The Excorcist is a ground-breaking horror film directed by William Friedkin and based on a novel by William Peter Blatty. The film is a masterpierce of horror, and a complex theological thriller which investigates the mysteries of faith. Yet, the film has been criticised by Feminist writers for its problematic representation of femininity and the female body.
'What an excellent day for an excorcism . . . '
The Excorcist (1973) is a ground-breaking horror film directed by William Friedkin and based on a novel by William Peter Blatty. The film is a masterpierce of horror, and a complex theological thriller which investigates the mysteries of faith. Yet, the film has been criticised by Feminist writers for its problematic representation of femininity and the female body.
The Exorcist allows its female protagonist to assert a strong and guiltless sexuality, to rebel against parental authority, and to violently challenge the patriarchal regimes of family, law and religion. This outline may imply that the film is a Feminist tract, exposing the misogyny of America’s most revered institutions and revealing them to be founded upon the repression and oppression of women. However, I will argue that the portrayal of characters and institutions is such that the film condones this repression as justified and necessary. By examining the film in its political context, I will show that it seeks to attribute the degradation of society to a female Other or scapegoat, who is then relegated to an unthreatening position by patriarchal institutions. The Exorcist allows its monstrous female to challenge male authority only in order to re-impose it at the end with even greater conviction.
The film begins with a prologue set in the ruins of Nineveh, Iraq, suggesting a basis in an ancient feud between good and evil (represented by the confrontation between Father Merrin and the statue of Pazuzu, a Mesopotamian demon). By contrast, the film’s main setting of Georgetown is emphatically modern and immediate: unlike many classic horror films, there is no distancing in time or place. Consequently, The Exorcist has to employ other methods to disguise its engagement with contemporary anxieties. The film’s ambiguity is central to this. Much of it arises from the presence of two authors - William Peter Blatty, producer and author of the original novel and screenplays, and William Friedkin, the director – as the controversy over deleted scenes attests. But beyond this there is also a calculated ambiguity present in the film, which obscures its highly conservative ideology (as would have been essential given the film’s reactionary attitude to Feminism). Barbara Creed has rightly stated that the theme of demonic possession is merely an excuse to portray woman as monstrous.2 Similarly, while the ostensible project is to investigate good and evil, these are defined exclusively in terms of male and female: the film is based upon gendered oppositions.
A faith in male authority is established at the outset. Like Klute (1971), The Exorcist is named not after its main character (Regan), but a male protagonist. This constructs Merrin as a hero, which the prologue seeks to confirm. Among the ruins of Nineveh, Merrin happens past a line of Muslims praying - obliquely suggesting his formidable spiritual presence. He also deflects armed guards with a wave of his hand and is begged to remain in Iraq by a loyal assistant. Therefore, even though Merrin will not be present during the film’s middle section, the prologue has already established his heroic status. The subversive acts of horror and profanity that follow, each of them threats to male authority, are all undermined by the audience’s secure knowledge that Merrin will return to restore order.
In opposition to Merrin’s authority are the black-garbed women who haunt him in Iraq. One nearly kills him with her carriage, and her sinister appearance and great age (as well Merrin’s obvious physical frailty) imply that the women represent his imminent death. The fact that death is presented as a female figure introduces one of the film’s main themes: that monstrous or aberrant women challenge male authority. In The Exorcist, good and evil are gendered concepts. The opposition is reiterated in the relationships between Father Karras and his mother, and between the priests and Regan.3 It is fought on several fronts. One of these is the family.
