Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I have always wondered why The Exorcist has never terrified me. I have seen it on several occasions, under several states - more often than not alone in the middle of the night - and it has never spooked me, not even in that "boo" way some stupid films always do. I have come to realize the reason of this is because The Exorcist isn't really a horror movie, at least not in the sense it thinks it is. The movie is not about demons and possessions, it's about a different kind of devil: Hollywood.

Why does the possession have to happen to the daughter of a movie star? Chris MacNeil as played by Ellen Burstyn is the epitome of a Hollywood personality; liberal, a non-believer, dedicated to her craft. Why does the possession happen to her daughter and not a secretary's or a doctor's?
Perhaps the idea was precisely to highlight why things like these happen to non-believers but instead what the movie highlights is the idea of spectacle as seen through demonic possessions or movies.

Could there be any other reason why the movie's most iconic shot, feels so much like a staged entrance?

One of the earliest scenes in the film even anticipates this moment, as we see the spotlights being prepared for the movie Chris is working on.

Later, as the exorcism proceeds, we see the young girl floating while the terrified priests try to help her. The idea that both devils and Hollywood crews can make people fly is presented to us during an earlier scene where we see Chris discussing the movie, while in the background a crate is pushed around. Element which later might be used to lift actress Linda Blair from her bed.

Notice how the crate lingers in the back, not even the characters seem to notice its presence, a prescient reminder that the magic of movies isn't supposed to be obvious. All of this leads us to my favorite shot in the movie:

A shot, so cinematic that it begs to be seen more than once. Here the movie becomes aware of its own movie-ness, since we're the only ones who see this creepy face flash in Chris' house and if a demon's face was to flash behind our backs, who would get scared? The movie reveals it's not about the characters' interests but about the audience's. Burstyn has her best damsel in distress look and the demonic face appears for a mere instant, reminding us that regardless of our religious beliefs, the movies have always had the possibility to thrill us in unison.

This post is part of Nat's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I think this is the fourth place I'm saying this, but Ellen Burstyn is amazing.

I like that you make a solid attempt to explain and it works (because I did wonder why an actress on occasion).

Your best shot and the point that the horror is sometimes designed just for us and not the characters make me rethink some aspects of the film, which weren't exactly "flaws" but that I thought odd since they seemed set up for the audience and not actual in the vein of the narrative. (That sounds confusing, but in short, nice writeup.)


interesting piece -- and i like the theory about hollywood as its particular devil -- but i had such an opposite reaction because i felt like the fear was more FOR the characters than for the audience. I was not half as terrified as I expected to be but i felt the fear of the characters.

and yes Burstyn is amazing. That scream when her daughter gets her all bloody and bars the door and such: blood curdling.

Brittani Burnham said...

I never thought of it this way, but damn this is an interesting post! I saw the Exorcist for the first time when I was 8, so I never really considered why it would happen to Chris's daughter and not anyone elses. It just scared the crap out of me. This makes a lot of sense though.