook.

If you can believe this, it took me to move to DC to watch The Exorcist. That means I was already an adult. Here's the thing: it didn't freak me out as much as it probably could have, perhaps because I am not Catholic and because I was forced to keep the sound down so as not to disturb the neighbors. But freak me out, it still did.

By the way, you have now redeemed yourself in my eyes in your child-care sensibilities and are now back in the realm of possibilities in terms of introducing my child to movies. (Rusty, not so much, particularly since he seems to read chick lit. Personally, the asterisk note dost protest too much, think ye not?)

Ehil Bent said...

How you feel about possession movies, I feel about zombie movies. Can't sleep after watching one. Nightmares about zombies constantly. The lower the budget for the movie, the scarier the zombies seem to be.

Ehil Bent said...

(I still haven't been able to watch that copy of the original Dawn of the Dead you gave me. The DVD's menu is too scary.)

cattleworks said...

I saw THE EXORCIST when it first came out, and I was twelve. My dad took me to it at the Summit Park Mall, when they had two theaters inside. The other movie playing was the eventual Best Picture winner, THE STING.
I "lucked out" getting in to see the movie because the Catholic Church in Buffalo insisted that you had to be at least 12 years old to see this movie.
The audience for the movie was divided up into those laughing hysterically and those screaming.
My dad represented the former, I was the latter.
The image that was seared into my brain was the first time we see Regan's head turning around, the scene where all hell is breaking loose in her bedroom.
I saw it on a Sunday night, and when I went to bed, I closed the door which was then my habit.
But at 3 in the morning, I woke up for some reason, and the first thing I "saw" in the darkness of my room above me was Regan's head turning!
I didn't go back to sleep. I went downstairs and read Peanuts books until it was time to go to school, where I was "BMOC" (or the middle school equivalent) in my small circle of friends for having seen the film. We must have been aware of the contents of the book, because I remember one kid asking if they showed the crucifix masturbation scene.
Meanwhile, I never slept with the bedroom door closed again.

For some reason, probably because I arbitrarily watched the two films close to each other at some point, I occasionally compare the editing style of THE EXORCIST to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK! I just think it's interesting how RAIDERS' editing seems "warm" and tapestry like, a clever blend of various images, expertly put together while EXORCIST is all "cold", clinical, scalpel-like. Relentless.

My friend Steve remarked how the medical examinations seem to be shown in a way that Science and our sophisticated Knowledge comes off as no more than witch doctor stuff.
This is my personal scariest movie, with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as most disturbing. And TCM seems to be another horror movie that people are either screaming or laughing at.

Father Karras' doubt about the possession reflects his psychological background, I think. Plus, it opens up a whole other can of worms if he acknowledges the possession, if he's having a crisis of faith. So, there's some unconscious/conscious denial going on there as well, I think.

In the same way when Duane Jones is matter of factly shot dead in Romero's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, suddenly the film elevates itself as more than a horror film, THE EXORCIST does the same thing when we realize that the Devil's been after Father Karras all along-- the seemingly arbitrary possession of a little girl doesn't seem as arbitrary anymore, and it really is a battle between good and evil, but it's more spiritual than we realized.

And I'm still impressed by Regan levitating over the bed!

Great movie! Great post!

cattleworks said...

Oh! And seeing THE EXORCIST in red on black was a nice touch!

Speaking of scary movies, I thought you might find this interesting. I posted this on another (horror movie) blog:

It's curious how some films you WANT to watch because they're so scary or unsettling or even repugnant (if you're into horror movies especially), and then there's some films that just... make you too nervous to even ATTEMPT to watch them.
In the first category, part of me is somewhat curious about Toe Tag films' AUGUST UNDERGROUND, which is supposedly structured as a snuff film. I don't even know if it has a narrative structure.
The Japanese GUINEA PIG films are like that, too.

But you know what two films make me too nervous to even watch (so far)?
John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS and, from what I've heard so far about it, Sacha Baron Cohen's BORAT! That whole improv tension-- man, I give Cohen HUGE respect for maintaining that character in real situations that no one seems to realize is a joke. Which is the point. And THAT's scary! The trailer's very funny but it doesn't touch at ALL on what's so inspired (and frightening) about the film. That whole improv with reality thing(shudder!).
I think it has to do with my fear of anarchy, like, oh, THIS is gonna start a mob scene or spontaneous stabbing...
But it also looks very funny, so I'm going to force myself to watch it-- I know there's going to be an equal element of dread as well.

J.J. said...

Yes, it's a fine distinction between movies that have enjoyable scares and movies that have distressing, joyless scares. I'll watch Alien or The Shining any day for some good, wholesome thrills. But The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby, etc. -- those are scares I do not need to experience again.

JavierAG said...

THANK YOU for this. I needed to appreciate "The Exorcist" again - I'm still not convinced the film cares for Regan at all, but what are you gonna do right?

J.J. said...

Regan is the vehicle through which we get at the essence of Karras. She is purely a victim, I guess, but she is not forever changed at the end of the movie. In fact, I'd go as far as saying she was still an innocent, despite the fact that she was violated in every way by the forces of hell (and the movie itself). So I'd say the movie does care for her, and despairs for her through her mother.

cattleworks said...

To your list of THE EXORCIST, BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and ROSEMARY'S BABY you may be adding FUNNY GAMES, directed by Michael Haneke (or his remake that apparently he's working on now, with NAOMI WATTS!)