I’m not going to lie. The Exorcist is a disturbing film. The mood, the images, the scenes—they all convey a sinister quality that few films, if any for that era, possessed. It doesn’t help knowing that nine people associated with the project died prior to release. This includes actors Jack MacGowran (Burke) and Vasiliki Maliaros (the priest’s mother) whose scripted characters coincidentally also died in the movie.
I can hear the question already. Whom have I chosen from The Exorcist to be part of my Women Who Wow Wednesday series for my month-long salute to Horror?
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress with a teenaged daughter who goes by the name of Regan (Linda Blair). Chris’s marriage is nonexistent. When that man forgets his daughter’s birthday, she looses it, cursing and swearing, taking God’s name in vain. Some have attributed her blasphemous nature to what happens later in the film.
But Chris is a mom first, actress second. Regan is her whole life. Whoever or whatever interferes with her daughter’s life would have to deal with her. She’s the all-encompassing protector who will sacrifice anything for her daughter’s survival.
One night Chris hears noises coming from the attic. The next day she refers the matter to her butler stating clearly, she thought she had heard rats. The butler dismisses her claim, yet she’s adamant he check the attic and set traps.
This is where I have to stop. If you haven’t seen The Exorcist, I suggest you skip to the last paragraph because I’m going to reveal a few plot points that may ruin your enjoyment of the film.
Okay. We’re safe.
Director William Friedkin planted a few specific clues in the movie to foreshadow a number of events. As I’d mentioned, Chris blasphemes God’s name, lending credence to the fact that she’s opening the door for demons to invade her home. As the movie continues forward, Chris finds that Regan’s been playing with an Ouija board, talking with an entity called Captain Howdy. We later find out Captain Howdy is more than who he says he is. During the bedroom scene where Chris tucks Regan into bed, Regan licks her lips a number of times in an obvious fashion. This is not important until we see what Regan looks like in later scenes.
Continuing with the story, early one morning before sunrise, Chris gets a call to show up on set. She finds Regan had slept with her all night claiming her bed was shaking. At that very moment, a noise once again emanates from the attic. Without thought, Chris heads to the source. She lowers the steps, flips the lights, but the lights don’t work. The lights have been flickering on and off for a while that week. It doesn’t bother her. She climbs the stairs into the attic and the noise gets louder. By candlelight she moves from one section to another noticing the rat traps empty. No rats. That’s when her candlestick bursts into a flame and her butler appears at the top of the stairs. See, he says, no rats. At the same time, Friedkin shows the audience his first shot of Regan possessed; suggesting hadn’t Chris gone to the attic she wouldn’t have released whatever was up there to take over her daughter. But in this instance, whatever was bothering Regan was already shaking her bed before Chris opened the attic door. So this was a red hearing
Moving along, after another incident of bed shaking Chris attempted to quell by diving on the mattress to control the vibrations, she takes her daughter to a doctor at the Barringer Clinic and Foundation, a top New England medical facility. This is where Chris begins to assert her motherly instinct in full force. She asks the doctors what’s wrong. All the doctors could come up with is a diagnosis of a lesion in the temporal lobe, which is causing the seizures. Remove the scar, remove the problem.
Chris reluctantly cedes to the doctors’ request for tests, and Regan undergoes a battery of EEG scans. The tests come back negative. Regan’s clean of the lesion.
By this time, Chris’ nerves are on the way out the door. When she brings her daughter back from the hospital, the doctors knock on her door as a follow-up visit. But when they get there, they get more than what they bargained for. Screams emanate from Regan’s room, prompting Chris to run to her rescue. In the room, the door spontaneously slams behind her. Regan then begins to shake back and forth, slamming on the bed over and over again. She then pulls out a crucifix and proceeds to use it for malevolent purposes, uttering vile obscenities at her mother as she pleasures herself with it.
Now, this is the part of the movie where I’m going to have to step out to tell you what went on in the theaters back in 1973.
- In the UK, a number of town councils banned the movie from playing in their theaters prompting entrepreneurs to take advantage of an opportunity to bus folks to neighboring towns where the film screened.
- Theater owners in America banned the trailer from screening because they deemed the film too frightening for the audience to absorb.
- Paramedics rushed to various theaters due to people fainting, vomiting and flying into hysterics in the aisles. True story.
- In the meantime, Linda Blair, who played Regan, needed a 24-hour guard for six months after release since religious zealots proclaimed the movie glorified Satan.
Back to the movie. When the head doctors of the medical clinic meet with Chris, who by now is a frazzled wreck, they offer a very scientific and clear-cut explanation. Regan is suffering from “Pathological states, which can induce abnormal strength and accelerated motor performance.”
Of course, Chris freaks. She explains the bed shook while she was on it. That thing on the bed was not her daughter. And she wants answers.
Another doctor adds his thoughts. He believes it’s “Somnambuliform possession. A conflict or guilt leading to delusions of bodily invasion.”
