The Exorcist (1973) is the sensational, shocking horror story about devil possession and the exorcism of the Demonic spirits from a young, innocent girl (of a divorced family). The film was enormously popular with moviegoers at Christmas-time of 1973, but some portions of the viewing audience fled from theatres due to nausea or sheer fright/anger, especially during the long sequence of invasive medical testing performed on the hapless patient. Its tale of the devil came at a difficult and disordered time when the world had just experienced the end of the Vietnam War (US troop withdrawal and the fall of Saigon) and at the time of the cover-up of the Watergate office break-in (also in Washington, D.C.).
Critically, it was presented with ten Academy Award nominations, two of which won (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound). The other eight nominations included: Best Picture, Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn), Best Supporting Actor (Jason Miller), Best Supporting Actress (Linda Blair), Best Director, Best Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Film Editing.The Exorcistwas notable for being one of the biggest box-office successes of all time – it was also one of the first ‘blockbusters’ in film history.
The film’s screenplay – a horror-tinged western (a tale of good vs. evil) – was faithfully based upon author William Peter Blatty’s 1971 best-selling theological-horror novel of the same name. Academy-Award winning director William Friedkin (previously known for The French Connection created a frightening, horror film masterpiece, with sensational, nauseating, horrendous special effects (360 degree head-swivelling, self-mutilation with a crucifix, the spewing of green puke, etc.) and the terrific acting debut of 12-year old actress Linda Blair who played the helpless girl possessed by Demons. Roman Polanski’s successful Rosemarys Baby played upon similar fears of devil possession. Unfortunately, the film spawned many inferior sequels of its own (The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)and director Blatty’sThe Exorcist III (1990)) and other imitations, i.e.,The Omentrilogy.
In the early fall of 2000, the film was recut and released in an 11-minute longer version with an enhanced digital surround-sound, six-track soundtrack – a writer-producer’s cut. Additional scenes that were excised were restored to the print, including Blatty’s preferred ending in which good triumphed over evil (a bantering discussion between a police detective and a young Jesuit confirms the fact that the spirit of Father Damien Karras lives on rather than the Devil’s spirit), a shocking down-the-stairs, back-bending “spider-walk” by the satanically-inhabited girl, enhanced scenes with Father Merrin (played by the brilliant central actor Max von Sydow who based his performance on the real-life Jesuit theologian Pierre Tielhard de Chardin), and a few other minor changes.
The controversial nature of the film’s content – exorcism (accompanied by blasphemies, obscenities and graphic physical shocks), was supposedly based upon an authentic, nearly two-month long exorcism performed in 1949 on a 14-year old boy (with pseudonym “Robbie Mannheim”) in Mt. Ranier, Maryland by the Catholic Church (in the form of a fifty-two year old Jesuit priest named William S. Bowdern).
After a few blood-red credits on a black background, the film opens with a prologue. The locale is an archaeological dig site deep in the arid desert of Northern Iraq – near the ancient town of Nineveh. An Arabic prayer is chanted on the soundtrack behind an image of an oblong, burnt-reddish sun. Workers dig inexorably with pick-axes through mounds of dirt to uncover ancient artefacts. A young boy in a red head-dress runs through the weaving, maze-like trenches to summon one of the supervisors. The camera shoots through his legs as he speaks in Arabic: “(Subtitle): They found something…small pieces…At the base of the mound.”
Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), an elderly, scholarly Jesuit Catholic priest and archaeologist, is told that ancient objects have been unearthed during his search for evil: “Lamps, arrowheads, coins…” Merrin inspects a small silver, Christian medallion (depicting Mary and the baby Jesus) and observes that it is unusual to find it buried in a pre-Christian location: “This is strange…Not of the same period.” Merrin then digs in a crevice near the Christian objects and discovers a small, greenish, gargoyle-like stone amulet or statuette [in the figure of the Demon Pazuzu]. [The Iraqi sequence sets a tone of foreboding and establishes the presence of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ – it also foreshadows their battle later in the film.]
In the Iraqi marketplace on the streets of Mosul, with a throbbing, drumming sound, the strain is evident as Merrin’s hand shakes when he takes his heart medicine. Iron workers clang their hammers on anvils near a red-hot burning furnace. One of the steelworkers turns toward Merrin, revealing his blind right eye [an allusion to future horrors in the film]. Back in the curator’s office, as Merrin eyes the Pazuzu amulet, he is told: “Evil against evil.” Ominously, the swinging pendulum of the clock behind him stops working. The curator knows Merrin will be leaving to go home to the States: “I wish you didn’t have to go.” Weary and exhausted, Merrin replies: “There is something I must do.” He passes by prostrate Muslim worshippers and into a dark passageway. When he emerges in the narrow, sunlit street, he is nearly run down by a fast-moving, horse-drawn carriage carrying an old woman in a black droshky, worn over her face like a shroud.
After driving his jeep to an ancient temple ruins guarded by armed, white and black-garbed watchmen, he walks up to a full-sized stone statue of the Demon Pazuzu. Nearby, two dogs begin fighting and snarling at each other in the dust. He again has a premonition that the amulet is a concrete manifestation that something evil has been unearthed – the soundtrack simulates an eerie, shrieking chord, symbolizing the loosing of ancient, pagan evil in the world. The camera zooms in on the face of the open-mouthed, fearsome creature. As he confronts the Demonic statue that has been called up for protection by the amulet’s discovery, the wind blows dust over the scene as he feels all around him the presence of the devil.
In a clever transitional dissolve linking two distant locales, the scene from the desert (a sizzling view of the orb of the dawning sun) dissolves into the sounds and views of early morning traffic crossing the Potomac in Georgetown outside Washington, D.C. The camera zooms into one of the Georgetown houses where a hand turns on a different kind of bright light – a white electric lamp. Inside her bedroom, divorced mother and actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is working on lines in her latest script. She hears unsettling sounds from the attic similar to the dirt-digging sounds of the prologue. [This form of infestation is the first classic stage of possession.] She investigates – following the sounds to her 12-year old daughter Regan’s (Linda Blair) bedroom where the young girl is sleeping. The covers are pulled back and the window is inexplicably wide open with fluttering curtains – she senses a certain coldness or presence in the room. Downstairs in the kitchen, Chris instructs housekeeper Karl (Rudolf Schundler) to purchase traps for “rats in the attic.”
The next minimalist scene introduces other film characters and a ‘film within a film.’ On the Georgetown University campus, Chris emerges from a movie-set trailer on the set of Warner Bros. Inc.’Crash Course(now filming at locations in California and Washington, D.C.). (Later, Chris expresses how she despises the film when she describes the movie as “kind of like the, uh, Walt Disney version of the Ho Chi Minh story…”) [William Peter Blatty makes a brief cameo appearance as an upset producer, telling the director: “Is the scene really essential? Would you just consider it, whether or not…”] The scene that is being filmed at the Catholic school dramatizes early 1970s student protest that threatens to tear down the historic stone walls of the university. Chris, a representative of the academic-adult population, questions the British director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) about the unrealistic plot of adolescent counter-cultural turmoil. One of the curious onlookers among a crowd of students, a Jesuit priest (in black) from the university, named Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), smiles amusedly after overhearing their conversation.
