Analysis of ‘The Exorcist’

The Exorcist is a 1973 supernatural horror film directed by William Friedkin and starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Max von Sydow (Father Lankester Merrin), and Jason Miller (Father Damien Karras). It is based on the 1971 novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, the movie screenplay having been adapted by the author. The novel in turn was based on the real-life exorcism in 1949 of a boy (‘Roland Doe’, about fourteen years old at the time) who allegedly was possessed of a demon.

Speaking of demons, during production, there were stories of people being injured, which added to the legend of the ‘cursed’ film. Similarly Satanic stories have been told of the productions of The Omen (1976) and Macbeth.

The Exorcist is considered one of the scariest, and therefore one of the best, horror films ever made. It had a huge influence on Black Sabbath, and on Ozzy Osbourne in particular, who sat through many screenings of it. It’s particularly frightening for Christians, not only, I believe, because they would consider the supernatural events something that could really happen, but because Christians unconsciously sense how the film is an allegory of the modern loss of faith, and of the attendant harm done to relationships.

Here are some quotes:

“There’s not a day in my life that I don’t feel like a fraud. Other priests, doctors, lawyers – I talk to them all. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that.” –Karras

“It’s more than psychiatry, and you know that Tom. Some of their problems come down to faith, their vocation and meaning of their lives, and I can’t cut it anymore. I need out. I’m unfit. I think I’ve lost my faith, Tom.” –Karras

“Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance. Now, for example, say a 90 pound woman sees her child pinned under the wheel of a truck. Runs out and lifts the wheels a half a foot up off the ground – you’ve heard the story – same thing here. Same principle, I mean.” –Dr. Taney

“There is one outside chance for a cure. I think of it as shock treatment – as I said, it’s a very outside chance…Have you ever heard of exorcism? Well, it’s a stylized ritual in which the rabbi or the priest try to drive out the so-called invading spirit. It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of an embarrassment, but uh, it has worked. In fact, although not for the reasons they think, of course. It’s purely a force of suggestion. The victim’s belief in possession is what helped cause it, so in that same way, a belief in the power of exorcism can make it disappear.” –Dr. Barringer

Karras: Where’s Regan?
Regan: In here. With us.

“Especially important is the warning to avoid conversations with the demon. We may ask what is relevant but anything beyond that is dangerous. He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful. So don’t listen to him. Remember that – do not listen.” –Merrin, to Karras

Karras: Why her? Why this girl?
Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

The movie begins in Iraq, where religious faith is still strong, though it’s the Islamic, rather than Christian, faith. Father Merrin, who personifies Christian faith in the story, is nonetheless old and in ill health, needing to take nitroglycerin for a heart condition. When he finds an amulet, an image of Pazuzu, a demon he once exorcized in Africa many years before, he knows he must face it again.

When discussing the situation and the image with a Mosul curator of antiquities, the curator says, “Evil against evil.” (page 6 in the Prologue of the novel) If there is no God to fight the Devil, then there’s no good, in the religious sense, to fight evil; other forms of evil will have to do to stop Pazuzu. We will see the significance of this idea at the climax of the movie, when Father Damien Karras (note the pun on demon), a doubting priest, uses a decidedly un-Christian method to get the demon out of Regan’s body.

This is what makes the story so scary to Christians, as I see it. From their point of view, good comes only from the Christian God. If He doesn’t exist, then there is no real good to fight evil; there are only other forms of ‘evil’ to fight it, namely, the gods of all those ‘false’ religions: including Islam, whose God, Allah, is acknowledged by Muslims to have created evil as well as good (Allah is not a father, either–see below for the significance of this idea); or paganism, from which Pazuzu originally came. A world of only evil, without God, is Hell, a terrifying notion to Christians.

In Georgetown, Washington DC, Pazuzu has already arrived, and is making noises in Chris MacNeil’s attic. It takes quite a while for the demon actually to enter the body of Regan, her twelve-year-old daughter. Back in the early 1970s, moviegoers’ attention spans weren’t as short as are those of moviegoers today, people who always require quick thrills; more importantly, this slow buildup suggests the insidious nature of growing evil.

