Feature: Revisiting the scariest movie of all time: The Exorcist

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Originally published on The National Student on 31/10/15

With Halloween fever settling in once again for another year, it seemed like just the right occasion to revisit what has become arguably the quintessential horror film: William Friedkin’s The Exorcist.

Topping lists of “the scariest films of all time” across the board from the likes of Entertainment Weekly, AMC and TimeOut, from as recently as last year, the legacy of The Exorcist is truly unparalleled. 

When Friedkin’s film was initially released in 1973, and more widely the following year, it soon became a major commercial hit, as word of its extreme nature spread. Stories of audiences fainting and vomiting throughout screenings of the film began to make news headlines and in retaliation to such horrors, some councils in the UK began to ban showing it in any capacity. Thus, cult status was well and truly secured.

Now however, 40 years on since the film’s first bow, it seems slightly less impressive. This isn’t to undermine it completely; it’s still an exquisitely made and beautifully acted film and one that firmly deserves its classical status – but scary, it is not. 

For those still left a little confused, The Exorcist charts the demonic possession of a sweet-natured 12 year-old girl named Reagan, and the lengths her mother goes to rid her daughter of the evil spirit. From psychiatrists to priests, the family suffer through watching Reagan’s body be tormented by the demon (soon figured to be the Devil himself) both physically and mentally, all the while holding out for the one holy figure who will come and exorcise the girl to free her from the beast that now lives within. 

In present day, the problem with such a set-up can be seen rather quickly in the fact that there have since been dozens upon dozens of similarly-natured horror films, all dealing with the likes of possession and exorcism. 

It is true however that precisely none of these efforts are even remotely as well-made as Friedkin’s original tale, but the fact remains that the idea of demonic possession is no longer as shocking as it once was. Throw on top of this the fact that The Exorcist itself has been parodied and lampooned to death in the years following its release, in everything from sketch comedy to Scary Movie 2, and it becomes clear to see that those initial scenes of terror have since been undermined rather severely. 

Sequences of Reagan’s body being grossly tortured by the Devil, including her being loosely thrown around the room and forced to self-harm with a sharpened crucifix, remain disturbing and uncomfortable, but the lingering dread thought to plague the film as a whole doesn’t feel as present  today as maybe it once was. 

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Obviously the rise in the extreme nature of the horror genre in general – thanks to the likes of Saw and Hostel – has likely played a part in making Friedkin’s film feel significantly tamer than it did on its initial release, but on a more psychological level, there’s definitely an issue with the religious content that powers The Exorcist too.

In the early 1970s, religion itself was far more taboo than it seems today. Now, with jokes about everything from the Devil’s sexuality to Jesus’s resurrection becoming common place in sitcoms like South Park, there’s much less of a shock-factor there.

To the original audiences that saw The Exorcist upon its first release, particularly in the US, the idea of demonic possession wasn’t all that crazy; a decent amount of audiences believed that such things could actually happen. But with the rising tide of secularisation, and the constantly sensationalised takes on such topics in films and TV, it’s hard to take it as seriously anymore. 

So is The Exorcist actually still king of all scares? Have we become too jaded by contemporary horror? What would the newer generation deem to be the “scariest film of all time”, if not this? If Saw has made us less conscious of gore, and all of the later Exorcist clones less frightened of demons and hauntings and the like, what is there left to be scared of? Has the horror genre at long last backed itself into a corner it can’t quite get out of? 

This Halloween, it’s certainly well worth opening yourself up to the debate. Revisit The Exorcist or take the journey for the first time; see what all the fuss is (or isn’t) about. Then of course, as an exam board might say: discuss. 

The Exorcist (1973) is released on DVD & Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.

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