A few moments later into the shoot, when Chris grabs a bullhorn and tells the rebellious students in the crowd: “If you want to effect any change, you have to do itwithinthe system,” a long crane shot finds Father Karras walking away from the crowd and the filming – he turns back to watch for a moment, and then continues his departure in serious thought. [To accentuate one of the film’s themes, the actor’s lines are deliberately juxtaposed with the priest’s departure, since he is experiencing an inner struggle of religious faith within his own system – the church.]
After the day’s shoot is finished, Chris walks the leaf-covered street from the campus to her home, accompanied by the tinkling, mesmerizing sounds of “Tubular Bells’ (by Mike Oldfield). It is Halloween, and children run by in their masks and costumes. For a brief moment, a roaring black motorbike that passes behind her slightly drowns out the sounds of the bells. Two nuns trailing billowing black and white habits walk down a road in front of a brick wall. Now in her neighbourhood, she turns and hears, from a distance, the priest Karras counselling a fellow priest (until his spiritual words are overshadowed by the loud, mechanical roar of an overhead jet engine):
There’s not a day in my life that I don’t feel like a fraud. Other priests, doctors, lawyers – I talk to them all. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that.
As priest Karras rises up from an underground stairwell, emerging into the noisy track area of the New York City subway where the tracks spew jets of steam, the camera pans past a soft-drink vending machine, emblazoned with: “TRAVEL REFRESHED.” On the dirty, trash-littered platform of the subway station, he turns to hear a tattered, derelict drunk begging with an outstretched hand:
Father, could you help an old altar boy. I’m Cat’lick.
Wrapped up in his own problems and unable to be charitable in this subway encounter, Father Karras turns away from the wretched man whose bearded, sweaty face is momentarily illuminated in flashes by the window lights of a passing subway.
He visits his dying, sick mother, Mother Karras (Vasiliki Maliaros) who lives in humble, pauper’s conditions by herself (after he left her and moved to the priesthood in Georgetown) in a derelict area of New York City. The street, lined with run-down housing, is populated with unruly kids, drunks, graffiti, and litter. After first stopping in his own room and reflecting on his past [two photographs of his early boxing career, trophies, a childhood photograph, and a picture of a former girlfriend], he enters his Mama’s room. As he carefully binds his mother’s injured leg and then lights a cigarette for a smoke [atypical for a priest], he suggests moving her elsewhere, but she is a stoic, stubborn, Greek immigrant woman from the Old World, and she doesn’t want to move:
Damien: Mama, I could take you somewhere where you’d be safe. You wouldn’t be alone. There would be people around. You know, you wouldn’t be sitting here listening to a radio.
Mother: (She first speaks in her native tongue) …You understand me? This is my house and I’m not going no place. Dimmy, you’re worried for something?
Damien: No, Mama.
Mother: You’re not happy. Tell me, what is the matter?
Damien: Mama, I’m all right, I’m fine, really I am.
In the basement den, Regan – a bright, cheerful, ordinary pre-teen aamuses herself with arts-and-crafts materials and paint. She creates an orange, bird-like puppet figure [similar in shape – coincidentally – to the Pazuzu statue]. Her mother discovers a dusty Ouija board that Regan earlier found in a closet. Lonely and without friends of her own age, and without a partner to play ping-pong in the den, Regan has amused herself by playing with the board:
Chris: Wait a minute, you need two.
Regan: No ya don’t. I do it all the time.
Chris: Oh yeah. Well let’s both play.
One of her imaginary friends, ‘Captain Howdy’ [a play on her father’s name, Howard, and an innocuous, innocent name that would obversely connote fear] spins the pancetta from under Chris’ hands – the first evidence of supernatural telekinesis in the film:
Chris: You really don’t want me to play, huh?
Regan: No, I do. Captain Howdy said no.
Chris: Captain who?
Regan: Captain Howdy.
Chris: Who’s Captain Howdy?
Regan: You know, I make the questions and he does the answers.
As a smiling, loving Regan is tucked into bed by her mother and they share an intimate conversation, she is reading a recent PHOTOPLAY Magazine with a red-banner cover story: “Big Trouble In the MacNeil Marriage! The Night Howard Walked Out On His Wife.” The colourful cover photo depicts Chris with her daughter. After taking the magazine away, Chris teases her daughter about her impending maturity – she is on the verge of becoming an adult:
Chris: Look Regan, why are you reading that stuff?
Regan: Because I like it.
Chris: It’s not even a good picture of you. You look so mature.
Regan’s birthday is coming on Sunday – she will be a ripe, pubescent 13 – and they plan for the special sightseeing outing. As an undercutting aside, Regan maturely suggests having her mother’s director friend Burke Dennings accompany them – with misleading ideas developing in her head, she promotes a match-making liaison between her mother and Burke:
Regan: You can bring Mr. Dennings if you like…Well, you like him…You’re gonna marry him, aren’t you?
Chris: Oh God, are you kidding me? Marry Burke Dennings! Don’t be silly. Of course not. Where’d you ever get an idea like that? [Captain Howdy may be the source of her information. Howdy and ‘Howard,’ her father’s name, are remarkably similar.]
Regan: But ya like him.
Chris: Of course I like him. I like pizzas too, but I’m not gonna marry one.
Regan: You don’t like him like Daddy?
Chris: Regan. I love your Daddy. I’ll always love your Daddy, honey. OK? Burke just comes around here a lot, ’cause (she sighs), well, he’s lonely. Don’t got nutin’ to do.
Regan: (slyly) Well, I heard differently.
Chris: Oh you did. What did you hear? Huh?
Regan: I don’t know. I just thought.
Chris: Well, you didn’t think so good.
Regan: How do you know?
Chris: ‘Cause Burke and I are just friends. OK? Really. OK.
A quick cut to the next scene – a noisy bar environment where a jukebox plays an Allman Brothers Band rock tune favourite – ‘Ramblin’ Man.’ Father Karras carries two frothy beer glasses to a table where he is joined by his superior priest Reverend Thomas Bermingham, SJ (himself), president of the university. Clearly juxtaposed with the atmosphere of the dark drinking establishment peopled with ‘rebellious’ students (who were recently extras on the film set), the young priest finds himself in a troubling situation, heavily weighted down by counselling his fellow priests who feel they are losing their vocation. In despair, inner conflict and guilt, he is worried about his own burdens: his lonely mother and his own loss of faith:
Karras: It’s my mother, Tom. She’s alone. I never should have left her. At least in New York, I’d be near, I’d be closer.
Tom: Could see about a transfer, Damien.
Karras: I need re-assignment, Tom. I want out of this job. It’s wrong. It’s no good.
Tom: (reassuring) You’re the best we’ve got.
Karras: Yeah, not really. It’s more than psychiatry, and you know that Tom. Some of their problems come down to faith, their vocation and meaning of their lives, and I can’t cut it anymore. I need out. I’m unfit. (He drinks from his beer) I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.
A low-angle, street-level camera shot of the exterior of the MacNeil’s two-story brick house follows the bar scene. Autumn leaves from the bare trees swirl in the wind. Exasperated by an insensitive lack of regard and her own despair over the break-up of the family, Chris berates and swears about her husband for failing to call Regan on her birthday from his hotel in Rome. She hasn’t been able to reach him by long-distance for twenty minutes (halfway across the world) and she becomes acutely distressed: “Oh circuits, my ass. He doesn’t give a s–t…Operator, don’t tell me there’s no answer… Would you try it again please and let it ring…Operator, I’ve given you the number four times…I’ve been on this f–king line for twenty minutes!” The camera withdraws from the living room back toward Regan’s room, where she stands in her doorway listening to her tormented mother – after hearing more than enough of her cursing mother speaking to her uncaring father, she mutely retreats to her bed where she unties her shoe.
