The Exorcist Changed Horror Cinema Forever

What an excellent day for an exorcism.

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If you watch The Exorcist for the first time today, some elements will already feel familiar. The pea soup vomit scene and Regan’s revolving head are now indelible cinematic touchstones. So too is the general format for the exorcism itself, positioning Catholic priests as a kind of holy ghostbuster service. After five decades of filmmakers strip-mining The Exorcist for material, you’ll find similar scenes in countless copycats, from the Conjuring franchise to the CBS show Evil.

But beneath these much-parodied tropes is a more sophisticated film than The Exorcist’s reputation suggests. Like Rocky and Alien, it inspired so many spinoffs and knockoffs that the franchise brand almost overshadows the quality of the original work.

William Peter Blatty’s 1971 Exorcist novel was an influential precursor to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Tapping into fears about the corruption of childhood innocence, its central character is a girl who falls ill with a series of mysterious ailments. As her behavior grows more erratic, she begins to display unmistakable signs of supernatural possession. In a last-ditch attempt to find a cure, her mother recruits a priest to perform a ritual exorcism.

Released five years after Roman Polanski’s demonic pregnancy thriller Rosemary’s Baby, the movie adaptation arrived just as Satanism was heating up in American popular culture. Satanist Anton LaVey was a minor celebrity, rock bands were embracing occult imagery, and evangelical Christians were increasingly paranoid about young people being seduced into Devil-worship. In the midst of this craze, The Exorcist was — to borrow a dubious modern term — an “elevated” alternative to schlocky films with titles like Daughters of Satan and The Blood on Satan’s Claws.

This demonic trend overlapped with the demise of the Motion Picture Production Code, which censored American cinema from 1934 to 1968. Suddenly, filmmakers were allowed to depict sex, violence, and sacrilege. The New Hollywood movement was soon in full swing, with directors like The Exorcist’s William Friedkin embracing grittier topics and more experimental techniques.

The Exorcist’s not-so-secret strength is how it bridges the gap between gruesome shock value and the mature, unpredictable storytelling of New Hollywood cinema. It’s not just a straightforward horror movie about demonic possession. It’s also a grounded story about the anxieties of single motherhood, with a richly drawn cast who could just as easily be in a John Cassavetes drama.

Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow in a scene from the 1973 horror classic.

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Another underappreciated quality is The Exorcist’s focus on medical horror. In fact, its most disturbing scene is arguably the angiography sequence, where 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair) has a needle inserted into her femoral artery. When we hear about viewers fainting and throwing up during screenings, this was the typical culprit. Along with being skin-crawlingly repulsive, it drew a connection between modern medicine and the barbaric ways that women were historically tested for signs of witchcraft.

Regan’s problems start out as an obvious puberty metaphor; a baby-faced kid who spontaneously starts cursing, acting out, and making shockingly sexual remarks. But of course we know there’s something else afoot. Her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) goes from specialist to specialist, fruitlessly trying to get a diagnosis. Some doctors unhelpfully explain that there’s nothing physically wrong. One prescribes the ADHD medication Ritalin, adding that he doesn’t actually know how it works. It’s a depressingly realistic portrayal of what it’s like to have a serious but undiagnosable illness — especially as a woman arguing with so-called experts in a male-dominated system.

This subplot culminates in a meeting with multiple doctors sitting around a huge conference table. Admitting that they can’t find a viable treatment for the hospitalized Regan, one of them sheepishly asks if Chris has heard of exorcism. “You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor?” she replies. But with no other options, Chris decides to track down the troubled Father Karras, and soon we’re off to the races.

The medical horror of The Exorcist is an underappreciated reason for its timelessness.

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Rewatching today, that conference scene hammers home the extent of The Exorcist’s impact on horror cinema. At any point after 1973, it would feel absurd to include this level of basic exposition. Why bother explaining what exorcism is? Viewers know exactly what to expect because horror movies have been riffing on The Exorcist’s ideas for decades.

During the final, iconic ritual, the most distinctive element now is Father Karras himself. Played with downbeat determination by playwright/actor Jason Miller, he’s a multilayered figure with thoroughly individual hobbies, psychological foibles and backstory. Later horror films slot stock characters into similar roles, but Chris MacNeil and Father Karras built the mold.

Jason Miller’s performance as a troubled priest lends The Exorcist its extra layer of prestige.

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The Exorcist still packs a punch thanks to this combination of supernatural horror and adult drama. Yet despite repeated attempts at spinoffs, it’s never fully gelled as a franchise. To my mind, the best example was the 2016 TV series, a paranormal procedural with minimal canon crossover. Meanwhile 2023’s Exorcist: Believer was panned as a cynical regurgitation of The Exorcist’s format.

The problem here is that unlike Halloween or Scream, The Exorcist isn’t a nostalgia-inducing property. Fans weren’t crying out for a Chris MacNeil comeback. More importantly, The Exorcist’s iconic nature actually undercuts any attempt at homage. The original is so uniquely influential that if a new film uses the same imagery and story arc, it just seems hopelessly derivative.

If anything, this sequel-proof status confirms The Exorcist’s immortality. Even after inspiring hundreds of wannabes, it remains the go-to example for exorcism horror. And 50 years on, it still has the capacity to shock.

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