I’ve never cared much for The Exorcist – it’s religious exploitation in the guise of spiritual exploration - but a recent revisit on the eve of the film’s 40th anniversary gave me a new reason for my distaste.
In the unlikely case that you’re unfamiliar with the 1973 Oscar-winning horror flick, often cited as the scariest film of all time, The Exorcist stars Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil, a movie star and single mother whose teen daughter Regan (Linda Blair) becomes possessed. After some intense medical testing fails to explain all the levitating, vomit-spewing and self-mutilation going on, the unbelieving Chris resorts to the church – and in particular the services of a psychiatrist-priest (Jason Miller) whose own faith is wavering.
It’s this faith angle that’s always been the most frustrating element for me. Miller easily gives the picture’s best performance as Karras, the priest, and his struggle to remain a believer, especially in the face of his mother’s impending death, is ripe dramatic material. Unfortunately, after some blatant narrative exposition – “I think I’ve lost my faith,” Karras actually says – the movie never fully explores its religious elements, instead relying on Catholic rites and iconography to lend the movie a sense of seriousness simply by existing on the screen.
Yet something else struck me on this recent revisit of The Exorcist, and it’s related to the movie’s insincere handling of its religious motifs. If anything, the tension between faith and science that exists in the film is something that’s even more felt for Christians today than it would have been in 1973. Whether the topic is human origins or climate change, many Christians these days position themselves as anti-science. Consider this recent Barna survey, in which 54% of the pastors interviewed subscribed to Young Earth Creationism, which essentially rejects prevailing scientific opinion.
A fear of science, or at least a distrust of it, is yet another thing The Exorcist exploits.
This fear of science, or at least a distrust of it, is yet another thing The Exorcist exploits (in line behind those rituals and poor Linda Blair). Consider the scene in which Regan undergoes a series of horrific medical tests, during which the camera lingers on the spurting blood caused by needles and the helpless terror on Chris’ face. After these tests reveal nothing, it’s actually the doctors – looking befuddled and buffoonish – who suggest the exorcism. Such a story line plays directly into the hands of those who are already suspicious of science in favor of religion. And in playing to that sentiment without necessarily believing the same thing (there’s no indication that The Exorcist believes in much of anything aside from its explicit possession sequences), the movie panders. It’s like handing out half-price tickets to people as they head into the Creation Museum, then snickering behind their backs as they go through the turnstiles.
The fact that the Creation Museum wasn’t around in 1973 speaks to a relatively recent shift in Christians’ relationship with science (there has also been a shift in Christians’ relationship to horror films, making The Exorcist a much more likely viewing option now then when it first came out). As far as science is concerned, it sometimes seems we’re significantly closer to the trial of Galileo today than we were even 40 years ago. This isn’t to blame The Exorcist for that shift, but to note that the picture relies on the skepticism toward science that many contemporary believers have, while simultaneously exploiting the trappings of their belief system. In this sense, the movie is doubly dubious.