The MacNeil home is an all-female household conspicuously lacking a male authority figure. The absent father is alluded to in Regan’s use of a Ouija board – the first indication of her disorder/possession. Claiming that the answers to her questions are supplied by ‘Captain Howdy,’ Regan unconsciously refers to her father (Blatty’s novel makes this explicit by naming him Howard), and her question, ‘Do you think my mom’s pretty?’ receives no answer – highlighting the sexual tension and animosity between her mother (Chris) and father. This theme is developed when Regan morosely overhears a phonecall in which a near-hysterical Chris tries to contact Howard and shouts religious and sexual obscenities into the phone (‘I’ve been on this fucking line for twenty minutes! Jesus Christ!’), which clearly condition the nature of Regan’s subsequent atrocities. Therefore, whether Regan’s disorder is supernaturally or psychologically derived, the film holds this absence of paternal discipline accountable for it. Either it has left the family open to the Devil’s influence, or it has deranged her to the point of madness. The point is that all would have been well if only Regan had received the proper discipline from a male authority figure.
The broken family is doubly condemned for the implications it has for society. Chris’s phonecall is juxtaposed with a bar scene in which Karras confesses he is losing his faith.4 Thus, the film very precisely links the decay of family values with the spiritual decline of society. What is more disturbing is the way in which aberrant women are implicated in this decline. Karras’s debilitating guilt arises from his obligation to his aged mother. But at the same time, his mother stubbornly refuses to leave her home and submit to his authority. Her independence is seen to jeopardise Karras’s spiritual commitment, and is therefore regarded as aberrant. This is resolved in a strikingly anti-Feminist way: Karras reconciles himself with the church and sacrifices his mother, who dies alone. Similarly, Chris - an actress - is first seen studying a script, thereby asserting her independence. Since this is the source of her broken marriage (Howard resented her success), Chris’s independence is gradually stripped away from her. She hands over control to Karras and Merrin, and is finally reduced to a servile position, doing no more than acquiescing to the priests. The film suggests that these independent women, by denying their designated social roles, are rebelling against patriarchal authority, and thus hastening the catastrophic spiritual and familial decline of society.
Were it not for this obsession with social decay, The Exorcist could almost be regarded as a Feminist text. Creed has written that it ‘suggests that the family home, bastion of all the right virtues and laudable moral values, is built on a foundation of repressed sexual desires.’5 But while it is true that Regan successfully challenges the hypocritical laws of the patriarchal family and gives expression to these repressed desires, this behaviour is consistently defined as monstrous. Creed’s statement inadvertently implies that the film implicates the repressive family in Regan’s disorder, but it is actually the broken family that is held responsible – specifically because it fails to fulfil this repressive function. Acknowledging that the family is founded upon repressed desires, The Exorcist nevertheless argues that paternal authority could successfully and necessarily repress them. This is because the repressed is regarded as evil and abject, and those who serve as a vessel for it as evil personified – the Devil Incarnate.
What exactly, then, has the MacNeil family failed to repress? The film defines as abject the female body, female sexuality and all behaviour that transgresses conventional gender roles. Barbara Creed demonstrates that in infantile development, the abject is repressed by the rules and laws of the paternal symbolic order during the construction of the ‘clean and proper self.’6 It includes all bodily excretions, behaviour, modes of being etc. that are opposed to the paternal symbolic and must be expelled in the construction of that self. Since it is traditionally the mother who carries out ‘the mapping of the self’s clean and proper body,’ involving the exclusion of these elements, the abject is associated with the female.7
The theme of abjection is introduced with the witch-like figures who plague Merrin in Iraq, and it is reinforced by the recurring image of Chris covering Regan’s body – on three occasions when she enters Regan’s bedroom and finds the sheets drawn back. This censorial attitude to the female body is the major prohibition violated by Regan, and throughout the film we are presented with graphic images of her body and its excretions – including projectile vomiting, urine, bile, and menstrual blood – all of which are presented as repulsive through their enforced contact with priests, polite guests, and religious artefacts. A corollary of these horrors is the scene in which Karras discovers the words ‘Help me’ emerging from Regan’s skin. This indicates that Regan is ‘a prisoner of her own carnality’8 – she is trapped inside the abject female body. Abjection is extended into the assertive female sexuality demonstrated by Regan, which is doubly abject since she is practically still a child. The film makes it painfully clear that the Devil possesses Regan in a parody of the Virgin Birth: she is subjected to a horrifically violent rape. Her own sexuality is subsequently manifested when she exposes her genitals and screams ‘Fuck me!’ at her male doctors, one of whom she tries to castrate, and later when she masturbates with a crucifix and tries to force a sexual encounter with her mother. The essential horror of these sequences lies in Regan’s exposure of the female body, and her denial of the passivity and dependence assigned to women by society.
