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Film / The Exorcist

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"The power of Christ compels you!"

Psychiatrist: Is there someone inside you?
Regan McNeil: Sometimes.

The Exorcist is a 1973 Religious Horror film (though the director, William Friedkin, doesn't view it as such) and is the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for Hollywood Exorcism.

Based on the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty, and inspired by what was supposedly an actual documented exorcism from 1949, The Exorcist is the terrifying, shocking tale of an originally rather cute 12-year-old girl named Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) and the efforts of her mother Chris (Ellen Burstyn), a famous film actress, her mom's secretary Sharon, and a pair of priests to save the poor girl's soul from the ravages of a powerful, malign entity called Pazuzu (though his name is kept ambiguous in the film).

Initially manifesting as strange behavior in little Regan and her Ouija-board trysts with an invisible companion calling itself Captain Howdy, the being's infiltration is at first dismissed as Regan acting out frustrations after her mother's divorce. As the demon takes hold of Regan, however, she undergoes drastic changes in appearance and behavior, manifesting physical symptoms and incredible strength that cannot be explained by medical science. After Regan starts gliding around the house on all fours face up, licking Sharon's ankles, her mother decides that it is time to consult a higher authority...

Max von Sydow and Jason Miller star as the two priests, Father Merrin and Father Karras, while Lee J. Cobb appears as police detective Lt. William Kinderman.

The original movie is considered one of the best (and most terrifying) horror movies of all time and was followed by two sequels and (for complicated reasons) two versions of the same prequel, with varying levels of quality and success from each of them. A TV series of the same named premiered on FOX, which was later revealed to be another sequel to the original. There's also a very, very weird non-horror, semi-spinoff movie called The Ninth Configuration, adapted and directed by Blatty himself from his earlier novel of the same name, which is set in the same universe as this movie but has very few direct connections to it. A new trilogy of Exorcist films from director David Gordon Green (Halloween), produced by Blumhouse and jointly distributed by Universal Pictures and Peacock, has been announced, with the first film, titled The Exorcist: Believer, set to release theatrically on October 13, 2023; this series will also be a sequel to the original film and feature Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair returning as Chris and Reagan. The release will be released two months shy from the original's fiftieth anniversary.

Media in the Exorcist franchise:

The Exorcist is the Trope Namer for:

"That Trope Is Not My Child!":

