Dissecting the Macabre: The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) is one of those movies that I feel like gets over-looked a little during Women in Horror Month, which is kind of silly because come on, we have a single mom trying to save her daughter from demonic possession. Linda Blair gives an incredible performance as Regan in the film and there is a lot to discuss in terms of themes of female sexuality.

In my Dissecting the Macabre video on The Exorcist (which is up right now, by the way, you can watch it whenever), I touch on the most obvious themes of the film which include the age-old battle between good and evil. But, if we view the movie through a different lens, one might see how female sexuality (especially puberty) and female strength are portrayed in the film through Regan’s character as well as her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn).

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It’s established pretty early on in the film that Regan’s father is pretty much out of the picture and there is some animosity, at least on Chris’ side, because of this. Not to mention Chris is a movie star and often has to leave Regan in the care of a nanny, so as the characters are being established, we see that Regan is ripe for the picking from a demon’s perspective. Although Regan and Chris love each other very much, Chris isn’t always there to look after her daughter and there is no father or father-figure in the picture:

“What creates these monsters? […] The Exorcist gets God and Satan involved, but the local, familial themes are still there: the possessed girl’s father is absent from the scene, for example, and – given that this is the early 1970s, during the first large-scale hangover from the sexual revolution of the 1960s – we, as viewers, are cued to assign significance to his absence. (On his daughter’s birthday, he is vacationing in Rome and out of contact; the girl witnesses her mother’s expletive-laced tirade upon being unable to reach him by telephone. The visible signs of possession begin in the very next scene: a single mother is not powerful enough to protect her family from such pressures.)” (Dumas 33)

Enter Father Karras (Jason Miller) and Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) who become prominent figures in the movie, especially the former. We also have Chris’ friend and the director of her latest movie, Burke Dennings (Jack McGowran), who, at one point in the film, Regan asks her mother about in terms of being a potential suitor. Dennings and Merrin become easy victims of the demonic Regan and Karras can only save her by taking the demon into himself and then committing suicide. The film “gives the clearest example of woman-as-abject-monster in all of horror cinema: the possessed girl vomits, bleeds, masturbates, and blasphemes, and her victims – a friend of the family and two priests – are all men, destroyed by the uncontainable power that is feminine sexuality” (Dumas 32).

The female experience of puberty and menstruation can be seen symbolically through Regan’s possession and the side effects of said possession, which have been “interpreted by at least one critic as ‘a male nightmare of female puberty’” (Maddrey 58). Like anyone going through puberty, hormones run wild which causes the mood swings that teenagers are known for. Regan is double-damned because she is entering into womanhood, which brings a monthly period and even more mood swings. Chris, a single mother, is left to deal with Regan’s changes all alone and resorts to doctors and psychiatrists before ultimately admitting that she needs the help of the church. According to the Bible (Leviticus 15:19-33 to be exact), a woman is ceremonially unclean for seven days, as is everything and everyone she touches during that time (New Living Translation).

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“The modern horror film often ‘plays’ with its audience, saturating it with scenes of blood and gore, deliberately pointing to the fragility of the symbolic order in the domain of the body which never ceases to signal the repressed world of the mother. This is particularly evident in The Exorcist, where the world of the symbolic, represented by the priest-as-father, and the world of the presymbolic, represented by woman aligned with the devil, clashes head-on in scenes where the foulness of woman is signified by her putrid, filthy body covered in blood, urine, excrement, and bile” (Creed 46).

In these ways, we can view Regan’s demonic possession one huge, messy metaphor for puberty and female sexuality. Today, these subjects are still discussed with trepidation and care, as it can be a dangerous topic, apparently. I think, viewing Regan’s story in this way, makes the film still relevant in terms of the female experience in puberty.

Works Cited

Creed, Barbara. “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine:: An Imaginary Abjection.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, 2nd ed., University of Texas Press, 2015, pp. 37–66.

Dumas, Chris. “Horror and Psychoanalysis: An Introductory Primer.” A Companion to the Horror Film, edited by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley & Sons, 2014, pp. 21–37.

Maddrey, Joseph. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. McFarland & Company, 2004.

New Living Translation. Bible Study Tools, www.biblestudytools.com/nlt/leviticus/passage/?q=leviticus 15:19-33.

You can watch The Exorcist below (this is an Affiliate link):

The Exorcist
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack Macgowran