Father Karras, far more suited to psychiatry than to preaching, complains to another priest of his loss of faith. Even before this revelation, it is telling how he reacts when he hears Burke Dennings, the enfant terrible director of the film Chris is acting in, tell her that the writer of the film’s screenplay is in Paris “Fucking.” Karras laughs with all the others watching the filming, instead of taking offence at the bad language (page 20: “Chris…darted a furtive, embarrassed glance to a nearby Jesuit, checking to see if he’d heard the obscenity…He’d heard. He was smiling.”). Karras curses a number of times himself elsewhere in the story.

Christians fear that if we lose faith in Christ, we will turn into bestial people; we’ll lose our innocence, speaking and performing obscenities and blasphemies, as Regan does when Pazuzu takes over. Christians believe we must accept the Kingdom of God as a child (Mark 10:14-15); salvation comes not through good works, but by grace through faith (Romans 3:20-28). Despair, however, leads to damnation (Romans 14:23).

As those of us who live secular lives understand, though, the problem of evil is a much more complex one than a mere matter of falling from God’s grace and losing The Garden of Eden, then of being restored to that state of grace by believing in Jesus. MacNeil understands this need for self-reliance, since she is an atheist, as explicitly stated in the novel: “An atheist, she had never taught Regan religion. She thought it dishonest.” (page 47)

The loss of faith isn’t limited, however, to a religious one. Neither the doctors nor the psychiatrists can help Regan, leading her mother to lose faith in them. When the psychiatrists ask Chris of her religious beliefs, or of Regan’s, they suggest exorcism as a cure; though they’re careful to emphasize that, since Regan merely believes she’s possessed, the belief in exorcism, through the “force of suggestion,” can cure her. Ironically, her atheist mother now searches for priests…and the priest she finds–Karras–wants to help as a psychiatrist!

After the scene when Regan has been bouncing on the bed and has struck Dr. Klein, Dr. Taney speaks of how “Pathological states can induce abnormal strength. Accelerated motor performance.” (In the novel, Dr. Klein says it on page 126.) I watched this scene in a theatre here in Taiwan, where the locals in the audience were actually laughing at the doctor’s words. Being firm believers in ghosts, the Taiwanese found it absurd that it hadn’t even occurred to these doctors that Regan was most obviously possessed of a demon. But that’s the point of the story–the loss of religious faith is that profound in mainstream Western society.

After Karras has examined her, he has seen enough proof of possession in Regan–her speaking in languages, Latin and French, which she presumably has never studied (pages 300-301, which also include German); using telekinesis (opening a drawer with her mind); manifesting knowledge of Karras’s dead mother; imitating the voice of a derelict Karras failed to help–he tells another priest he still isn’t convinced of the reality of Pazuzu inside Regan. On page 313: ‘”I’ve made a prudent judgement that it meets the conditions set forth in the Ritual,” answered Karras evasively. He still did not dare believe. Not his mind but his heart had tugged him to this moment; pity and the hope for a cure through suggestion.’ He thinks Regan’s problem is a case of dissociative identity disorder (pages 310, 337).

When Merrin arrives for the exorcism, Karras tries to tell him about her psychiatric history, but Merrin considers this a waste of time. When Karras speaks of three personalities in Regan, Merrin–the personification of faith–insists there is only one.

Merrin emphasizes that “the demon is a liar” who “would lie to confuse” them. The priests mustn’t listen, just as Christians try not to listen to the ideas of modern science, including evolutionary theory, which show the falsity of a literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis.

Disproving the six-day Creation, as well as the story of Adam and Eve, is devastating to the Christian faith. If man evolved from the ape, what basis is there for believing in The Fall? How did our animal instincts for self-preservation and survival, including selfishness, the procreative sex drive, and aggression, suddenly become evil once we evolved to the species of homo sapiens? A metaphorical, allegorical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story doesn’t work, either: for Christian soteriology to be effective, the first few chapters of Genesis must be taken as literal, historical fact. If there was no historical Fall of Man, why should we believe in a Divine Rescuer who, by dying on the Cross, gave us a chance to be restored to a state of grace that hadn’t originally existed anyway? (For further reading, see Spong, 1992.)