Regardless of the possession theme, Regan is implicated in each of these acts by her name. Regan’s namesake is King Lear’s monstrous daughter,9 who was associated with the snake – ‘Christian symbol of woman’s disobedience, unbridled sexual appetite, and treachery.’10 An omitted scene known as the ‘spiderwalk’ would have made this connection more apparent: Regan descends the stairs on her hands and feet with ‘her tongue flicking rapidly in and out of her mouth like a snake.’11 Thus, the film makes it impossible to view the demon as the sole source of evil and Regan as an innocent victim. The eruption of evil in The Exorcist is inextricably linked to the female body and sexuality, which must be repressed by the paternal order (male priests) so that good can prevail. By invoking the concept of abjection, the film achieves its major male/female opposition. A crude equation between the female and evil allows The Exorcist to present itself as a theological struggle, but its real project is to dramatise the conflict between male and female, between the paternal symbolic and the abject.
Crucial here is the concept of the Other, articulated by Robin Wood in his theory of the American horror film. Wood demonstrates that the Other, as well as being external to the self or one’s society, has a psychological function: one projects what cannot be tolerated in the self onto another in order to disown it.12 This process is vital to The Exorcist, where the Other is clearly defined as female, and has a dual function. Firstly, the exorcism allows personal anxieties to be expelled: Regan becomes a scapegoat for the priests who confront her. Throughout the exorcism, she accosts them with a torrent of abuse that makes their repressed desires explicit, seizing particularly on Karras’s suppressed homosexuality (more evident in the novel) and his guilty resentment of his mother. By expelling the demon, Merrin and Karras disown these repressed desires through a symbolic sacrifice of the female Other.
Secondly, all women become scapegoats for the collective anxieties of society. The film portrays 1970s society as a promiscuous, aspiritual, moral wasteland in which family values have disintegrated. It also perceives that patriarchal authority is being challenged by Feminism, which gained support during this era. This is the source of Regan’s portrayal as a monstrous female, asserting her sexuality, castrating men, and refusing sexual guilt. The film diffuses this threat by the annihilation - symbolic and literal - of Chris and Mrs. Karras respectively. An irrational fear of homosexuals, exacerbated by the rise of Gay Liberation, is the motive behind the ceremonial expulsion of homosexuality enacted by the priests. Similarly, there is an evident fear of youth, leading Mark Kermode to describe the film as a ‘paedophobic tract.’13 Chris is working on a film about student insurrection. She is reluctant to let Regan grow up, disliking a picture of her because she looks ‘so mature.’ Rebellious youth is everywhere evident in the streets and campuses of the film. These aspects culminate in the presentation of Regan as a ‘devil-child,’14 an image that achieved common currency in contemporary cinema (Rosemary’s Baby , The Omen  and its sequels). As Andrew Britton has demonstrated, this tendency is the result of widespread anxiety over the Freudian theory of infantile sexuality (which undermined the cherished concept of childhood innocence), and the Children’s Liberation movement that was fostered by Feminism.15
The theme of possession itself is part of the film’s engagement with contemporary issues. Possession allows the boundary between the self and the Other to be transgressed.16 All sense of self is replaced by vulnerability, helplessness, and alienation. It is hard to not to see this as a comment on political developments in the 1970s. America could do nothing but watch as it was led into a futile war in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal revealed corruption at the highest level of government. Both events promoted a sense of ineffectuality, a loss of faith in decisive action and individual effort. It is no accident that Blatty located his nightmare of possession in Washington D.C.