No way. Chris has had it. Eighty-eight doctors and they’re telling her that she ought to bring her daughter to a witch doctor?
Now, if you skipped the post and you are here, this is my point for featuring Chris MacNeil. Throughout her daughter’s ordeal, Chris keeps it together. Despite the circumstances, she manages to maintain her eyes on the goal—get her daughter help so she can be well again. It doesn’t matter how many times she falls to the ground, how many obscenities fly her way, or how many hits she takes, her daughter’s health is first and foremost her main concern. Chris is willing to give up everything for Regan. And isn’t that the point of being a mother, to love unconditionally regardless of what changes a son or daughter’s attitude to make them want to hate their parents?
Have you ever seen The Exorcist?
25 thoughts on “The Exorcist: Chris MacNeil”
Is she really a strong female character? Some film scholars believe that the character Chris MacNeil of the Exorcist is being “punished” for being a divorced/separated mother of Regan, a career driven woman of the 70’s, and an atheist to boot! I think that the writer of the film/book William Peter Blatty was making a conscious decision to “Put” women in general “in their place” and the missing father figure metaphor is very obvious! (father Karras losing his faith& Regan’s father absent!) It’s conservative attack on the “failings” of the dissolving American nuclear family unit of the late 1960’s &70’s! By the way, The priest in the film was a REAL Catholic Priest not a actor! Director William Friedkin literately slapped the real priest in his face to get the right emotion and conviction as he delivered the last rights for the Father Karras character in the end of the film!
This movie scared the crap outta me as a teenager and it still does!
I won’t even own the movie because I’m scared to have it in my house lol.
Saw it in the theaters when they re-released it and I swear it’s really crap your pants kinda scary on the big screen. Great movie though but holy hell it’s a scary one.
I was wondering where you were going with this post, but I agree. I had never really thought of The Exorcist as a strong female character film, but you’ve changed my mind about that!
Really nice analysis and close-reading here. The Exorcist is one of my favorite movies, and one of my favorite angles is thinking of it as a critique on modern science and medicine, The scenes in the hospital are so powerful because the medical community is putting her through the same kind of tortures as the devil inside her.
Of course, Ellen Burstyn is great!
I remember sleeping with the lights on for a couple of weeks after seeing this movie. not that that helped much. a classic scary movie, that’s for sure.
I like watching horror ofcourse, but when its things about posession, somehow things get more terrifying. The knowledge of having some dark entity take over your soul, whilst your still human. Why girls with long hair in horror movies seems so scary I guess, walking in a shaky way too.
Have to say I’ve never been able to completely watch The Exorcist. It’s way to scary of a movie for me and the nightmares that I get just from seeing a short clip are terrifying. So I’ll take your word for it that Chris MacNeil is a woman who wows 🙂
I haven’t seen this movie in so long that a lot of the clues were lost on me. I’ll have to watch it again – scary, but I love a little ‘scare’ at this time of year.
Sounds like I might be one of the oldest farts who is commenting here… since I saw the movie at the theater back in the day. It remains the one movie I have ever seen that was truly “scary” to me (and I am a movie freak so I have seen more than my share of movies). I was 24 at the time and serving in the military. But you have to remember, the film was pretty cutting edge for the day not only in it’s graphic visual content and special effects and use of profanity, but also in it’s challenge to religious doctrine and perceptions of good vs. evil on a spiritual level. The theme music remains to this day one of the most recognizable tunes and is in itself a haunting melody. In fact, I was so disturbed by the fact that I was.. so disturbed after watching it.. I felt compelled to address that fear. About 6 years later I was working at a local electronics store and we had one of those new top loading VHS machines on display. We would play videos to demo the product. One of the sample videos was a copy of The Exorcist. I made sure we played it at least once a day… thus forcing myself to work through those feelings from 6 years before. It worked. Today when I see a part of it while channel-flipping I might pause to see what part of the film it is… I might mimic the profanity phrases thinking about a current boss I work for.. laugh and move on.
The by-product to The Exorcist movies has been decades of possession-type films, including a couple weak sequels and some comedy satire. In fact, I think there was a surge of sales popularity in Campbell’s pea soup, especially around Halloween. Subsequent films didn’t affect the public to the same degree and that’s what we typically call the “level of sophistication” in an audience response to a film. For example, let’s fast forward from 1973 to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project came out. I saw that film in the theater as well and I was pretty much not impressed overall (I was VERY impressed at the marketing; turning a meager $60k investment to multi-millions). It was done in a “home video” format to give the impression of spontaneous reality, which I suppose was some level of creativity. Three film students end up missing while on a project to document a local witch legend and this video is allegedly left behind to chronicle their disappearance; kind of a reality show thing before the reality show fad became popular. But at the time this movie was released it seemed to take huge popularity among the teen set; most were scared out of their seats having watched this thing. To this day I thought as a scary movie Blair Witch was laughable. My own teen kids were “terrorized”, which then led to the great debate on how scary The Exorcist was to the general public vs. Blair Witch. They watched the uncut Exorcist and told me THAT was laughable. Interesting generational difference, reflecting a level of sophistication. But The Exorcist is a classic and opened up the genre for decades to come.
