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The Exorcist and the right-wing politics of possession

By Dave Schneider

It's October, which means scary movie marathons are underway in living rooms and movie theaters across the country. Since the release of Nosferatu in 1922 to present day, horror films remain widely popular among audiences. All art reflects the social, political and economic conditions around it, and at its best, the horror genre allows us to work out our collective fears and anxieties about the world. I've found that horror flicks provoke some of the most interesting discussions, often serving as a springboard for exploring bigger political and social questions. Along those lines, this is the first of three horror movies I'll look at over the month of October in Fight Back! News.

No film captured the reputation of 'the scariest movie ever' like The Exorcist. Almost 43 years after its release, William Friedkin's Oscar-nominated tale of demon possession remains notorious for its spinning heads, archaic rituals and neon-green projectile vomit. When the film was released in 1973, it gained a near-mythic reputation among religious audiences who condemned it as evil and blasphemous. I even remember my very religious sixth-grade English teacher warning our entire class in 2001 to avoid 'that movie' because she claimed that a-friend-of-a-friend became possessed after watching it.

The Exorcist still shocks and disturbs, although not because of scares or gore. We've seen the same story played out far too many times in sequels, spin-offs and rip-offs for the events on-screen to terrify like it did in 1973. For viewers in 2016, the most unsettling part of The Exorcist is the profoundly conservative politics and backwards social vision at the film's center. It's a right-wing call to return to 'old-time religion', with its medieval attitudes towards gender, its rebuke of science and its blatant class inequalities.

There are two main stories in The Exorcist, which intersect for the film's climax. The first focuses on Reagan, the tween daughter of a wealthy Hollywood actress, who has trouble adjusting after her mother, Chris MacNeil, moves them both to Washington D.C. to take a role in a major film. Bored and isolated in their new house, Reagan passes the time playing with Ouija boards, talking to imaginary friends, and disrupting her mother's raucous house parties. But it isn't long before Reagan's temperament takes a dark turn. She has violent outbursts. She screams unprovoked profanity-laced insults at her mother and others. Inexplicable cuts and abscesses start showing up on her body. Disturbed and concerned for her daughter, Chris starts looking for an explanation – first from doctors and psychiatrists, then from priests and religious clergy.

Extremely retrograde views on women and gender roles abound in The Exorcist, most clearly seen through the character of Chris. For one, she's a single mother who left Reagan's estranged father to pursue her acting career. Chris screams profanity at him over the phone for everyone to hear, Reagan included. She's casually dating producer Burke Dennings, much to the dislike of her daughter. Even the film's central plot point – the demon possession – happens during Reagan's long afternoons home alone while Chris works. The Exorcist falls into the tired sexist troupe of blaming single working mothers for the problems that befall their children. The movie not-so-subtly suggests that women like Chris put their families through literal hell if they pursue their careers or show too much independence.

The film's other storyline follows Father Karras, a Catholic priest and part-time psychiatrist on staff at Georgetown University. Karras is the most interesting character in The Exorcist, in part because his working class background contrasts with every other character (wealthy Hollywood stars, powerful religious clergy, buffoonish cops, etc.) When he became a priest, Karras took a vow of poverty and gave up the large salary he could have earned as a professional psychiatrist. When his impoverished immigrant mother falls ill and he can't afford decent medical care for her, Karras becomes wracked with guilt over joining the priesthood.

By contrast, Chris can easily afford taking Reagan to every doctor and psychiatrist in D.C. They all perform expensive – and sometimes disturbing – medical tests to determine what's wrong with Reagan. Between clumsy needle insertions, invasive surgery, literal bloodletting and ominous machines, the medical procedures play like torture scenes. But it's all for naught. Reagan's problem, according to The Exorcist, is spiritual, not psychological, and modern medicine or psychiatry have no answers. These strong anti-science overtones bring to mind the litany of right-wing pseudo-science we still hear regarding women's reproductive health, stem cells and vaccines.

With scientific solutions discredited, an increasingly desperate Chris seeks out Father Karras and begs him to perform an exorcism on her daughter. Catholic church leaders eventually agree and send in Father Merrin, a well-seasoned demon hunter, to carry out the ritual alongside Karras.

While the titular exorcism makes for wonderful drama, it's also where the film goes completely off the rails. Possessed Reagan taunts Karras and exploits the guilt he feels from his mother's death. When the frail Father Merrin dies from a heart attack mid-exorcism, Karras gives himself to the devil in Reagan's place. In a last act of desperation, Karras – now possessed – jumps from Reagan's second-story bedroom window, which kills himself and the devil in the process. Leaving aside the question of suicide as a mortal sin in Catholicism, The Exorcist wants us to see Karras' sacrifice as a spiritual victory over evil, in which a doubting priest regains his faith. But something just doesn't add up.

First of all, there's nothing particularly spiritual about Karras' internal struggle. His guilt has very real economic roots in the class inequalities of U.S. capitalism. Mrs. Karras, a first generation Greek immigrant living in dire poverty, cannot afford the care she needs in a for-profit health care system. This real-life nightmare persists in the U.S. today, in which 28.5 million people have no health insurance. When Mrs. Karras dies in a criminally underfunded public ward, her son blames himself for not having the money to pay her medical bills.

On the other hand, we see Chris spend tens of thousands of dollars on medical professionals, tests and procedures for Reagan. Even a fraction of this money would have saved Mrs. Karras' life. Nevertheless, it's Karras who literally internalizes the evil of a system that denies sick people health care. His misplaced guilt even leads him to commit suicide in hopes of finding redemption. Economic inequality remains ever-present throughout the film, but The Exorcist ignores class warfare in lieu of spiritual warfare – and it leads to some bizarre conclusions.

In a sense, The Exorcist was 'ahead of its time'. Hindsight is 20/20, but if studios had made the film a decade later and downplayed the heavy Catholic themes, right-wing evangelical audiences would probably have flocked to see it. After all, the worldview promoted by The Exorcist falls comfortably in line with the reactionary policies promoted by another Reagan, along with conservative evangelical con-men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump stirs up many of the same demons in 2016, let's hope a strong people's movement can exorcise them once and for all.

While The Exorcist still holds up as a strong drama, I don't think it's a particularly scary or shocking horror film. More recent movies, like James Wan's two Conjuring films, explore similar territory with much better politics and even better scares.

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