(To be fair, this is a purely subjective interpretation of the film, not an attempt to suggest what I think the author William Peter Blatty was really trying to convey. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Blatty is an ardent Catholic who believes he can communicate with his dead son. And who knows, maybe he can. But either way, what follows is simply a perspective of someone who's world view is closer to that of the director, the agnostic William Friedkin, than that of Blatty.)
FEAR OF SEX AND THE WORSHIP OF VIRGINS
In the simplest terms, the movie is about child abuse at the hands of religious fanatics who, themselves, seem to have a lot of their own emotional and psychological problems. It is not about the possession of Regan MacNeil by a demon, as Christians think, but of Fr. Damien Karras by his religious beliefs and guilt about his own mother, that lead him to see the world through the lens of his faith the same way priests in the middle ages saw people who were suffering from mental problems as being possessed by demons.
We see this even in the first scene in the movie, which is an outside view of Regan MacNeil's bedroom window at night, just as the lights in her room go out. Those lights remain turned off for most of the movie as well - how voyeuristic. After this, the camera pans to the right as we see a young lovers walking into the dark of night, arm and arm, which then fades to a statute of the 'virgin' Mary, followed by the opening credits. By juxtaposing the lights in the bedroom window with the lovers fading into the darkness, the film is suggests we are about to witness a contest between our sexual nature on the one hand, and a near deification of virginity in the mother of "God" on the other.
After the opening credits, the first scene is in Northern Iraq, where many maps show the Garden of Eden may have been located. Interestingly, however, the scene looks like the landscape of hell, complete with countless condemned souls feverishly swinging shovels and pick axes at the scorched earth, like prisoners on a chain gang in Dante's Inferno, digging up the bones of the past and kicking up dust everywhere in the process. (This obsession with the past will play a major part of the film for Fr. Karras, by the way.) It's as if these men are right out of slave labor camp from Dostoevsky's, Crime and Punishment, and symbolically toiling for the loss of our collective innocence. And who knows, perhaps even due to our sexual licentiousness.
When we contrast these scenes agaisnt each other, we see the "civilized west" typified in an affluent D.C. townhouse, with what we typically think of as rugged uncivilized rustics living in the desert, much as the Native Americans were seen as savages for failing to live in cabins instead of teepees. Such contrasts have always been relied upon to support the illusion that the more creature comforts a society has, the more moral and "civilized" we presume it to be, even though the historical record almost always demonstrates the opposite to be true.
Fr. Merrin, the older priest leading the expedition played by Max von Sydow, then finds a small amulet in the dirt, and is shaken by its resemblance to a statue with a giant erect penis; a statue which Merrin goes to visit shortly thereafter. The statue is of the ancient Neo-Assyrian deity called Pazuzu (which is often mistakenly assumed to be a demon, but isn't), and its erection only strengthens the contrast between the virginity of Mary and the loss of our innocence and fear of sex by Catholics and religion. (The erection, by the way, is added for effect, to expressly show the pitting of our fear of sexuality against the religious worship of virgins, much like in the Muslim religion. This is obvious since normal statues of Pazuzu are not suffering from such a priapistic erection.)
On his way to see the statue of Pazuzu, Fr. Merrin comes across a blacksmith with one eye, which stands in contrast to the carpenter of Christ that Fr Merrin has pledged his life to follow as a priest. We are left to wonder if Fr. Merrin is here looking at his own reflection as a one eyed man, with the audience constituting the land of the blind, at least as far as he sees it. Is Fr. Merrin blind because he is only seeing the world through the single eye of his religion? Or does the blacksmith suggest that we are all blind, in some respect, by our own scatomas, because our beliefs prevent us from seeing anything but what we believe?
When Fr. Merrin finally does go to see the priapist statue of Pazuzu, the scene ends with Merrin standing on a precipice to the right of the screen, facing the statue, which stands on the left of the screen. As the scene fades, a full yellow sun emerges between the pair, surrounded by a blood red-orange sky. This imagery returns later in the film, when Regan creates a Barney-like puppet, which is presumably her imaginary friend "Mr Howdy," which bears a striking resemblance to the statue of Pazuzu that Fr. Merrin encountered earlier in Iraq (only the phallic erection of the statue in Iraq is replaced on Regan's puppet with a large phallic nose instead; and both are similar to the phallic appendages found on the desecrated statue of Mary in the Church later on). Mr Howdy, by the way, just happens to be the same color of the blood red orange sky from the earlier scene just mentioned, with a yellow tuft of hear on top.