According to Wood, 1970s Hollywood horror films typically end with the survival of the monster17 (e.g. The Omen). In this context, The Exorcist is atypical: it suggests that evil can finally be destroyed and traditional values reaffirmed. This reactionary and reassuring ideology contributed to the vast commercial success of The Exorcist, unprecedented for a film in its genre.
A final ambiguity revolves around the film’s psychoanalytic content. Abjection in the portrayal of Regan has already been discussed, but Creed demonstrates that it also informs the mother/daughter relationship, the changing nature of which is the main organising principle behind the narrative. Early scenes depict an unusually close relationship between Chris and Regan, often presented in sexualised terms through holding and caressing.18 This is interrupted by the presence of Burke Dennings, Chris’s director, whom Regan perceives as a prospective boyfriend for Chris. The close bond begins to disintegrate when Regan slyly and jealously suggests a sexual relationship between Burke and Chris, and once possessed, Regan murders him to ensure that she remains bound to her mother. Following this, Regan’s feelings become ‘perverse and crudely sexual,’19 culminating in her attempt to force sexual contact with Chris.
The significance of this in Creed’s analysis is that it demonstrates Regan’s desire to remain bonded to the maternal body. As discussed previously, it is the mother who carries out the mapping of the clean and proper self. This process is ‘semiotic’ because it is analogous to that of acquiring language. It involves the repression of the semiotic chora that is the pre-condition of language – i.e. that is pre-Oedipal.20 Since the mother becomes associated with the abject, the process also demands that maternal authority be repressed: ‘The mother is gradually rejected because she comes to represent, to signify, the period of the semiotic which the paternal symbolic constructs as abject.’21 Regan refuses to make this transition into the paternal symbolic; she reverts to the pre-Oedipal semiotic chora and the abject body. This is a major source of horror in The Exorcist: the possessed female refuses to submit to paternal authority, and rejects her proper role in the symbolic (as well as the social) order. Creed remarks that ritual, in this case exorcism, must be performed in order to ensure the separation of mother and daughter.22
Since Creed’s project is to supersede the phallocentric Freudian theory that informs most analyses of the horror film, she neglects another crucial aspect of The Exorcist: its reliance upon the Oedipal narrative. This would appear to contradict Creed’s pre-Oedipal reading, but actually the two are complementary, due once again to the ambiguity inherent in the film. The Exorcist deals with a fear of female sexuality, but this is presented in almost entirely masculine terms. The statue of Pazuzu associates the demonic with sexuality, signified by its immense phallus. It is clear that the phallus is what Regan acquires in becoming possessed. The statue of the Virgin desecrated by Regan is endowed with a phallus, and becomes an image of the Devil as phallic woman. Subsequently, Regan presents a parody of assertive male sexuality, including ‘bass voice, violence, sexual aggressiveness, unladylike language.’23 But this is not to say that Regan is viewed as innocent because she is possessed by a male devil: Karras’s test with the Holy Water implies that she is not possessed at all. Furthermore, the demonic voice used by Regan is not masculine (which would confirm the presence of a male demon), but was supplied by actress Mercedes MacCambridge. Therefore, the film preserves a core of ambiguity in order to efface the boundary between the Oedipal and pre-Oedipal narratives, allowing them to co-exist without too many obvious contradictions. As a result, Regan’s sexual desire for her mother could be applied to either reading. Her murder of Burke both ensures that her bond to the maternal is not compromised, and that the symbolic father is disposed of, to be replaced by Regan herself, allowing her to become her mother’s lover. Regan’s phallic status does not contradict the film’s fear of female sexuality, it merely indicates that the film cannot conceive of female sexuality in anything but male terms, and in this sense The Exorcist can be regarded as doubly sexist.
