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Examining the "Woman Anxiety" Problem in The Exorcist

Features
by Katie Walsh
October 31, 2013 12:30 PM
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William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) has been a horror classic for the past 40 years, often referred to as one of the scariest films of all time, and an Oscar winner to boot. The film comes at an interesting, transitional time for horror films--bolstered by William Peter Blatty's hit book and a hot young director, The Exorcist helped to usher horror out of the B-movie ghetto into mainstream success. The film features two female character types who were previously underrepresented in the horror genre at this time. Chris (Ellen Burstyn) is the neurotic single working mother, a new kind a woman in the early 1970s, struggling to make the right decisions about her daughter Regan (Linda Blair), possessed by a sadistic, vulgar demon. This monstrous girl type had made a memorable appearance in the zombie exploitation flick Night of the Living Dead in 1968, but Regan was a fully realized portrayal of this horrific, socially transgressive concept. Both mother and daughter reflected numerous cultural anxieties about women and women's bodies, anxieties that remain relevant today.

In terms of the traditional representations of women in the horror genre, The Exorcist comes after the Italian giallo splatter-fests and English Hammer films of the 1960s, which were more about babes, boobs and blood than anything else. Giallo auteur Dario Argento once quipped that, "I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man" (this evergreen practice continues to drive movie ticket sales to this day, but audiences are onto the fact that the concept treads on the rote and cliche). The Exorcist also precedes the slasher genre of the late '70s and early '80s, which featured the Final Girl archetype, who made her entrance in John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978. The Exorcist is not about watching sexy babes run from a killer's knife, representing a seductive and cathartic sexuality. The film follows tradition by locating the horror of the film within the female body, but it troubles and disturbs the association with sex, leaving the audience not with a climatic catharsis, but a sickening feeling of deep unease.

The horrors Regan's body is subject to capitalize on a number of cultural and social anxieties about girl's bodies and their behavior. It's shocking to see such a young and innocent body so abused and destroyed. It's even more shocking that the nature of possession means that we see her do these things to herself. This is horrific because of her body's youth and purity, but also because we have stricter social expectations about the behavior of little girls. In her essay "Baby Bitches From Hell," Barbara Creed explains that not only is a girl more rigidly socialized than a boy, but are "also expected to epitomise worldly innocence and sexual purity. When she crosses the boundaries between innocence and corruption, proper and improper behavior, the ensuing violation seems more profound." It's not just that Regan is expected to embody innocence and sexual purity, she is to fulfill our own adult notions of childhood. Regan becomes monstrous not only in her wretched and destroyed appearance but in her violent break with expected and socially prescribed behavior: swearing, spewing green vomit and violent sexual acts on herself and others (including her mother).

Though she comes off as a quite childlike twelve, Regan's prepubescent age plays on the idea that changing female bodies are themselves monstrous: hybrid creatures that are neither girl nor woman, that shape shift and expel mysterious fluids. Her lack of control over her body and its functions (e.g. the scene where she pees on the floor during the dinner party) serves as the harbinger of her break with reality. Physical changes that come from puberty are magnified and made horrific in The Exorcist, possibly reflecting a fear of menstruation, a physical cue that a girl has become a woman, capable of carrying a child, and thus capable of sexuality. However, while it is more disturbing to understand this corruption and violence on a female body, in many ways it is also easier to conceive of because pubescent female bodies are capable of becoming pregnant, it is easier to understand a foreign being existing within a female body, whether it be demonic or natural.

It's Regan's experience that expresses these bodily anxieties, but it's not just the physical that lends itself to the existential horror and spiritual dysfunction of the film, and Chris' role is used to comment on the social/cultural transformations of women in the early 1970s. A divorced working mother, Chris is nervous and mentally unstable, and while not uncaring, simply unable to make the right decisions about her daughter's care. In this time of burgeoning women's lib, and rising divorce rates, to feature a woman who has rejected traditional family structures as incapable and indecisive about how to care for her daughter posits the notion that the loss of family has led to the invasion of evil in bodies of our children. It is suggested that the amount of time that Regan spends alone allowed for her possession by the demon, ultimately indicting her mother in the cause of her destruction.

The Exorcist does offer a portrayal of a complicated, sometimes unlikable, but ultimately sympathetic female character (and an older one at that) in Chris, which is rare in mainstream films, not to mention the traditionally stereotype-laden horror genre. And it features one of the truly terrifying female horror performances of all time by Linda Blair (and don't forget voice performer Mercedes McCambridge, who was the voice of the demon, had to sue Warner Bros. for credit). Yet, the film relies on the trope of degrading sexual destruction of the female body for its horror, and links this in a causal way to the lack of family. In fact, it is the male priests, representatives of a lost tradition, who save Regan. It's an important film in the pantheon of women and horror, but not without its problems.

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Katie Walsh is a writer and doctoral student based in Los Angeles. She contributes film reviews, TV recaps, and interviews to the The Playlist on indieWIRE, and has written about media and culture for The Hairpin, Movieline and CAP the Magazine.

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