Halloween Pick: The Exorcist
This time of year, the general public is very film-conscious. Whether they’re getting friends together for a Saw marathon (which sounds about as painful as the films’ many torture devices), rushing out to see the latest Paranormal Activity, or staying in to revisit favorites like The Amityville Horror or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s clear that people have movies on the mind these days. I would like to offer my Halloween pick in the form of William Peter Blatty and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973): controversial, iconic, and every bit as terrifying as I imagine it must have been in 1973. It is one of those classics that feels continually relevant and ceaselessly potent. The Exorcist builds suspense scene by careful scene, and when it really gets going, you won’t be able to look away. It contains imagery you’ve never forgotten and probably never will, and more importanly, it comprises a genuinely spiritual experience wrapped in an unassuming cloak of horror movie tropes. Chilling to the bone but surprisingly redemptive, The Exorcist might be the best Christian film ever made.
By “Christian film,” I don’t mean a film that was produced by a church or a Christian studio. I don’t mean a film that was directed by a Christian. And I don’t even mean a film that views itself as Christian. I mean, simply, that this film explores, and even affirms, the ideals that we claim to profess. There is no salvation message painted in unmistakable strokes, but The Exorcist upholds the power of God, faith, and prayer, and it concludes with a hopeful reality (paradox?) that is sorely missing in films that attempt to tackle religious values in any meaningful way. Christians have always, for perhaps good reasons, been wary of it. Original screenings provoked vomiting, and Billy Graham declared that the power of evil existed in the “fabric” of the film itself (it’s ill-informed, sweeping, bombastic statements like these by religious leaders, by the way, that have historically instilled a separatist notion into Christians when it comes to culture). My guess is that most moralists were too busy picketing to view the film under protest. Because if they did, with a discerning eye at least, they would see that it bolsters these two quotes: “If you believe that there is a force for good that combats and eventually triumphs over evil, then you will be taking out of the film what we tried to put into it” (Friedkin, director). “There is an evil in this movie, but it forces you to confront it. I have no doubt it has been a force for good. It did do what I wanted him to do in the first place—to awaken people to the full dimension of the problem of iniquity—but he also pointed out the mystery of heroic goodness” (Thomas Bermingham, technical advisor).
To some, phrases like “the mystery of heroic goodness” might reek of wishy-washy, quasi-religious misdirection that specializes in a vague “spiritualism” with only a passing resemblance to Christianity. Less reasoned approaches will call it out on violence and profanity alone. But I see something much deeper and much more personally resonant. Karras is a protagonist with more complexity than all of the characters of Courageous combined: a struggling priest with more questions than answers, a man who first suggests science to a problem that he knows instinctively to be supernatural. What he ultimately finds on his journey to reclaimed faith will provoke thought in non-believers and passion in believers. This film does not champion sacrificial human valor for its own sake: it roots redemption in the God behind it. After a rollicking couple of hours, lives are both lost and saved (not necessarily separately), and we get a sense of triumph at the same time that we can’t shake the cost that such triumph has required. The good team might have “won,” but the damage has been done and the toll has been taken: we’re still breathing, but we’re not without scars. As the credits roll, we have no sunnier a view of the world than we had before, but deep down, we know that ugly as it is, it does not get the final say.
So turn off the lights and crank up the volume. And watch your faith played out in visceral terms. Sometimes the most “Christian” film of all can be found in the least expectant place: one of the scariest films ever made. Actually, now that I think about it, it makes a certain amount of sense: if Christian films aren’t “allowed” to be scary, then nothing should be.