…and the quest to see everything

HMWYBS: Colours and Threats in ‘The Exorcist’

This post is part of Nathaniel R’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

I’m probably underestimating the aesthetic value of these shots in William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist but I’ll start my entry with this scene because I did not know where it was going and when I did, it hit personal sides of me. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has exhausted many treatments for her daughter named Regan (Linda Blair, in the role that would make and break her career), who changed from being a nice girl into a cursing, welting, throwing, puking machine. The doctors and psychiatrists in white coats surround Chris and tell her that Regan needs ‘the best care’ in the latter’s situation.

And because this is an Ellen Burstyn movie, she says that she’s a strong woman and don’t you dare tell her how to raise her child and Regan is not going to an institution! This inquisition-like deliberation is reminiscent of methods decades ago where male doctors tell female hysterics how to be cured, which makes me wonder how that would subvert gender dynamics if the movie stuck to showing a possessed boy as opposed to the female characters in exorcism movies then and now. To ease the tension and since we already know that this movie is going in this direction, one of the doctors suggests an exorcism, explaining that –

It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the…Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment, but uh, it has worked.

He’s all hand gesture-y about it too. Chris responds with –

You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?

Witch doctor? Screw you, MacNeil. Well, at least she’s never fully passive through this ordeal. I can’t say that I’m offended, with all the implications of the word ‘witch.’ But even from a ‘sinner’ who looks at the Church from an ambivalent standpoint I, as a believer, still feel targeted when people, fictional or otherwise, talk about religions as hocus pocus.

But then it’s an adage from Film School 101 that horror as a genre casts doubt on our technology-age, secular society and ironically makes us return to the original way of thinking that we and our ancestors doubted in the first place. The last resort, the one that might cure Regan, is the one that has no scientific proof at all. Even the priests (including Max von Sydow) are shocked that a practice they believe is archaic can heal the possessed.

The threat against an individual as a mirror threat against Catholicism arguably isn’t Friedkin’s intention, although there’s enough visuals to harp for that interpretation to be real enough. One of the movie’s opening images is that of the Virgin, carved from white marble. White, the colour of the civilized hospital words, is also the colour of worship. This movie, as well as David Lynch’s horror movies, uses white or bright colours a lot which is the opposite of the black or red in other movies of the genre. It starts showing Her with the dissolve from an urban American street, perhaps showing Her omniscience. But Her pristine texture can also mean that she’s passive to the world going retrograde and evil, as Justine from Melancholia would say. It even makes me uncomfortable to watch the vandalism against Her image – I almost posted it and decided against it, and it’s probably out on the internet somewhere already – her statue degraded like the ‘evil’ ones that the elder priest’s archaeological team finds in Niniveh in modern Norther Iraq (evil characters as Iraqis, how typical), the Virgin’s body transformed by the changes outside her cloistered church. It’s the same difference when it comes to Regan, we the audience are taken each step towards her transformation into this outlandish creature, making us finally believe that the devil has invaded her.

Just like Regan’s slow changes, we can also feel this ‘threat’ or ‘dread,’ a particular requirement in the horror genre, especially in the other introduction sequences, like the one where the rock picks surround the priest get louder, more menacing and invasive. Or when Chris walks around Georgetown during the autumn and there’s already something suspicious in the way the wind blows and the leaves fall around her. And when Father Karras encounters that ‘former altar boy’ in the New York subway.

And since the demon-populated, pre-Christian beliefs represent human’s innate primeval side, the titular exorcism and thus, the Catholic Church is a force of civilization ironing out humans’ former kinks. Regan’s exorcism reminds me of a well-orchestrated theatre piece where three entities have physical and verbal beat downs, the movie finally going into the shadowed darkness to battle the evil out.

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3 responses

  1. Well, that was a (delicious) mouthful. Kudos, this is probably my favourite of your Best Shot essays (and this was an essay). It’s a tetchy issues, but your observations intrigue me and I’ll just return to that third shot and say (which I shall continue to say for a while) how goddamn great is Ellen Burstyn here? SO VERY GODDAMN GREAT. (That’s not even correct syntax-wise, but whatever.)

    May 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm

  2. Dan

    An excellent article that has highlighted some interesting aspects from one of my favourite films. The Exorcist is so great on so many levels but I think it works jointly in appealing to both “believers” and “non-believers”. Friedkin’s great conceit cannot fail to appeal to all in that MacNeil is a woman who loves her child like nothing else and yet has no clue how to protect/save her. That’s probably the most frightening aspect of the story beyond the “hocus pocus”, which is so brilliantly portrayed in Father Karras’ subplot.

    May 10, 2012 at 6:44 am

  3. Andrew and Dan: Yes, Burstyn is so very goddamn great. She’s also probably the most mature and intelligent scream queen there is.

    I tried touching on that aspect of the movie too, that this is a women’s picture with those same themes of maternal struggle. And it sort of draws the lines between how troublesome children can be viewed as both a growing contemporary symptom or something that’s been around since the ancients. Thanks the both of ya for stopping by! 🙂

    May 10, 2012 at 9:12 am

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