Oh.. before I part ways on this way-to-long post I have an observation on spiritual good vs. evil films. The typical plot is that the devil manifests itself (himself.. herself… whatever) in some form so that the film’s hero can battle it. Along the way there are usually other characters in the plot who end up falling victim to the devil incarnate in some way.. generally in graphically violent and torturous deaths. Now, I am in no way any sort of holy-roller but if we are presuming that the devil is in place to be opposite the always unseen, yet all-knowing and all-powerful God why does it always seem that God is forsaking those victims of the devil-entity, especially when the victim may have died trying to fight the devil? Are we to assume that the victim is not only sacrificing their life defending their faith in God and humanity but that they have to sacrifice it undergoing pain and torture? What about the “innocents” that end up being the devil’s collateral damage? Why isn’t God protecting them? I am just making an observation.
I loved your reply! I was the same way about the movie Psycho my mother rented it for me and told me of I wanted to watch a scary movie “this one would share me” well my brother and I laughed and made fun of the film. I was 9 when I saw that movie. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I watched the movie again that it finally hit hard. WHO WOULDNT BE SCARED OF SOMEONE COMING INTO YOUR BATHROOM AND ATTACKING YOU FROM BEHIND THE SHOWER CURTAIN. Ugh so much I didn’t get when I was young and it makes south more sense now as an adult. maybe when your kids become adults they will watch this movie again and feel the same way I did .
I have never seen it (except for a few of the brief famous clips that often get shown when the film is mentioned) and I don’t want to see it. I don’t like horror films in general (though I have seen a few). I am sure there are other horror films which are more disgusting and depressing. However, I am not sure there are any which are more frightening. Though, psychology is involved in fear, and I know of a few people which are unfazed by The Exorcist, they might find Rosemary’s Baby or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more unsettling.
I am, however, always curious about the film, and I appreciate Mr. Flacco giving a partial summary without inserting the infamous still shots as illustration.
Saw the director’s cut, read the book. Excellent post. I didn’t know those actors died. The priest’s mother, was for me, one of the most disturbing elements. You made me think of the dichotomy between Chris and the priest’s mother. “Dimi, Dimi, why you do this?” The priest is so racked with guilt (from his mother) that he can barely function. But Chris is incredibly supportive of her daughter, and as you say, would do anything for her. Thought provoking post!
Yes, it’s that priest’s guilt that propels this story forward to a terrifying conclusion. Something folks don’t know is the story is based on a real event that took place in the 40s and adapted to the screen. I believe the real incident was with a little boy instead, but I could be wrong.
The director was on Charlie Rose a couple nights ago and confirmed what you said, Jack, that it was based on the true story of a little boy. That makes it all the more creepy.
I really don’t do scary movies. Like, at all. Always love reading your posts about them though – makes me feel brave by association! 🙂
Great film and worth seeing in a cinema (as I did a few years back). Amazing to think how people reacted to film when first released, but I guess it pushed a lot boundaries back then. But I think this film still has a strong impact today. And I’m a big fan of Max von Sydow.
As usual, some excellent piece of writing! I’ve watched the movie, I’m a horror enthusiast, but this is undoubtedly the most challenging saga of all time, it will freak anyone out more than any other….anything, out there! Mostly because of everything that happened “behind the scenes”, such as what you mentioned of the deceased staff, that’s just one tiny part of all what happened during and after the film was shot…
Thanks! Yes, those behind the scenes stories are what makes this movie scarier with every viewing. I wonder what it was like watching it the first time in the theater in the 70s!
That must’ve been really creepy! If right now, over 30 years since its release it really scares the hell out of most people, in the theater…I can’t imagine how gruesome that experience must’ve been!
I saw this movie when it first came out. It frightened me so much, I have not watched it since. I know that sounds strange as I write about all kinds of monsters, but the devil is real and a subject I’ll only talk about holding my crucifix. Wonderful post. Loved it.
The Exorcist freaked me out. To the point where I edged down this post in fear that there would be a picture or gif of her coming down the stairs. Didn’t realize my girlfriend in college was watching it while I wrote a paper. I was sitting about a foot away from the TV, so I wanted a break. Leaned back, turned to my left, saw her spider-crawling/whatever did the stairs, woke up the rest of the dorm, and then everything kind of went black.
You must have watched “The Version You’ve Never Seen” DVD. I must admit, it does get pretty creepy watching that for the first time!
Good chance. It was the college TV station, so they were throwing on their horror DVD collection. Terrifying when you don’t know it’s on the TV too.
Felt the same way Charles as I scrolled down, ever so slowly, hoping I don’t see that scarred for some time of my life picture again.
Sign of a good horror movie.