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The terrifying power of girls and second wave feminism backlash in The Exorcist
Teenage girls are a force of nature, in horror and in life. Whether it is Carrie enacting her fiery prom revenge, the witches of The Craft harnessing the power of Manon, or the Final Girl who gets to live at the end of a slasher movie, unruly femininity can be harnessed like a weapon. However, some movies suggest this demographic poses a threat to society unless this aspect can be controlled. After all, what is more terrifying than a girl going through puberty?
In 1973, The Exorcist changed the face of horror with its depiction of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil's (Linda Blair) demonic possession in a swanky Georgetown neighborhood. Adapted to the screen from William Peter Blatty's novel of the same name (and by Blatty himself), it was inspired by a 1949 incident in Maryland involving a 14-year-old boy and a months-long exorcism performed by Jesuit priests. Placing a tween girl at the heart of this story emphasizes the loss of innocence, particularly as Regan goes from incredibly sweet to snarling at a troubling rate. In the animated Netflix series Big Mouth, the impact of puberty is portrayed via Hormone monsters that cause this wild change in behavior. In the world of director William Friedkin's Exorcist, the monster is a demon (who claims to be the devil) threatening not only this child but the entire perception of humanity and our relationship with God. This is a huge burden to put on a child.
Not only is Regan on the cusp of adolescence, but she is also living in a single-parent home (the horror!). This shouldn't strike contemporary audiences as out of the ordinary, but in 1973 destroying the nuclear family was still taboo even if obtaining a divorce was becoming more common (and "no-fault" divorce laws were in effect in some states). Roe v. Wade passed in 1973, and the number of women in employment had increased. A number of factors contributed to the latter, with the dissolution of marriages being one of them. The hard-fought (and won) freedoms of second-wave feminism do not come without detractors who perceive this to be the spiraling of family values. In Frances Gateward's essay "Movies and the Legacies of War and Corruption," she notes that 1973 "ended with a horrific exhibition of a single woman and her child punished for their transgressions in challenging the social order of a nuclear family." Nor only was corruption within the government impacting movies, but Gatward points to how structurally The Exorcist "functions to reestablish the patriarchal order."
Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress who can comfortably support her daughter. She has a small staff to help out, including someone to cook and another person to deal with the pesky rats making noise in the attic. She socializes, flirts, and still has time to take an interest in her daughter's arts and crafts, as well as plan a fun birthday trip sight-seeing around the nation's capital. But a close bond with her daughter and a happy atmosphere aren't much protection against demons when there isn't an official "man of the house." The absence of Regan's father peppers many conversations, even before the situation deteriorates. Nevertheless, he doesn't deserve any Father of the Year trophies, as he can't even be bothered to phone his daughter on her birthday. He is in Europe, and as Chris screams down the phone to his assistant, it is clear there is some unresolved tension between the exes. Can the devil sneak in because there is no man to stop this infection?
Before events take a turn toward extreme profanity and head-spinning, Regan's bedroom window is a source of constant concern. The movie opens with Chris alone in her bedroom (the amount of stuff strewn across the double bed reveals she is the only person occupying this space), and when she goes to check on her sleeping daughter, she is disturbed by the open window and the curtain billowing in the chilly fall wind. Later, when the investigating officer, Lt. William Kinderman (Lee J. Cobb), comes knocking regarding the suspicious death of movie director Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran), he comments, "A draft in the fall when the house is hot is a magic carpet for germs." A seemingly innocuous remark from a germ-obsessed investigator, but one that also suggests Chris did not do enough to protect her daughter from this unique form of infection.
Another early warning sign is the Ouija board discovery in the basement when mother and daughter are spending time together. This is a symbol of unwanted spirits, as well as an object of curiosity for every sleepover ever. Regan's calm response to having used it, chatting to a Captain Howdy, suggests a troubling undercurrent in a house that is otherwise full of love.
The many expert men Chris takes her daughter to see offer up drugs and invasive medical tests as a solution, but when science fails, a more spiritual path is required. Chris is not religious, although she has found herself fascinated by the intensity of Father Karras (Jason Miller) whenever she has walked past his place of work and worship. Karras is dealing with personal family issues, including a wavering of faith after his mother's death and the guilt he feels about institutionalizing her. Someone has also desecrated a statue of the Virgin Mary: If the church can't keep out the devil, then how can a single mom?
