Artwork by Alex Hanson
On principle, I don’t believe in demonic possession. Even if you told me that you personally saw someone possessed by a demon, I would tell you you probably just met a really angry person. But despite all of my high and mighty rationalizations, I couldn’t sleep for two weeks after watching The Exorcist for the first time at age fifteen— I was up until the wee hours of the morning staring at my eleven-year-old sister, absolutely sure she would become demonically possessed at any moment.
The Exorcist (1973) is an iconic horror film depicting the demonic possession of a young girl named Regan, and the exorcism that follows. After watching it on a fall afternoon with my family, I quickly become obsessed with and mystified by everything about it. How could a movie made forty years ago convince me, a non-religious teenager, that demonic possession was not only real, but would inevitably consume my pre-teen sister and ultimately kill me? I found myself seeing faces in the shadows of unlit bedrooms and thinking any creak in my house was the beginning rattle of a demon shaking my bed. I decided that any movie with that kind of effect must have some powerful subtext that I just hadn’t figured out yet.
I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with myself over whether the movie’s message is feminist by my own standards or not. I’m always torn between two ideas, the first being that the film represents the very patriarchal fear of young girls growing up and becoming a disobedient, sexually charged human independent of their parents. The opposing viewpoint, however, is that The Exorcist believes in the sheer power and strength that teenage girls are growing into, and is commenting on the way society sees that as a scary concept. This ongoing conversation with myself is one of many strings of thought The Exorcist drags me along on long after I’ve watched the movie. This provocation of thought and reflection is one of the reasons I watch this movie again and again, even though it terrifies me every time.
While I may be always switching back and forth over whether The Exorcist holds the same societal values that I do, there’s one thing I am absolutely sure of: this movie is haunted. A quick Google search of The Exorcist trivia results in a sea of supporting evidence: several people in or related to the cast and crew died during the making of the movie or not long after, and when the set burned in a studio fire, Regan’s room was left untouched.
In a way, this movie haunts me too. There’s something very creepy about the way I think of the chant the priests yell during the exorcism— “The power of Christ compels you, the power of Christ compels you!”— whenever I’m stressed or hyperfocused. In more than one cross country race I’ve crossed the finish line while reciting those words to myself. Even after viewing the film several times, I still gasp at the sight of Regan’s mutilated body and tense up at the sound of her distorted voice. The Exorcist changed the way I see shadows and made me afraid of something I don’t believe in— and in doing so, showed me the power a movie can have over a viewer’s perception of their world. I’m utterly possessed by this movie, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Alex Hanson
Alex Hanson is a Southern California native currently in her sophomore year at NYU, where sheis exploring some combination of writing, physics, and film. She’s a animation fanatic, especially animation that is dark or creepy (think Tim Burton or Over the Garden Wall). You can follow her on Twitter @AlexHanson1316.