Early the next morning, Chris finds that Regan has joined her in bed, explaining that she is not able to sleep: “My bed was shaking. I can’t get to sleep.” Regan’s mother goes to investigate more mysterious sounds that she hears up in the attic. Finding her way around in the dark with a lit candle, Chris discovers the traps are untriggered and empty – yet the digging noises can still be heard. After being shocked out of her wits by Karl’s sudden appearance and her flaming candlelight, he confirms what she has found: “No rats.”
On the Georgetown University campus, one of the Jesuit priests discovers that the white marble statue of the Virgin Mary has been desecrated with red paint and other materials – it has long red-tipped breasts, red collour on both hands, and an elongated penis-shaped protuberance also daubed in red.
Inside the corridor of Bellevue psychiatric hospital in New York City, psychiatrist-priest Father Karras has been summoned by his uncle (Titos Vandis) because of his sick mother’s hospitalization – she “was all the time screaming, even talking to the radio.” Distressed that she was brought to a mental hospital without his permission, he notices deranged, comatose, vacant-eyed women in the hallway and in the psychiatric ward – they exhibit the physical and behavioural symptoms of serious psychological problems. His uncle generates more guilt by noting how Damien’s choice of occupation was detrimental to her welfare. His decision to become a priest rather than enter private practice as a psychiatrist left her destitute: “If you wasn’t a priest, you’d be a famous psychiatrist now…Your mother – she’d be living in a penthouse instead of a …”
As Father Karras enters the locked ward and walks through to see his mother, the other patients react with agitation and grab at the spiritual figure’s clothing. With tears in her eyes, the haggard Mrs. Karras blames her son for her ‘imprisonment’: “Dimmy, why would you do this to me, Dimmy?” Her thin, frail arms are restrained by straps on the bed. With anger and rage, she struggles to withdraw from him and turn her head away from his comforting hands. After their visit, Karras beseeches his uncle to move her to a different hospital: “Couldn’t you put her someplace else?” But that is an impractical solution: “Like what? A private hospital? Who got the money for that, Dimmy?” (A faint screeching sound, similar to the one in the prologue, builds on the soundtrack.) Karras viciously boxes and punches a bag in a gym – he violently and explosively rages against all the Demons and turmoil’s in his own life.
A few nights later, Chris MacNeil throws a big dinner party at her Prospect Street house. Prominent people are among the guests – Burke Dennings, an astronaut guest, and a suspected Nazi collaborator. Regan is giggling and happy while mingling among the party-goers. Chris asks one of her friends, Father Joe Dyer (Reverend William O’Malley), Father Karras’ superior, about St. Michael’s next door and the black-haired, “intense-looking” young priest she often sees there. She learns that he’s Damien Karras, “our psychiatric counsellor. He had a pretty rough knock last night, poor guy. His mother passed away. She was living by herself and I guess she was dead a couple of days before they found her.”
Regan is already in bed asleep (and kissed by her mother) before the party is over. But shortly later, Regan comes downstairs and appears during a piano-gathering and songfest. She enters the room in her nightgown, and trance-like turns to the astronaut who will soon be launched into space: “You’re gonna die up there.” The camera frames her feet as she urinates on the carpet-covered floor in front of the guests. Embarrassed and confused, Chris takes her daughter into her arms and apologizes to the astronaut and the rest of the guests:
Regan, oh my God, honey. Honey? Whatsa matter? I’m sorry, she’s been sick. She didn’t know what she was saying.
Chris helps Regan to retreat upstairs and gives her a hot bath while comforting her. Regan is as puzzled by her own behaviour as is Chris. Chris reassures Regan that she is probably upset because of all the changes she has experienced in the last few months – her father’s departure and erratic contact, the new job for Chris, the new town. Regan is promised that everything will be all right:
Chris: What made you say that, Regan? Do you know sweetheart?
Regan: (after the bath) Mother? What’s wrong with me?
Chris: It’s just like the doctor said. It’s nerves, and that’s all. OK? You just take your pills and you’ll be fine, really. OK?
Returning down the stairs long after the party has ended, Chris finds the housekeeper Willie (Gina Petrushka) scrubbing the stains from the rug. She turns back when she hears Regan screaming in her room and calling for her help. As Chris rushes to her daughter’s closed bedroom door [the camera tracks rapidly along with her toward the door] – an electric, candle-shaped light bulb flickers in the hallway. The camerafirstshows Chris’ face registering a horrified, shocking reaction after entering – Regan’s bed is racked with violent convulsions. Flopping around on the top of the bed, the young girl frantically calls out: “Make it stop! Make it stop!” Chris throws herself on top of Regan on the wildly bucking bed which bounces up and down on the floor- there is a cacophony of deafening noise equalling all the other loud, grating noises previously heard in the film.
Father Dyer strides down the corridor of the Jesuit residence hall at Georgetown University, peering into one of the bedrooms where students are smoking, gambling at cards, and drinking. After knocking on D. Karras’ door and entering, he brings the priest a bottle of Chivas Regal Scotch Whiskey, joking that he stole it from the college president: “(He) shouldn’t drink. It tends to set a bad example. I figured I saved him from a big temptation.” Karras is tormented by guilt and anguished remorse for being absent when his mother died, and he begins sceptically doubting his decision to pursue a career as a priest. Dyer encourages Karras to lie back, take off his shoes, and go to sleep.
As Father Karras begins to dream after the lights are turned out, a montage of dream-like images passes and flashes through his consciousness, mixing momentary sights of his mother and her ascent and descent [into death] with all the surrealistic images taken from previous film components accompanying Father Merrin in Iraq: the Christian medal – now free-falls through the air above a richly-textured Iraqi tapestry, a ferocious, growling desert dog runs toward the camera, Karras’ mother stares straight ahead, the pendulum of the curator’s clock swings, Karras’ mother emerges from an underground subway in New York City, Karras waves from a traffic island toward his mother, the mother calls out – but doesn’t see or heed her son, a ghoulish, ghostly-white Demonic face appears, Karras’ frantically pursues his mother across traffic on a busy street, and she descends back into the subway entrance. The medal drops on the hard, stone Georgetown steps.
Regan’s scream provides a transition from the dream sequence to the next scene. Chris seeks medical help and treatment for her daughter, but Regan resists violently: “I don’t want it!” She is held down and injected with a sedative by a team of doctors. The girl spits and curses at one of the doctors: “You f–kin’ bastard.” Concurrent with the ministrations of modern medicine, Father Karras, in the University chapel, prays in memory of his deceased mother: “Remember also, Oh Lord, thy servant Mary Karras who has gone before us on the side of faith and sleeps the sleep of peace.” Dr. Klein (Barton Heyman) delivers a diagnosis to Chris – he explains Regan’s strange afflictions and seizures are due to a physical problem – a brain disorder:
It’s a symptom of a type of disturbance in the chemical-electrical activity of the brain. In the case of your daughter, in the temporal lobe – it’s up here – in the lateral part of the brain. It’s rare, but it does cause bizarre hallucinations and usually just before a convulsion…the shaking of the bed. It’s doubtless due to muscular spasms.