Later in the movie, when Chris MacNeil is arguing with Fr. Karras about her daughter's need for an exorcism in the basement of her house (she was washing his shirt, recall, because it had been covered in green pea soup - apparently the actor playing Fr. Karras, by the way, could never eat green pea soup again after that scene), Karras is to the right of the screen, sitting at the table, while the puppet sits across the table from Karras, facing him. Standing directly behind Mr. Howdy is Chris MacNeil. Fr. Karras is positioned in the same way as Fr. Merrin, to the right of the screen, while Mr. Howdy/Chris MacNeil and the statute of Pazuzu are positioned to the left. This is not a coincidence.
The two scenes parallel the priests facing off against perceived threats to their authority, in a sense, and the beliefs that they rely on to derive that authority. The question, however, is what is the "demonic force" Merrin and Karras are fighting against? Interestingly enough, Pazuzu is most famous for vanquishing the evil goddess, Lamashtu, who was known for kidnapping children from their mothers. One can wonder from this fact alone, if they scratch the surface of this film slightly more, if the staging of the puppet across the table from Fr. Karras to parallel that of Pazuzu across from Merrin in Iraq, is in fact a way of suggesting that the Catholic Church is, in a sense, Lamashtu.
In addition to Rob Ager's interpretation that Burke Dennings may have been molesting Regan, I also think The Exorcist can be understood - from an atheist's perspective anyway - to illustrate hypocrisy, the detrimental effects of sexual repression, and ultimately rebellion against our parents and their superstitious beliefs (as can be seen in the scene just mentioned of Chris MacNeil standing directly behind Mr Howdy).
It likewise illustrates how our beliefs shape our perceptions and control our actions, with Christ MacNeil allowing her beliefs in the secular religion of psychiatry to lead her to the conclusion that Reagan telling the psychiatrist to "keep his fingers away from her goddamn cunt" to be the result of a mental problem, instead of the result of sexual abuse.
And lastly, in more subtle but nevertheless direct ways, the film may also communicates William Friedkin's agnostic contempt for religion overall.
GUILT AND FRAUD
We see the potential fraud and the effects of guilt rather clearly in Fr. Karras. Indeed, if The Exorcist is about anything, it's about a priest haunted by mommy issues, who, unable to forgive himself, appears to take out his guilt on a little girl.
When we first meet Fr Karras he is in the audience of onlookers watching Chris MacNeil, a famous actress filming a movie on the campus of Georgetown University. Like Inception, perhaps the meaning of this filming of a movie inside of a movie is an allusion to the idea that Friedkin thinks that religion is itself nothing but a theatrical charade.
For the scene that Chris MacNeil is preparing to do, for example, there are students gathered on the steps of one of the Catholic Georgetown University buildings, holding picket signs. One of those signs clearly reads Help Eliminate Lying Pigs, with the letters H-E-L-P written down the left side of the poster in capital blood red-orange letters, and the words spelled out accordingly, in dark letters. Interestingly enough, at the very end of the movie, when Fr Dyer looks down the famous "Exorcist stairs" where Fr Karras tumbled to his death, on the left hand side we see written on the wall, in capital blood red orange letters, the word PIG, and on the wall above it, closer to the top of the stairs, we see in dark writing, the capital letters MY.
This is either pure coincidence, or something more. Is it perhaps Friedkin's attempt to confess that the whole movie is, in a sense, his own lie, in some respect, or that he perhaps feels that way about religion? Who knows. And given the Manson Family Murders of 1969, where the perpetrators had written the word PIG in blood on the wall, one wonders if Friedkin is suggesting that religion is no different than a cult.
When Chris MacNeil decides to walk home right after shooting this scene at GU, she passes by a church yard where she first sees Fr. Karras, and overhears him trying to encourage a fellow priest. Karras is heard to say "There's not a day in my life I don't feel like a fraud." He continues, however, that he doesn't know anyone who hasn't felt this, not just priests, but everyone, including doctors and lawyers as well. Perhaps this is a look at the problem known as "imposter syndrome," where people are always racked with the fear that they will be discovered to be a fraud. Hence, the first time Karras sees MacNeil she's "pretending" to play a part, and the first time MacNeil sees Karras, Karras is admitting to feeling like he's simply "a fraud," and pretending as well.
But while MacNeil plays her part and goes about her life, walking happily home, we see Karras walking under the cloud of his own fraud soon after, when he is asked in a New York subway by a homeless man, "Father, can you help an old altar boy? I'm a catholic?" Rather than help the man or give him some spare change, Fr Karras gives the man a distrustful look and hurriedly walks away. By doing so, we see how Karras is haunted by his own fears, and even perhaps his own distrust of Catholicism itself.
