The Reek of Human Blood is Laughter to my Heart: Beyond Good and Evil in The Exorcist

The Reek of Human Blood is Laughter to my Heart

Beyond Good and Evil in The Exorcist


I used to think The Exorcist was this totally subversive film that challenged our Christian ideas of good and evil. This sentiment is echoed and reinforced by the film’s reputation – the initial public reaction, the denunciation by Bill Graham, etc. However, I have now come to realize that The Exorcist is probably the most Christian (Catholic, specifically) movie ever made.

The film is all about the battle between good and evil, not as polarities existing only within humans but as two distinct metaphysical forces, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. In this post, what I want to do is to consider what the film sets up as good and evil. As such, in The Exorcist, what is good is the patriarchal, structural ideality of the church, and what is evil is the chaotic, corporeality of the feminine.

(“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”)

Friedrich Nietzsche explains that good and evil are not absolute metaphysical entities; rather they are societal constructs designed to reinforce certain ethical values. Moreover, these constructs are rooted in a will to power. What society deems good or evil is way to control and do battle with that which it finds undesirable. For example, In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that Christianity was a slave religion meant to subvert the master religion of the Romans. As such, the Christians spread the philosophy that it was better to be meek and kind, rather than aggressive and domineering. All the values that the Romans praised and gave them strength, Christians categorized as evil.

This is, of course, a gross abbreviation of Nietzsche. What I’m trying to convey here is that good and evil are concepts assigned to experiences we find either desirable or undesirable. The concepts of good and evil are developed and perpetuated through societies’ discursive regimes of power: religious, political, and educational institutions, media, art, etc.

What The Exorcist reinforces is that women, especially during their formative, pubescent years, need patriarchal figures to sublimate their bodies according to what western, Christian society deems desirable, and this is what the Catholic Church provides.

Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I don’t necessarily agree with what I’m writing; this is just my interpretation of the film. Also, I realize that there is a real history of exorcisms that the film draws from, but I’m not really interested in that. I’m only interested in the interpretive possibilities the film provides. So please, keep your butthurtness to yourselves, trolls.

(the battle between good and evil: Father Merrin to the right and Pazuzu the left)

For the first 10 minutes or so of the film, we are in Iraq with Father Merrin, played by the immortal Max Von Sydow. Merrin is a Jesuit and archaeologist. During an excavation, he comes across two things: a kind of amulet showing a patriarch holding a child and a tiny sculpture of what seems to be a demon. He is visibly disturbed by this. He goes to a cafe where he takes some nitroglycerin. Merrin tells his friend and presumably co-worker that he must leave. He then goes to guarded site where he stands across from the statue of a demon that echoes the tiny sculpture. Thus sets up the battle between good and evil that will be played out over the film.

Firstly, why are we here? What is the significance of the setting? Iraq is Old Testament country. This is the womb of not only Christianity, but also society. The Fertile Crescent is where agriculture and thus civilization begins. Moreover, Iraq and its ancient paganism is what Christianity has overcome and sublimated (or so we like to think).

In The Exorcist, Iraq works as a symbol for the vitality and danger of the corporeal. It is a place of overwhelming physicality. The hustle and bustle of the action and the dissonance of the soundtrack puts the audience on edge. On screen, Merrin is exhausted and threatened by his surroundings: the heat is draining; the noise stresses; he is nearly run over by an old woman in a chariot (an early grotesque depiction of the feminine threatening Merrin clearly sets us up for his eventual confrontation with Reagan); and finally he is accosted by guards outside Pazuzu’s site, signifying the danger.

Secondly, what the fuck is a “Pazuzu”? In The Exorcist, as far as I know, we’re never told clearly that Pazuzu is the demon that is possessing Reagan. Reagan claims she is the Devil, aka Satan, but Karras is doubtful. Apparently, in the sequel, which I’ve never seen, we are finally told it is Pazuzu. I don’t like to reach beyond a film itself to find answers, but with the iconography from the Iraq scene, I think it’s safe to assume Pazuzu is the antagonist here.

So, who is he? According to Wikipedia, in Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, Pazuzu was the king of the demons of the wind. He also represented the southwestern wind, the bearer of storms and drought. As we can see by his statue in the film, Pazuzu is often depicted as a combination of diverse animal and human parts. He has the body of a man, the head of a lion or dog, eagle-like taloned feet, two pairs of wings, a scorpion’s tail, and a serpentine phallus. He is often depicted with his right hand pointing upward, and left hand pointing down. Interestingly, Pazuzu was said to be invoked in amulets which combat the powers of his wife,the malicious goddess Lamashtu, who was believed to cause harm to mother and child during childbirth. Although Pazuzu is, himself, an evil spirit, he drives away other evil spirits, therefore protecting humans against plagues and misfortunes.

What are to make of all this? Well, first of all, Pazuzu’s motley configuration is again symbolic of the chaotic vitality of the corporeal. His embodiment of difference (the different animals) contrasts with the austere, sterile unity of the chruch, as symbolized by Father Mirren. Consider the clashing iconography: Pazuzu is multifarious whereas the Priest is black and white.

Furthermore, I think the latter point of Pazuzu being a demon that scares off other demons is fascinating in how it pertains to the film. As I will try to cash out over this entry, Pazuzu’s arrival helps rectify an otherwise unhealthy environment for not only Reagan and her mother, but also Father Karras who is suffering from a loss of faith. Pazuzu will provide the opportunity for all these characters to return to the patriarchy of the Catholic Church.