Much of the film involves a struggle for potency between Karras and Regan as each tries to complete the Oedipal project. Just as Regan acquires a phallus, Karras is marked by his impotence. This initial ineffectuality is produced by devotion to his mother and his desire to reject the church (God the Father). In this, he partially mirrors Regan’s reversion to a pre-Oedipal state. In the climatic sequence, Regan rises from her bed and levitates with her body perfectly rigid. This is clearly a state of erection,24 indicating that Regan has almost displaced the symbolic father. At this point, however, Merrin and Karras repeatedly shout ‘The power of Christ compels you!’ thereby reasserting the law of the father. A strip of flesh is torn from Regan’s leg, suggesting that she has been re-castrated – she has lost the phallus acquired during possession. Her levitation/erection subsides. The final stage of the exorcism demands that Merrin die, in order to resolve Karras’s Oedipal conflict. Finding that Regan has killed Merrin, Karras attacks her. His brutal punching of Regan is a final rejection of his mother (whom he has just hallucinated in place of Regan). Thus, Karras announces his separation from the maternal, from the pre-Oedipal state. His cry of ‘Take me!’ invites possession, but it also asserts his newly acquired potency, made possible by Merrin’s death. Karras has driven the Oedipal narrative to its conclusion: he has become the symbolic father. In a last effort to save Regan (now only a tearful victim reliant on male heroism), Karras suppresses the demon and leaps through the window to his death. He becomes a martyr and, in doing so, re-establishes his faith, and the authority of religion, masculinity and the paternal symbolic.
In the last scene, a docile Chris and Regan have been returned to their ‘proper’ social roles – dependent, passive, unthreatening. The film indicates that the separation of the self from the abject has finally been achieved. Father Dyer (Karras’s friend) reappears as a substitute father figure, suggesting that the MacNeil family now acknowledges the need for paternal authority. Although Regan has never met Dyer, she kisses him. The reason is that she has noticed his dog collar: even though she remembers nothing about the exorcism, she recognises that the church is something she should be grateful for.
In conclusion, I would argue that The Exorcist must ultimately be regarded as anti-Feminist. Through graphic spectacle and subtle insinuation it suggests that women are fundamentally monstrous. The female is defined as Other, and due to the association between the maternal and the abject, the female body/sexuality is regarded as repulsive, abject and monstrous. Psychological repression, signified by the ritual of exorcism, is required to suppress the abject female and allow entry into the paternal symbolic order. On a wider social level, women become monstrous when they challenge male authority by refusing their designated social roles, and as a solution the film argues that paternal discipline, administered through the institutions of family and religion, must oppress the female into a compliant, non-threatening position. Therefore, even though the film admits that society is founded upon the repression and oppression of women, it views this as entirely necessary – the survival of patriarchal society depends upon the ritual sacrifice of the female Other. For this reason, The Exorcist absolves its patriarchal institutions, and resubmits its monstrous women to their unquestionable authority.
1. Robin Wood, Hollywood form Vietnam to Reagan
2. Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis p31
3. Ibid. p37
4. Mark Kermode, The Exorcist p36
5. Creed, op cit. p35
6. Julia Kristeva, quoted ibid. p37
7. Creed, op cit. p38
8. Ibid. p41
9. Ibid. p33
10. Ibid. p33
11. William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist and Legion, p67
12. Robin Wood, op cit. p73
13. Mark Kermode, op cit. p27
14. Robin Wood, op cit. p88
15. Andrew Britton, ‘American Cinema in the 70s: The Exorcist’ p17
16. Creed, op cit. p32
17. Robin Wood, op cit. p87
18. Creed, op cit. p40
19. Ibid. p39
20. Ibid. p38
21. Ibid. p38
22. Ibid. p38
23. Andrew Britton, op cit. p17
24. Ibid. p19
Blatty, William Peter – The Exorcist (Corgi, London, 1972)
Blatty, William Peter - The Exorcist and Legion (Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1998)
Britton, Andrew - ‘American Cinema in the 70s: The Exorcist’ in Movie volume 25, December 1977 p16-20
Creed, Barbara - The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (Routledge, London, 1993)
Jancovich, Mark – Horror (BT Batsford Ltd, London, 1992)
Kermode, Mark - The Exorcist (British Film Institute Publishing, London, 1998)