  • Abnormal Limb Rotation Range: One of the film's most iconic shots features the possessed Regan rotating her head until she is facing backwards.
  • Aborted Arc: Kinderman's investigation into the death of Burke leads him to suspect that a priest might somehow be linked, perhaps having to do with the desecrations at Holy Trinitynote  which he's previously spoken with Karras about; Karras speculated it's a "sick priest". Kinderman later insinuates that perhaps Karras himself might be the "sick priest". Aside from the fact that Burke's neck was broken in a particular way supposedly used by devils to murder witches, and the desecrations might be "Satanic" (they're mostly burlesque sexual satire), there's no real evidence leading him to this speculation. It gets dropped with no resolution, but when Kinderman speaks to Karras for the last time, late in the book, he lets on without saying it explicitly, that he has figured out there actually is a demon and that it killed Burke and possessed the little girl.
  • Actor Allusion: When Father Karras and Detective Kinderman banter back and forth, Karras tells Kinderman he looks like Paul Newman while Kinderman says that Karras looks like Sal Mineo. Kinderman was played by Lee J. Cobb, who co-starred with Newman and Mineo in the 1960 movie Exodus (1960).
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Burke invokes this when he gets drunk at Chris' party. He asks Karl, a member of Chris' domestic staff, whether he did public relations or community relations for the Gestapo. Karl angrily replies that he's Swiss, but Burke is too drunk to care about the difference, and he continues badgering Karl about his supposed Nazi past until he attacks him in a rage.
  • And I Must Scream: Heavily implied to be happening to Regan while Pazuzu possesses her.
help me
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Invoked, and actually a major plot point. Chris thinks Father Karras and the doctors treating Regan are absurdly resistant to consider that Regan really is possessed, especially after various medical tests uncover no obvious illness. But as Karras points out, the modern Catholic Church has such high standards for performing an exorcism that they have to exhaust every rational explanation before they can assume the victim is actually a victim of demonic possession. The book goes into extensive detail about just what has to be studied and ruled out.
  • Art Imitates Art: The iconic shot of Merrin arriving at the house was inspired by the 1954 painting Empire of Light (L'Empire des lumières) by René Magritte. It also bears a strong resemblance to this shot from The Night of the Hunter.
  • Artistic License – Religion:
    • One scene shows Karras breaking the communion host during the Eucharistic Prayer while speaking the words of consecration. While Karras gets the words right, in an actual Catholic Mass the breaking of the bread takes place later, just prior to the priest taking communion.
    • The scene shows only Fathers Merrin and Karras participating in the exorcism. In cases where the possessed is female the church has specified that there should be one other female present if possible in order to assure "propriety and discretion" on the part of the others performing the rite.
    • According to official guidelines an exorcist should avoid performing an exorcism alone, which Father Merrin does when he sends Father Karras out of the room.
  • Beat the Curse Out of Him: After all the enchantments, crosses and holy water, it took Karras punching the crap out of the possessed Regan in order to drive the spirit out of her and into him. (In the book, he just talked Pazuzu into it, in a kind of street fight attitude.)
  • Big Bad: Pazuzu, the demon who is possessing Regan.
  • Big "NO!": Karras just before he kills himself to prevent Pazuzu, who has gone inside of him, from killing Regan.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The two priests die, but they save Regan.
  • Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress: Bile-splattered. Throughout the scenes where Regan is fully possessed, she wears a pretty blue nightgown with ruffles and flowers. The subtext could be that Chris dressed her in this to communicate her love.
  • Body Horror: The movie is full of this. There's the (initially deleted) scene where Regan climbs down the stairs like some kind of spider monster, Regan getting more and more hideous and deformed the longer she's possessed, and, of course, the Exorcist Head scenes.
  • Book Ends: The first shot of the movienote  is an apartment light going off. At the end of the film, the light's back on.
  • Break Them by Talking: Pazuzu is very good at it.
    Pazuzu: (using Karras' mother's voice) Dimmy, why did you do this to me? Please, Dimmy, I'm afraid.
    Karras: (Angrish) You're not my mother!
  • Brown Note: Many sound effects were put in (sometimes deep in the mix) to make it more unsettling - for instance, pigs being herded for slaughter and angry bees.
  • C.A.T. Trap: As one transcript puts it, "a huge machine, two pieces on either side of Regan's head and a piece above."
  • Catchphrase: Burke is fond of using the adjective "cunting", which is what Pazuzu uses to mock Chris in Would You Like to Know How They Died? below.