Also, when Karras finally gets to his aged mother's apartment, she hugs him as if she had not seen him in a long time. This is confirmed by the dialogue, when she tells him that his uncle (presumably her brother) had come by to see her recently. When Karras asks when, she replies, "Last month." This suggests that Karras has not been by to see his mom in at least a month, despite the fact that she has some problem with her leg, that Karras is then seen binding for her. He then mentions to her that he could take her someplace where she would be safe, where she wouldn't be alone. In short, Karras is a priest who has not visited his own mom in over a month, despite the fact she's an old woman, living alone, in an unsafe place, with a messed up leg. The audience is left to wonder from all of this, of course, if perhaps Karras really is a "fraud," or if he is simply riddled with the self doubting belief that he is.
Karras, we find out shortly thereafter, thinks he has "lost his faith," and is no longer cut out for his vocation. Maybe this is because he recognizes that he has been so inattentive to his own aging mother. He had studied psychiatry while in the priesthood, but even when he goes to visit his mother in the psych-ward of the mental hospital, he is neither compassionate nor caring to the mental patients who crowd toward him like the crowds that flocked to Jesus, in search of his healing touch and compassion. Karras, however, simply pulls away, visibly annoyed by them all. After that, he finds his mother, strapped to a hospital bed, and promises to take her home. She writhes away from his touches like Regan writhing in agony to what she believes is holy water, even though it isn't.' Like his own mother, in other words, Regan turns away not from the holy water that Karras sprinkles on her, but from Karras himself. And as he attempts to comfort her, his mother (and later during the exorcism Regan, in his mothers voice) wales, "why Damy! Why do you do this to me? Why Damy! Why?" It is as if Karras is the false holy water.
This is the last time Karras sees his mother alive. (In contrast, the first time Karras sees Regan, she is similarly old and decayed looking, and likewise strapped to the bed. Is it any wonder, then, that Karras is haunted by his own mother? This will be confirmed at the end of the movie.) And the very next scene, Karras is in the gym fighting the heavy bag, as if fighting his own demons, his own failures, and his own sense of guilt.
In contrast to Karras's mother, we see the fraud of Regan's mom, Chris MacNeil, who spends Regan's birthday, not taking her sight seeing and to the movies like she promised, but instead drinking and spending the day screaming into the telephone; and all out of a desire to shame Regan's dad (who is in Rome, the home of the Roman Catholic Church, coincidentally enough) for not calling his daughter on her birthday. Chris is less interested in making Regan happy on her birthday, in other words, than she is in taking an opportunity to feel morally superior, and wanting desperately to rub her ex-husbands nose in it. (Hell hath no fury as a woman with an axe to grind.)
Although we see Damien go to see his mom in the hospital, when Chris later sees Fr. Dyer at her party, she asks about Karras, to which Dyer responds, "he had a pretty rough knock last night. His mother passed away. She was living by herself and I guess she was dead a couple of days before they found her." We are left to wonder if Karras had ever actually visited his mother in the hospital, or had he wishfully imagined it all. Many people simply assume that he had, and had then taken her home, where she must have died alone shortly thereafter. Either way, Karras is clearly haunted by the death of his mother, as his dream of her coming out of the subway reveals. It is in Karras's dream that we first see the demonic face that we will encounter again in Regan's dream, and during the exorcism itself. And lastly , Karras drowns his sorrows with a bottle of Chivas Regal that Fr. Dyer admits he stole.
Indeed, even Fr. Dyer finds a way to justify his failure to practice what he preaches.
CONTROL, REGRET, & BELIEFS
Strapping Regan to the bed makes little sense, however, when you consider that she had already demonstrated her ability to move furniture around the room at will, even opening the drawer when she first meets Fr. Karras. So why binding Regan to the bed would stop her from moving the furniture with her mind is never explained. It's true that is may be to prevent Regan from harming herself, as she had already done with the crucifix, but anyone who can make the bed rise off the floor, bang the cabinets, slam doors hard enough to crack them, and even crack the ceiling, unleash a tempest in the room, and shake the entire room like an earthquake, can't be stopped from being tied to a bed. What other purpose does strapping Regan to the bed suggest, then, but that of being controlled by the beliefs of those around her?Her violent reaction to those attempts to control, may simply be, not what she is actually doing, but what everyone in the movie is perceiving her to be doing, when they look at her through the lens of their different beliefs.
After all, why would Regan react so violently to tap water, just because she believes it is holy water? And why would a demon not know the difference? Does this simply illustrate how the power of a belief can effect us, even when the belief is false? Is the water being sprinkled on Regan really just an example of Fr. Karras showering his own beliefs on Regan, and her reaction to it is not to the Holy Water she thinks it to be, but to Fr. Karras's beliefs about Regan herself on the one hand, and his projection of regret and guilt over his mother on the other?