(Pazuzu’s defacement of Mary: the androgynous is also another symbol of evil in The Exorcist)

The setting now shifts now to Georgetown, Washington. Chris MacNeil is an actress and single mother, and is filming a movie in Georgetown. It’s her daughter’s birthday and her father is absent. Reagan is twelve years old and is a normal little girl. However, there are signs not all is well, as she makes weird drawings, plays with a Ouija board, and claims to speak with an imaginary friend, “Captain Howdy”. She starts acting weird, which Chris attributes to puberty. However, as things become more drastic she seeks out a psychiatrist. Reagan’s symptoms become increasingly bizarre and the doctors eventually give up, suggesting Chris speak with a Priest to see if an exorcism may help.

Meanwhile, Father Damien Karras, a young priest living in the same area, is undergoing a crisis of faith. His mother dies and he feels responsible. He feels that if he hadn’t joined the church and continued with his medical career as a psychiatrist, he would’ve been able to pay for the treatment his mother needed. Chris seeks Karras’ help with Reagan. Karras examines Reagan and eventually consents to an exorcism.

The first thing to note is the change in scenery. In one swift edit, we have moved from Iraq to America. America is for all intents and purposes the pinnacle of civilization thus far. Moreover, it is a Christian nation. However, it is in the process of becoming secularized. This is the case with Chris and Reagan. Chris is an atheist and a single mother. Likewise, Reagan is also atheist. Chris is either divorced or had Reagan outside of wedlock. Consequently, Reagan is is now entering womanhood without a patriarchal figure.

On the set of the movie within the movie, amidst angry protesting students, Chris yells “If you want to affect any change, you have to do it within the system!” Herein lies the role of the Church and the patriarch in The Exorcist; they provide measure, limitation, structure, rules, systematization. Without a father and without religion, Reagan has no patriarch to posit rules. As a result, her transformation into a woman becomes grotesque. Reagan needs a patriarch to limit her femininity. The excess of her transformation represents her unbound femininity.

The Church and the patriarch are forces of repression. Without them, the boundary between the interior/exterior of Reagan’s body has been compromised. All the things that our society finds so nasty – urine, excrement, vomit, phlegm blood, menstruation – are oozing out of Reagan. She’s also excessively vulgar, shouting profane sexual taunts at her mother, doctors, and the priests.

It will be Karras’ job to help Reagan repress all this corporeality so she may return to a socially adjusted girl, and back on track towards becoming a socially adjusted woman.

(it’s so hard to pick just one, but I would say this is the most disturbing scene for me.)

In a way, both Karras and Reagan are victimized by their mothers. In the case of Karras, he is abandoned by his mother. She is sick and blames him for her condition. He is haunted by the guilt that he should’ve been able to help her but wasn’t. Reagan is victimized by the fact that her mother has not replaced Reagan’s father with a suitable patriarch.

 At approximately 31:50 we see a defaced statue of Mary. We’re not exactly told who or what did this, but it shows Mary with a phallus and phallic breasts. This is a symbol of the androgynous and the grotesque feminine. Later in the film, at approximately 1:23:30, Chris is downstairs speaking with Karras. She is standing and in front of her is a figurine that Reagan has made. The figurine is remarkably similar to the Pazuzu statue. Moreover, the camera is positioned such that the beak of the figurine appears to be jutting out from Chris’ crotch. The congruity between this image and the defaced statue is unmistakable. Chris has tried to be both mother and father to Reagan, which has caused this grotesque transformation.

So, Merrin arrives to help Karras with the exorcism. Unfortunately, both priests are destroyed by the grotesque feminine. Fortunately, however, they are able to repress Reagan’s vitality, and she returns to a socially desirable girl. Also, Karras was able to regain his faith in the process, himself becoming a Christ figure.

Chris tells Karras’ friend, Father Dyer, that Reagan remembers nothing of it. However, when Reagan sees Dyer’s collar, she reaches up and kisses him. The event has been pushed into her subconscious, but as such the Church has successfully become her surrogate patriarch. The Church has managed to sublimate Reagan back into society. The patriarch has triumphed over the feminine, good over evil.

(like a record, baby)

I’m pretty sure the first time I saw The Exorcist, I was around 12, and it’s been one of my favorites ever since. There’s just so much to love about the movie, despite whatever your religion may be, or lack thereof. I think what I find most impressive about the film is the way Friedkin was able to continuously top himself. When the time for the actual exorcism has come, the audience can’t believe that there’s anything left in the tank. Yet, Friedkin is still able to deliver a frightening and satisfying climax.

The film has situated itself within the zeitgeist like few films have. Not only has it spawned an entire sub-genre of film, but it brought the concept of exorcism into the lexicon. I wonder how many people knew what an exorcism actually was before the film was made. There still remains very few authentic, documented cases of sanctioned exorcisms by the Church.

I think what makes the film so succesful is the conviction of Friedkin and William Blatty, the author and screenwriter. They’re both Christians and sincerely believe in the existence of good and evil as real metaphysical entities. Moreover, they believe in the redemptive power of good over evil. The reason why we see so many derivative exorcism movies today is that the filmmakers are cynical and opportunist; they don’t sincerely believe in the film’s concept and are only interested in the gratuitous horror scenes.

As an atheist, I look past the religious overtones and try to consider what may be beyond the terms good and evil, being also a card-carrying Nietzschean. However, I still respect the conviction.



p.s. As I explained, I was coming at this from a Nietzschean perspective (if such a thing exists). If you’re interested in learning more about this sort of philosophy, I would recommend the following books by Nietzsche: The Gay Science, The Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil, and Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I would recommend reading them in that order, as well. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Gilles Deleuze are some other philosophers that came after Nietzsche and carried on his existentialist ideas. However, they are less accessible than Nietzsche, who was probably the best writer in the history of philosophy.

~ by braddunne on July 8, 2012.

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