History Has Not Been Kind To “The Exorcist”

The war on women took a comically absurd turn on Friday, when it was reported that 85-year-old William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist and screenwriter for the film based on his book, is suing Georgetown University in church court for not being Catholic enough. He has a litany of complaints — about the University’s focus on diversity, the fact that it actually educates its students instead of pelting them with Catholic propaganda, and that it generally acts like a university instead of a monastery — but mostly he’s angry that the school isn’t misogynist enough. The “last straw,” according to Blatty, was allowing a pro-choice woman, Kathleen Sebelius, speak at the university, despite her belief that contraception is a basic part of health care, instead of Satan’s tool to distract the daughters of Eve from hating themselves for being sexual beings.

This entire turn shouldn’t be surprising. “The Exorcist” is a classic of backlash cinema, the Birth of a Nation of anti-feminism. It’s not just that the mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, is basically blamed by the movie for bringing these torments onto her daughter’s life by being a disobedient woman: sexual, single, working, agnostic. No, the movie is even worse than that. After all, horror films are usually about expressing widespread cultural anxieties through heavily symbolic scare tactics. In this movie, the most horrible evil imaginable is pretty clearly female sexual maturity. The symbolic puberty young Reagan endures turns her from an adorable — and asexual child — into a disgusting monster who spews fluids, pants, and does seemingly impossible things with her body. Just in case the grim view of the sexually mature female body isn’t obvious enough, we actually get to see Reagan masturbate with a cross. At that point, the message “female sexuality is Satanic” stops even being subtext and might as well be printed in subtitles across the screen.

Naturally, the heroes of “The Exorcist” are celibate priests, two of whom lose their lives in the battle against the symbolic forces of female sexuality. In fact, one of them is briefly infected with the demon, adding to the pile of deplorable themes the ancient notion that men are helpless victims of women’s seductive ways. More importantly, Reagan’s symbolic sexual maturity is shown as an all-consuming beast, destroying men and taking lives. Only until one priest sacrifices himself, in a Christ-like fashion, is Reagan cleansed of her “sin” of being a pubescent girl. Free of the demon, she grovels in the corner in her nightgown, the perfect emblem of where women belong in this universe.

Beyond its offensive misogyny, “The Exorcist” is also a piece of crap. The dialogue is laughable, the horrors comical, and the plot tiresome. Its weakness as a film is even more pronounced when you compare it to the plethora of genuinely scary and often sublime horror films that came out in era spanning from the late sixties to the early eighties: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining,”  “Halloween,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and the dizzying Italian horror works of Dario Argento. But even though “The Exorcist” couldn’t hold a candle to these other movies, it was a box office smash and the recipient of plenty of critical praise, earning 10 Oscar nominations, and a win for its woman-fearing screenwriter William Peter Blatty.

The amount of enthusiasm for such retrograde woman-hating garbage seems peculiar now, but the country in the seventies was in the throes of anxiety over women’s sexual and political liberation. It’s not a coincidence that a movie about the demonic nature of female sexuality drew so much attention in the same year that the Supreme Court, with Roe v. Wade, granted women the right to bodily autonomy. The notion that girls deserve all sorts of abuse and punishment for the “sin” of going through puberty sadly wasn’t restricted to the screen in Hollywood, either. After all, a mere four years after “The Exorcist” came out, Hollywood folded around director Roman Polanski to defend him, even though he raped a 13-year-old. The reasoning was basically that she had it coming. How dare she develop into a teenager! Nationwide, the backlash against feminism that “The Exorcist” represented turned into the first major second wave feminist loss, the end of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Of course, Blatty’s heyday of feeding sexist garbage to eager audiences was nearly 40 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Feminism has had its share of legal losses, but culturally, Blatty’s vision of sexually mature monsters who need to be strongly controlled by male-dominated religion has lost a lot of ground. The seventies era fear of independent-minded teenage girls has given way to the slogan “girl power.” Back then, co-education was still controversial. (Georgetown only started admitting female students generally in 1969, two years before The Exorcist was published.) Now women are getting the majority of college degrees, and academia has not, as feared, collapsed. In the early seventies, there wasn’t a single woman sitting on the Supreme Court or in the Presidential Cabinet. Now, while we’re still far short of parity, women holding those roles has become unremarkable. In fact, it would be more outrageous if there weren’t any women with those jobs.

