50 years after ‘The Exorcist,’ its central theme remains popular in horror films. Here’s why.

by STEPHEN WHITTY
exorcist

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, “The Exorcist.”

The devil you say.

Published just last month, Nat Segaloff’s “The Exorcist Legacy: Fifty Years of Fear” details a half-century of pop culture history surrounding William Peter Blatty’s bestseller and all the films, spinoffs and TV series it has inspired. Arriving Oct. 13, the feature film “The Exorcist: Believer” adds a new chapter to the story, with the venerable Ellen Burstyn returning in her role as Chris MacNeil.

Add all the obituaries and reminiscences surrounding the Aug. 7 death of William Friedkin — the director of the first, blockbuster film adaptation — and it’s clear it is going to be hard to go on the internet or turn on the TV for a while and not be confronted with images of praying priests, shaking beds and spinning heads.

Except they never really went away.

A poster for the upcoming film “The Exorcist: Believer.”

A quick keyword search for “Exorcism” on IMDB turns up more than 350 feature films, roughly 95 percent made since the 1973 blockbuster. And 130 titles are from the last 10 years — an average of more than one possession a month. Your hands may be idle, but apparently the Devil’s have been busy.

Recent horrors include “The Pope’s Exorcist,” “Agnes” and “The Exorcism of God.” Entries cover a wide range, from supposed studio comedies like “Haunted Mansion” to Asian imports, steeped in folklore. Dozens of other, even more obscure titles may still haunt second-tier streaming channels. Ever see “The Seventh Day” with Guy Pearce? “Gates of Darkness” with Adrienne Barbeau? “Torture Chamber” with Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore?

Me neither, although I may give in to the temptation one insomniac night.

But even if you aren’t up to date on the latest exorcisms, it’s clear that even in as wide-ranging a genre as horror, possession remains a popular subject. And these numbers don’t even include other Christian-oriented horror topics, like the Antichrist or Armageddon.

The Roman Catholic Church may have been badly wounded by recent scandals. Weekly church attendance of any kind may be on the decline — according to recent Gallup polls, in America it’s down to about a third of the population.

But you wouldn’t know it from horror movies.

Horror films not only take faith seriously, they make heroes out of its clergy. These characters aren’t just priests (and the religion in Hollywood horror is almost invariably Roman Catholic). They’re spiritual warriors, battling the forces of chaos and disorder that threaten to destroy the world. They’re willing to do whatever it takes in the fight against evil. They’re willing to sacrifice everything.

I think that is what made “The Exorcist” successful 50 years ago, and is fueling the resurgence in similar stories now.

Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

The appeal often works on subconscious levels. When the novel “The Exorcist” was published, many attacked it for its blasphemy, its obscenity, its violence, its gore. Actress Linda Blair, 13 when filming began, had to pass a psychiatric evaluation and get a judge’s permission to even do the movie. After the film was released, The Village Voice called it “thoroughly evil,” Rolling Stone dubbed it “religious porn” and The New York Times said its “grotesque” special effects had “established a new low.” The film became the biggest box-office hit of the year, but was still seen in many circles as exploitative trash.

Yet, for all its R-rated outrages, “The Exorcist” delivered a basically conservative message — and one new to modern horror.

Ever since “Night of the Living Dead” revitalized the genre in 1968, monster movies had tended towards the radical, even the nihilistic. A raw and very red-blooded series of films imagined a nightmare America in which cannibals feasted in country cabins and serial killers lived in the suburbs. It was a nation many people in the audience recognized, at least as metaphor. Much like the hapless victims on screen, the country was being torn apart. Nothing made sense anymore, and while you might be able to save yourself, the world you knew was gone.

“The Exorcist,” though, shared Blatty’s different and far more traditional view.

Its story is about a liberal, divorced, working mom, Chris — an actress, no less, shooting a film about campus revolutionaries — who is raising her child alone. Chris curses, smokes and has plenty of equally profane friends; her daughter Regan spends most of her time with the help, or playing with a Ouija board. This family doesn’t just live without religion, Mom is actually against it — when a concerned servant slips a crucifix under Regan’s pillow, Chris furiously insists it be removed.

It’s a family without faith — and therefore without spiritual defenses — so when evil does enter their home, they’re powerless.

And how does that evil manifest itself? In the uncontrolled defiance, violence and sexuality of an adolescent girl. And after physicians, psychiatrists and even the police all prove helpless to combat it, who is finally successful? What figures of authority ultimately take control? Two Old World priests, one a first-generation Greek-American, the other an elderly expert in the archaeology of the Mideast.

You want to talk about patriarchy? These guys come from where it was made.

At a time when the country was convulsed in change, “The Exorcist” offered a way forward — which was, really, a way back. The only weapon against evil in the world, it proclaimed, was male authority — specifically, male religious authority, dressed in black and carrying the holy book of the One True Faith.

Ellen Burstyn and Max von Sydow in “The Exorcist.”

And I think that’s also secretly driving the resurgence of demonic films today. They present a world in which there really are evil spells — and in which only holy prayers can combat them. They preach that there are, indeed, ancient taboos, and protections — and that we break the first, and ignore the second, at our peril. They answer our adult fears of senseless violence and inescapable chaos with Sunday-school lessons and simple remedies.

Afraid of the dark? Faith offers a light. And subliminal or not, that message can be a comforting thing, particularly during troubled times.

In secular monster movies, there may be no escape from a chainsaw-wielding lunatic or hungry zombie, but in the world of Christian horror, there are things you can do. Don’t play with Tarot cards. Carry a cross. Say your prayers. Slasher movies are about realizing there is no point, no sense, no justice in the world — you’re on your own. Religious horror movies are about understanding that there is a fundamental order to the world — but you’ll need to humble yourself and ask for guidance if you want to help restore it.

It’s not exactly a progressive message. It certainly doesn’t promote curiosity or self-reliance. But at times when everything in the country seems up for debate, when once-respected secular figures like doctors and teachers and journalists and judges are being vilified, when even trying to find the answer to the simplest question sends you down a rabbit warren of a dozen conspiracies … unquestioning faith in a single authority offers a narrow path that many find appealing.

Even horror fans — whether they know it or not.

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