In light of modern scientific knowledge, we must understand that continuing to preach Christian dogma and Bible stories as literal, historic fact can no longer be merely viewed as a perpetuation of ignorance; now it is just cognitive dissonance, if not tantamount to outright lying. Threatened by modern knowledge, Christians–especially fundamentalists–are compelled to project their mendacity onto evolutionists, as Merrin has projected the idea of lying onto Pazuzu. When Merrin says the demon mixes lies with the truth, this seems an almost grudging concession that Pazuzu may, to an extent at least, be right.

Even without evolutionary theory, Christian theodicies are inadequate. They try to reconcile a perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient God with a world in which evil exists by talking about Adam and Eve exercising free will by disobeying God; even though they, originally in a state of grace and having its attendant moral wisdom, surely would have had the sense to know that by eating the forbidden fruit, they were ruining themselves. To make an analogy, merely having the free will to put one’s hand on a stove’s red hot burner won’t make a sensible person any more willing to scald his hand; nor will one eat one’s own damnation, provided one has the moral perfection to know the consequences. One would be too morally strong to give in to the temptation of acquiring god-like knowledge.

This is why it’s dangerous to listen to Pazuzu’s words, for they will destroy faith. Merrin makes the point, that it is to make us despair, to make us think we’re animal, and that God would never love us, because we’re so unworthy. And love, particularly the love of our mothers and fathers, is crucial to our mental health; for those primary caregivers of our childhood provide a psychological blueprint for all of our later relationships, which leads me to my next point.

In object relations theory, our loving, good objects–internalized imagos of our parents, which reside in our minds like ghosts in a haunted house–help us to have integrated, healthy personalities, allowing us to have happy, loving relationships. God is the ideal internalized object, the ‘good Father’, and if we lose Him, we’re helpless against our internalized bad objects. Without sufficient good objects, one experiences a splitting of the personality into extreme good and bad objects. Enter Pazuzu…into Regan’s body.

When we don’t believe we’re loved, we develop what WRD Fairbairn called a schizoid personality (not to be confused with schizophrenia, which he considered an extreme schizoid manifestation), a personality split between good and bad internalized objects, something even the most normal people have, to at least some extent (Fairbairn, pages 3-27). This bad internal object, split off from the good ones, is what the demon in Regan could be said to symbolize.

When we don’t feel sufficiently loved–as Regan must feel when her father, in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from Chris, doesn’t call Regan on her birthday (p. 48)–we begin to feel persecutory anxiety, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. Hence Pazuzu, Regan’s symbolic internalized bad object, is persecuting her.

Interestingly, Fairbairn compared bad objects to demonic possession (pages 67-72). “…it is worth considering whence bad objects derive their power over the individual. If the child’s objects are bad, how does he ever come to internalize them? Why does he not simply reject them…?…However much he may want to reject them, he cannot get away from them. They force themselves upon him; and he cannot resist them because they have power over him. He is accordingly compelled to internalize them in an effort to control them. But, in attempting to control them in this way, he is internalizing objects which have wielded power over him in the external world; and these objects retain their prestige for power over him in the inner world. In a word, he is ‘possessed’ by them, as if by evil spirits. This is not all, however. The child not only internalizes his bad objects because they force themselves upon him and he seeks to control them, but also, and above all, because he needs them. If a child’s parents are bad objects, he cannot reject them, even if they do not force themselves upon him; for he cannot do without them. Even if they neglect him, he cannot reject them; for, if they neglect him [as Regan’s father has neglected her], his need for them is increased.” (Fairbairn p. 67)

Chris’s love for Regan, in contrast, brings out the girl’s sweetness, her good internal object, the ‘good mother’ imago (p. 43). While we know Regan’s maniacal, violent behaviour is caused by an actual demon, and therefore Chris considers it a mistake to have originally believed that Regan’s pathology was caused by her father’s absence, we can nonetheless see the demon as symbolizing repressed anger over her father’s absence. We are, after all, reminded of her missing father even late into the story (p. 328; in the film, there’s no mention of the father calling and wanting to talk to Regan).

Remember also what Pazuzu says: “I am no one.” (page 308) This symbolically represents what Melanie Klein called the omnipotent denial of a bad object. Indeed, is Pazuzu a real demon, or just an internal bad object?

