I love me some scary movies. Hell, I like me some scary anything. Books, movies, comics, TV — if there are spooks, zombies, monsters, loonies and blood, I’m all up in that shit.
This is not a blog about how I became Mr. Spooky (Swamp Thing played a role in that. It’ll be the subject of a future post shameless self-promo). I will tell you that the three classic horror movies I’m going to write about here have had quite the role in shaping my creative life.
Yes, I’ve seen these movies multiple times, and yes, they still manage to creep me out. If I have a personal litmus test for a horror movie, still creeping me out is pretty much the thing. After all, if a Mr. Jaded Smartypants such as myself can still get goosebumps, that sucker is doing the trick.
Now, since I teach my kids that caring means sharing, I’d like to share them with you.
The Exorcist (1973)
A young girl slowly succumbs to physical and mental illness. Medical science is powerless to save her. Finally, her mother must accept that her child is possessed by demonic forces. She has no choice but to turn to faith and request an exorcism from the Roman Catholic Church. The two priests who attempt to save the child from the terrible darkness inside of her are eventually destroyed in their quest but the demon is vanquished.
This film is considered the scariest movie ever made by some. Certainly its had a long history with disturbing its viewers. The crowd antics when it first premiered — people running out of the theater, passing out and puking in the aisles, ambulances being called— are now part of Hollwood lore.
In my own experience, I have an ex-wife and an exgirlfriend who refuse to acknowledge that this movie exists. I have somebody who refuses to watch this movie unless I’m present. My mother banned copies of it from being in her house. Maybe ma was right, too. When I finally snuck and watched The movie with friends, I ended up sleeping with my flashlight under the covers for about a month and was wary around nighttime noises.
While The Exorcist still manages to be controversial to this day, sadly, the infamy of the movie detracts from the fact that it is a well-made film that is disturbing beyond the obvious ways.
Scares in The Exorcist are more than gross and shocking scenes. As a parent, there is plenty to bother you in The Exorcist. The film plays specifically on our fear of something bad happening to our children — not only something bad happening, but our being powerless to stop it. Chris McNeil does everything a good mother should in trying to help her daughter, and every institution she puts her trust in fails her time after time. As a father, when I watch this film and see this child being tortured, not only by demons but by medical professionals, it always makes me despairing and angry. It always makes me go and squish-hug my boys.
Chris McNeil is part of the broader theme at the core of this film — faith and the loss of it. Chris McNeil loses her faith in worldly things, while on the other side, Father Karras loses his faith in spiritual things. One of the greatest fears you can experience is that sense of being unanchored from the world with nothing to trust and with nothing to guide you.
Father Karras is an interesting character, and if you wanted to argue that the movie is in fact about his redemption, I wouldn’t argue back. Having lost my own mother, and recently struggling with my own questions dealing with the existence of a higher power, I feel a lot of empathy for Karras.
Despite.his.own doubts, Karras ultimately throws down the dogma of his church and makes the ultimate sacrifice in order to vanquish the evil from Regan. William Peter Blatty has worried over the years that the climactic fall down the stairs would be interpreted as the devil winning by the viewers of the movie, and I’ve never seen it as such. Karras takes the demon onto himself and then denies it himself. The demon may see people as animalistic things but ultimately it is proven wrong by a person’s capacity to care and for self-sacrifice. I find something really hopeful in that.
As far as scaring the poop out of you, much had been discussed about The Exorcist’s visual power but this is one of the rare movies that manages to accomplish scaring you with sound. Sound throws you off in The Exorcist. Sound disorients you and puts you on edge. From the demons gravelly voice to sounds be interpreted as mice in the attic that doesn’t really sound like mice, to the slashing and grinding strings in the soundtrack, The Exorcist does as much to make you nervous arually as visually.
Sound informs some of the more scary scenes too — Chris McNeil runs down a hallway towards a symphony from hell coming from her daughter’s room (and what happens when she goes in… shivers) Father Merrin stares down an evil icon amongst the snarls and barks of dogs while ambient sound boils beneath it all, Father Karras nearly jumps out of his skin from an intrusive noise while listening to a tape of the demonic voice. In films today sound is often just there to make your seat vibrate, it seldom if ever imparts story information to the viewer. The Exorcist does just that and makes one wish that filmmakers today would attempt a similar approach with their horror subjects.
I could go on forever and a day about this movie. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you’ve already seen it, see it again. You might get scared. You might get creeped out… but you’re also going to think because The Exorcist is just as much that kind of movie.
Just do yourself a favor and don’t forget the flashlight later, okay?
Scariest Scene: Regan assaults herself with a crucifix.
Scariest line: your mother is in here with us, Karras.