We may see a parallel to this "false belief" in Fr. Merrin, who doesn't care what Fr Karras has to say about Regan's condition. When Merrin first meets Karras in the MacNeil house, for example, Karras asks him if he would like to know about the many personalities Regan has displayed. Yet Merrin simply dismisses Karras's clinical psychiatric assessments, insisting that he knows better, "There is only one." When Merrin later claims "the demon is a liar, and will mix lies with the truth to confuse us," it is unclear if he is talking about Regan, Fr. Karras, or even himself.
Merrin also explains that "the attack is psychological," not spiritual. Here, Merrin seems to be alluding to the fact that Damien's demons ( and Regan's too perhaps) are all in his head, not in his soul. "Don't listen," Merrin insists, as if to say, do not listen to the doubts in your own head, to the regrets that haunt and heckle us all. These regrets are like Freddy Kruger, invading our dreams, and our minds. In this respect, Regan is simply a prop for everyone else's beliefs. As a child, she is never consulted about what she thinks. Instead, she's poked and probed, hypnotized and exorcised, as if talking to her like a normal human being would be a complete waste of everyone's time. As a child, she is seen as less of a rational human being than an adult. And as such, her behaviors can only be explained by her mother, doctors, or even priests. After all, "Father knows best."
As the exorcism progresses, Regan eventually breaks her straps and floats into the air, to which Merrin and Karras use the power of their commands to force her back onto the bed, yelling together repeatedly, "The power of Christ compels you." As they do, Regan floats back onto the bed, where Karras then binds her hands and feet together which, given the nature of two men tying up a little girl, may suggest more than initially meets the eye of the audience. Yet either way, given the fact Regan has already moved everything around the room with ease, whether she is bound or unbound, and likewise demonstrated how easy it is for her to break the straps that bind her (the straps of other people's beliefs?), perhaps there is something more sinister being suggested by the binding of the hands and feet. Perhaps this is simply the bondage of the beliefs of Karras and Merrin.
Recall that Karras bound his mother's leg for some condition that we never learn about, and as he binds Regan's feet together, she sits up and clobbers him, sending him to the floor. Again, perhaps this is simply an example of how his own sense of guilt is beating him up inside, for having left his aged, incapacitated mother, all alone, to eventually die. And, he may even be asking if his own priesthood is indeed a "fraud," for if he couldn't even help to save his own mother, from either her fears or death itself, then what hope could he have of saving anyone else?
Karras's wrestles with his own demons even further, after stepping out of Regan rooms for a break, when he asks Merrin:
- Fr Karras: Why the girl? It doesn't make sense
- Fr. Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair; to reject the possibility that God could love us.
Immediately following this exchange, Karras goes back into Regan's room and sees his own mother sitting on the bed, under a white light (despite the lamp having been broken just minutes earlier) and unbound. (Maybe she is unbound, because she is free of the guilt that Karras is carrying around.) The love Karras is having difficulty accepting, so it seems, appears to be either that of his own mother, or of himself, out of a sense of guilt about his mother's death.
When he sees his mother in Regan's room, she is sitting up in the bed, facing Karras, looking to her right, as Karras stands to the left of the room (from the audiences perspective). When Karras entered the room and saw his mother in the hospital, however, he was on his mother's left (or to the right of the room, from the audiences perspective), and she only turned to her right (our left) to escape his touch. When Karras walks back to his right in Regan's room, he once again sees Regan on the bad, not his mother. Only this time, Regan is again bound to the bed, despite the fact that Karras had only bound her hands and feet together minutes earlier, not to the bed. It's possible this was simply a mistake that was overlooked in the editing stage, in the same way that sometimes the nightstand to the left of the bed is there, and sometimes it isn't (much like Stanley Kubrick with chairs in The Shining) Or it may have been a direct parallel, intended to show how truly haunted by his guilt about his mother Karras really is.And given the haunting image Karras encounters soon after, perhaps this latter interpretation may make more sense.
If the shift back to Regan being bound to the bed, instead of being bound on the bed, is not simply a mistake, then it may be alluding to Karras fighting with his own demons yet again. Indeed, Karras even hears his own mother's voice coming from Regan. Regan, then, as a person, seems completely hidden behind a veil of Karras's own sense of guilt and self doubt. All Karras sees, in other words, is his own mother, and in the festering flesh of Regan, he sees only the effects that his own sense of guilt and regret are having on him. Yet rather than seeing the connection, Karras's religious beliefs blind him to seeing how he is simply externalizing into an anthropomorphism, his own sense of guilt and regret. Karras, in other words, may represent the one eyed blacksmith, who only sees what is in others, but not what is so clearly eating away at himself.