Chris doubts that her daughter’s uncontrollable spasms and body movements caused the bed to buck so violently. The doctor insists her shaking is due to a lesion in her brain:
Chris: Oh no. No, no. That was not a spasm. Look. I got on the bed. Thewholebed was thumping and rising off the floor and shaking – thewholething, with me on it!
Dr. Klein: Mrs. MacNeil, the problem with your daughter is not her bed, it’s her brain.
Chris: So, uhm, what causes this…?
Dr. Klein: A lesion. A lesion in the temporal lobe. It’s a kind of seizure disorder.
Chris: Now look Doc, I really don’t understand how her whole personality could change.
Dr. Klein: The temporal lobe is very common…It could last for days or even weeks. It isn’t rare to find destructive, even criminal behaviour.
Chris: Hey, do me a favour, will ya? Tell me something’ good.
Dr. Klein: Don’t be alarmed. If it’s a lesion, in a way she’s fortunate. All we have to do is remove the scar.
Regan is wheeled on a flat table into a testing area for more examinations designed to unravel the mysteries of her malady. In a long, purposely drawn-out, excruciatingly-torturous sequence with markedly sexual overtones, Regan is prepared by medical assistants for an arteriogram. She is placed on a leather backing, readied for a blood pressure reading, and her shoulders are bared. Electrodes are stuck to her upper arms. One of the male medical technicians, garbed like a priest (in a blue hospital smock) paints her pale neck with a “cold and wet” square of cotton dipped in dark brown iodine. He tests a syringe by squirting [or ejaculating the phallic-shaped object] fluid from its sharp point, and then ‘sticks’ her in the neck with it to create a small incision. She holds back from squirming and whimpering as he slightly pierces her flesh. With another sharp instrument taken from a trayful of Inquisitional-type torture devices, he warns Regan not to move when she feels “some pressure.” He inserts the second device into the incision mark, pushes it in (she gasps as she feels the needle enter), and then releases the cap on the instrument – blood spurts, orgasmically, from the opening in Regan’s neck.
The ‘deflowering’ examination is not complete for the helpless young girl – blood flows through tubes as her chin is taped to the table to keep her stationary. More pieces of medical machinery are wheeled to each side of her head. The lights are dimmed, and she is told to “look up.” The positioning of a scanner produces a cross-shaped shadow across Regan’s forehead. A button is pushed, causing a tremendous knocking/pounding sound – Regan cringes as pain envelopes her face. The screen turns white for an instant. A full series of X-rays illustrating various death’s head angles of Regan’s skull are being examined by Dr. Tanney (Robert Symonds) on a white, photo-examination table – loud, whirring gears deliver each set of photographic negative plates for viewing. Tanney pronounces his diagnosis to Dr. Klein as they both examine a full-screen side view of her skull: “There’s just nothing there. No vascular displacement at all.” To their surprise, they find nothing physically wrong with her.
Chris calls the two doctors at the lab to urgently summon them to her Prospect Street home. The ringing of the doorbell at the MacNeil home overlaps their departure from the hospital – and signals the upcoming terror. Chris’ secretary/assistant Sharon Spencer (Kitty Winn) rushes down the stairs to answer the door and let the doctors in. From behind, Regan’s hysterical, despairing screams are heard and “things have gotten worse…they’ve gotten violent.” A hand-held camera tracks in front of the group as they hurriedly rush upstairs, down the corridor, and up to Regan’s sealed bedroom door. Sharon announces: “Chris! Doctors!” and they are admitted. Within the bedroom, the camera faces back toward the opened door, registering again the fear on everyone’s faces.
Regan’s upper torso is violently being whipped and thrown back and forth on the bed, battering her body as it slams into the mattress. She screams: “Oh please, Mother, make it stop! It’s hurting.” Then she is tossed upwards and bounces up and down. Her uncontrollable seizures are accompanied by low guttural growls, almost animalistic. Her throat below her chin bubbles out. When one of the doctors reaches for Regan on the bed, she slaps him back-handed across the face, knocking him into the door and onto the floor. Her physically-repulsive voice warns: “Keep away! The sow is mine!” She pulls up the front of her nightgown, masturbates by rubbing herself, and in a deep, strange voice, beckons: “F–k me! F–k me!” [The Demon’s guttural voice is that of Mercedes McCambridge.] She flails and thrashes around on the bed, afflicted and possessed by some fantastic force.
While she is held tight and restrained, a doctor removes another syringe and injects her with a sedative to calm her down. Sharon drags Chris from the scene to remove her from the horrifying cries of her daughter. When the bedroom door is slammed, there is an eerie quiet in the corridor. Sharon and Chris sit huddled together. The doctors Tanney and Klein emerge from Regan’s now-quiet bedroom: “She’s heavily sedated. She’ll probably sleep through tomorrow.” Chris demands answers from them: “What was going on in there? How could she fly off the bed like that?” They are still convinced of a physical ailment and propose further tests:
Doctor: Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance. Now, for example, say a 90 pound woman sees her child pinned under the wheel of a truck. Runs out and lifts the wheels a half a foot up off the ground – you’ve heard the story – same thing here. Same principle, I mean.
Chris: So what’s wrong with her?
Doctor: We still think the temporal lobe.
Chris: (hysterically) Oh what are you talking about, for Christ’s sakes. Did you see her or not? She’s acting like she’s f–king out of her mind, psychotic, like a… split personality or …
Doctor: There haven’t been more than a hundred authentic cases of so-called split personality, Mrs. MacNeil. Now I know the temptation is to leap to psychiatry. But any reasonable psychiatrist would exhaust the somatic possibilities first.
Chris: So, what’s next?
Doctor: A pneumoencephalogram, I would think. Pin down that lesion. It will involve another spinal.
Chris: Oh, Christ!
Doctor: What we missed in the EEG and the arteriograms could conceivably turn up there. At least, it would eliminate certain other possibilities.
Regan is submitted to other high-tech, painful tests. Her sweating face strains as she is subjected to a high-pitched scanning machine that circles overhead. Klein and Tanney find the newest X-rays are “negative – in other words, normal.” There is nothing wrong with Regan’s brain. Klein asks Chris suspiciously if drugs may be a factor: “Do you keep any drugs in your house?” Chris reveals that she won’t be moving to L.A. right away. She is “building a new house – the old one’s been sold. I was gonna take (sniffling)…Regan to Europe for a while after she finished school.” Klein suggests: “It’s time we started looking for a psychiatrist.”
As Chris drives home that evening with her headlights beaming through the dark, she passes red-lighted emergency vehicles (with sirens blaring) at the base of the Prospect Street stairs. The lights in her kitchen flicker and then go off as she answers the loud-ringing phone (with no caller). Upstairs, she finds Regan asleep in her freezing cold bedroom – her breath is visible in the air. The windows are wide open and the wind-blown curtains are billowing outward. She covers Regan with blankets and then proceeds downstairs in a furious mood. Chris lambastes Sharon for leaving Regan alone with her windows wide open. Sharon explains, as the doorbell rings incessantly – another signal of approaching doom, that when she went to get Regan’s thorazine medication, Burke remained to stay with Regan. She apologizes:
Sharon: I should have known better. I’m sorry.