  • Children Are Innocent: Linda Blair didn't know about masturbation when she did the movie and thought nothing of the profanity or the scene where she pushes Ellen Burstyn to her crotch. In her mind, it was Regan doing those things, not her.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Obviously, as it is the only church to offer exorcism as a practice. This is Truth in Television. The Lutheran minister of the parents of the child in the real life case the movie is based on told the parents to get a Catholic priest because Lutherans had no exorcism tradition. The apparent anomaly of Damien Karras and his mother being Roman Catholic when most Greek Christians are Eastern Orthodox is explained by their status as Frankoi, meaning they are among the 200,000 Greeks who practice Roman Catholicism.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Pazuzu's very prone to dropping these.
    Regan/Demon: Let Jesus fuck you! Let Jesus fuck you! Let Him fuck you!
  • Confessional: A field confession occurs at the end of the first movie.
  • Consummate Liar: "He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us.
  • CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable: Uh, Damien, that's not how you do CPR, and you as a doctor should know that. Naturally, he's pretty distraught, exhausted, and not thinking clearly.
  • Creator Cameo: William Peter Blatty, author of the original book and screenwriter of the film, appears on Burke Dennings' film set.
  • Crisis of Faith: Father Karras at the beginning of the film.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: The scene when Merrin arrives (as seen in the poster image above), the priest is clad in black, while white light emanates from the demon's room.
  • Daylight Horror: Most of the scariest scenes happen during the day; notably, the head-spinning scene.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Burke Dennings. Even when he's dead. If that's really him. Lt. Kinderman and Father Dyer aren't far behind in levels of snarkiness.
  • Decoy Protagonist: While the film starts off focusing on Merrin and then Chris, it quickly becomes clear that Karras, initially only seen in brief cameos, is the true protagonist the second the film begins to focus on him.
  • Demonic Possession: Present and accounted for, sir! Subverted in that Regan claims she's possessed by the Devil himself, which Karras dismisses, saying it's like claiming you're Napoleon. It's all part of the Mind Screw by Pazuzu to sow doubt.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The medical scenes are treated like scientific exorcisms, complete with a lighted cross that resembles a crucifix.
    • Regan is on the verge of puberty, and a lot of the film plays on the fears parents have of their daughters finding their sexuality. (Taken to extremes, surely, but the hormonal mood changes, the developing sexual urges, and so on are parodied by Pazuzu.)
  • Everybody Smokes: A number of the adult characters in the film smoke, including both Chris MacNeil and Father Karras. Ash trays are a bit more prevalent too, even in the conference room of the Archdiocesan headquarters.
  • Evil Plan: The Exorcist is Pazuzu's revenge on Fr. Merrin for evicting him from a child in Africa.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: A twelve-year-old girl should not sound like Mercedes McCambridge.
  • Exorcist Head: The reason for it isn't clear in the film and only subtly explained in the novel, but the demon is taunting Karras with knowledge that she (it) knew how Burke Dennings died (having his neck snapped, twisting his head around 180 degrees from his tumble out of the window.)
  • Fake-Out Opening: The movie begins with an archeological dig.
  • Fantastic Catholicism: Well, Catholic priests in a completely outrageous and abnormal situation.
  • Feelies: The US theatrical release of the film gave free barf bags to audience members.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The two dogs mindlessly attacking each other in the street, as Merrin mentions "evil against evil".
    • As noted by
      Chris grabs a bullhorn and tells the rebellious students in the crowd: "If you want to effect any change, you have to do it within the system," a long crane shot finds Father Karras walking away from the crowd and the filming - he turns back to watch for a moment, and then continues his departure in serious thought. [To accentuate one of the film's themes, the actor's lines are deliberately juxtaposed with the priest's departure, since he is experiencing an inner struggle of religious faith within his own system - the church.]
    • When Pazuzu remarks that an exorcism would bring Regan, Karras, and him together, he was right because he ends up possessing Karras.
    • Merrin is shown taking medication in the opening sequence, when he's an archaeologist in Iraq. He dies of a heart attack at the climax when confronting Pazuzu.
  • For the Evulz: Seems to be Pazuzu's entire reason for possessing and torment Regan, as it's not like it benefits him in any way. Seems to be. It's actually a setup for a grudge match smackdown vs. Fr. Merrin. Filmgoers probably had other things on their minds and might not realize this.
  • Freudian Excuse: Invoked. Everyone, including Chris, thinks Regan's conversations with "Captain Howdy" is her desire to see her father, whose name is Howard, more often. After discussing Captain Howdy, Regan is seen reading a Photoplay magazine with the headline: "Big Trouble In the MacNeil Marriage! The Night Howard Walked Out On His Wife." (The cover has a photo of Chris and Regan, with Regan looking tired and a bit grim.)