Projection and re-introjection of good and bad objects carry on in a cycle throughout one’s life, in varying levels of intensity. Possessed Regan’s vomiting (and urinating on the rug at the party) symbolize the projection. Freud associated libido with instinctual drives towards pleasure, but Fairbairn believed libido was directed at seeking objects (e.g., looking for people to give love to and receive love from). “Actually some of the activities to which so-called libidinal aims have been attributed are activities which I should hesitate to describe as primarily libidinal at all, e.g. anal and urinary activities; for the inherent aim of these activities, in common with that of vomiting, is not the establishment of a relationship with objects, but the rejection of objects which, from the point of view of the organism, constitute foreign bodies.” (Fairbairn p. 138) Regan’s puking and pissing can in one way be considered her futile attempt at exorcising her bad objects.

If we can’t find the loving objects we need, then our behaviour deteriorates to mere pleasure-seeking, as Regan’s obscene and blasphemous acts indicate. She violently rejects the loving help of father figures, and instead behaves obscenely. Instead of wanting to be saved by God, she masturbates with a crucifix; instead of receiving the priests’ help, she wants them to fuck her, or one another; she also grabs a hypnotherapist by the balls; and she hits one of the male doctors, then calls out to them: “Fuck me! Fuck me!”

Fairbairn elaborates: “…from the point of view of object-relationship psychology, explicit pleasure-seeking represents a deterioration of behaviour…Explicit pleasure-seeking has as its essential aim the relieving of the tension of libidinal need for the mere sake of relieving this tension. Such a process does, of course, occur commonly enough; but, since libidinal need is object-need, simple tension-relieving implies some failure of object-relationships.” (p. 139-140) Similarly, addiction of any kind (drugs, sex, gambling, the internet, pornography) can be seen as an attempt to connect when normal human connection has failed for the addict.

As far as introjection and re-introjection are concerned, we can see it symbolically in Regan’s masturbating with the crucifix, her jamming and re-jamming of that thing inside her bloodied vagina, saying, “Let Jesus fuck you! Let Jesus fuck you!” Jesus is the Son of God, but He’s also homooúsios with God the Father, that is, equal to Him. When confronting Father Merrin, she says, “Stick your cock up her ass…” These two blasphemies and obscenities represent a wish for introjection of a father figure, and also symbolize the female Oedipus situation of a girl whose father is no longer part of her life. Telling her mother, and forcing her to “Lick me! Lick me!” represents a briefly inverted Oedipus conflict, and her hitting of Chris is a return to the normal Oedipus situation. Pursuit of pleasure for its own sake is all Regan has, because the acquiring of her needed loving object (her father) is impossible.

When Merrin dies at the end, faith dies. Karras desperately tries to revive him, but to no avail. Pazuzu seems awed at first by his final victory over Merrin, then he laughs in Schadenfreude. Enraged, Karras grabs Regan and beats the demon out of her–evil against evil, he punches her like a boxer. He wants to introject the demon, the bad object, not only to save her, I believe, but to punish himself for his loss of faith and absence when his mother died (his presumably dead father, by the way, is never mentioned in the movie). With the demon inside Karras, she is safe…except for the fact that Damien the demon is now eyeing her with a view to assault her…perhaps sexually. Swelling with self-hate and an urge to redeem himself, Karras shouts “No!” and jumps out the window, sacrificing his life for the girl’s. Evil against evil. Instead of salvation by faith, we have salvation by suicide, the ultimate act of faithlessness.

A weeping Father Dyer gives Karras absolution as he’s dying. Karras seems to have regained his faith (though it seems to be a belief only in devils, rather than in God; also, is his moving hand, in Dyer’s, really an expression of repentance?) while dying; in any case, his suicide still symbolizes a paradoxical salvation by faithlessness. His receiving of absolution would seem an affirmation of faith at the end of the story; but consider how Karras’s ‘exorcism’ of Regan involved no use of the Roman Catholic ritual at all. No prayers to God. He just beat the girl. ‘God’ wasn’t anywhere. No miracles came from Him; the supernatural occurrences came only from Pazuzu. Indeed, the two priests look ludicrously ineffectual as they are chanting, over and over, “The power of Christ compels you!” Does Pazuzu lower the levitated Regan by the priests’ compulsion, or of his own free will? Indeed, the demon has been toying with the priests the whole time.

When the family moves out, Chris tells Father Dyer that Regan remembers nothing of the demon. The bad internal object, that of her neglectful father, has been repressed, pushed back into Regan’s unconscious, and so there’s no longer a threat…or so we assume.