Chris: Yeah, I guess you should have.
Sharon: How were the tests?
Chris: We have to start looking for a shrink.
Chuck (Ron Faber) who works with Chris and Burke as assistant director, is let in from the front porch, bringing bad news. Burke was found dead at the bottom of a long flight of stairs (just outside Regan’s bedroom window):
Chuck: I suppose you heard.
Chris: Heard what?
Chuck: You haven’t heard. Burke’s dead. He must have been drunk. He fell down from the top of the steps right outside. By the time he hit M Street, he broke his neck.
Chris turns away in horror, shocked by the revelation. She pounds on the wall with her fists. The screen turns dark – a short remembrance for another victim. A voice commands: “When I touch your forehead, open your eyes.” The screen returns – Regan’s face is being lightly touched by a psychiatrist (Arthur Storch), one of the new practitioners who begins groping for a more accurate assessment of Regan’s problems. She has been put in an hypnotic trance (seated in a living room chair in her house) for questioning by the sweet-voiced psychiatrist:
Psychiatrist: How old are you?
Psychiatrist: Is there someone inside you?
Psychiatrist: Who is it?
Regan: I don’t know.
Psychiatrist: Is it Captain Howdy?
Regan: I don’t know.
Psychiatrist: If I ask him to tell me, will you let him answer?
Psychiatrist: Why not?
Regan: I’m afraid.
Psychiatrist: If he talks to me, I think he’ll leave you. Do you want him to leave you?
Psychiatrist: (he stands and addresses Regan’s tormentor): I’m speaking to the person inside of Regan now. If you are there, you too are hypnotized and must answer all my questions. Come forward and answer me now.
A black and white framed photograph of Regan inexplicably falls forward off the mantle. Regan face contorts and a low, wolf-like growl emanates from her mouth. The hypnotist continues, thinking he is speaking to the “someone” inside her: “Are you the person inside of Regan? Who are you?” To abortively end the session, Regan slams her hand into the psychiatrist’s crotch and crushes his genitals. Then her fury rises as she falls on top of the hapless examiner – she must be dragged and held off.
Middle-aged detective Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb) of homicide, assigned to the case following Burke Dennings’ death and the defilement of the Virgin Mary statue, questions Father Karras about witchcraft, already knowing that he had written an authoritative paper on the subject “from the psychiatric end.” Kinderman suspects ritualistic overtones – Denning was possibly killed by having his head twisted around in a ritualistic black-magic murder. The detective suggests that the priest identify any of those he counsels who might be capable of committing the murder:
Kinderman: Well, this desecration in the church. Do you think this has anything to do with witchcraft?
Karras: Maybe. Some rituals use the Black Mass. Maybe.
Kinderman: And now, Dennings, you read how he died?
Karras: In a fall.
Kinderman: Let me tell ya how, and please Father, confidential. Burke Dennings, good Father, was found at the bottom of those steps leading to M Street with his head turned completely around – facing backwards.
Karras: It didn’t happen in the fall?
Kinderman: It’s possible. Possible, however –
Kinderman: Exactly. So on the one hand, we’ve got a witchcraft kind of murder, and on the other hand a Black Mass type desecration in the church.
Karras: You think the killer and the desecrator are the same?
Kinderman: Maybe somebody crazy. Somebody with a spite against the church. Some unconscious rebellion.
Karras: A sick priest – is that it?
Kinderman: Look, Father, this is hard for you. Please, I understand, but for priests on the campus here, you’re the psychiatrist. You know who was sick at the time, who wasn’t. I mean, this kind of sickness. You’d know that.
Karras: I don’t know anyone who fits that description.
Kinderman: Ah! Doctor’s ethics! If you knew, you wouldn’t tell, huh?
Karras: No, I probably wouldn’t.
Kinderman: Not to bother you with trivia, but a psychiatrist, in sunny California no less, was put in jail for not telling the police what he knew about a patient.
Karras: Is that a threat?
Kinderman: No, I mention it only in passing.
Karras: Incidentally, I mention it only in passing. I could always tell the judge it was a matter of confession.
At the Barringer Clinic and Foundation, psychiatrists conclude that Regan’s symptoms are evidence of a rare disorder hardly seen anymore except in primitive cultures. Regan, with cuts marks on her face and dehydrated lips, struggles in a clinic bed, strapped down like Mrs. Karras was earlier at Bellevue. Her ailments are similar to a form of possession: “Quite frankly, we really don’t know much about it at all except that it starts with a conflict or a guilt and it leads to the patients’ delusions that his body has been invaded by some alien intelligence – a spirit if you will.” Chris despairs, refusing “to lock her up in some god-damned asylum.” She is fed-up with their “bulls–t” and medical-babble.
Because Chris has no specific religious beliefs, she is told that religious counsel – an exorcism – may be performed to rid Regan of her possession:
Doctor: There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment – as I said, it’s a very outside chance…Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it’s a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but uh, it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think, of course. It’s purely a force of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.
Chris: (uneasily) You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?
Regan is brought home from the clinic, while Lt. Kinderman surveys the Dennings death scene at the foot of the stairs. As Chris tucks Regan in her bed, she discovers a crucifix under her pillow. Dramatically timed, Kinderman also finds a small clay, pig-faced talisman [resembling the Pazuzu amulet found in Iraq] near the steps. At the top of the stairs, Kinderman looks up at the MacNeil’s bedroom window. Kinderman meets with Chris for coffee, finding ominous signs in his investigation and immediately alarming Regan’s nervous mother. It dawns on her that it was Regan who had killed Dennings:
Kinderman: It’s strange. The deceased comes to visit – stays only 20 minutes. And leaves all alone a very sick girl. And speaking plainly, Mrs. MacNeil, it isn’t likely he would fall from a window. Besides, a fall wouldn’t do to his neck what we found, except maybe one chance in a thousand. Nope, my hunch, my opinion – he was killed by a very powerful man – point one. And the fracturing of his skull – point two. Plus the various other things we mentioned would make it very probable, probable, not certain, that the deceased was killed and then pushed from your daughter’s window. But nobody was in the room, except your daughter. So how can this be? It could be one way. If someone came calling between the time Miss Spencer left and the time you returned…
Chris: Judas Priest. Just a second.
Chris knows that bedridden Regan was the only one in the house with Burke just before his death. Kinderman realizes sculpted animals in the MacNeil house match the one he found at the base of the stone stairway: “Your daughter? She’s the artist?” After Kinderman leaves, Chris ineffectually bolts the front door behind him.
One of the film’s most horrifying scenes occurs next – the notorious crucifix-masturbation scene. From upstairs in Regan’s bedroom, Chris hears grotesque sounds, crashes, and screams. She runs up the stairs towards the door – it opens and she sees 45 rpm records, books, and stuffed animals being hurled at the tightly-closed window. The camera registers Chris’ horror on her face as she sees her daughter’s sacrilegious self-abuse. In an obscene gesture simulating masturbation, a horribly-disfigured Regan repeatedly thrusts her bloodied hand clutching the crucifix into her vagina under her blood-splattered nightgown, as she bellows obscenities in the Devil’s voice: “Let Jesus f–k you, let Jesus f–k you! Let him f–k you!” [The Demon’s voice was enhanced with various animal noises and other grotesque sounds.]
