It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Fears come back from the dead and walk in the day. Goths thrive at midnight showings of “Rocky Horror” and vandals throw eggs at houses. And the film beat? We’re popping popcorn and crawling under blankets to watch some of our favorite scary (or just vaguely spooky) films. ’Tis the season for tricks and treats — whether we’re jumping in our skins or howling at the moon. Join us as we walk through films that remind us of the dark night of Halloween.
“The Exorcist” was the first horror movie I ever watched. At six years old, I didn’t know that when I sat down at my kitchen table with my sister and dad, I was about to be emotionally scarred. But even if I had known, I probably still would’ve watched. It’s the reason horror movies fascinate me today: I just can’t get them out of my head. And I don’t really want to.
The reason “The Exorcist” is known as one of the most frightening films to this day is because it doesn’t rely on jump scares or typical horror film clichés. Instead, the film provokes a feeling of outright terror that lasts for two hours and twelve minutes. Regan (Linda Blair, “Born Innocent”), an innocent 12-year-old girl, falls ill. Her mother, Chris, (Ellen Burstyn, “Interstellar”) seeks out medical help but discovers that her daughter’s illness is a medical mystery. She turns to a priest (Jason Miller, “Rudy”) for help, and he claims that Regan has been possessed by the devil. The rest of the film follows Regan through her loss of innocence and the absolutely bone-chilling journey towards exorcism.
When I first watched “The Exorcist,” what scared me most was Regan’s face when she became possessed. Her cheeks become scarred with deep red cuts, and her eyes bulge out. The image haunted me in my nightmares and occasionally still does. However, what frightens me most about the film now is that the events told throughout are based on a true story. When I usually watch horror movies, what keeps me grounded in reality and able to move on from the film’s horrifying events is the fact that it’s just a movie, but “The Exorcist” is not.
“The Exorcist” is an assault on its audience, taking us through some of the most horrifying experiences a human can face, leaving us no choice but to watch. It’s impossible to be a passive viewer when this movie is on screen. While you can get away with peeking through your fingers during most horror movies, there’s no hiding for two hours straight during “The Exorcist.” You can look away, but the sounds of terror will find you. If you really want to escape, you’ll have to leave the room.
However, it’s interesting to look at this film not for its fear-inducing qualities but for its cinematic value and effects. There’s no denying that this film has a cold, dark feel to it — you can even see the characters’ clouds of breath within the house. This is because the set was refrigerated, a choice made by director William Friedkin. Although not unbelievable with our technology today, this was rare for 1973 and goes to show the lengths this crew went through to produce one of the scariest movies ever made, and it paid off. I think everyone who has ever seen the movie can agree that they felt cold to the core throughout. Definitely not a pleasant viewing experience, but that’s the point.
The horror genre in particular requires a ton of computer-generated special effects, at least in today’s world. In 1973, the cast of “The Exorcist” resorted to using practical effects to conjure up the petrifying images present throughout. There’s one scene, in particular, that has stuck with me all these years (and probably will for the rest of my life): when Regan’s possessed head twists around in a full circle, created using a dummy and special lighting. When I watch older horror films, I find myself fully cognizant of the way images were created. While watching “The Exorcist,” I’m too busy fearing for my life to think about any of that. It’s only after the fact that I’m left wondering how the film could create the level of terror it does.
Let’s make one thing clear: No one watches “The Exorcist” for enjoyment. So why do so many people watch it and still go back to it today? It feels like most people watch this movie to say that they’ve seen it and survived it. It’s the most intense movie-viewing experience, riding the thin line between acceptable and intolerable. Even director William Friedkin was surprised when the film received an R-rating instead of an X, and when the film made it to theaters, some audience members even fainted. Making it to the other side feels like an accomplishment in itself, and I don’t want to walk that tightrope again for a very long time.
Daily Arts Writer Laura Millar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.