Regan projects her ‘bad father’ imago, Pazuzu, into Father Karras, and when he’s killed himself, she can feel satisfaction from that. When she quickly gives Father Dyer a hug and kiss, we wonder, for a second, will she attack him?

No, he’s safe, for she has successfully repressed her internal saboteur (Fairbairn p. 102-105), her “anti-libidinal ego [, which] is the split-off ego fragment that is bonded with the rejecting object. We can think of it as the ‘anti-wanting I’, the aspect of the self that is contemptuous of neediness. Rejection gives rise to unbearable anger, split off from the central self or ego [corresponding roughly to Freud’s ego] and disowned by it. Fairbairn originally termed this element the ‘internal saboteur’, indicating that in despising rather than acknowledging our neediness, we ensure that we neither seek nor get what we want. The anti-libidinal ego/rejecting object configuration is the cynical, angry self which is too dangerously hostile for us to acknowledge. When it emerges from repression we may experience it as chaotic rage or hatred, sometimes with persecutory guilt.” (Gomez p. 63-64)

Earlier in the story, Regan’s libidinal ego (the part of Fairbairn’s endo-psychic structure corresponding roughly to Freud’s id) is attached to Burke as a possible stepfather, what Fairbairn would have called an ‘exciting object’ (Fairbairn p. 102-105; Gomez p. 62); for she is hoping her mother will marry him, speaking to her mother of how she (Chris) likes him (p. 43-44). Then, her anti-libidinal ego, the internal saboteur, symbolized by Pazuzu, considers Burke a copy of her rejecting object/father and kills him (and since her rejecting object is inside her psyche, Regan imitates Burke’s voice and twists her head around, as Burke’s was when found dead). Pazuzu, the name of her ‘bad father’ imago, could be considered a pun on ‘Pa’. Is Pazuzu jealous of Regan’s preferring Burke to him as a father-object? Similarly, Pazuzu wants to kill the other two Fathers, Merrin and Karras.

But to return to the end of the story: having reintegrated her bad objects with her good ones, Regan has thus restored her mental health. Unconsciously, she can now accept the independent existence of her far-away father. She has given up the omnipotence symbolized by the supernatural powers of the demon, for she no longer needs to deny the bad aspects of her object relations. Now she wants reparation with fathers, so she doesn’t hurt Dyer.

Regan’s parents’ divorce amounted to a loss of faith in their marriage, resulting in the girl’s loss of faith in fathers–biological ones, possible stepfathers (Burke), Catholic Fathers, male doctors/hypnotherapists/psychiatrists, or God the Father Himself. Because the priests cannot replace her actual father any more than Burke can, Pazuzu’s first words to Merrin include, “…you motherfucking, worthless cocksucker!” What else is your father, but the man who is fucking your mother? (And leaving her, i.e., divorcing her and abandoning Regan, is fucking Chris in a different way…making him worthless to Regan.) When Merrin throws holy water on Regan, Pazuzu the rejecting object writhes in pain and has scars on her leg to show his rejection of the Father.

Killing fathers, whether potential surrogates like Burke, or religious ones like Karras or Merrin, is what Pazuzu is all about: the anti-libidinal ego that is attached to the internalized ‘rejecting object’ (Regan’s absent father). As I see it, Pazuzu is both the anti-libidinal ego and the internalized rejecting object at the same time. Pazuzu rejects fathers for the same reason he rejects God. After all, paternity is an act of faith in itself. Note what Don Pedro and Leonato, Hero’s father, say about her in a dialogue in Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene i, lines 88-89:

DON PEDRO: I think this is your daughter.

LEONATO: Her mother hath many times told me so.

Or, consider a quote in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…founded…Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood…Paternity may be a legal fiction.” (Joyce, page 266)

Our fathers, who are in Heaven (or here on Earth): hollow seem their names. This is what The Exorcist seems to be telling us…and that’s what is so frightening about the film.

William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist, HarperCollinsPublishers, New York NY, 1971

W. Ronald D. Fairbairn, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, Routledge, London, 1952

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: a Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, Harper, San Francisco, 1992

Lavinia Gomez, An Introduction to Object Relations, Free Association Books, London, 1997

James Joyce, Ulysses: Annotated Student Edition, Penguin Books, London, first published 1922

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