A random series of Halloween movie posts: The Exorcist

Trying to get this in under the wire so that at least I’ve only missed one day in my “post every day up to Halloween” plan. Just one tonight, because it’s one I have a LOT to say about.

The Exorcist

Even before I decided to write about horror movies in October, writing something about The Exorcist was on my mind, because I rewatched it a few months ago. For the second time.

Yep, I’m a horror movie fan who’s only watched The Exorcist all the way through twice (and still haven’t seen the version with the spider walk. I’m working up to it). This is not because I don’t think it’s a good horror movie, but rather, because it’s such a great one–my first viewing gave me the most profound scare of any horror movie ever. And while if I’d ever really made an effort to screw my courage to the sticking place and watch it again, I probably could have, I just didn’t until a few months ago.

So, the first viewing: I was thirteen, sleeping over at a friend’s house. I knew it was a movie my mother wouldn’t have wanted me to watch at thirteen, and I had already made up my mind that when she picked me up the next morning and asked me what we did last night, I wasn’t going to tell her about it. That just made the idea of watching it seem even more exciting and dangerous (yes, watching R-rated movies and then lying by omission to my mother about them was one of my most common forms of adolescent rebellion).

So we watched The Exorcist. And it was super creepy and had some pretty disturbing scenes (the crucifix scene in particular being a special kind of traumatic for a sheltered thirteen-year-old), but at the time, I found the viewing experience…almost a little underwhelming. I mean, this was THE EXORCIST. It was supposed to be the scariest movie of all time. I’d expected to end up huddled in a corner unable to look, and aside from a few moments where I flinched, I found I could look at it just fine.

And then we went to bed, and I found out I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes and try to go to sleep. If I closed my eyes, Pazuzu would show up and possess me (how, exactly, keeping my eyes open was supposed to STOP Pazuzu from showing up to possess me, I was not clear on, but I still felt a little better as long as I could keep an eye on the door and the windows and the corners of the room). I stayed awake until it started to get light outside, and then snatched a couple of hours’ sleep. And then I went home, and I don’t remember having trouble sleeping the next night, and outwardly, at least, things pretty much went back to normal.

But the movie was still with me, and at idle moments it would seep into my mind and start freaking me out all over again. At this point I should probably mention that I was raised Catholic, and at thirteen I was just starting to question my religious upbringing. The Exorcist hit me all the harder because of that, and I don’t think it would have been quite such an experience if I’d seen it at any other time in my life. It’s still the only movie that I can point to as having put me in a genuine moral and spiritual panic. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just asking myself “Is God really real?”, I was asking myself “What if God and the devil are BOTH really real and someday the devil comes for me and God won’t help me because he knows I’ve questioned his existence?”. Pretty heady stuff for an eighth-grader. For a while, I threw myself back into Catholicism and basically tried to will myself into being more pious, but it didn’t quite fit anymore. Eventually I would reach the conclusion that fear of punishment makes a really crappy foundation for faith, be really angrily about religion for a few years, and then finally get over being really angry and settle into my current comfortable agnosticism. So The Exorcist ended up being a pretty big piece of my personal spiritual journey, and now I’m grateful for it. Back when I was a teenager in legitimate fear for her soul? Not so grateful.

I was also haunted by the fact that Reagan was so innocent. I’ve been trying and failing to come up with specific examples and my memory may not be trustworthy, but pre-Exorcist, my experience with horror films and ghost stories and other spooky stuff mostly seemed to involve SOME sense of causation–the ghosts weren’t at peace because they’d been murdered or something sacred had been stolen, or the protagonist brought bad things down on themselves by spending the night in the haunted house or reading from the cursed book or having sex at summer camp. Reagan was a little girl, and she’d done nothing. Well, okay, she played with a Ouija board. But for all the spookiness that pop culture had invested them with, Ouija boards were sold by Mattel and thus not, to my thirteen-year-old mind, serious business. When they did feature in my horror experience, it was usually in connection with other stuff that was Definitely Bad (an X-Files episode where there’s underage drinking AND sex AND a Ouija board AND girls playing “Bloody Mary” in a bathroom comes to mind). Reagan’s use of the Oujia board was as innocent and harmless as she was, and she’d done nothing else that seemed remotely wrong. And yet she wasn’t safe. And if Reagan wasn’t safe, no one was safe. I wasn’t safe.

It seems painfully obvious now, and my past self seems painfully naive. Of course being innocent doesn’t give you some magical protection against harm (any more than underage drinking and having sex means you deserve it), and all you need to do to know that is watch the news. But that’s part of what horror movies are for, isn’t it? To take the dark truths, the hard lessons we may not be ready for but have to learn sometime, and wrap them in fiction so that they’re easy to swallow.

So there was that. And then there was over a decade wherein I was not really too scared to rewatch The Exorcist, not precisely, it’s just that I felt like I should prepare myself and be in the right frame of mind to watch it again and I just never got around to it and anyway there were all these other movies out there in the world to watch so maybe I’ll just watch one of those, hmm? Until this summer, when I found myself really wanting to watch a good horror movie, and found out that The Exorcist was available on Netflix Instant, and decided the time had come.

How did it hold up? Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t quite the boogeyman I’d built it up to be through more than a decade of avoidance, but it’s still scary. I’m definitely more able to appreciate it as a movie now–the score, the cinematography, the performances. It’s probably going to remain a movie I have to be in the right frame of mind to watch, but that seems like the way it should be. In short, as far as I’m concerned, it’s still definitely deserving of the title of scariest movie of all time. And it may have taken me a while to get there, but I’m glad it’s one I’ve seen.

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