With the arrival of Halloween each year, the often-neglected film genre of horror is suddenly thrust back into the spotlight. A healthy dose of horror never hurt anyone, right? Well, in some circles, that’s debatable. The Exorcist, while as gory as the next horror flick, may be the film for you if you’re entertaining friends on All Hallow’s Eve. With a number of spiritual themes and a cautious approach, this movie satisfies the hunger for horror while also offering some deep food for thought.
There is much to admire in this nearly 30-year-old movie. It still stands alone in its genre. While there have been copycats, no film has come close to the artistic accomplishment of The Exorcist: the juxtaposition of light and darkness, silence and sound, good and evil; the raw, realistic cast performances; the perfect pace of Blatty’s screenplay and Friedkin’s direction.
But there is more. I watched this time with new eyes and found, to my surprise, a highly moral film. The Exorcist is not primarily about rotating heads, green vomit or Catholic ritual. It is a film about the unseen world we so easily ignore, a world that affects us tangibly. This is the story of what could be any contemporary family: busy, broken, unreligious—forced to face spiritual realities when all other explanations prove insufficient.
Warner Brothers loves to boast it as “the scariest movie of all time.” They may be correct, but not because of shocking effects or a chilling soundtrack. The Exorcist disturbs because it deals in potential reality. (In fact, the film is loosely based on first-person accounts). That this could actually happen is enough to unsettle anyone.
A distinctly Christian worldview resonates throughout. Evil is treated seriously and never glorified. Not once does director William Friedkin invite or allow viewers to enjoy the possession of young Regan, as one might enjoy the wise cracks of Freddy Krueger. The message is clear that evil is not a game, as Regan learns when she “innocently” plays with a Ouija board. The Exorcist affirms faith over skepticism, right over wrong and hope beyond suffering.
The updated and expanded version released in 2000 contains scenes cut from the original release, which augment the film’s moral and religious themes. While taking a breather during the exorcism, Father Karras muses, “Why this girl? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I think the point is to make us despair,” Father Merrin replies, “to see ourselves as animal and ugly, to reject the possibility that God could love us.”
The Exorcist does have flaws. For example, Protestants will wonder, why the elaborate rite of exorcism? Why can only a priest perform the deed? But it should be possible to acknowledge the film’s problems and still enjoy its broader concepts.
The movie earned its R rating with dialogue and imagery that are disconcerting and not for the squeamish. But if you can stomach it, this back door affirmation of goodness and truth is worth your attention—especially if you’re in the market for a meaty horror flick to add flavor the Halloween festivities.