Shrink at the Movies: "The Exorcist"

A few years ago, I wrote a brief series of blog articles on popular movies and discussed them from my perspective as a licensed psychotherapist in California. It was called, “Shrink at the Movies”, with an accompanying Facebook page here, and I am revisiting some of these essays lately.  

My favorite horror film of all time is William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist”, directed by William Friedkin (1973). It celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013.  

For the culturally sheltered or just squeamish who are not familiar with this iconic story, it’s based on a best-selling book of the same name, which in turn was based on a (supposedly) true story of a boy in Maryland who experienced demonic possession (see the book “Possessed” by Thomas B. Allen).

I guess I should start by saying that I don’t actually believe in exorcisms. I frankly have many issues with the ethics and practices of the Catholic Church, particularly their anti-gay stances, how they deal with money, and most importantly, how they respond to countless cases of sexual molestation committed by priests, which have been met with cover-ups, denials, lies, manipulations, and millions of dollar spent on legal fees to defend the clearly guilty and hire lawyers to further victimize the victims, as was depicted in the Academy-award winning movie, “Spotlight.”  As a psychotherapist who helps people recover from the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of sexual abuse, I particularly resent the Catholic Church as the source of priests who are often its perpetrators. I’m left to clean up the mess they made of the broken spirits of the victims of molestation, and it’s a hard job for me, and even more so for clients who are survivors. So, I take a dim view of any institution that in any way “coddles” the perpetrators of one of the most vicious crimes imaginable. Perhaps the relatively new pope is starting to shift focus to more benevolent ideas, but time will tell whether that is just global public relations damage control. 

As a secular therapist, I also take issue with the religious belief in “possession” and the “need” for exorcisms, which are medieval and barbaric for its victims. In reading “Possessed”, it is my strong suspicion that the boy had a scientific psychiatric condition very much of this world, not some sort of under-world. The subsequent story of Regan MacNeil in “The Exorcist”, both book and movie, is just a rather theatrical embellishment on an already exaggerated “real-life” story.

Now, all that said, back to why “The Exorcist” is my favorite. Because beyond the graphic scenes of horrific images and violence, there is a benevolent message about human decency, sacrifice, and love. It’s not blasphemous or whatever, as some have charged; it’s actually very pro-Catholic. Think of the title; it’s called “The Exorcist”, meaning either Father Merrin or Father Karras, not “the demon”. It’s about a young man (Father Damien Karras) who doubts his own faith because of feeling guilty about leaving his elderly mother to become a Jesuit priest/professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and help mankind.

The story goes that when a famous actress, “Chris MacNeil” (a superb Ellen Burstyn), comes to town to film a movie, and her 12-year-old daughter, “Regan” (the revelation of Linda Blair, today a particularly personable and kind-hearted dog rescue organization operator) starts exhibiting odd behaviors and related paranormal activity in their spacious rented house in historic Georgetown, Chris exhausts every “legitimate” medical resource in the area trying to get her daughter help, to no avail. Eventually, she resorts to the “witch doctor” suggestion that she have Regan undergo an exorcism.

In taking on the task, young Karras faces the demon possessing Regan, the ancient “Pazuzu”, and uses the ancient Catholic rituals to liberate Regan from the demon’s grasp. Karras makes the “ultimate sacrifice” (emulating the ultimate sacrifice Jesus Christ made in being crucified), and angrily and desperately entices the demon into his body, before committing suicide by jumping through Regan’s bedroom window to fall to his death down a steep flight of stairs outside (to this day, a “tourist spot” in Washington, DC).

We see Karras question his faith in himself and in his religion and purpose, but Karras’ ultimate act of self-sacrifice, in saving the little girl he has grown to love through her ordeal of being tormented, ultimately proves his faith because he mimics Christ’s sacrifice.

In the book, Karras is strongly hinted to be gay, I might add. It’s extremely subtle – it was 1973, remember – and it’s in ONE line, to his handsome young roommate in the cloister at Georgetown, Father Dyer, when he refers to “guys like us…”. At the end of the movie, when Father Dyer visits the MacNeil house as mother and daughter are leaving for home in Hollywood, Dyer finds the house calm and Regan restored to full mental and physical health. As Regan leaves the house to board the taxi to the airport, she reaches up and gently kisses Dyer; it is implied this is because she recognizes his cleric’s collar and even unconsciously remembers Father Karras “saving” her.

Ostensibly, Dyer is there to “check in” on mother and daughter in the aftermath of the ordeal, but it can also be interpreted that he is there to see where his partner died and process the loss, analogous to the women visiting Christ’s empty tomb. Dyer is reassured in his faith that Karras did the right thing by seeing the little girl whom Karras saved, at the expense of his relationship and his life.

When evaluating a Hollywood horror movie with distracting special effects, look behind the theatrics, and at the author’s original theme and intent of the book/screenplay. I believe the inspirational lesson from “The Exorcist” is to look at who we can “save”, who we can help when we put others first, and stop doubting ourselves and our ability to help others in Christ’s example (or other figures of inspiration, faith, and Good Works to the World far outside Christianity, which hardly holds the monopoly on global goodwill).

The theme of Father Karras literally facing his fears wouldn’t work unless the special effects were really, truly scary. As an audience, we must viscerally feel his fear, we must witness the same horrific events, we must go through the same test of faith he does, or the story doesn’t work. The scary effects are just to illustrate how we all must rally our bravery and our commitment to our most strongly-held values, to overcome our deepest fears, and to help others in a way that is either socially benevolent or even in the example of the divine.  

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