Chris grabs her daughter’s super-strong arm and tussles with her for control of the offending object. Regan punches her mother with a violent blow, sending her backwards across the bedroom floor. With her telekinetic power, Regan moves a chair against the door to bar the way of Sharon and others, and she sends a tall wooden bureau across the floor toward her mother. As a bloody-faced Regan sits on her bed, she spins her head backwards 180 degrees, threatening in a deep malevolent voice as she imitates Dennings’ British accent (and his manner of death) to taunt Chris about his murder: “Do you know what she did? Your c–ting daughter?”
On a cold autumn day, Chris stands alone on a footbridge, waiting to meet Father Damien Karras who has been recommended by Father Dyer. She abandons her original scepticism about resorting to exorcism (and the diagnosis of Demonic possession) by taking her problem to Karras, believing that a religious ritual may be her last hope – to save her daughter and drive out the devil. She quizzes him about his background: “How did a shrink ever get to be a priest?” After avoiding the subject for a while, she suddenly asks: “How do you go about getting an exorcism?” He stops short during their walk and asks her to repeat her question: “I beg your pardon?” Karras doesn’t believe in exorcisms in the twentieth century and is inclined to doubt Demonic possession:
Well the first thing – I’d have to get into a time machine and get back to the 16th century…Well, it just doesn’t happen any more, Mrs. MacNeil…since we learned about mental illness, paranoia, schizophrenia…Since the day I joined the Jesuits, I’ve never met one priest who has performed an exorcism. Not one.
Chris begs, through choking sobbing, that somebody “very close” to her is “probably possessed and needs an exorcism. Father Karras, it’s my little girl.” He tries to dissuade her, arguing that the Catholic Church insists on proof that the devil is really in a person: “Then that’s all the more reason to forget about exorcism…To begin with, it could make things worse. Secondly, the church before it approves an exorcism conducts an investigation to see if it’s warranted. That takes time…I need church approval and that’s rarely given.” On the other hand, he reluctantly agrees to see her daughter “as a psychiatrist,” believing that Regan’s horrible descent into hell is a psychiatric illness. But Chris is completely fed up with psychiatrists:
Oh, not a psychiatrist. She needs a priest. She’s already seen every f–king psychiatrist in the world and they sent me to you. Now you’re gonna send me back to them? Jesus Christ! Won’t somebody help me?…Can’t you help her, just help her?
Karras is brought to Regan’s bedroom to see and talk to Mrs. MacNeil’s daughter. Awful sounds emanate from her bedroom as they climb the stairs. In the corridor, Karl explains the child-monster’s anger: “It wants no straps.” When Karras enters, the girl is strapped to a padded four-poster bed. Her face is cut, her hair matted, her eyes wild-looking, and she has a plastic tube taped to one nostril. The grotesque girl speaks with a disgusting, low-pitched growl coming straight from hell:
Karras: Hello, Regan. I’m a friend of your mothers. I’d like to help you.
Regan: Why not loosen the straps then?
Karras: I’m afraid you might hurt yourself Regan.
Regan: I’m not Regan.
Karras: I see. Well then, let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Damien Karras.
Regan: I’m the devil. Now kindly undo these straps!
Karras: If you’re the devil, why not make the straps disappear?
Regan: That’s much too vulgar a display of power, Karras.
Karras: Where’s Regan?
Regan: In here – with us.
Karras: Show me a Regan and I’ll loosen one of the straps.
Regan: (in the voice of the subway bum he has heard before) Can you help an old altar boy, Father? (He turns) Your mother’s in here with us Karras. Would you like to leave a message? I’ll see that she gets it.
Karras: If that’s true, then you must know my mother’s maiden name. What is it? What is it?
In the grossest scene of the film, as he approaches closer for an answer, Regan lurches forward on the bed and spews bilious, pea-green soup vomit from her mouth in a single projectile stream directly into his face. The thick green slime sticks to his face and clothing. Vomit also dribbles down onto Regan’s nightgown.
Chris washes and irons the priest’s clothing, as he surveys some of Regan’s artwork in the basement, again reluctant to get further involved and resort to exorcism: “Look, I’m only against the possibility of doing your daughter more harm than good…I can’t do it. I need evidence that the church would accept as signs of possession…like her speaking in a language she’s never known or studied…Look, your daughter doesn’t say she’s a Demon. She says she’s the devil himself. Now if you’ve seen as many psychotics as I have, you realize that’s the same thing as saying you’re Napoleon Bonaparte. You asked me what I think is best for your daughter. Six months, under observation, in the best hospital you can find.” His advice is that she needs counselling rather than cleansing. Chris challenges the sceptical Karras to persuade him to believe that the child-monster upstairs is genuinely inhabited by a Demon:
I’m telling you that that thing upstairs isn’t my daughter. Now I want you to tell me that you know for a fact that there’s nothing wrong with my daughter except in her mind. YOU TELL ME YOU KNOW FOR A FACT THAT AN Exorcism WOULDN’T DO ANY GOOD! YOU TELL ME THAT!
Karras decides to study Regan’s condition, unimpressed by her physical manifestations, but amazed at her telepathic knowledge that his mother died. Regan mocks him as he sets up equipment to tape record the many strange voices that seem to be coming from inside her:
Regan: What an excellent day for an exorcism.
Karras: You’d like that?
Karras: But wouldn’t that drive you out of Regan?
Regan: It would bring us together.
Karras: You and Regan.
Regan: You and us.
Both a Jesuit priest and a psychiatrist by training, Karras goes about various tests to determine whether Regan’s case of Demon possession is authentic. He finds her powers of telekinesis (opening a nightstand drawer without touching it) unusual, but random. Remarkably, the Demon uses Regan as a mouthpiece to speak Latin and French. Sprinkling ‘holy water’ over Regan in a cross-like pattern causes the Regan-Demon to squirm and squeal with extreme fear at the Christian artefact: “It burns!” Diabolical sounds emanate from her mouth – growling dogs, squealing pigs, rasping groans, and foul language. Later, Karras tells Chris that it wasn’t ‘holy water’ but ordinary ‘tap water’ – “Holy water’s blessed, and that doesn’t help support a case of a possession.” Chris confesses, in a whisper, Regan’s complicity in Dennings’ murder: “She pushed him out her window.”
Karras takes his tape recording to a sound expert – who after playing it declares that it is English in reverse: “It’s a language all right. It’s English…in reverse.” Regan’s deep voice calls out the priest’s name “Merrin” over and over again. Karras is again summoned to the MacNeil house and brought upstairs by Sharon. She secretly confides: “I don’t want Chris to see this.” With a flashlight, they creep into the room – a freezing cold place where the sleeping Regan has reduced the temperature at will. Sharon peels back the blankets and opens Regan’s nightshirt – the skin on Regan’s abdomen has raised welts that form scarring words: “help me.” All that is left of the real Regan pleads for relief.
