I was stoked to read Andrew O’Hehir’s list of the universally agreed upon 10 scariest horror movies ever, and while I’m down with nine of the ten, I have to register my dissent on “The Exorcist”. In fact, every time I think of “The Exorcist”, I think of one family gathering where my sister was making fun of one of the many demonic Reganisms, and other relatives expressed their belief that the movie was fucking scary. My sister laughed and said, “I don’t know. I laugh at it. I think it’s hilarious.” I agreed that it was hard to do anything but laugh at how stupid it is. “Comedy classic,” my sister concluded.
It’s not that I have something against horror movies. In fact, I find them fascinating, as they’re, more often than not, an interesting way for the culture to grapple with its psychosexual issues. But because of this, most good horror films are good because they exploit ambiguous feelings and half-baked beliefs lurking in the public. Slasher flicks are roundly castigated for blatant misogyny, and usually that’s fair, but a good slasher flick (“Halloween”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and even “Nightmare on Elm Street”) isn’t content with showing an immature male audience one satisfying image after another of young woman after another being killed for being sexy and sexually active (but not with you).* These movies are more ambiguous, and the hostility towards young women isn’t set in stone. You are put in the place of the killer and are expected to feel repulsed by his violence and his misogyny, and you are in the room with the victims, who come across as normal human beings whose deaths are tragic and not just set dressing.
It’s not a coincidence that the era of the great horror movie was the ’60s-’80s, an era when cultural ambiguity was at its frightening heights. A huge percentage of classic horror films riff off people’s desires in one direction (women’s liberation, modernity) versus their fears of this new world. I’d replace “The Exorcist” on this list with “Rosemary’s Baby”, for instance, because the latter is an endlessly fascinating but dreadful portrait of how the exciting new world wasn’t bringing women with it—despite her sparkling and intelligent friends and her hip new haircut, Rosemary is swamped by the ancient and wicked patriarchy (which is literally Satanic), but at the end, she finds a certain pleasure in submission. “Psycho” and “Halloween” mine similar territory, putting forth intelligent young women who aren’t really part of “traditional” womanhood, and cross paths with twisted misogynists with perverse sexualities who murder women for pleasure that seem sexual and not at the same time.** “Nightmare on Elm Street” fascinates me, because it stems in no small part from the previous generations’ mixed feelings about Generation X, as if Freddy Krueger’s desire to kill the teenagers of Elm Street is a projection of the elder generation’s own mixed feelings about its responsibilities to protect those young people. “Night of the Living Dead” might be my favorite of all time, and over time, it seems more and more prescient as Americans do in fact face one serious problem after another that should bring us together, but only manages to enhance differences and provoke squabbling.
The thing with “The Exorcist” is it’s not ambiguous in the slightest. It’s an unsubtle reactionary screed that lambasts the female half of the species for maturing from adorable little girls to grotesque women. The ending is uneasy not just because the priest dies, but because we in the audience know that Regan’s salvation was a temporary reprieve—sure, the demons are out of her, but the demons of puberty are marching in and no amount of praying will stop that. There’s not a note of self-righteous Christian piety missed—the priest who is violently forced to reconsider when he starts questioning his faith, the unsubtle hint that Regan’s mother brought this on herself by daring to be single, and of course the undisguised horror at the female body. The demons inside Regan know that above all else (in this universe), female sexuality is disgusting and blasphemous, which is why they whole masturbating with a cross thing. The priest who sacrifices himself to save her feminine purity? Yeah, pure glorification of the sacrifice of celibacy. The whole thing is stupid.
I looked up “The Exorcist” on Wikipedia to see if my reaction really is unusual, but was happy to see that when it came out, my opinion was not unheard of. Jon Landeau, in the Rolling Stone, described the movie as “nothing more than a religious porn film, the gaudiest piece of shlock this side of Cecil B. DeMille (minus that gentleman’s wit and ability to tell a story) …” Indeed. “The Exorcist” helped mainstreamed misogynist religious schlock, helped make the case that you could smuggle repulsive religious ideas into pop culture and make them more palatable to people who just want to take in a good story. If it wasn’t for “The Exorcist”, would we have the “Left Behind” series? I’m sure the writers of “Left Behind” don’t cite “The Exorcist” as an influence, but it’s influence is clearly felt and we’re all the poorer for it.
*If you’re religious and turned off by slasher flicks, the only other option is to be an anti-choice nut, satisfying your loathing of young women with blooming sexualities by agitating for governments to force them to submit to forced pregnancy and hopefully a shotgun wedding, anything to get the bloom off the rose as fast as possible.
**Again, the similarities to anti-choice obsessives is shocking, to say the least. I mean, the results are different—murder and anti-choice activism are only one and the same thing occasionally. But the motivations are there.