When Regan begins talking to Karras in his mother's voice, asking him "why do you do this to me Demy?" Karras explodes, "You're not my mother!" This is important, because it is a prelude of what is about to happen. Merrin then tells Karras to leave, which he does. Fr Karras is next seen downstairs with his own hands clasped tightly together, as if he had bound his own hands when he was binding Regan's, and held to his head, as if he is symbolizing his own bondage to his beliefs, to his guilt and his regret. Most people probably interpret this scene to be Karras praying silently to himself, but if he is downstairs taking a break from the praying he was just doing in the exorcism, it seems strange that he would go downstairs and continue to pray. Regardless of whether Karras is praying or not, his hands clasped together and held against his head suggest he is bound by his own thoughts, whatever they may be.
When Karras goes back to Regan's room a second time, he finds Regan unbound yet again, much as he had seen his own mother just minutes earlier. Fr Merrin is dead, however. Enraged, he attacks Regan, violently throwing her to the floor. And while punching her in the face, he screams "Take me! God damn you! Come into me!" During his attack, Regan pulls the chain of Saint Joseph from Karras's neck, as a tempest of wind begins throwing things about the room. Karras then looks up toward the closed double window from which Burke Dennings had been thrown to his death earlier in the film, and in that instant, Karras sees the haunting face of his dead mother rushing toward him from behind the fluttering curtains. It is only after he sees the image of his mother's face, it should be noted, that Karras's eyes turn green with possession.
What Karras appears to be clearly possessed by, then, is his own grief, and his own regret, about his own mother. The "demon" they all appear to be fighting is the one that each of them brings to Regan in the first place. In this sense, Karras's attack on Regan is really Karras externalizing his aggression. Indeed, how often have any of us come home from a lousy day at work, and taken out our frustration with our boss or a customer on our family or friends, wives or husbands?
And as the message "Help Me" appears on Regan's stomach illustrates, much to the shock of Fr Karras, Regan is clearly asking for help - so why does God decide not to do so directly, and instead leaves it in the hands of one over-aged priest in ill health, and another priest who is haunted by regret that has "lost his faith"? If the whole point is simply to reconvert Karras to his faith, then God is no better than Torquemada or the serial killer from Saw, for he is willing to let a child suffer greatly for no other purpose than that one of his priests would learn to love him. To an atheist, this seems like cruelty beyond compare. It's like a doctor withholding a cure for cancer because he wants to use the suffering of the patient to entice a nurse to fall in love with him.
Instead, the movie only seems to confirm, on every level, just how much a person's beliefs can make them completely delusional. In the extended version of the film, for example, Regan's complaint about her bed shaking - and nothing else! - leads her mother to drag her to see a stable of doctors and undergo a battery of tests. This complete overreaction is often overlooked by the audience because they believe, like Merrin and eventually Karras, that Regan is possessed to begin with. Yet why her mom feels there is something wrong with Regan, simply because Regan complained about her bed, and nothing more, is never addressed. This then only suggests that the mom is the one possessed, and by a belief no less. As such, the increasing coldness in the room simply corresponds to the increasing coldness with which Chris - and everyone else, by the way - views Regan. We even see this when Chris tells Fr. Karras "that thing upstairs isn't my daughter."
Thus, from an atheist perspective, the movie is about a witch hunt, and everyone from the cast to the audience finds proof of exactly what they want to see. They see only the "mote in other people's eyes," in other words, "and not he plank in their own," as the Bible says. And the only way Regan is ever "saved" from all of these beliefs, is when the priest, Fr. Karras, hurls himself out the window, and his beliefs along with him. And although Regan is saved from Lamashtu for the time being, Fr. Dyer shows up in the end to wish them goodbye and give them the medal of St. Joseph, which is the Catholic counterpart to the amulet that Fr. Merrin found in Iraq at the beginning of the movie.
This, then, is like Jason from Friday the 13th, opening his eyes at the end of every movie, spooking the audience that his reign of terror will continue with more victims (Catholics, of course, see it as God saved Reagan, and the St Joseph medal is seen as God's continuing to protect the very child God allowed to be tortured and possessed in the first place).
And a few thousand years from now, someone will find the Saint Joseph medal in an archeological dig in America somewhere, much like Fr. Merrin in Iraq found the amulet of Pazuzu, and conclude that this "patron saint of departing souls" was not a defender of a loving God, but simply demon and an angel of death. And the Christians will all be cast as the Cullens family.