Growing up, I was not a horror movie fan. Any intrigue was outweighed by my deep hatred of jumpscares and freaky imagery. My interest in the genre has only developed in recent years, partly ignited by Jordan Peele’s (“Nope”) emergence into horror and induced by an interest in expanding my films watched list. This October alone, I have found a new appreciation of many classic horror films, including “The Shining,” “Alien” and “Carrie” — I live with Stephen King fans if you couldn’t tell. I also watched William Friedkin’s (“The Boys in the Band”) 1973 horror classic “The Exorcist,” which is sometimes described as the best horror movie of all time. No amount of newfound love for horror can make me understand this movie.
“The Exorcist” was an instant hit when it was released, blowing Warner Bros.’ expectations out of the water and becoming one of their highest-grossing movies at the time. It was reportedly such a scandalous, intense movie that it was banned from some theaters in the UK. It tells the story of actress Chris MacNeil’s (Ellen Burstyn, “Requiem for a Dream”) attempt to rid her 12-year-old daughter Regan (Linda Blair, “The Exorcist: Believer”) of demonic possession with the assistance of two Catholic priests, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller, “The Exorcist III”) and Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow, “The Seventh Seal”). Regan goes to every doctor imaginable and none are able to help; the priests are a last-ditch effort to get rid of her worsening affliction. The movie questions whether the possession is real, as Father Karras struggles with his faith while helping Regan.
By most measurements, I should be the perfect audience member for “The Exorcist.” I don’t have issues with once-groundbreaking special effects that don’t stand up to today’s standards. I like horror movies that are more freaky than truly scary. I have a healthy dose of Catholic terror from the years my parents forced me to go to church — something that years of atheism cannot erase. But instead of being enraptured with the film or hiding under my blankets from terror, I found myself laughing.
To clarify, I do not think “The Exorcist” is a bad movie by any means. The acting ranges from passable to surprisingly captivating, the special effects hold up well for a 50-year-old movie, and all of the main characters experience interesting, well-written arcs over the course of the story. I don’t understand “The Exorcist” on a more basic level; I have absolutely no idea what about this film scared audiences so badly they left the theater and even fainted.
The film’s climax and most intense moment is certainly the exorcism itself. It’s a grueling experience for the priests, full of threats and physical altercations with the demon. As an audience member, it felt downright goofy. These scenes’ intensity was so over the top that the movie turned to farce; a demon possessing someone just to beg a priest to fuck them with a crucifix — something that happens multiple times — is so absurd that the only response is to laugh. Two priests chanting “The power of Christ compels you” elicits amusement instead of terror. The demon and its possession of Regan lose any frightening aspects, replaced by a sense that the film was going for shock value. I found myself incapable of the necessary suspension of disbelief required to make this film straightforwardly scary.
Perhaps it was a cultural aspect of the film that scared audiences in the early ’70s; many critics have described it as a reaction to the counter-culture of the ’60s and the increasing secularization of America. I was cracking jokes throughout the movie, saying that it was a response to Vatican II, an at-the-time controversial council started by Pope John XXIII to update the Catholic Church’s practices to match modern society. The film definitely has a conservative undertone; its deference to traditional and spiritual solutions naturally draws the audience to the conclusion that modernity cannot solve our problems. But this still fails to clarify why the movie was scary. The film’s conservative messaging might draw in and frighten American audiences who are familiar with traditional Christianity, but to scare someone to the point of fainting, I have to believe there is another factor I am missing; some internal capacity for terror that I do not possess.
Someone more versed in psychoanalysis might be able to find a specific reason why I can’t appreciate “The Exorcist” as much as other people; perhaps my ex-Catholic status is so deeply ingrained that the film leaves a sour taste in my mouth. It’s possible I react to the film’s deep reverence for the supernatural with absurd laughter, or maybe I have just found which horror films I like. I don’t know which it is, so I — and you, dear reader — will have to be okay with leaving this mystery unsolved. Some movies are not meant to have a universal audience. “The Exorcist” is a good movie that some people, myself included, are incapable of understanding.
Film Beat Editor Zach Loveall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.