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The exorcism scene in The Exorcist (1973)

Anand Venigalla

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The Exorcist (1973), that great masterpiece of horror cinema and cinema in general, is known for many things: realism regarding the supernatural, a convicing defense of the supernatural realm of good and evil, brilliant performances, a documentarian style courtesy of William Friedkin, theological depth courtesy of William Blatty (author of the original 1971 novel), and a truly horrifying atmosphere that is a happy balance between shock and chill.


But there was one moment which I wanted to discuss: the exorcism scene where Father Lankaster Merrin (Max von Sydow) and Damien Karras (Jason Miller) exorcise the demon (Mercedes McCambridge) out of Regan (Linda Blair).


That scene is full of brilliance, awe, and a grand conflict of good and evil fighting one another, with Max von Sydow give a commanding role as Merrin, reading the exorcism rite with power and magnitude, even when he startes cursing the demon ("I cast you out! Unclean Spirit!"). And Jason Miller perfectly displays Karras, the less experienced priest who is shocked by the terror he sees, from the foul-mouthed language of Regan ("Your mother sucks c--ks in hell," "Stick your c--k up her a--, you mother---ing worthless c--ksucker.") to the bed levitating to the ghastly white face he saw in a dream before to the headspin and to the ghastly sights he sees. And Linda Blair, with the help of Mercedes McCambridge, is fantastic in her display of how far she has degraded since the demon entered into her. She uses everything bad, from foul language to headspinning to blasphemy to levitating in the form of a cross while the priests shout "The power of Christ compels you."


And the lighting and aura is so perfect for the scene that it has been copied by many movies (many of which I haven't seen yet), and it fits so well with the darkness that Merrin is fighting. The noises are still scary and frightening, and it shows how visual displays and sounds can be truly frightening, milking it to the true potential.


I would also like to note the iconic "The Power of Christ Compels You" moment, where the priests call upon the power of Jesus Christ to lift down the girl after she had been lifted high by the demon. They pour holy water over her, which seems to fail (as she gets these rashes on her), but eventually it does succeed (but not in casting out the demon). The acting is excellent, showing both the command they have in saying that line and the exhaustion they face after saying that so many times.


And the reveal of the entity possessing her (a demon with a penis named Pazuzu) is very effective in its reveal, after a great buildup of exposition, horror and terror in the previous moments of the film (especially the chilling beginning). Regan's whimpering as he kneels lifting her hands while the demon's likeness is shown in the background, while the priests (especially Merrin) watch in shock.


I would also like to note that the non-scary moments work well too, from the scene where Merrin takes his pills trembling and Karras assures Chris (Ellen Burstyn) that Regan won't die. as well as the (extended) scene where Merrin gets to the point as to who might be the real targets of the Satanic attack.


As to some criticisms the scene receives, an author said:


The Exorcist
 resolves into a more straightforward good-vs.-evil clash in its last half-hour, as “What’s happening to Regan?” becomes “Can’t someone get that evil creature out of Regan?” In the end, Father Karras comes through, when he coaxes the demon to leave Regan and enter him, just before he kills himself. It’s a symbolic gesture: the doubt-filled, depressed Karras reconnecting with his spiritual beliefs in a very real way. But while it’s a powerful ending, it’s disappointingly blunt in comparison with what came before. What’s at the root of the MacNeils’ problems? The demon Pazuzu, now cast out. The end. Blame absolved. (


I would say that the bluntness helps me admire the movie more as a Christian myself, and while I do have theological issues with the ending myself, it is interesting. And the ending allows us to guess the restoration process of what Regan can go through after being healed (a little more clearer in the original novel, as many have noted). And as a Christian, I do hold that demons and evil spiritual entities can cause problems (or at least exacerbatethem), and this view is held by many people, both Christians and non-Christians. I feel that this depiction of demons and familial problems is overall plausible, showing that the demon exacerbated problems that already were there (Regan going through divorce, the career of Chris, etc.) and branching them out to new ones (blasphemy, foul language, supernatural horrors and evils)


And finally, let's get to the climactic ending of the film, where Merrin dies and Karras gives himself over to the demon to save Regan. This is brilliant because not only does it show how a servant of God (Merrin) faced evil unto his very death but also how Karras (the inexperienced priest and the "Doubting Thomas" of the movie) sacrifices himself for Regan in a Christlike, if theologically problematic (most Christians hold that a saved person cannot have a demon possess him; a demon might motivate a Christian to sin or torment him, but never can a demon possess the Christian, for the Holy Spirit resides in him (2 Timothy 1:7)), manner. For example, we don't hear much music in the background, and this is enough to convey both the horror and the goodness of this very scene.


First, Father Karras gives into his anger and punches the living daylights out of Regan right before he says the famous "Take me!" line. So after Regan rips the amulet off around Karras's neck, we get a close-up shot of Karras's face as the demon is gaining its foothold over him, and he falls over his back. He gets up, using his own willpower, and as the demon is compelling him to assault Regan, his good will wins ("NO!") and he jumps out of the window, thus sacrificing himself for her, killing himself, and defeating the demon. And while this leaves Regan weeping and Karras a bloodied mess, we are finally glad to see the demon defeated and the restoration process ready to begin (thankfully Regan doesn't remember this, and let us ignore the much-hated Exorcist 2 when discussing the post-exorcism events).


So why is this scene still powerful after all these years? Apart from the effective writing and fantastic performances from Sydow, Miller (a Puliter Prize winner, FYI), and Blair (who sadly never went to anything as fruitful after that), the scene encompasses what this movie is: scary, dark, shocking, visceral, intelligent, and ultimately spiritual.

Edited by anand
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