The Exorcist (Friedkin, 1973) presents a tale of demonic possession through the filter of ultra-conservative values. Framed as a classic horror narrative about the nature of evil in modern times, the film also works as a critique of liberal and progressive roles in American society.
By 1971, the Vietnam War was responsible for over 50,000 casualties, polarizing both Left and Right factions. For liberals, the right wing represented the embodiment of evil; an apathetic patriarchy sacrificing young boys to the god of war. But for staunch conservatives, dissenting leftists who dared challenge the political status quo defied god himself. William Peter Blatty, author of both the screenplay and original book, attended Georgetown University, but his choice to set the story in such close proximity to the White House seems an unlikely coincidence.
The film’s tell-tale sign of a conservative viewpoint is its sympathetic portrayal of both priests and policemen. Americans who came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s harbor an inherent mistrust of authority, specifically law enforcement. Following the revelation that millions of adults were raped as children by clergymen, trust in the Catholic Church dropped to an all-time low. Yet, the film never ventures into the territory of these nefarious vocations. Instead, Lieutenant Kinderman is presented as an honest and goodhearted detective hoping to solve a murder. Priests as well, are depicted as sensitive, caring men of faith. Conversely, the critical eye falls on the single mother and the one priest whose faith waivers.
Throughout the film, each character is punished in relation to their violation of conservative values. In the first act, we meet Chris MacNeil, famous actress and single mother of a twelve year-old daughter, Regan. As both a divorced mother and Hollywood actress, she clashes with the patriarchal convention that women exist simply as the property of their husbands and belong at home raising children. As a result, her child is physically and emotionally tormented. Father Damien Karras neglects his mother who dies alone in a ramshackle apartment. Subsequently, he expresses a lack of faith. For the religiously conservative, the notion quitting the priesthood is an egregious and blasphemous crime. For his sins, he dies at the end of the film.
Regan’s demonic possession is a manifestation of anxiety over her parents’ divorce. Symptoms first occur the night Regan’s father fails to call on her birthday. Her mother then investigates noises in the attic which represent Regan’s unconscious. Despite a seemingly close-knit bond, children often blame the primary caregiver for the breakup of the marriage. The film uses religious symbolism to illustrate the main point of contention between conservatives and liberals whose beliefs differ on the importance of the traditional family unit.
The Exorcist champions conservative’s fear and loathing for those who pose a threat to patriarchal conventions by personifying affronts to both traditional political and religious ideals as demonic acts. Though, a well-constructed and entertaining horror film, The Exorcist more correctly serves as a conservative political statement.