Persuaded and half-convinced that an exorcism must be performed to scourge the offending Demon, Karras requests permission from his superior to proceed with Regan’s case: “…I have made a prudent judgment that it meets the conditions set down in the ritual.” It is recommended that an older priest, someone with prior experience of an exorcism, be chosen as the exorcist – “maybe someone who has spent time in foreign missions.” Archaeologist-priest Father Lankester Merrin (who has returned from the site dig three or four months earlier and is writing a book in Woodstock) is chosen to be the skilled exorcist, and Karras is appointed as his assistant. To provide a foreshadowing of the danger involved in casting out Demons, it is remembered that ten to twelve years earlier while touring in Africa, Merrin conducted an exorcism that lasted months: “…heard it damn near killed him.” [Ironically, Merrin’s inadvertent unleashing of the Demon in Iraq caused the crisis in the first place.] Appropriately, Merrin is summoned to perform the exorcism and battle the devil.
On a dark foggy night, in one of the most memorable images of the film – its trademark, Father Merrin arrives by cab at the MacNeil home. He stands motionless under the streetlight in the swirling smoke and looks up at Regan’s window – a shaft of bright light emanates down in a broad swatch. [Iconic images are paradoxically reversed – the ‘good’ priest is black and haunting, and the ‘evil’ Demonic force casts a bright, illuminating light.] A full-close-up of Regan’s face – with cat-like eyes, senses an old enemy. Merrin’s dark silhouette appears at the doorway. As Merrin enters the house and greets Karras, the dark spirit residing in the girl cries a long, drawn-out curse: “Merrin!” Karras first wishes to explain the manifestations and background of the case, but Merrin wants to begin immediately.
With special gifts and experience, the austere Merrin prepares the younger priest with cautious advice. They must avoid conversations with the Demon and not listen to the Demon’s voice because “the Demon is a liar and would like to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful…Remember that. Do not listen.” Father Karras begins explaining Regan’s three different personalities – Father Merrin rudely explains that there is only one manifestation inside Regan – Satan:
Karras: I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I’d say there seem to be three. She’s convinced…
Merrin: (brusquely) There is only one.
In the dramatic finale, the two men enter Regan’s ice-cold bedroom, prepared to do spiritual battle. Garbed in priestly outfits, they also bring weapons of the spirit – holy water, holy texts, and a crucifix. The devil’s voice curses at Father Merrin with the foulest epithet in the film:
Stick your c–k up her ass, you mother-f–king worthless c–ks–ker.
Merrin splashes her body with holy water and yells back: “Be silent!” Regan screams and squirms away, twisting in pain as if burned by the sanctified water. They begin to conduct a RITE OF Exorcism from red prayer books and recite the Lord’s Prayer. The child-monster spews yellowish slime onto Merrin’s face. As they desperately pray and the temperature drops in the room, Regan reacts with head-rolling, more writhing, shrieking and vicious growling, sprinkled with more obscene vulgarities: “Your mother sucks c–ks in hell, Karras.” The Demon inside Regan struggles with her arm restraints and bucks the bed legs off the floor. The entire bed levitates into mid-air, pulled upwards by Regan’s super-human strength. Regan’s flopping head is momentarily replaced with the ghoulish, vampirism, white-faced image seen earlier in Karras’ nightmare.
The monstrous battle continues as the bed sinks back in place. Regan’s horrible, purple tongue darts in and out of her mouth. As Merrin places his purple cloth stole on her to bless her, a greenish vomit oozes out of her mouth to defile it. The Demon fights with the holy men by violently opening and closing cabinet doors. Reaching his own limits, Merrin curses the Demon:
Merrin: I cast you out! Unclean spirit in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Regan: Shove it up your a–, you f–kin’…
The walls and ceiling crack, the intravenous medical bottle apparatus crashes to the floor in pieces, and the bathroom door slams and splits as Merrin continues to cast out the Demon for possession of her body and soul. He traces crosses on her temple: “Be gone from this creature of God. Be gone, in the name of the Father and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. With this sign of the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” She sits upright and her head turns a full circle – 360 degrees. Regan’s face, in a full face close-up, becomes eerily animated. The Demonic beast accuses Karras of murder: “You killed your mother. You left her alone to die.” The room shakes and the straps on Regan’s wrists rip open. Her eyes roll Demonically backwards – a reminder of the blind eye of the steel worker in the prologue.
Her body levitates off the bed, and her fully-extended body hovers in mid-air. Merrin interprets: “It’s the power of Christ. The power of Christ compels you.” They chant the phrase repeatedly, and sprinkle more holy water – producing reddish-raw sores on her skin. She slowly sinks back down onto the bed. Karras binds her wrists – she retaliates by striking him from behind. The forces of the Demon are unleashed – a back-lit Demonic Pazuzu statue appears behind her.
Exhausted by the disgusting ordeal, the two priests rest before starting again. They stagger out of the bedroom, and the frail Father Merrin takes his much-needed heart medicine. Karras returns to the bedroom where Regan has transformed herself into a vision of his mother seated upright on the bed and wearing a white nightgown. As he wipes Regan’s forehead, she speaks in his mother’s voice to taunt him: “Dimmy, why did you do this to me? Please Dimmy, I’m afraid.” He is tormented by the likeness to his mother’s voice and screams: “You’re not my mother!” Merrin, who has returned to the bedroom, cautions him to leave the bedroom: “Don’t listen…Get out!”
Downstairs, Chris asks Karras about their progress: “Is it over?” and “Is she going to die?” He answers in a determined tone before returning upstairs: “No.” The doorbell sounds (it signals the arrival of Lt. Kinderman) – another portent of bad news. When Karras joins Father Merrin in the bedroom, it is too late – the old priest is slumped over the bed, dead of a heart attack. Regan is sitting up against one of the padded bedposts – smiling and giggling. The enraged priest assaults her and throws her to the floor, shouting: “You son-of-a-bitch!” He punches her repeatedly in the face with his fist and tries to kill her.
In a supremely self-sacrificial act during the cathartic finale – an indication that he has regained his own faith through his contact with Father Merrin and by the undeniable realization that the Devil really exists – the formerly-rebellious priest Karras taunts the Demon inside Regan. He provokes and welcomes the Demon to leave her body and come into his own so that he can destroy the Evil:
Take me. Come into me. God-damn you. Take me. Take me.
She grabs and rips the amulet medal from his neck. At the moment of his own possession, he suddenly pulls back, his body trembles and his eyes roll up, and his face momentarily takes on the appearance of Regan’s Demon – he growls and tumbles backwards. On the floor, Regan has regained her former self, and her stifled cries are made in her own voice, but she is terrorized by the Demon within Karras. Now that he is filled with the beast-monster, he stands and staggers toward her with his arms outstretched to strangle her – but with all his own fortitude and strength, he screams: “No!” as he battles the Demon’s attempt to kill her. He hurls himself toward the bedroom window – his body is thrown through the glass and he falls to his death on the steep concrete steps below. Karras [with a symbolic first name – Damien/Demon] gives his own life to savve Regan’s spirit and life, with the promise of being reborn.
From the bedroom window, Lt. Kinderman views Karras’ bloodied body [“FIGHT PIGS,” a slogan typical of early 70’s rebellion, appropriately adorns one of the adjoining walls of the steps, in red] at the foot of the Prospect Street steps. Regan cries hysterically, but she is cured. With police cars and bystanders crowding around, Father Dyer breaks through and grabs Karras’ hand, beseeching him: “Do you want to make a confession? Are you sorry for having offended God with all the sins of your past life?” Signalling his assent, Karras unclenches and grips Dyer’s hand. Dyer absolves him of his sins during the administration of last rites. The price or cost of Regan’s recovery to sanity and wholeness is that both priests die during the exorcism.