William Peter Blatty is a perfect icon for what this newly reinvigorated war on women is all about: old, reactionary, out-of-touch, and throwing a temper tantrum because the world has rejected his view of women as inherently inferior, subversive, disgusting creatures. The old guard, represented by Blatty, has lost the ability to scare Americans with their dramatic stories of the horrors that await if women get the same rights as men to work outside the home, control their own bodies, and yes, be sexual creatures.

Not that we should be complacent. Reactionaries have enough power to do a lot of damage on their way out the door, as is demonstrated by the all-too-successful assaults on abortion and contraception access in various states across the country. It’s just important to see where this is all coming from, which is men like Blatty, who posited a theory many decades ago that women’s liberation would destroy us all, and are incredibly angry that their predictions didn’t come to pass. 

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  • solidus

    Did you even watch or read The Exorcist?

    There was nothing anti-female sexuality in there. The crucifix masturbation is the closest you’ll find, and that’s to shock and show how evil can corrupt what’s good. There’s nothing there to show that female sexuality is bad in itself.

    The mother is not blamed in for Regan’s possession. Had you takent he time to read the novel or watch it without the feminist blinders, you’d notice the bit about Regan messing around the Ouija board.

    Nor is sexuality within the Catholic religion seen as bad or sinful, as you seem to imply. Again, take the time to read and understand what you’re critiquing before you say something that just makes you sound uneducated to those who do know what they’re talking about.

    As for Blatty, being against supporting pro-choice speakers doesn’t make him “anti-woman” or any such nonsense. It makes him anti-abortion, because anti-abortion folks like him have a firm conviction that it is akin to murder. While I don’t quite share that notion (no brain function = no one there to have any sort of worthwhile life yet for me to take away), I have at least exercised a few brain cells to understand where people like that are coming from.

    Willful ignorance and uninformed, paranoid blather of this sort is only going to serve to make you look foolish.

  • poetsnest

    While his recent actions are reprehensible to pro-choice sensibilities, and I’m thankful that Georgetown is more progressive than one would assume of a religious university, I can’t necessarily blame the misogynistic tone of “The Exorcist” on Blatty.  
    It was the “loosely based on a true story” tale of a girl (originally a boy in the “true life” version) who plays with a Ouija board and gets possessed by legion. True, there is a strong sexual content to the girl’s possessed actions but I’m not sure that is antithetical to the horror sub-genre of possession stories/movies or what both the Catholic Church and society at large would expect from the events described.  He used, as would this fictional demon, our discomfort at seeing a little girl sexualized to heighten the scare that the possession presents.  I mean, she was possessed, do you expect her to act strong and empowered?  
    I’m all for calling out misogyny wherever you find it, but I think that to insinuate the movie was a direct attack on feminine empowerment is a bit of a stretch.  Call out what he said, call out what others like him or the Catholic Church as a whole say over and over again, sure, but to say that just because he has a single, working, agnostic mom in the mix that he’s blaming her for the events that happened to her daughter.  If I remember correctly, the “true life” family wasn’t religious either.  The movie was called The Exorcist, which is/was a type of priest of the Catholic Church…you seem to be blaming Blatty for all priests being male.  
    I first saw this movie when I was 5 (I had an irresponsible uncle) and have come to love it more and more as an adult.  I don’t see the movie as painting the mother in a bad light.  Quite the opposite, she was attentive, had fun with her daughter, and did what was necessary to get her help even though it went against her personal beliefs.  I would like to think that any parent would try things to save their children that they didn’t support (like organized religion) when everything else has failed them.