Pathological States: ‘The Exorcist’ and Monstrous Sexualities

Warner Bros.

When The Exorcist arrived in cinemas in 1973, it was coined the first modern horror blockbuster. Queues wrapped around the block to see “the scariest film of all time”. Stories soon spread of the head-spinning special effects and taboo subject matter — and the vomiting, fainting, and heart attacks it provoked. But what is it about The Exorcist that makes it so core-shaking? 

A film that centres the bodily experience of woman-as-monster, The Exorcist momentarily shatters our collective reliance on patriarchal order. The possessed female body — grounded in monstrosity — is truly terrifying. As spectators, we encounter displays of female sexuality and homoerotic desire as perverse. And we are on the edge of our seat until the pillars of masculinity restore order.

What is truly exorcised in the film? The potential for a queer and female subjectivity that destabilises the symbolic order of the family and the Church.

William Friedkin directed The Exorcist based on William Peter Blatty’s book of the same name. Shot on a budget of $12 million, the film earned some $441 million worldwide, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time. It’s set in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington D.C., where movie star Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is living on-location with her daughter Regan (Linda Blair). On the morning of Regan’s twelfth birthday, she overhears her mother screaming profanities on the phone — furious that her estranged husband hasn’t yet called his daughter. 

Thereafter, Regan begins to behave erratically. From urinating on the floor at her mother’s dinner party and screaming foul obscenities, to causing the objects of her bedroom to fly, she creeps towards monstrosity. Indignant and exhausted by medical attempts to diagnose her daughter, Chris seeks refuge in the Catholic Church. She suspects that Regan is a victim of demonic possession, and calls in Father Damien Karras to perform an exorcism.

Regan and the Monstrous-Feminine

Warner Bros.

When we meet Regan, she presents all the trappings of innocent girlhood: long white sleeping gowns, adoration of her mother — she even dreams of owning her very own horse. But as she reaches puberty, her desires turn perverse. Soon, she is hurling sexual advances at her own mother, attempting to castrate her psychiatrist, and accusing Father Karras of sodomy. 

Regan’s fall-from-innocence aptly coincides with her entrance to adolescence, and is catalysed by witnessing a familial argument. Yet we do not see her as a victim — she is, instead, a demonic presence wreaking havoc on the family. Barbara Creed describes this as the monstrous-feminine: the ways in which women in horror films are constructed is evil and grotesque in relation to their gender and sexuality. As she explains in the fantastic The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis, “possession becomes a mere excuse for legitimising a display of aberrant feminine behaviour which is depicted as depraved, monstrous, [and] abject”. As such, we witness Regan’s bodily rebellion, and are shocked by her repressed sexual desires. 

It’s no surprise that Regan’s possession is spurred by an absentee father. Creed explains that the film’s ideological project is to construct monstrosity’s source as “the failure of paternal order”. Chris seeks to cure her daughter with a parade of men in white coats who bestow neurological diagnoses. When these doctors see Regan’s supernatural powers, they tell Chris: “pathological states can induce abnormal strength”. Chris, unconvinced, moves from scientific to spiritual as a means of restoring order.

Queer desire as abject; heteronormativity as the antidote

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The Exorcist is famous for the shocking verbal obscenities of its young subject. What’s most transgressive: the sexual, often homoerotic demands and insults she snarls at those who cross her. As Creed explains: “Regan’s transformation from angel into devil is clearly a sexual one; it suggests that the family home, bastion of all the right virtues and laudable moral values, is built on a foundation of repressed sexual desires, including those which flow between mother and daughter”.

What could be repressed in the MacNeil household? With no father/husband at home, Chris and Regan form a tight family unit of two. They play together, sometimes sleep together in the same bed — sharing what Creed calls an “unusual intimacy… almost like lovers”. A potential new partner of Chris’s provokes jealousy from her daughter, and she soothes her with caresses. Departing from her infantile sexuality, perhaps Regan is possessed with an incestuous love for her mother.

As Regan’s behaviour and appearance grow more abject, her body is coded as female, and her possessor — low growling voice, rebellious spirit — as male. Could her possession point towards a repressed, oedipal longing for her mother? Having crossed the boundary of morality and order, Regan can speak out, even enact her seemingly transgressive desires. 

By linking her homoeroticism to her mother, The Exorcist suggests that queerness itself is abject. Lea Anderson affirms this in their article Spectacular Degradation, arguing that “Regan’s desire to remain locked in a close dyadic relationship with the mother becomes both the source and reason for her possession, affirming a femme and queerphobia which seeks to establish alignments between queerness, pedophilia, incest, child abuse, and the demonic”. And matters only get worse as religion enters the picture. When Jesuit priest Father Karras arrives, Regan’s language becomes blatantly homophobic. She taunts Karras, accusing him sexual relations with his fellow priests. She plays with the taboo nature of priesthood, perhaps sensing a bond between Karras and his male peers. 

As Andrew Britton writes in his analysis of The Exorcist in Britton on Film, “gayness and assertive female sexuality… emerge simultaneously as the Other”. Given the time period of the film’s release, Britton argues that the film constructs the “emergencne of Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation as threats to patriarchal family, and its associated sexual norms”. Only ritual purification, in the form of exorcism, can tame this female-sexuality-gone-wild. And so the status quo is restored.

Queering possession: counter-responses to The Exorcist

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Regan’s descent into monstrosity destabilises the natural order of things. At twelve, she should be happy, healthy, and girlish — not revolting, rebellious, and perverse. Although dramatised, the trope of the adolescent who doesn’t fit social norms relating to gender and sexuality is ripe for identification. In The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema: Youth Rebellion and Queer Spectatorship, Andrew Scahill argues that, “if queerness is seen as a threat to the social fabric because [it represents] the horror of incomplete narratives by their refusal to enter the social contract that marks them as ‘adult,’ then the lost child, the ruined child, the rejected child, or the possessed child provide fertile terrain for queer identification.” 

Indeed, The Exorcist might be read as an allegory for the queer as abject. And many have noted the thematic similarities between exorcism and conversion therapy. Others have speculated about the possibility of a trans narrative within the film, citing possession as a highly dramatised site for exploring dissociation.  

Elsewhere, filmmakers have responded to the 1973 film with complicated homages. In Unmanning The Exorcist: Sex, Gender and Excess in the 1970s Euro-Horror Possession Film, Ian Olney charts Euro-horror possession movies of the 1970s that deconstruct and reorient the themes of its source text. Olney argues that while The Exorcist maintains “the heteronormative status quo by repressing the spectre of homosexuality,” films like Jess Franco’s Les possed´ ees du ´ diable (Lorna … the Exorcist, 1974), Massimo Dallamano’s Il medaglione insanguinato (Night Child, 1975), Amando de Ossorio’s La endemoniada (The Possessed, 1975), and Andrea Bianchi’s Malabimba (1979) all celebrate it. In depicting possession and the monstrous-feminine as pleasurable, these films turn misogynistic and homophobic readings of thie possession subgenre upside down.

Almost 50 years after its release, The Exorcist remains truly terrifying in its portrayal of the abject. For all its twisted pleasures, it invites audiences to interrogate: what is it about Regan that’s so monstrous?

by Katy D’Avella

Katy D’Avella is a writer based in London. She has an MSc in Media Studies, where she focused on film theory, and has appeared on film podcasts like Projections Podcast.

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