William Friedkin’s 1973 horror film The Exorcist, based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, is widely considered one of the scariest movies ever made. Grady Hendrix, author of the new book My Best Friend’s Exorcism, still remembers watching the movie as a teenager, and being shocked by the scene in which Linda Blair violates herself with a crucifix.
“That was the moment when I thought the filmmakers crossed a line,” Hendrix says in Episode 203 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We were just like, ‘Holy crap, this movie’s going to go places that we’re not prepared for.’”
And while The Exorcist has spawned innumerable imitators, none of them have come close to matching it. Horror editor Jordan Hamessley London thinks that many subsequent films have failed because they stuck too close to the formula of possessed young girls and elderly priests.
“There are a lot of tropes that are so strong that it’s hard for people to overcome them, and overcome the comparisons, and it’s hard to really break out and do something different,” she says.
Hendrix also thinks the original Exorcist draws a lot of its power from the fact that William Peter Blatty is a true believer, and wrote the novel to promote his religious worldview. Subsequent films just don’t have that same urgency.
“I don’t think the people making The Last Exorcism or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, they don’t believe this stuff, they just want to make a scary hit movie,” Hendrix says. “And as much as I like The Last Exorcism, it has a hollowness to it.”
Paul Tremblay is the author of Head Full of Ghosts, a recent novel about a reality TV show exorcism. One of his goals with the book was to interrogate the strangely erotic subtext of so many exorcism movies.
“How does this become our entertainment, this idea that these old white priests are coming in to do what they do to a 14-year-old girl?” he says. “How come we find that so compelling as entertainment? It’s sort of an icky and tricky issue.”
Listen to our complete interview with Grady Hendrix, Jordan Hamessley London, and Paul Tremblay in Episode 203 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Paul Tremblay on The Exorcist:
“The failing of The Exorcist, to me, is the last five minutes of the movie, and it’s part of the reason why I wrote my book. Because after Father Karras takes a tumble down the stairs, and all this stuff has happened, the last five minutes of the movie are, it’s bright sunlight, Regan’s happy and healthy and doesn’t remember a thing, and everyone smiles, and everything has been restored—to fit Blatty’s religious worldview. And as a horror fan, that’s where it failed to me, because the best works of horror, after the reveal of the ugly truth or the big scare, to me the interesting part is, what are these characters going to do now? How have they been fundamentally changed?”
Grady Hendrix on Such a Good Baby by Ruby Jensen:
“It’s about a girl who gets Satan’s baby, and the baby’s born, and the baby’s evil. But the problem is, it’s a baby, it can’t really do anything about it. It can’t even hold its head up by itself. … For a big chunk of the book all it can do is vomit profusely and horribly, because that’s all babies do. Because yeah, think about it, if you are a Satan baby, that must be so frustrating. You can’t even get an erection until years down the road, and you’re like, ‘I want to be at an orgy, and a black mass, and killing virgins, and I’m having to eat strained carrots and wear a diaper and be carried around. This sucks.’ … It’s just like, Satan did not think this plan through.”
Grady Hendrix on the TV show Apparitions:
“It’s about demons from **** possessing people on Earth, and the demon point of view is, ‘We just want out of ****. It’s really, really, really bad there, and by not letting us come to Earth and possess people—because they’re mostly possessing people who’ve been brain dead, in vegetative states and comas, or people who are really severely mentally ill, people who are not leading much of a life—they’re like, ‘You are perpetuating a holocaust against us. We have been doomed to eternal torture and suffering for no other reason than that we’re demons. It’s a complete holocaust against demons, run by heaven.’ … It’s kind of a fascinating way of looking at their motivation.”
Jordan Hamessley London on exorcism movies:
“A lot of these narratives are just teen girls and young women experiencing something, and then having men or intense mothers physically harming them ‘for their own good,’ in theory. And I find that really disturbing. It goes back to hysteria, back in the day, of ‘women having emotions must be the devil, so let’s beat it out of her.’ … I think that women these days are having control taken from them on all sorts of levels—politically. This is not my ‘down with the patriarchy’ speech, but I just think the fact that so many of these stories are about young women is telling, and upsetting, and we need to look at why that’s the narrative that is so embraced.”
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