A few weeks later, the steps are cleaned up, and Karl packs luggage in the car for the MacNeil’s return to their home in Los Angeles. The house is being packed for the move. As Sharon bids Chris a final goodbye, she hands her the amulet medal (the silver medallion that Father Merrin found in Iraq) that she found in Regan’s bedroom. In the driveway, Chris meets Father Dyer, telling him that Regan mercifully remembers nothing of the ordeal:
Chris: She doesn’t remember any of it.
Father Dyer: That’s good.
A normal, cheerful, healthy-looking pre-teen, still with bruises on her face – joins them. After she sees Father Dyer’s clerical collar, she kisses the Father’s cheek as if to say – thank you. Chris stops the car after they have driven a block away and engages in a brief exchange with the Father. She gives him the amulet medal as a remembrance and parting gift: “I thought you’d like to keep this.” His cupped hand accepts and encloses the medal as they drive away.
Dyer solemnly pauses at the top of the stairs, just below the boarded up window of Regan’s bedroom. The film ends with Dyer turning away from the steps, the sounds of “Tubular Bells,” and an orchestral chord of emphasis with the jolting view of the red-on-black title: “THE EXORCIST.”
Exorcist, The (1971)
Novel by William Peter Blatty based on the true story of the ST. LOUIS Possession case. The novel veers away substantially from the real case, but it introduced the horrors of Demonic Possession and Exorcism to a mass audience.
The prologue describes a brief encounter in Iraq, where an archaeologist and cleric are finishing a dig of ancient Assyrian ruins. No names are given, but the reader receives a teaser of evil to come: The cleric, apparently familiar with the ways of the Devil, senses that the Demon PAZUZU has been disturbed by the digging and plans revenge. Then begins the real story, which opens in a townhouse in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., where the divorced actress Chris McNeil and her 11-yearold daughter, Regan, are staying while Chris finishes filming a movie. Strange noises and incidents, most of them in Regan’s room, annoy Chris, but she does not pay much attention to them. She asks the servant, Karl, to check the windows and catch the rats she believes are making the scratching noises, but he finds none. Her best friend and the film’s director, Burke Dennings, visits often; he is sarcastically funny, self-centered, an alcoholic, and given to obscenities. Other people in the house are Karl’s wife the housekeeper, Willie, and Chris’ secretary, Sharon, who also tutors Regan.
Portrayed as a bright, happy, affectionate young girl, Regan succumbs slowly to her possession. Alone at home, Regan plays more and more with a Ouija™ board, talking to a Captain Howdy. At first, the house suffers from an Infestation: attack by the Demons through the victim’s surroundings. Chris hears rapping noises on the ceiling, Regan’s room is always cold, the girl’s clothing often ends up in a wadded pile on the floor, someone moves her furniture, and there is a foul, burning smell in her room. Other petty incidents occur: Books and objects disappear, and a stuffed mouse is found in the rat traps. Now Captain Howdy not only talks to Regan but also tells her awful, horrible things, threatening pain and illness. Her bed shakes violently. Then Regan’s personality changes; she becomes introverted and argumentative and eventually becomes hostile, disgusting, and obscene. She begins to exhibit superhuman strength, contorting her body in jerking, twisting movements. Strange voices emerge from her body, which is distended and unrecognizable. She slithers like a snake. Her conversations center around sexual and bodily functions.
Frantic to find out what torments her daughter, Chris takes Regan from one doctor to another, abandoning her career. The doctors test Regan for everything but find no physical reason for her troubles. Under hypnosis, one psychiatrist tries to talk to what he sees as Regan’s other personality. The personality—or Demon—identifies himself as Nowonmai, from Dogmorfmocion. Although an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, Chris believes more firmly that her daughter has become possessed and needs a Catholic exorcism.
Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, the psychiatrist priest Father Damien Karras also lives in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown University, counseling the seminarians. Someone has desecrated the nearby Catholic Church; there is excrement on the altar cloth, a huge clay phallus has been attached to the statue of Christ, the statue of the Virgin Mary has been painted to resemble a harlot, and a Latin text describing Mary Magdalene as a lesbian is left on the altar. Father Karras suspects SatanISM—sexual gratification through blasphemous acts—but his training as a doctor prevents him from fully believing the Devil is about.
Besides, Father Karras has become mentally exhausted with his work, burdened not only with the troubles of his patients but with his own overwhelming guilt. He fears he does not love his fellow man as he should, scorning those who are poor or ignorant. He anguishes over his mother, who died poor and alone in a New York slum tenement. Through the movie company, Father Karras meets Chris and Regan. He is tantalized by the evil present in Regan and agrees to help rid her of her Demons. Before Father Karras can obtain permission for an exorcism, Burke Dennings, left alone in the house with Regan, dies mysteriously by falling out the girl’s secondstory bedroom window and over a steep cliff below. His head is turned completely around, an injury that is practically impossible, even in a severe fall. The Demons in Regan eventually admit killing Dennings, explaining that turning his head around was common practice in the murder of witches.
As Regan’s condition worsens, she exhibits all the classic signs of true possession. Besides the terrible contortions, foul smells, horrible voices, obscene behavior, and poltergeist phenomena (shaking bed, moving furniture, banging windows, breaking pottery), Regan suffers from incessant hiccuping and skin irritations, eventually displaying stigmata on her chest. The words help me appear on her stomach in her handwriting. She recoils from religious objects or uses them blasphemously, often employing a crucifix for masturbation. She taunts Father Karras with paranormal knowledge, impersonating the voices of his mother and an early lover. She uses the clipped British accents of Dennings as well. And most importantly for the church, Regan speaks languages previously unknown to her: French, German, Latin, and maybe Russian. The gibberish she mouths constantly is found to be English, backward. Nowonmai, the name of her Demon, is “I am no one (won);” Dogmorfmocion is “I come from God.” When it seems Regan will die of her ordeal, the church gives its permission for an exorcism. Father Karras is to assist Father Lankester Merrin, an old hand at fighting the Devil and the one who senses the evil of Pazuzu in the book’s prologue. The devil in Regan had been calling “Marin” for quite some time, but until Father Merrin arrived, no one had made the connection. The exorcism proceeds according to the ancient Rituale Romanum, with Regan spitting, vomiting, and urinating all over the priests as they order the Demon to depart. The Demon goads both men, flinging their pride, their secret sins, and their guilt in their faces.
Father Merrin cannot survive this final encounter and dies during the exorcism, leaving Father Karras to fight alone. The Demon believes he has won, for Father Karras’ soul is not strong enough to overcome his guilt. At the climax, Father Karras orders the Demon to leave Regan and enter him: Complete possession as a fitting punishment for his sins. The window crashes open, and Father Karras is found dead below. The reader must decide whether the Demon accepted Father Karras’ offer, but, in any case, Regan regains herself.
In the film version, released in 1973, the young actress Linda Blair gives a wrenching performance as Regan, with Ellen Burstyn as her mother, Chris, and Max von Sydow as Father Merrin. The Demonic voices were provided by the actress Mercedes McCambridge, and the theme music, “Tubular Bells,” was nominated for an Oscar. Audiences were traumatized by the film, and some persons sought professional help in the fear that they might become possessed themselves.
Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) was a less successful sequel with Richard Burton as a priest still trying to release Linda Blair from her Demonic possession.