  • George Lucas Altered Version: An altered version, The Version You've Never Seen, containing several minutes of additional material (including a scene of Regan "spider-walking" down a staircase which Friedkin had deleted from the original cut due to technical problems, and which bore no resemblance to the spider walk in the book) and added CGI and subliminal imagery, was released to theaters in 2000.
  • Giggling Villain: After Merrin dies of a heart attack, Regan/Pazuzu is giggling like a madman. In the book, he is not laughing, but raging at the old man "You would have lost and you know it! Come back!" (The demon's goal was to possess Merrin as Laser-Guided Karma, but was foiled there.)
  • Good Shepherd: Father Merrin and Father Dyer.
  • Good Wings, Evil Wings:
    • Inverted by Pazuzu. The wings on the stone idol he was released from are actually birdlike.
    • Regan's goony-bird statuette has wings like Pazuzu's and a somewhat similar pose.
  • Groin Attack:
    • Self-inflicted (sort of), with a crucifix, as possessed-Regan uses it as a dildo.
    • Regan's attack on the psychiatrist.
  • Heroic Suicide: Fr. Karras kills himself to save Regan and get rid of Pazuzu. Harsher in Hindsight if you accept Exorcist III as canon.
  • Holy Burns Evil: Demon-possessed Regan's reaction to what a priest says is holy water.
  • Imaginary Friend: What Chris assumes Captain Howdy is at first.
  • It Amused Me: Burke Dennings enrages Karl by calling him a Nazi strictly for the lulz.
  • Jump Scare: The first time the demon's face flashes on screen might startle some viewers. And nobody could predict the vomit part, either.
  • Kill the Host Body: At the end, Father Karras performs a Heroic Sacrifice by inviting the demon Pazuzu into his own body to save the young Regan, before killing himself by jumping out of a window.
  • Medical Horror: Regan in the operating room having a carotid angiographynote  — including the blood spurting from an artery in her neck — was the scariest part of The Exorcist for some moviegoers at the time. No, it wasn't the cursing, the vomiting, the exorcism or anything else that caused them to actually leave the theaters and vomit - it was this.
  • The Mentor: Father Merrin in his mentor role to Father Karras. Subverted, in that neither of them make it out alive.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Father Merrin dies. His pupil too.
  • Mesopotamian Monstrosity: Pazuzu, the main antagonist, is a Mesopotamian demon who possesses Regan. A statue of the demon briefly appears.
  • Mind Screw: Pazuzu seems to be a fan of this trope.
  • Mind Your Step: The film's climax involves a fall out of a window and a long Staircase Tumble. They filmed using a Real Life stairwell near Georgetown, which has become a tourist attraction known as the Exorcist Steps. If you ever walk it, you'll realize just how far Karras and Dennings fell to their deaths...
  • Mood Motif: It's all about the Ominous Bells here...
  • Napoleon Delusion: Karras references it, saying that claiming to be possessed by the Devil himself is like claiming to be Napoleon.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The movie was released in 1973 but Karras' gravestone in The Exorcist III lists his death as happening in 1975.
  • No Name Given: The demon that possesses Regan is never named in the film, though he was initially called "Captain Howdy" by Regan. His real name is Pazuzu.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Kinderman, in the books. He calls it "schmaltz". Everything he does has a purpose. Chris tells people she's "dumb" to get them to explain things to her.
  • Ouija Board: Regan played with one prior to getting possessed. It strongly suggested that it was Pazuzu made contact with her in the first place.
  • Placebo Effect: Subverted. Regan screams in pain when Father Karras douses her with tap water, which he claims is holy water. Later, it's implied that Pazuzu intentionally did this to fool Karras into thinking that Regan wasn't really possessed. When he douses her with real holy water in the exorcism scene, the screams are real.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation:
    • The film leaves out the aspect of Regan's possession from the book in which she has uncontrollable diarrhea, requiring her to wear a diaper and making her room smell unbearable.
    • The crucifix-masturbation scene is much more graphic in the book, with the possessed Regan reaching orgasm.
    • The film never mentions Pazuzu by name, most likely because it sounds silly. It's only hinted that Regan is possessed by a demon and not the Devil himself, as she claims.
  • Plucky Comic Relief: Downplayed by Lt. Kinderman. He is not as overtly wacky and goofy as most uses of the trope, but his snarks and affected bumbling persona (which he uses to disarm those he questions and hide his dead-serious intent) provide what little humor the film has.
  • Police Are Useless: Admittedly out of his depth with the supernatural. Kellerman's investigation goes nowhere and at one point appears to suspect Karras or perhaps another priest with no real evidence.
  • Re-Cut: "The Version You've Never Seen", released in 2000.
  • Religious Horror: The first movie was part of a cycle of "demonic children" movies that started with Rosemary's Baby and continued with The Omen (1976).
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The entire possession is Pazuzu's revenge on Merrin for exorcising him out of a little boy in Africa.
