The Exorcist Scaring Audiences For More Than Forty Years

Regan Possessed by Pazuzu

Our journey though the National Registry List brings us face to face with Pazuzu and a little more personal look at William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

The Exorcist and New Hollywood

The Seventies was a great decade for movies. Directors like Francis For Coppola, Bob Rafelson, and Hal Ashby were creating movies with a freedom unseen prior in Hollywood. Movies like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather redefined cinema all under the name of The New Hollywood.

The Godfather

Financial success would ultimately bring an end to New Hollywood. George Lucas’s Star Wars, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist were colossal hits for the studios. Movie goers were thrilled and often went to see these movies more than once. For the studios it was a windfall, they weren’t expecting these films to be financial hits. By the end of the 70’s the New Hollywood was finished and the age of the Hollywood Blockbuster began.

A Childhood Fear

As a kid, I didn’t know anything about New Hollywood or the impact these films would have on future generations. As a kid I had freedoms of my own. My parents didn’t censor what their kids watched. We grew up on action movies, comedies, science fiction, and horror movies. Nothing, besides pornography, was off limits. The only catch was we had to hear my mother say “Remember, real people don’t do this” before every movie. However, there was one film I was absolutely forbidden to watch.

Being Catholic

William Friedkin’s The Exorcist made its way into our home via the late, somewhat great Blockbuster Video. It was put high on a kitchen shelf away from prying hands for later viewing by my parents. Of course, being told I couldn’t watch it meant that I had to watch it. On the night in question I waited until the parents thought I was asleep before sneaking downstairs to where my parents were about to watch the forbidden movie. Through a crack in the living room door I watched the entire movie.

Karras says Mass

There are certain things ingrained into you when you’re growing up Catholic: Jesus died for you sins, the saints provided protection, and every Sunday whether you liked it or not you’d be at morning mass followed by church school. The most important lesson was that the devil was very, very real and he would lead you into temptation every chance he could get.

Fueled by a childhood of Catholic upbringing The Exorcist not only scared me it terrified me. It terrified me for years to come. Eventually I grew up. As the years went by the original fear I had of The Exorcist faded. However, I never forgot that initial fear. With some life experience under the belt I came to realize why The Exorcist scared me and why it continues to scare us decades after its release.

Why The Exorcist Still Works Today

There’s a familiarity to The Exorcist. Regan, the possessed young girl, could have been any one the girls in my Sunday school classes. Father Karras could have been any number of the young priests who passed through our parish. Father Merrin could have been the older priest who said mass every Sunday. Chris MacNeil, the scared mother, could have been my mother or even your mother.

Father Merrin in Iraq

These characters were real, developed, and fully formed. This is not to say that characters in other horror movies are not real or that they haven’t been developed through out the movie. However, in most cases character takes a back seat to the scares the director is trying to create. Characters in The Exorcist never take a back seat in the  film. We’re still learning about these characters as the exorcism gets more violent and the movie heads towards its violent conclusion.

The Exorcist also works because it’s rooted in our world. This is not to say other horror movies do not take place in cities, but in very few of them to do we get a sense of where the story takes place. D.C. isn’t a far flung world. Whether we’ve been to Washington D.C. or not the Capitol Building, the White House, and the Lincoln Memorial are immediately recognizable. Lt. Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) give the audience an almost virtual tour of the city. At times, especially with the now famous steps, D.C. feels like another character in the movie.

Regan in the Exorcist


The majority of the action takes place in Chris’s home and, more specifically, Regan’s bedroom. Friedkin doesn’t take his viewers anywhere else once the priests arrive to perform the exorcism  Other movies want to take us to the “other side.” These directors and screenwriters feel the need to show the audience everything . All these movies manage to do is to take the viewer out of the action and interrupt any build up that may have been occurring in the movie. Even worse, it leaves nothing to the imagination. Hitchcock knew he didn’t have to show everything. He knew the viewer would fill in the scenes between Norman opening the shower curtain and Marion dying on the shower floor.

Father Karras faces Pazuzu in The Exorcist

Friedkin never breaks the build up or the intensity being developed in The Exorcist. The closest thing the audience gets to seeing “the other side” is the face of Pazuzu inter-cut into scenes in the movie. We could argue this was done simply because the technology wasn’t available to do anything else. This may indeed be true, there was no CGI to do the heavy lifting. The result is fleeting glimpses of Pazuzu’s face on a counter, cut between scenes, and his voice coming out of a possessed girl. These scenes are often more disturbing than anything CGI could render.

A Debt to The Exorcist

Many movies with demonic possession at their center have come out in the decades since the release of The Exorcist. There are those who will say these movies are scarier than The Exorcist and even better than The Exorcist. Both are subjective at best. These movies rely heavily on CGI and jump scares to generate fear. The Exorcist didn’t need either to create fear and to work itself into the collective culture. If it weren’t for The Exorcist those other movies would not exist.

The Exorcist arrives