By Steven Moore
I love horror films. Anything that can get me curled up in a ball and afraid to look out my own window is a winner for me. The best horror films rely on suspense rather than graphic violence for their horror. The threat of harm is always present but rarely happens. While The Exorcist accomplishes the suspense, it also utilizes the graphic. In fact, my feelings toward The Exorcist are so complicated, I don’t really know what they are.
On the one hand, it is a monolithic example of character development, thematic unity, and tension. On the other hand, I found it grotesque and exploitative. The threat of physical harm is always present for the possessed child, played by Linda Blair, but never to anyone else. The only real threat to everyone around her is the creeping shadow of despair. What can be more frightening than the loss of hope? As a parent, I know what it’s like to have my child fall sick and feel utterly helpless to do anything. The risk of falling into despair consumes every moment, even your dreams. This movie captures that feeling so well that I felt that same sickness in my stomach, not from the gore, but from the reminder of that terrifying, and thankfully short, period of my life. The monster in The Exorcist is not the “demonic spirit;” it is the despair that spirit induces. Every character must fight it, and not every character wins. Turning on all the lights in the house doesn’t help with this kind of fear.
My problem with The Exorcist is that it spawned the exorcism sub-genre of torture porn. Not satisfied with watching someone get physically mutilated, the viewer is also subjected to watching them get psychically or spiritually mutilated. Whether you see the cases these films represent as demonic possession or mental illness, to purposefully sit and watch someone go through it is beyond exploitative–it’s inhuman. I realize a similar argument could be made for other kinds of horror films, but the torture porn genre in general, and the exorcism genre in particular, seems to be more about a sadistic voyeurism, not a cathartic release of irrational fears.
The Exorcist is a good horror movie that uses shock value and disturbing imagery to push the more threatening psychological threat, and if it had stopped there, I would have marked it very highly. I know it is radically unfair of me to push the blame of a copycat sub-genre onto my reaction to the film, but I couldn’t help think about it as I was watching, and in the end it comes down to the personal experience of watching a movie. My audience response was tainted, as I think anyone who has grown up since the film’s release would be. For that, The Exorcist is a great film that I hope to never see again.