This week is Halloween, although you probably couldn’t tell from all the Christmas decorations that have been in the stores since July. But it’s still time for scary movies, and it’s the 50th anniversary of one of the scariest of all, The Exorcist. I never watched it. The stories of people fainting and fleeing theaters in fright from the practical effects might have scared me off. (And for scares and gross-out gore, practical effects beat CGI every time.) Or maybe I was afraid I’d burst out laughing at the “your momma” jokes that get thrown at the priests.
As I got older, I discovered there was something else unsettling about The Exorcist. Horror stories often give moral lessons, and The Exorcist offered two disturbing lessons that come from conservative Christianity. The beliefs of another group rarely concern me. But when that group tries to make their beliefs the law of the land and impose them on everyone else, I need to speak up about them.
The first is how it views the female body. The Exorcist is about Regan, a 12-year-old girl. We all know what happens to girls around that age. This is a normal part of growth. My wife went through it. My daughter went through it. My granddaughter will soon go through it. But if your belief system views females as objects that must remain pure until they can be possessed by a husband to bear and raise children, puberty is disturbing. That pure innocent being turns into someone who doesn’t appear as innocent. Not to mention the new emotions and growing awareness of their bodies (and the practical effects that happen once a month).
When you look at The Exorcist from that context, it isn’t truly a story about demonic possession. It’s about a girl whose maturation and growing sense of self is seen as demonic. Consider that The Exorcist came out during the Woman’s Liberation Movement, the ERA, and Roe v Wade. The idea that women could have agency over their own lives threatened religious conservatives who saw them as objects. Like Regan’s family and the priests, they had to get her under control.
That is what religious conservatives have been doing for the past 50 years. We see it today with the overturning of Roe and the election of a Speaker of the House who said this: