“Evil is not merely a lack of something, but an effective agent, a living spiritual being, perverted and perverting. A terrible reality …”
— Pope Paul VI, Nov.15, 1972
You can call it controversy or you can call it marketing, but you’ve got to call it familiar. As the current flap over Mel Gibson’s as-yet-unreleased The Passion reminds us, when religion meets popular culture, the sacred and profane collide.
Pop and piety — an eternally combustible mix. If it’s detonating now with charges that Gibson’s adaptation of Christ’s final hours is too bloody and anti-Semitic, blaming the Jews for Christ’s martyrdom, it happened before in 1987 when Martin Scorsese adapted Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation Of Christ.
But 1973 was blasphemy’s boom year.
In the British film The Wicker Man, a pious Scottish police constable (Edward Woodward) stumbles upon an island pagan community while investigating the disappearance of a young girl. At the climax, he is sacrificed for their harvest. In Norman Jewison’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s already contentious rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, a cast of lissome flower children enact Christ’s final days in the Israeli desert, replete with tanks and aircraft supplied by the government’s armed forces. In that film, Judas was played by a black man.
Then The Exorcist arrived.
Thirty years ago, William Friedkin’s adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller not only touched off a fire-storm over the film’s depiction of a 12-year-old girl’s horrific possession by an ancient demon, it contained possibly the most graphic juxtaposition of sacred and profane ever seen by a mass audience — the image of a crucifix being violently shoved into the possessed girl’s vagina.
“The crucifix and vagina are things that never appear together. They’re taboo in most people’s consciousness,” said Friedkin of the scene some years later. “In a way it was depicting blasphemy.”
For over a year after the film’s release on Boxing Day, 1973, The Exorcist remained, along with demonic emanations from Alice Cooper concerts and Richard Nixon’s White House, high on the public agenda of things to fret about. Editorials speculated on its sociological implications. Talk shows buzzed over its dangers. It was decried from pulpits. Cartoonists made satirical hash of its images.
Many communities in the United States tried to ban it, the Rev. Billy Graham claimed the film embodied evil, the United Sates Catholic Conference challenged its MPAA rating (an “R”, which admitted children with parental approval), and stories were rife of the film’s unholy impact on audiences.
In Toronto, it was reported that four women required psychiatric care after seeing The Exorcist. In London, a 16-year-old boy experienced a fatal epileptic fit after seeing it. Also in England, a 17-year-old named Nicolas Bell blamed the film when he killed a 9-year-old girl.
“It was not really me that did it,” he said. “There was something inside me. I want to see a priest. It is ever since I saw that film The Exorcist. I felt something take possession of me.”
In Chicago, a doctor publicly warned, “There is no way you can sit through that film without receiving some lasting or disturbing effects.”
If, as Rev. Graham and other pious critics suggested, The Exorcist was the devil’s work, the devil’s playground was Hollywood heaven. After opening on only two screens in New York City and Los Angeles, the frenzy that attended the film — multi-block lineups, ticket scalping, near-riots, ambulances and police cars parked at theatres — eventually created a hit on a scale the movie industry had never seen before.
Only a year after The Godfather had ushered in the “event”-driven blockbuster era by breaking all previous box-office records, The Exorcist bumped the bar all over again. In the period before video rentals and pay-TV broadcasts, the film played around the world for two years. At its peak, it was out-grossing Francis Coppola’s mob opera by 40 per cent. In the end, it would be the first film to crack the $200-million (U.S.) box-office ceiling. Then the shark came along.
For all his righteous bombast, had Billy Graham hit on something?
When the question was put to Blatty on the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary in 1998, he admitted he was still stunned by the movie’s impact: “Completely. And to this day I do not understand it. I look at Billy Graham’s comments that there was a power of evil in the film and I thought he was mad. But you know, he was on to something. I think that what he was trying to express is that there is an explosive power in the film and the fact is that it is greater than its parts.”
Those parts started assembling in 1949, when Blatty was a 20-year-old student at Georgetown University — where he set much of The Exorcist. In The Washington Post of Aug.20 of that year, Blatty read: “In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history, a 14-year-old Mount Rainier boy has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday.”
In flat, just-the-facts journalese, this startling tale tells of the “strange scratching from the area in the wall of the boy’s presence,” that provided early premonitions of his condition. It tells of the “violent, apparently voluntarily shakings of the boy’s bed” witnessed by family and neighbours. It tells of furniture moving across the floor, of heavy armchairs tilting and spilling the boy on the floor, of spitting, profanity, “guttural” voices and clearly enunciated phrases in Latin — a language the boy did not know.
And it tells of the exorcism.
Years later, when Blatty was a successful comedy screenwriter (A Shot In The Dark, What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?), the 1949 incident returned to him as the potential source for a serious, career-shifting work of non-fiction. He even contacted the actual exorcist in the Mount Rainier case, a Father William Bowdern. Bowdern was sympathetic, but was bound to his responsibility to the boy and his family. Thwarted in his desire to tell the story as non-fiction, Blatty started to write a novel. He called it The Exorcist.
While maintaining some elements of what he had learned about the actual case — including the boy’s fascination with Ouija boards, the strange emanations of words and numbers on his flesh, and a penchant for physical violence and sexual profanity — Blatty re-set the story to upscale Georgetown, introduced the element of futile medical and psychiatric intervention, changed the sex of the possessed from male to female, and added a host of his own demonic inspirations: levitation, rotating heads, projectile vomiting, reverse-spoken English and — most notoriously — masturbation with a crucifix.
The book became a smash bestseller. Blatty maintained rights as both producer and writer for the film adaptation, which put him in the unusual position of hiring its director, William Friedkin.
Friedkin — who had won an Oscar for directing The French Connection — was 36 when he began work on The Exorcist. To his filming of Blatty’s script — which he insisted the author rewrite from scratch — the working-class Jewish kid from Chicago brought intelligence, passion, obsessiveness, arrogance and a certain intimidating ruthlessness.
Out came tales of “Billy” physically and verbally brutalizing his cast (including slapping a priest), that he pushed his crew to the limits of exhaustion, that he fired hidden handguns to elicit convincingly startled reactions, and that he threw Lalo (Bullitt, Dirty Harry) Schifrin’s completed musical score off the roof of a building after listening to only a few minutes of it. He had the devil in him.
The Exorcist became a terrifying, nerve-jangling experiment in strategic contrast: the mundane juxtaposed with the mystical; the real with the fantastic; light with shadow, the innocent with the perverse; professional actors (Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb) with inexperienced newcomers (Jason Miller, Linda Blair); periods of silence smashed by bursts of aural assault.
The movie’s most controversial scene, in which the possessed girl Regan masturbates violently with a crucifix — then plunges her horrified mother’s face into her bloodied crotch — was the moment that convinced so many people that the devil thrived in The Exorcist. But it was not the scene that caused the movie’s most notorious reactions: the fainting, swooning and vomiting. Those came during the scene of Regan’s arteriogram.
In the clinically rendered sequence — which, unlike the shocking crucifix scene, lingers on screen — Regan’s neck is penetrated by a hypodermic needle, and a tube is inserted through which blood squirts the length of the white surgical sheets.
As Blatty recollected to writer Mark Kermode, the author was present when a woman came rushing toward the exit during the movie’s first New York preview: “The point that she walked out was the scene in the film at which I never look: the arteriogram scene. I never watch that … only once when I had to see it on (an editing machine) in rough cut. I’ve never looked at it since. It makes me weak.”
In The Exorcist, a demonic force takes possession of a little girl and transforms her into an unspeakable monster and her home into an earthly hell. It’s terribly, unforgettably frightening. But it’s nothing compared to the hospital.