Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Life of Fear: The Exorcist

The Halloween of my freshman year of high school didn't seem like it was going to be anything special. A handful of friends and I had gathered to watch horror movies at my friend's house - let's call him Kyle to protect his anonymity. It was a massive old homestead in rural Minnesota, buried deep within a grove of skeletal trees that from afar looked like an old lumber pile dropped in the the middle of a featureless span of farm fields. The house was thirty minutes away from any town whose population had more than three digits, but it was clear that this had to be where we met. Kyle's dad had a movie collection unlike anything we'd ever seen, big enough to put all the local video stores to shame.

Next to the living room sat what looked to have at one point been a dining room. It had long been repurposed to hold countless carefully labeled and numbered VHS tapes which were stacked in towering piles around the walls of the room. Kyle's Dad would rent movies and copy them onto extended play videos that would allow for three or four films to be condensed onto one tape. Tapes were continually being copied on a couple of secondary VCRs in this room, the start and end times scrawled in a notebook before being transcribed into a computerized spreadsheet. We joked one time that if anyone left an anonymous tip with the FBI, agents would burn the house down upon witnessing the scale of the piracy. Kyle's dad responded by pulling out a handgun from the back of his pants and saying "I'd like to see them try."

It was still early in the night as we sat laughing over the credits of some awful B-movie that I've since forgotten. We didn't know what movie would be next, but Kyle's dad wandered in and was more than happy to offer a suggestion. "Want to see something really scary?" he said (a reference I wouldn't get for years). He disappeared into his video library and returned holding one of the rare tapes that he'd actually purchased. Surely this had to be good if he'd shelled out more than the price of a rental on it. "Try this one out," he said as he tossed us his copy of The Exorcist.

Demonic possession and exorcisms were nothing new to me. I'd been raised Catholic and had spent countless Saturday mornings sitting in religious education classes taught by nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the same order as Mother Teresa. These grandmotherly nuns wouldn't let us leave class without hugs, always spoke in soft, kind voices, and would occasionally regale us with tales of horrors from the pits of hell. We were told how Satan could enter the bodies of anyone he chose and how priests could then drive him out with nothing but the power of their faith. We were told stories of how the devil would assault priests in the night, assailing them for hours with bodily anguish and awful hallucinations. Their only weapons against the devil were tightly grapsed rosaries and endless strings of Hail Marys. Reading the synopsis on the back of The Exorcist, I thought I knew what I was in for.

As we got deeper into the film it slowly dawned on me that there were things the nuns had left out of their stories. Things more horrible than my mind could imagine at the time. I could deal with spinning heads, pea-soup vomit, and Linda Blair's transformation from cute kid to sallow-eyed monster. What I wasn't prepared for was the blasphemy. As fathers Merrin and Karras prepare to conduct their exorcism of Regan, Father Merrin points out that above all else the demon will seek to undermine their efforts with lies. For all the physical transformation on display, its primary method of attack is psychological.

It was an attack that caught me off guard. The unrelenting stream of profanity spewing from Regan's mouth was an assault on all the doctrine and traditions I'd been raised with. "Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras, you faithless slime," is a line that's haunted me ever since. Not so much for the vulgarity, but for the seed that it planted in my head - the possibility that the demon wasn't lying and that this horrible fate awaited the ones I loved. When the camera pans slowly into the room where Regan sits on the bed, masturbating with a bloody crucifix, it was a shock to every bit of Catholicism that had lodged itself in my brain. I'd never conceived of anything that was this blatant an affront to God.

Even worse was the film's refusal to grant us a happy ending. We sat there silent as the credits rolled, none of us sure exactly what to say. We tried to sleep shortly afterward, sprawled on the living room couches, restlessly pondering questions of faith. I found out later that week in school that one friend was so shaken up by the film that he'd confronted his parents about it. He was raised in a branch of Pentecostal Christianity far stricter in practice than my own Catholicism, and had never encountered any stories of possession like that of The Exorcist. He was upset up the whole week afterward, forced for the first time to truly confront what it meant for God to allow evil to persist in the world - particularly evil of this magnitude, that preyed not on the wicked but on innocence.

Which, I think, is exactly what the film intended.

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