  • Satanic Panic: Trope Codifier. Although not about the Satanic Panic, the film's popular success spread mass hysteria and was often used in support of the panic itself after its release.
  • Science Is Wrong: All medical treatments of Regan fail, and the doctors treating her are at a loss to explain her demonic possession with science, despite their seeming confidence.
  • Secondary Character Title: Father Merrin, the exorcist, has little screen time in the film, appearing in the first 10 minutes, then vanishing until the final act, where he meets the rest of the cast for the first time. Father Karras is the closest thing to a main character, being the only one who has an arc.
  • Silence, You Fool!: A serious variation. After the demon tells Merrin to stick his cock up her ass, he firmly retorts "Be silent!" and splashes holy water on Regan.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Pazuzu's got a pretty foul mouth.
    Pazuzu: (to Merrin) Stick your cock up her [Regan's] ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker.
  • Staircase Tumble: Karras, fighting off his possession, throws himself out the window and down a steep outdoors staircase.
  • Stealth Sequel: Word of God states that The Ninth Configuration is the true sequel to The Exorcist. According to That Other Wiki, the astronaut in The Exorcist is Captain Cutshaw in The Ninth Configuration, driven to a mental breakdown by what Pazuzu tells him at the party. In the book series, several unused pieces of dialogue from The Exorcist were used in The Ninth Configuration instead.
  • Space Whale Aesop: Don't use a Ouija Board, or you might suffer from Demonic Possession.
  • Split Personality: As the possession starts to take hold and Regan's behavior gets more bizarre, Chris thinks her daughter might have a split personality — but see the reference to Voice of the Legion, below. The doctors explain that real split personality is almost unheard of, but brain lesions and epilepsy can cause patients to act like it.note  When Fr. Karras begins to tell Fr. Merrin about each of the personalities he has witnessed, Merrin tersely interrupts, saying there's only one.
  • Subliminal Seduction: Images of a demonic face are periodically flashed throughout the film.
  • Take Me Instead: Both part of Father Karras' Heroic Suicide.
  • Title Drop: From the Archbishop, while contemplating whom to call in to helm Father Karras.
    Archbishop: What about the exorcist? Have you any ideas?
  • That Thing Is Not My Child!: Literally, in Chris' impassioned speech to Father Karras.
    Chris: That thing upstairs is not my daughter!
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: The core of the horror comes from the awful things that Regan does and says while possessed.
  • Truth in Television: Father Karras saying he'd have to travel back in time to the Renaissance to perform an exorcism is correct. In the modern day, actual Church-sanctioned exorcisms are incredibly rare, and even then they're only used as a last resort.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story:
    • The Exorcist was inspired by the witch trials of Loudon, France in 1634. A group of nuns were or claimed to be possessed by seventeen demons, blaming their confessor for having summoned the evil critters. All of the sexual acts, animal noises and violence were enacted by these nuns.
    • Blatty also used some of the elements of a supposed possession and exorcism case in St. Louis. There have been a number of Urban Legends around this story. Recently published research indicates the boy in that case was most likely faking for attention, and even the priests who officiated weren't sure of what they were seeing, but Blatty used the telekinesis and violence claimed by the boy's relatives. Blatty says there have been only a handful of possession cases in the U.S. that were acknowledged by the Catholic Church.
    • Pazuzu wasn't simply a name invented for the books/film. It's the name of an evil demigod/demon in ancient Mesopotamian mythology who ruled over disease, pestilence, and the heat of the midday sun.
  • Voice of the Legion: Pazuzu invokes this when possessing Regan, but Merrin confirms that it's a trick and that there's only one demon inside of the girl.
    Karras: I think it might be helpful if I gave you some background on the different personalities Regan has manifested. So far, I'd say there seem to be three. She's convinced—
    Merrin: (terse) There is only one.
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: The most well-known example of someone blowing chunks on screen ever. Though, actually, Regan isn't regurgitating. She's spitting up loads of bile - which is worse.
  • Who You Gonna Call?: Is your daughter possessed by an ancient demon? Just call Father Merrin, he's experienced at driving demons out of possessed children (although a long career doing so is taking its toll on his heart).
  • Would You Like to Know How They Died?: The entire "rotating head backwards" by possessed Regan and speaking with Burke's voice was to mock Chris for the way Burke died (the demon had snapped Burke's neck and tossed him out the window).
    Possessed Regan: (using Burke's voice) Do you know what she did, your cunting daughter?
  • Xanatos Gambit: Pazuzu tries to do this; either the priest or the girl but the priest decides to Take a Third Option.


Video Example(s):


The Exorcist

The demon Pazuzu, through Regan's body, taunts Father Karras about his dead mother.

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