Barbara Creed discusses The Exorcist in detail in "Woman as Possessed Monster" in her 1993 text The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. The crux of this section is to highlight that the monstrous woman "is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions." Chris MacNeil cannot control her temper or language when dealing with or discussing Regan's absent father; her inability to refrain from obscenities is infecting Regan's language, or so we are led to believe when the doctor asks about her daughter's extended vocabulary. Chris turns into a monster when her ex-husband is mentioned, and because we never see Regan's father, it is easy to put all the blame onto the visible parent and her so-called modern lifestyle. "The theme of urban and spiritual decay is linked to a decline in proper familial values through the MacNeil family," explains Creed in this essay.
To the men who want to poke and prod at her body and then her mind, Regan acts out aggressively — including attempting to bite at one psychiatrist's genitals. Her body is attacked, so she fights back in the only way she knows how. In Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol J. Clover explains that possession movies with a woman at the heart often revolve around putting "the female body to some sort of formal trial." In the case of The Exorcist, Regan is subjected to multiple medical tests, followed by hypnosis in an attempt to find a scientific reason for her behavior. Later, Father Karras explains that exorcisms are no longer practiced (except in extreme cases), as science has unlocked the mysteries of these ailments. Whereas Regan would no doubt have been accused of witchcraft if this were Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, now there are more logical explanations. Nevertheless, centuries have passed and teen girls are still at the center of fear and panic.
Feminine desire is something to be terrified of, or so The Exorcist wants us to believe. Before things take a turn for the demonic, Regan tells her mother that if she wants to date Burke then she should. However, her daughter's feelings about another entering the family home are made more complicated when Burke is seemingly thrown from Regan's bedroom window. The same window that can't keep infection out dispensed with the one male figure who threatens to take her father's position (even if there is little to no hint of romance beyond Regan's earlier insinuation).
What causes Chris to turn to the church (despite being agnostic) is when Regan uses a crucifix as a masturbation aid — a crucifix that no one seems to know the origin of. Her bloody crotch could be menstrual blood or a result of this aggressive act, which is followed by pushing her mother's face into the mess. Regan changes her command from "Let Jesus f*** you" to instructing her mother to "Lick me!" before she punches her mom in the face. This sequence ends with Regan's first head twist — "Do you know what she did? Your c***ing daughter?" — and is referred to by Creed as one of the Exorcist's "most confronting." Not only is it incredibly violent, but it also reminds the audience this little girl is on the cusp of womanhood, emphasizing that Regan's "transformation from angel into devil is clearly a sexual one." The female body cannot be controlled without the presence of an authoritative male figure: Without one it is unruly and will unleash a barrage of bodily fluids.
To defeat this demon, Regan requires not one but two men — spiritual fathers to replace the absent one — to do so. For this reason alone, it is not hard to see why this movie has long been viewed as a backlash to second-wave feminism. Can a woman have it all? Not in The Exorcist, as a single mother cannot be successful and raise a daughter without some sort of demonic punishment.
Puberty, possession, and witchcraft go hand in hand in both horror and the real-life Salem accusations of 1692. When it comes to young boys and the occult, they are impacted before puberty. Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) in The Omen is just 5 years old, and the boys in films such as Insidious and the recent The Prodigy are younger than Regan. Danny (Danny Lloyd) in The Shining is too young to understand what he can do, so he lacks power because he cannot harness his abilities. A pubescent boy doesn't draw on the same outdated purity notions as a girl on the verge of adolescence. "Why this girl?" Father Karras asks in the director's cut. It is less about this particular girl; rather it is what she symbolizes. A 12-year-old boy wouldn't make the audience (or the priests) despair at how vile humanity is.
Regan's nightgown is incredibly childlike and girlish — her daytime jeans and shirt attire is relatively gender-neutral — but it is soon covered in the disgusting bodily fluids, including blood and vomit. This is the monstrous feminine body, "Her skin erupts in a tangled filthy mat, she urinates on the carpet, spews green bile, and bleeds from the genitals," said Creed. "Regan's body is represented as a body in revolt."
So much of The Exorcist, when it was released at the end of 1973, was new and shocking, including the special effects that allowed Regan's head to turn 360 degrees and the extreme obscenities uttered by a previously sweet and innocent child (not to mention what she did with the crucifix). Innovative camera techniques and shots not only caused audience members to faint and vomit, but Friedkin helped usher in a new appreciation for horror — this is the first horror to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. However, when it comes to representations of the family dynamic, the anti-second-wave feminism sentiment holds true. The style might be innovative, but the message is fixed in tradition and patriarchy.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.